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Posts Tagged ‘language’

Okay, here is a disclaimer. In this entry, I am going to try and briefly canvass a serious chasm within feminism and social justice activism. I’m not sure that I’m going to do a very good job! Is what I am trying to get at. This topic has been dissected to within an inch of its life; to use a diametric metaphor, it isn’t even a dead horse any more. The dead horse disintegrated years ago, leaving a coterie of activists and academics whipping themselves into a hole in the ground. Like a lot of these insoluble bugbears, it concerns ‘essentially contested terms’. Terminology! You know, WORDS MEAN THINGS! NO, THEY DON’T MEAN THAT, THEY MEAN THIS! GET OUT OF MY HOUSE AND TAKE YOUR PC PRESCRIPTIVISM WITH YOU!

So I apologise in advance if this is boring or repetitive. To be honest it’s mostly for my own benefit, so that I have a physical Rolodex of these terms to call on rather than manically flipping through my mental differential dicitonary to make sure I’m using/understanding the right one.

Sexism. When most feminists use the word ‘sexism’, they don’t mean what most non-feminists mean by sexism. I myself have been caught in the endless loop of arguing with people on the internet about what the word should be used to refer to. Those arguments never go well. People whip out Dictionary.com, other people try to explain the concepts of privilege and instititional oppression by the seat of their pants, and everyone goes home to gently nurse their sense of thwarted indignation.

Generally those tiffs occur between social justice nerds and non-social justice nerds. The two definitions they advance are:

Definition #1, or what I will call Activist’s Choice: Sexism, Racism, etc. are words used to refer to the oppression experienced by classes of people based on their membership in that class. The definition, which is often written ‘prejudice + power = sexism [racism, homophobia, etc]’, actually encapsulates a lot of ideologies about power and oppression. Living in societies that construct supremacist hierarchies based on functionally inconsequential traits causes all of us to have ingrained unconscious biases in favour of the constructed ideal: this may be as simple as toilet doors using a skirt to differentiate ‘female’ from ‘male’, the figure of which is a neutral human. It may be as intense as overtly supremacist dogma, like ‘trans people are lying/trying to trick us’.

None of us are exempt from the effects of this socialisation, the thinking goes; HOWEVER, some of us, based on membership of a privileged class, have power to make things better or worse for people who are oppressed along the same axis. This is difficult for a lot of people, because we have a tendency to deny privilege. It causes offence, guilt, etc. to have someone tell you that you’re irrationally prejudiced, and that your irrational prejudice contributes to their oppression. Privilege, however, is not a personal indictment of character: most of us are privileged in some way. Being a member of a privileged class, ie being white or able-bodied, doesn’t make you inherently anything; it’s the hierarchies that are the problem. Unfortunately we are all soaking in them, and it takes active effort on the part of the privileged not to exercise this advantage.

Sexism is therefore defined as prejudice, plus the institutional power to oppress someone based on that prejudice. As a white person, for example, I can’t think of a single disadvantage I’ve ever suffered based on institutional prejudice against white people. I mean, what could possibly happen? I get called a cracker? The power of prejudice against white people is practically nil, because it has no support. Conversely, as a woman, men with irrational prejudices against women have the social capital to make parts of my life a pain in the arse.

So those -ism and -phobia words take on the role of describing experienced oppression, rather than the social prejudice that leads to that oppression. In this capacity, they are extremely useful as political tools. I mean, why do straight people need a word to describe the oppression they don’t experience? We don’t have words for ‘prejudiced against people who collect stamps’, or ‘hatred of those who shop at American Apparel’. We don’t need them. Irrational prejudice is always a negative thing to be discouraged, but who gives a flip if some homo decides she hates all straights? What can she possibly achieve with that prejudice? From a social justice standpoint, it’s a nonissue. Thus, the Activist’s Choice definitions, which are reserved specifically to refer to prejudices of serious consequence, or institutional oppression.

The one issue I have with the Activist’s Choice definition is based on its inability to account for horizontal oppression, or Sarah Palin Oppression. Sarah Palin, as a woman, does not have institutional advantage. Her other privileges, however, like wealth, whiteness, and whatever magic powers Fox News grants its pundits, give her the power to oppress other women. I mean, I don’t think it’s possible to deny that Sarah Palin is both irrationally prejudiced, and capable of making women’s lives worse based on that prejudice. The power she uses to oppress originates from another axis of privilege, but she’s sexist in word, deed, and effect.

Definition #2, The Dictionary Definiton: Look, I can quote it for you:
rac·ism/ˈreɪsɪzəm/ [rey-siz-uhm]
–noun

1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.
2. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
3. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.

This is the classic definition. It doesn’t discriminate (hahaha). If you hate anyone for being any race, believe in racial supremacy, or do anything in accordance with it, you’re a racist. Apart from referring to any and all racial prejudice, this definition also requires ACTIVE, rather than passive, bigotry. It’s not enough to have absorbed negative racial messages; you have to actively believe those messages. It’s not enough to be personally repulsed by gay sex; you have to believe that gay sex is repulsive. This is partially why people get so offended when the words ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’ are thrown around: most people associate them with a conscious belief in supremacy. Being called sexist, for most people, doesn’t mean ‘you’re throwing around your unconscious privilege in a damaging manner’. It means ‘you are an irrational and dangerous bigot’.

