Thursday, June 4, 2009

Silencing and the sexual slur

Last month, I wrote about the issue of gendering public space and how tactics used to constrain and silence people in the physical world have emerged in the online world, often in distinctly gendered forms. I had a number of replies, both in the comments here and via email, recounting personal experiences of this. I also received this comment:
For better or for worse, crude sexualised insults are part of the blogosphere's vernacular... The correctness or otherwise of insisting on sanitised discourse is worth pondering.

And ponder I did. Was I being a hopeless idealist? Or simply talking out of my ass? (My commenter, who is an IRL friend, would probably vouch for the latter and then prescribe a calming glass of pinot gris). Perhaps I didn’t make my point clearly enough, leading my commenter to assume I’m advocating some sort of censorship. I’m not. Quite the opposite, in fact. I understand very well that censorship has always been the servant of political, social and cultural oppression. But when people scorn a valid argument or silence the speaker by using humiliation or intimidation, or by wilfully misrepresenting what was said, that is a form of censorship, albeit an informal one. What else can it be called when power is deliberately wielded to deter others from voicing their opinions or beliefs, whether the forum is real or virtual?

Maybe it’s my naturally rebellious side, but I’m also bothered by the notion that just because something exists (crude sexualised insults in the blogosphere) that is the way it must be and we should all just lump it. Crude sexualised insults used to be much
more widely accepted as part of normal workplace culture, too. They function as a way to police boundaries and enforce hierarchy, and things only change because people get to the point where they refuse to passively accept it, “like it or not”.

Passive acceptance is what enables a mass media culture (I almost wrote ‘ass media’ there – Freudian slip much??) that is governed by the lowest common denominator, where intellect is openly mocked and political debate is reduced to facile sound bites and vacuous rhetoric. Really, how low does the lowest common denominator need to get before we stop placidly tolerating it? Frankly, I’m with Howard Beale: "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

Let me be clear here. I’m not talking about common or garden variety swearing (to object to that would make me a hypocrite of the highest order). Nor am I offended by sexual banter per se: It can be plenty of fun to indulge in when it’s exchanged between people operating on a basis of equal power and mutual consent. But sexualised language becomes more problematic when it’s used to construct and perpetuate unequal relationships of power. The sexual slur has always played a potent role in political and social discourse because it is so effective at achieving this end. As one demonstration this effectiveness, consider the scandalous, scurrilous and downright pornographic pamphlets produced about Marie Antoinette and other hated representatives of the ancien regime. Their accusations and lurid portrayals were generally ludicrous (and frequently physically impossible except on the part of a contortionist – or maybe I’m just not as flexible as I used to be). But this highly sexualised polemic, particularly that directed against the queen, played a critical strategic role in the French Revolution and, especially, in The Terror of 1793-4*.

All of this is to say that the sexual epithet is rarely transparent or simple. It carries with it a host of deeper claims – often the unconscious products of gender, race and/or class privilege – about who can and cannot hold power.

When we bridle at such usage, either online or in the real world, we’re usually told to let it slide or that we should ‘lighten up’ and ‘get a sense of humour’. Sometimes, ignoring it or walking away is the best course of action, especially when it’s an argument you know you can’t win (cue the old adage about refusing to engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed opponent). But not always. Sometimes we need to expose and confront the claims that inhere in sexualised insults, to refuse to brush them off as ‘just jokes’. Sometimes, we need to challenge ourselves to think more deeply about the potency of language to create and define our realities. And then we need to ask ourselves if those are the realities within which we truly want to exist.

* For more on this, check out the excellent book Marie Antoinette: Writings on the Body of a Queen


Digger said...

Variations on "You have no sense of humor" can be maddening, and effectively puts the onus on the one offended to argue why the comment was Not Funny.

My absolute favorite though, is variations of the "You're just being Politically Correct".

Have you seen Derailing for Dummies?

Anonymous said...

For a persuasive (I think) feminist examination of this:

Bavardess said...

Rootlesscosmo – thanks for the Mackinnon reference. I’ve read a number of her other books, but not that one. From the reviews, it sounds like it would be well worth a look. I remember the debate over pornography being at the forefront of feminist activism in the early 90s (and the differences that it highlighted between ‘radical’ and ‘liberal’ feminism) but it seems to have died down in recent times, or at least become less prominent compared to other issues.

Digger – I think the accusation of political correctness is itself a silencing tactic that gets pulled out when someone starts feeling like they’re losing the argument. I was astounded to find how many of the statements on that Derailing for Dummies list I have actually heard used in conversation, but being told I’m being oversensitive has to be pretty close to top of the list of things that make me want to rip someone a new one.

Historiann said...

Your friend "Lambcut" was being a jerk with that comment and wasn't really reading your post or willing to hear your point of view, in my opinion. This "ZOMG you're censoring free speech!!!" is always one of the first lines of defense, along with "can't you humorless feminists take a joke?"

The major mistake I made on my blog last year was in tolerating a-holes much longer than they should have been tolerated. I've found that when I intervene quickly to challenge a creepy commenter, and/or summarily delete the comment and ban the commenter, guess what? People who actually want to participate in the conversation show up in droves, whereas tolerating the a-holes drives away the serious commenters. Every time I smack someone down, I get way more commenters who are heartened by the fact that I won't tolerate bad behavior in my comments.

In this sense, hosting a blog conversation is much like teaching a class. If you tolerate bad behavior on the part of a few students, it will bring down the morale of the whole class. Whereas if you deliver the short, sharp shocks from the get-go, students (and commenters) snap to attention and are better behaved.

Just my 2 cents, for what they're worth, and thanks for your links to my blog and for your participation in conversations at

Bavardess said...

Thanks for stopping by Historiann, and for the good advice, though I do hope I never get to the point where I feel I need to delete comments. Your classroom analogy is quite apt.