Back in 2011, Skepchick founder Rebecca Watson made some really mild comments about a dude’s inappropriate behaviour at a conference. Things blew up, especially once the prince of Internet Atheism, Richard Dawkins, left a comment mocking Watson for making such a fuss over such a small thing. His argument, in a scathing “satire”, boiled down to: how dare you talk about this bad experience, things are so much worse for oppressed Muslim women.
(Being Richard Dawkins, he said it as offensively and gratuitously as possible.)
And that was Elevatorgate. Neither the first, nor the last, but definitely one of the premiere cases of the thing I’m blogging about today.
Again and again, when women (or any other group of people pointing out the ways their lives are constrained and affected by oppression) speak out about something – no matter how “calmly” or “reasonably” they put it – we’re scoffed at. “Oh, like this is the worst sexism that ever happened *eyeroll*” or “Things are way worse for women in Syria, you know“. The only possible inference is: “you shouldn’t talk about this, because this isn’t really serious.”
As I wrote in my post about the myth of language policing:
It’s never just one word. Women aren’t walking around living practically perfect lives, taking it all for granted, until one poor guy says one bad word, at which point we descend upon him like harpies and rend the flesh from his bones.
It’s one guy saying “chicks” … after another guy called you a “cheerleader“, after another guy referred to you as “the office girl”, after another guy joked that you’re “more than just a pretty face”, after another guy asked if your husband was going to sign off on the kitchen quote, after another guy got praised for repeating something you’d said 5 minutes earlier, after another guy assumed you were the nurse not the surgeon, after another guy assumed you couldn’t do basic math.
That’s what sexism is like. This omnipresent state of “being a woman in a patriarchy” is manifested in a hundred different ways. Yes, most of them, if they were “the only” thing happening, would be trivial, easily brushed off and forgotten. But they’re not. They’re constant. And sometimes women complain about them.
And when we do, it seems to just be a matter of time before someone jumps up to point out that, well, this isn’t the worst sexism ever so stop complaining.
Whatever your intention, however you phrase it, you’re effectively telling women to stop talking. That their concerns aren’t valid – and that you are the person who gets to decide whether or not they are, largely based on being (usually) white, or male, or cisgendered, or wealthy, or famous – or any other of the characteristics which our society infuses with credibility. We don’t get to decide what’s important for us, what harms us or what we want to tweet about. You do.
And when we women say “hang on, this feels a bit like you want me to shut up”, the response is: “I don’t want to silence women! I love women! I was just making a point, I never said you shouldn’t have an opinion at all!”
Every single time: this issue is trivial and that experience is all in our heads and this problem is just a misunderstanding and why, oh why, are we talking about it at all?
As I get older and theoretically wiser, and see the same “well-intentioned” calls to sit down and stop making a fuss made over and over, I stop believing that this isn’t malicious. It’s too easy to make women shut up about everything this way – because nothing is as bad as The Sum Total Of Patriarchy. And The Sum Total of Patriarchy is so massive and pervasive that there’s no practical way to attack it directly. So what option do we have but to sit down and stop making a fuss?
We’re told to “pick our battles” on pretty much every battle there is – and we already have a list that’s too long of the battles we’ve already surrendered.
Well, to end on a note of high drama, here’s the battle I’m picking: I won’t be quiet about sexism. Sometimes I’ll talk about the big issues. Sometimes I’ll talk about the small ones. And if you desperately need to try to tell me whether the things I talk about are or aren’t important, I’ll probably be talking about you next.