rhetoric matters

I’ve been following a discussion over on a friend’s blog about the recent Guardian article titled “Casual sexism is nothing but misogyny.” Bidisha, the article’s author, discusses casual sexism — the kind you’ll overhear in public transit and in coffee shops, the kind that a coworker will bring into your world while completely unaware they’re doing it. Or worse, being aware and not caring. It’s a real, serious, and insidious problem that should be voiced often.

But not the way Bidisha is doing it, for goodness’ sake. Her discourse is shooting its own cause in the head.

Two moments in her article bring me to disproportionate anger, because they exemplify rhetoric that is not only damaging but actually, it seems, in largely uncritical favor with the crowd where I get most of my politics on. (This statement has much more generalized data behind it than the single post I’ve referred to.) One: “Any man who thinks it’s OK to live in a household where the woman does the overwhelming majority of all the housework, childcare and family admin is a woman-hater. If he weren’t, it would agonise him to live in such an unequal and exploitative setup.” And two: “So, what to do about casual sexism? Don’t perpetrate it yourself, call it when you see it and fight any man defending his misogyny or any woman defending her false consciousness.”

Taking most of the nuance out of my reaction to these statements, we’re left with: in what universe is this helpful to anybody?

Let’s break this down. Just the one LiveJournal post I’ve witnessed discussing the article has 109 comments on it so far. Clearly, it says things that people find it interesting to talk about, to think over. Isn’t that already helpful in spurring dialogue? No, I don’t think it is. Because this is the choir right here, the one Bidisha is preaching to. We are the friendliest of allies. Most of us evidently aren’t repelled by the way she phrases things. No warning flags go off in our heads upon reading those words in the larger context of the article.

But just as decisions about who does what around the house don’t exist in a vacuum, neither does her article — and there’s a hell of a lot more responsibility on Bidisha, what with the power of the press, to be balanced enough to get through to people. To not alienate people. To make her point, be loud and clear, and at the same time avoid giving the impression that the author is a nutter, frothing at the mouth. Because shenanigans like the above are going to get her ignored and the efforts of the people in her political camp undermined.

Here’s what I think of the substance (as opposed to the very poor form) of the two quotes above. With the false consciousness, she can take that horse and ride it right back out. She doesn’t get to conscript me into her black-and-white camp on the basis of my gender, and she doesn’t get to guilt trip me if I don’t go bleating assent. The issues around sexism and gender roles in the Anglo West are multifaceted, prismatic. Looking at them closely, you get a different picture every second because there are just so many factors that go into our gendered behaviors. And no Guardian writer gets to write off anyone else’s opinions as unexamined based on grossly incomplete information.

The bit about men who think it’s OK to live in households with unequal household labor division being woman-haters isn’t just absurd and factually wrong, it’s slander of some of feminism’s most important allies. Plenty of those men are ignorant, many are sexist, a good proportion are woman-haters. And a significant number have given the matter a lot of thought, often in concert with their female partners, and have made their decisions according to what makes everyone involved happiest.

Are those decisions informed by a sexist society? Certainly. Do these people help perpetuate it? Only if you limit your gaze at those situations to a cursory one. What they are doing is living by example. They might do well to talk about these hot-button topics from their perspectives, male and female alike; we need those voices. But they should not be changing the way they live on simply because they appear to be upholding the patriarchy. That’s an absurd, defeatist demand based on appearances and not substance.

None of this is to say that the fact of uneven household labor distribution, and the ways in which it plays out most of the time, isn’t sexist. It is. It is bad when it’s unexamined. When it’s considered, it’s significantly less bad. When it’s a conscious choice by generally thinking and aware people, you and I and Bidisha don’t get to judge it bad at all unless we know more intimate details about these people’s lives. Who are you to say they aren’t compensating in some other arena? Who am I to dictate how people should approach situations where nobody actually involved feels deprived, and nobody is harmed? This is a slippery-slope argument, given how many victims consent to being victimized because they don’t see any way out. But that doesn’t give us license to erase the line between unconsidered and thoroughly considered decisions, no matter how similar they look from the outside.

