Feminism, Work, and Identifying with Something

Lately, I’ve been circling a lot around a general anger with the social ordering of labour, and specifically, the point I made a few weeks ago about the pressure to identify with one’s work and take satisfaction with the work itself as reward enough, rather than expecting, say, fair wages and a decent standard of living. This gets another layer of complications when you look at it from a feminist angle. On the one hand, I’m all for reducing the kinds of discriminatory practices and assumptions that have led to the perpetuation of the pay gap, the shortage of women in positions of authority/power, and the continued reverse imbalance in unpaid, unappreciated home labour. But on the other, the emphasis remains primarily on either increasing the opportunities for women to have the kinds of positions that are worth identifying with in the labour market, or on finding a way to shift the discourse so that genuine appreciation and fulfillment – but not necessarily economic security – can be seen in care work that is often gendered as female.

A lot of non-white feminists, womanists, or other gender-based activists do a better job of examining the question of capitalism and inequality as a whole, rather than “just” the gendered components. I don’t say that to dismiss the gendered components, but as Rania Khalek pointed out in the #solidarityisforwhitewomen conversation (quoted in a lot of places, like here), talking about the pay gap without looking at the fact that white women categorically outrank men from several racialized groups is a myopic view. And maybe that’s why women of colour recognize the layers of problems that are far deeper than the old boy’s club.

From both a feminist and a personal perspective, I feel more and more like I’m playing the game even though I know the house always wins. The feminist version just means I’m using different tools to play it.

I’ve been blogging in a very off-the-cuff kind of way, trying to get something going just to have something to write about and see what sticks, but I think there are sets of themes here that deserve some more time and real energy in unpacking. This means I definitely have to leave it until after I’ve had my coffee.

“Subtle” racism: The argument from etymology

I was extremely interested in the conversation last week about Slate’s decision to stop referring to the Washington NFL team by its nickname. I like the recognition from the news agency that they don’t have to wait for the team’s owner – who is apparently rather adament in his refusal to see this as a cause for concern – to act before refusing to perpetuate the racism by themselves using the word. There are plenty of alternatives, though it may sometimes result in awkward constructions (“Washington’s NFL team”) or the inability to form pleasant parallels with the names of other teams (“the 49ers vs. Washington”). In this case, awkwardness strikes me as a bonus, since it creates an impact that reiterates the point being made in this announcement by calling attention to itself. (Mascots and symbols are a bit more difficult to work around without an actual change, since I can’t think of a way that someone other than the owner or team itself could consciously and conspicuously refuse to use the mascot — you can buy merchandise that avoids those images and uses others, for example, but no one will really notice the shift without that linguistic awkwardness).

As the title of this post indicates, though, there’s another part of the story that I find interesting in a different way. As I’ve seen others point out (like Erik Loomis at LGM), I don’t think the name is “subtle” in its racism at all.  Slate’s perspective on why it is subtle, however, is one that I’ve seen tossed around a lot in conversations about the appropriateness of various labels for minority or oppressed groups (including debates about in-group re-appropriation of hateful terms) — the ‘argument from etymology’. This argument gets used on both sides of the debate – here, it’s used to downplay the racism and make the case for a level of ‘subtlety’ based on the innocuous, possibly in-group, and descriptive origins of the expression. In other examples, a racist origin that has become relatively opaque (such as the expression ‘gypped’, derived from the offensive label for the Roma people) is used to inform people about the inappopriateness of the term. I’m not going  make a claim in favour of terms like the latter, but I find this reliance on etymology-as-arbiter-of-offensiveness very strange. My own perspective is that in the context of current race relations and semantic transparency, the name of the Washington football team is far more clearly racist than the swindling verb, partially because many users of the latter have to be informed about the relationship between the term and a marginalized group that has a relatively limited presence in North American communities and politics. This is not to say that Roma people in North America are not subject to racism, but that beliefs about this group do not carry a lot of symbolic power in the minds of most non-Roma, and they don’t make the connection about swindlers and cheaters coming from this group unless they are informed of the word’s origins. In the present moment, however, the Washington NFL team’s nickname is so obviously linked to a term that has become derogatory towards a group that people actually have to be informed that once upon a time, it was an innocent expression.

Like I said, I’m not trying to make an argument that an opaque origin automatically erases the racist connotations that emerge from a term, but I certainly want to make a claim that current semantic conditions are more relevant to determining the “subtelty” of an expression than etymology. I mean, seriously, if you have to cite several sources in your claim that something is subtle, despite the loud voices of everyone around you who are saying that they see the racism right in front of them, you might want to rethink your definition of “subtle”.

