Feminism and the use of language

Please bear with the following post as it meanders through different types of language (ironically, I know). I’m just getting used to blogging as a format, but I promise there’s a pay-off. Here’s a little preview: feminists need to learn how to better target their language, or they risk pissing off like-minded supporters. More after the jump.

Communication should be considered to be successful when the speaker’s meaning is conveyed to the reader with sufficient fidelity so as to satisfy the speaker’s intentions. Low fidelity is enough in many situations (as when voicing a preference for Coke over Pepsi). High fidelity, however, is required for higher order communication (as when articulating the duties of the citizen under a consent-based regime).  Fidelity in interpersonal communication is similar to fidelity in audio transmissions: while a lo-fi transistor radio is all my parents needed for listening to bad 1960s pop, a scholar of early twentieth century Russian choral music looks for the best hi-fi recordings available for his or her research.

Miscommunication occurs when we are unsure what our intended message is and therefore have difficulty choosing the appropriate language to faithfully convey our meaning. Like listening to a Beethoven symphony on a tinny radio, something crucial is lost in transmission. The result is familiar to everyone: the awkward feeling of missed meaning and the meta conversation that follows in which we try to reconstruct the conversation and clarify our intended messages.

Normally such miscommunication is easily avoided and relatively harmless when it does occur. As social animals with a keen ability to manage relationships, we generally have an innate sense for whether our intended messages require lo-fi or hi-fi, and we couch our language appropriately. But what if certain messages or certain messengers were systematically biased towards miscommunication?

I posit that the risk of miscommunication is particularly high for any message that mixes truth claims with calls to action. These two types of messages place very different demands on us as speakers and as listeners. Truth claims require careful discernment in order to be properly made, heard, and evaluated. Calls to action, in contrast, stem from and are aimed at generating strong passions. In short, because of the different dynamics involved in stirring the passions and seeking the truth, what is required of a good activist and what is required of a good intellectual are not always the same thing. And yet, as I hope to explore in further posts, ivory-tower academia and real-world activism are co-dependent as well as mutually antagonistic. If that is true, then activists and scholars (and activist-scholars, more importantly) must be hyper-aware of which hat they wear at any given time and must strive to be clearer both to themselves and to others about separating truth claims and calls to action.

Today I focus on the particular struggles of feminist scholars and activists. I was recently told not only that gender theory “always applies, in every social situation”, but also that it is “never trivial, and always a significant component” of social analysis. One specific claim was made that wedding rings and the tradition of the father giving the daughter away in a wedding ceremony are “rooted in oppression”.

These utterances bear the telltale signs of messages caught in the uncertain middle ground between truth claims and calls to action. Rhetorical exaggeration and strong, decisive language are understandable parts of a call to action. But they are often destructive in a truth claim. ‘Always’, ‘every’, ‘never’ … these words preclude all other possibilities and strictly require just one valid counterexample to have their claims to truth invalidated. In academia, scholars avoid making such strong claims without significant evidence to support them. The stronger the claim, the more evidence is needed. In the world of activism, however, there is ‘rush to the bottom’ in which truth is the victim. Points are awarded for ardor and vehemence in the pursuit of pathos rather than sobriety and precision in the pursuit of logos. Of course, truth and inspiration are the admirable dual goals of the feminist scholar-activist. But by failing to adequately distinguish between truth claims and calls to action, the feminist scholar-activist undermines both efforts.

I, like most people who come across feminist activism, am no expert on women and gender studies. But given the low evidentiary bar set by words like  ‘always’, ‘never’, and ‘every’, my job is easy. I simply need to raise enough doubt to destroy the certainty. Let’s focus on the claim that wedding rings and fathers giving daughters away in marriage are both traditions “rooted in oppression.” As a call to action, that’s a fairly unobjectionable phrase – traditions can be rooted in pretty much whatever the speakers wants to highlight as the target for action. As a truth claim, it’s very problematic. First, those are non-specific words seldom found in serious scholarship (it’s unclear what ‘rooted in’ means in regards to a tradition, and ‘oppression’ is one of those pejoratives whose specific meaning is hard to pin down).

