“Not About You,” or the Politics of Universalizing

Recently, one of the feminist pages I follow on Facebook posted a link to an article about the post-partum body. The article itself brings up an important issue that needs to be discussed, and is both thought provoking and non-problematic. The moderator’s framing as they shared the link, however, was inherently essentialist, actually stating that the one thing that separated women from men was the ability to carry a child. Of course, this was problematic, because not all women are able to carry children and not all people who carry children are women. When I and another commenter brought this up, making explicitly clear that the object was with how the moderator framed the article, not the article itself, we were told it wasn’t about us. We were told we were erasing and silencing mothers. We were told we were inserting ourselves into a discussion that wasn’t about us.

I’ve heard mothers complain that they can’t talk about motherhood in feminist circles without someone saying “what about women who don’t want/can’t have children?” I generally give the benefit of the doubt, because the reverse happens when I talk about not being able to have and not wanting children. Some people just have a case of the “What-about-me’s” and it’s incurable. However, there is a phenomena I have observed that explains why I have, on occasion, brought women who can’t have or don’t want children into feminist discussions of motherhood, and that is when statements are made universal, much like the statement that spurred me to comment on the link discussed above. When the statements made imply that all women can have children, or all women want children, or motherhood is inevitable for all women, or the greatest joy for all women, I have to speak up. Because I am a woman, and if they are talking about all women, as a woman, it actually is about me. And when you pair a universal statement with “It’s not about you!” you are erasing the experiences of the people who don’t fit your mold. And it’s an easy fix: avoid universal language unless the statement is something like “All people are mortal,” or “All humans need air to survive,” or, more to the point, just be extremely careful when you make a universalizing statement, and should someone tell you the universal statement is problematic, don’t tell them it isn’t about them. This, of course, applies to any conversation that someone has universalized too quickly, not just discussion about motherhood (that was just the most convenient example because it was what got me thinking about the danger of universalizing).

I mostly brought up the problems with the language because it is cissexist. While statements like the one that prompted me to write this post frustrate me as a woman who can’t have children, I’ve never been told I’m not a woman because I can’t have children (I’ve been called a defective woman, but never told I was not a woman), but statements like the one to which I objective have more damaging potential for trans women who have been told they are not women, as well as for trans men, and genderqueer and non-binary uterus-havers who carry children.

On Ruining Lives

Recently, an article on Jezebel discussed an awful fraternity “prank” that invoked racist and homophobic slurs while creating exponential amounts of work for a postman who was originally believed to be the target of the “prank”. It turns out that he wasn’t, but that doesn’t make it any better. One commenter suggested that the names of those responsible for the prank should be published so that employers knew their past. This was of course instantly followed by a chorus of “Don’t ruin their lives!” I find this mindset troubling for a number reasons.

In the assertion that these young men, who created a great deal of unnecessary work for the postman to taunt their rivals with racial and homophobic slurs and unintentionally lead the postman to believe that he was the target of the attack, should not have their lives ruined by what they have done reminds me of the post-trial reports of the Steubenville rape case in which many lamented the ruined lives of the two convicted rapists. With both of these incidents in mind, I feel more compelled than ever to unpack exactly what bothers me about the general idea of “their lives should not be ruined.”

I should begin by admitting that there are times when I think the expression is apt, particularly instances that are truly youthful stupidity and no one was hurt or situations where the punishment does not fit the crime. However, the construction of “Their lives should not be ruined by this” is troubling, because it is a way of divorcing those responsible for the action from the action. The implication is that the lives being ruined are ruined by those who insist that the guilty party face the consequences of their actions. When the two young men from Steubenville were sentenced, I heard people blame Jane Doe, the judge presiding over the case, and Ohio Attorney General Mike Dewine, all for enacting the process which resulted in consequences for the gang rape of Jane Doe. The anger and/or mourning of their fates shifts the focus away from the fact that the two young men did something reprehensible and are facing the consequences of their actions.

When people say “don’t ruin their lives,” in cases like the two I’ve described, there is an implicit acknowledgment that if the actions that caused the discussion were brought to light, it could ruin their lives. The offending party has already acted in a way that could ruin their lives, and what the speaker is really trying to do is shield them from the consequences of their actions. This is often tied to the “boys will be boys” mentality. The trouble is that in an attempt to protect those who have acted in a way that ruins their own lives, we ignore the fact that their actions have harmed others. In the case of Steubenville, it is quite possible that they ruined someone else’s life. In the case of the fraternity prank, while the mailman’s life was not ruined, he did do a lot of pointless work only to be led to believe that he was the target of racial and homophobic slurs. Why are we more concerned with the consequences that people face as the results of their own actions than the harm they have done to others?

