As Deborah Siegel points on in her latest post here at Girl w/Pen, there’s an abundance of not very helpful ‘noise’ in the media these days about feminists and feminism. My vote for the most unhelpful contribution to a serious discussion of feminist goals is last week’s inclusion of ‘feminist’ in Time magazine’s 2015 annual online poll “Which Word Should Be Banished”.
Reaction to the poll was swift. Time quickly apologized in the wake of protests from groups and individuals proud to identify with the rich history and ongoing work of feminists. (see a few examples here, here and here) Time also published a thoughtful, powerful essay by Robin Morgan, “Feminism is a 21st Century Word”. Morgan discussed the history and definition of feminism, noting the simplicity of the dictionary wording: “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.”
Time’s apology for the inclusion of ‘feminist’ in their poll included the following statement, “While we meant to invite debate about some ways the word was used this year, that nuance was lost, and we regret that its inclusion has become a distraction from the important debate over equality and justice.”
So, end of kerfuffle, on to the next news cycle, right? Not so fast. Aside from the fact that Time apologized but didn’t actually remove ‘feminist’ from the list, anyone who thinks the episode was an isolated, unimportant case of poor judgment runs the risk of engaging in wishful thinking. The poll “…meant to invite debate about the ways the word was used this year” did nothing of the sort. Yes, it was an opportunity for feminists to speak clearly and publicly about the legacy and the work of feminists. But reasoned debate that included those outside the feminist community? Not so much. Rather, the poll provided a revealing glimpse of the depth of misogyny embedded in our culture. Too many still think it’s fine to denigrate women and to dismiss objections to the trivialization of ‘feminist’ as ‘humorless’, or angry man hating, or the knee jerk reactions of rigid ideologues.
I’m disheartened that the experienced journalists at Time were unable to foresee the impact of their word choice. But, then again, power can be a blindfold. The inclusion of ‘feminist’ among trivial phrases such as “ I can’t even’, and ‘sorry not sorry’ and words like ‘kale’ and ‘influencer’ fostered ridicule rather than thoughtful debate. The list was a perfect opportunity for those who troll the Internet with snarky remarks about anyone who is not a white heterosexual male. The ones who attempt to disguise hatred as humor and fool no one.
And yes, I know, I get it, this is the tone of many discussions these days: take no prisoners, relentlessly ridicule anyone you disagree with, and never allow data or conflicting evidence to creep into a viewpoint. In such an environment, the idea that feminism is not women against men, but a complex belief in the equality of women and men is lost. Those in the ‘be sure, hang tough, any disagreement is a personal attack’ crowd rarely see the worth of a discussion in which various perspectives are heard, viewpoints are expanded and mutual learning takes place. Forgetting the full range of responses generated by the poll and what they reveal about our current cultural divides is dangerous.
My father liked to quote “sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never hurt you” in advising his children to ignore the teasing of friends. I’m not so sure. Words can hurt. Either/or dialogue kills discussion, shuts off communication, amplifies disagreement, and obscures commonalities. Without thoughtful dialogue, dialogue that includes respect for differing perspectives and experiences as well as a tolerance for ambiguity, I fear we will never achieve the just and equitable world so many of us envision.