Mick Nugent is in the middle of an excellent job of allowing Justin Vacula to demonstrate that Vacula has no interest in dialog or coming to any kind of agreement with the people he has been harassing. Nugent has written two posts containing questions that Vacula has side-stepped entirely and a third post pointing out that side-stepping is no basis for dialog.
The comments on Nugent’s second post, however, repeat an ongoing meme that it’s time we just took apart. Read the comments at your own risk, but among them is the whole “it’s just words” thing again, along with a solid dose of “They do [did] it too!” Then along comes vjack at Atheist Revolution with a charming little post on “Nuh-uh. Your feelings; your fault.”
That makes it time, once again, to take a step back and remind ourselves what this whole fight is about.
Once upon a time, a bunch of people asked why there were so few women involved in the skeptical and secular movements. One of the answers, repeated by several women with minor variations, is that when when they had tried to participate, they were treated as–and sometimes told outright that they were–merely bodies. They were told, verbally or through the behavior of others, they lacked sufficient brains to handle the subject matter as well as the men in the room but that they could function just fine as receptacles of men’s sexual interest. Additionally, as objects of sexual interest, they were sometimes also told that their feelings on the matter–their consent–was beside the point.
Some of us stood up and said that this was unacceptable nonsense, unexamined prejudice and predatory behavior both using our movements inappropriately. We pointed out that women were already well-represented among those who were making a difference in these movements. We pointed out that we were excluding talent so that some small number of people could treat our movements as a personal playground.
This started as a fairly small number of people long before I can properly use the term “we” to describe this group. Recently, however, it’s grown much more quickly as people who used to shrug and say, “How bad can it be?”, got to see a part of the answer. Recently, the group has reached a size where, through numbers, through membership in various organizations, through a certain amount of “star” power attached to it, it has some clout. Additionally, it has done an increasingly good job of explaining what kinds of behaviors are both irrelevant to these movements and harmful to their growth.
Consequently, either through clout or through education, we have started to get some of the things we’ve asked for. We’ve gotten anti-harassment policies enacted in a large number of places. We’ve seen our concerns become the concerns of leaders and our input solicited on issues that may affect us. We’ve made real progress.
This, then, is the context in which these words are occurring. There is no group of random internet trolls who coincidentally all think it’s fun to take the piss, even if that’s what they say they’re doing. There is a network of slime pitters, vloggers, bloggers, and tweeters who come together and socialize around the fact that they harass us in all those various locations and commiserate over what monsters we are. Some of them are men’s rights “activists”. Some of them are feminists (yes, really). Some of them, many of them, are people who felt that the old way of doing things in these movements suited them just fine (for a large variety of reasons, not just because they were predators, though some of them were) and who resent losing control.
What brings them all together, however, is us and our success. And that tells you what nonsense this “just words” schtick is.
Can you call someone a “cunt” as an endearment? Sure you can, because what you’re telling them is that you still love them despite them being such an awful thing. That doesn’t change the meaning of the term, and it doesn’t mean you can hide behind affection when you use the word on someone on whom you’ve openly declared war.
That’s what these words are about, war on those of us who are persuading these movements to change. In this context, “cunt” is as blatantly, stupidly short-sighted an epithet as can be used. A woman called “cunt” is transparently being told that she is no brain and all sex, and it only gets more transparent when she’s fighting being treated as a dumb sex object.
It isn’t just the taboo associated with this word that has made “You’re a cunt” such a losing “argument” for those opposing making these movements more women-friendly. It’s that following, “I don’t show up because you treat me as a dumb sex object”, with, “Nuh-uh, cunt!”, merely reads as, “Nuh-uh. Here, let me prove your point for you.”
“Cunt” isn’t just a word. It’s a word used to tell me why I should be taken out of the war. “Cunt” tells me it’s because I’m the equivalent of a Fleshlight, so anything that comes out of my mouth (or fingers) is useless. “Pussy” does the same thing, but with that charming little allusion to helplessness. “Mangina” does the same thing for guys, with the added connotation that not having a penis is the real reason one should be knocked out of the public discussion.
“Hysterical” says I’m not a valid combatant because, while I may have a brain, my ladybits have completely taken it over. “Professional victim” says I’m not due the consideration that any “brave hero” on this battlefield is because my motives are not what I’ve declared them to be. “Emotional” tells me these I’m lined up against haven’t actually declared themselves my enemies and spent the last year-plus doing everything they could think of to take me out. I’m just imagining their hostility.
No, vjack, I’m not imagining anything. If you don’t see the declared hostility already, from a website that organized to oppose us and has the occasional discussion about how to do so more effectively to the people who have graced their followers with the screaming of their opinions of us, then I have to consider you willfully blind. You’ve seen plenty of this. For those who may not have, still, somehow, try this:
[Russell Blackford, responding on Facebook to a post by Lou Doench] Sorry, but I no have time for someone who whines about the so-called harassment of vicious bullies who vilify good people and destroy their reputations on a daily basis. The individuals this Doench person mentions as victims are exactly the ones who need to take the pledge. They and of course PZ Myers, who is the worst of all, as he’s called me a bold-faced liar and encouraged a forum where I can be called scum, a misogynist, etc., etc. Doench is part of the problem if he’s going to defend such people.
People like Doench need to understand that people like me are very angry for good reason. Every time I read something like this claptrap, I get that much angrier. Until I get an apology from Myers in particular, I will not let this drop.
What was he responding to?
