gender, language, other topics, politics

Oof!

 

That is exactly how I am feeling – not so much because of the New Hampshire Democratic results themselves (which were what might have been expected), but because of the interesting responses to them from the media and other savants.

 

I feel as if I have been punched hard in the solar plexus, and I am not happy.

 

I feel that way because of many responses to both Clinton’s loss, Clinton herself, and a couple of remarks made by her female supporters and surrogates, responses that, in a rational universe, would make no sense at all. Actually, even in the universe we currently inhabit, they make no sense at all. Unless.

 

Unless what? Unless they are coping (none too well) with the threatened advent of powerful women.

 

Clinton and her female supporters function as surrogates for all women who hold a scintilla of power, influence, or authority. But the outrageous responses have their merits: I see them as a means of understanding the treatment strong women have received forever, and the meager support they have received from other women. We need to understand this before it is too late, though it may already be too late.

 

Ready? Let’s go.

 

Clinton’s candidacy has brought into the light of day all kinds of dark, slimy, evil things that we would prefer stay hidden in the muck: the misogyny, the sexism, the fear, the neediness that have plagued us all since our species came out of the trees, if not before. When they emerge, we greet them with sighs of relief. The media and their friends, who speak on our behalf, greet them with glee and delight, as saviors, as in fact they are, for the world as they want it to continue.

 

Cases in point are the savaging of two Clinton supporters, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, and Gloria Steinem. They have in common that the victims are female; that they are identified as pro-Clinton; and that they are of a certain age (Albright is 78, Steinem 80).

 

Both recently made public statements about younger women who were supporting Sanders rather than Clinton. Albright: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” Steinem, asked why younger women were favoring Sanders: “When you’re young, you’re thinking, you know, ‘Where are the boys?’ The boys are with Bernie.”

 

These rather innocuous statements received and continue to be the recipients of an incredible amount of incandescent rage. Just about every public person, male and female, has weighed in expressing outrage de profundis. I don’t just mean the Republicans, from whom we should expect it; but from card-carrying liberals (and therefore, presumably, feminists) including Mark Shields (the official liberal on the PBS NewsHour), and Katrina vanden Heuvel, publisher of the staunchly left-wing The Nation, not even to mention Frank Bruni, in his February 10 New York Times op-ed.

 

Here, for example, is Bruni who, despite his erudition, shows a curious plodding literalism in his interpretation:

 

[Albright] more or less told women that they’re damned if they’re not on Hillary Clinton’s team.

No, she didn’t, even “more or less.” But by reading Albright’s ironic statement as if it were part of a Jonathan Edwards sermon, he manages to make Albright seem both stupid, old-fashioned, and out of it.

 

Shields, on the February 9 NewsHour, argued that Albright and Steinem were “scolds” and “shamers,” terms that have become practically Homeric epithets for female Clinton supporters over the last few days. Steinem contritely apologized (as women will – but should she have?). Both have been repeatedly accused of playing “the gender card.” But what if anything is “the gender card”? Is it, perchance, merely having the effrontery to suggest that the playing field is not level, and women have some responsibility to fix that for ourselves? Worse, both women have been charged with “misplaying the gender card” – a double whammy.

 

The inability of public intellectuals to drop the story is the story. Their dyspepsia over a few words is telling. The fact that women are listened to and responded to with prejudice is amply illustrated in these incidents, which we pooh-pooh at our peril. That these cases of orchestrated misogyny are surfacing now, as the election of 2016 gets real, with a new virulence should not surprise anyone.

 

Here for your delectation is a short list of the ways in which the dialectics of misogyny twist and distort women’s utterances, especially those in support of women, thereby discouraging all women from speaking in public especially in support of women.

 

Overinterpretation

Worst-case interpretation

Hyperliteralism

Stupidization

Shaming and blaming

Instructing women on How to Talk (and How Not To)

 

All of these function as ways to keep control over that which makes us human above all else, language, by telling women, overtly or not, that we can’t talk because we’re not really human. Salvation is at hand, to enable us to speak properly and approach a bit closer to human status. But we have to be obedient.

 

Bruni exemplifies the tendency to overinterpret what women say, to make more of our utterances than we intended, or to take seriously what was meant as ironic or playful. To explicitly interpret a sane adult’s utterance at all is to imply that the speaker was neither sane nor adult, and therefore had to be made sense of. Then, too, the overinterpreter often takes the utterance out of the speaker’s possession or control, by telling her (and the world) what she must have meant. Thus he has made it his.

