• Paul D. Wilke

Words Matter

Well, it finally happened. I reached my saturation point on sexual harassment coverage in the media. I’m going to take a break from it. I’ve learned over the last few weeks that men in power can be creepy perverts and there’s apparently no expiration date on coming forward with accusations of abuse. Anyway, the breaking point came as I was reading a recent article from Charles Blow at the New York Times. But more on that in a moment.

One of the motivations to start this blog was reading Timothy Snyder’s outstanding On Tyranny, in which he gives twenty maxims on citizenship that promote a healthy democratic society better able to resist authoritarianism. One piece of advice that stuck out was maxim number nine: “Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.” [1]

That’s what I’ve endeavored to do here on this blog. I’m trying to do more than just read about other people’s ideas because those ideas just end up becoming my own and I end up not being able to tell the difference between my own thinking and mere parroting. I’m trying to express my own ideas here, even if the end result is not as polished as I’d like it to be. I’ve also tried to provide links to those journalists and thinkers who, I believe, are trying to do that same thing.

That brings me to Mr. Blow’s article, which bothered me because it completely ignores the ‘think up your own way of speaking’ rule. First, Mr. Blow is not kind to the language, writing in way that deploys just about every preachy trope in the social justice warrior lexicon of hand-wringing victimology.

We’re told that, “If you are not actively working to dismantle it [sexism], you are supporting it. It is not sufficient to simply not be a sexist yourself if you are a man. You must also recognize that you benefit from the system of sexism in ways to which you may not even be aware.” [2]

This is overwrought nonsense, and a bit of a false dichotomy. If we’re not living and dying the issue of gender discrimination every day, then we’re somehow complicit, guilty, condemned for not living in a constant state of agitation about Harvey Weinstein’s sins. This is a variation of the solemn “we’re all guilty” trope, which feels brave to say but contains very little of substance. After all, if everyone is guilty, no one is, since the issue then dissolves into foggy abstraction. Put the blame where it belongs: on the blameworthy. Don’t try to turn the rest of us into accomplices for crimes we didn’t commit.

Mr. Blow then tells us, “I understand that all oppressions are, in some way, intersectional and connected to all other violence, that the empathic connections of ally-ship are multidirectional and reciprocal.” [3] This gender studies jargon is just another way of saying that our similarities with other demographics in shared victimhood should make us more empathetic to each other.

Or something like that.

By trotting out that “oppressions” are “intersectional” and connected to “other violence,” and that “empathetic connections of ally-ship are multi-directional and reciprocal,” Mr. Blow alienates just about everyone that does not live on a university campus. That means he’s mostly talking to people who already agree with him.

And then there’s this bit of cringe-worthy psycho-babble: “We have to stop, listen and receive other people’s experiences, validate those experiences and honor the feeling with which they are expressed. And we have to center the speaker and not the listener, center the person who lacks the privilege and not the one who possesses it.” [4]

Ugh! Again, the choice of words and phrases estranges the very target audience (i.e. the 99% of men who don’t watch Oprah or read Cosmopolitan) that I assume Mr. Blow is trying to reach. We need to “validate the experiences;” we need to “honor the feeling;” we need to “center the person who lacks the privilege and not the one who possesses it.”

He almost ends on a note that just about anyone can agree with. “I can’t know what women experience in this country and indeed in this world — not on a gut level or an experiential level — but I can learn the facts of those experiences. I can be eager to listen. I can advocate for cultural and policy changes that would make women’s lives better.” [5]

That’s absolutely correct, but he then spoils it by dousing himself with a heavy dose of what I can only describe as empathetic narcissism: “And, I can forgive myself, I believe, for being shocked and saddened when something that I deeply understand intellectually is illustrated in ways that make me deeply understand it emotionally." [6]

I’m not even sure what that means enough to be able to deconstruct it in any intelligible way. It sounds - and I may be wrong - that he’s managed to take an issue that really does not directly impact him in any meaningful way and made it all about him, his emotions, his spiritual journey to understand, and blah blah blah.

That’s the dark side of intersectionality: It manufactures empathy for others' suffering that we don't naturally feel. We then use that faux empathy to sculpt our own identities in the ways we want. Empathy and understanding end up as fashion choices, ostentatious ways for us to polish our personal brands. Performance.

My own reaction reading all this was to roll my eyes and sigh, and this is coming from a person deeply sympathetic to the pain the women in these recent harassment cases have suffered. Are sexual harassment and misogyny still issues in our society today? Yes, absolutely. Even if the recent media carpet-bombing on this topic that we've been subjected to mostly highlights rich assholes with too much power, it is a reminder that women experience the world differently than men do, that misogyny still lurks in unexpected places in our society. Men need to remember that and should do more to root out this kind of abuse whenever they see it, but not in the ‘all-in’ way that Mr. Blow describes.

We don’t need to die on the cross for feminism every day to make a difference. Just be aware, be empathetic, and treat everyone with mutual respect, as human beings, and not as sex objects. Remember that these are mothers and sisters. It’s that simple, but how those ideas are expressed matters.

My complaint is that Mr. Blow speaks in such a deep campus-left dialect that he turns off the very people he needs to reach the most, and this is a shame. Changing minds should be the goal, and no matter how strongly you feel about an issue, you have to speak and write in a language that will get people's attention and not push them away. Mr. Blow’s cause is just, and his heart may be in the right place, but sadly his language only alienates.

[1] Excerpt From: Timothy Snyder. “On Tyranny.” iBooks.