Gender-Sex Wars and Civil Society

The controversy over John Aravosis’s “big girl” comment reminds me of this book, by Didier Eribon.

Aravosis argues that, amongst metropolitan gay men, these effeminate putdowns have no misogynistic overtones, and that, anyway, we should be worried about macropolitical action rather than the nuances of our insults. After all, it’s this sort of infighting that makes the Left so weak. The women and men who are peeved at him think they should be able to expect that the leaders of the progressive internet movements would share their values and their taste. They don’t like it that Aravosis doesn’t understand, as one commentator wrote: “[the female] half of the population resents being the default insult.” I’ve already said what I think of those with whom we don’t share a common sense of humour and disparagement here: we live in different worlds.

The short of Eribon’s argument (forgoing the Foucault exegesis) is that the culture of witty arguments and putdowns that erupted after Oscar Wilde is gay, even when the participants were straight. He argues “that gay culture and political movements flow from the need to overcome a world of insult in the process of creating gay selves.” How do we do this? By beating our detractors to the punch, and by literally outwitting our opponents. I like this argument, especially for what it says about gay snobbery and gossip: give gay men a break for being so catty, because they’ve earned it.

The funny thing about Eribon’s argument is the history: wars of wit were going on in salons and coffee shops long before anglophone homosexuals started making their way out of the closet. Perhaps many of the contributors were a bit effiminate, concerned as they were with letters and language rather than business and war, but their sex life wasn’t the issue. These witty dialogues lead to the revolutions in the Americas and in France. Just think of the exchanges of letters between the Loyalists and the Patriots in the late eighteenth century that sparked the American Revolution. Alternatively, take Rousseau and his participation in War of the Buffonists, which eventually lead him to write the inspiring documents of the French Revolution: he went from unnatural music to anti-aristocratic philosophy. They rode the Enlightenment horse until it collapsed, gasping, to the ground.

What really drove the bourgeois public sphere, as Habermas tells it between the lines of his Structural Transformations of the Public Sphere, were the nasty, gossipy, wonderful women of the day. Here was a space in which women and men could interact and test their intelligence against each other. This is what I love about the Habermasian view: for him, wit and wisdom are inseparable. Deliberative democracy will always entail incivility, as we sharpen our minds by sharpening our tongues. It’s not a structural argument so much as it is genealogical: that’s just how it happened, and probably we should struggle for civility when we can.

As Chris Clarke puts it (I’m stealing a connection from Sentiments of Rationality here):

My point: it is not civil to discuss things quietly and collegially while people are dying because they can’t afford medicine. It is not civil to speak in even, chuckling sardonicism as one beleaguered wild place after another is paved for profit. It is not civil to calmly raise logical arguments against torture, against kidnapping, against using nuclear weapons on civilians to show our resolve.

Without the current context, the broader point stands. Politics is, and should be, about passionate convictions. While we don’t want every debate about highway funding to end in civil war, we can also recognize that the regular flaring of passions and subsequent linguistic creativity is an important part of the legitimacy-formation of a government. People need the outlet of incivility if they are to avoid insurrection while making concrete steps towards their goals. Meanwhile, all this cussing and insult-slinging leads to a creative, wise class of people who can wield language to propogate policies, propagandize, and polemicize effectively. It’s a good thing.

So:
1. Civility is bad.
2. Gays and women were responsible for the first strains of incivility in the contemporary democratic era. Yay!
3. Women and gays are now at each other’s throats, at least a little bit, about an insult.

Aravosis should apologize, but he can’t. He can’t admit that effeminizing terms slung at a male (Senator Pat Robert, the real bad guy) are actually nothing to do with him, but rather aimed at women. To do so would be to deny his own experience, an experience of trauma that he and gay culture deal with by turning those terms right back at their oppressors. For Aravosis, the sting has been taken out of “big girl” by a practiced repetition amongst his friends, and the pleasure of that witty repartee is that he can now make Republican Senators squirm.

But what about all those women? They’re justifiably angry to be represented by terms which the rest of us throw around as derogations. I’ve done it myself, and I know many women who do it, too. The idea, as for gay men, is to beat the oppressor at his own game. (I’ll never forget the first time my boss, a tough lesbian ex-prosecutor, told a burly male investigator not to be “such a girl about things.”) And that, I think, is the key: not to save “girlhood” from its wimpy connotations, but for women to distance themselves from it as well. Most of the professional women I know take exception to ‘girliness’ already; they’re “women” and refuse any other appelation. Why should all the women who jumped at Aravosis’ comment choose to re-associate themselves with pre-pubescent females? The picture of a Republican Senator as a small, long-haired child lacking pubes or external genitalia seems pretty funny to me. Would ‘boy’ have worked as well? Maybe. But, especially for a gay man, it’s hard to turn that word into a meaningful insult.

I must speak from my own experience here, because that’s all I have. When the real boys and girls fought it out on the playground, the girls always won. Before puberty, girls had the physical advantage over boys, and any attempt to denigrate the giggling gaggle would likely earn a young man a kick in the ‘nads. So why don’t we let girls fight their own battles? From what I’ve seen, they seem to do fine on their own.

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