As for the discourse… sometimes I wonder why I bother. “Rhetoric” and “discourse” are dirty words to so many people. The concepts are ridiculed, dismissed as having nothing to do with the real world. But rhetoric matters. Discourse matters. It’s all we have here in the real world. What we say and how we say it are equally important, and both become much more so when volatile topics like gender roles are involved. Cutting Bidisha so much slack that this crap she says is mostly ignored in the name of a larger context is irresponsible. It’s the crap that will be most damaging to the relevant causes, and turning a blind eye to it just because the author writes about sexism in the Guardian is a bad thing to do.

13 Responses to “rhetoric matters”

  1. Allen Holt Says:

    Very well said, Vika. You hit on exactly that thing that pissed me off the most about her statements: that utter dismissal of my choices because they don’t fit her political agenda and a completely inaccurate assumption of my attitudes.

    I normally don’t just cross-post comments from one place to another, but what I said on the original LJ post applies just as well as a response to yours:

    “…But asinine blanket statements like the author’s do nothing to help the conversation. Either the author is saying something inflammatory she doesn’t believe just to provoke a reaction — which has clearly worked, though I am absolutely not a fan of that tactic — or she truly believes that I hate women because of my chosen familial structure, in which case she lives in a different reality than I do and I can adjust my opinions of her opinions accordingly.

    Terry and I have discussed many times that it makes us uncomfortable how much our relationship appears to follow the traditional patriarchal male-female dynamic. But the fact of the matter is that, at least right now, I can make more money working than she can AND we wanted her to stay home with the children rather than putting them in day care. We chose to follow that pattern because it made the most sense for us. If making the choices we have because we thought it was what was best for our family means that I hate my wife…well, clearly, that’s just a just-plain-stupid statement.”

  2. Andromeda Says:

    Totally agreed.

    I…find it disorienting that so many of my egalitarian, educated friends, making informed choices, end up with the man working full-time outside the home, and the woman staying home with the kids. That does bespeak, to me, structural elements making our choices not entirely free. (And I mean “our” quite literally; I’m home with the kid right now while my husband works.) But I still think anyone patronizing enough to tell me that it represents false consciousness on my part, just because my choices don’t agree with her politics, can go shove it.

  3. Andromeda Says:

    (Not that I don’t feel slightly guilty for using the phrase “go shove it” in a comment to a post about discourse standards. ;)

  4. m. Says:

    “the fact of the matter is that, at least right now, I can make more money working than she can AND we wanted her to stay home with the children rather than putting them in day care. We chose to follow that pattern because it made the most sense for us. If making the choices we have because we thought it was what was best for our family means that I hate my wife…well, clearly, that’s just a just-plain-stupid statement.”

    I mostly agree. But you know that – I made the choice to be a stay-at-home mom twice. It is an indisputable fact that in most traditional families, mine included, the male partner has a greater earning capacity. It’s also undeniably simpler for the female partner to care for the children, if for no other reason than lactation, but also socially.

    The phrase that Bidisha perhaps should have chosen instead of misogyny is institutionalized sexism. Why do women make less money than men? Why do stay-at-home moms have an easier time finding social support than stay-at-home dads? Why do men have an easier time getting information from auto dealers? Why do schools always want to talk to moms?

    The answer is clear. In a word: sexism. Sexism so deeply ingrained, in fact, that it isn’t immediately apparent. Sexism so completely acceptable that to question it out loud gets you branded a shrill man-hating feminist.

    I still stand behind my choice to quit my job and raise my kids. I stand behind anyone’s reasoned and consensual decision to do so. I do, however, believe that misogyny is one word that could be used to describe the societal path that got us to this place. I also fully support false consciousness as a phrase to describe a stay-at-home mom, whose husband just happens to make more money, that thinks that sexism has nothing to do with her choice.

  5. vika Says:

    m. – I hear you, and agree with most of what you say. But I will emphasize the importance of rhetoric again and again, until I see some sort of acknowledgment from my community at large: the article author’s language is unacceptable. You’re using “false consciousness” differently from her, and the way she does it is damaging.

    Another thing that Allen said was, “Terry and I have discussed many times that it makes us uncomfortable how much our relationship appears to follow the traditional patriarchal male-female dynamic.” I’m not sure that by once again explaining that sexism exists (something I believe he explicitly recognizes) you in turn recognize the extent of his perspective.

