Monday, June 20, 2011

Hysteriawatch: Like twitching, but for feminists

We might remember that some time back, our great and beneficent leader, on being interrogated by Angela Eagle during PMQs, decided that the best way to wriggle out of inconvenient questions was by engaging in an ill-advised impersonation of Michael Winner. 'Calm-down-dear'-gate, as it was thankfully never named, was, according inevitably to some, yet another instantiation of the way woman just don't get the funnies, or are prone to getting themselves all worked up about things which are really No Great Shakes. Because you see, not only do women's natural sensitivities prevent them from engaging appropriately in that great ratiocinative arena otherwise known as the House of Commons (priceless really, considering how much general school-boy jeering and paper-waving they routinely get up to over there), when this is calmly pointed out to them, they get all huffy and over-emotional.

As Libby Brooks noted in The Guardian that Thursday, language is actually Quite a Big Deal, particularly when that language is deployed more-or-less subtly to delegitimize critique, in a manner which neatly side-steps the need to actually deal with the substance of that critique. And, when it comes to Not Wanting to Listen to Women - especially when they are making observations about the myriad mechanisms used to silence, sideline or undermine them - there is perhaps no better way to silence, sideline or undermine them than wheeling out the accusation of hysteria. As it happened, a short while after Cameron's blunder, I published my little bit of criticism about Moffat and Who, which caused a predictably explosive response. As a case study of the polysemic range of rhetorical tricks on offer to anyone who wants to pull the 'I am Logos, and you are Irrationality Embodied' move on their opponent, it was, I have to say, something of a gold-mine. The reasons why I Shouldn't be Taken Seriously included, among other things, the charges of "incoherence" and "silliness," and the observation that I was "rambling," spouting "nonsense," and "ranting all over the place." I was told twice that I was "pseudo-" something or other, and finally - my personal favourite - that I was "insane" for trying to classify kisses. I mean, it's clearly a great Enlightenment endeavour to label butterflies pinned to a board...but kisses? Well that's just barking.

And then there came Hugo. Hugo - who has, one suspects, spent rather too long marinating in Randian objectivism - rather fancies himself as Logos-on-legs, and likes to make no bones about it. He wrote a lovely little piece in Varsity a couple of weeks ago about the protests at the British Humanist Association where a bunch of students - sorry, a seething, mouth-frothing mob of middle-class vulgarians - interrupted Hugo's eagerly anticipated audience with Richard Dawkins, who, as we all know, was incarnated by the Light of Reason Himself in order to put us unrepentant irrationalists back on the straight and narrow. Hugo takes his duties at the Logos Defense League very seriously, and his rhetoric effects a singularly unpleasant concatenation of the charge of hysteria with the tried and tested colonial strategy of pegging the opposition as a pack of braying bestial primitives. Usually this type of imperialist othering at least has the decency to be insidious, preferring to hide itself away in a few choice adjectives, but in this case - and what this tells us about where we are now is rather worrying - Hugo just comes out and says it with nouns. The mob of "muscle bound neanderthal[s]" resembles, he tells us, nothing so much as "the ceremony of the beast men" from The Island of Doctor Moreau. Their eyes are so close together its possible that they are Cyclopes. They are "poisonous troglodytes" who manifestly "lack the cranial capacity to handle rational discussion." 

Hugo seems to be under the impression that what he is doing is laying his opponents low with the shining rapier of pure rational argument, a power so invincible that it effortlessly reduces the likes of me to "whimpering incoherence" (a lovely elision of hysteria and bestiality that one, well done Hugo!). This impression is based on a basic failure to distinguish a 'rational argument' from a 'non-argument about rationality;' a non-argument which functions by asserting the self-defined rational superiority of the speaker over against its irrationalist other who is irrational by virtue of belonging to a group always already defined as such, and/or by virtue of incarnating the qualities of rational inferiority these groups are taken to exemplify. And, not infrequently, and this is what I'd like to focus on now, this manifestation of irrationality involves some variation of the failure to wrap one's articulatory organs around a 'coherent' sentence without dribbling and drooling, or lapsing into braying, barking or babble. 

It is here that we encounter the twin-valence of Logos. Logos as reason is clear coherent speech, and hence, the validity of the voice of the other is always most easily discredited by simply refusing to grant that they are speaking properly, by disputing that they are making anything like sense. There was a really interesting illustration of this in last Friday's Independent, in which the author Terence Blacker came straight out and announced his intention to relieve a bunch of feminists of their critique. The piece concerns a study published recently in Psychology of Women Quarterly, detailing the way in which traditionally chivalrous behaviour functions to enact a power dynamic detrimental to women. There is a lot to be said about this - and no, we don't want a world in which a bunch of belligerent separatist feminists have outlawed people from being nice to each other - but in short, it makes the fairly evident point that treating women like they need to be cosseted is revealing of our assumptions about their capabilities, and also perhaps, I would add, revealing of our assumptions about who they need to be protected from, and why (I have always suspected that the reason why some men are so concerned to protect the women close to them from 'strange' men, is because they project their own treatment of other women onto all men).

Anyway, that's not what I want to talk about here. What I want to talk about here, is that in the course of relieving these two "madam[s]" (yes, yes, I know he's just being chivalrous, and not suggesting that they are snotty nosed princesses) of their critique, Blacker admits - twice, in fact - that "[s]trictly speaking...they are right." Nonetheless, all of you readers who Don't Want to Listen to Women will be greatly relieved to know, you really don't have to, because, with spectacular serendipity, they screwed up the Logos:

  • "There is a worthwhile point being made here but, boy, do these feminist academics make it tough to take them seriously. Their clotted, ungrammatical prose reads as if it has been spewed out by a computer translating from a foreign language with a faulty program."

Clearly then, even when confronted with an observation about the world so evident and irrefutable that someone like Blacker is pretty much forced to concede that it's true, he still doesn't actually have to concede that it's true (and, more importantly, think about how he might have to do things differently). Because when it comes down to it, those women, ranting and raving every which way, stumbling over grammar in their excitement, and spewing out whimpering incoherence with their thick untranslatable tongues. I mean, really, they're just not intelligible. 

1 comment:

  1. Boy, how I like these "arguments". The last quote is especially revealing because he doesn't even bother to hide his unwillingness to engage with the actual content as long as he can criticize the tone.
    If people who are perceived as male/female are still socialized to talk differently, the easiest way to silence women or dismiss their arguments is to suggest they are just talking "in SUCH a wrong, annoying way – I can't listen to that, wah!".