Governmentality of a new sort?

goforthVery briefly I wanted to include this. Its irrelevant to the ongoing education discussion (about which I have been quite remiss in continuing) but as it’s topical, and I feel quite good about my ability to be succinct on a complex issue I thought I would include it here. Its also a complex and interesting issue to tease out that if anyone feels inclined to comment on I would be interested to hear your thoughts.

I wrote this in response to a question on ‘This House Believes’ a page sponsored by the ESU devoted to starting debates on interesting topics in the news. (

This is the original:

There are two important yet distinct issues here. One is the real implications of telling young women that the ways they dress can increase their possible victimization and the other is the importance that linguistics and power can have in broader societal discourses.

Anyone who has attended the play the Vagina Monologues will know that we have reclaimed the word cunt. But what does that reclamation mean? Academics and media types are proud of the way that ‘queer’ has been ‘reclaimed’, but does that really impact a gay teen in Arkansas or Leeds when being bullied by his peers? Or does he still hear ‘gay’ as a pejorative adjective applied to a variety of situations and feel ostracised for it?

The problem with movements attempting to reclaim words imbued with negative connotations is that rarely does it impact the people on the ground who are most vulnerable to the sting of those words.

The people engaged in the linguistics debate are those who have the most power to change their own material circumstances and are often far removed from those disenfranchised and victimized people most at risk, both from the psychological harm of words but also the potential for physical harm from victimizers. The problem with reclaiming a word is that while it may have some success in some limited part of society, rarely does that penetrate to the areas where it is most needed. True, discourse change, and the utilisation of words within the ideological power elite over time can ‘filter down’, but this is a lengthy and often unsuccessful project. What is worse, is that celebration of this ‘reclamation’ (like the celebration of the reclamation of ‘queer’ and ‘cunt’) can serve to obscure the ongoing use and associated effects of the words in wider society. As I stated before, the fact that a university has a ‘queer studies’ department does not mean that young men and women are not bullied for their sexuality in myriad high schools across the world and that men in South Africa are not happy to admit to ‘corrective rape’ of lesbians. The celebration of a linguistic victory can easily overshadow the ongoing material reality of problems. Moreover, even when there is a relatively identifiable ‘victory’ in the linguistics debate it does not necessarily change an attitude, simply its means of expression. Although people don’t use ‘fag’ or ‘homo’ anymore, they just as often use ‘gay’ in the same pejorative way- new words, same sentiments.

This is not to say that sexism is not a real and important issue in society, or that words have no power. I mean instead that in the rush to claim a linguistic victory this movement, like others, has ignored bigger problems.

Words only have power in so much as they refer to ideas, assuming that there is a causal link between changing’s peoples vocabulary and changing their attitude is a little suspect. Change an attitude and they will change their own vocabulary.

The real problem with the movement to reclaim ‘slut’ is that ignores a much more important issue. The police officer’s use of the word slut to express himself was unfortunate (in the broadest possible sense), but the deeper and more sinister implications are what should really be getting attention. The fact that a man, in a position of power, with a responsibility to educate, told a group of young women that they way they dress can be directly responsible for their safety is bad. Really bad. Rape is not about sex, it is about power. It is not about a rational decision saying ‘well she looks like a better target because people will think she was up for it’. It is usually a decision taken by an irrational stranger based on any number of issues, one of which may be clothing, but are as likely to be hair colour, gait, size, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. To indicate women have any control over that is a dangerous message to send. Moreover, if the police are giving this message as an official narrative, at the point of prosecution it will be easier to attempt the defence ‘she asked for it’ as the police obviously give it some credence or they wouldn’t be using it to educate young women. In instance of non-random rape (i.e. date rape) this is an even more insidious comment as these are the situations in which women are almost always characterised as ‘asking for it’. Telling women to deny their power over their own sexuality, and the freedom to express it through their clothing choice, while creating a mechanism for blaming them for their victimization is horrible, whatever words you put on it.

It is important to challenge injustice in society, and it is important for people to speak out against negative discourses and pejorative statements. The question is one of priorities. Which is more important? The use of a pejorative word in media? Or the ongoing victimization of those most vulnerable in society? Do you change a headline? Or change the story? The effort these movements are putting in to reclaim something linguistically would be much better spent on helping empower those young women in specific material ways, or engaging that police officer in a dialogue, exposing his superficial and damaging message for what it is. To change a societal attitude means engaging in discourse, interrogating words- both connotation and denotation. Reclamation, while important, is still about appropriation by one group.

I wanted to include a response from a friend of mine that made me think however and does need to be addressed as it gives an interesting perspective that should be looked at alongside the other. (I hope my friend doesn’t mind me posting this without referring to them)

“If you park your car in a bad part of town, it may well get smashed into for an expensive looking radio, or anything else that may be of interest; that’s not a reason for you to criticise an officer if he advises against you leaving your wallet on the seat – he probably isn’t trying to say people who leave wallets on seats are responsible for thefts, or that the system of private property is wrong, or that it absolves the thief of responsibility, or that people who do leave their wallets on their seat deserve to be a victim of crime. He is simply advising that this small modification is something which might lower your risk. If officers are advising on precautions, being overly conservative on risk is potentially good.”

There are ads all over the Tube and SE London advising not to advertise wealth by wearing large/ flashy jewelry outside your clothing as to a certain extent it might be seen as an invitation. In my neighbourhood in Portland there has recently been a rash of car break-ins especially if there was anything visible that seemed of value (although once it was for the change in the cup holder). On the neighbourhood email list it was advised that people should take in to their houses anything of value and hide things left in the car.

I’m not sure if this is analogous, and I would love to hear if people think it is. It seems to me that this is a similar message, but I’m not sure.

To a certain extent it is important if we think the motivations for rape are more about a need to dominate or an unsatisfied desire for sex. If its about power than the apparent ‘offer’ of sexuality is less relevant, unless saying that dressing in a particular ways degrades one’s appearance of personal power (although feminists would argue that the ability to dress that way demonstrates an increase in power- arguable but potentially true).

If its about sex then anything that seems inviting sexually could be construed as leaving the wallet in the car. Like my friend said, leaving valuables unprotected creates a vulnerability that through alternate behaviour might not be quite the same level of risk.

A whole other issue, which I don’t plan to go into here, but invite you to think about is about ‘dressing invitingly’. Is revealing skin an attempt to be inviting sexually? It would seem to me to be about that, whether it’s to take control of one’s sexuality for personal reasons by demonstrating mastery over invitation, or if it is about the response itself. Either way it is about creating a reaction. What then are the implications if the reaction is negative?

So many issues here! (I think I should probably also rethink my definition of brief posts)

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