 

Related is the worst-case interpretation. Very often people say things without first considering all the possible understandings of what they have said, in every imaginable context besides the one in which it was uttered. And normally, we don’t sift through our interlocutor’s remarks looking for the worst possible meaning it could have and openly charging them with it. If we did, we could not survive very long as a social species: we have to cut one another some slack.

 

But consider, in particular, the way Albright’s comment has been taken. It has been attacked and derided as “sexist,” and she as a “scold” and a “shamer.” Albright was, in other words, shamed and blamed by being called a shamer and a scold. Her comment was understood as though she had meant to say something like, “If you are female and don’t support Hillary, you are a bad woman and will literally go to hell.”

 

She did not say that. She did not mean that. To insist that she did is to be a scold, a shamer, and a sexist yourself (the last because no man has ever been subjected to this kind of language abuse).

 

Here’s what I think she was getting at: Because sexism and misogyny are rampant, women who want true gender equality have a special responsibility (because men won’t do this for them, and in fact shouldn’t be expected to). Virtuous people strive for equality; virtuous women in particular have the responsibility to strive for gender equality, for themselves and for all other women. Women are others, historically excluded from power and influence; while white males don’t have to support other white males, because they already have all the power they need (and yet they do support one another), women, people of color, and other others have this obligation if they believe in equity. So it isn’t “sexist” to suggest that women have this duty; it is simply the way it is in the world we currently inhabit. It isn’t “playing the gender card,” i.e. using one’s gender to achieve unfair advantage. It is recognizing that gender difference creates inequality, and those most disadvantaged by it most need to change it. It is referring openly to gender discrimination in the hope that, by bringing it to light, it can be mitigated.

 

To understand Albright’s statement as sexist, scolding, or shaming is a form of overinterpretation, worst-case interpretation, and hyperliteralism, and the pundits who have been doing so should be embarrassed to reveal themselves as yahoos.

 

But the remarks of the official explainers pale in their nastiness to those of readers commenting in the print media. Not only were almost all virulently negative, several referred to Albright (as they often do to Clinton) as a “harridan” and a “shrew.” These are words only applicable to women, and more specifically to older women. These comments (also directed at Steinem) make it clear that the purported attacks on what she said are really attacks on who she is – a woman of a certain age, and therefore beyond sexuality and therefore of no interest to those in power. So ageism is playing a role here.

 

Steinem was trying to point out (perhaps inartfully; she was ad-libbing) not that younger women are sex-mad ditzes (as the remark has universally been interpreted), but that young women are prodded into sexuality by the media. Being young, they have not had enough experience in the world to ignore these messages. These messages warn the young to gather their rosebuds while they may: they have the power of their sexuality only in their earliest youth, and when they are Clinton’s age, they will have lost it and be objects of pity and loathing (as the comments indicate). Younger women are also too young to have had the chance to develop a positive identity based on anything other than their sexual allure: they have not yet held a responsible job, formed deep satisfying relationships with men and other women, or raised children. Steinem is right to suggest that younger women want to be “where the boys are,” not because they are hot little foxes, but because where the boys are is where the power is, and they want acceptance and approval from that locus of power. They will, as Steinem suggests, learn better in time, but they are not there yet. Young women want to be “where the boys are” because they are smart enough to see that if they go elsewhere, they will be exiled from life’s pleasures and shamed allng with the “shrews” and “harridans.”
So neither Albright’s nor Steinem’s comments were sexist, or misogynist, or scolding, or shaming, but rather rueful expressions of profound truths that too many women are unwilling to face. And because knowing these truths might set us free, they are profoundly threatening to those who would not like to see full female emancipation, so they attack with ferocity. And too many of us, including women of influence, believe what they hear from those whose admiration they think they need. The scathing attacks on women who offer a clearer vision encourage young women not to grow up to emulate strong and powerful older women like Steinem, Albright and Clinton. It’s just too scary.

 

There’s another odd thing about the media’s savage unified response: it’s uncharacteristic. The majority of media savants normally lean toward the middle, not the extremes, which they as holders of conventional power reasonably find threatening. This comfort in the center is the basis of their analyses of the Republican campaign: they lean toward Kasich, Rubio, and Bush and only very reluctantly admit that Cruz and even Trump might be the eventual winners. But on the Democrat side, quite unusually, they are spinning a different narrative: they lean strongly toward Sanders. Why? Because while Sanders may seem to threaten the status quo, he threatens only our external selves. Nothing he does or says is a threat to our internal selves, and least of all our sexual and gender identities. He threatens change and paradoxically makes us feel safe – certainly safer than the alternative.

 

Hence the peculiar glee of the pundits at Clinton’s and her surrogates’ inevitable (they hope) downfalls, which they are doing everything they can to engineer. Don’t let them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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