Words and the War of the World View

MashersI’ve spent the last week or so poring over materials on street harassment for a presentation and a series of blogs I want to do. Harassment has become rather a high-profile item because—among other things—several women in the last several years have been killed for rejecting the advances of men on the street. They have been stabbed, shot and run down in vehicles. It is also an issue because it affects a majority of women in countries all over the world.


During my travels along the strands of the Internet, I followed a link from stopstreetharassment.org to freethoughtblogs.com and a 2013 Brute Reason article entitled “Why You Shouldn’t Tell That Random Girl On The Street That She’s Hot“.


The blogger first posed a series of disclaimers (“What I am NOT saying”) followed by points that she was making (“What I AM saying”).


What the blogger—Miri, by name—was NOT saying were things like:
  • Finding a random woman attractive makes you a Bad Person.
  • Wanting to tell her she’s attractive makes you a Bad Person.
  • Every time you compliment a random woman on her appearance, it makes her uncomfortable/scared.
  • Every time you compliment a random woman on her appearance, that is harassment.
The what I AM saying list was:
  • If you find yourself really invested in the idea of complimenting random women on the street, you should do some serious soul-searching and figure out why that idea appeals to you so much.
  • It may very well be possible to compliment a woman you don’t know on her appearance in an appropriate way.
  • But, if you choose to compliment a random woman on her appearance, you run a high risk of making her uncomfortable/scared, even if she doesn’t show any outward signs of it. Are you willing to take that chance?
  • If you choose to compliment a random woman on her appearance, you may be harassing her.

I thought that was all pretty clear, but I read the  article and entire comment stream (yeah, I know) and was fascinated by the way people talked completely past each other and reacted to a whole lot of things other than what was actually said. They were using the same set of words, but often in completely different ways.


trollThere were the inevitable trolls (“You want to make speaking to each other on the street illegal! What a cold, heartless world that will be, you frigid b****!”). There were men who understood the dialogue and women who didn’t (“You only speak for bitter, old women. We young women want nothing to do with feminism and we like being whistled at and put a high premium on learning to please our boyfriends.”). Of course there were those in between—notably two men who arrived in combat mode and left fairly warm and fuzzy. Largely this was because, with few exceptions, the blogger/moderator was calm, rational, and courteous and stayed within her comment policy.


So, the meat of the post—whose author, for the record, is in her 20s and college educated—really boiled down to: No, men are not evil, but maybe they should consider the advisability of that wolf whistle or “hey, nice (your fave body part)” in light of possible discomfort or even fear the target of said commentary might understandably feel.


The question Miri asked was: “How important is it for you to deliver your commentary on a strange woman’s body in a public space?”
What I watched unfold in the comment stream in response to that apparently loaded question was very interesting from a psychological and literary point of view and occasionally frustrating from my personal female feminist point of view.


Well, there it is. Our first war word: feminist.


It means different things to different people and it is a potent word—a potent filter. Every commenter filtered their perceptions of the subject of Miri’s article through their definition of the word feminism. For example, several commenters seemed to have averted their eyes (or inverted them) when reading Miri’s “What I am NOT saying” list. They assailed her argument based on the firm conviction that she was a lonely, man-hating, frigid, lesbian who was saying men are bad and ought never to speak to any woman in any public place EVER. Period. Because feminism. One even called her a feminazi. No, not kidding.


Several times I watched Miri or one of her online supporters walk a commenter back through her article after he quoted her as using words she actually did not use or did not use as quoted. In some cases these were folks who saw the word feminism in the tags or followed a link from a feminist site and did not actually read the article before jumping into the comment stream with both feet. What they reacted to was not Miri’s understanding of the word femimism, but theirs. In a couple of cases, the men responded to the suggestion that they hadn’t read the blog by saying. “I did, too, read it. But I just read it again and I see that I misread it the first time.” One fellow admitted that, he actually hadn’t read the article, only the comments.


Image Squiggly Fireworks by PeaPix, Creative Commons.
Other words I watched set off incendiary devices included compliment, street harassment, uncomfortable, fear, care/caring, respect, selfish, public, power, inequity, rights.