I don’t think we should ruin people’s lives for the sake of ruining their lives. I don’t think we should delight in someone else facing the negative consequences of their actions. In fact, I think we need to stop treating holding people accountable for their actions as “ruining lives,” but the natural cause and effect of things. Actions have consequences, and if you wouldn’t want potential employers to think you are the type of person who would use racial or homophobic slurs, don’t use them. If you don’t want to go to prison for rape, don’t rape. And, most importantly, don’t defend the people who do these things or act like the natural consequences of their actions is unfair persecution.

Why women (or at least this woman) leave philosophy

Recently a friend posted this article on facebook with the question: Why don’t more women go into philosophy? As someone with a BA in philosophy who was very close to pursuing a PhD in philosophy before I decided to take the Literature/Critical Theory route (I actually decided when it was time to start working on applications my senior year as an undergraduate), this question is highly relevant to my own personal experience. While the research concludes that women leave philosophy or decide not to pursue philosophy between the introductory course and the coursework for the major, I would like to talk about my own experiences, because, while they are not universal, the problems I experienced cannot be unique to my experience alone.

Before I begin, I need to say that I had a number of great philosophy professors who I am still in touch with today. I visit my former philosophy department about once a year. The professors with whom I continue to stay in touch would certainly not allow the behavior described below. However, the fact that it happened, and more importantly philosophy sets up a framework that can encourage such behavior, was a large part of why I felt compelled to leave philosophy.

In a discussion with a larger context which I no longer to remember, a classmate argued that we could objectively say that some human beings are defective, particularly people with disabilities, people with chronic illness or chronic pain, and women who cannot have children (tellingly, men were not defined by their reproductive abilities, and the lack thereof did not make them “defective”). I am every person on that list. I have a disability. I have a chronic illness. I experience chronic pain. I am a woman who cannot reproduce. Naturally, I challenged this notion. I don’t remember my exact argument, but I did invoke both personal experience, though my argument did not rest solely on it. I was told that I was too subjective, having such experience, and therefore I could not speak on the subject without bias. A number of philosophers, most notably Lorraine Code, have challenged the idea of objectivity, but the notion still holds for some, and I was basically told that someone who had none of my experiences was objective, therefore better qualified to speak about disability, chronic pain and illness, and women who cannot reproduce than someone who had experienced them. Under the guise of objectivity people with experience are silenced in favor of people who have little knowledge of the subject about which they are speaking. The implication is clear: people who can walk away from a philosophical discussion and leave the subject a neat little thought experiment are given higher standing than people for whom the implications of the discussion would have a serious impact on their daily lives. Is it any wonder that women, members of racial minorities, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups of people would be turned off of philosophy?

Another time, I had a young man approach me at an undergraduate philosophy conference and start a discussion regarding women’s capabilities. He kept trying to get me to admit that even if men are better than women at logic and philosophical arguments, that should not be grounds for lesser moral or legal standing. He could not understand why this was upsetting to me. If we put aside the fact that his premise “women being worse at logic and having less skill for philosophy,” cannot be proven and that all observations to that end come from years of socialization, as well as the fact that the formulation of the question is nonsense, because no one would ever question whether or not women being better at something than men would give men lesser standing, and would quite possible dismiss whatever the skill was as pointless in the first place, there is still an obvious problem. Such assumptions (men are better at logic and philosophy), have been used to keep women out of the conversation since the dawn of philosophy itself, and he is using the same argument, at conference where I was one of two female presenters, while speaking to a woman who intended to go into philosophy. He didn’t understand that what he was saying had problems because while he granted women the same moral and legal standing, accepting his premise would keep them out of philosophy.

The western philosophical canon has numerous instances of misogyny, racism, and ableism. Good philosophers will always critique these things or not use them, but they are still read in the philosophy classroom (and if they were not, we would have very little material to work with). In my experience, whenever someone, usually me, would raise the critique of how something in the text was troubling, they would be met by the rolled eyes and sighs of (white, able-bodied) male classmates. They would usually say “we know this isn’t okay, why talk about it?” and imply that to talk about this was wasting time, never once considering what it would be like to be reading an essay you are expected to respond to as part of the enduring “philosophical conversation” only to discover that the person to whom you are supposed to respond thinks that you shouldn’t be part of the conversation, let alone considering that there may be implications of the misogyny that need address beyond “we aren’t misogynists anymore, let’s ignore that part of the argument.”

Furthermore, despite the fact that it’s generally not okay, using philosophers with biases against certain groups to justify different treatment, particularly gender essentialism, happens. You might say that they are doing philosophy wrong, and I believe you, but it happens a lot more often than you would think, and objections to it often get labeled “bad philosophy” themselves. This can make a philosophical conversation an unsafe space for woman and other marginalized groups.

