Hannah Coolidge

The Right to Speak and the Right Not to Listen


There is no space for me to speak! The rules of this conversation are not my rules; I am not allowed here even the most basic right, to be heard as the final authority on myself, my motivations, and my justifications. –A common complaint

It seems that there’s an impasse right now preventing adequate dialogue between those who identify as feminists1 and those who don’t; and in contrast to the struggles of previous generations, which I think were more concerned with who had the right to do what, this one involves a dispute over who has the right to speak and when. Which I think comes from the realization among women2 that even though we are, in theory, allowed to do pretty much all the things that men are allowed to do, there are subtler and more sinister obstacles to true gender equality, particularly those involving how we talk about what we do. So that even though we’re allowed to have sex with as many people as we want, we can still be called sluts for it; and even though we’re allowed to have the same jobs as men, we can still be deemed bitchy or incompetent.

So women are increasingly demanding affirmative action in the realm of speech; we’re demanding ever more furiously that we be allowed to speak for ourselves and that we be listened to. And we’re demanding this right to speak not merely in conversations explicitly about gender and sex, but in all conversations—about music or movies or dietary restrictions—because we now recognize how rarely we’re given the chance to speak with authority, and how easy it is for men to dismiss us even when we do.

And still, many men aren’t responding quite as we’d like them to—they don’t see any speech inequality in the world—which leads to a frustrating but ever-recurring theme in conversations about speech: women, infuriated that men won’t listen to them whenever it’s inconvenient, explain that the rules of patriarchy don’t allow women to be heard; and men reply that the rules of feminism don’t allow men to be heard. Because, a man might argue, everyone feels hurt and misunderstood sometimes, not just women; and so by demanding a monopoly on the right to speak, women are oppressing men in much the way that men have oppressed women (historically, but not anymore!).

To a feminist this response is misguided at best—if not outrageous—because it fails to recognize the greater landscape of patriarchy and male privilege in which all conversations necessarily take place. So a feminist would explain to this man that in fact the two experiences of oppression are not at all comparable, because men have certain institutionalized advantages in this patriarchal world, advantages that they’re not even aware of—because privilege, as everyone knows, is invisible.

Then the man might reply, “well, if this privilege is invisible then how can I know that it exists?”—to which the feminist would explain that the existence of male privilege is most evident in its consequences, that for example men get paid significantly more than their equally competent female colleagues, or that most positions of power are held by men, or that men don’t have to fear sexual violence in the way that women do. And of course men don’t notice any of these advantages unless they’re forced to, because if your demographic defines what is normal, how could you not take that “normal” for granted?

And then this man—let’s say for the sake of argument that he’s a nice guy, he genuinely respects women and doesn’t want to oppress anyone—might start feeling hurt and confused himself now, because he does believe everything that this feminist is telling him about male privilege, but at the same time it’s hard for him to understand, for example, how the rape statistics that his friend is suddenly and furiously reciting relate to what he thought was a conversation about Katy Perry.

And it’s difficult for most feminists—well, at least for this feminist—to bridge that gap by convincingly illustrating the connection between the larger phenomenon of male privilege and its particular manifestations in conversation. So that when I feel oppressed in conversation, when I feel that there isn’t space for me to speak on my own terms—even if I feel very strongly that this oppression relates to male privilege—I’m hard-pressed to explain how and why this is the case.

Right now it seems that we mostly deal with this gap, between the invisible patriarchal landscape and the intense emotional experience of oppression, by demanding that our male interlocutors take a leap of faith: we demand that if we can prove the existence of male privilege by demonstrating its effects, then men have to take us seriously when we claim that our feelings of oppression in a particular circumstance do, in fact, result from an encounter with some very real manifestation of patriarchy.

And even though I’ve certainly made these demands myself, I also understand why some men might be reluctant to accept them. Because there’s so much going on in conversation, so many different power dynamics, that it seems impossible that male privilege could be the only kind, or even the kind most worthy of recognition. And, if I were a guy, I think I would find it unfair—even if I were willing to acknowledge the larger context of patriarchy—that women should have unchecked access to this rhetorical tool, this tool that politicizes emotion and so demands that men respect their pain not merely as pain, but as politics.

So how might we bridge this gap, and thus encourage freer conversation between men and women? I think the answer lies somewhere in a closer examination of the consequences of privilege. Specifically, in an examination of how privilege affects the way you’re allowed to speak about yourself and others.