The immediate downside of this definition is that it serves as a means for privileged people to legitimise any persecution complexes they might have about their person. Nobody wants that.

By the time someone has whipped out the Dictionary Definition, the argument has probably already devolved into multiple substrands concerning instances of anti-[privileged majority] prejudice, prescriptivism vs. descriptivism in linguistics, and accusations of thought-policing, PC-policing, and various other egregious constraints on individual liberty. Both definitions’ flaws are painstakingly explicated. Someone’s feelings have been hurt. Someone has been sternly reminded of everyone’s right to free speech. Everyone is tired and cranky. And I really don’t think I have the tools to improve that situation, apart from maybe directing people to read this post.

If you’ve made it this far and have anything constructive to add, please do. I don’t usually anticipate stupid comments, but please, for the lovagod, don’t tell me about how white people/men/heterosexuals are oppressed. I am even less in the mood for that shit than usual.

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Coming Out Day was the other day (I forget which day, but this will be a retroactive post in its spirit, ITS SPIRIT OK). So here is my coming out: I am queer and pansexual and I think I am polyamorous. I will theoretically have relationships with anyone who has the inclination to have one with me. This, I am sure of. The polyamory part is new to me. It’s kinda like I’ve just woken up wearing a hat: a large, flowery hat that I cannot remove, and because people will tend to notice this kind of thing, I have to come up with a name for the hat and buy a hat box to keep it in. I am also a woman, but because my sex-‘n’-gender are readily socially intelligible to the average schmuck, I don’t think that counts as coming out.

So pansexuality. I don’t use that word very often because it is scary to me. Every time I use it aloud I adopt a defensive posture, ready to shout ‘well YOUR FACE IS A BOGUS POSTMODERN CONSTRUCT’. Because saying ‘bisexual’, which was my word du jour until very recently, is scary enough. Slutty, greedy. (Both true, yay!! Oops. I mean, WHAT A SHAME.) Fickle, naïve, fake, poseur, really gay, really straight, trendy. (Not true).  But saying ‘pansexual’ is scarier because most people cock their heads sideways and go to the place in their minds where there are images of orgies with happy cartoon squirrels blocking out peoples’ naughty parts. Pansexual is scary because it does not, as far as I can tell, imply attraction that adheres to a binary construction of sex-‘n’-gender. It implies potential attraction to people who are neither male nor female, or both, or one and then the other.

I am fine with this, deep inside my identity place. Men are good. Women are good, Genderqueer people are good. Bigendered people are good. Everyone is pretty fucking good.  I do not see a WRONG WAY GO BACK sign anywhere here. Do you see a fuss here? There is no fuss, except other people’s fuss. Other people’s fuss sucks. I don’t use ‘bisexual’ any more because it DID fuss me inside, it fussed me because it was inaccurate. It also fussed me because it makes me think of binarily gendered toilet doors and a small group of people standing outside looking excluded and sad. I didn’t want use a word that was those toilet doors, especially when it wasn’t even the most correct word. I am not those toilet doors, damn it. I’m going to stop saying ‘toilet doors’ now.

So that is my attraction-gradient: queer and pansexual. Usually now I just use ‘queer’, but ‘pansexual’ is the smoothly engineered term. The aerodynamic one that I would use more if my defensive posture didn’t hurt my lower back.

Polyamory is my new hat. I have two partners and I’m not sure that there is anything else for it but to call a hat a hat. Or to call having two partners ‘polyamory’. There’s just a hat, okay? It’s new and I’m scared of it. I’m scared of having to explain why I’m wearing this hat. I’m scared of having to explain that it’s not even the average kind of polyamory hat, because one of my partners is asexual. I’m scared that I won’t be able to fit through doorways with my hat on (not really but youknowwhatImean).  I feel as if this label has been thrust upon me. Though I have known since forever that I am a greedy enough slutbag* to potentially want multiple partners, it has never been in the forefront of my consciousness enough to demand its own checky box. I am uncomfy and I don’t know whether I like this word enough to keep it and pet it and call it George. (I think I just changed my mind in one paragraph. Keep your expectations of coherency low and you won’t be disappointed.)

So that is my coming out. I asked someone once if I could refer to myself as Neutral Greedy McSlutbag, but they said no.

*Slutbag here used in an affectionate and reclaimed manner to refer to myself. SLUTBAGS UNITE!

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O hai guys.

I have been really busy being unconscionably lazy, but I have a very serious question that has been bugging the shit out of me for some time. It’s a language limitation question, and it is of a Personal Nature. I am so open to suggestions about this issue, you have no idea. I am like a sweet wrapper after an overexcited six year old has carefully torn it into a long, single strip, tied the ends together, and got all his other sugar-hopped pals to jump through it. I am a giant ear, waiting to receive your ingenious solutions to my irritating terminology gripe.

