Three Premises: Language and Power

Premise #1: There is no way for a powerful white man to critique the public voice of women on the grounds of tone without replicating patriarchal “silencing” discourse.

Premise #2: There is no appropriate way for a powerful white man to question why someone invokes the race of another powerful white man.

Premise #3: Sometimes, holding to these two above premises mean that rude women go un-chastised or that the race of a white man is invoked unfairly. I can live with that. The alternative – silencing of women, denying the power of racial privilege, is worse. 

Here’s the context behind these three general premises. As a writer on language, power, and privilege, I find the general more interesting than the specific, but the specifics do matter. As I wrote about last weekInside Higher Ed blogger and Dartmouth online education director Joshua Kim, chastised Audrey Watters and Sara Goldrick-Rab for being too rude in their review of Kevin Carey’s new book. I understand that this is all very inside-baseball to the non-higher-ed readers, hence leading with the three premises that apply more broadly.

Note – I am not suggesting in any way that Rab or Watters was rude or unfairly invoked race. Only that it is abstractly possible for people to be unjustly rude or unfairly bring up race.

Over on IHE, Joshua Kim has penned a defense. You should read it in full and not rely on my summary. It asserts his status as a feminist activist dad. It asks for “evidence” before anyone is accused of sexism. I left this comment:

Joshua – Your response to Watters and Rab was sexist. That is not a “casual” statement. The evidence you are looking for is twofold. 1) Your critique. 2) Their response.

You are writing here to talk about your intentions and your sense of self as a feminist activist dad. I believe you. I do. But that doesn’t change what you said or how these two female academics experienced it.

 To fall back on academese: Your letter fell into standard forms of patriarchal discourse that silences female public voices through questioning their ability to handle their emotions appropriately. I’m a fan of Mary Beard’s relatively recent explication of this phenomenon on the public voice of women, but the bibliography here is vast. Would footnotes and citations persuade you? I suspect the cognitive dissonance of what you said versus who you are is very difficult to overcome. I sympathize. I genuinely do.

The problem with this post is that you continue to deny the validity of Rab’s and Watters’ response to your scolding. They have lived experience as women in our patriarchal culture. Your letter, telling them to be nicer, reinforced patriarchal norms. Their tweets made it clear that they understood it this way. That’s real. You are now falling back on intention, but that doesn’t erase either the content of your critique or Rab’s and Watters’ understanding of it.

So when you write: “Is there some way we can agree that — until there is evidence of dishonorable goals or a pattern of attacking women (or some other group) — we can evaluate ideas based on their merits, and not just accuse people of being sexist or otherwise dishonorable?”

Yes, we can agree on that. But the evidence /is/ your critique as part of a constant barrage of discourse telling women to be nicer if they want to be part of the public conversation. It’s not about who you are, but what you said.

It sucks. I’ve been there. Good luck.

I really have been there. It really does suck when our actions conflict with our identity.

But again, see premise #1. To me, no matter his intentions, it is not possible for him to critique Rab and Watters on the grounds of tone without replicating patriarchal silencing discourse. That does not make him a sexist. It does mean his critique operates within sexist norms whether or not he intended it to do so.

And that’s the power of culture. We all consume patriarchal culture. It wants us to replicate it in our speech and actions. We have to push against the grain. We have to hold ourselves and each other accountable when we mess up. And when I mess up, I try to resist being defensive, but instead say – Crap. Patriarchy (or whatever oppressive system I have inadvertently contributed to) is powerful and pernicious. I’ll try and do better next time.

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