Watch Your Mouth

Things are disappearing. Facebook posts calling people “pussies” have vanished! People with the clout to speak to Richard Dawkins and be heard are leaving some of their thoughts unsaid and unwritten for the fear (no exaggeration) that they’ll be arrested and tortured and punished, maybe even by death! Or because they’re not prepared to deal with being criticized. Either way.

Welcome to my world, guys, or at least a pale approximation of it.

It’s no secret that I’m a feminist and use my blog as a platform for activism, particularly on issues surrounding sexual harassment. What some people, particularly guys with jobs that give them some amount of power, don’t seem to understand about this is that I and everything I say are under constant scrutiny. Not only do people hold me accountable for every individual word I write, but they hold me responsible for every half-assed “gotcha” misreading of those words.

Is that fair? Well, it’s not charitable. It’s not diplomatic. It’s frequently anything but civil. It certainly doesn’t happen through private channels. Yet I never see any of the people who are now afraid going after the people who do this to me. For all these things have been set up as ideals, the people advocating for them are almost never to be found when people criticizing outspoken feminist women are ill-treated by these standards. They advocate for them only when they and their friends are the people being criticized.

Does their inaction over the last few years mean these guys now deserve to have to watch every word they say? Well, there’s an argument to be made that it would improve the discourse if they did. After all, calling people who explain why you’re wrong “emotional” and people who’ve fought a multi-year fight “pussies” doesn’t shed much light on anything. Are we worse off if people worry a bit more about the consequences of their words?

I’m not so concerned with whether more pre-publication contemplation and editing would be a net good, however. Why? Because I have very little control over whether it happens. I’m far more interested in how these men are coping with the discursive world they’ve built.

Make no mistake: This close watching of words, this small degree of tolerance—it didn’t originate with the progressive people holding leaders’ feet to the fire. This has long been a tactic for keeping the voices of marginalized people from being heard. When we say something effective or start to be listened to by people outside our own communities, the focus becomes our flaws, real, imagined or redefined into being.

We learn how to handle it. We ask each other to read our work and point out possible landmines or weak spots in our arguments. We double- and triple-check our facts. We create places and groups where we can express our petty frustrations and rant our rantiest rants to people who, presumably, won’t try to use those against us. We talk to each other about the consequences of being less than deferential in public. We choose our moments for public anger and make them count.

For me personally, it works, for some value of works. The civilitarians mostly leave me alone these days, though that means entirely alone. People who once pointed to me as some danger to public discourse just don’t point to me at all these days. Among those who can’t let go, except for those rare occasions when they get a hold of something they can quote mine, they’ve generally taken to calling me a propagandist (i.e., someone they don’t know how to argue against) or plain, old evil. I’ve gotten better at what I do, and they’ve disengaged.

It’s sort of like an improvement.

These guys don’t have to worry about that, at least not yet. They have positions that keep them from being ignored. Those of us who have been the targets of harassment campaigns have done a good enough job delegitimizing the obsessive types that their tactic of criticizing while refusing to engage with arguments hasn’t become trendy.

That constant close scrutiny, though? That accountability for every word from our mouths or keyboards? We didn’t fight those. We came up with ways to work around them instead, because it’s been made so very clear to us that these would always be standards that applied to our behavior when dealing with people of position and not to the behavior of the people who disagree with us. The people who watch us constantly, ever ready to pounce, aren’t the people who are told they’re dividing a movement. That’s always us.

That lack of charity or keeping disagreements hidden from the public eye? We’ve argued against too broad appeals to charity and privacy, pointing to their limitations, but we haven’t been nearly as effective at undermining those standards as the standards’ biggest public proponents. We weren’t the ones who compared an individual to a dictatorship, yelled in people’s faces about being civil, or passed along privately shared political concerns to our harassers as personal concerns. We weren’t the ones who applied these standards in a staggeringly uneven way to protect the powerful from the relatively powerless.

The people who did those were all people calling on us to be more charitable, more civil, to conduct more of our business quietly. They were all people of position. They were the ones with power behind their words, but more power behind their behavior. They all had opportunities to do things the private, charitable way. They all chose something else.

They set these standards. So it’s fascinating to watch some of these men of position realize that the standards apply to them now too, to watch them not merely advocate for another way, but take the kind of steps toward considering their words and protecting their privacy so many of us have had to take. Absolutely fascinating.

If you need tips, guys, you know who to ask.

Watch Your Mouth
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6 thoughts on “Watch Your Mouth

  1. 5

    But, but, being criticised is exactly the same as being burnt at the stake in Room 101 and then run out of town on a rail! It is! Really!

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