[Trigger Warning: discussion of jokes about rape]
Here’s a weird little internet controversy.
Back in August, Penny Arcade posted a comic strip making fun of the moralistic overtones of otherwise arbitrary MMO quests. [To see it, click here. Trigger Warning.] A couple days later, a feminist blog posted about it, objecting to the trivialization of rape. Shit then hit the fan.
If you really care, you can relive the entire controversy here.
I’m not actually interested in dealing with the substance of the controversy. I haven’t really been following it, and it’s not my fight. What caught my interest was Tycho’s most recent response. I think it’s relatively insightful, y’all should go read it.
His point about the breakdown of communication is really good. In fact, he accidentally proves his point in this paragraph:
We make disgusting, immoral comics on occasion to be sure; we’re used to correspondence in that vein. But when mail started to come in to the effect that we were perpetuating a fundamental social conspiracy to rape, we couldn’t believe what we were reading. That is the entire point of the second strip, which some people took as a literal response or apology, neither of which was its intended purpose. The only people who are pro-rape are rapists. The idea that you would have to specifically enunciate an idea like that is almost overwhelming. It’s self-evident. Hence, the comic.
I think this paragraph perfectly demonstrates one of the biggest disconnects between feminists and the rest of the world. Feminists (and other social justice types) are very comfortable talking about unconscious privilege, cultural norms, and structural prejudice. When a feminist says “rape culture”, she doesn’t mean anything like “a fundamental social conspiracy to rape”. She means the general culture where consent, especially from women, is not highly valued; where rape is common, and in many cases ignored or even condoned; where non-conforming women are frequently met with threats (not always idle) of rape. The idea that a person who (legitimately) considers themselves egalitarian might accidentally be perpetuating bad social structures is not at all paradoxical to a feminist.
The average person doesn’t see things that way. When they’re told that they are part of rape culture, they read that as an explicit, direct accusation of consciously immoral behavior on their part. Most people don’t see themselves as consciously immoral, so this naturally produces a negative reaction. This makes perfect sense from their perspective. Feminists tend to counter-react with disdain, that people could get so defensive when anything questions their privilege. This also makes sense, from their perspective. Unfortunately, this is rarely an effective rhetorical tactic.
Nowhere is this problem more obvious than in the word “patriarchy”. Some feminists are deeply bothered by the current trend of replacing “patriarchy” with “kyriarchy”. They think it obscures the issue for the sake of protecting the poor little feelings of privileged people. For a cogent defense of this position, see this post. This, again, makes perfect sense from their position. But this ignores the rhetorical problem that is inherent in the conversation.
When an average person hears the word “patriarchy”, they think it means something like “a cabal of men who rule over women with an iron fist”. This would be a patently ridiculous claim, and therefore anyone who uses the word loses credibility before they say their second sentence. We can get mad at them for misunderstanding our point, but it seems more effective to concede to the obvious facts of the rhetorical situation, and modify our rhetoric accordingly.
I’m not suggesting that feminists alter their substantive message in any way. But if we’re going to convince anyone who isn’t already convinced, we need to find a way to communicate what we actually mean, without accidentally implying conscious conspiracies we don’t believe in. I recently heard the phrase “colorblind racism”, which I think is an elegant way to communicate the concept of institutionalized racism. We need a similarly clear way to explain the patriarchy, or we’re going to remain a stigmatized and somewhat marginal group.