Language: Usage and Debate in Progressive Politics

In the past week, I have been involved in discussions and debates related to the terminology used to describe traditionally oppressed groups.  The use of language can be a highly charged topic in leftist and progressive circles, whether one is discussing women or traditionally oppressed ethnic and racial groups.  The debate can rage over spelling or word choice.  In some cases, the discussion is true political analysis.  In others, it is simply a way to “win” an argument and cast the opponent as politically out-of-touch or bigoted.

My purpose here isn’t to insist that people use one word or another, that they adopt alternate spellings or spell words in a traditional fashion, but simply to explore the topic and the motivations behind certain word choices.  We all know that language has power.  The “power to name” has been important to radical feminists for decades.  The power to marginalize individuals using derisive language is one that powerful groups have used for millennia.  My purpose is to discuss how language evolves, the political usage of language, and how there can be considerable disagreement within historically oppressed and exploited groups about proper word usage.  I think it’s important for anyone with leftist or progressive politics to understand this–that what they may consider “politically correct” may be a matter of considerable debate within the actual marginalized group.

Some of the words, phrases and designations that can be viewed as proper by one group, but not by another include “cisgender” or “cis”, women-vs-womyn/wimin, and Latino/Latina-vs-Hispanic-vs-Chicano/Chicana-vs-“people of color”.*  The use of one or more of these terms can lead to heated debate.  At times, this debate is based upon not understanding how the words are viewed or used by certain communities, while at others the debate is based upon a more thorough understanding of how the words are viewed or used.  Regardless, the debates generally include accusations that someone “just doesn’t get it”.  Perhaps they do get it.  Perhaps they simply have other information or they disagree with the political arguments behind specific word usage.  There are other words and phrases that inspire similar debate, but I will mostly confine myself to a discussion of these three, because they are the ones with which I have the most real life experience.

The term “cisgender” or “cis” can get one into hot water when moving from a liberal feminist environment to a radical feminist environment.  In the liberal environment, one can be castigated for not using this word and paying fealty to its political implications. This confuses many feminists who begin moving into more radical feminist spaces from liberal feminist spaces.  They may use the term thinking they are being kind, sensitive and politically aware, only to be told that they are actually being anti-woman.  I agree that the term “cis” and “cisgender” are politically useless, at best.  However, I think it would be helpful to tell women why the term and the theory behind it are disputed, rather than simply condemning them.  Unfortunately, I think many of us may assume that other women understand the issues involved and are simply willfully ignoring those issues.  I don’t think this helps our cause of advancing the analysis of gender as a destructive hierarchy, rather than a neutral continuum.  It simply serves to confuse and alienate women who could be our allies.

Also related to the struggle of women is the use of alternate spellings for the very words “woman” and “women”.  Because many radical feminists find the etymology and implications of the words problematic, they choose to use alternate spellings.  Among others, these include “womyn”, “wimin”, and “womon”.  On the other side are those who say that the use of such alternate spellings alienate potential allies by appearing to erase men.  I find the argument that feminists need to cater to men’s egos–even when referring to women— misguided, at the very least.  That said, I also prefer to use traditional spellings for words.  For me, I fully understand the desire to name ourselves that lies behind the practice of alternate spellings.  I have very little patience for those who ridicule others for using alternate spellings.  However, I do find that the use of such spellings in articles meant to influence others (call it propaganda, if you want) can come across like jargon.  I also have an ingrained desire to use proper grammar and spelling because of my background in journalism.  So, I remain unpersuaded by the hardliners on either side.

The final language-related issue that stirs up debate is the terminology used to refer to both men and women who belong to historically oppressed and exploited racial or ethnic groups.  In the U.S., these groups are usually, demographically speaking, in the minority of the population.  On the other hand, when one considers the population of the world, they are not.  For many, this demographic difference between white-majority countries and the rest of the world means that the only acceptable term to use is “people of color” to describe all members of historically oppressed ethnic and racial groups.  This is understandable, and it’s a term I often use.  However, it is not a panacea.  There is considerable debate within Hispanic groups about how that particular group–which includes those in all racial categories–should be referred to.  This is a long and storied debate, and one that gets little notice outside of this particular group.

Among the ethnic group referred to as “Hispanic”, there is a history of debate even over that term.  While it is currently used by the U.S. Census, there are those within the group who reject it due to its colonial implications.  It is a term they feel is used to connect them solely to Spanish colonizers, and does not recognize that the majority of those called “Hispanic” are descended from both indigenous and colonial backgrounds, with others being descended from only indigenous backgrounds, indigenous and African backgrounds, or only African backgrounds.  In short, it is considered Eurocentric and imperialist, as described by Cheech Marin.

