On Feminism and Being Constructive

The other day, on my post about T-Shirt Hell closing, I got this comment from someone going by the name of James (a different James from the one who was published and later banned on the thread).

Maybe if women spent more time being constructive than worrying about being offended, they’d accomplish something outside the kitchen. This goes for you escpecially, Cara.

This is fairly par for the course, so I’m not upset by it.  I was, indeed, in eye-rolling mode.  Except that something about stuck with me.

It’s not the line about the kitchen, which was clearly intended to be the punchline, that I’m interested in.  It’s the first part, about being “constructive.”

First of all, for better or worse, however you want to take it, most women are not, contrary to James’ assertion, doing what I’m doing.  While I do personally wish that we could recruit more women to dedicate a larger bulk of their time to gender equality and other social justice issues, it’s currently not where we’re at.  Secondly, I personally like to think of feminist blogging as doing a lot more than “being offended.”  I think that identifying, analyzing and attempting to dismantle rape culture, as was being done in the post in question, goes a lot deeper than that surface level.

But thirdly, and I think most importantly, why the hell is “being offended” so regularly construed and unproductive and nonconstructive?  In addition to being yet another way to frame the work being done by women as unimportant by nature, and also another excuse for why women and other marginalized groups really fall behind in work and life (because it couldn’t be oppression!), it also tells us something about which issues matter, and who is deciding it.

Though I certainly do wish that I got to focus my attention on other things, the fact is that offensiveness is currently a very regular part of life.  There are two main options when confronted with these things: to be offended by them, or to ignore them.

Clearly James and the many people like him think that being offended is a waste of time.  Why?  Because they think that we should channel that shock and anger into what they see as more appropriate action that will actually bring about change?  Instead of “being offended,” should we instead be aggressively staging boycotts, writing letters and forming our own clothing companies that offer humorous messages that don’t aim to further marginalize oppressed people?  While I think that all of those would be good suggestions in addition to being offended (the suggestion that we should be taking action instead of being offended is a whole different epidemic), that doesn’t seem to be what James is suggesting at all.  He seems to be suggesting, instead, that being offended is a waste of time because these things don’t matter.

And I imagine that he’s right.  When you’re not a rape survivor, and when you’re not someone who, by social construct of your gender identity, is under both imagined and real constant threat of sexual violence, or when you’re simply unaware and unsympathetic to these life factors faced by women, these things do no matter to you.  Not to James; not at all.

And in addition to the therapeutic value of venting our anger and finding community in our offense, it’s people like James that make being offended — and showing the world that we are offended and will not sit down and shut up about it — matter.  The fact that so many people think our offense is nonconstructive is, in the end, exactly what ensures that they are wrong.

0 thoughts on “On Feminism and Being Constructive

  1. Mireille

    T-Shirt Hell was purposefully offensive; the whole point of the enterprise was to offend people. Causing offense is destructive to the coming together of people, so the mere fact of being offended, of standing against destructive forces, is a constructive act in and of itself. If unity is the end goal, being offended is one of the tools available to reach that goal.

    Reply
  2. Kristen

    Its one of those odd things I think. Men (over generalizing here) tend to think that when women are “offended” that our tender feelings are bruised by someone’s boorish manners. Clearly, bullshit.

    Being “offended” is standing up and saying “Nope, that shit is not acceptable.” It’s calling out *harmful* behavior in the hopes of stopping that behavior through peer pressure. It’s using the social machine against itself…which is just lovely.

    Reply
  3. Mecha

    Two things popped to mind when I saw this:

    1) http://finallyfeminism101.wordpress.com/2007/04/12/faq-why-are-you-concentrating-on-x-when-y-is-so-much-more-important/

    2) It is, uh, interesting, that he literally blames ‘being offended’ for the continuing of inequalities of the world. As if if suddenly nobody was offended by anything, we’d all be equal. That’d be quite magical.

    I am getting sicker and sicker of people playing the ‘If you’re offended, it’s your own fault’ game.

    -Mecha

    Reply
  4. E.M. Russell

    James seems to be saying that his judgement is better than all of ours, so he can define what is and isn’t important to every one of us. That’s like me saying your hiking hobby is crappy and you should instead be knitting, like me! Also, I think being offended is the first step to a lot of activism. If I didn’t have a problem with people telling me only a man should be doing my job I wouldn’t have gotten into Feminism as much as I am now.

    Reply
  5. Chris

    I think there’s another side to it – maybe not specifically in James’s case, but in the general trend. If you’re offended, you’re “taking things personally”. You’re getting wrapped up in your own anger instead of “considering the larger picture” and thinking logically and rationally about the issue. And everyone knows that a detached, analytical (i.e. “masculine”) approach is the only way to get things done. Therefore, if you “allow yourself” to get offended, you forfeit the argument.

