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September 26, 2007

Gender, Race, Language, and the Netroots

Bloggers Mike Meginnis and Matt Zeitlin have responded to my assertion in this TAPPED post that male "netroots" bloggers rarely write about identity politics. They both agree I'm right, but unfortunately, choose to interpret my simple observation as an attack. To be clear: Guys like Duncan Black, Matt Stoller, and Markos do what they do very well. But journalists ought to stop using "Atrios and DailyKos" as shorthand for "liberal bloggers." There are whole communities of liberal bloggers not included in the constellation centered around those sites, and foremost among those are feminist bloggers and bloggers of color.

I'm sympathetic to what Mike and Matt describe as a fear on the part of the white, male blogger that if he writes about race or gender, he will be subject to extra scrutiny and possibly attack. But I'm wary. If "male bloggers" like "arguing" so much, as Zeitlin writes (what? and female bloggers don't?), they should welcome these back and forths, not shy away from them. The sense I got from both responses was that while Meginnis and Zeitlin relish a good "man-to-man" fight, they don't really want to engage in debate with women or people of color who practice "identity politics."

That's their prerogative, of course. I certainly don't think every blogger needs to cover my pet issues; if they did, there would be no point in me writing every day. But I'm really disturbed by the language Zeitlin uses in his lengthy critique of so-called "identity politics." Here are some of his descriptors, all direct quotes. My emphasis is in bold.

- narrow
- tangential
- pantywaist pseudo-intellectuals who didn’t have the balls to get us out of Iraq and fight a class war

About his Netroots heroes, Zeitlin writes:

The netroots - Kos, Atrios, FDL etc — was born fighting, born opposing the Bush administration and all it stood for. And you don’t fight a war, you don’t win Matt Stoller’s “bar fight primary” by being splintered over identity issues. You have to stand together to fight the baddies in the Bush administration, instead of constantly fretting over seemingly tangential issues of identity.

Note the language here. Note the language. Netroots dudes are "born fighting." They can "take on the baddies." We lady bloggers, well, we're "fretting." Our "panties" are all twisted up in a knot. This kind of rhetoric is regrettable. It prevents dialogue by marginalizing women -- it's sexist language. My point about the Netroots was that they are great at what they do, but they're narrowly focused. I'm narrowly focused too. That's okay, because being a good writer often requires specialization.

But this kind of language from Zeitlin is not okay.

As a woman, I never forget how female-ness affects (and often limits) my days, my walks home at night, my professional choices, my relationships, my politics, my visions of the future. As a white person born in the United States, I can try to imagine how blackness or accented English might similarly impact an individual's day, but I can never fully understand. People have different experiences of the world. It shouldn't surprise anybody that they might also have different focuses to their progressive activism.

So I disagree strongly with Matt Zeitlin about the role of identity in the progressive movement. It's not separate from our struggles over Iraq or poverty or inequality -- we are one movement devoted to justice. An understanding of sexual and racial politics only increases one's outrage about the Iraq war, for example. It's only since we invaded Iraq that women in that country have been forced into burkas. Or consider the plight of gay people in Iran. Or the mass rapes in Darfur. It's all connected.

Unfortunately, language like Matt's makes me want to head into a feminist corner and never come out to converse with some of my fellow progressives. It's a tempation I'm happy to fight, though.

Because I've got balls like that.

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Comments

Locker-room chest bump!

Well, I apologize for getting defensive -- I did realize it wasn't an attack, but I'm sensitive about this stuff and I tend to be a little too defensive about it. I just wanted to agree with qualifiers, basically.

To your point about argument: I do like argument, and I do like debates, but I don't like unfair arguments. When your opponent is not considered out of line for saying things like, "Of course you think that, you're a white man, you benefit from the system," that's not a fair fight. And it hurts in a way most fights I pick don't. If somebody attacks me on health care policy or a legal question, well, they think I had a bad idea about health care policy or a legal question. Somebody trying to prove I'm a sexist or a racist, or an enabler for sexists and racists, has a much more personal dimension. I'm not saying I'm always right to shy away from these issues, but I am asking for some sympathy as far as the reasons I do so.

You know, one other response to be called out on sexism might be to examine what it is you're saying and try to think if there is a less inflammatory way of making your points, instead of just attacking the entire category of thought about gender as illegitimate, which the a classic reactionary and conservative approach, not a progressive one.