Hispanic is a census term that some dildo in a government office made up to include all Spanish-speaking brown people. It is especially annoying to Chicanos because it is a catch-all term that includes the Spanish conqueror. By definition, it favors European cultural invasion, not indigenous roots. It also includes all Latino groups, which brings us together because Hispanic annoys all Latino groups.

In the 1960s, the words “Chicano” and “Chicana” became popular for Mexican-American activists, especially radical activists, to describe those of Mexican heritage who were born in the U.S.  Others reject that term for so-called derisive implications, as it was once used by Mexicans to describe Mexican-Americans, who were perceived as having lost their heritage.  The word has been used in the names of activist organizations in the U.S., such as Chicanos por la Causa.  “La Raza” is another term used for politically active Mexican-Americans, especially in California.  That, too, has been used in the names of activist organizations, such as the National Council of La Raza.

Similarly, the words “Latino” and “Latina” are subject to debate.  These words are often viewed in a similar way as “Hispanic”, linking the peoples of Latin America to their colonizers’ languages without any recognition of the indigenous or African origins of many in Latin America.  However, as indicated in the quote above, this is not a universal opinion, either.

And what of those in the U.S. who fall between categories, because they are of both Latin American and North/Western European descent?  Are these people of color?  Are they Hispanic?  Are they Latinos and Latinas?  Are they white?  Does their status change according to the situation?  This is important to me, because it involves my own children.  I met a Mexican-American man–first generation born in the U.S.–22 years ago.  I married him 21 years ago.  We have two children.  On official documents, they are listed as members of the Hispanic ethnicity and the white or Caucasian race.  How they are treated likely depends on the situation.  In person, they are treated as white.  Their skin tone is white, so they have the privileges associated with that white appearance.  Culturally, our family’s primary ties and influence are Mexican and Mexican-American.  On the other hand, if one were to see just their names written on a job application or academic paper, my children would be considered Hispanic by the reader.  As studies have shown, the appearance of a name indicating a female or member of another marginalized group can lead the reader to have built-in bias towards that individual and her qualifications.

But what of the term “people of color”?  As I said, I commonly use it, but I have run into issues with that term, as well.  It is not one my spouse embraces.  In fact, he does not even embrace the term “Mexican-American”.   He refers to himself, his family members and others within his national heritage group as simply “Mexican”, regardless of the country in which they were born or the passport which they carry.  This may be because his father was born and raised in Mexico, and almost all of their family still lives in Mexico City.   I have run into older Mexican-American folks who find the term “people of color” actively offensive.  Like the old fashioned term “colored” that was once used to describe African-Americans and is now widely considered offensive, they feel it defines them in opposition to whites.  It doesn’t say what or who they are, it says what or who they aren’t; there are “people” (who are white), and there are “people of color” (everyone else).  It also lumps them in with others of widely differing backgrounds and heritage.

So, where do we arrive at with this discussion of language?  For me, it’s realizing that even the terms most popular among leftists and progressives, the terms considered sensitive and supportive, are not always free of debate–quite fiery debate, in fact.  When we run across folks who don’t use the terms we consider sensitive or supportive, we should find out why.  Don’t assume insensitivity or lack of knowledge, unless it’s a historical pattern for a particular individual or the context makes it clear.  Find out what they’re saying and why, especially if they are someone you don’t know well.  Unless, of course, you’re just looking to silence someone who disagrees with you.  Then, you can continue being that “liberal bully” that Offbeat Empire refers to.  Just don’t expect to arrive at any real answers or gain new allies if you choose that path.

NOTES:

* I have used a number of links to Wikipedia articles in this piece.  That is not because I think Wikipedia is necessarily a good source.  Instead, I have chosen to include these articles because they include reference links to other, more helpful articles.

“Equal Rights Are Not the Same As Equality” by Elaine Charkowski

As mentioned in the title, this piece is not mine.  It is the work of Elaine Charkowski, who gave explicit permission for others to share the work copy-free.  There are a few things in the piece with which I am not in full agreement.  For example, there is considerable debate regarding the information used in the work The Chalice and the Blade.  However, I am in full agreement that women should not be looking to act as most men currently act.  I am also in full agreement with Elaine when she states that men are not naturally violent, and women should not seek to be.

The article is in PDF format.  You can access it by clicking the link below.