    Reply
  6. karak

    Being “constructive” is code-word for looking at the good side of things or the silver lining. Being constructive about something you don’t like means that you shore up your defenses by saying “it’s not as bad as it could be”.

    Being only offended, though, has the pitfall of wanting a cookie for being offended. “Oh, look, I see that’s not acceptable. Gimme a cookie!” Offense is an emotional reaction that then disappears. Except internally, nothing has changed. However, blogging about what offends you is taking an action based on your offense.

    On the other hand, the kitchen comment is standard internet lol lingo, thus, his point is invalidated.

    Reply
  7. Rebecca

    @Chris – That’s a really interesting point about “taking things personally” – because it is personal, and it just so happens that the “masculine” viewpoint is one that rarely needs to concern itself with “women’s issues.”

    It’s the same reason Keith Olbermann can rant about Prop 8 and Rachel Maddow can’t – because if she did it, it would be personal.

    Reply
  8. SunlessNick

    Being “constructive” is code-word for looking at the good side of things or the silver lining.

    It’s also a code for finding a middle ground – a reasonable position between the offended person’s position and those who offended them – or encompassing both. The fact that such a middle ground may not exist adds a certain resonance for the word: eg,there is no reasonable position “between” disgust at the T-shirt-hell-shirts and humour at them, or between those who support marital equality for gay couples and those who reject it, because in each of those cases, the former position is the reasonable one; thus talk about being constructive becomes a demand that the Cara “construct” a way for James to seem right or reasonable.

    Reply
  9. SunlessNick

    Holy crap did I phrase that badly.

    But yes, I mean that “Be constructive” frequently means “Work as hard to validate my position as yours.”

    Reply
  10. evil fizz

    But thirdly, and I think most importantly, why the hell is “being offended” so regularly construed and unproductive and nonconstructive? In addition to being yet another way to frame the work being done by women as unimportant by nature, and also another excuse for why women and other marginalized groups really fall behind in work and life (because it couldn’t be oppression!), it also tells us something about which issues matter, and who is deciding it.

    For several different reasons, I think. The first of which is that for someone who’s at a 101 level on feminism (or any other -ism), outrage is intimidating. It can be hard to understand someone’s anger when you’re not sure where they’re coming from or are new to their rubric. (This assumes a certain level of good faith, obviously.)

    The second plays into the idea that anger is illogical and anyone who gets angry has forfeited rationality and can be written off as a raving loon. It’s an excellent strategy for dismissing others’ arguments.

    I’m sure James would pretend that he’s in the first category, but really, the kitchen remark makes it abundantly clear that he’s in the second.

    And while I don’t think it’s applicable in the case of this particular commenter/situation, I think that a lot of your writing tends towards a tone of outrage. While outrage is constructive in of itself, rhetorically it’s the sort of tone that needs to be applied judiciously. Both in real life and in writing, outrage requires a lot of mental and emotional energy.

    I wouldn’t give James the time of day, but I think there may be more to the concept of outrage and how it is (or isn’t) constructive.

    Reply
  11. akeeyu

    Hey, I don’t have to “worry about being offended.” I find that the paper, my co-workers, the TV, and (God knows) the Internet serves up all the offensive crap anybody could possibly want or need.

    The thing is, being offended by things that are (gasp) offensive is actually pretty useful.

    You can spin that into changing your workplace (ie, making it less hostile to women and POC), which is just wicked fun.
    You can spin it into a personal educational campaign whereby you inform douchebags that hey, they’re fucking wrong (generally, one uses more flowery language, but that’s at your discretion).
    You can spin it into political activism at so many levels.

    I guess you could even leave a really stupid comment on a good blog. James, I believe I’m talking to you?

    Reply
  12. Betty Boondoggle

    “James seems to be saying that his judgement is better than all of ours, so he can define what is and isn’t important to every one of us.”

    That’s exactly it. Boys like James are blindly privileged – they still think we 1) care what they think, 2) want to hear what they think and 3) that their thoughts will actually change our behavior. Because he has a penis!

    *lol* Personally, I think that’s adorable. Someone give him a cookie and set him up in front of a video game, so he stays out of the way of the adults.

    Reply
  13. SunlessNick

    James seems to be saying that his judgement is better than all of ours, so he can define what is and isn’t important to every one of us.

    He thinks that being free from what women face gives him an objective view of it. Which is a bit like saying you know what it’s like to live somewhere because you’ve seen a painting of it.