I’m not calling for censorship, I’m calling for recognition that everyone is subjective, and the realization that a “thought experiment” can mirror someone’s real life experience, and that should have some weight in the conversation. Philosophy can be a force for good, it can be used to fight oppression and challenge flawed patterns of thought that push certain groups of people to the margins, but it can also be used to support the status quo. Certainly a racist or misogynist with a mastery of philosophy is more dangerous than their ignorant counterparts. If we want more women, people of color, and persons with disabilities to join the philosophical conversation, we need to seriously challenge people who use philosophy to support oppressive attitudes. We need to acknowledge that the ideas they bring forth do not exist in a vacuum and have very real consequences, most notably that people leave philosophy because of it.

I still love philosophy. I love a good philosophical conversation. I will talk about philosophy with you for hours if you aren’t a jerk. At times I feel disappointed in myself because, from an outside perspective it looks like I let one asshole scare me away from doing something I love, and I often wonder if that really wasn’t what happened (for what it’s worth, I’m still in academia and the offending party is not). But really, it was exhaustion. I was tired of the conversation always beginning with a justification of why I should have a voice in the conversation at all. While I have had numerous positive experiences in classes and in philosophy club, I realized that I would continue to have that conversation for the rest of my life, and I was tired.

I hope that my reader takes away more than simply “I left philosophy because people were mean to me,” because I am talking about a larger problem that needs to be addressed. I still have hope that it can be, but it wasn’t my fight.

An Open Letter to the Young Men Walking Across Campus Yelling “Rape Squad”

Trigger Warning for discussion of Rape

To the five young men who were walking across campus, yelling “rape squad” this evening:

You didn’t see me. Thank God. I saw you, and then when I heard what you were yelling, I was able to duck into a building unseen and watch you pass. I cannot express how thankful I am that you never saw me, because I honestly don’t know what would have happened.

“It was a joke,” you say. “You’re taking it too seriously,” you add. Well, I hate to inform you it isn’t funny. It was dark. There was no one around but me and the group of you. I don’t know you. I don’t know if you are a group of young men who have extremely poor taste in jokes or a group of young men who, seeing the opportunity, make it more than a joke. I do know that I have a 1 in 6 chance of being sexually assaulted some time in my life. I know that there were five of you and only one of me. I know that I am not physically strong.

I also know that if you go up north about a hour or so, you’ll arrive in Steubenville, a town where a young woman was gang raped and the perpetrators tweeted about it like it was a joke. So you’ll forgive me when I say that this was not at all funny.

A lot of men don’t like the whole idea of Schrödinger’s rapist, and I will grant that it has some flaws. I mean, I don’t instantly ask myself if every man I ever meet poses a threat of raping me, but you do need to understand that as a young woman, I have been taught to be vigilant, especially when walking back to my car at that dusky time of day. It’s not a conscious response, it’s a conditioned instinct. I’m not saying I’ve been taught to fear men, but I’ve been taught to be constantly aware of my surroundings and assess any potential threats. This is because I live in a society where, if I were to be assaulted and I were to come forward and the story sounds like I was less than vigilant, someone is bound to say “Why were you walking alone after dark anyway?” When you add to that the fact that you were yelling about rape and not in a Take Back the Night rally kind of way, you can see why I might perceive you to be a threat. I’m informing you of this so that you can think critically about what passes for humor in the future.

But, you counter, you have the right to free speech, and free speech includes jokes, right? I’m not going to get into the semantics of whether yelling “rape squad” is a threat and therefore not protected, so let’s say it is protected under your right to free speech (though I’m pretty sure it isn’t). You may have the right to free speech, but that doesn’t stop me from drawing the logical conclusion, which, in this case was that you may or may not be serious, but I didn’t want to find out.

Look, I know you think I’m exaggerating. I’m not. I’m not going to tell anyone about the incident by saying “I was almost gang raped by five young men while walking across campus last night.” Because I wasn’t. But I did see and hear you, and while it’s likely you just have an awful sense of humor, I wasn’t about to take the risk of letting you see me. Likewise, I know you weren’t threatening me, because you never saw me, but your words have an impact. Think about the time and place. Think about what you are saying.

I don’t know you, but I will give you the benefit of the doubt that you aren’t awful people. You are just young and stupid. If you learn anything from this, you’ll be slightly less stupid, and that’s part of the process called growing up. Words have meanings, and those meanings differ from person to person. Consider what a woman walking across campus alone would think before you make this mistake again.