Equal rights are not the same as equality

Rape Culture and Its Real World Repercussions

Note:  This post is a slightly edited version of a Note I published to The Left Side of Feminism’s Facebook page.

As a follow-up to my recent post about the perpetuation of rape culture and rape myths being a bannable offense, I wanted to relate a real world story about why this is so important. It’s not about your political golden boy or any single case.  It’s a stance based upon real repercussions that affect real women in the real world. It’s about the way rape is excused and perpetuated by men and women who peddle bullshit

Several years ago, a football player at the University of Arizona was arrested on rape charges. He played on the defensive line, meaning he was roughly in the 6’3″-6’5″ and 250lbs-300lbs range. The victim, needless to say, was not nearly so large. The attack happened at a college house party. A young U of A student was at this party. Like everyone else, she drank a lot. She may have flirted with this football player at various points in the night. However, eventually, she had enough. She fell asleep/passed out/lost consciousness on a couch in the house where the party was taking place.

Seeing an unconscious female there, the football player decided to rape her. He took her pants off and did what he wanted to her. She reported the rape to police. When he was questioned, he first denied that there was any sexual contact of any kind. There were some uncomfortable facts, however–like his DNA inside her body–so his story quickly changed. Of course, now it was “consensual sex”. The facts–including his lies about sexual contact–were plenty enough to file rape charges. To his credit, the football coach immediately told this player to take a hike. “Innocent until proven guilty” is a good thing in a court of law; representing the University on the football team, however, is a privilege, not a right.

The case finally ended up in court. The defense used the usual “she’s a lying slut who wasn’t raped” attacks on the victim. Some of the things they presented in defense:

  • A picture of the victim taken six months after the attack. It was taken by her friends, as they all gathered to celebrate her birthday. She was smiling and wearing a tiara. This, the defense insisted, proved she’d never been raped. (Myth alert: A woman who is raped can never, ever smile again or have a single happy moment, or it proves she wasn’t raped.)
  • So-called “inconsistencies” in her story. She said at various times that she was on her back or her side when the assault began. If you’ve ever slept on a couch, you know that you can prop yourself against the back of the couch, so you could be described as both on your back and on your side. Regardless, this was hardly the earth-shattering “lie” the defense presented it as. It was a mild variation that could easily be explained by the piece of furniture she was lying on. It certainly wasn’t a lie along the lines of, “I never had sex with her…oh, wait, I guess I did since you have my DNA inside her.”
  • The fact that she flirted and danced with the attacker earlier in the evening. Even he admitted she was unconscious when he took her pants off of her. Here’s a tip: unconscious people can’t consent to anything, because they are, y’know, unconscious. (Myth alert: If a woman ever flirts with, smiles at, or, goddess forbids, actually has sex with a man, he has the right to have sex with her at any time in the future. She has given her consent to whatever he wants whenever he wants it forever.)
  • The fact that she might have moved at some point during the assault, so the attacker thought she was into it. Again, she was unconscious when he took her pants off and inserted himself into her body. What was the intent of her movement? Perhaps to try to get out from under a 250+ lbs football player? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. He took her clothes off and began assaulting her while she was unconscious. That’s not, to use George Galloway’s horrible phrases, a matter of “surprise sex” or “bad sexual etiquette”. That is rape. Period. Full stop. End of sentence.
  • Women who knew her testified that she was “flirtatious” with men. So, any man who ever wants to have sex with her is apparently entitled, forever and wherever and under any circumstances. (Myth alert: Once again, if a woman flirts with, dances with, smiles at, and has sex with one man or many men, she’s forever open to her body being used by any man who happens to feel the urge–even when she’s unconscious.)

So, what was the result? Acquittal. A real woman whose life was forever affected by a sexual assault, then devastated again by a jury who bought the rape myths. This is why I will never allow rape culture’s perpetuation here. You can peddle that bullshit somewhere else. There are plenty of online spaces where that shit flies, even Leftist spaces. But not this space. Even if that makes me Joseph Stalin.

It’s not all about you

Recognizing that it’s about “us”, not about “me”. That’s what makes some of us radical, and some of us liberal or libertarian. It’s not enough to slap a bit of liberal feminism on our radical leftist politics. If you’re going to be a radical, then BE a radical.

“Somewhere along the way ‘the personal is political’ became – not about the way that patriarchal society shapes the detail of women’s lives, not about the commonalities of experiences and certainly not about the social and political forces defining and constraining what it is to be a woman – but about identity, the individual, empowerment, the freedom to choose, the freedom to excel, to achieve.