Narcissism, Self-Presentation, and Doing Good

Another of the common themes in the ‘what’s this generation coming to’ discussions is that young people are becoming increasingly narcissistic, and this is directly associated with the ‘self-esteem’ movement as well as with the phenomenon of social media and increasing consciousness about the presentation of a constructed self. There is academic research suggesting that a genuine increase is happening, and other academic research contesting these findings (I’m not in a position to evaluate either side right now, but my initial reaction is similar to this post on Language Log from a couple of days ago). I do find it noteworthy that confirmations of narcissism and self-centredness are far more likely to become popular media articles than refutations of those claims, but such is the way with popularizations of academic studies.

The thing that I find frustrating about these claims of narcissism is that it assumes there is something fundamentally different happening among the younger generation, often with new (or newish) technology being blamed for creating socially incompetent monsters. This is kind of a generational version of ethnocentrism, where people who have been raised entirely around one conceptualization of interpersonal relationships evaluate the interactions of others who have been raised in a different technological and interactional framework. Which is basically a long winded way of saying that it’s fundamentally silly to think of people who spend all their time on social media as socially incompetent.

I was thinking of a slightly different angle on this theme as I read this lovely piece by John Scalzi on an agnostic interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. This part, in particular, made me think of the generational assumption issue:

I struggle with this because one of my failings is a desire for recognition (hello, I’m a writer). I like to be seen and I like to be seen doing things of value. I like the response I get from them; I like being known as a good guy. I can even argue that there is value in me being seen doing good “out loud,” as it were.

While Scalzi highlights his role as a professional writer as indicative of a personal inclination towards seeking recognition, I don’t think the arguments he mentions are unique to writers (or artists, or politicians, or others whose vocations create a public-orientation by necessity). I especially don’t think that’s the case in a world that is, as I said above, increasingly dominated by a much more conscious construction of public self on social media. In the same breath that the older generation denounces young people for thinking too much of what they look like, they also criticize them for not thinking enough of the image they’re portraying with their Facebook and Instagram photos, the language choices in status updates and tweets, or their blog comments. The suggestion isn’t that they shouldn’t think about self-presentation, it’s that they should make sure they think properly about it.

I guess a lot of what I’m saying here comes down to a basic point that is clear from Scalzi’s use of a centuries old text criticizing a kind of behaviour that is being attributed to Kids Today. That seems to make it abundantly clear that narcissistic self-presentation is not a recent phenomenon.

Names and Power

I have come to find conversations about names and naming absolutely fasinating – the fact that this has not been mitigated by writing an entire dissertation chapter about state management of naming practices, or by doing the necessary background reading to produce said chapter, means that this is quite an intense interest, indeed. It seems to be a topic that allows a lot of language ideologies, mostly around beliefs about identity, to come to the surface and become a topic for heated conversation. Literally everybody has some type of opinion about names – how they should be chosen, who should have a say in it, how they will affect the life of the nam-ee, etc.

This last part is probably the most interesting aspect of Anglo-American naming conversations for me, as it seems to express a belief in a power that names have to shape and produce an identity in a way that, I suspect, would not be attributed to any other linguistic material. This GQ Guide to Naming captures a lot of those dominant themes, starting from the teaser:

If name is destiny (Destynee?), then judging from the dumb-ass, intentionally misspelled, needlessly apostrophe’d names we Americans are giving our kids nowadays—Jaxxon, Branlee, Scot’t—we’re raising a generation of meth heads

The main thing that the author seems to think parents want their child to become via the power of the name is special:

as if a uniquely horrible name serves as some kind of guarantee against little Aston Martin growing up to be merely ordinary

The whole point of sarcastic, funny, faux advice pieces like this one, though, is to point out the errors in this type of thinking. And in this case, it’s the illusion among parents that their intentions are the only ones that will be at work in the child’s life, as the passage of time will make the trendy and cool turn into stale and dated (“If you’re going to name your kid Ace, you might as well name him 1987”).

