01 November 2010

On the Having of Standards

About six weeks ago, my mother, my sister, and I drove halfway across the U.S. to drop the aforementioned sister off at her new Institute of Higher Learning. We had rules about driving, snacking, and the putting on of tunes -- namely that the tunes were under control of the driver at all times, unless one of the passengers was so unhappy with the choice that a head explosion was imminent.

And it had to be a real head explosion, which is how my sister got away with putting on the new Vampire Weekend album no fewer than four times in the first three days. I finally did plead imminent burstability on that, and she switched to Taylor Swift.

I was wary. I have nothing against Ms. Swift as a person, but I'd heard a lot about her songs and none of it sounded appetizing. I listened to the lyrics with particular attention. "That's rubbish," I said, more than once. "How can she say that? She's speaking for girls and she's inviting abuse." Or if not abuse, nastiness, or shame, or some other unfortunate thing. "Sure they're catchy," I said, "and some are sweet. But how can you ignore the messages?"

"You always go right for the rape," my sister said wearily.

My sister has long been confused about why I read feminist news blogs. She thinks I just make myself unhappy, since it's not like I'm doing anything about what I read. (That is, I'm not an activist.) My mom and I sometimes quarrel in the second wave/third wave divide, which is also about standards. (I don't want to quote her here, since I don't want to misrepresent her views online, and as her daughter I have a genetic predisposition to misinterpret anything she says that I more easily may disagree with her.)

The question is, of course, how high should the standards to which we to hold ourselves be? How about the standard to which we hold our friends? Our pop culture?

If the standards are too low, you move into the territory of victim-blaming, excuses, and privilege. Nothing changes, because shouldn't we just understand where our bigots are coming from? Aren't there two sides to every issue? Don't both sides deserve to be heard? You can't hate someone (or distrust them, or refuse to listen to their music, or, or, or) just because of one poorly chosen remark, can you?

That place is one that people who fight for any equal right have had to reject out of hand, thoroughly, before their campaigns can begin to make any sort of impact. And yet -- go too far on the other side, and you can't really have a conversation with anyone. No one agrees with you 100%, not even about the "important stuff." You'd have to stop consuming pop culture entirely, I should think, since all of it is tainted by the culture in which it's made.

(The other danger of this extreme is hard to articulate, because most of the people who complain about it are too far the other way. That is, you become so obsessed with the way people say things that you forget to look at their actions and your own. This is known as becoming too PC and you usually see complaints about it from people who claim they didn't realize their language was offensive and will now proceed to whine about how you deleted their comment. Ninety percent of the time I have no sympathy, but every once in awhile I think people become so obsessed with changing language that they forget about changing actions.)

I've seen this question a lot, posted to feminist weblogs. (Some of the ones I read are on a list on the right, you can search through their archives to find examples.) A new "born-again" feminist will ask -- God(dess), what do I do now? My senses are on high alert. Every single one of my friends has already offended me at least once. Help. And the author will start talking about finding an individual balance.

Of course you have to find an individual balance. Somewhere between "Sure, I mean, I guess that's all right, I mean, the victim existing probably provoked it, or something," and "You're a bigot, and not easily distinguishable from a Nazi."

But there is something confusing about facing the fact that your balance is not exactly like anyone else's. I honestly believe it's the same feeling of confusion you get when you realize your religion is not exactly the same as anyone else's (a feeling I remember from my youth, when I was religious myself). Because, especially when you've invested thought and/or time, and/or argument into your convictions, be they cultural or religious, you of necessity become invested in their inherent correctness.

And then, before you know it, you're back where you started. Other people have different standards! How should you react to that?

Maybe the having a solution to this dilemma is just another meta-layer that traps you in the same way. Balance may only be able to exist as something ever-shifting, ever-accommodating. (But not too accommodating. Too accommodating and you get stuck at the accommodating end.) Certainly the only gauge I have for my balance is trying to look at results. Will fighting this misogynist joke have the results I want? What about fighting this rape joke? Will I alienate and offend, or clue in and wake up?

I don't know if it's a good balance. I often feel that it isn't. Plenty of people see me as too hard-ass, but I still feel like in order to be a "real" feminist I should be much more hardass. (Never feeling like you're legitimate is a whole section of cultural misogyny that deserves another blog post.) I can try to stay consistent, and I can try to stay true to myself and my golden rules. But trusting myself on this is both the most natural impulse and the one I doubt the most.

Where do you stand on this?

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