About Silence

safetyfirst_viaJohnPayne.jpgAs usual, the debate about academic freedom spills over into public discussion. And, as usual, it loses nuance. On one side, arguments in favor of trigger warnings and safe spaces, in the service of giving voice and power the traditionally voiceless and powerless. On the other side, arguments against coddling and censoring, with the goal of protecting free academic speech.

I’ve struggled before with understanding the deeper currents in this debate. I don’t claim to have finished. I hope, like so many students and academics of late, I will continue to wrestle with this and continue to grow. And I hope equally that wrestling will be productive. There is a temptation, by some, to treat every exploration as representative, to pretend that some students forcing the cancellation of a speaker or asking for the punishment of their fellows represents a demand for coddling. I don’t agree—I think it shows people wrestling with where to redraw the lines of discourse.

Because those lines are being redrawn, and I think that’s what the whole argument is about. I am beginning to think, at the base of it, this is an argument about silence.

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“Allegedly” is one of those words that people stick in front of disputed things, and it serves the useful purpose of signaling that the dispute exists. But there is another way people use it as well, and that is less about signaling dispute and more about introducing it. And it works! For me, as a reader, when I see the word “alleged” tied to something, it makes me more critical, more doubtful, and more aware that some other people don’t think the thing in question is true.

So, I find it rather disturbing when people use the word “alleged” for things like sexual assault, abuse, and online harassment. In this context, the word is used as a rhetorical trick, even (especially?) when the event itself is not really in doubt, to create that doubt. People use this word, in short, to minimize the experiences of women.

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The Magic Number


I pay attention to members of several communities that claim to value critical thought, respect for others, egalitarian ideals, social responsibility, equal opportunity, et cetera-the whole lot. And so I also can’t help noticing the disheartening sexism in these allegedly progressive groups and organizations. Somehow, people who claim to value evidence and reason happily ignore the evidence and treat the idea of their own sexism with derision, and somehow people who claim to build their philosophy on equality happily harass the women around them.

Emily Crockett has an article at Vox about an ongoing harassment scandal in a progressive organization, and the quote at the end stood out to me:

“ ‘One of the things I keep thinking about is, what is the magic number of women it would take before an allegation will be believed?’ said Karen. ‘What would have happened if only one employee would have come forward? Are we ever going to stop somebody like this after one or two victims, or is it always going to have to go on for years, and follow them across different companies, and there has to be a critical mass of complainants before people take it seriously?’ ”

That sounds awfully familiar; it sounds like the same thing I hear when prominent atheists or skeptics or Christians are exposed for their harassment of women. It sounds like the same thing I hear when prominent Democrats or Republicans are exposed for their prejudice. People keep asking, what’s the magic number? How many women have to speak up for it to be enough evidence?

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Racism, Sexism, and the Fundamental Attribution Error

Lookingout_viaAllenLaiWe all know racism, sexism, and similar –isms are things we shouldn’t admit to; even those who embrace them ideologically would rather express them in different words. The disclaimer mad lib is simple: “I’m not _____, it’s just that _____.” Islamophobia? No, no, it’s just that there really are Muslim terrorists, so my fear is justified! Sexism? Are you kidding? Women just choose lower-paying jobs than men do. Racism? Don’t make me laugh. Black people just commit more crimes, so of course the police need to pay more attention to them. For Americans, for white people, for men, for those on the inside, an –ism is easily explained away by external factors.

From the outside, it looks a bit different.

If you’re a woman in the United States, you have probably gotten attention you didn’t want from men who didn’t want to take no for an answer.

If you’re black in the United States, you have probably gotten attention you didn’t want from police who assumed you were guilty of something.

And you’ll notice that what these things have in common is not, necessarily, some internal core quality (which is how many white people think about racism, how many men think about sexism, etc.). Instead, what they have in common is behavior, and a system that says that behavior is okay.

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Memories of Change

sunset_viaIanBarbourThe echo-chambers are echoing loudly of late. Crisis and fear always seem to pick off the scabs of history. In our media and our minds, a slurry of racist, sexist, xenophobic, and islamophobic ideas ooze back to the surface and spill out into the world around us.

I want to write people off when they say such things, and certainly it becomes harder to believe that people can change. I want to write them off because enemies are simple. But people are complicated; we can change, and we do. We just tend to forget that we have, and thus to judge that other people can’t. Simplifying ourselves encourages us to simplify others, reducing them slowly and surely to enemies.

I think a part of the way forward is to look back: to remember our own changes. To talk about them. To wear changing our minds as a badge of honor rather than shame.


I used to be anti-abortion.

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Guys: Feminism Needs You

It is easy for those of us men who consider ourselves feminists to sit back, contented in our belief in equality, and think that because we intellectually know women are equal, we have done our part. But the reality of our culture should shock us out of that complacent view. Simple belief in equality does not, by itself, change the experience of our society. Women are abused, raped, violated, coerced, and devalued every day. Every hour. Every two minutes.

