Language

“Microaggression”

I hate the expression “microaggression.”

Don’t get me wrong– I think the concept itself is important. The idea behind it is that it is often not large overt actions but a never-ending series of small slights and assumptions that keep people marginalized.

We should all try to be more aware of the little things that we might do that uphold unfair systems.

But I hate calling these behaviors “microaggressions” because calling it “aggression” assumes that the person who mis-genders someone, or makes the knee-jerk assumption that the woman is the secretary not the boss, is doing this purposefully in order to harm the other person and keep her in her place. It assumes that the speaker intends to uphold a system that marginalizes other people. They intend to harm you in order to assure their own elevated place. In the vast majority of cases this is not true. These are not microaggressions but microignorances.

Here is why I think this matters.  If you assume a person is behaving with a violent intent– that they mean to do you harm– there are only a couple of ways to respond. You can attack the enemy or you can wall them off and avoid them to avoid being attacked again.

Neither of these responses does anything to solve the problem of ignorance. In fact, if the other person feels attacked, it can have quite the opposite effect, causing them to write you off as an enemy and use that as evidence that their prejudices are justified.

I would like to share a moment from last night’s Equality Town Hall on CNN. This is presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who is gay, talking about finding common ground with people who have been taught that people like him are sinful.  (An attitude that actually goes beyond “micro” behavior to overt discrimination.) Buttigieg’s view is that faced with people who have a hard time changing their views “we are called to compassion. We are called on to seek out in one another what is best…”

This is what viewing the problem as ignorance rather than aggression looks like.

 

The Commodification of Time

I got to musing about time.

I was thinking about that wistful feeling when you think back on a book that you wrote, which meant a lot to you but which failed to set the world on fire. Thinking about the process of writing the expression “invested so much time” flitted across my brain.

I stopped to consider why was I using an economic metaphor to think about time? Time is something I “spend” or “invest.” I suspected that “invest time” was a modern expression and I checked the Google ngram viewer.

Invest Time Gif

As you can see, the expression “invest time” and its variants really gained traction in the 1960s and has been growing ever since. “Spend time” had a bit more use early on, but it seems to have grown with industrialization and really rocketed, along with the expression about investing time, in 1960.

Spend Gif

As I was born after 1960, I found it hard to come up with a comparable, older, expression to test against these. I drew a giant blank. The closest I came up with was to work for many years on something. This lacks the aspect of laboring over a period so it will pay off (another financial expression) later. Reap and ye shall sow.

What I’ve learned from all this pondering is that I find it surprisingly hard to break out of the frame of thinking of time as a precious commodity that can be spent or invested as one would budget a salary.

Maybe Arlo Guthrie has it right:

FFS Attn: NSFW

I want to take a moment for a mini-rant on my new “most hated expression.”

The fact that we’ve created an acronym for it makes us much more likely to use it and that, to choose an “I Love Lucy” word, is lousy.

This phrase is used mostly on Twitter to convey exasperation and utter contempt for someone else’s statement. But it is not usually directed at the writer of a tweet or blog post himself, rather it’s usually used when speaking about someone to an audience of presumably like-minded people. This way the audience can share outraged mockery of the person and/or their statement.

Oh FFS, is this the kind discourse we want to perpetuate?

The Christmas Spirit

evening public ledger dec 24 1921This 1921 news story, which I found posted on a blog called Strange Company, reminded me of something odd that happened this Christmas, which I hadn’t planned on mentioning. Frankly, I’m not sure I come out so great in this tale.

I woke up on Christmas morning and as is my habit when I first get up, I quickly checked my various communications media, my e-mail, Facebook and twitter feeds. I noted with passing interest that the topic of the day seemed to be that the president had made some claim about bringing back the phrase “Merry Christmas” and this inevitably had people declaring which side of the culture wars they were on.

In the comments on one post was something from a man (I assume) with an American flag image for his picture. For whatever reason, before I headed off to enjoy the time with my family, I responded to what I thought was an a-historical appeal to tradition by pointing out that the Puritans had outlawed the practice of Christmas in the early days. Not that it matters, but my point was that we Americans have never been entirely unified in our traditions around Christmas or anything else. (The whole “War on Christmas” thing is not really about history or tradition, but about declaring what segment of society ought to be treated as the default “real Americans” now.)

By now I was enjoying a house full of kids, parents, stockings and sweets. I noticed the notification when I took my phone out to snap a picture of the cousins in their Christmas light necklaces. This elicited three responses with far more capital letters than I thought necessary.  The general themes were that America was founded as a Christian nation and that I was an ignorant fool.  His replies made it clear that it was not the specific tradition of saying “Merry Christmas” but the notion of America as Christian that was important to him.

There is something about someone condescending to you that is hard to ignore, as much as you ought to. So I responded. I pointed out that I knew a fair amount about history and that I didn’t agree with his premise, but that it was Christmas and that I had family commitments and didn’t want to spend the day arguing about what text should be on the banners in shopping malls. I wished the stranger a “Merry Christmas.” I expected that we would agree to disagree.

