Choosing to be silent | Being barred from speaking

we-realizeDuring the question-and-answer session following a talk on identity politics at the UCT Philosophy Society earlier this month, a student asked me if I agreed that outsiders to a particular cause should remain silent, in order to let those who are proximate to the issue express themselves.

My answer was, in short, that it’s not that simple. The suggestion – or sometimes, demand – that “outsiders” remain silent is not only sometimes incoherent in terms of how it defines insiders and outsiders, but also incoherent in how it can apply a very peculiar standard to what’s worth listening to and what is not.

In any area of knowledge, we accept that some people know more than others, but it’s rare that we disallow those without expertise to contribute or ask questions. In fact, doing so is part of the way in which they learn, and perhaps become experts themselves.

It would be irrational to say to a philosophy student, for example, that you can’t discuss logic until you’ve learned symbolic notation. Yet, this sort of contraint is sometimes applied in discussions on things like race and gender, where questions from persons who are not-X are declared out of order, because of their not-X’ness.

As I repeatedly emphasised, this is a separate issue from another important issue, namely that the not-X person should often choose to remain silent, because they know that they have dominated a conversation for too long, have set the terms of debate, and have themselves ruled the concerns of the X’s as out of order for as long as the X’s can remember.

To put this crisply: I can imagine that there are times where, for the sake of trying to eliminate historical biases, not-X’s should often shut up, perhaps even for a long time. Or, they should be very selective in terms of how they contribute to conversations.

This is a separate issue from their independent epistemic authority, though, and the device of shutting up is a strategy for getting to a situation where words and arguments can one day matter, rather than who is speaking mattering most of all.

At my university, I’ve heard of a few instances where people have not been allowed to speak because they are not X. That’s usually wrong, even if it’s sometimes right that they choose not to speak. The distinction is important, and is largely forgotten in these emotive debates.

I choose not to speak (publicly) on many of the things that go on at UCT, especially during the current political debates.

And I would be very reluctant to speak on what’s happening at other universities such Rhodes, Stellenbosch, or Wits, exactly because I see how misinformed outsider comment on UCT is – a criticism extending even to some of the more thoughtful commentators in South Africa.

Choosing not to speak can also extend to being careful of what you say, of course – it’s far too often the case that a joke or idle observation gets taken up by people whose politics you don’t support, because they assume you’re on their side.

For example, when I tweeted about this story of Khoisan activists being arrested for smashing a bench, it was to highlight the fact that the bench should in all likelihood never have been built and that, more to the point, the aggrieved parties were probably never consulted on how best to honour the person the bench was meant to honour.

Just like the Rhodes statue at UCT, we now realise it should never have been there in the first place – and any condemnation of action/activism against it has to acknowledge that as the instigating harm, regardless of what follows.

Predictably, the tweet resulted in people whining about destruction of public property, lack of respect for the rule of law and so forth.

Of course it’s in general wrong to destroy public (or private) property, and of course it’s in general right to respect the law.

But sometimes, the failure to do so isn’t the most important part of the story, and you demonstrate your lack of sympathy and understanding for what is the most important part of the story by focusing on that.

As I say, you should be allowed to do so. But it’s an entirely separate issue whether you should or should not choose to do so, and more of us should pay attention to the second issue, more of the time.


Gender-based violence and apophenia

Earlier today, my friend @kelltrill said

and this led to a little bit of to-and-fro between her and some others who seemed to think it somehow obvious that if Oscar Pistorius had intentionally killed Reeva Steenkamp, it would have to be classified as gender-based violence. Now, that might be typical usage of the phrase gender-based violence. But if it is, I’d like to suggest to you that it’s wrong, and lazy, to speak of cases like this (i.e. a man killing a woman) as axiomatically gender-based.

Steenkamp & PistoriusNone of what I say here is intended to minimise or trivialise the fact that women are overwhelmingly more likely to be the victims of domestic assault by their partners than men are. There are hundreds of things I could link you to, but the evidence is so overwhelming that there’s no need – you can easily find something yourself. (And in case any MRA’s happen to wander past here, no, I’m not saying that men aren’t sometimes victims of various forms of discrimination themselves.)