“The conflation of empowerment and the personal – as an individual, not social being – as the political undermines collective action to dismantle the structures upholding inequality. Emphasising self-determination and personal achievement is conservative, it protects the status quo if it stops us from recognising or caring about the barriers that others face. Autonomy, choice, agency, empowerment are at best tools, political means not ends. If we confuse them with our goals then we might as well watch the chance to create a fairer and more just society for all slip through our fingers.”

Karen Ingala Smith

Last week, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner released a report on the impact of pornography on young people. Tweets about this report from the perspective on an organisation working with women, young people and children elicited responses including the following:

“so improve porn. Don’t ban young people from seeing it. Porn is a healthy aid to masturbation. It’s just badly done.”

“Telling women they’re debased by sex. Feminism.”

“I’m sick of people shaming porn. I’ve been watching porn since I was 11. It’s a healthy part of my life.”

Since then, the voices of so-called pro-porn, pro-sex-work and tory-feminists have started to sound increasingly similar to me. The young woman defending porn as a healthy aid to masturbation, the sex-worker celebrating her mastery of her craft or the former-tory politician describing that hard work that she had to undertake to reach the lofty heights of power, to my ears…

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Me me me

Cath Elliott does a wonderful job discussing how choices are not always feminist. Women make bad choices sometimes, choices which hurt the cause of liberation for all women. I have explored similar themes in several of my articles, including “Ethical Relativism Revisited: Choice and Feminism”. (See: https://theleftsideoffeminism.wordpress.com/2012/10/16/ethical-relativism-revisited-choice-and-feminism/).

Too Much To Say For Myself

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read recently how feminism is all about a woman’s right to make her own choices in life, and quite frankly I’m sick to the back teeth of hearing it. “You can’t criticise prostitution or porn” goes the cry, “some women these days have chosen freely to take part in it. They’re empowered and liberated, all those things feminists have been fighting for for decades.”

It seems that no matter what the choice in question is, whether it’s to sell her body for sex, or whether it’s to submit to the man in her life, the very fact that a woman has made that choice, all by herself and without any sign of having been overtly coerced, means that as feminists we’re under some kind of sisterly obligation to respect it.

Well I’ve got news for you: no it fucking well doesn’t.

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Finding the Balance: The Feminist Facebook Campaign

Yesterday, Facebook finally put out a statement on the site regarding the feminist anti-violence campaign.  In it, they spoke to the balance between allowing controversial ideas, while eliminating that which is harmful.

[W]e also work hard to make our platform a safe and respectful place for sharing and connection.  This requires us to make difficult decisions and balance concerns about free expression and community respect.  We prohibit content deemed to be directly harmful, but allow content that is offensive or controversial.

My fear with campaigns like the anti-violence campaign on Facebook has always been that controversial, but not violent, material would end up being censored by those seeking to prove they’re “cleaning things up”. That is, that Facebook would overreact in seeking good P.R., and start eliminating controversial ideas, even when they did not celebrate, condone or encourage violence.

I have written in the past about my internal conflict with the concept of free speech.  That conflict has led me to tread carefully when people start talking about “hate speech”. In fact, I had to think a bit before deciding whether to join the Feminist Admin campaign this week. However, after careful consideration, the campaign against the violent images about raping and beating women was something I couldn’t refuse to support. These were not people talking about “controversial” topics. These were people reveling in violence, reveling in images of women’s beaten and bloodied bodies. They weren’t trying to arrive at answers to difficult questions. They were just trying to get off on seeing women beaten up.

I consider this blog and the related Facebook page to be controversial. They discuss very controversial topics, such as gender, from a radical perspective. However, I seek to weed out attacks or links that I consider focused on individuals instead of issues. This is why I made a decision a while ago not to post links to some of the more inflammatory radical feminist sites that discuss gender. I felt that some of them were focused on individuals and personal ridicule, instead of being focused on issues. To me, that kind of individual-focused rhetoric doesn’t help anyone. In fact, it turns people off and makes them tune out what is actually being said about the ramifications of certain positions.

The same is true when I discuss my opposition to religion, whether on Facebook or this blog. I abhor violence aimed at individuals because of their religion. I am an adamant supporter of the rights of Palestinians.  However, I cannot in good conscience allow that to keep me from discussing religion as ideology and how it is a tool in women’s oppression.  The stakes for real women are too high.