Yes, Blackford ranted about having no time for someone who would get angry at the people who harassed us because if people understood Blackford’s position, they would not lose their temper at harassers. Sorry, “so-called harassers”–because it’s all been so carefully hidden away where Blackford couldn’t possibly see it.
So…emotional? Yes, I’m emotional. I’m angry. I’m annoyed. I am occasionally disgusted, as when someone like Blackford condones harassment. I’m happy and satisfied when I make some progress on these issues. So what?
Those are perfectly rational emotional responses to being harassed this way while watching the harassers continue to ignore the arguments I’ve made. There is no rational reason to expect me to be a lump of clay while the rest of the world goes about its emotional business–particularly when that emotional business is me or one of my friends or colleagues.
Yeah, about that: That thing that the slime pit does where they work hard at messing with my name (NSFW)? You know why they do it? Back in the day when the sexists were less organized, there was a great “tell” for guys who were working hard at patronizing or dominating me. They changed my name–in the middle of an argument, not friendly conversation–from “Stephanie” to “Steph”. One of the pit crew (John Welsh or John Greg, if I’m recalling correctly) decided that me pointing out that this was a tell meant that I was “neurotic” about my name.
That, of course, made it hilarious to use silly variations on my name–even out in the real world where it cost them credibility–because they thought I was upset by it. It didn’t. It just made the behavior into such an obvious tell (“Stefunny”? really, kids?) that I no longer had to point it out. But they never picked this up, because they thought these little words were damaging my emotional health. That was what they were going for. It was strategy.
I think that makes vjack’s point that we are responsible for our own emotional responses in these “petty squabbles”, even to the point of “consider[ing] professional assistance” obviously insulting enough in this context to go on without more explanation. I mean, it’s not as though Kryptonite is a weapon. It’s just an element. Superman should really take responsibility for avoiding it if he can’t handle it, or maybe see a professional. So what if he has to stop being a superhero?
vjack also just doesn’t “get” XYZ-shaming.
Accusations of [insert noun of your choice here]-shaming are rarely helpful because nobody else has the power to make us feel shame unless we give it to them.
vjack apparently thinks we live in a world in which we have just one social encounter at a time and that these never add up in some way to become those emergent entities we call “communities” and “cultures”. Here’s a nice little quote from an article on body-shaming kids that sums this up for his edification:
Instead, the messages children and their parents are taking away from the media is that it’s never too early to begin molding an kid like silly putty into a shape society sees as acceptable.
There are three important points to take away from this.
- XYZ-shaming doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Nobody is trying to shame me for having hazel eyes or liking dark chocolate. The things for which you can effectively try to shame me are limited. In this particular conflict, we’ve seen attempts at slut-shaming and prude-shaming (hilariously, both of the same person), fat-shaming, age-shaming (of both the young and old), poverty-shaming, disability-shaming, trans*-shaming, kink-shaming–just off the top of my head. Nobody shamed us because these were salient features of us. They did it because, in our culture, these are the acceptable targets.
- XYZ-shaming tells the victim they have something they need to go do instead of whatever they’re doing. They need to fix their “problem”. They need to have more or less or different sex. They need to lose weight or take steps to cover up their age or grow up or figure out how to earn more money or just get over their problems and act the same as everyone else.
- XYZ-shaming is just one more attempt to get us off the battlefield, to tell us or others that we are not acceptable and should not be taken seriously because we who are not acceptable to society should have no power to influence it.
Really? Nobody else has any power in XYZ-shaming? I’ve seen some silly things said about the current harassment, but that one gets a ridiculous number of basics wrong.
Then, back in the more general scheme of “just words”, there are the lies that get spread around. No, I didn’t sneer at Dawkins about him not enjoying “pushback”. No, Greg didn’t try to get Abbie Smith fired. No, Ophelia didn’t compare TAM to Nazi Germany. No, PZ didn’t ban anyone for being a white man. No, Rebecca didn’t call Elevator Guy a rapist. No, (to the best of my knowledge) none of us are carrying or have carried on sexual affairs with each other.
More “just words” that don’t address any of the arguments made by the people working for changes but still try to push those people off the battlefield. The whole strategy is a huge argument ad hominem, but as I’ve said before, it’s not much of a fallacy if it doesn’t serve to convince some people. Ditto for the tu quoque, where “You’re harassing, not arguing” is met with “Well, here’s a history of things that people on your side have said over the last six years.”
The funny thing is that having this argument over “just words” has resulted in lots of improvements in how people interact with one another. Even identifying the tu quoque, the people pushing for inclusion have learned a lot about how to practice what they preach. It has made us better, though certainly not perfect, to the point where their side now has to redefine “slur” to include “sexist” and “misogynist” in order to gin up equivalence.
Again, however, these are not mere words. The context of this fight is, again (because the post has gotten very long), that some of us are working to make the secular and skeptical movements more welcoming to the women who have told us that they’ve been driven away by sexist treatment. Identifying sexist and misogynistic behavior is central to fixing that. Redefining those identifications as unacceptable behavior would make it impossible to continue that fight. I daresay that’s exactly the point.
Why? Because all of these disagreements over words boil down to just that. You don’t need to be able to call me “cunt” in order to argue with my points. You may want to do it anyway if you think it will change whether I fight for what I want or interfere with my ability to do it well. It will certainly look more tempting if you can’t address the arguments effectively in the first place.
The last thing we’re doing right now is having an argument over what words are polite. This is an argument over who gets to participate in our movements. Don’t forget that for a minute. It’s the only light in which all of this makes sense.