Disciplining Women

I am a woman writer on the left, but only by my account. I should say: if you ask me, I’m a woman writer on the left. If you ask other women writers on the left, I’m a rank misogynist because I’m pro-life and not particularly compelled by Belle Knox’s claims of liberation-via-porno; toward that latter contention you can now see her slurring through some kind of porno reality show promo with all the gusto and enthusiasm of the dude calling tables at Chili’s. But I digress. Point is: by my lights, I’m a leftist; for some, I’m not. Welcome to the personal narrative game.

So how do we comport ourselves in light of the often irreconcilable contradictions that arise between personal narratives? One way is to look to forms of knowledge that aren’t rooted in our own stories of self. And yet, as Amber A’Lee Frost points out in her recent Jacobin piece “Bro Bash“:

…reactionary anti-bro thinking seems to suggest that in order to be meaningful, useful, or “authentic,” research must be translated into florid memoirs of sisterhood, thereby removing all traces of bro. So why do otherwise enlightened feminists and their allies so often totter on saying outright that “math is for boys?”

Amber goes on to explore the phenomenon of ascribing quantitative analysis to the realm of the ‘bro’, a bizarro world cultural space that seems to serve as an intellectual landfill for left academic feminism. Everything unwanted becomes the stuff of the bro; and this itself is a problem: it can, as Amber points out, toss toxic waste into the community dump, and quietly poison the groundwater. This is to say: when ‘bro’ becomes the moniker for everything bad, we wind up categorizing things that are in reality dangerous, violent, and horrible under the fairly innocuous banner of the bro. Mansplaining and vaguely obnoxious jokes? Bro territory. Rape threats and other forms of sexual menace? Way beyond the pale of salmon-colored-shorts-wearing, boat-shoed bro-dom. That is the very point Amber was making here, when all hell broke loose:

And what I call “bro” — say, the use of a cryptic sports metaphor in political debate — might be the residue of cultural dickishness, but it’s hardly intellectual patriarchy. And I just don’t think the diminutive label of “bro” should be to describe more insidious sexism, let alone violent aggression like rape threats. Let’s not mitigate our censure with cutesy fraternal nicknames.

What Amber is getting at here is that bro is an inadequate label to contain every instance of male malfeasance, which has a couple of effects: first, it can wrongly soften and normalize behavior that is in fact much worse than fratty obnoxiousness, and second it makes dealing with genuinely different streams of criticism difficult by categorizing them under the same heading. When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a bro.

A helpful piece to read to understand the rhetorical tool Amber is using here is the recent (delightfully weird) “Beware of Cupcake Fascism” piece in The Guardian. The idea is that the insidious and destructive can, in particular cultural realms, hide underneath the guise of the familiar and domesticated. Fascism can masquerade as a stridently sweet form of genteel niceness. Rape threats and sexual violence can masquerade as keggers and sunglasses dangling perilously low from a sunburnt, axe-splashed neck.

Amber has taken a lot of flak over this paragraph because the argument it serves is an unwelcome one. I’m pretty well sheltered from that brand of fallout by the skirts of the loving mother Church, which is to say that though I’m pretty often maligned by some segments of the academic feminist left for my views, it doesn’t result for me in the total withdrawal of community. But unorthodox views can, especially for women in left academic feminism, result in precisely that form of discipline: withdrawal of community, overwhelming assassination of character, a very sudden onslaught of negative feedback and demands for apology. It strikes me that this method of disciplining members is another symptom of the problem Amber gets at in her article: the community is not so concerned with what is true or false as with who is good and who is bad.

This has been a facet of the left academic community I’m associated with (and do enjoy the fellowship of) that has distressed me for sometime, and I’m glad Amber took the time to flesh the problem out, even if the process turned out to be a bit more performative than she may have intended.