There are a few more things to say about the Albright contretemps. The first is about that old topic, women making apologies. When is it apropos to do so, and when not?
Sometimes it’s OK to apologize, such as when an utterance in the form of an apology serves to get past awkward points in a conversation. Sometimes it isn’t. Two times it isn’t have occurred recently and very publicly, and not surprisingly, both apologies or quasi-apologies were from women, first Gloria Steinem and now, in the New York Times, Madeleine Albright. Both, needless to say, are apologizing for their bad behavior earlier this week in defending Hillary Clinton.
They’re wrong to apologize because they were right in the first place, especially Albright. But because she has been the object of enthusiastic public flagellation since she spoke out, she felt she had to apologize…for something.
“I absolutely believe what I said,” she said, “that women should help one another, but this was the wrong context and the wrong time to use that line.”
No, it wasn’t. Any time and any context are the right ones to say that, and if her perfectly intelligible remark was deliberately forced into a negative (over)interpretation, then the fault lies with the interpreter. Honi soit qui mal y pense, as they say. An explanation is due not from Albright, but from those who see her remark as “scolding,” “shaming,” or “anti-feminist.”
Her statement that there is a special hell for women who don’t help other women has been misinterpreted in other ways. She meant it not as a performative, advice to bad women to go to hell, but as a constative, an assertion about the way things actually are in the world, that women who don’t work toward full equality are not doing the right thing. She did not intend her utterance to have, as John Searle would put it, world-to-word fit, but rather word-to-world fit: the words she utters apply to the world as we know it. Therefore the utterance could not have been “scolding” or “shaming,” (world-to-word), but rather, if anything, was a (word-to-world) observation: women who don’t help other women are remiss in their behavior. As such it might be construed as criticism. But to paraphrase Bernie Sanders in the most recent Democratic debate, as Americans we have the right to criticize when we don’t approve, and thus to put the target of the criticism onto the right track. (Yes, of course, as we see it.)
Much of the criticism directed at Albright misunderstands her utterance in just this way, as a form of speech act confusion. It reminds me of an episode of the old TV cartoon series, “Rocky the Flying Squirrel.” In it, Rocky goes into a bank, and gets on the teller line. Boris and Natasha, the evil Soviet spies, are already there, with a bag and a gun. They reach the front of the line and use the gun to get the money, which they put into the bag. Just then the police show up and say to Rocky, “Hey, what is this?” Rocky, ever helpful, replies, “This is a stickup.” So they arrest him for sticking up the bank.
The officers were confusing world-to-word fit (saying “This is a stickup” in order to perform a stickup) and word-to-world fit (uttering that sentence to describe a prior event). At least some of Albright’s critics are doing just that. It might possibly be sexist to advise women, in particular, to help other women (though arguably it is not). But to describe the world as a place where women can make things worse by not cooperating (which happens, alas, to be perfectly true) is simply a statement: I say a statement of fact, someone else might say a statement of belief, but in any case an assertion.
If Others (like women) could depend on powerful non-Others to help them achieve full equality, there would be no need for women, in particular, to help women. Then Albright’s remark would be inappropriately directed at women alone, and might be called sexist. But to say what Albright said in the context in which she said it (the world as it exists today) is not sexist; what is sexist is the world that forced her to say it. Context counts.
But we have to go beyond Albright’s justification for her assertion. The achievement of full equality for all human beings is an essential part of what we can term the “human project”: the survival and success of our entire species, Homo sapiens. As a social species, we flourish only if we can properly trust one another. We can only achieve real trust if we are dealing with another person on an equal basis – otherwise one participant is at the mercy of the other, and trust is not possible on either side. Until women have reason to trust others, like men, to move toward full equality, we must do it alone; and until we succeed, no one is fully human, and the species does not thrive as it ought to. So yes, with things the way they are, there is a special onus on women (and the poor, and people of color, and LGBT people – everyone who cannot count on the powerful for help, i.e. everyone but the powerful, i.e. straight white wealthy males), to do the necessary work. I see this as a factual statement, not a scolding or shaming, at least not of women.
Now to the second point: Albright says she has made this statement “a thousand times to applause”; why now did it “go viral,” with an almost totally negative response?
It is true that we are in the middle of a particularly weird and nasty presidential campaign. We would expect most of the criticism to come from the Republicans (as some of it predictably has). But a great deal of the unmitigated outrage has come from women, in particular young Democratic women, and that provides ammunition to those who want to keep Clinton from succeeding. Why has Albright’s remark created such extraordinary fury now, when it never has before?
I wonder whether the rage is related to other contemporary discursive battles. A great deal has been written and said recently about some phenomena encountered on many college campuses, fights over microaggressions and triggering. According to the University of California, Berkeley,
Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or. unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.
Especially in academic contexts, there has been a great deal of conflict over what kinds of behavior can count as microaggression, and who gets to decide.
Triggering, or a trigger warning, is
a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc., alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material (often used to introduce a description of such content).
Trigger warnings may also occur orally, e.g. when a professor announces to her class that she may be discussing problematic material in a lecture, or that it may occur in a reading.
And as with microaggressions, who needs or deserves a trigger warning, from whom, under what conditions and about what are fraught topics on many university campuses.
One effect of all of this discussion about discussion has been to make many young people hypersensitive to linguistic or communicative choices. Ways of talking or writing that once would have gone unremarked or merited no more than a sigh and the rolling of eyes now become causes celebres, grounds for dismissal of faculty members, and outrage on all sides. So it is not terribly surprising that some young women have learned to hyperdissect utterances, particularly by the old and prestigious, to give them the worst possible interpretation. In doing so, they are themselves acting in the way misogynists have always acted toward women: hyperinterpreting their words and thus attempting to control their language and restrict their power and humanity. This isn’t doing women any good, not even the ones making the attacks. Their criticism is in fact a perfect illustration of what it purports to criticize, sexism. The attacks on Albright and Steinem serve only to weaken women as a group, women of all ages, now and for the future.