And yes, it feels more personal to have fights over these sorts of social issues. Welcome to the club. It feels that way for women, too. So try doing what women have to do when faced with a world whose basic assumptions can feel like personal assaults: recognize you're in the middle of something bigger than yourself, don't let your emotions blind you, and maintain a civil tone.

Your comment is after mine, and responds to some of the stuff I said directly, so I have to assume you're addressing me. But it can't be that you mean to respond to the post I made and which Dana linked to -- if you did, it would be truly strange to suggest I had "attack[ed] the entire category of thought about gender as illegitimate." This couldn't possibly be further from my position.

In terms of my "inflammatory language," it's important to separate my criticisms of your own writing on the campaign -- presumably the only familiarity you have with my writing -- from my criticisms of genuine feminist writing. My referring to you as a Clinton shill is indeed inflammatory -- it's intended to be. I'm trying to pressure you to cut it out. But you aren't writing about gender when you willfully misconstrue arguments made by Edwards, and I'm not attacking the entire body of feminist writing by attacking your writing when you do that.

The thing about maintaining a civil tone only makes sense to me in this context, too -- after all, I never said I ought to be able to be uncivil because feminists sometimes treat me as though I'm not allowed an opinion on gender issues because I'm a man. I said I think that under these circumstances it's understandable, if not ideal, that men (like myself) sometimes shy away from these things. Of course I try to maintain a civil tone, and of course I should try.

In terms of tone, though, you have condescended to me (or whoever this comment was meant for) and that is kind of a perfect example of the sort of thing that makes these conversations less than awesome. "Raising consciousness" is an admirable goal, but when your audience knows you're thinking of them that way, it's pretty much impossible to accomplish anything.

Mike, you're complaining that the fight isn't fair when bloggers argue about gender issues, and I would agree -- it's extremely ennervating to have to try to argue constantly with people you think are sexist and full of it without upsetting their delicate sensibilities by saying what you actually think. Maybe you need to examine why you can't have a conversation with women who think unkind thoughts about you. Try calmly arguing through your pain when the big, bad lady-bloggers act like meanies, instead of freaking out and running away. That's what women do every single day in an environment that routinely subjects them to tremendous personal hostility.

Also, Dana, I think you were wrong to apologize to Matt Z. Your analysis was spot-on but he managed to argue you out of believing that you'd actually read what he actually said. The error was his -- in his writing and thinking -- not yours for reading like a normal person.

Dude, you're an established writer at a good magazine. I'm a 21-year-old part-time blogger working on finishing his BA. Why can't you be the bigger person here, or at least one of roughly equal dignity? The tactic you just pulled on me is pure bull, and you know it. You have again not only willfully misconstrued what I'm saying, but warped it completely beyond recognition. I certainly never said I can't have conversations with women who think unkind thoughts about me -- notice this conversation. Notice the way you oh-so-subtly imply I'm sexist and full of it. Based on what? You don't say. You don't even quite make the claim in the first place.

My point is and always has been that when white men get involved in these conversations they are usually required to agree completely or subject themselves to the sort of shoddy, childish rhetorical maneuvers you're pulling here, and this is boring. What you're doing is boring. When people have to put up with responses like yours, which seem explicitly designed to shut them up, it makes them reluctant to bother.

"when white men get involved in these conversations they are usually required to agree completely or subject themselves to the sort of shoddy, childish rhetorical maneuvers you're pulling here, and this is boring."

this is starting to sound like a persecution complex. Men don't have it that bad. We really don't. Sure, there are hostile audiences. There is a history of sexism and not everyone (feminists or non) is fair in debate.

A lot of it relates to the idea of "getting patriarchy." I don't think it's a yes or no position. Sometimes there is a fight about this:

A: you just don't get it --look deeper at your assumptions and the privileges you enjoy.

B: Wait, that's totally unfair, what do you want me to get . .. you'll never allow any of my points, just because I'm a man.

There is a way out of this trap. Maybe you disagree about the particulars of patriarchy (assuming you don't deny it completely, in which case you're not going to have a nice debate), but this back and forth -- "you don't get it," "you'll never allow me to" -- is unproductive. To get out of the trap, it takes time understanding feminists and where they are coming from. It takes engaging them, preferably not only in blog form where our disembodied words disguise gender dynamics. I think its as much a part of how you see the world and other people (i.e. women, men) as in how you engage in debate.

Progressive men should embrace feminism, and at least try to bridge some understanding about where feminists are coming from. Not all debates are fair, but don't get trapped in your male box.

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