More importantly, being ‘rooted in oppression’ would pretty much preclude it from being rooted in anything else. What about my friend (a brilliant woman excelling in the male-dominated world of finance) who wants her potential suitor to ask her father’s permission before popping the question? Is this some form of internalization of the patriarchy? Or is it a genuine preference, stemming from something other than oppression? My hunch is that it’s the latter: There’s a tradition of protection and responsibility associated with families. In its worst form it is articulated as a property relation (ie, the father giving his daughter away, as he would a stereo system). In its more common form, it is articulated as a duty on the part of the father to protect the family (think of an intruder entering a house at night … who do most people [including most feminists] immediately and unconsciously expect to get out of bed to defend the family?). In this paradigm, “giving the daughter away in marriage” could be interpreted as passing along the responsibility of protection.

Clearly ‘protection’ can be lumped in with a larger system of oppression (as it certainly was historically and sometimes still is). But it is also clear that that is not necessarily the case, and many an independent woman might still genuinely appreciate the tradition of protection discourse, want to incorporate it into their own lives, and hope to see it transmitted to future generations.

The real trouble with over-riding claims of something ‘always’ being ‘rooted in oppression’ is that such claims deny the multiplicity of meanings behind any social action and the individual actor’s freedom to ascribe meaning to his or her own actions, not to mention the competing traditions undergirding most modern institutions. We’re an amalgam of origins, ‘rooted in’ an impressive array of histories. There is a multiplicity of ways of conceptualizing identity, self-ascribed and imposed from without, and each is operative simultaneously and on a myriad of intersecting planes in any given situation. But in scholarship we pick and choose, identify, rank, and prioritize among different modes (here ‘mode’ refers to the different ways in which gender, class, religion, race, and other ideologies are articulated).

Scholarship and explanation necessarily involve simplification and reduction. Some modes of identity discourse prevail over others in particular cases, but just which mode prevails is up in the air in each case, and is usually highly contested. Expertise plays a role in making the decision about which mode to focus on, and even the experts disagree. Anthropologists spend years becoming experts in the complicated symbolic performances associated with marriage rituals in various cultures. No non-expert should come along and willy-nilly chose one mode and one interpretation while rejecting all others. There is an essential ambiguity in social life and symbolic relations. This fact should not be misunderstood as granting every layman the license to make shit up since there is no ultimate answer.

The contestation and contestability of statements matters. Put differently: truth matters. Feminists are by no means the only activist-scholars who are guilty of sacrificing truth in order to strengthen truth claims. Nearly everyone who cares about what they study has fallen into the same trap at one time or another.

What is sad about the feminist case is that feminists are not necessarily subject to the same degree of self-correction as other cases. The best example I can think of right now is historical materialism and the Marxist tradition. Adherents to this tradition have always had a big agenda for change in the real world, beyond simply studying it (think Lenin). The crucial difference between Marxist thought and feminist thought, however, is that Marxism also found a strong base of adherents who also took their duties as scholars seriously. While the USSR and nearly every other instance of communist activism was making a mockery of human decency, an army of scholars influenced by Marx were busy testing, refining, and adapting his theory. Today, the first generation of Communist activism has been entirely discredited, but historical materialism is a serious and highly-refined body of theory and research (check out James Scott’s work for a particularly good example of what I’m talking about).

Feminism, by contrast, has not seemed to undergo a similar process as of yet. This may be because feminism emerged as a serious topic of study only recently, while historical materialism has had at least an extra 100 years to grow. There is a chance, however, that the difference is not merely a lack of time but rather a matter of temperament. Activism and scholarship may be too closely tied together in the same people within feminism, while Communist activists and scholars of historical materialism were usually different people. When activism and scholarship are too close, it may be true that the dispassionate search for truth never matures independently and therefore fails to create a base for adequately supporting calls to action. Again, I am by no means an expert, and all of these claims need to be tested and elaborated.

What is so sad about this state of affairs is that the world so desperately needs feminism. Feminism (and gender theory more broadly) are powerful tools that illuminate crucially important areas of human life. For countless people, exposure to feminist though provides the first mental scaffolding for understanding things they had never before been able to verbalize. Feminist activists have also been a powerful force behind the drive for gender equality in the last 50 years. But feminists are in the difficult position of spreading a sadly-necessary message with imperfect language. The ties between activist feminism and academic feminism may be too strong. It is the over-reaching language of ‘always’, ‘never’, and ‘rooted in oppression’ that pushes away likely allies both in academia and in the real world. Of course, everything I’ve said is subject to criticism. I hope I’m wrong and I’d love for someone to send my way examples of a movement towards a more comprehensive and independent articulation of feminism as an academic discipline.


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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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