So here’s the thing. There is a person. Most of my readers, all 25 of you, know this person. For those of you who don’t, she is taller than the average circus freak, likes to cut up the dead into chunks, and her head currently has a pleasingly shaven texture. We love eachother very, very much. If she wanted to convert to ascetic mysticism, move to Yemen, and live in a bark hut, eking out a living by catching local birds and weaving their entrails into baskets, I would whip out my viscera crochet hook and go with her. She is asexual; I am not. I am in a sexual relationship with someone else, whom I can handily and accurately describe as my boyfriend. She’s not my ‘friend’, because that word does not cover the commitment, intimacy, and occasional pirate wenchitude involved in our relationship. ‘Girlfriend’, ‘spouse’, and ‘partner’ all have misleadingly sexual connotations.

What I want is a word that doesn’t have to involve an extended conversation about our personal histories when I describe our relationship to other people. These conversations usually result in me (and her) feeling a combination of ignored, scrutinised, disbelieved, laughed at, infantilised, objectified, or slightly violated. I need a word for what we are, or even a phrase, I’m not shooting for the Moon here, that describes transparently the state of the union. We love eachother, we are in a relationship. We want to ‘build a life together’ (this is the point where I officially abandon any effort to sound less like a Centrelink pamphlet) that involves all the things that long-term partnerships usually do, without the bonking. I have/will have other partner/s that I will probably sleep with. She is not ‘single’, and I am not in an ‘exclusive relationship’ with her or my boyfriend. Ideally it would also involve some implied imperatives: saying ‘this is my girlfriend’ usually also means ‘do not mack on her while I am around’ and, even in polyamorous situations, ‘the other one of us will probably be involved in any relationship you wish to pursue with her’. We do not sleep together, but we are together.

This is generally compounded by my stick insect mortician partner’s asexuality, which most people characterise as nonexistent, pathological, or SO INTERESTING OMG that it magically obliterates her/our privacy. Or there’s the occasional person who paradoxically finds it a massive turn on. Unfortunately for their various projected issues, she is just a normal person who doesn’t want to have sex with you.

So there is the situation. I don’t want to resort to ‘co-pilot’ or ‘life partner’, please Jesus God no, and not many people grok ‘hemiasexual queeromantic marriagelike cuddlefest’ upon first hearing. Are there any words that connote anything similar to what we’re doing here, or am I grasping at asexual lesbotronic domestic partnership straws? Currently I’m using ‘hemiasexual queeromantic partner’ for her on facebonk, and ‘sexual heteromantic partner’ for my other squee-ee-eeze. Are you smrter than I am with words? Give me other options.

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Q. How is Fox like the Pope?

A. They’re both influential institutions endowed with the cultural and moral authority to shape the fabric of our society, and they both GET ELEANOR’S KNICKERS IN A RIGHTEOUS TWIST.

Let’s go with il Papa first, shall we: Pope wants humanity ‘saved’ from homosexuality

Usually, like most people with a limited capacity for paying attention to fucked-up bullshit, I tend to ignore the Pope. This behaviour has one distinct advantage: I save my Sanity Watchers points. Sanity Watchers is a top-notch self-preservation system invented by the estimable Kate Harding over at Shapely Prose, whereby the individual following the program must restrict themselves to a certain number of soul-destroyingly idiotic happenings per day. I find that if I go over my Sanity Watchers points allocation, which I assign based on exactly how much liquefied brain goo has passed out my ears while reading the item in question, I am left a burnt-out shell for the rest of the day, unable to give attention to even the most mild of stupidities. Usually the miscellaneous, offensive pronouncements of the Pope score a high, rather than extreme, amount of points, because, despite their reprehensible content, they are so reliable as to have become mundane. Nevertheless, there go ten of my twenty-five points for today.

(Still not as good as the time he took precious minutes of his life to remind everyone that they’re actually, really going to Hell. None of this pissweak ‘Hell is a state of mind’, ‘Hell is the absence of god’ sissy fake-Hell fluffiness. FIRE and BRIMSTONE and TORTURE and shit. I still respect him a bit for that.)

And Fox: Fox Greenlights Manhattan Werewolves Dramedy, Bitches

I know I’m supposed to be angry about this, but I just can’t muster up the outrage today. Sure, if Rupert Murdoch traded his destructive cultural influence for a teleporter and suddenly appeared in my lounge room, I’d still tape him to a post and shove a box of cereal up his nose. But … it’s television. Television is already home to the basest and most mildewy, disgusting sexism, so much so that I’ve reverted to the parentally-imposed restrictions I had when I was nine and stopped watching it. This isn’t even the show; it’s just the name of the show! Even if the actual program is as bad as its moniker, it won’t top the pond scum that’s shown every night of the week. Maybe if they made an Extreme Makeover spinoff called Surprise Vaginal Reconstructions: Nipping and Tucking Your Shame Cave, I’d get stuck into being offended by the name of a TV show. Right now, however, I’m far more disturbed by their blatant use of the word ‘dramedy’, which is not a real word. It is, in fact, so far from being a real word that the linguistic result of me closing my eyes and bashing the keyboard with my left breast would be more legitimate. fhergbqer. <——- There. Look. I told you.

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