My persistence and stubbornness have gotten me into trouble in the past – I have numerous memories of friends instructing me to “pick my battles better.” Which, to a degree, I understand. And in the past few years, I have learned which things are worth fighting for that day or not. And most days, it’s a tradeoff; as I’ve written before, sometimes I let things slide for the sake of exploring a relationship further and knowing that I can be of better benefit down the road. In other cases, I just recognize that I have far too short of a fuse that day and need to extract myself from a situation before I make it worse by arguing. And of course, I still make mistakes, especially as a writer – I tend to get caught up in saying things I feel need to be said, rather than considering all the conditions and the different ways I say something may confuse an issue. Today was one of those days where I had to pick a battle – I had work to do, but it was a writing idea that was percolating, so I took to Twitter and Facebook to distract the portion of my brain not working on my assignment (this is fairly frequent – it’s part of how I work).
My friend Alan had written one of his beloved Citizenship Confusion posts over at Christ and Pop Culture on Monday, about the deceptive nature of the way “news” is presented on Robert Spencer’s “JihadWatch."
The post had a good point, seemingly missed by Robert, which was that unnecessarily politicizing stories based on minor facts is dangerous for Christians. I felt it was a good point and, as I don’t always do, agreed with Alan – characterizing a murder-suicide as an Islamic honor killing maligns and dishonors a death; it also functions to adapt news to one’s own narrative, rather than taking the facts as they are.
This narrative thing is something that everyone does – I’ve often said that there is no such thing as a totally objective worldview. We all bring our biases and experiences into discussion. That’s why I’ve said in the past that it is important in discussions between men and women that these biases and privileges of experience be acknowledged and listened to, especially when the oppressed class (women) is talking to the privileged* class (men). And, as I have also said before, in the event of sexism/racism/homophobia, it is not the privileged class which gets to decide what is and is not offensive. For a man to adapt a woman’s story so that it fits his privileged worldview (“It never happened to me so you must be blowing it out of proportion!”) is to ignore and silence the very real experience of women.
I’m rather lucky in that sexist buzzwords don’t get flung at me as often as they could be (though “crazy” and “ridiculous” and “overreacting” have been thrown out before, as I have posted about in the past). When I took up debating on Twitter this afternoon, that dynamic honestly didn’t occur to me – until, that is, Mr. Spencer reminded me.
I repeated many of the same points that Alan had made in the previous Twitter discussion – about manipulation of facts, about how I didn’t see a difference between calling what Alan said “propaganda” and what JihadWatch does. As I try to be when debating with strangers, I was fairly incisive but still cordial, refraining from ad hominem attacks and attempting to stay on topic – I’ve been debating for years, so I know the ins and outs of it, and can sense quite easily when a debate is derailing. And as it was, I was only half interested – I didn’t really believe I’d get anywhere, but it was fun to try, and it was a good way to occupy my brain for an hour while it digested my other work.
Eventually, though, I got bored and decided to pull the plug. I gave an admittedly snippy reply (pictured below), wished him “Good day” (which I genuinely meant – I can’t imagine someone in his position has too many good days), and went to read articles for my current program.
When I clicked back on a few minutes later (honestly, I almost always have Twitter up and running), I stared, slack-jawed and not breathing, at his response.
Instantaneously, I recalled that moment when an Australian lawmaker – Penny Wong – was meow’d at for getting aggressive in a political debate.
And I felt angry. Not only did my tone not warrant such a response, but it was fairly clear that it was only read as catty because I’m a woman. I have never encountered a man who responds in kind to a male debating in such a way – indeed, my friend Alan had, only a couple of hours before, offered a similar sign off, with no such reaction. And every woman I spoke to when it happened immediately read it as sexist, whether the woman in question identified as feminist or not.
Quite the exchange followed - here is the Storify'd version to make it easier to read.
You are welcome to read through it and draw your own conclusions. Note, however, that he does not stop at "meow." When I call him on the sexist nature of such a comment, he calls me "humorless and self-righteous," following it up with "ridiculous and hysterical." None of which I was. Indeed, though I was upset, I was certainly not "hysterical" - a word, I would note, has a historically gendered and sexist meaning, as hysteria was a mental disorder believed to affect women only because of their uterus being out of whack.
Already, in discussing this debate in other social media forums, I have been told that I’m blowing things out of proportion, that there are bigger fish to fry, and that I’ve been guilty of personal attacks myself, so I should shut up.
All of those are textbook tactics for derailing a debate that someone has gotten involved in. It’s a way of changing the subject, of shifting focus, and of ignoring something that someone else has deemed as a problem.
We’re not going to get very far in the discussion of feminism if women are continually shamed and taunted into silence, and, if, when we affect the tactics of men, we are called names and disregarded. A “meow” at a woman is an attempt to delegitimize her place within the debate. It is a dehumanizing tactic – literally comparing her to a cat – that negates her contribution, all because someone with privilege found the tone inconvenient.
It is the equivalent of a white man calling a black man “boy” – it is a word that has distinct negative (yes, racist) connotations, though it may seem innocuous on the surface. It is a method of reminding the marginalized of their place within the hierarchy. It certainly does not contribute to honest and truthful debate. It is, as Ms. Wong says above, a “schoolyard tactic” and, as I pointed out in the discussion with Mr. Spencer, far from mature.
When someone tells you that what you’ve just said is offensive, especially if there is a powerful differential at play, it would behoove you to pause and think about why you said what you did and why it may be perceived as offensive. Digging in your heels, saying it’s not a big deal, and writing it off only serve to further entrench the offense. And here’s the rub: You don’t get to decide what’s offensive. You don’t get to decide what’s a “big deal” or not, especially if you are coming from a place of privilege – if you are white, you don’t get to tell a black person what is and isn’t racist. If you’re a man, you don’t get to tell a woman what is and isn’t sexist. I simply will not grant you the privilege of dictating how I must feel about an issue.
This isn’t a small thing – this event, while in many ways ridiculous, highlights the overarching narrative that covers discussions between the privileged class and those on the other side. When a man is allowed to “meow” at a woman in the midst of an intellectual debate, the message is sent that what a woman has to say is worth less than that of a man. It reminds, not only the two people involved in the debate, but the audience the debate may have, what the power difference is and who’s really in charge. It puts women in a double-bind: react, and you will be (as I was) called humorless and ridiculous. Ignore it, and it reinforces the idea that meowing at a woman is okay.
And that’s why it is important for women to respond to such comments. That’s why it is important for women to refuse to be put back in their place, to be undermined by personal attacks based on nothing but the fact that she has a vagina. And it’s time for men to listen to us when we call them out on their problematic behavior.
The battles other people and I see as important likely differ. But we all have a right to fight those battles without being called “hysterical” for bothering to engage and without being reduced to silence for having the gall to posses both a vagina and an opinion.
*Privileged here in the sociological sense: those imbued by society with a certain amount of privilege based on factors which they cannot control. An example of male privilege, in this case, would be the idea that men do not have to worry about being called a “bitch” if they choose to speak up aggressively.