June 30, 2003

Sounds of Silence

I am not a quiet man. Even back when I graduated from high school, I was voted BMOC: Big Mouth on Campus. Most people who have spent time around me end up hearing a lot about my opinions on subjects ranging from “The Phantom Menace” to the Iraqi War. Unlike readers of this blog, who choose to come here, they get subjected to that simply by being around me.

I hope that I’m not a crashing bore or a strident loon when I start holding forth. My voice and my tendency to use it are pretty hard-won things for me, however, and I tend to react poorly when someone tries to take them away from me, whether out of malice or in a well-meaning quest for social justice.

The hardest issues in life are the ones where two or more incompatible positions have some undeniable validity to them.

It is absolutely true that women in mixed-gender settings find that their opinions and ideas get disregarded, ignored, reparsed and credited to men, marginalized and belittled. It is absolutely true that a man can speak and be described as courageous and ballsy while a woman saying the same thing gets tossed off as bitchy and tendentious. It is true that men in general and this man in specific talk too much, dominate conversations, interrupt, and wield rhetorical and institutional privilege. It is true that because of masculine privilege, male mediocrities and halfwits often manage to suck up most of the air in a room, blather on endlessly at the expense of everyone else, and commandeer the collective attention of entire groups towards the propping up of their own fragile egos and carefully tended pomposities. This is all especially true in academia.

It is also true that starting from these truths in search of redress and transformation sometimes ends up simply redistributing these injuries. It is also true that acknowledging the truth of these claims opens the door not just to women whose voices have been unfairly and painfully marginalized but to reverse forms of pre-emptive domination and a speech privilege that can be generously abused by female mediocrities and drones whose previous exclusion from conversation has been a function of the fact that they either have little worth saying or want the privilege of making argumentative claims without the responsibility for giving them evidentiary weight.

How can I distinguish between someone calling for an equal place at the table and someone who is simply being an anti-intellectual manipulator, a covert agent of 19th Century romanticism advancing the cause of feeling over thinking, connection over individualism, dialogue over debate? Or worse yet, manipulating that latent vein of the romantic temperment simply in order to gain exclusive control over the terms of conventionally argumentative institutional and intellectual contestation? Gerald Graff in his recent work Clueless in Academe does a good job of pointing out how Deborah Tannen’s oft-cited attack on the “argument culture” as a male-dominated enterprise ultimately functions as a supremely skilled example of that which it claims to despise, how Tannen not only participates in “the argument culture” but in some ways trumps it by melding her evidentiary claims to a rhetorical strategy that places any objection in a patriarchal prison before that objection even begins.

This is also how claims about women being silenced sometimes start: they put any male reader or listener in an impossible position. If in the particular case being cited by the critic, a male reader or listener judges that in fact silencing hasn’t really happened, or the critic has questionable or malicious motives for making the claim, or the critic is misusing a public conversation as a place to make claims without being willing to defend them, or even that the critic is well-meaning and has a fair point that has limited scope, then the male listener is pretty well screwed in advance. To object, even politely, in any particular case, if the valid general point about masculine privilege and female silencing has already been made, is to cast the male speaker as Exhibit A for the prosecution, a captive specimen of patriarchial insensitivity. If you tell me that you feel silenced by my speech, and hurt by your silencing, then I have to decide whether to do something that you say hurts you. Put in those terms, it is an impossible situation, and one that imposes silence by holding men hostage to empathy. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: the men who continue to speak after a preemptive call to silence are often the ones who cause the problem in the first place.