That last one spawned a rolling melee of comments in which one of the male commenters kept insisting that to ask: “Does your right to compliment a woman on her body, trump her right to not be uncomfortable or afraid in a public place?” was to ask “the wrong question”. He ended several of his comments with this statement, in fact. Several other commenters (male and female) asked what was the right question (“What IS the magic word, Mr. Vinkman?”) and you know what? He never divulged that information.


He did say that he felt street harassment was not about anyone’s rights. When someone asked this fellow if he cared what feelings a woman might have about a random dude on the street complimenting her body, he also made it clear that since he could not read the woman’s mind, he could not care about what she thought, because he had no idea what she thought and the only way to find out was to compliment her. If she didn’t scream or run away, then clearly she appreciated the commentary.


This led to a discussion of the power inequity between men and women and the absurdity/reality of women being afraid to be out in public because of it. The word power got a lot of exercise without it being agreed upon what it meant or who had it or whether it played any part in harassment or physical compliments.


Compliments. Possibly that was the most misunderstood word of all. Miri was clear that the compliments she was talking about were specifically 1) about the woman’s physical appearance or attributes, 2) given to a complete stranger 3) in a public place and especially when 4) given to someone who was rather obviously not looking for social interaction (headphones on/earbuds in, nose in a book, walking quickly, eyes averted or head down, etc.)


By midway through the hundreds of comments, frustration was beginning to show. Even after the blogger reiterated that she was specifically speaking of compliments of a sexual nature directed at a woman’s overall appearance or her body parts—even after several of the men on the thread described interactions with women that everyone agreed sounded perfectly respectful and positive—the conversation continued to roll back around to “So, you’re telling me that I should never speak to a woman in a public place. That’s so sad and so selfish of you.” Several people lost their tempers, after which the blogger re-reiterated that she was talking about sexually objectifying comments, and others re-re-reiterated her basic theme in various concise ways.


And herein is the point. Sometimes our common language divides us. And often we choose to let it do that by not courting the idea (ahem) that someone else’s definition of a common word without common meaning may be equally valid and possibly more useful than our own.


Despite what I observed in Miri’s blog, my takeaway, overall, was that these things can be worked out by people of good will who are earnestly and sincerely trying to communicate,


Words and the War of the World View — 5 Comments

  1. these things can be worked out by people of good will who are earnestly and sincerely trying to communicate

    I agree. People who are willing to talk together and really listen to each other can come to some agreement. The problem is all the other people who have no such willingness.


  2. And that’s a high bar — people of good will who are sincerely trying to communicate. Most people are far more interested in blatting out their own position.

    • I saw some very interesting behavior in a couple of the detractors of the article over time. One was a woman arguing that younger women are more interested in looking good for men in general and pleasing their boyfriends than the “old style” feminists and that they love being complimented and catcalled on the street. The other was a gentleman who wrote mostly like an academic and who thought the whole discussion was beneath him.

      The woman first said she was very young and painfully shy to the point of being unable to meet men. But over time her self-description changed. She was a professional woman, in fact, a teacher of leadership skills at some sort of retreat for girls and women.

      The man at one point announced that he was a genius (literally) and therefore didn’t usually take an interest in the doings of lesser people. Over the course of his dialogues, he became more and more a rational and down-to-earth guy. I’m not kidding. His entire dialogue style just changed. In his case it happened rather quickly and to the point that I didn’t recognize the “voice” and had to go back and read earlier comments to make sure it was the same user id. It was.

      Now, one of the “women” who posted (and who really laid on thickly the idea of loving being manhandled in the street) was immediately outed as a guy troll and disappeared, but these other two seemed to be accepted by the group as exactly what they claimed to be. No one seemed to notice the morphing identities in either case. Maybe I noticed because I write fiction and have character cohesion radar. If the comments hadn’t been closed, I would have loved to just put the idea out there.

      • That’s one of the major problems. On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog. Between the people flying a false flag for a zillion reasons (shy, switching genders, stoking hatred, generalized trolling) and all the other standard miscommunications (sincerity etc.) it’s just about impossible.