I recently said elsewhere that my feminism, or my eagerness to talk about feminist causes, is in part self interest. This is because misogyny is the tree from which the gnarled branch of homophobia grew. While this is true, it’s not the whole story.
Well, perhaps I should back off from that a little bit – I’m unlikely to ever approach “the whole story,” thinking and talking about this sort of stuff is a lifelong process. What I more want to get at is another, even less complimentary reason for my willingness to engage in internet combat on the subject of feminism.
The reality is that those arguments are easy for me. However much I love my female friends, they are not me, and their experiences are not mine. However much I earnestly try to empathize with a visceral fear reaction to catcalling on the street, or the fear of sexual assault, or the struggle to be respected for one’s self, I have not experienced any of that. I just haven’t.
I listened to an, I think, NPR report of a study a while ago. A researcher was looking at amount of time high school girls spend talking in classrooms vs. the amount of time boys spend talking. He recorded hundreds of hours of class time and determined that boys took up the vast majority of time: on the order of 80-90% of it. He then surveyed students about their perceptions of how classroom time was spent, and pretty much everyone – boys, girls, teachers of both genders – believed that time was being equally split.
So the researcher went to several teachers and said “here’s the actual, objective data for how time in your classroom is spent. Now I want you to shift that ratio and see how it goes.”
With teachers specifically devoting effort to giving girls more classroom time, the ratio was still heavily skewed, with boys getting 60-70% of the attention. The lone exception was a single teacher that actually achieved a degree of parity very close to a 50/50 split. When the researcher surveyed students and teachers again, everyone felt that boys were being stifled and their contributions were being ignored. The classroom where time was equally distributed actually had complaints from parents because boys felt that ignored, that dismissed, that they got their families involved.
So when I heard them describing this experiment, I recognized myself. I recognized my own willingness to speak up in class, my impatience when women were speaking, and the respect with which I was treated by instructors and students alike. And this extended to University classes too, of course.
I wish I could cite the study, but I’m not having any luck finding it on my own through google.
Anyway, what I’m getting at with this little tale is that, however much I try to be aware of women’s issues, I remain blind to them in a visceral sense. I am mostly not emotionally involved in them in a personal way.
So here are two embarrassing truths about me engaging in feminist fisticuffs:
- There’s an extent to which it’s an engaging intellectual exercise for me, rather than a personal defense of my worth as a person. This isn’t to say that I haven’t been affected by them and been moved to sadness or anger or revulsion, because I have. Nevertheless there’s always a layer of remove, a sort of clinically detached distance.
- I sometimes feel like I’m doing or saying things to kind of score points with people I would like to be friends with. Not that I don’t sincerely think that a given position is true, but rather that if there weren’t a possibility for social reward I just wouldn’t engage.
I can see the truth of this when I contrast this behavior with what I do when I encounter anti-queer bigotry, which for the most part is: nothing. At least nothing external. I don’t fight with people about it because I doubt I’ll ever change anyone’s mind.
Internally, I seethe. I feel compressed and trapped by impotent rage. I entertain puerile daydreams of physical violence. I quite literally grit my teeth.
I do not listen to hateful politicians when they talk about my status in their eyes as subhuman filth. I will leave rooms in the real world and servers online if conversation turns homophobic. I largely do not get into debates about queer issues because I just can’t handle it. It makes me feel enraged and helpless and depressed and nauseous in ways and with an intensity that discussions of women’s issues do not.
I don’t necessarily think that this is terrible or anything. I do think that it’s important for me to remember, however, that my friends are talking about their lives and their world when they’re involved in these discussions. I really need to be careful that I’m not turning actually highly important problems into little rubik’s cubes that I can toy with and then forget. I must remember that the same churning anger that I sometimes feel could be in someone else’s guts right now, and instead of leaving the room she chose to stay. I have to respect that.