Bear with me. Here are four things I was thinking about yesterday.
I have a spitfire niece who, when we were kids, used to do the most outrageous things, and then when you got mad at her, or she was about to face punishment, she’d say, “Just kidding!” It was a way to try to escape the consequences of her actions.
A number of years ago, there was this great piece in Playboy written by a man explaining how men don’t understand how women feel when they’re out in public. They don’t understand that, as a generalization, wherever women go they’re aware of the people around them. That they won’t wander through a college campus at night without thinking carefully about it and being very aware of their surroundings. That, unless they have a self-destructive streak, they won’t go out drinking unless they have friends who are going to take care of them. The point of the article was that they’re hyperaware in a way that most men aren’t.
Today when I went out to lunch with my honey, we were talking about the recent Daniel Tosh debacle. You know, where good ol’ Tosh O said all rape jokes are funny, and when a woman in the crowd yelled that they were not, he said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” Sure, she never thought anyone would actually do it right there, but talk about your hostile environment. (He did eventually apologize after she posted what happened and people were outraged.)
And then I read this article, “Why Women Aren’t Crazy,” by Yashar Ali, who writes about women’s issues. It’s about the practice of gaslighting, which is “a term, often used by mental health professionals, to describe manipulative behavior used to confuse people into thinking their reactions are so far off base that they’re crazy.” It’s from the 1944 film Gaslight, where a husband messes with the gaslights to make his wife feel like she was crazy.
What do all these things have in common? Well, let me see if I can talk through some of it.
It’s about gender and violence and accountability, surely. In the first instance, my niece was using language to try to get out of accountability. In the second, women are in hostile situations where they feel physically threatened and have an inner life that many men don’t realize the extent of. In the third, besides Tosh O being an unmitigated pig, he’s creating a hostile environment, one that uses language as a weapon to create that hostile environment ~ which in its extremes makes it okay to rape the girl. In the fourth, it’s about the sometimes unconscious practice men can perpetrate on women that undermine their confidence and allow men to more easily manipulate women. (Of course this is a generalization. Women do it to men too, I’m sure, but I think it’s much more ingrained the other way in our patriarchal society.)
What do I mean to say about this? Well, it all coalesced in my mind into a primordial stew and prompted me to think about women’s agency in the world ~ people’s agency, really.
We use words as tools. They are how we affect the world. We convince people to fall in love with us. We get jobs through our resumes. We through our lawyers convince a jury that we are not guilty. They are also weapons. They do real physical harm because they give permission. Hate speech really is hate speech. We talk ourselves into things through rationalizations and we talk other people into things, sometimes just by our presence or our nonaction. (It used to bother me a little when I taught freshman comp and technical writing that I was teaching more effective rhetoric to some who I very much disagreed with. I believe in the cause, though.)
Language is a construct, and the way it is used ~ often unconsciously on the part of the user ~ creates reality and gives permissions and imposes restrictions. It sets up gender expectations. These things are not easily changed and they impact every aspect of our lives.
I don’t think things should be outlawed as not funny and off limits to comics (See this interesting discussion on the Tosh O’s idiocy), just as there should not be topics that are off limits to write about. I think things should be taken on a situational basis. I guess, though, maybe I’m not one to judge funny, as my sense of humor doesn’t seem to match a lot of people’s (who seem to find hurting others really funny). I find a lot of humor immensely angry and sad.
(Did I really just undermine my own words in a post about the way the world makes you undermine your own words?)
I guess I’ll end with this. There is the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This is simply not true. They hurt you emotionally, but more importantly they set the stage for violence. They make it okay to rape someone or to lynch someone or to use children in your war. Caricatures allow people to be dehumanized, which gives others permission to do all kinds of things.
Of all people, a comic should understand the power of words. And if he does, that makes it even worse.
UPDATE: What a fabulous well-written piece on Jezebel about this idea. Much more eloquent than my own. http://jezebel.com/5925186/how-to-make-a-rape-joke.