Sunday, June 21, 2015

Don't be 'politically correct' for the sake of political correctness - respect and value people

I recently had the opportunity to think through the notion of “political correctness,” and how the term is often used pejoratively against people, ideas, and ways of doing things, for a radio interview. I have a lot of ideas on this topic, and wanted to elaborate upon them there.

First of all, I don’t think anyone should do anything because it is politically correct, whatever that means. If I had to define what is, at its core, the set of behaviours and attitudes that constitute political correctness, I would say it means being sensitive, empathetic and in tune with issues around oppression and marginalization. These are the principles that often undergird so-called political correctness. But political correctness is not an end in itself. To do something solely in order to fit a subjective idea of political correctness, and not to value the underlying principles of that idea, defeats the purpose.

Sure, to be sexist is often seen as not politically correct. But I don’t want you to not be sexist in order to be adequately PC; I just want you to not be sexist. We need to strip away the connotations of the term, as shutting down debate, and get to the bottom of the issues we’re actually trying to have informed conversations about.

I come to this topic because people (interestingly, often privileged people with a lot of access to resources and platforms to espouse their ways) are complaining that things are “too PC.” They think upholding political correctness as a goal interferes with free speech, diversity of opinion, and stunts the intellectual growth that comes from unrestricted viewpoints circulating in public discourse. Many people think this is especially a problem on university campuses, where students are increasingly “sensitive” and find everything “offensive.” Rather than imagine that students may be getting more involved in social justice and responsible discourse as part of their education, as well as speaking up for their own rights as embodied subjects and citizens, critics depict vocal students as sheltered and fragile victim wannabes.

Strangely enough, the people arguing for free speech and diversity of opinion are not at all pleased with the diversity of opinion that has come from increased access to the public domain for formerly silenced and marginalized voices. So basically, they want access to their free speech, likely, the free speech they’ve always had.

When critics say an issue is merely a matter of political correctness, they are basically saying “this is silly. You’re overreacting. This topic doesn’t matter to me, I’m not negatively impacted by it, so we shouldn’t think twice about it.” It’s a tactic to delegitimize arguments and shut people up, which completely contradicts the argument that being “too PC” hampers productive debate.

Here’s an example: British scientist Tim Hunt recently said he would prefer labs to be segregated by gender and that there are issues working with women, because we, women, are so excessively emotional and we cry if criticized. Objectively, these comments are absolutely sexist. That’s not my opinion; that’s knowing the definition of the term “sexist.” They aren’t the worst comments ever uttered, and I don’t think anyone tried to argue they were. But they’re still not OK and simply irresponsible for a person in his position.

Well, women reacted, all over the world, and, wonderfully, women scientists starting tweeting photos of them in their labs, doing their work, with the hashtag #distractinglysexy. The reaction testified to the challenges women already have in traditionally male-defined and male-dominated fields, without a high profile Noble laureate going and perpetuating the idea of women are unpredictable, hormonal powder kegs who are a liability to SCIENCE! SCIENCE is serious business and must be protected, by the mens!!!

Science cannot be seen as neutral, devoid of human politics and interaction. Science, and men’s roles within its various disciplines, is of course linked to men’s historical supremacy over women. How can a person, in a high profile honourary professorship, make comments that are damaging to the strides women have made and are making in STEM fields, and expect not to get called out? That just shows this man could have benefited from some education in addition to biochemistry. You’re allowed to slip up, reflect, and profusely apologize. This isn’t a “witch hunt.” But people in certain public platforms also have responsibilities for public good. If you’re not going to actively promote social improvement, progress, and tolerance, at least don’t hamper it, Sir Hunt.

While people devoted to the noble fight of ensuring old, white, privileged men should be able to say whatever they want were quick to blame the uproar on “political correctness,” they’re missing the point. From my perspective, I don’t want this scientist to simply not say these things, I don’t want him to think them! And before you go try to call the thought police, hear me out: Anti-sexism, anti-misogyny work isn’t just about getting men to resist sexist making comments and suppress their misogynistic impulses. It’s about teaching boys and men to actually value girls and women as people and respect their inherent dignity. Convincing people to speak and act appropriately is only one small aspect of an overall social justice project.

