A Walk on the Ired Side: Gender Rhetoric

canstockphoto7503414It’s been hard to read the news and blogs this week. I’ve been sucked into reading comment sections full of vitriol and spite and rage – not far removed from the emotions that drove a man to kill 4 men and 2 women in California this week. It is only through blogging that I’ve become aware of all the hatred that thrives on this medium of spurious anonymity. I’ve seen the hashtag campaigns, I’ve read a lot of feminist and men’s rights blogs. The tactics, name-calling and dogma are right out of a bipartisan political playbook. We are our own worst enemies.

I don’t talk much about feminism, because there are plenty of people who have taken and twisted it into whatever suits their purpose in the moment. People write blog post after blog post telling us what it is and isn’t. Some men’s blogs have entire forums dedicated to insulting anyone who calls themselves a feminist. The latest backlash includes women proudly proclaiming that they are not feminists. That’s a whole lot of insecurity on parade.

Having been very young and very stupid once, I remember when I thought gender didn’t matter. I blundered through life like that. I thought periods sucked. I didn’t want to get married or have kids. I dated a lot of men people. But I am not beautiful by society’s standards (although I’ll be excited when knock knees and having no chin comes into fashion) and someone once told me that I walked like I was getting ready to kick someone’s ass. Apparently these things in combination insulated me against much of the everyday misbehavior about which many women have posted.

That being said, I’ve been called a whore in the middle of a party. I’ve been called a bitch by male coworkers. I discovered disparate pay situations for equal work. I worked harder than most of my fellow soldiers only to be looked askew at by military wives. Believe me, your husband smelled like dirty sweat socks in the field and so did I – Barry White doesn’t have a song that covers that sweet, sweet romance.

I resist calling myself a feminist, because I hate labels of any kind. I don’t want to belong to any group. I don’t do religion or follow pop stars. I avoid gatherings and groupings of more than two. I don’t want to join a fan base or grocery discount club. I’m not going to follow rules, guidelines or policy if it curtails thinking for myself and making whatever choices are right for me. If somebody is going to keep redefining the labels, I’m always going to be a failure and I don’t see the point.

As a spouse and a parent now, I see things from multiple perspectives. I think it must suck for my husband, a perfectly decent human being, to see all the anger directed at white men. Sure, he might assume some things, but that’s why we have conversations. We also have a daughter – an amazing, confident kid who is entering a world that seems fraught with bias and violence. And it’s time for our talks to go beyond that false “stranger danger” scenario. I am afraid for her and am trying to not let that fear permeate our discussions. No matter how much I teach her, someone, somewhere, will make a judgment about her based on her gender. I hope she kicks their ass, figuratively or otherwise.

I’m trying to teach her to see every individual as an individual and avoid relying on stereotypes to inform her decisions. I am teaching her how to do things the hard way – that is the path of critical thinking. I am teaching her to question everything, including assumptions she might already be carrying with her. I have taught her to lead by example and that no matter what you say, it’s what you do that is important. Kindness is not weakness. Saying no is not cruelty. Above all, I want her to know that she can trust herself, her intuition and her boundaries.

The reading of the last week and my own offline experiences have really made me think about how conversation regarding gender can engage, rather than repel and what does dialogue, instead of competing monologues, look like? We are capable of great imagination and creative solutions, but most of the public forums I’ve seen have been absent of reason, respect and common sense. Just a lot of the same cookie cutter sentiments bouncing around an empty room. It makes one hungry for real conversation and engagement.


Useful reading regarding semantics and rhetoric:

Taking the War Out of Our Words:The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication by Sharon Ellison

Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion by Jay Heinrichs


34 thoughts on “A Walk on the Ired Side: Gender Rhetoric

        1. Got it – it just triggered a comedy sketch in my head about a mediator, a few feminists and some men’s rights activists. The first order of business would of course be a group hug. I’m just not as funny as I’d like to imagine…


  1. In the places you mentioned, critical thinking is too often in short supply. I have learned so much from honest debate, not much from monologues and nothing from shouting.


    1. Honest debate is a badly needed. It’s very difficult to listen to the people who get attention by repeating one sound byte after another. And while I can occasionally rant about the lack of imagination and critical thinking, I thought it would be a good idea to start sharpening up my own rhetorical skills first…I have a ways to go!


    1. Thanks, Elyse. I’m a very lucky mom – that kid just amazes me. But we’re on the cusp of the preteen years, the eye roll frequency has increased exponentially. I have warned her that they’re going to get stuck that way, but to no avail!