    I’d much rather be fighting pay inequality directly than making false blanket statements that are divisive of an already fraught community, as Bidisha is doing.

  6. m. Says:

    I completely agree with what you’re saying about rhetoric, which I see that I didn’t make clear. I completely agree that Allen and Terry’s choices are completely valid and reasoned, too. I know that this is complex – believe me, I know.

    This is what I’m trying to say: please, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. These really are vitally important conversations, and I feel incredibly frustrated to see so many people reduced to an agitated and defensive posture simply because of someone’s poor choice of words.

    I have more to say, but somewhat ironically, I need to wait until a childfree moment to string the words together. Hah!

  7. vika Says:

    Heh. Well, my point is that this is *why* rhetoric matters. People *will* be reduced to an agitated and defensive posture when provoked in unwise ways, so it’s unproductive to do so. Provocation is good; Bidisha, I feel, has gone about it in all the wrong ways. I’m not willing to write that off, and I think that too many people do.

    My basic stance is: wars get started over words. Words are crucial, they’re weapons, and should be used wisely and well. Speaking of which, I loved your own post on this, just haven’t had time to compose a coherent reply.

  8. John Says:

    There are any number of fascinating things going on with that article and the responses. I suspect for some people the lack of argument is less a sign of agreement than the result of a mental process that ran “Yep, another sweeping generalization in the race/sex/gender wars; nothing useful is going to come out of diving in, and since I’m not guilty of the charges it’s not worth my time.” (Taken as a whole, the article makes some interesting points but that one quote is what received most of the discussion.)

    I agree with you, for the article in question we’re mostly the choir, particularly in the context of our social circle. The majority of the people we choose to interact with have at least some belief in social and sexual equality (or enough sense to hide it well if they don’t.) That’s not saying we’re in any way perfect, but at least most of us are aware of that fact. From the writer’s perspective however, it’s vastly easier and more exciting to say “Anyone who chooses to live under the described conditions is a misogynist” than to say “There are too many people who live under unfair conditions and don’t have the option of negotiating their respective responsibilities with their partner as equals.” The latter is true and worthy of discussion; the former is sloppy writing. The standard response when that’s pointed out is “Sometimes it’s not about you.” Fair enough but that doesn’t make it any less sloppy.

    I don’t have the academic background to support my impressions, but I’ve noticed a lot of theoretically smart people drifting back toward a less collaborative, more inflammatory style of dialogue around race and gender. Given the nature of current politics, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that the “My opposite is the enemy” school that frames everything in terms of polarization would be making inroads but it’s still disappointing.

    What I find most interesting about articles like this is they bring home just how rarefied our social environment is, to the point where some people can’t conceive that the situation they enjoy isn’t such a given for the rest of the world. There’s some personal merit involved, but in the end, luck has much more to do with it than many of us would like to consider.

  9. Sara A. Says:

    I think that kind of talk is an example of a general tendency I’ve observed over the years among people with certain political leanings to apply a litmus test (ideological or otherwise) and if you don’t pass, you’re upholding the dominant paradigm and shame on you. I suspect it’s rooted in the fact that a guilty liberal is an easier target. In any case it’s incredibly destructive, as it tends to exclude people rather than build coalitions.

    More-enlightened-and-liberated-than-thou is an easy and satisfying game. If you are a man and your female partner does most of the housework, you’re an Oppressor with a capital O. If you’re a woman and you do take that gig, you’re participating in your own oppression. It doesn’t matter if you did it because you didn’t think twice about it, you are trying to rehabilitate your partner from the effects of his upbringing (been there, done that, achieved moderate success along with profound annoyance), or you carefully thought it through and discussed it and chose it. You are making choices dictated by the patriarchy and that’s Bad.

    Well, it is bad. But anybody who thinks their choices are NOT constrained by the sexist (racist, homophobic, you name it) society around them is fooling themselves. I’ve made some pretty radical choices in my life, and I can tell you that all too often the more you choose to go against the grain in some ways, the more your choices in other areas get constricted. The illusion of infinite self-determination is in my opinion a form of privilege…you have to have been reared with enough social class or other power to believe that you can just up and decide how your life is going to be without trade-offs.