Politically correctness, as a term, has gained traction as a way to convince people they are overreacting. For example, if someone asks a government or a media outlet to, say, use the term sex worker instead of “prostitute,” a deeply stigmatized and antiquated term, or to check their language  ask for feedback around some other topic in order to convey it responsibly and with empathy, others cry “you can’t say anything anymore.” They eulogize some lost utopia where you could further marginalize and stigmatize minorities by voicing your opinion.

When confronted with this complaint, I ask you to stop and ask who feels their ability to speak is being threatened? Is it a person who has, historically, benefited from saying and doing whatever they want, at the expense of others?

It seems to me that people who champion the claim that society has become too PC may be, ironically enough, uncomfortable that their way of thinking is finally being challenged. Shouldn’t the champions of free speech and diversity of opinion be happy that other voices are speaking up? That women, gender and sexual minorities, marginalized races and ethnicities, and people facing an array of marginalizations are having a say?

So, while showing themselves as heralding free speech and difference of opinion, the anti-political correctness people are actually trying to suppress dissent and critique.

When people bemoan that spaces, such as universities, are too politically correct, it seems to me they’re lamenting that they can’t get away with being ignorant, uniformed, and offensive. It’s inconvenient to be socially conscious and empathetic. It takes time and energy. People cry political correctness foul because they have an investment in keeping things unequal. People in positions of privilege and power don’t want to relinquish that privilege and power, and they don’t want to accommodate others.

I mean, why has gender inequality been so hard to change? Because one group benefits from the inequality. Patriarchy is easy for the patriarchs.

I love intellectual challenge, argument, and productive debate. I think political correctness or, rather, caring about people and respecting their experiences, identities, and challenges as individuals is not at all the same as censorship. But when we argue about protecting someone’s right to voice their opinion without fear of “getting in trouble,” we need to ask what that opinion is. Is it sexist? Racist? Prejudice? Hurtful? Society isn’t filled with easily offended, over-sensitive victims, rather people who have benefited from not being challenged or held accountable, and who are now threatened by a loss of power and impunity.

Don’t learn respect, empathy, and take care with language in order to be “politically correct” – learn respect, empathy, and take care with language for the fundamental importance of valuing the rights and dignity of people.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Fashionista Manifesta: Fashion as Radical Visibility and Embodiment

Mostly my own clothes, costumified.

I am using “fashion” inclusively to mean all aspects of bodily self-presentation: clothing, accessories, hair, make-up, etc., rather than to suggest what is “fashionable” or “in fashion.” 

I am a feminist researcher, student, and blogger and also a fashionista. I imagine most readers will not assume this to be a problematic link, as contemporary feminisms have helped many to unlearn assumptions about feminist praxis as unilateral and singular in focus and method. While some people think devoting any time to the argument that women* should be able to wear makeup and “feminine” clothing (and be taken seriously amongst the prevailing, deeply entrenched false correlation between feminine-ness and artificiality) is meaningless compared to other more fundamental feminist concerns (such as reproductive justice and freedom, to name one), I operate from a feminist viewpoint that seeks to avoid ranking or hierarchializing feminist issues. 

*When I say women, I always mean all women, cis and trans. 

My right to access safe and legal abortion is more valuable, on an immediate, visceral, life changing level, than my right to walk down the street, as a person with feminine or female-appearing body, safe from catcalling, yet both inform and shape my embodied experience of life as a woman under heteropatriarchy. 

Isn’t feminism, at its core, part of a movement to dismantle social hierarchies? In a sexist culture, there is no shortage of concerns facing women to choose from.

So while widespread knowledge of feminism as a lived, daily, meaningful praxis continues to increase (thanks, in large part I believe, to the continued seepage of feminist scholarship and activism into other, primarily online, spheres and outside of strictly academic circles), there is so much to discuss and consider in terms of lived realities for embodied subjects presenting their gender as female/feminine.

What we wear on these gendered bodies may seem trivial at first glance, but I believe a lot can be learned about how we judge, respond to, and interact with bodies. In my experience – in a northern region of a northern country in the West – clothing and self-styling are hugely important. In the societies I’ve lived in, my body must be clothed. If bodies are so integral (even if, often, because of our rejection of the physical body’s centrality to gendered embodiment) to our understanding of self, others, and gender relations, how can we dismiss clothing, hairstyling, accessories, make-up, and other mediations of self-presentation to the world, as trivial and peripheral. 