I would consider the Facebook pages of Male Privilege Activists (a.k.a Men’s Rights Activists, or MRAs) to be controversial, but I would not seek to have one shut down if it didn’t post the kind of content this campaign has focused on. I may despise what they have to say, but I’m not going to report them for “hate speech”. In fact, I’m not going to bother with them at all. I may criticize them, but I’m not going to seek out their nonsense.

Anyway, I hope Facebook gets it right. I hope they can find the balance that allows us to discuss controversial ideas, while keeping the images that celebrate violence out. We’ll have to wait and see, I guess.

Neo-Paganism and Feminism

I was born a member of an old Mormon family, a family stretching back to upstate New York and the origins of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  As a result, I spent many years within the church and still have many family members there.  At a fairly young age, I knew that membership in the church was not conducive to my sanity.  The limits placed on the female were too many to count.  They are also too well known for me to need to enumerate them here.  Suffice it to say that they were killing me, mind and body.  However, it took many years and several false starts for me to shake off not only this particular religion, but religion, in general.  One of those false starts was a turn to the Wiccan religion.

Wicca (and Neo-Paganism, in general) is an attractive option for so many women who are trying to find their way in the world, experiencing the failures of organized religion, but still needing the comfort of a Greater Power.  Its celebration of the Goddess and belief in a time before patriarchy are so important to women who need to believe that there are examples of a better way in the distant past.  I’m certainly not one to claim that, once upon a time, the status of women was not greater than it is now.  (In fact, I actively believe that.)  Goddess worship may well have been a sign of that.  However, we can see goddess worship lasting well into the age of male oppression of females, all the way into modern India.  It is not enough to simply point to the goddesses in a pantheon, and say that women have greater status in Culture X.

The most problematic aspect of modern goddess worship is not where it came from or whether those cultures were patriarchal.  The most problematic aspect is how it represents “masculine” and “feminine” in the modern world.  In my personal Facebook feed today, I came across a shared status update from another page.  It spoke of the shortcomings of the “pragmatic, male oriented reality”, while singing the praises of the “great female powers of intuition”, the “receptive powers of the female shield”, and the “feminine trait of contemplation”. *

Within the Wiccan ritual, there is a very strong belief in gendered forces.  Certain characteristics and natural forces are related to the feminine, while others are related to the masculine.  This is often played out during ritual by plunging a ceremonial blade into a sacred chalice.  In Wiccan writing, there is repeated reference to feminine qualities of the Goddess versus masculine qualities of the God.  The feminine is related to intuitiveness, caregiving, protection of children and the hearth, nourishment, and magic.  Motherhood is all.  The masculine is related to more active concepts, like hunting and protection of the group and the woman.**  These gendered forces must be balanced, but they are still there.  In addition, the argument is that both the feminine and the masculine live within each individual, regardless of sex.  Why they must, then, be referred to in gendered ways isn’t explained.

So, what’s wrong with that?  Well, a lot of things, if you believe (as I do) that there are only human ways of acting, feeling, thinking and being.  There is no innate feminine or masculine way of experiencing the world.  There is no “brain sex“.  This gendered way of categorizing human actions and characteristics is patriarchal at its very core; it can’t lead us from patriarchy, because it’s steeped in it.

I know many women find solace in Wicca, especially Dianic Wicca.  There are still things that I appreciate about it, such as the belief in the “interconnectedness” of life and other forces in the universe.  I still believe in those things, although my belief and appreciation of that connection is scientific instead of magical these days.  I also believe strongly that goddess imagery can help women who are constantly bombarded with the solely male representations of the most important, powerful, divine forces in the universe.  Having the strictly male images of divinity constantly before you, while being told that humans are in “god’s image”, is psychologically devastating.  This is especially true for a young girl.  I still hold dear to goddess imagery for this very reason.  However, I don’t believe that we can be liberated by engaging in magical thinking.  I don’t think we can be liberated by investing in ideas of feminine traits versus masculine traits.  The essentialism will always backfire on us.  We need to put our faith in the strength of real women, not in goddesses or “feminine” qualities.

NOTES:

* I am not linking to the post or directly mentioning the page for two reasons.  The first is that the link leads to someone’s personal Facebook profile, and I don’t want to directly criticize this particular woman or put a link to her profile in a blog post.  This isn’t about a single individual; it’s about an ideology.  The other is that I have interacted with the owners of the page who shared it on several occasions.  They are kind, good-hearted women.  They have shared things from TLSOF more than once.  I’m not writing about this to criticize them or “out” them in any way.  Again, it’s about the ideology.

** There are a few exceptions to this, such as Athena and Diana, but they are rare.