The next time I took the phone out there was another condescending response beginning with LOL taunting me that the only reason I was leaving the discussion was that I knew he was right. He was determined to have the last word.

In spite of myself, as the kids tried to plunk out Christmas carols on the piano, I found myself getting aggravated. “Are you arguing that we should have an official state religion?” I wanted to ask.

But I stopped myself. We had driven 14 hours to be with our extended family for Christmas. Christmas is one day a year. Here we were together, and this annoying and senseless debate was intruding. What am I doing? What should I care if some person I don’t know or respect thinks he bested me? It’s Christmas!  I should never have commented to begin with. I deleted my original tweet and all the replies and blocked the stranger so there would be no temptation whatsoever to get drawn back in.

Isn’t it ironic (don’t you think?) that someone felt so strongly about keeping the “Merry Christmas” in Christmas that he was willing to spend Christmas day arguing with strangers about it?

 

Pronoun Trouble: Women…They

I have been experimenting with a different style of writing about women. Some time ago it struck me that when women speak about women we almost always use the word “they” to describe the group.

The reason we do this, I believe, is to take on the voice of an impartial observer. To say “women…they” is to say that I, for the purposes of this discussion, am not part of that group. I’m impartial. Now, I admit, men may also use a “men…they” construction to indicate that they are speaking about men in a collective abstract that doesn’t necessarily include the speaker as an individual. Yet, somehow, it feels different to me when women say “women… they.”

In doing so women make women “other” and reinforce the idea of maleness (or non-femaleness) as the default. People in the abstract are not women. Women are “they.” When I noticed this, I made a conscious choice to start writing “women…we” in these instances to see how it feels.

So far I am not sure that either construction is ideal. “Women…we” has a nice feel of solidarity, which can be powerful when speaking on women’s issues, but feels less empowering when you don’t want to individually be assumed to share the traits of all people of your gender. There is a risk of seeming to speak on behalf of women as a whole. On the other hand, not assuming that people are male unless they are differentiated as women…them… feels very good to me.

What do you think? Discuss.

 

“Me Too” Stories and Thoughts on “Vulnerability”

The “Me Too” campaign is about abuses of power in the workplace, but it brought an episode from my past to mind.

In France they have a word for a man who takes sexual pleasure in rubbing against people in public places. He’s called a frotteur. I didn’t know that when I was sixteen.

I was an exchange student in high school. I lived in a village outside of Paris. It was a short train ride and a metro line or two to get to my favorite place, an English-language bookstore on the Rue de Rivoli. I often went into the city on my own, and bought Smash Hits Magazine to look at pictures of Simon Le Bon and INXS.

One day I was in the metro, riding back to the train station, when a man took the handrail beside my seat. He stood close, and it seemed odd because the car was not that crowded. There was someone in the seat beside me, and I inched closer to him to make room for the standing stranger. As the car began to move, I felt him rubbing against me. My first thought was that it was the motion of the train that was causing him to bump me, and I scooted closer to my neighbor’s lap. The man in the aisle continued to rub against me, and I soon realized it had nothing to do with the motion of the train. He moved in waves, emphasizing the motion of his pelvis. I had never had sex, but I understood the motion was sexual. I curled inward towards the man on my other side, catching a glimpse of the stranger out of the corner of my eye. He had a sickening, satisfied grin on his face.

My stop was a ways down the line, but as soon as the car stopped moving I bolted for the door and ran to another line. I didn’t know where I was going– just away. As the next train arrived at the platform, the man came around the corner. I got onto one of the cars, hoping he had not seen me, but he followed, still grinning. I took a seat and began to cry. The man looked at me, surprised. He seems to have believed that I was enjoying his game. When he saw my tears, thankfully, he got off the train and left me to find my way back to my route in peace.

I never told anyone about the incident, but not for the reasons you might think. It was shocking, upsetting and gross but I did not feel humiliated or ashamed. I knew the pervert was the one with the problem, not me. I was just taking my train home. The reason I kept it secret was that I was afraid that if I told anyone I would not be allowed to go to the city by myself any more, which was something I liked doing.  I was afraid that because I had been treated in an abusive manner I would lose my freedom.

“In our society, we socialize women to be aware of threats, especially from strangers,” wrote Sally Raskoff in the Everyday Sociology blog. “Girls are kept closer than boys when they are playing outside. Women don’t tend to go out alone at night, and there are a host of other protective behaviors that constrain what they do on a daily basis. We are taught these things to stay safe. In general, men don’t learn these things and they don’t grow up thinking about how safe they are at any given moment.”

How often have we heard the expression “vulnerable women and children.”  We’re trained to think of ourselves as at risk, and that it is our primary duty to stay safe.

When we are victims, we are often blamed for not doing enough to protect ourselves. Why were you in that neighborhood? Why did you go with him after midnight? Why were you wearing that dress?

I once told a boyfriend about an unwanted advance I had received after having a couple of drinks with some friends and he said, “You silly girl.” (I didn’t stay with him long.)

