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Unpacking the Issues [Nov. 19th, 2014|01:18 pm]
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From the many-many-many emails and tweets women (including me) have gotten about That Shirt, it's clear that for many of the angry crowd, keeping straight exactly what the argument is about is...unimportant or unrecognized.  This is an attempt to unpack the various issues involved, and why it's still a live topic.

My previous post on That Shirt explained why the shirt was an issue--what it was about it that brought out complaints.   It was more about the semiotics of clothes--how it is that clothes send messages, and what kinds of effects those messages have on those who see the person in the clothes.

One group responding to the orginal criticism of That Shirt focused on the issue of whether or not the shirt was actually sexist (or wearing it was sexist).   Within this group, other issues appeared:  whether sexism actually exists, who gets to define something as sexist, whether sexism is actually harmful, whether something not intended to be sexist can be sexist.  In general, in this group, even the more moderate commenters focused more on claims that the original complaints about the shirt were unjustified.  That they were unfair, that they were too strong, that they lasted too long and came from too many women.  The complaints were also interpreted (variously--not the same by all) to mean that the women who made them were angry with all men, blamed all men, labeled all men sexist (it was a shirt the women called sexist, and the wearing of it in that social context: a behavior, not a person.)   Why, some asked, didn't women just drop it?  (Because they were still being attacked.)  Some repeated the same thing over and over, as if repetition would compel consent.

Another group produced volumes of violent, angry, threatening communications as a reaction to the original complaints, and for them, the issue had nothing to do with whether or not the shirt was or was not sexist:  it was an attack on the right of women to have and express opinions that those men and women found objectionable.  These communications were simllar to those produced by the Gamergate group and those aimed at women scientists, journalists, politicians, and other women who make their opinions public in venues beyond private blogs.  They included insults (calling women stupid, ugly, unqualified, abnormal, extremists, terrorists, and of course "feminazis"),  mocking, threats, and maledictions: stating the hope that the women would get fatal diseases, be raped, be beaten, commit suicide, be killed.  And threats, both of physical harm and social exposure that can lead to physical harm.

On the surface, the moderate commenters seem quite different from the angry haters, but the underlying issue in both sorts is that women should not have opinions these (mostly) men and some women disapprove of, and should certainly not express them if they do.   Women's understanding of a situation is unwelcome unless it mirrors men's.   Their concerns are unimportant and likely based on "just your opinion" not "facts."  (For instance, in the many challenges to the concept of sexism, and the statement that sexism harms women.  When someone says to a woman "It's OK for you to say I feel that's sexist, but wrong to say it IS sexist--it's just your opinion"  that is, ironically, a statement of opinion that the speaker is sure is a fact (because his own opinion is right.  Naturally.)   The men comenting (those who didn't limit themselves to insults)  regularly exhibited the behavior they complained about in women, with no apparent insight that this was happening.

So there are two major issues:

That Shirt as an example of the semiotics of clothing.  It is worth recognizing, and talking about, what clothing "says" in an world full of diverse opinions about what's acceptable in a given situation.   Not to attack Dr. Taylor, but to reveal how what we wear affects those who see it--not only among our friends, our own colleagues, the people in the neighborhood.   Especially individuals whose platform extends outside their own culture should be cognizant of what their clothing "says."  This is not just a feminist issue about one shirt, though one shirt sparked the discussion.  It's an issue that affects everyone whose familiar clothing is perceived with some bias elsewhere.

Silencing (and thus excluding) women is an example of sexism.   The attacks--both moderate and immoderate--on women who criticized That Shirt reveal continuing disrespect for women, and a lack of conviction that women are fully human--real people (and thus allowed to hold contrary opinions and express them without retaliation.)   The silencing of women has been an issue in many cultures for a long time.   Those who believe women should be controlled, confined, silenced have used both verbal and physical means of silencing them--some more violent than others.  Where a culture claims to value women and seeks more equal representation by women in various fields, silencing in those fields is of specific concern... a discussion of what constitutes silencing behaviors, and what the effects are, would be worthwhile.