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Ed’s Teachable Moment: An Open Letter

May 26, 2011
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Dear Ed Schultz:

I read about your remarks towards Laura Ingraham yesterday on Talking Points Memo, and I was, as you now agree, properly appalled.  I watched your apology on Feministing this morning, and read Courtney Martin’s remarks.  I’m a big fan of a sincere apology, and you seem properly sorry, and I don’t want to pile on about how wrong you were to call Laura Ingraham “slut.”  I’m not writing to add to what has already been said.  I am, rather, writing to amplify Courtney’s remarks because if there is one good thing that can come from this debacle, it has to be that you get a better understanding of what was wrong with what you said.  This isn’t just about foul language.  This isn’t about obscenity.  This is about the relations of power in our society.  We as progressives can’t use the divisive tools of the powerful to help create a fairer society (or, as Audre Lord famously phrased it, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”)

Courtney Martin said, “[t]he only thing that could have made it better, would be to hear him speak to the larger culture within which his language operates, but my guess is that he’s properly unprepared to do that.”   (Emphasis mine.)  I fear she is right, but what I want you to do is to get prepared to address the culture in which this remark operated.  Slut isn’t just a dirty word.  It’s a dirty concept.  It’s a label that gets stuck on women — or that analogizes someone to a concept or womanhood as inferior.  There’s no objective definition.  It doesn’t actually measure sexual activity or unchastity.  It may be levelled at women for how they act, or for how they dress, or even for the characteristics of their bodies, without regard to anything they do by volition.  In that way, “slut” is like a crime that can be charged against all women, almost all the time — and a crime like that is a recipe for a police state.  It’s an ever-present threat, and a tool to keep them in line.  That’s not something progressives can use in a progressive way, because we can’t make progress that way.

The word “slut” is in the news a lot these days.  Months ago, a Toronto police officer told a group of women that the way to keep from getting raped was to not dress “like a slut.”  I think that’s just factually wrong (I understand there is research showing an absence of relationship between clothing and rape), but more to the point, women know that if they are sexually assaulted, they inevitably run up against the word — and more importantly the concept — of  “slut” if they report.  There is no set of circumstances when somebody won’t say it.  Even if a high school girl is unconscious, passed out, and violated by a whole crowd of men on videotape, some folks will still say she wanted it, or that the law shouldn’t protect her because she acted in some unapproved way.  The women of Toronto know the reality they deal with, and in a triumph of real grassroots activism, they organized the Slutwalk, and there have been Slutwalks in other cities, and more are planned.

There have been some critics of the Slutwalk phenomenon and some trenchant criticisms, but most of the critics ignore the core of the phenomenon.  So many people have said it that I can’t tell who said it first, but the core of Slutwalk is “I am Spartacus.”  As I’m sure you know, the Romans offered leniency to Spartacus’s army if they would identify him so they could make an example of him.  They refused, many or perhaps all saying, “I am Spartacus.”  It was a statement of solidarity, a refusal to let the enemy single out one to stand alone.

What you said about Laura Ingraham isn’t just a matter of foul language.  Shit, I don’t care about that.  I’m a New Yorker, and I grew up on construction sites, and I can and do use “fuck” as more than one part of speech in the same sentence.  “Slut” isn’t “fuck.”  “Slut” is about power, power to single out and label women, to isolate them and shut them up.  No good can come from that.  Laura Ingraham and I are not going to see eye to eye on pretty much anything, and she probably wouldn’t agree even with everything in this post, but if she’s a slut than so am I.  Why not?  I’m a sexual person, too.  In fact, anyone who reads this blog would probably guess that my sexual history gives me more ammo to shock people than hers likely does.  So why wouldn’t I be a slut, too?  Because, of course, the term is a uniquely gendered putdown, an attack that can be made towards just about any woman at any time, but only to men under narrow circumstances that have to do with attacking their manhood.

Ed, I’m not worried that my kids will hear bad words on TV.  They’ll hear all the bad words on the playground by third grade anyway.  I can deal with that.  I’m worried that they’ll learn that there is such a thing as “slut,” that they’ll learn that that concept exists in the world, that women can be singled out in a way that has nothing to do with the subject at hand, and nothing to do with the facts, and nothing to do with anything except singling out femininity for attack.  That’s what I don’t want them to hear.  So when you called Laura Ingraham a slut, you called my daughter a slut, and my wife, and my mother, and my sister, and my friends.  You contributed to the way things are — the way they ought not to be.  Ed, I think you’re committed to change, and I believe you know that you did something wrong.  But I want you to grapple with what it was that you did.  It wasn’t just saying a naughty word.  It was throwing half the progressive movement, and half of America, and half of the world, under the bus just to make a cheap attack on the other side.  I just want you to think about that, and if you do, I think it might change you way to look at gender for the rest of your career.  I hope.

