Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Half Truths

I've been quite the insomniac over the past few days because my new job starts on Monday, and my last day at my old jobs is on Friday. So I've been reading through (among other things) all the carnivals that I missed over the last few months.

This post from the 47th Carnival of Feminists caught my eye. It's about the classic listserv exchange "that starts out with someone being called out on saying something sexist and immediately turns into an attack on overly-sensitive women and the girly-men who respect them."

At one point, Ross, the guy that Eric ends up exchanging e-mails with, writes:

Maybe I am over-interpreting her response, but I have seen far too many people that always see prejudice in everything because that is what they expect and what they look for.

Excluding the hyperbolic "everything" - there is a kernel of truth to that statement. I very much disagree, however, that we see the sexism because it's what we expect. I'd argue quite the opposite, that we see it precisely because we are the ones who have learned not to expect it, not to normalize it.

As I've said several times before, one of the most enlightening experiences about having gone to a women's college was spending several years in an environment where the default was female. Not male. Not gender neutral. But female.

Remember too, that this wasn't just a place where we volunteered or worked. It was everything: home, work, play. Everything. 24/7

Not surprisingly, language changes in these circumstances. It isn't just our feminist sensibilities, but simple logic, that makes it clear how absurd it is to keep using words like "freshman." So we were "first-years" instead. Or, rather, "firsties." And, needless to say, there were no arguments about which pronouns/nouns were appropriate. When referencing the student body, the feminine was always used. The "he or she" (or "s/he") construction was used when discussing faculty and other staff.

We even developed a type of common shorthand for certain words. The Venus symbol was faster to write than "woman" - and "woman" came up more often than "man" - which became the sign for Mars. (both together meant "people") Besides, the venus symbol looks like a hasty stick figure it you do it a certain way. And that "certain way" was part of the logo for the student government.

And of course, we diminutized a lot of words - but never any that had anything to do with the women who were out mentors and inspiration, no matter whether they were teachers, upperclasswomen*, or our peers.

The point of this ramble being that I came home for Christmas break already unthinkingly referring to my classmates as "women" even though we still called our friends some variation of "girls" when talking directly to them. And so my mom, at one point while I was at home, looked at me bemusedly and asked why we did this.

And I had to think about it. Because it's mostly just something you pick up....and yet as wrong as it feels at first, it felt wrong as well to to call the dormmates we barely knew - especially seniors - girls. We could vote. They could buy alcohol. If we aren't adults by graduation, would we ever be?

And so, after thinking about it, I told her I thought that it wasn't so much that we thought of ourselves as completely adults yet, but that we certainly weren't children either...and that we damn well better be adults by the time we graduated. So while we referred to each other as women as a sign of respect, we did it not so much because we were sure we had earned it, but so that - by the time we left school - we'd become used to it and be able to recognize it better when people treated us with disrespect.

And it's most definitely worked, at least in may case. I don't get annoyed every time someone calls me girl, but I'm freakin' 30 people. When the 19 year old co-worker prefaces his statement to myself and the other 20+ woman sitting beside me with "girls,...." I most definitely get a little annoyed. And I see it as disrespectful, irrelevant of intentions.

Coming back to the post that inspired this ramble, I'd like to point out that at the end of the exchange, Ross adds:

Also, I have enjoyed our debate on this topic..... It can be entertaining and educational to debate these topics, especially considering that I don’t entirely agree with my own position.

Eric rightly calls him on this, saying that:

I wish I could get a guy like Ross to understand that this is not a “debate.” I hope this exchange was at least a little bit educational for him. I don’t feel that combating sexism is entertaining…

What he means of course, is that he wished Ross would see the conversation as something other than a game.

The thing is, I'm fairly certain he does. He may see it as a game as well, but it's obviously more to him than that - the use of ALL CAPS betrays a certain amount of (gasp!) emotion on the subject, as does the rest of the tone, the less formal writing in his earlier emails, and the fact that he bothered to email Eric at all.

No, Ross' claim that he "do[es]n’t entirely agree with [his] own position" isn't there to reassure Eric that he was only messing around, it's there because Ross lost. It's an attempt to lessen the loss by trivializing the debate after the fact. And it neatly, subtly reasserts his comrade Chris' main argument that "this is a silly discussion." An argument belied by the amount of time and effort Ross - and even Chris - put into the discussion.

PS - The comments are nearly as maddening as the emails that prompted the post. Is there any particular reason why people have such a hard time making the leap from "ok, ok, so maybe that wasn't the smartest thing to say" to "I'll try not to do it again"????????

*Spellcheck does not like "upperclasswomen" but it thinks "upperclassmen" is just fine. >P

1 comment:

Eric Stoller said...

Nice post. Thanks for reading!