These questions are posed by people who want to believe that if they do the right things violence will never happen to them. Avoid drinking with male friends. Avoid drinking. Avoid going out on your own. Avoid being out at night.

School authorities think they have to train girls to dress modestly. Girls are vulnerable and boys cannot be controlled.

Jennifer Drew had this to say on the British feminist site The F Word:

There is a buzzword circulating the legal, media and societal systems, and it is being used to deflect attention away from male accountability and responsibility for men’s violence against women and girls. What is this word? Why ‘vulnerability’, and we increasingly hear this word being used by judges when sentencing men convicted of raping or murdering women and girls. Prosecution council too depicts female victims of male violence as ‘vulnerable’ creatures. The media, politicians and society in general are all claiming acts of male violence are ones perpetrated upon vulnerable women or girls. But rarely have I heard or read male victims of male portrayed as vulnerable victims…women survivors of male violence are victims of the crimes these misogynist males commit. Therein lies the difference – not powerless victims but victims of crimes men commit against them…

This is something different from how we treat men and risk. If, for example, a young man decided to take a year off after high school and drive around South America on his own, he would be taking a risk. If something bad happened to him on that trip, it would be seen as unfortunate, maybe tragic, but it would be much less likely that he would be asked in an accusatory tone “Well, why did you go to that South American village anyway?”

Young men are encouraged to go on adventures, and the stories of some of their foolhardy and ill-fated adventures become dramas. Women, on the other hand, in the same period of life when men are being encouraged to take risks and experience the world, are constantly reminded of our vulnerability. The orientation at my college dorm was almost entirely about not getting raped.

This is all a great advantage to men when it comes to careers and life experience. They work on fishing trawlers, hitchhike across Europe, go mountain climbing. They have great stories to tell and our culture values them as more interesting people. They’re the subject of most of our fiction. They’re who we think of when we imagine people who do things.

You may be interested to learn that men are more likely than women to be victims in every category except for sexual assault. So you could say that with the exception of one particular category of violence, men are more vulnerable than women.

Sally Raskoff analyzed the threat of sexual violence and she concluded:

…Adult males are much more likely to be raped or assaulted by strangers while women’s threat comes primarily from their intimate partners. Considering this data, do we socialize men and women appropriately?

If we socialize girls and women to suspect strangers and people outside their families, does that work effectively to protect them since most of the real threat comes from people they know?

If we socialize boys and men to assume they are safe from outside threats, are they adequately prepared to protect themselves in childhood and adolescence from people they know and from strangers when they are adults?

 

I kept my secret. I’m sorry that I felt I had to stay silent to protect my own freedom, but I am glad that I didn’t miss out on more afternoons in Paris.

To Throw Oneself, Continued

seductionI decided to test my theory that “to throw oneself at” is a gendered phrase– that a woman can “throw herself at” a man, but a man is rarely said to “throw himself at” a woman.

The Oxford English Dictionary includes the phrase “to throw oneself at” and it defines it as referring to a woman:

to throw oneself or be thrown at (a man), of a woman, to put herself or be put designedly in the way of, so as to invite the attention of; to throw oneself into the arms of, to become the wife or mistress of.

Here are some of the early appearances:

1789 H. More Lett. (1925) 127 The women all threw themselves at his head.

1871 E. A. Freeman Hist. Norman Conquest IV. xviii. 231 Their wives were throwing themselves into the arms of other men.

1891 Besant in J. M. Dixon Dict. Idiomatic Eng. Phrases (1891) 336 As for the girls, Claire, they just throw themselves at a man.

So women have been flinging themselves for a while.

When I did a search on Google Books of “threw herself at,” of the ten snippets that appeared, six used “threw herself” in the sense of making a sexual or romantic advance on a man. When I did a search of “threw himself at” none of the snippets used the phrase in that way.

I don’t have the means at my disposal to be as scientific as Blatt, but given the limits of my research, I think I can confirm my hypothesis for the purposes of this blog.

I mentioned in my previous post that she “threw herself at him” has a different connotation and feeling than he “made a pass at her.” A pass seems to be a sport metaphor. You throw the ball, and the other person can catch it or drop it.

As for the origin of “make a pass at” in this sense, The OED didn’t have a lot to say, only noting that it is an Americanism and quoting Dorothy Parker’s famous “Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses” from 1925 as its first use in print.

This was probably not the first use of the phrase, Parker assumed her readers would know what she meant. It is interesting, however, that a man making a pass at a woman was, in its first recorded appearance in print, presented as desirable.

Men don’t welcome having a woman “throw herself” at him. In the examples in my limited and unscientific sample of Google books, it is most often used by a man as an excuse to his wife in order to minimize his responsibility in an affair. Inherent in the notion of “throwing oneself” is that it is at least undignified and humorous, if not outright shameful and humiliating. It is not worthy of a woman to “put herself designedly in the way of” a man. If she does, it is really not the man’s fault if he yields to the temptation, and anyway the woman is no threat because she is obviously not the kind of woman he would want to have a relationship with. Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses, but Girls who make passes are embarrassing asses.

Cue up a chorus of The Monkees Cuddly Toy…