In the face of this dilemma, men either choose to object, and are then cast as hurtful assholes who just can’t shut the fuck up no matter what, or they choose to be silent—but that silence can’t be interpreted, especially when we’re talking about computer-mediated conversation, where you can’t tell who heard and chose silence and who just never listened in the first place. Even if you know a male listener chose silence, you don’t know why. Is it because he thinks the particular female complaint is right? Or is it because he judges the female critic unworthy of a reply? If he speaks up to say, “You’re right! I am an asshole who talks too much!” he reproduces the sin in question--as well as comes off as a self-righteous wuss cravenly looking for someone else to tell him, please tell him, that he’s a really good person, a parodistic archetype of the "sensitive man" who is also often subversively making the same old bid for domination of the conversation. "Women are right! Let me tell you how they're right! Shut the fuck up while I tell you to shut the fuck up!".

You might well say, “Well, if we invert the problem of silence back onto men, then they’ll know how it feels, and be moved to real transformation”. It reminds me of something that happened to me when I gave a faculty lecture here after my daughter was born and showed a picture of her at the start of my PowerPoint presentation, as a kind of explanation of why my project was in such a preliminary and crudely conceptualized state after a year’s leave. A female colleague confronted me afterwards and said, “That’s totally unfair. You realize no woman could get away with that: it’s cute when a man does it, but banal when a woman does. People expect her to raise her kid, and it’s not an alibi for her failure to complete work.” Quite right. Absolutely. That’s true, and it is unfair that I can do it and a female colleague can’t. But I would rather strive for a world where we all get to show pictures of our kids and talk about the burdens on our labor time rather than a world where none of us do. I would rather distribute privilege to everyone than deny it to all. I’d rather be called to expose and fight a dismissive reaction to a female colleague’s courage than be called to stop doing something myself. I'd rather be honest than have to self-censor.

The problem is that unless you reject outright the idea that some speech is qualitatively better, more useful, more helpful, more germane, more entertaining than other speech in various particular contexts, you also have to leave room for a given individual woman’s speech or a given individual man’s speech being better or worse, more worth hearing or less worth hearing, more useful or less useful, than someone else’s speech.

What makes this especially difficult for me personally is that I have a very hard time separating out anti-intellectualism, which I view as largely illegitimate and very personally hurtful, and absolutely valid criticisms of male assertions of privilege in conversation, including my own assertions of and abuses of privilege. In my experience, the latter is sometimes used as a Trojan Horse for the former.

For me, my voice really is hard-won, despite the fact that I was also born to it as a man, and I suspect this is true for many other male academics. Being a geek and intellectual from age 5 to 18 is no easy road for men or women, but in some ways, men probably get it worse in that male violence and intimidation—and the over-valuation of male physical prowess—are much more open., apparent and pervasive. In 4th grade (and most grades after that) answering a question in class usually meant I got the shit kicked out of me during recess. I kept answering questions anyway. That’s a hard legacy to surrender lightly, especially when you suspect, sometimes with some validity, that the people calling you to silence now are doing so with some of the same motives or interests as the people who used to kick the shit out of you in 4th grade.

So what do we do to acknowledge or deal with the validity of the complaint against some men in specific and against masculine privilege in general? Two very different things, depending on the nature of the complaint: we have to learn to distinguish between questions of power and questions of etiquette.

We have been very badly served by those forms of feminism, Foucauldianism and other kinds of critical theory that undifferentiatedly locate power everywhere, or reduce all kinds of interaction and social relation to nothing more than power differentials. When we react to every single form of daily practice as if it is as vitally connected to power in the world as every other practice, we lose any ability to set an agenda and react proportionately to the problems we face. To me, this is one of the subterranean ways in which certain flavors of Foucauldian rhetoric end up being reactionary: by placing power everywhere, and refusing to speak of some kinds of power as peculiarly or particularly illiberal, they encourage a kind of simultaneous rhetoric of radical anger fused with a futilitarian inability to actually do anything except complain about relative trivialities, because it is the trivialities which are accessible to critique.