Which leads into another major element of this whole conversation about names and power, the one operating beneath the surface of the commentary about the futility and misguidedness of certain efforts to create an identity for your child – when we talk about names as markers of identity, the signals go way beyond establishing the individual we’re talking about. Names have everything to do with class (and dismissing certain names as “stripper names” or “meth head names” is all about reinforcing that relationship), with race (as some really good research has shown, otherwise identical resumés are treated very differently when they’re presented as belonging to candidates names “Jamal” vs candidates named “Peter”), and of course with sex/gender (I think there’s a reason that variations on names that are most closely associated with boys are reasonably popular with girls – like Bobbie, Billie, and Charlie – but not vice versa). The age reference is another addition to this, as certain names mark people as likely to belong to a certain generation (subversions of these expectations can expose those assumptions, like when I heard that my midwife’s name was “Frances” and I was very surprised to meet a Middle Eastern woman in her early 20s who would be attending the birth of my son).

All this is captured nicely in the Lingua Franca article about young Prince George. After discussing the use of some relatively unusual linguistic constructions describing his birth (without addressing the implications of these constructions, but that’s another topic, really), Yagoda makes the point:

If you’re interested—as how could you not be?—in the issues of self-definition, status, class, and taste, then first-name choices provide fascinating and endlessly rich data. Being free of charge and compulsory, they’re not constricted in the way most other markers are. Moreover, for many if not most people, a baby is a vessel for aspiration and social extrapolation, so the choice carries special meaning. The challenge is in the analysis, of course. It seems safe to observe that contemporary American naming customs suggest a longing for Colonial times. (If you remove outliers like Mia, Jayden and Aiden from the top-10 lists, and switch Madison from first name to last, then the people in a 2013 day care and a 1776 tea party have the same names.)  The Brits, meanwhile, seem to fancy hanging about with the blokes down at the local.

I don’t totally agree with the analysis of what aspirations are being expressed on each side of the pond  – he didn’t include the list of British favourites, so I’m not sure what names are associated with “blokes down at the local”, especially among the girls’ names, but I think there’s more to the conversation about how certain names take on the sense of being “classic” or “timeless” than a longing for colonial times. But the overall point is an important one – choosing a name for a baby is far from a neutral act, and any number of people, from relatives and friends to random strangers to bookmakers (when the baby is already predefined as an important one, anyway) will influence your decision and put thoughts in your head about who your baby will be with X name, and what their experiences will be like if it’s hard to spell, easily mockable, or too common.

I’m verging on turning this into another dissertation chapter, so I will let it go with the curiosity about whether this pre-identified-powerful George baby will contribute to an upswing in young Georges, despite this particular “classic” name being quite strongly out of fashion over the past few decades. I’m going to bet against it, but I’d need to think more to say why.

Deserve’s Got Nothing to Do With It

I’ve read a few articles and posts in the last few days that highlight something that I think is fundamental to the perpetuation of economic injustice. The first is a month old article by Paul Krugman about the War on the Unemployed (which I found via Fred Clark’s always awesome Scenes from the Class War link farm series). The second is one that I read quickly and neglected to bookmark and thus can no longer find, but dealt with a similar argument in relation to health care, in which those who are sick are conceptualized as deserving their suffering due to their poor choices (inactivity, unhealthy eating, smoking, etc). 

I have often responded to these arguments by pointing towards the many examples that contradict these presumptions of deserved suffering (the obviously-not-at-fault health conditions, for example, or the hardworking unemployed), or by suggesting that multiple structure barriers exist for certain groups and individuals that do not exist for others, such as the high cost of healthy food, or the quality of educational opportunities. And many things about those examples are valid and true, and they point towards the need for policy reform that is based in evidence. But as Krugman points out, evidence doesn’t get through, because the counter-positions aren’t based in evidence. They’re based in what I can’t hesitate to call a toxic moral philosophy of deserved suffering.

I don’t want to make those arguments anymore. The argument that I want to make is summarized entirely in the title to this post, which is not only about recognizing that people rarely get what they ‘deserve’, either negatively or positively, but also about saying that ‘deserve’ has no place in these conversations. I am tired of arguing that poverty is not an earned condition, but more than that, I am overwhelmed by arguing with those who take comfort in the idea of a moral order being realized by deprivation and punitive acts.

The conversation is happening in a cultural framework that values suffering, either through economic sanction, dehumanizing incarceration practices, or the physical pain that comes with untreated health conditions. Deserve’s got nothing to do with it, not just because of the many examples of people who have not earned their suffering (or, for that matter, their luxuries) but because this way of talking about people’s lives is fundamentally broken. In the absence of a way to say that quickly and easily, though, I think I’ll probably continue to fall back on those old arguments, even though I also feel gross when I do it.