When you’re “privileged” in some way, you can identify with whatever favorable mythologies are encouraged by the dominant culture without having to question too much whether or not you have the right to identify yourself in that way. So, for example, if you’re a guy and identify as “logical” or “generous”—or “not privileged”—you don’t have to worry that the dominant culture will tell you otherwise, because you’re part of that culture; you’ve been nestled in those favorable mythologies all your life, so it probably doesn’t occur to you that you might not deserve them.

Women, on the other hand, don’t have quite the same access to those definitions, at least not the patriarchal ones. Which isn’t to say that women can’t ever be seen as logical, or that we don’t ever see ourselves that way—but rather that our attempts to participate in traditionally male mythologies are regarded (by men and even by ourselves) with greater suspicion; and that if we choose to redefine those mythologies to suit our own strengths, it’s likely that our new definitions will be more or less ignored.

Here’s an example: when I was a part of some social group that was highly intellectual, I often felt as though speech was governed by certain unspoken rules, rules that I’d never consented to but had to play by if I wanted to be heard. These rules determined which arguments were allowed to exist within the framework of “logical discourse”—i.e., which discursive tactics were fair game and which were not—and it often seemed that the rules were heavily weighted in favor of the men in my social circle.

The dominant style of conversation was a kind of swordplay, in which the aim was to trap your opponent and prove them wrong, by revealing some logical contradiction at the core of their beliefs. Which would all be fine, except that the rules of swordplay demanded that everyone uphold certain standards of “logic”—and yet, the swordplay itself wasn’t logical: everyone was motivated as much by pride and fear as they were by the pursuit of truth; everyone employed emotional tactics like tone and body language in an attempt to shame their interlocutors into submission; everyone engaged in complex power plays that they didn’t fully understand.

And that’s just how people are—they’re never motivated by pure logic and they use all kinds of emotional tactics to get what they want—but the rules of swordplay seemed unfair because they privileged some kinds of emotional behavior over others. So that when I argued with a male friend, he could use certain physical and emotional tactics—a particular deepening of the voice, an abruptly straightened back, a frown—to silence me, without having to acknowledge that these tactics were anything but part of standard logical discourse. And yet, if his tactics made me cry, that emotional response effectively announced that I had made my exit from the realm of logical discourse, and so everything I said while in tears could be taken with a grain of salt. And even if my male friends all genuinely respected my intellectual abilities, and even if they were willing to listen to me through my tears, it is nonetheless an unpleasant fact that their emotional maneuvers—the manipulations of tone and body language to prove a point—are generally accepted within the mythology of logic, while my emotional maneuvers—such as crying—are not.

Still, there are certain advantages in being excluded from the prevailing favorable mythologies. Think about what it means be privileged: because my male colleagues identified so easily with the mythology of logic, and they didn’t have to look outside of themselves for validation, it turns out that all they had to do was approximate “logical discourse” and that was enough; they didn’t have to full embody “logic” in order to see themselves as having it, or to be seen as having it. And as a result their arguments weren’t particularly logical; they spent a lot of time feverishly attacking each other’s straw men, and they had little incentive for self-improvement outside their particular mythologies. So that even as they continually improved in their swordplay, their specialization made it increasingly difficult for them to communicate in a meaningful way with anyone who didn’t already share their intellectual priorities; and, unless someone pointed it out to them, they seemed for the most part unaware that their priorities and definitions weren’t universally accepted.3

It seems to me that privilege necessarily involves a lack of imagination, an institutionally sanctioned solipsism that makes it possible for you not to consider very seriously other, more marginal, versions of your mythologies—because you see your own versions reflected back at you almost everywhere you look. And lacking imagination can be really nice; in a way it makes you more powerful, because it’s easier to convince others that you’re strong and clever if you have no self-doubt, and you become nearly impervious to criticism if you lack the imagination to understand how particular criticisms might apply to you. But at the same time, when you take too much advantage of these pre-existing mythologies, you become increasingly dependent on them to define yourself; and these mythologies, unlike the imaginative and ever-perfectible human spirit, are inherently rigid and incapable of evolving with changing times and circumstances. So that the more you take refuge in the mythology of logic to assure yourself that you are, in fact, logical, the more you come to depend on that mythology for self-assurance—which is not always useful in a world where old mythologies become obsolete with each passing day.