Furthermore, I’m quite happy to regard this case as at least in part an instance of gender-based violence (on the assumption, for the sake of argument, that Pistorius intended to shoot Steenkamp). I’m happy to do so because Pistorius fits a classic alpha-male stereotype – proud, strong, with a history of short-temperedness and violence. The stereotype might not fit or be fair, but I’m disclosing it to wall it off, in that this case in particular is not my focus – I want to instead address the use of that generalisation (gender-based violence), with the case as a springboard for doing so.

The mere fact that a victim is female (or whatever) does not mean that the violence can be described as whatever-based. If Pistorius knew that he was shooting Steenkamp, then – obviously – the most fitting label for this action is Steenkamp-based violence, where Steenkamp is also a woman.

Even if it’s true (as it is) that more men abuse and kill their female partners than vice-versa, Pistorius can’t be known to have been more likely to shoot Steenkamp than he would be to shoot anyone else who he was ill-disposed to, or where he could benefit from doing so.

If a person had a history of violence against a certain sex, race, nationality or whatever, the generalisation has more merit – but before establishing whether those facts hold, we shouldn’t jump from a) the existence of a general culture of violence against X to b) the conclusion that a particular instance of violence against X fits that pattern.

I’ve argued something similar in a post about “Satanic” killings, where while it’s easy to generalise, doing so can obscure important details about motivation and how we should respond (for example, that psychiatrists might be more useful commentators than ghostbusters like Kobus Jonker).

The same danger of over-generalising in a confounding sort of way could occur with a murder or assault that is perpetrated across races – in South Africa, entrenched distrust between races could (more in some parts of the country than others) explain the motivations behind a murder, but they can’t be assumed to do so.

Take Eugene Terre’Blanche as an example: yes, he was a white supremacist, but the farmworkers who murdered him might have done so because he was also an abusive employer, or a rapist (as the murderers alleged). So while you could call that an instance of race-based violence, doing so would (or, could) distract from more pertinent details.

In short, what I’m arguing is that we should be careful of affixing convenient labels to events or people, even if they are often true. Harriet Hall has a review of an interesting-looking new book on critical thinking on Science-based Medicine, where I was introduced to a useful idea I hadn’t encountered before. It’s called apophenia, and

It means the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena, the tendency to find personal information in noise, seeing patterns where there are none, the kind of subjective validation that cold reading exploits.

To recap: I don’t dispute that gender-based violence is a real thing, and a real problem. But to call every instance of violence across genders (usually male on female) an example of gender-based violence is hyperbolic, in that it might be a judgement that claims more than what the evidence tells us.

This, in turn, could be problematic, not only because it’s a simple instance of laziness in not making fine discriminations regarding what data can tell us, but also because the more things you fit into a category, the more diluted that category might become.

It’s precisely because gender-based violence is such a real thing, and is such a problem, that we might want to be more cautious about affixing that label to cases that it might not fit.

Gendered epithets: Short-term battles vs. long-term wars

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

This Saturday, September 24, Slutwalk comes to Johannesburg, and thousands will participate to protest victim-blaming and to affirm the right of all women to wear what they want, and act as they please, without fear of being misunderstood as welcoming sexual assault.

Many will participate dressed in clothing that might be considered sluttish – in the traditional sense of the word – because part of the point of Slutwalk is to reclaim the word ‘slut’ and to say that others (rapists, as well as those who deny women agency in less violent ways) don’t have the authority to impute desire where none might exist.

As I’ve previously argued in the lead-up to the Cape Town Slutwalk, calling these protests Slutwalks runs the risk of alienating some supporters who see the word ‘slut’ as inescapably pejorative. It also runs the risk of creating tension between those sympathetic to the cause, but divided on the appropriateness of the name.

In fact, one unfortunate consequence has been that some who question the name are thereby assumed to be unsympathetic to the cause, despite their reasons for objecting to its branding. The equation has sometimes appeared quite simple: Object to the name, and thereby reveal yourself as (at best) only partially aware of the deep-seated patriarchy and resulting lack of understanding experienced by many (probably most) victims of rape.

