Saturday, January 17, 2009

Think globally, act locally

by Josh Franklin

I think that this discussion about the new Equal Writes celebrities "Guy 1" and "Guy 2" is emblematic of a lot of feminist dialogue. Guy 1 and Guy 2 had an encounter at the gym during which Guy 2 is reported to have said, in reference to some sort of stretching machine, "That is not a man's machine right there. Not a man's machine." In her post "An interview with the infamous 'Guy 1'," Kelly Roache wonders about the significance of that kind of statement. Kelly notes that the mildly offensive nature of this comment--a joke that seems to have hurt nobody--stands in contrast with the horrors of true gender violence. Kelly reminds us that "priorities are a central tool" in terms of the feminist program, and that it is necessary for us to "pick our battles".

First of all, I don't think that there is a question as to whether this is a sexist comment. I also don't think that Guy 2 is a horrible person, and I'm pretty sure he didn't mean any harm by what he said. The truth is, Guy 2 probably didn't feel like he was making a sexist remark. Saying that something is a man's machine to mean that it's a good machine is just the way people speak.

It's certainly tempting to ignore or discount this kind of culturally pervasive sexism in comparison with horrific institutions such as human trafficking. But I think that the horrors of gender violence are precisely the reason that a comment like that is worth concern at all. What does it mean to say that we're picking a tremendous issue such as child prostitution as our battle as feminists? What can we do here and now? I think the answer is that we have to recognize that our culture is constantly sexist in ways that are hidden from us. I think that in many ways, focusing on horrific acts in far away places discourages us from strategies and discussions that lead to real change. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to feel that we cannot make a real impact in terms of the great injustices done to women.

The answer is that we ought to speak out against all gender violence and sexism. I see no reason to trivialize great suffering or to ignore the real effects of a culture that consistently disrespects women. Guy 2 is not a criminal or a bad person, and he did nothing wrong. But there's no reason not to let him know (or let those around us know in general) that he's contributing to a culture of disrespect for women.


At January 18, 2009 at 12:24 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

“There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; ... identity is performatively constituted by the very "expressions" that are said to be its results.” (Judith Butler. Gender Trouble, p. 25)

Guy1’s proclamation is obviously not the gravest symptom of entrenched societal patriarchy. Yet it reproduces a dichotomy of gender ideals that is intrinsically linked to more serious acts of gender violence. Guy 1’s comment did harm by reinforcing an essentialized construction of female gender based on physical weakness. Yet the relationship between his statement and gender violence becomes even clearer when you consider how it also creates male identity that is the absolute inverse of female physical weakness. The male identity is negatively from the ideal of feminine weakness that equates masculinity with physical power. Women are weak, man is opposite of women so man must be strong. As this identity is unstable and subject to crises, the male Self needs violence and must confront its Other to feel and maintain its power. Not that this dichotomy only manifests itself as instances of male agency, women create and act on this dichotomy as well, but the focus on male agency here highlights the connection between guy 1’s statement and gender violence. Good write up. Even if we don’t go as far as “subverting gender performance” we should critically evaluate the meaning others and we attach to gender on a day-to-day basis.


At January 18, 2009 at 8:29 PM , Blogger Robert McGibbon said...

I completely agree with Kelly's point that we've got to pick our battles. There are a lot of problems in our personal lives and in the word around us. My homework isn't finished, my room is dirty, people are dying from easily preventable illnesses, people are suffering from domestic violence, others are hungry, homeless, the list goes on.

If you think that this Guy1/Guy2 thing is truly troubling and deserving of your attention, that's your prerogative.

I don't.

Robert McGibbon '11

At January 19, 2009 at 8:37 AM , Blogger Franklinster said...

I don't think that the particular incident at the gym that Chloe saw is troubling. People say things like this all the time. Stereotypical and dismissive jokes are common and pretty harmless; people seem to make fun of me and my beloved home state of New Jersey almost constantly. The difference is: nobody has ever been beaten or raped or discriminated against in any significant way because they're from New Jersey.

On the other hand, women are the victims of persistent violence and discrimination in our society. Sexual assault is shockingly prevalent on college campuses. This issue (which surely is deserving of our attention) can't really be solved by legislation (it's already illegal to sexually assault somebody) or by better law enforcement (given the low reporting rates and difficulty of obtaining a conviction in court). Rather, we solve the problem of gender violence when we change the culture; we need to tell men--and women--that it's not acceptable to treat women unjustly. The first step in this direction is to make people aware of how we all--men and women, me included--contribute to a culture that disrespects women.

It wouldn't be a terrible tragedy if nobody spoke up when Guy 2 made a sexist joke. But if we pass up every opportunity to cultivate self-awareness and promote real cultural transformation in the name of "picking our battles", we are left with a depressing struggle against the world's great problems for which we have no practical strategy.

-Josh Franklin

At January 19, 2009 at 9:35 AM , Blogger Mike said...

I think you have quite unfairly employed rhetorical tricks for the sole purpose of minimizing Josh's concerns and painting him as nothing more than a hyper PC nut.

I know that you are intelligent enough to offer a real argument that supports your disagreement.

At January 19, 2009 at 10:20 PM , Blogger Robert McGibbon said...

Picking our battles doesn't mean that you choose to sit on the sidelines all the time, only that you choose to sit on the sidelines sometimes.

We all think we should pick our battles. The question is about what criteria we should use for the picking.

Here are a few ideas:

The first possible criteria is what I was alluding to in my first post. That criteria is that our response should be proportional to the magnitude of the perceived injustice, but only if the injustice is above a certain threshold value. Thus really minor slights should get no response, minor problems should get small responses, and major injustices major responses.

Josh makes a strong argument against this criteria by pointing out that minor slights (bad jokes) can be the manifestation of a social structure that also causes major injustices (domestic violence) and thus by responding to the bad jokes we can work to change the social structure.

Another factor to consider is the efficacy of the response. I consider it an open question if by chastising people who make what some would call poor jokes actually helps or hurts the cause we're trying to fight for.

This is a pragmatic question that I don't think is often addressed. I don't have an hard numbers, but I know many people who are unwilling to call themselves feminists because of the associations that they have with that word (bra burning, etc), not because of any disagreement with the core principles of political, social, and economic equality. Feminism has an image problem. All you have to do is google "harping feminist" to find it.

Does chastising people for telling off color jokes under the aegis of feminism turn people off and thus hurt the cause? I'm really not sure.
But I think it might be.

Maybe the battle-picking criteria of "is this response counterproductive?" is another reason to put this guy1/guy2 issue to rest.

-Robert McGibbon '11

p.s. Happy Mike?

At January 20, 2009 at 1:24 PM , Blogger Mike said...

Much happier.

Do you think it is possible, in a manner that is not off-putting or akin to chastisement, to alert those who unconsciously reflect in their speech, jokes, or implicit biases the attitudes of a patriarchal society that has historically subjugated women?

If this were possible (and could better represent what Josh has advocated), would you still be opposed to "picking small battles"? Would it even be a battle?

It seems to me that an awareness of the power of speech to perpetuate historical injustices (as such jokes certainly are), if cultivated in those who commonly (but, most likely, without deliberate malice) engage in the types of jokes we have been discussing throughout this whole issue, would surely move us all a bit closer to a more equal society.

Maybe you don't believe that is possible, but I am willing to accept that it is. In my mind, then, every "battle" in which we choose to participate need not exist on a global scale.

Feminist advocacy can work in two directions and, if properly approached, can do so without pissing people off.


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