    Reply
  14. Ryan

    Funny how things like your campaigning in SD for reproductive rights or working for planned parenthood do not get mentioned when these, “quit being offended and actually do something” trolls post.

    Reply
  15. Jet

    You know what, I think “be constructive” is asshole code for “you are a woman, and therefore you are supposed to be passive, smiling, and engaged in making me feel good.” It puts me in mind of those awful 1950s books about how to be a good wife, listing things such as making sure you don’t trouble your poor husband with your thoughts after his hard day at work.

    And a side order of “don’t be so angry”.

    Reply
  16. Jenna

    You know what, I think “be constructive” is asshole code for “you are a woman, and therefore you are supposed to be passive, smiling, and engaged in making me feel good.”

    Precisely, and painfully correct. I recently found out through an accident that I am the lowest paid person in my position at work. I responded with, what I feel, is appropriate and justified anger. They had the head of HR come out to have a “meeting” with me but during the meeting, it was not to address THEIR mistakes in calculating my pay (they chose not to acknowledge several years of prior experience which meant my starting salary was lowered automatically) or their ongoing mistake of paying me the least amount of money (even with an unprecedented 6.5% merit raise).

    No, it was about my “anger problem”, that they did not understand why I was so angry and why I was not acting like “a professional young lady” (verbatim), that my exemplary and clearly outstanding work performance was being affected not by my low pay or their dishonest decisions/actions but by my “anger issues” and that had to stop, and that I needed to stop “shooting my mouth off,” “get back to [my] previous work level,” and “accept the HR department’s decision to look into my pay scale when they have the opportunity to do so.”

    I was cheated when I began working there and when I discovered it, according to them, I made the problem worst by being appropriately offended. And instead of addressing the very real problems I brought up, they ignored them and want me to go back to being the smiling, joking, hard worker that I was previously. The problem is not that THEY made a series of mistakes (perhaps deliberately) that cheated me out of thousands of dollars of pay. No, the problem is that I am not acting like a good little daughter of the patriarchy and smiling while they cheat me.

    Being offended is useful as is being angry. It shocks people who hold antiquated expectations of your behavior and makes them uncomfortable. If nothing else happens, they tend to seek out the help of some higher level of whatever organization you belong to support them. Even though the majority of the time they will not take up your anger or offense as their own, it continues the discussion to another level and perhaps one day they will.

    Reply
  17. MomTFH

    Do you know what’s less constructive than being offended? Being offended by someone who is offended.

    I just love it when idiots spend their time reading a blog they don’t agree with, and then spend their time writing a comment about how the author of the blog is somehow wasting their time. Huh?

    Reply
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  19. Jambo

    “You know what, I think “be constructive” is asshole code for “you are a woman, and therefore you are supposed to be passive, smiling, and engaged in making me feel good.””

    Well, you know, this might be the case when assholes are deploying this rhetorical device, and this guy probably is an asshole (the kitchen comment is pretty retarded). On the other hand though, the rhetoric you’re using, Jet, is what turns people away from feminism. Just because a man disagrees with you doesn’t mean he necessarily just wants you to shut up and give him a blow job. And you’re sabotaging yourself if you decide to completely disavow “being constructive” simply because some dick told you you should be constructive whilst making some shitty joke about women in the kitchen. Plus, there’s a kernel of truth to what he’s saying. Isn’t there something to be said for dispassionate analysis? We’re all supposed to be constantly outraged today. The systems of oppression in place are sustained by a continuous stream of fake outrage and indignation emanating from conventional liberals.

    Reply
    1. Cara Post author

      On the other hand though, the rhetoric you’re using, Jet, is what turns people away from feminism.

      *sniffles*

      Plus, there’s a kernel of truth to what he’s saying. Isn’t there something to be said for dispassionate analysis?

      Sometimes. There’s never anything to be said for men telling women that they should be more dispassionate and more constructive when it comes to issues like rape, which affects women extremely disproportionately, and images that mock rape towards women. Ever. Which is, you know what you’re doing.

      Reply
  20. Bettyboondoggle

    *lol* Jambo, it takes an impressive level of arrogance and privilege to pack so many useless tropes and stawmen into one post. Congrats!

    Reply
  21. Jambo

    Hmmm. So, what if I got a sex change? Then could I come back and argue that a dispassionate approach might be more effective, at least in certain circumstances? Is your argument that rape should never be approached dispassionately or that men should never be able to contradict women on matters of rape? Or both?

    Are you mocking the idea that certain untruthful “Feminist” rhetoric might turn people away from Feminism? How is this not obviously counter to your goals? Since when is the goal of Feminism to turn people away from Feminism?

