Not all questions have clear answers. Sometimes, there is no “right” answer. Sometimes, every “right” answer carries a little bit of wrong in it too.
This is especially true when we take a feminist approach informed by intersectionality; a feminism informed by the knowledge that privilege operates in a multitude of ways, that different types of privilege and different types of identity interact in different ways that aren’t necessarily quantifiable. We can however, observe the way that privilege and identity operate in our different cultural contexts. We can acknowledge that the cultures we inhabit deprive many individuals of the right to speak and act on their own behalf, that the identities of many individuals and peoples are written out of cultural narratives produced by those with privilege, by those who are in a position of authority.
Part of the reason it’s so important for people who occupy particular privileged positions to just shut up sometimes is because it’s impossible to escape that privilege: because no matter how good one’s intentions are, that privilege is embedded in the structure of the language that we use, it’s embedded in seemingly innocuous cultural assumptions, and simply by speaking, if we occupy that privileged ground, we reinforce that privilege.
It is impossible, however, to not speak all of the time. We may be silent on certain topics, recognising that our own privileges mean that speaking at a particular point would lead to appropriation of identity or the marginalisation of voices that have been silenced all too often. But we also have times when it IS appropriate to speak. There are times when we are discussing our own marginalised identities, where we do not occupy a place of privilege; it is good to speak then. There are times when we can speak up against others who share our privilege to highlight the way that certain types of language or certain assumptions can hurt people; it is good to speak then.
The thing is, though — even at those times, even when we are speaking on our own behalf, even when we are asking others to address their own unexamined privilege — the privilege that we DO have is still active, and it’s still being reinforced in a myriad of ways. Even if we are extremely careful about our own language, about our own gestures and our own assumptions, we are operating in a cultural context where the langauge, gestures and assumptions of others reinforce that privilege.
And that is where we run into what I like to call “the squishy bits”. These are the areas where we have to acknowledge that there is no “perfect” response to every situation. That some, or maybe all, of the solutions we adopt to address some forms of privilege will inevitably reinforce other types of privilege. That sometimes people can end up feeling more marginalised as a result of these solutions.
For instance, to use an example that applies to me personally: There has been a lot of excellent discussion in the feminist blogosphere about the use of ableist language and the need to address this. A number of people have addressed the terms “crazy” and “insane”, as they are used in general discourse, suggesting that their use adds to the stigma of mental illness. Last year, I was diagnosed with depression. And I realised that there were times, during my depressive episodes, when I was crazy, when the chemistry in my brain simply wouldn’t allow me to think in the way I had previously considered “normal”. Yet, I also found that the use of the terms “crazy” and “insane” in general discourse was hugely comforting to me. Rather than an appropriation of my experience, I found that the way these words were used made me feel like my crazy times weren’t something I needed to keep away in a little box — they were simply part of a world that doesn’t always make sense, that doesn’t always operate in a neat, well-ordered way.
But this, does not, of course, invalidate the experiences and feelings of people who DO find those terms problematic — it just means that we’ve run into a squishy bit. An issue on which there is no single “right” answer that can address everybody’s experiences. There is no Great Objective Moral Truth here. There are simply different experiences, people who experience the world in different ways, and the need to recognise that there aren’t always going to be perfect ways of acknowledging those differences.
That is NOT, however, to say that we should just give up and stop trying. We most definitely should continue to seek out the best ways of addressing privilege, of minimising marginalisation, and allowing the voices of all to be heard — particularly those voices that are all too often NOT heard. It does, however, mean recognising that sometimes those voices will not be in perfect harmony — and that’s okay. It means that sometimes we can’t have rigid rules on the right type of language to use and the wrong type — and that’s okay too. It means that it’s complicated.
It’s supposed to be complicated.
Addressing the squishy bits is difficult, and it very understandably often takes up spoons that many people don’t have to spare. Fail is more likely to occur in the squishy bits. But, so is conversation and dialogue that might not occur otherwise. The squishy bits are where people ask questions that they might otherwise be afraid to ask, questions they feel they should know the answer to, but don’t. Sometimes these questions are a function of unexamined privilege, and sometimes they are asked because the person does not have access to certain types of privilege — and sometimes it can be both at once.
And those conversations that we have in the squishy bits — they are important conversations. They aren’t always safe conversations, and what makes them unsafe for some people and not others can’t be easily defined. The squishy bits are where we talk about differences between things like cultural appropriation and cultural integration, and why sometimes neither of those terms are appropriate. The squishy bits are where we talk about why something can be simultaneously empowering and damaging. The squishy bits are often uncomfortable. There are no rules for dealing with the squishy bits — not permanent ones, anyway.
There is no one right way of dealing with the squishy bits — we all address them differently. Sometimes we do better than at other times. I’d like to ask though, how do you, Hoydenizens, deal with the squishy bits in your own life? What are some examples of squishy bits from your own life that you’ve struggled with (if you feel comfortable sharing)? What do the squishy bits mean to you?