April 27th, 2013

Disagreeing while female

A couple of days ago, I came across a video that's been making the Internet rounds: a performance by slam poet Rachel Rostad, of her poem, "To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang", a transcript of which is here. I watched the follow-up video that Rostad recorded in response to critics of the first video and was struck by a particular point she made in it. Emphasis mine (this part begins at about 0:56 in the response video):

I do not claim to be speaking for all Asian females. There are people who identify as Asian females who are commenting and messaging me, saying that they felt misrepresented by my piece. First of all, I'm so happy we've been able to have this dialogue and that it's been even able to take place. However, I do want to stress that I do not speak for all Asian females, and I do not claim to, and I'm very sorry that I misrepresented you. But I don't think that either of us are to blame for this. I would ask you what conditions are in place that make it so that you are so defensive that I, someone with a completely different experience of oppression, am not representing your voice. It's sad that we live in a society where my voice is so easily mistaken for yours, where our differing identities are viewed as interchangeable.

Hearing that, I immediately thought of the way I feel when I see other women doing, say, feminist activism in a way that's different from how I would do it. Whenever that happens, I worry that someone is going to conflate my views, which might be drastically or subtly different, with theirs. But Rachel Rostad's point is that the very fact that I have to worry about having their opinions confused or conflated with mine, simply because both of us are women doing a particular activity, is symptomatic of the broken societal systems and structures that both of us are presumably trying to work against! How can I communicate my disagreement without implicitly endorsing those systems and structures?

In a different context, Chris chrisamaphone writes:

one reason i think women in (e.g.) academic CS have trouble forming this kind of solidarity is because we have such incredibly different aesthetics, find working on certain kinds of problems exciting in ways that others of us don't, and there are too few of us, spread too thin across the enormously rich space of highly contended ideas, to create this sort of conversation. someone made a google group called "lambda ladies" recently that i have hopes for (despite the cutesy name), so maybe this is about to change.

what i wonder is that if, having formulated this problem, there's a solution to it that doesn't involve agreeing on aesthetic. if we can establish that we are fighting a social battle together while still having the foundational, ideological conversations within that structure. it's tough, because in some sense i want to have unilateral solidarity with any woman in my field. i never argued about OOP with donna because i wanted to be on "her side" in some sense. but can we be on each other's side in a gender revolution and still argue foundations of our field?

This is hard. It occurs to me that in the society we live in, two women who dare to have opinions on a topic and talk about them are going to lose, no matter what: if we speak up in agreement with each other, we're living down to the aforementioned stereotype of interchangeability; if we speak up in disagreement, we're having a catfight. Hell, when the patriarchy is working so hard to ensure that our interactions with other women cause such distress, is it any wonder that a lot of us don't mind being the only woman in the room so much of the time?

As so often when the environment itself is what's broken, I don't see any easy fix for that problem. But to get back to Chris's question about how to disagree while female, the following is an experiment that I might try. Before voicing my disagreement with a woman, I can consider the following:

  • Do I really disagree, or am I just worried that I'll be assumed to have agreed with her if I don't quickly and loudly voice disagreement?
  • Do I really disagree, or do I actually pretty much agree but nevertheless feel that I have to find something to nitpick in order to continue to have an identity distinct from hers?
  • Do I really disagree, or am I just upset that she's a woman with an opinion?

If the answer in every case is "I really disagree", then I should say so, if I feel like it -- I want to stress that the point of this exercise is not necessarily for there to be less disagreement, but, rather, to avoid reinforcing the patriarchy while encouraging legitimate disagreement. I don't know if it will help, but maybe it's worth a shot.