We need to recognize that sometimes, male speech in cross-gendered settings is no more than bad manners. Manners are rules. Rules exist so to promote a kind of equal opportunity access to a game, an equal chance to achieve objectives. The consequences of rule-breaking in some cases are minor, and even when they are more significant, they still have limited importance. They are annoying, the kind of thing one can kvetch about but not attack as an urgent social problem requiring urgent solution. Would all conversations be better with mutual respect and a consideration for all participants? Of course they would be. The “better” in this case is largely aesthetic and transactional: a conversation of this better kind would be more pleasing, more interesting, more revelatory. All participants would learn more from it. This is worth striving for, but one is not entitled to do more than get annoyed and frustrated about a conversation where certain forms of male speech have prevented the most interesting possible experience from emerging.

To follow this a bit further, when it comes to the aesthetic side of things, there is no necessary reason to favor either a “feminine” or “masculine” flavor to conversation. This is one of the areas where Tannen’s work is most seriously abused, when the comparison between a conversation that promotes expressions of feeling, personal revelation, empathy, and sharing and a conversation that privileges conflict, debate, argument and opposition is conflated with the difference between social justice and repression. If these two kinds of conversations really are “female” and “male” identified—a representation which I’m wary of from the outset, given how much it touches on stereotype—then they amount to nothing more than a “tomayto, tomahto” kind of difference, a preference and nothing more. I like both kinds of conversation: it depends on my mood, on the nature of the issue on the table, and on the other participants. (Moreover, some women I know speak “male” and quite a few men I know speak “female”.)

Where urgency is justified is when male modes of participation in conversation are connected to male forms of institutional and social power. But if those connections are ready too generally and generically, they amount to nothing. It’s like Andrea Dworkin defining everything as oppressive heteronormativity, including any and all expressions of love between men and women. That’s a critique that ultimately amounts either to nothing or to a nearly-nihilistic kind of revolutionary demand that views 99% of everyday life as we know it as contaminated.

Anybody who wants to walk in between has to do the hard work of making specific claims about specific kinds of illberality residing in specific practices within specific institutions. For example, what kind of power flows from asynchronous conversation in a voluntary-membership virtual community, for example, particularly one with no moderation governing what can or cannot be posted and where no one can physically interrupt the simultaneous speech of others? I submit: virtually nil. In that kind of space, there are no meaningful claims to be made about illiberal power, only claims about rudeness and aesthetics—which are not trivial concerns, but they come with a different kind of rhetoric and a limited right to make urgent demands on others. On the other hand, what kind of power comes from a department meeting that decides on the tenure of a female academic? Quite a lot, and here claims about male speech and male participation in discourse might justify an urgent rhetoric of demand and reform if they can be made in tangible, specific form.

So what’s the solution? If we’re just talking about the problem of manners, then we can promote a positive etiquette of conversation, a set of understood rules, that calls attention to male misbehavior. That requires men to be part of the discussion, however, and it also requires an understanding that manners are no more than normative suggestions. The more formalistic we get about the rules of conversation, the less productive conversations are. There is a happy medium in committee meetings, academic workshops, classroom discussions and bull sessions that we’ve probably all experienced at least once or twice where conversation flows smoothly between all participants, male and female, where there is a sense of productivity and accomplishment and movement, where egos sit in the back of the rhetorical bus, and where there is no obligation or requirement that everyone speak. When that kind of golden conversation happens, it does not happen because there are highly formal rules that require everyone to be recognized in turn and given their two minutes to speak. Most of the time, highly formalized speech is unproductive speech, a paper egalitarianism that robs all participants of their creative energies and their expressive freedom.

When formalisms matter is when the question of power is legitimately front and center. In tenure meetings or interviews with job candidates, in faculty senates, in processes that have a major structural role in deliberative choices for institutions, then formalism might be a way to address the problem of gender and speech, and only then. That’s when one might appropriately say to men, “Shut the fuck up (until it’s your turn)”. Saying “shut the fuck up” on any other occasion misunderstands the nature of the problem, applies an inappropriate remedy, and actively hamstrings the dialogic process that might change the everyday practice of conversation for the better.