There has been progress. Feminism has seriously challenged traditional perceptions of what women can do, and successfully made it far less acceptable (though not totally unacceptable) to talk about women as the property of men, or as less intelligent, or as less capable, or as less rational. Myths remain in many places (Google search “women driver memes”) but we are swiftly approaching a general intellectual acceptance, even among men, that women and men are equal. More often than not, 21st century men will agree that women can do anything men can do—or at least, they will say so in mixed company.

via Flickr user PeterWhat has yet to happen is for many of those men who accept equality superficially or reluctantly to accept it intuitively and personally and publicly. And guys, this is why feminism needs you.

Because this is the internet, I feel it bears repeating that feminism does not and has never proposed a reversal of positions wherein women would dominate men. That would be equality in the role of the exploiter—but feminism means the role of the exploiter is unacceptable.

So, despite some foolish claims to the contrary, feminists do not seek to replace the institution of patriarchy with an institution of matriarchy—instead, we seek a set of societal norms, laws, and assumptions that does not discriminate on the basis of gender. The basic tenet of gender equality is not that men are less important, nor that maleness is somehow bad, nor that femaleness should be favored. Rather, it is that gender should not be a starting point for evaluating everything else.

Working from that framework, maleness and femaleness are both valuable and important, but neither should have exclusive or undue bearing on governance, societal norms, valuation of individuals, or the allocation of human rights. Such a proposition is not the only alternative to patriarchy, but I and many others believe it is the most just and socially beneficial. Yes, it would mean men would no longer have some of the privilege they do now, but no, it would not mean men would have fewer rights or freedoms. Instead, it would mean that men cease to enjoy power over women that trumps women’s rights.

No moral person can object to giving that up, but likewise no selfish person will do so by choice. And again, guys, this is why feminism needs you.

Pursuing gender equality cannot solely be the province of women. By its very nature, gender equality is not a “women’s issue” so much as it is a human rights issue. We declare it unacceptable to have a lesser-valued class of people in our society—but we have many such classes, of which women are one. It is the duty of all members of our society to undermine such inequality wherever we find it, to look for and reject the privilege it may afford us, and to build alternatives wherever we are able.

Men pursuing social change should pay the closest attention to these points because men are the ones least likely to recognize the benefits they receive from patriarchy. Men are also the ones most likely to ignore sexism in ways that harm the women around them. I do not expect a self-professed chauvinist or a narcissistic billionaire to change their behavior or relinquish their privilege. I do not expect a biblical literalist who insists on the validity of Paul’s limitations on women to change his mind about the value of women’s speech. What I do expect is that we who claim to pursue social justice will not betray the women around us by failing to notice our participation in a great social injustice, or by failing to do all we are able to remedy it.

I must stress here that my injunctions are not speculative. Issues like rape and male privilege are, in my opinion, the most insidious in the progressive organizations, movements, or schools where they are given the most official attention. Now, you may think this doesn’t apply in your communities, but please consider that it is statistically much more likely that you just don’t see it. Unfortunately, many of the same groups seeking to make social change still harbor sexism and prejudice towards their female members. That is the insidiousness of patriarchy—that even men who claim to stand for equality can fall prey to it and not even notice, while our female colleagues will be suffering the weight of yet another unsafe place.

If you are a man, try to imagine how much more a betrayal it is for a woman to be exploited and marginalized by men who earnestly claim to value her. Imagine how disheartening it is to find that, in fact, there is no refuge from prejudice. That is why I direct this point so explicitly to men involved in social change. There are times when just acting on your principals is not enough to create change, but failing to reflect the principals you avow can be more damaging even than obvious exploitation.

In 1983, Andrea Dworkin gave a now well-known speech to the National Organization for Changing Men in which she pointed out that rape is protected by religions, politicians, the laws, the schools, and, she said, quoting Shelly, by “the unacknowledged legislators of the world: the poets, the artists.” These are all of us: singers, writers, teachers, readers, commenters, bloggers.

One of the most important roles male feminists can play in our communities is to be the legislators of male culture. We need to gain ground especially in groups dominated by men, which could otherwise become reservoirs of abusive culture and continually re-infect broader society with prejudice. We are already seeking to be aware—so when we hear hate speech against women, we can reject it. When we see other men treating women as less valuable, we can condemn it. When we notice our male friends teasing one another with feminizing language, we can call them out on the assumptions they are supporting. Most of all, we as men can let it be known that we will not tolerate the devaluing of women. There is great power in the habits of the group—we must exercise the power of our membership to eliminate the social license to be sexist.

So, guys, our mission should be this: those “unacknowledged legislators” among us who espouse sexist views should find their positions untenable. We can’t and won’t prevent sexism from everyone, everywhere–but we can make sure than sexism around us fails in the face of an otherwise knowledgeable, self-aware, and motivated community.