    1. I was recently asked to join the school’s equity team and the catchphrase is now “Courageous Conversations”. I really like the idea of having a space where open discussions – fearless dialogue and civil discourse can happen. It gives me hope that things are happening on a local level that are not often evidenced by the media or politicians or online.


  2. I was just telling my husband the other day that I’m very glad I only have one daughter (we also have 3 boys). It is possible to raise a strong, healthy, confident girl; but it takes a lot of time and effort and there will always be certain things to fear simply because she is female.


    1. When writing this, I was thinking how important it is to raise a boy well. If we all do our jobs, counter destructive cultural messages with critical thinking skills, we might see a generation of amazing humans. I have to believe that where we’re at is an uncomfortable juncture in our evolution as a civilization.


  3. I think we’re missing civility, but more important, “we” seem to have lost our ability to empathize. I read an article about the college student who killed herself after her porn video was shared online and she was mercilessly taunted by her former high school classmates. The comments below the article were so damn discouraging. The majority of them, from men, blamed her and her actions on her death. None of them acknowledged the role that the vicious classmates played. We really are becoming an uncivilized society. I fear for children, youth, the elderly, animals and me.


    1. I think that kind of judgmental cruelty is common online. Entertainment has become so exploitative that there is a severe disconnect from the fact that these are human beings, much like the comments I see on blogs and news articles. I do not believe that the tone of some online boards is actually representative of much of the human population – although it can sometimes seem that way. There are, as always, horrible human beings, but I’ve known, read and interacted with so many decent people that counter that notion. All we can do is take responsibility for our conduct and ignore those insecure, hateful, demonstrably unenlightened humans.


  4. I lost a long comment due to drop in connection (and don’t have time to rewrite) but I tried to say my experience has been very much like yours…and I still have some hope left for a “future group hug”…


    1. Sorry you lost your comment! I do have hope, too. I don’t see how I can raise a child and not. And really, if we throw up our hands in despair and don’t keep trying to make things better – how would we be any better than people who are deliberately destructive? It’s a question I wrangle with whenever I feel overwhelmed by the news or social media.


    1. Thanks, John. I think a need for mindfulness exponentially grew when I became responsible for teaching another human being. My own attitudes, beliefs and perceptions come under sharp scrutiny when I think about passing them onto someone else.


    1. I think there are a couple of contexts in which gender and race should be issues. On a personal level, I think we need to examine our own preconceptions and beliefs about stereotypes when we meet an individual and not assume that we know anything about them based on their appearance. In looking at social issues from poverty to educational missteps, we can’t put blinders on, ignore the data and act like it doesn’t matter, because then there’s no honest dialogue about how to solve the problems in our society without acknowledging history and historical bias.


  5. Am I naive to just wish gender didn’t matter? I know it does but I wish it mattered less. I do like your non-joiner philosophy. It makes these groups-are-X conversations easier because you (and those like you) are a little less sensitive to comments about your groups. When I take time to argue that I’m not one of those bad men, I’ve just made the conversation about me and not the bad men.


    1. Unfortunately, people feel comfortable making broad generalizations about entire groups with no qualifiers. And these are the people who will argue until they’re blue in the face with unsubstantiated or uncorroborated evidence. There’s no opening for discussion. My discomfort with much of the arguing is that it is anecdotal. It’s human nature to view the world through the lens of one’s own experiences, but that doesn’t make it truth. Critical thinking requires that we look critically at ourselves and understand that our set of experiences or circumstances can be entirely different from that of someone else. It’s a simple concept. Another commenter mentioned a lack of empathy and that is part of the problem as well.


  6. Seems like I always have a list of responses. Here goes:

    A. You are right.
    1. All generalization is always wrong (see what I did there? ; )
    2. Dialogue is more productive than argument.
    3. Prejudice is morally wrong, and interferes with the good of both society and the both individuals involved.

    B. You are kinda wrong.
    1. Sometimes anger or a strong emotional response is needed to drum up social awareness or support.
    2. Sometimes more support is needed to spur action on social issues which otherwise receive little in the way of backing, financial or otherwise.
    3. A longer answer:

    I was raised in a thoroughly-mixed neighborhood–all races, ethnicities, nationalities, all gettin’ along–hard to imagine, huh? When I moved to L.A., my first black co-workers and friends were seeing prejudice and bigotry everywhere–not just against blacks, but against white-lookin’ me as well (which I didn’t understand then, but do now–I was kept back from an important promotion because I wasn’t Jewish). I thought they had triple chips on both shoulders–especially the guys. They were angry, angry men.