Another example of this easy equation is highlighted by my previous sentence, where I use the word ‘victim’. Criminal agents have recently violated my home, three times in the space of a month. That makes me (and my family) a victim of their crimes. To call those who are victims of crimes ‘survivors’ instead of victims is a choice, not an obligation – it can signal a certain attitude or mindset, but we start playing very fast and loose with language when choosing not to use that signal is taken as indicating a lack of sympathy.

Words mean something, and they can have consequences. One way to be help being clear about potential consequences is to agree on definitions and to allow for the fact that increased miscommunication – and misattribution of motive – becomes increasingly likely if we can revise those definitions as we please. This particular slippery slope concludes with a world of Humpty Dumptys, all asserting that “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

Slutwalks have such momentum, and have achieved such significant consciousness-raising and debate, that even those who oppose the name need to acknowledge that they probably do more good than harm. I’d therefore like to appeal to a post-Slutwalk consideration of how we engage with such issues and causes in future – and in particular a consideration of whether gendered epithets like ‘slut’ merit a place in our discourse around social activism.

Besides the debates around whether (ostensibly neutral) designators like ‘Chairman’, personal pronouns like ‘he’ or words like ‘mankind’ perpetuate a gender bias, gendered epithets constitute another class of words that reveal a bias in our language and behaviour. Apologies to sensitive readers, but there are quite simply far more negative words used to describe women than there are to describe men.

‘Bitch’ is a mild example – not only because it’s sometimes used in reference to men, but also because it has been stripped of much of its sexist content in usages such as ‘to bitch about Arsenal’s defence’. But ‘cunt’, ‘twat’ or ‘whore’ have a visceral impact and malice that ‘cock’ or ‘prick’ lack. And then there is the word ‘pussy’, which, while applied mostly to men, is intended to accuse that man of being weak – just like a woman.

The primary question is really this: Why do these words not get the same attention and attract the same outrage as the words ‘nigger’ or ‘kaffir’? While I do believe that it’s possible to use all these words for effect – in humour, or to make a point about racism or sexism – most usages of them are instead in anger, and intended to silence or demean the target.

These expressions of contempt or hostility use words that are linked to a race or a gender, and as I’ve suggested above, that race is often black and that gender is often female. But while the racist versions of these slurs are unquestionably considered unacceptable, the sexist versions operate in a context where misogyny is so deeply entrenched that it can escape notice.

As Phil Molé argues in ‘The Invisibility of Misogyny’:

It’s not just the fact that misogyny is invisible that we need to face – it’s also the fact that this invisibility is a large part of what makes it the enormous problem it is. We cannot begin to properly address misogyny and the harm it causes unless we start being able to see it.

One aspect of seeing misogyny is perhaps recognising that words can be used to harm, and that when those harmful words are linked to race or gender, existing stereotypes regarding those races and genders can also be reinforced. Even if you use these words without holding sexist and racist attitudes, you can have little control over how your target perceives them, and the hurt they might cause.

In the context of this weekends’ Slutwalk, these targets include those women who have been subjected to hostility through being called a slut, and who find themselves unable to see the word as anything other than demeaning.

Furthermore, we sometimes forget other audiences – the genuine racists and sexists, who could overhear casual uses of such epithets, and interpret this to mean that their position is more broadly supported than is actually the case.

So while I can believe that the Slutwalk does more good than harm – and while I fully understand the point of calling it Slutwalk in the first place – I worry about how to reconcile it with the broader issue of how language can be used to reinforce misogyny. I imagine that many self-described feminists agree with me on sexist epithets in general, understanding them to be a subtle way of reinforcing negative attitudes towards a particular sex.

And if, in a few months or years time, a campaign is launched and marches are held to get people thinking about whether it’s appropriate to call someone a cunt, might it perhaps be the case that we’ll have little answer to someone who retorts “you’re simply missing the point to find ‘cunt’ offensive – why not simply reclaim it, just like you did with ‘slut’?”

Also read this interesting exchange initiated by Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels, which prompted many of the thoughts expressed above.