Feminism and “how words work”

Ansari_HowWordsWork(viaATTN) I posted this picture of @azizansari‘s excellent quip (found via a group called ATTN:) to Facebook … and quickly got into an interesting discussion. Which I’ve excerpted here – minus everyone’s names except mine, but indicating everyone’s gender. (You know who you are; thanks for the discussion.)

Friend 1 (man): Bear with me, Mark, id like your perspective on he following: the problem for me is that the definition of feminism has changed over time and holds some negative connotations. I’m not an expert on the history of feminism, but I’d hesitate to call myself a feminist. Of course I want complete equality for women to be fully gained in all spheres of society in all cultures….but somehow I’d rather call myself something else regarding this topic….an equalist? Once I saw a guy wearing a t-shirt that said “We are all Hezbollah”, and that made me feel bad because someone went and defined who I am, labelling me in a way I do not want to be labeled. In the same way I do not to be labeled a feminist, not by Mr Ansari, not by anyone. I’ll be an equalist, and even if I’m the only equalist in the world regarding this topic, that’s what I’ll be.

Friend 2 (man): sorry for sounding like an ass, but: being labeled as something is about as bad as someone mis-pronouncing ur name: the only person who cares is you. in my experience the only people who care are people from our generation – who were the first ones to be properly demo’d and categorized for marketing data. now that “big data” is ubiquitous people simply don’t care. everyone’s gotta make $ – ignore it, or rage at every single mouse click and every public space u walk into. but lets not generation gap ourselves unless we have to (aka mark lol)
on a related note, i am a HUGE fucking feminist.
on a somewhat related, but not really note: during the israeli invasion of lebanon in 2006 i saw a alot of “I ❤ beirut" shirts. it was extra interesting cos a lot of people wore them to a lecture series by the graphic designer michael beirut (NOTHING to do w lebanon). i like it when irony works at right angles to reality.

Me: since you’ve asked, i’ll ask you in turn to bear with me (deep breath): the political economy of corporate-managed democracy is the political economy of late patriarchy. the governance trend of the past forty years – our lifetime, basically – has been a “hard right turn” towards corporate-annexed, “managed” democracy (the scholarly term for this turn is “neoliberalism”: the privatization of gain and socialization of cost under an ideology of free-market fundamentalism). this “hard right turn” has also meant an increase in social conservatism: despite important progressive gains (eg same sex rights, gender-spectrum recognitions, employment equity policies), culture today is far more conservative and even more regressively patriarchal than it was in the 1970s: corporations are like feudal family dynasties that depend in part on gendered divisions of labour for their continuance; daycare “policy” in Canada has abandoned public-sector provision for a consumerist rhetoric of “choice” that suggests the government wants women to just stay at home; and domestic and family violence continues to kill more girls and women than all the C20 & C21 wars put together. is it any wonder, in this context, that the word “feminism” has assumed negative connotations, when its basic principles are disrespected and demonized everywhere today? so je suis feministe. the fact this is at all controversial inclines me to repeat it. je suis feministe.

Friend 2 (man): u actually gave the synopsis of an episode of “untold history of the united states”, by oliver stone. its based on the amazing work of Howard Zinn, historian extraordinary & plenipotentiary.
The episode is “Reagan & the rise of the right”. which btw we’re still dealing with. but they’re finally having their 1960’s moment, which means all the abby hoffmans and timothy learys of the right r coming out now. the big diff being they have money and power. the constant being that people r just as stupid as they always were

Friend 1 (man): thanks. That helped. Mark, I think I’m going to spend the evening rereading your post over and over again until it’s hammered in 🙂

Me: thanks for hearing me. i hope i’ve heard you as clearly too. if you want to follow up any detail, just ask away. fyi, just a few sources for my massively compressed synopsis are: 1) the documentary film The Corporation; 2) Ariel Levy’s book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture; 3) bell hooks’ book Feminism Is For Everybody; and 4) Tim Duvall’s 2003 article “The New Feudalism”

Friend 3 (woman): It is a privilege to be among such esteemed company, gentlemen 🙂
More often than not, labels that minimize, demean, criticize, or exclude tend to break rather than build. When we use guilt- and fear-induced word choice such as “should”, “ought” and “must”, it is an indication and invitation to consider our position/bias/filter introspectively and ask ourselves, in curiosity rather than judgment, why we feel strongly about certain words. These triggers are opportunities to learn, grow, take risks, and become more accountable to our egos.

Friend 4 (woman): I wouldn’t mind adding that actually, the definition of feminism hasn’t changed, but perceptions of it have over time, unfortunately never for the better. Maybe ‘feminism’ no longer makes us think of the mythical bra burnings and rallies, but somehow it’s still perceived as a word that refers to angry people or people who desire to take rights away from others. To shy away from the word is to let those stereotypes live on.

Friend 5 (man): I’m a big fan of Ansari, and consider myself a feminist, but as a linguist, I can tell you that is not “how words work.” A social movement may have a label, but it does not mean that label is fixed, particularly once politicised. Ask any marketing major what to do once a brand has been damaged!

One response to “Feminism and “how words work”

  1. I thought it was a cute, punchy meme, but the radical feminist in me wants to argue the definition of feminism every time I see it. Feminism isn’t really about “equal rights” in the current social order. It’s about eradicating the patriarchy — fundamentally alter the social order under which rights are granted.
    Maybe it seems nitpicky, but the difference, to me looks like this: women are victims of severe domestic violence (choking, stabbing, gun violence) at three times the rate of men. Equality, in these circumstances, would see men experience these abuses at the same rate as women. A fundamental change to the social order would see domestic violence — a tool for maintaining patriarchy — eradicated.

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