Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Whose Voices Are Missing from the Public Square?


If you have the time, I highly recommend taking a look at classicist Mary Beard's lecture on “The Public Voice of Women.” It is long, but you will be rewarded for your effort. Beard looks at the role of women in the public sphere from a diachronic perspective, looking not simply at the history of women speaking in public but the history of women being silenced, and the history of the language and tropes used by men to effect this silence. If women have wanted to avoid being silenced, they have a limited range of options; the most common is affecting traits of men, including deeper voices – essentially, adopting the role of the androgyne. But, at least in recent times, women have been allowed by men to speak publicly about at least one narrow set of issues, namely, women's issues.


Beard's analysis is wonderful as far as it goes, but I would like to expand on some of her points. Beard pays close attention to the language used to marginalize women's voices: it is in fact their literal voices themselves that are criticized, as they are “strident” or “whinge” or “whine.” For Beard, this is a sign of simple cultural prejudice: “there is no neurological reason for us to hear low-pitched voices as more authoritative than high-pitched ones.” But is this entirely true? There is another group besides women for whom high-pitched voices are characteristic: children. I do not think this is mere coincidence; rather, the infantilization of women is integral to their marginalization. A woman (but not generally a man) can be “baby” or “babe”; women, like children – but unlike men – cry. Even the very phrase “women and children” suggests their inferior status; while historically it has reflected a special concern with women and their safety (“women and children first” for instance), this merely ingrains in our culture the idea of the helplessness of women, their inability to defend themselves (You wouldn't hit a woman, would you?), their inability to take care of themselves (as in current debates on female sexual and reproductive rights). The comparison to children goes to their very maturity. Thus it is very relevant that women's voices are emphasized as low-pitched: women and their voices are not authoritative like men because they are not mature.

At the same time, Beard is certainly correct that the focus on the sound of women's voices ultimately reflects cultural prejudice, as it distracts from the message that women deliver with those voices. This is in fact simply one aspect of a larger pattern, the focus on women's attractiveness, clothing, etc. – everything but the actual substance of what women have to say. News reports or articles routinely detail women's appearance, and make judgments based on those details, in ways that are almost unheard of for men. This is not to say that the external appearance of men is ignored entirely. Rather, the way in which men's appearances are treated is very telling. In recent political discourse in the U.S. (and really this is just the continuation of a long-standing tradition), favored male politicians and other figures – usually conservatives – are praised for their manliness. Consider the descriptions of George Bush's emerging from a fighter jet to declare “Mission Accomplished”; or Mitt Romney with his shoulders that “you could land a 737 on.” More than male attractiveness, “manliness” is directly correlated with political strength. Disfavored male figures, on the other hand – usually liberals – are depicted as effeminate. An excellent example is the common dismissal of liberals, especially Paul Krugman, as “shrill.” This theme goes back to an August 2001 column in the National Review by Peter Ferrara, a major figure in Social Security “reform,” entitled “The Hysterical Opposition”: denunciations of social security privatization are “fierce, shrill, and unreasoned,” and Paul Krugman is “highly irascible.” Unreasoned, shrill, hysterical – I imagine many women might recognize these dismissals, for they are the same ones they themselves so often face. The same language used to silence women is turned on disfavored men, or men with disfavored messages – they are figuratively emasculated. Of course, this emasculation is in itself an attack on women, since it assumes that describing someone as a woman is somehow disqualifying for speaking in public, or is simply pejorative in general. Ironically, then, in political discourse no one emasculates more, or in more disturbingly explicit ways, than a woman: New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. In her world, Al Gore is “so feminized and diversified and ecologically correct, he's practically lactating”; John Edwards is “The Breck Girl” and “The Material Boy”; Barack Obama is a “debutante” and a “pretty boy.”

This gets to the most fundamental extension I want to make of Beard's analysis. Fighting for women's voices to be heard is an important fight, an essential one. But it is really just one small part of a larger issue: the silencing of voices of subordinate groups in general by the dominant one(s). We see this in particular with minorities and non-dominant gender orientations. In the U.S., African-Americans, Hispanics, Arabs and Muslims, Jews, gays, and others, to differing degrees, have faced and continue to face the same silencing or marginalization. The days are gone – for the most part at least – when Jews (and members of other European ethnicities like Italians) needed to change their last names in order to succeed in fields like journalism or law, or in the public square generally. But other groups are not as fortunate.

At one extreme of this spectrum are Arabs and Muslims. Consider the recent case of Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American scholar who met incredulity for writing a book about Jesus. Of course, study of Christianity is a privileged field, one not open to Muslims. I am also reminded of Jeff Jacoby, a conservative columnist for my former hometown paper the Boston Globe. Periodically, Jacoby provides his readers with a variant of the same basic piece: after a terrorist attack perpetrated by Muslims somewhere in the world, Jacoby calls a series of Muslim organizations in the United States and asks them to condemn the attack. He then laments that the groups do not condemn it, or, if they do, do not condemn it loudly enough – that is, they do not condemn the attackers specifically as Muslims (even though, in the particular case he mentions, an attack by Chechen separatists, the terrorist action had little to do with their religion and everything to do with a political separatist movement).