Meanwhile, to the extent that you’re marginalized, you must constantly re-evaluate yourself and your actions in the context of dominant mythologies; even when you know that these mythologies are only fabrications, you have to at least consider them, because they’re everywhere. And even while it’s frustrating to have to take into account interpretations of yourself that might be banal or ungenerous, it also teaches you how to play into someone else’s mythologies when necessary, as well as create new ones when circumstances demand it. So that even though I prefer my own standards of logic—ones that address the emotional landscape behind everyone’s politics—I still can’t help but compare my own logic to the versions that my male friends prefer. And when I’m forced to compare the two, it allows me to recognize and adopt useful aspects of their mythology that are lacking in my own—the importance of a strong grasp of statistics or history, for example—and also, to observe the inconsistencies in their logic so that I can more effectively eliminate similar inconsistencies from my own.

So marginalization creates space for an alternative to the solipsism and structural rigidity of privilege, so that you can use mythologies to give you strength when it’s useful, but you also know that you don’t need them to protect yourself.

Even though I know that marginalization only makes me subtler, however, it’s tempting sometimes to adopt mythologies that are just as rigid as the dominant ones—because I’ve seen first-hand to what extent those rigid mythologies equal power. So, for example, if I’m feeling oppressed in a conversation and I start to talk about patriarchy, and the guy I’m talking to says, “well, I just don’t see how that’s true”—as if his inability to see truth in my claims constitutes an adequate rebuttal, rather than an admission of his own lack of imagination—it will be hard for me to restrain myself from responding in kind. “Well, I don’t understand how you can’t recognize this INCREDIBLY OBVIOUS TRUTH!” I might shout (even if, really, I do understand why he can’t recognize it). And it’s likely that the more I yell, the more this increasingly terrified young man will retreat into his own rigid mythologies, the ones that allow him to define his own words as reasonable while defining mine as emotional and unnecessarily belligerent. And perhaps the more he retreats into his own mythologies, the more I retreat into my own—insisting, for example, that if he can’t recognize the truth in my words, then he must be “unfeminist”…

And although as feminists we may very well have the right to create our own mythologies to rival patriarchal ones—by reserving for ourselves exclusive authority in determining what is “feminist” and what is not—it seems that we might only be attempting to imitate the solipsism that goes hand-in-hand with privilege, the solipsism that allows men to define their own mythologies as “valid” without need for self-examination. (As if this solipsism were the only form of power! Or as if solipsism were itself the universal right, the equality that we all strive for!)

And by modeling our rhetorical tactics on the solipsism of male privilege—even if we’re only doing it to level the playing field—we’re also relinquishing the powers that really matter: our tough, imaginative, slippery ways, ways that we’ve adopted to survive in a world that seems made for white, cis-gendered, heterosexual males. And just as men lie cradled in these mythologies that let them define themselves as “good guys” or “logical guys” or “tough guys”—so that they don’t have to work as hard to be good or logical or tough—when we place too much stock in our own feminist mythologies we, too, allow ourselves to rest more easily; we can define ourselves as “radical” or “feminist” without having to constantly evaluate and reevaluate whether or not we truly embody those qualities. And so instead of destroying privilege at its foundations—which is what I think we ought to do—we are only creating new kinds of privilege, new gods to battle the old.

Finally, we should remember that male privilege is only a symptom of the underlying problem, which is our current system of power, which rewards a certain kind of blindness, a satisfaction with half-truths about oneself and about the world, and encourages us to ignore or oversimplify ugly things that we don’t fully understand. And everyone does this—everyone turns a blind eye to certain evils and hypocrisies that keep their world together—but it’s our job, as people who have been marginalized, as people who know of freer mechanisms of power, to carefully and methodically root out these hypocrisies, even within ourselves and the people that we love.

1 Keeping in mind, of course, that by the standards of previous generations we are all feminists.

2 This theme applies also more generally (although incompletely) to other conversations about privilege and marginalization, especially between people who have different kinds/amounts of privilege. I also recognize that I’m about to make broad distinctions regarding gender that don’t apply to everyone; however, I’ve got to start somewhere and I think that these distinctions are useful, even as they are also anachronistic and somewhat limiting.

3 Of course, there were many other kinds of privilege at play in this social group—too many to enumerate—and since there were countless inflexible mythologies competing with one another within the mythology I’m addressing, the situation was far more complex than I’m making it out to be.

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