    Shaming people for the trade-offs they choose doesn’t help anyone. It *is* sometimes useful to say that the options may be different than what people believe they are, and it’s definitely useful to be the social support that alternate choices need. (A whole period of my life would have been a lot easier if the social circles we were running in had been more supportive of my attempt at educating my SO about how it was not actually ok to assume that our son was primarily my responsibility. Unfortunately, the opposite was true.)

  10. Sarah Says:

    I admit that flamey rhetoric isn’t my favorite thing either, but I also think that I’m meaningfully the choir in this case in one specific way: I accept that I personally participate in and perpetuate sexism every single day. In cases where I haven’t drunk the Kool-aid as much, though, I can imagine that it might take flamboyant rhetoric to get my attention. And regardless, I believe that having a loudmouthed, crazy, left-of-left-of-left contingent is good for moving the center a little more in the direction I think is the right one!

  11. David Says:

    I go back and forth on this. Isn’t the question of whether to be polite and not alienate allies a classic issue in all civil right struggles? I had the impression that the generally accepted answer was that being polite is nice, but it doesn’t make people who are empowered by the status quo and have no incentive to listen to you, give you what you need. What *does* do the trick seems to be an open question, though.

    It just gives me pause a little bit when I see someone accusing a feminist of being too strident (which is at least part of how I read you here), because I seem to recall a number of quotes from older feminists talking in great detail about why they felt it was important to damn well be strident.

    But, you know, because “what actually does work?” is an open question, it seems to me it *could* be the case that today, the balance of power has changed from those older days of feminist struggle enough that now, polite moral suasion really *is* the bigger win. It could be the case. It would be an interesting case to make. I’d be interested to see what you think about it, at least if you buy even for the sake of argument into the earlier premises. :) As I say, I go back and forth.

    There are two related side issues I’m not really sure what to do with. One is that the world of commentary may be better suited to staking out bold positions than moderate ones. Not just because it gets more hits on your blog, but because it gets more people talking about what they *really* think, which is probably the social value of blogs and political commentary anyway… and when they do talk, it gives those people firm poles to push against, well-marked icons between which they can measure where the truth really lies.

    To take that as a positive good, one may have to adopt the position of not taking anything a blogger or political commentator says too seriously; to don a thick skin and assume they’re exaggerating for effect. I think there have been times in the past when this was assumed of a lot of writers (“gonzo journalism”), but I’m not sure it’s as common now. And of course, this isn’t the way I usually take things my *friends* say. And anything pithy that shows up online is likely to become a quote thrown about by friends with abandon. So I’m not sure the best position.

    The other thing I’m not sure what to do with is the political echo chamber. Much as you say, to me it really can be annoying to see everyone I’d naturally ally with busily writing lists of shibboleths that one must mouth before every statement in order to be regarded as a person whose views are worth hearing. But that might just be because showing serious consideration of a broader range of opinions than those in close agreement with one’s own is one of *my* shibboleths. ;)

  12. vika Says:

    David- I’m all for stridency. I think it’s a good and needful thing, applied properly. I also think that the two quotes I pulled are hugely problematic because one of them amounts to an untruth, and the other — to name-calling.

    I’m not saying be polite. I’m saying don’t be a nutter. Saying that every man who lives in a traditional arrangement with his partner is a woman-hater is both untrue and lacks any nuance. Same with the false consciousness bit and nuance.

    So yeah, by all means, socio-political commentators should take bold positions. I do often enough, on my little soap box, and wouldn’t dream of trying to prevent anyone else from doing so. But the guy yelling at me on a street corner to accept Jesus or go to hell is probably doing more harm than good to the cause of spreading his religion. Likewise, it is my opinion that Bidisha is doing a disservice to the quest (that I’m also on) to fix some of the problems with gender inequalities.

    As for donning a thick skin, I’ve found that tricky to do without deadening my other senses. From what I’ve seen, it seems that to take a bold position on a civil rights issue and be strident about it requires quite a bit of passion, which implies opening oneself up to a world that will turn around and exploit one’s vulnerabilities. Maybe it’s possible to do both, I just haven’t seen it much. Not sure what to do about that, either. Maybe it’s a human condition thing.

  13. Steven E. Landsburg Says:

    This is exceptionally wise, and even more exceptionally well put.