Silencing with “attack”, the misuses of logic, and reclaiming emotion

I’ve been contemplating the buzzword “attack”. While it is worth keeping a lid on egregious, unwarranted, off-topic ad hominem remarks, “personal attack” seems to verge on being a means to shut down dissent in some online discussions. It can function a little like “politically correct” – a taboo word to put the brakes on disagreement. Invoke the ad hominem defence, and you can expect people to suddenly back off and shut up for fear of being thought an “Attacker”.

Yesterday I saw a civil, thoughtful, intelligent poster use it as a sort of pre-emptive self-silencing apology strategy:

“Thank you Amp, for your posts and your concerns about my feelings here. I guess we just disagree on certain issues but my intent was never to attack you.[…] My intent is really not to “attack” anyone here. I was just trying to offer my insights.”

This was in a comments thread at Alas, comment 108 by Radfem.

*Note: The domain on which Alas is hosted was sold to pornographers in mid 2006. There is no porn at the link above, but your hits or may not indirectly support misogynistic, racist, lesbian-exploitation, and teen porn, despite the “nofollow” attribute I’ve added. If you prefer to read the link at the Google cache, here’s a link.*

But what is an “attack”? Wordnet tells me it’s an “intense adverse criticism”. We get a lot of that in the political blogosphere – in some ways, that’s what it’s all about. How can you passionately object to sexism, racism, oppression, and assholery without a hefty dose of “intense adverse criticism”?

Amanda Marcotte’s take on ad hominem:

“By the way, “ad hominem” doesn’t mean what you think it does. Conservatives are under this weird impression that it means that you can’t bring up someone’s loathsome views when discussing his loathsome views. I am permitted to point out that you are a loathsome, sadistic misogynist because you support loathsome, sadistic, misogynist laws. It would be ad hominem if I said that your views on abortion were irrelevant because you’re a smoker or something.

There needs to be a term for the logical error of bringing up ad hominem when it’s not relevant.”

“Logical”. “Logic”. Now there are some loaded terms. “Logical” sounds neutral, doesn’t it? Mathematical. To be revered. We all want to be logical, and to use the established laws of logic in our discourse, don’t we?

The trouble is, the opposite of “logical” isn’t always “illogical”. There’s an deeper binary, and it’s a blueprint for silencing women. “Logical” is coded masculine, positive. Its opposite is “emotional”, coded feminine – and negative. Arguments drawing on emotion are considered to be distorted, illegitimate, fatally flawed.

I’ve been playing with the “Gender Genie“. Feed it your writing, at one end, and a word-analysis algorithm spits out a gender stamp and a “feminine/masculine” ratio. My blog posts, apparently, are coded almost entirely feminine. I plugged in twenty pieces of academic writing, including women’s studies papers on mother-blaming through history, breastfeeding in Parliament, feminist ethics and negotiating community. The result? 20/20 masculine. According to linguistic experts, academic writing is the sole province of those with testicles.

“Logical” and “objective” are the commonsense-veneer keywords of masculine privilege. Revering “objectivity” means that people not affected by hate get to control the definitions of hate speech, and to steer the discourses around it. Claims of objectivity spring only from a privileged position: you can only pretend you’re outside the conflict if you’re not the one on the sharp end.

Check out this blunt-end chappie at that Alas thread, wielding his cortex like a weapon:

“My approach and tone are generally cerebral, abstract, and analytical. Some people find this off-putting. Particularly, in this context, most of those people are women who have a particular approach to politics/discussion and, let us say, a fervent belief in the rightness of their cause. I don’t get along well with people like that; whether that’s a flaw in me, them, or just part of the friction of discourse I leave to someone else to decide. There is a fairly large group of those folks at Alas and, perhaps because of the blog subject matter, a lot of them are women.”

Cerebral. And what’s the opposite of cerebral? “Hysterical”. The wandering womb, the seat of out-of-control misdirected emotion, the definer and controller of women. Emotions don’t come from the brains of women, they come from the genitals. Because that way, we can treat emotions like we do women’s reproductive organs.

Make them taboo. Pathologise them. Control them.

Back to that Alas thread one last time. Comment 21, by defenestrated, reads:

“That’s founded in hatred and misunderstanding” is, after a while, all that’s left to say. To me, at least, that’s how bean’s original comment read. Of course, “You’re hateful and lacking understanding” sounds terribly insulting to the MRA [men’s rights activist] in question, since nobody likes to get called on their own absurdity.”

I am reminded of a golden comment in the Girls Read Comics forum. Page 3, here, by Betty:

“Yeah. “But if you’re right, I’m [racist/sexist/ableist/fill-in-the-blank]! Therefore, you must be wrong!”

This logical fallacy probably has a latin name that I don’t know.”

So let’s reclaim emotion. We’re not defective, weak, and illogical. We’re fervent, impassioned, and intense. Sing it.

Categories: gender & feminism, Meta

5 replies

  1. Sing it.

    a la Helen Reddy, I presume.
    Seriously, great post.It’s a while since I played with Gender Genie, but from memory it mostly thinks I’m a bloke, probably because I play with pomposity, circumlocution and lots of four-dollar words in my writing. All them big words can’t come from the brain of a little woman, apparently.

  2. Might strain your ovaries or something. That reference comes from a very funny Canadian cartoon called Mr Hell which had a Victorian lady sleuth who always came unstuck because she was a woman (very tongue in cheek). Her husband’s response to a request to read the newspaper was always ‘don’t be ridiculous, you will strain your ovaries!’.

  3. This is fantastic. I would also add that when men start going off about how logical and rational they are as an excuse for continuing to make statements that anger others, they are operating from a place of:
    2)unwillingness to be rejected and leave it at that;
    3)desire to control other people’s responses;
    4)fear that their logical! rational! views will never be regarded as persuasive, even if they are correct.
    And I’m pretty sure those are all emotions.
    Also, I wish I were Australian, so I could get away with using phrases like “blunt-end chappie.”

  4. I just posted this followup comment on my personal blog, so I thought I’d add it here.
    [re: some women being accused of “excessively logical” arguments at times]
    I’ve had much the same accusations, as my training is very much scientific as well. Embracing the validity of arguments which mix logic and emotion (as if the two can ever be completely separated) is relatively new to me.
    One of the biggest faults in my writing is skipping over things that are obvious in my head. An unconscious part of me thinks that if they’re obvious in my head, they obviously must be obvious in everyone else’s head, right? Hence, I get comments on my essays like: “This is too concise” and “elaborate more, please!”
    So, lest it be thought that I think this particular binary is a super duper valid one, and that men are always logical and women are always emotional: I don’t. Like pretty much every other masculine/feminine binary, it’s a false dichotomy. Logic and emotion can absolutely be combined in argument; moreover, “logical” is coded neutral falsely, as it and the people who wield it as a weapon are coming from a specific cultural place.
    It is, however, a binary with a huge amount of cultural power, and one that deserves bright-light scrutiny.

  5. I’m somewhat giddy to see myself quoted next to, or at least, in the same post as, Amanda Marcotte.

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