Measured Extravagance

2001-03-29 - 1:20 a.m.

A friend of mine asked me to clarify the "Content-trumps-intent" claim I made last night.

To give an example of what I was thinking: A pro-PC extremist might argue that if you address a woman as "baby," you are automatically guilty of thinking of her as someone helpless and child-like, whether you consciously regard her that way or not. It doesn't matter what you intended to say with that word, what matters is that you used that word and that it carries those associations. In other words, onlythe content of the word matters.

On the other hand, an anti-PC extremist would argue that the word "baby" doesn't mean anything at all - that a woman who makes any judgments based on hir use of the word is leaping to unwarranted conclusions. Or, to use a different example, the word "faggot." I know people who aren't homophobic in general belief or practice, but who nevertheless don't hesitate to curse people they dislike as "faggots" simply because the word is commonly used in a perjorative manner.

In the first case, it's viewed as the speaker's problem when the content of a word overrides their intentions. In the second case, the blame is placed wholly on the listener if their understanding and/or associations of a word are different than that of the speaker's.

By making fun of me for referring to myself as a "chick," the conservative twit I mentioned in yesterday's account was actually confirming that words aren't just words, and that they _do_ have associations - in doing so, supporting the PC premise that one cannot jettison a word's historical/social baggage just because one doesn't consider it part of one's own personal baggage.

What the baggage consists of is a whole 'nother story, of course. The question then becomes how much responsibility the speaker and the listener/reader can be expected to bear. While I generally try to give people the benefit of the doubt, I'm nevertheless unwilling to place all responsibilty for interpretation on the reader/listener. The person who uses the word "faggot" as a perjorative didn't intend to come across as thoughtless and boorish, but I do consider it asking too much of me not to draw that conclusion (or worse) when anyone other than a gay man uses that label so casually and so carelessly. While I generally try to give people the benefit of the doubt, I can't help drawing conclusions about the level (or lack) of respect/common ground we have based on how they addres me: It's perfectly fine with me when a drag queen accepting my tip croons, "Thanks, baby"; it's a different interaction - and thus a different reaction - for a professional acquaintance to call me "baby" instead of "Ms. Duthie." I'm aware that he may not be trying to insult me, but that isn't going to stop me from feeling that it reflects poorly on him all the same (along the same lines, I can accept that there are people who fail to write thank-you notes even though they do indeed seem grateful and appreciative when they receive gifts or kindnesses from their friends; nonetheless, I'm still going to harbor the conclusion that their mommas didn't raise 'em right and that they don't truly care...)

In spite of self-identifying as a feminist, I do understand the resistance some of my friends have voiced re labelling - after all, I'm keenly aware of the marginalizing effects of labels. To give but one example, it's no secret that I'd much rather be immortalized (if immortality be in the cards) as "Mechaieh, the writer" than "Mechaieh, the Asian-American writer" or "Mechaieh, the bisexual writer" or "Mechaieh, the female writer" - not that I necessarily object to the latter three in and of themselves, but I hope you'll agree that they hardly represent the sum of me. You do see why I'd find the simplest description the most flattering, yes?

To some degree, I do understand how the word "feminist" conjures up visions of raving hydras storming around with masking tape and machetes. On the other hand, I also sometimes resent that my feminist-based assumptions get dismissed out of hand because people don't or cannot believe that it was possible for me to grow up with a rational and egalitarian model of feminism. This doesn't quite strike me as fair, but I'll confess that it takes me a significant amount of mental effort not to pre-judge born-again Christians based on the rhetoric/actions of the Christian Coalition - I figure that to be a good parallel to when someone tells me they'll never take NOW seriously because of Catherine Mackinnon or her ilk.

Put another way, it's one thing when someone I already know and respect tells me they're not a feminist, because I have a context for evaluating their rejection of the term. On the other hand, if someone I don't know declares that they're not a feminist, I am going to assume that they're anti-equality, because those were the majority of anti-feminists I encountered growing up. (If I may hijack a phrase from Bujold, being raised in Eastern Kentucky does certain things to one's brain, and some of them aren't very nice.) I feel that it's no less valid for me to do so than it is for those who automatically associate feminists with lunatics - not very nice of me/them, but not really avoidable, either. Ultimately, I don't see how, being human, we can prevent ourselves from forming working conclusions until presented (or confronted) with sufficient evidence to steer us otherwise.

Along the same lines, however, I feel I ought to venture the notionthat labels do have their positive aspects, particularly in that they can be a useful sort of shorthand when locating/establishing common ground. I don't think people should be badgered into disclosing their affiliation(s), orientation(s), ancestry(-ies), etc. if they don't feel it's relevant wrt their own lives...but these areas _are_ often fertile ground for bonding. This isn't to say that I automatically like or respect every self-proclaimed feminist I meet - I've fled from several hydras myself - but with several of my friends, "feminist" served as shorthand for "safe to rant to this person about current president/legislation," "person likely to appreciate certain >books/authors," "person who's probably heard of the Guerilla Girls," etc. My non-feminist friends don't necessarily lack these qualities, but it is a relief to fix upon such clues when one is striving to make or sustain a connection.

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