    Reply
    1. Cara Post author

      Hmmm. So, what if I got a sex change?

      Jambo, you are on thin, thin ice. Already. If you say one more thing that could be even remotely construed as transphobic — like this comment above which mocks the very serious issue of transition — you are banned. Period. Not up for discussion. At all.

      Reply
  22. Bettyboondoggle

    “Is your argument that rape should never be approached dispassionately or that men should never be able to contradict women on matters of rape?”

    Are white supremacists the best people to talk to about combating racism?

    “Are you mocking the idea that certain untruthful “Feminist” rhetoric might turn people away from Feminism?”

    No, I’m mocking clueless, privileged “boys” who think that THEY get to make this decision. Your opinion on what is true or untrue is completely useless as you have privilege and, consequently, no fucking clue what you’re talking about.

    “Since when is the goal of Feminism to turn people away from Feminism?”

    Since when is the goal of Feminism to cater to every misogynstic dipshit who ambles by?

    Reply
  23. Jamboo

    Bettyboondoggle:

    Really? You really think that “man-woman/white supremacists-person of color” is a proper analogy? Like I said before, this is why men (and women) are driven away from feminism. Luckily, I’ve read a little Judith Butler, Donna Harraway, etc. and I realize not all feminists will compare me to a white supremacist.

    Cara:

    I don’t see how mentioning the existence of sex change operations to make a point makes me transphobic. Read: I’m not trying to hate on trans individuals.

    Look, I know you’re both used to dealing with some real assholes, but it might be worth your while to admit that a creature with a penis can disagree with you without having some secret Patriarchal agenda. And I think your hyper-PC ban threats are over the top and counterproductive.

    Reply
    1. Cara Post author

      Yeah, so you know what’s a good way to not get yourself banned? Accusing me of “hyper-PC ban threats” on my own blog. And for the record, my husband disagrees with me all the time without some kind of patriarchal agenda. He just knows better than to come in and tell me that I should get less passionate about issues like rape, that affect my life and the lives of all women (whether actual victims of sexual violence or not) rather personally.

      I view it as transphobic because you throw out the term “sex change” (NOT the preferred term at all) as though having one would make you a woman. Having an operation does not make you a woman. Being, living and identifying as a woman makes you a woman. Transwomen who have gender reaffirmation surgery were women long before they went under the knife. Women who choose to not have the surgery are still women. And you’re trivializing that.

      So I don’t care whether or not you’re “trying” to “hate” on trans individuals. I care about whether or not you are minimizing and reducing their experiences to tropes about what does and does not make you a “real” woman or man based on cisgender privilege.

      Reply
  24. Jambo

    So, then, from your standpoint, I can discuss rape, but only so long as I identify as a woman? Even if we view sex/gender as completely fluid and anybody is allowed to oscillate back and forth from male to female or into middle-sex identification positions at will, aren’t we still chopping out an important vantage point (the male vantage point)? Doesn’t this do some violence to the truth? What about the truth that exists in the gaps between vantage points?

    You know, rather than just telling me I can’t tell you things because I identify as a man, you could just tell me why you think I’m wrong.

    As pertains to the law of this blog: Why am I so much more deserving of reprimand/ban threat than somebody like Betty up here? She’s up here comparing all men to White Supremacists while I’m not properly knowing in advance your stance on the destabilization of sex/gender binaries. Anyways, she’s doing far more to undermine your cause than I am or ever will.

    Reply
    1. Cara Post author

      Jambo, men discuss rape on this blog regularly. And sometimes, they even disagree with me.

      But that’s because they’ve shown themselves to be strong allies first, with an interest in justice for women and an end to rape culture. And because they’ve shown that they respect the rights of women to discuss their own experiences, and yes, to get emotional. They’ve shown that they don’t think that speaking about their own experiences and how — wow! — the issue of rape brings up emotions for women doesn’t make them irrational.

      They don’t march onto a feminist blog and say something to the effect of “sure that guy’s a jackass, but don’t you think that you could be a bit more rational when discussing rape, anyway? Getting all emotional is just hurting your cause to get people to realize that something like rape matters.”

      You’d be wrong if you’re a woman, Jambo. But in this case, you’re extra wrong because you’re a man, just like I would be extra wrong for telling a person of color that they should be less emotional when discussing the case of Oscar Grant, because what good is it to let your feelings get in the way of talking about how a black man was murdered in cold blood by white police officers? I would, in fact, be a complete and total asshat who deserves to get my ass banned at the very first comment, and who should thank my lucky stars if I am not.

      Reply

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