There is the obvious racism of this: if I, as a Jew, were called on for criticism anytime any Jew in the world did something wrong, I would be extremely offended; I imagine Jacoby would be too. But beyond that, there is the fact that, in Jacoby's columns, Muslims and Arabs are otherwise silent – except as silent caricatures, as terrorists, or else as shadowy figures under suspicion. Jacoby calls on Arabs and Muslims to speak up, but he ignores their voices; in his own columns he silences them, lets others speak for them. When Jacoby does defend the concept of “moderate Islam,” he turns not to Muslim voices but rather to Daniel Pipes, a conservative hawk who is widely seen (with good reason) as an anti-Muslim bigot and anti-Arab racist.

Jacoby, meanwhile, is a Jewish columnist, who writes not only about Judaism and Israel but about a wide range of subjects relating to politics and media; and his columns are widely circulated on conservative websites. This situation simply reflects the public sphere at large. Jewish writers appear frequently on the editorial pages of major newspapers, as both regular columnists and guests writers; they are relatively free to discuss whatever issues they choose. To provide data, I surveyed the opinion columnists, and columnists more generally, of the top 25 American newspapers in terms of circulation. Compared to their presence in the country's overall population, Jewish columnists are greatly overrepresented, while other groups, especially African-Americans and Hispanics, are greatly underrepresented. Many newspapers have a single African-American columnist, who sadly appears to be little more than a token black – someone chosen specifically to discuss African-American issues, or provide the so-called African-American view, as if the views of the black community were at all monolithic. There is also a relatively large concentration of African-Americans serving as sports columnists, as apparently sports is another field which blacks are licensed to discuss in public forums. At this point, I must emphasize that the full dynamics of the situations I am describing are more complex. For example, there is the issue of choice, one that Mary Beard highlighted for women discussing women's issues: to what extent do non-dominant groups choose to focus on these fields of their own will, rather than being forced to do so. But the overall pattern is disheartening: there are many blacks, or Hispanics, or other minorities who have much to say about a wide range of issues, as much as the rest of us about the full range of human experience, but so often they seem to be shut out of public discussion.

Muslims and Arabs, meanwhile, are conspicuously absent – from opinion pages, from columns, from public discussion in general. They are largely relegated, like women, to discussing the one topic seen to pertain to them (in this case, Middle Eastern studies). Out of 425 columnists surveyed, I found one Arab columnist at a major American newspaper: Souheila Al-Jadda of USA Today. (There is one other Muslim, Fareed Zakaria – an Indian-American – at the Washington Post.) Her areas of expertise are listed on the paper's website as, perhaps not surprisingly, “Islam, American Muslims, women's rights and Middle East politics” – in other words, the only topics that Muslims and women are generally allowed to talk about publicly.

Even on the Middle East, however, Muslims and Arabs are often silent actors, with non-Muslims and non-Arabs speaking for them. During the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, I watched a “debate” staged on New England Cable News on the war, naturally between a Jewish guest and a Muslim guest. The moderator, Jim Braude, began by asking the Muslim debater the entirely neutral question “Why are Hezbollah and Iran trying to destabilize the Middle East?” The Muslim guest responded with a nuanced critique of Hezbollah . . . at which point he was cut off by Braude, who turned to the Jewish guest for a swift condemnation of the Lebanese party/militant group. In this case, a Muslim was silenced even though he was making the desired point – he was silenced for not condemning Hezbollah fast enough!

The similarities between the silencing of women's voices and that of other subordinate voices extends beyond the marginalization of their public speech in general, or its restriction to specially designated topics. How they are shut down is also similar. As we have seen, men can be targeted with the same speech attacking voice and appearance, and general femininity. In the case of African-Americans and Arabs, we are fed, incessantly, the image of the angry black man and the angry Arab – cue Ferrara's “irascible.” The techniques are the same, only applied to a different voice.

But what can we do to change this situation? This is where Beard's discussion seems to me to be least helpful, and with good reason: addressing such a deeply ingrained problem is extremely difficult. I have no real solutions either. But recognizing the full extent of the problem is an important first step. By fighting for women's voices alone, we are divorcing this battle from its larger context, and missing an important aspect of the power dynamics at the core of the problem. I keep coming back to an incident from my graduate school days, when two (female) friends of mine were having a discussion about the ignoring and silencing of women students at the university. Throughout that discussion, I was silent. I had nothing to add from my own experience; but, even more, I felt negligent about – or even a silent partner in – this activity for never having noticed it as it went on around me. While it is not surprising that I as a man had not been sensitive to these cases, it was, and still is, discouraging. And I, for one, do not want to continue to be discouraged. I do not want to remain a silent bystander any longer.














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