Fashion is just one aspect of how we self-present, but it’s a hypervisible one. 

For me, clothing is not apolitical. Clothing is not simply about utility, or comfort, or warmth, or adhering to the public nudity taboo. Clothing has always been part of my praxis, described as self-expression on a basic level and radical visibility on a more theoretical level, even before I had the words and knowledge to recognize it as such. At its core, it connects to visibility. I am a woman, and women are often told – through many different means – to blend in, to not take up space. 

Women’s appearances in societies are regulated. Many social influences, including the beauty industries that I both participate in and critique, tell us to fit in by ensuring we are fashionable, trendy, and properly dressed and coiffed. The weight loss and fitness industries teach us to aim to shrink our bodies into invisibility. It’s long been examined and critiqued (by books like Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, which I both agree and disagree with, in different facets) that if women are busy worrying about appearance, beauty, and weight, we won’t notice our systemic inequality.

I also recognize how class operates in mediating participation in clothing and beauty industries. Having grown up with minimal disposable income, and having often had to shop at thrift stores out of necessity, rather than because it was cool and trendy to do so, I feel that I can work within this framework to an extent. Still, my experience of class-based lack of access to clothing and fashion doesn’t compare to the experiences of many others. 

It’s also worth noting, that self-styling, fashionableness, and self-presentation were priorities. My mother didn’t force me into narrow boxes of self-expression, a wonderful, incredible thing for any mother to do, even (especially) if it means weathering the myriad bizarre phases of child and teenage self-expression.

Still, my desire to self-present was obliged. I was able to start colouring my hair as early as age 11 (and I’ve never looked back). So even with limited means, my mother and I valued fashion, hairstyling, and accessories, and thus I believe that we “passed” as having more means than we did. Conveying more wealth and disposable income than I had was never a conscious goal for me, and certainly isn’t now, but it’s fascinating to me how that aspect was at work as well.

I would say how I have dressed myself throughout my teen and adult years has been helpful, in terms of social capital, both in terms of standing out and fitting in. While I have often benefited from the self-esteem boosting that corresponds to compliments on one’s clothing and hairstyling, 90 per cent of the interactive feedback I’ve ever received (usually unsolicited) on my self-presentation has been that it is different. I’m not sure what it’s different from, or why, as I feel conservative compared to many alternative forms of self-styling I’ve witnessed. 

Nevertheless, I never underestimate the productive utility that standing out has afforded me, personally and as a woman in a sexist world.

I find great productive feminist potential in the radical visibility brought about by daring to be seen. I had the great fortune of taking in a panel by gender studies students working on fat* acceptance and activism at the recent Women’s and Gender Studies et Recherches Feministes conference in Ottawa. One presenter in particular linked fashion and, what she called, (super)fatness in terms of radical visibility, a connection that spurred self-reflection on my own fashion practices and how I conceptualize them similarly. To paraphrase her work (less eloquently than she presented it), fat women are hypervisible and deal with constant visual scrutiny. Further, there is a persistent belief in the correlation between body size and self-respect; we often continue to conceptualize fat people as lazy and disinterested in their appearance. Thus, to be a fashionable fat feminist can be a radical practice. 

*I’m not going to use euphemisms like larger, bigger, plus-sized, or “medical” terms like obese. 

So, as an “average” sized woman, in terms of body fat, with a petite frame, in terms of height and overall stature, I recognize that I undertake radical fashion visibility in a different way and with different considerations than the kind of work this scholar is doing. I am also white, able bodied, and fit many normative assumptions for feminine gender, such as long hair, for instance. I recognize that, because of various systemic prejudices, my body has been deemed more acceptable than others, an oppressive reality that we must continue to consider and challenge.

I propose a revisioning and reconceptualization for anyone who has dismissed or ignored fashion and self-presentation as artificial, superficial, meaningless, and normative, in essence. Fashion and beauty are capitalist industries, but that doesn’t mean we are all mindless consumers. There can be as much meaning in participating in these industries, as in rejecting them outright. There are valid and important critiques of women’s participation in regimes of fashion, beauty, body modification, and body improvement/ maintenance, but to continue to strip women’s agency and assume false consciousness when they choose to participate in projects of self-presentation, is futile and harmful. 

My fashion is only one small aspect of my feminist work as an agentive, embodied being, but it is a radical one.