    Well, first, I was a babe in the woods about all the ways the Man (and Woman) was keeping them down. Then:
    I have since learned that when you are being stepped on, and are not yet powerful enough to change it enought, that anger is VITAL. It is part of the graduation stepping-stone to liberation and self-awareness–how victims become aware of their victimhood and start to endow themself with the righteous indignation to rise above it. It is also part of the safety-valve that protects the innocents in the home and work lives of those victims. We, the bigger society, are d#mned lucky it exists.

    I’m not saying that anger is productive in the sense of promoting effective dialogue with your oppressors and those who sit on the fence. Of course it is not. You are correct that reminders are needed that there are times to put that anger in a box and set it aside. And you are correct that reminders are needed that the fire of the anger may spread too far and wide at times. But I think, Michelle, that just as I thought that my black friends and co-workers were overly-sensitive and over-reacting, that we are in that same place when it comes to how the bulk of women and men view the opinions of many “angry feminists”.

    DANG, Michelle, this was gonna be one of my posts, and now I’ve gone and ruined it. Sigh. Think I’ll still do the post, though, even if I lift a lot of the text from here.

    BTW, I corrected my own ire-filled over-generalization in my second-to-last post, where I forgot the “some” before “men”. So (awkwardly shuffling…) …ahem…thank you.


    1. I only have a quick moment to respond to your thoughtful comment. I think this is why I try to be specific to my own approach and perspective, because I would never deign to speak universally for any group. I would not suggest that anger doesn’t play a role in the process of societal changes. I would say that a lot of people know how to get angry, vent, protest, shout, etc., but not as many know the next step in the process towards change. Your comment has me thinking about that process.
      An introvert like me is going to find the noise off-putting and I don’t hear when someone is shouting, but I’ll gladly apply my skills towards the quieter work (and there is a necessity for quieter, behind-the-scenes work). There is a place for all of us in the process of change, I think. You’ve given me a lot to think about – thanks!


  7. You’ve given a thoughtful view–one I resonate with in many ways. To be able to comment though, I will throw in that you may not see yourself as a feminist, or even want to be, but my view is more and more that because women have been so slow to do so, thus creating a forceful group, is one reason change has been so slow and misogyny has been so creepily growing. My best to you.


    1. It’s not feminism I eschew – it’s “group think” that I am troubled by. Also, in societal and cultural terms, I think it’s a very hard time to be a moderate anything without someone telling me that I’m part of the problem. The political/issue rhetoric has become troubling in its lack of measured reason, ability to create dialogue and a sense that anything beyond all-out war is within reach. I don’t want to make the mistake of conflating what is important with what others tell me is important. I appreciate the comment, though, because no one should go unchallenged in their thinking!


      1. You make good points. I understand–I think–what you are saying. Words get in the way so often of meaning. Perhaps “feminist” is as big a category as “mother.” You bet I am one and proud of it, but I’m not mommy dearest or any extreme category positive or negative. But I’m not giving up the designation either.


  8. Regardless of gender, critical thinking is (or at least seems to be) becoming a lost art .. I am encouraging both of my boys to have at least a solid liberal arts/critical thinking base to whatever degree they obtain as one flies off to college this fall with the other close behind. Education is more than just getting a degree and getting a job — it is learning how to think, independently, critically, thoughtfully. A sound-byte society that thinks through 140-character discussions grows intellectually thin in a hurry if they don’t watch themselves.


    1. Yes! I feel like I’ve planted those seeds with my daughter as well. It has, of late, occurred to me that I need to brush up on my own skills. Sometimes we just don’t have the time or wherewithal to put on the brakes and examine our own critical thinking skills. It’s a challenge in, as you say, this sound byte world we live in – thoughtfulness seems to be one of the first things to go. It’s good to hear from you, Kat. I’m just recovering from the whirlwind that was the this last month of school. No end to activities, but things are slowing down and I’ll be back in blog-land soon.


      1. The last month is always such a whirlwind, particularly this year with one graduating! (two more years ’till the next and last one!) — I only have been toe-dipping in the blogosphere as well. Hope all is well “down south” (as we FINALLY are enjoying crab apple and lilac blossoms “up north”!)


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