Reading In …

One of the issues people have had with feminism — and still do have — is that it has a tendency to read in sexist intentions and interpretations even when there really isn’t any evidence of that. Ophelia Benson has a post up at Butterflies and Wheels that is a prime example of this. She’s talking about what Michael Kelly said about Senator Ivana Bacik, where he called her shrill, and Benson says:

Michael Nugent points out a classic example of the special rules by which what would be an utterly normal tone of voice and wording and manner in a man get called “shrill” when it’s a woman speaking. The woman is Senator Ivana Bacik, asking questions at the parliamentary hearings on abortion law. She speaks firmly, and with an edge, but not the least bit “shrilly.” But hey, she’s a woman, and she’s talking firmly and with an edge to men. Must be shrill. Stands to reason.

First, I decided to look up the definition of the word “shrill” to see what could be meant here. I, and at least some commenters, thought it meant this:

1. sharp and high-pitched in quality

Which you could make a case for that being something that you might use against a woman in a sexist manner, since their voices are generally higher-pitched and the higher-pitched a voice is the more hysterical it seems in popular culture, but then I came across this definition in the thesaurus:

2. shrill – being sharply insistent on being heard; “strident demands”; “shrill criticism”

Now, it’s clear that she didn’t fit into the first definition, but it’s at least debatable whether she fits into the second. Which, then, did he mean? The title is “We can’t be cowed by shrill voices” which makes a bit of a link to the voice, but in the actual article he says:

Shrill caricatures have no place in mature debates.

And that’s clearly referring to something like shrill criticism, which is definition 2, and so it is reasonable, then, to conclude that he was using that definition in the title as well. Now, if a man had said something like she said, do you really think that he wouldn’t have called that shrill caricature as well? Benson has absolutely no evidence that he wouldn’t, because it isn’t in what he said — or at least quoted — at all. She’s reading it in to what he’s saying, and thus declaring that his use of the word or his discussion is sexist based on nothing more than what she brings to the work, not on what he himself actually brought to it. This is not good when you are criticizing him and people like him for something that you have no evidence they are actually doing, consciously or no.

And then she moves on to that “mature” part:

He makes her a child, too, and one who has no place in parliamentary hearings (despite the fact that she’s a Senator).

Well maybe Michael Kelly divides humanity into two types: potential priests, and shrill babies.

Okay, now, remember how in that whole Michael Shermer thing there was a whole distinction between saying that someone has done something sexist and calling them a sexist? This has been a major thrust of Atheism+ arguments. So how, then, does Benson feel justified in saying that he makes her a child as opposed to the far more likely he thought her questions were immature? Add in the vague comment about dividing humanity into potential priests and shrill babies and it looks like she’s saying that he divides the world into men and women, where men are to be taken seriously and women are to be dismissed. But nothing in what she quoted in any way even remotely suggests that. Now, I’m not going to say that he doesn’t do that, because I don’t know enough to say for sure. But I don’t need to. All I need to do is point out that she’s making claims about him and the debate that she doesn’t have the evidence for, and they only seem reasonable to her because she’s reading quite a lot into the statements … things that, of course, may not actually be there.

In “The Empire Strikes Back”, when Luke asks what is inside the cave Yoda answers “Only what you take with you”. Is it possible that a lot of the sexism that people see in the world is not in the world, but is in what they impose on the world? I have always believed that if you go looking for sexism or racism or any other similar sort of ism, you’ll find it … even if it really isn’t there. This isn’t to say that they don’t exist and aren’t real problems; they do and they are. But my challenge is to the presumption that you can easily see it, and that our perceptions of it are always accurate. Just as some people’s perspectives mean that they don’t see it when it is really happening, it is also quite possible that some people’s perspectives mean that they see it when it really isn’t happening. We are all, at the end of the day, in some ways slaves to our own perspectives, and one should always try to step outside of that to some kind of objective ground when evaluating these things to avoid making the mistake of reading something into a situation that comes from us and not from the situation itself.


2 Responses to “Reading In …”

  1. Crude Says:

    You know, this reminds me of how I’ve been seeing a recent comic (Sinfest) has apparently taken a turn for a very heavy, lecturing feminist presence. So heavy that for a while people thought it was almost intentionally mocking, but now they think that the author is serious.

    What struck me was that at one point, the main feminist character converted another girl to her point of view by putting on some glasses (a la They Live), and suddenly she was able to see all the patriarchal, women-oppressing messages in almost literally everything surrounding her. So now that character is a hair-cut-short feminist, etc.

    What I thought would have been interesting is seeing this play out for a while, then eventually to have someone hand her another pair of glasses that revealed racism everywhere. Then another pair of glasses that revealed pro-feminism everywhere. Then another, then another… until finally she figured out that, while there were real problems, one big problem was the damn glasses.

    I’ll also note that this came up recently with Borderlands 2 (since you’re a gaming sort, you may know that) and how Tiny Tina has been criticized as a racist character.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I noticed that about Sinfest, actually, and it’s kinda ruining the strip for me (it used to be one of my favourites, especially with the Fuschia/Criminey arc). What I liked about it originally was that it tended to mock all sides of the debates roughly equally; they mocked religion through Seymour, but also gave him some good scenes at the expense of the opposition. If this latest feminist arc had had more of that, that would have worked better, but it’s so very, very heavy-handed that it even seems to be derailing the main characters to get the point across.

      And with the new devil girl they introduced, and with Monique’s fan girl, he could easily have brought out the issues without beating us over the head with them or turning Slick into nothing more than a parody of a sexist male. Sure, he was always sexist, but he hinted at there being more there and him and Monique being genuine friends. That seems to be completely lost now.

      I do like your approach, though.

      As for Borderlands 2, I hadn’t heard that, but I think I won’t take it seriously until Shamus Young weighs in one way or the other [grin].

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