 

Postscript to blog readers:  there is a lot to be said about Slutwalk that I have not said here, and some of what needs to be said is critical.  This, brought to my attention in comments, is a thoughtful analysis and a very good read.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 26, 2011 1:08 pm

    I usually don’t comment – I only read the feeds, but this is stated so awesome(ly) ;) Thank you for the phrasing and deconstruction of the whole problem and all…

  2. Jen permalink
    May 27, 2011 5:54 pm

    “So when you called Laura Ingraham a slut, you called my daughter a slut, and my wife, and my mother, and my sister, and my friends. You contributed to the way things are — the way they ought not to be.”

    Amen to this! I so often want to express this sentiment — not in a patriarchal, men-have-to-protect-the-women way. But to remember that the way one woman is treated affects how all women are treated, that the way one person is treated affects the way all people are treated. It is a question of solidarity. Thank you for saying so.

  3. MadGastronomer permalink
    May 28, 2011 8:45 pm

    Slut isn’t just a dirty word.  It’s a dirty concept.  It’s a label that gets stuck on women — or that analogizes someone to a concept or womanhood as inferior. 

    Did you just completely invalidate all the work done in the sex positive feminist communities to reclaim this word?

    There have been some critics of the Slutwalk phenomenon and some trenchant criticisms, but most of the critics ignore the core of the phenomenon.

    Did you just ignore that work again?

    So many people have said it that I can’t tell who said it first, but the core of Slutwalk is “I am Spartacus.”

    Did you just use men as an analogy for a women’s event to take back power?

    if she’s a slut than so am I.

    Did you just appropriate that term?

    Dude, your privilege is showing, and you’re centering men again.

  4. Elizabeth permalink
    May 30, 2011 5:06 pm

    Echoing MadGastronomer,

    ” In that way, “slut” is like a crime that can be charged against all women, almost all the time — and a crime like that is a recipe for a police state.”

    Not all women’s histories are the same, I recommend you read this post from the Crunk Feminist Collective. It really highlights how the use of the word “slut” is racialised – it applies quite specifically to white women and the particular structures that moderate our sexuality.

    http://crunkfeministcollective.wordpress.com/2011/05/23/slutwalks-v-ho-strolls/

    “[the mission statement for Slutwalk] it also feels on a visceral level as though it comes from women who are in fact not used to being fully defined by negative sexual referents. “

    • May 31, 2011 6:12 am

      The critiques women of color have made of Slutwalk are the ones that I think are the most trenchant. I linked to that Crunk Feminist Collective post from the end of the OP. Thanks.

      • orlando permalink
        June 1, 2011 10:42 pm

        Just wanted to post a quick *disagree* with MadGastronomer, and a thank you, because you have nailed several points that I keep wanting to hear in MSM articles on SlutWalk, but which seem to be missed in all the fuss about whether or not the word itself can be reclaimed. In particular, I love the “I am Spartacus” analogy, which was exactly what I was trying to articulate in the related discussion over at Hoyden About Town, and precisely why I will be marching.

  5. September 22, 2011 3:31 am

    “[the mission statement for Slutwalk] it also feels on a visceral level as though it comes from women who are in fact not used to being fully defined by negative sexual referents.“

    Saywhutnow? Yeah, I had to go read that blog, to be sure I wasn’t seeing what I thought I was seeing… Sadly, although I understand the need to split-hairs for the sake of individual identity and cultural bonding, I feel this kind of remark, within this kind of context, is undermining to women of EVERY walk of life.

    “White women” (which is to say, European/Australian/Canadian/American?) were being defined by negative sexual referents for literally thousands upon thousands of years.

    ALL women have.

    Women, COLLECTIVELY, have been sexually debased by nearly every single patriarchal culture ON THIS PLANET. And every single language has some sort of negative sexual reference.

    If we, collectively, cannot stand together and agree to uphold mutual respect and support–without degenerating into racial and cultural spitting contests–we accomplish nothing.

    United we stand. Period.

    Slut. Ho. Whore. Bitch. Cunt. Pussy. Bleeders. Breeders. The weaker sex. Scream like a girl. Cry like a girl. Fight like a girl. Run like a girl. Like a girl. Like a girl. Like a girl.

    As to the negative words themselves, I do not understand the attempt to “take back” a word that was never yours, or ours–because it was never used in a healthy way, never previously used by us, to describe ourselves, in a positive way.

    We have also used these insults AS insults towards each other for as long as they have been used against us.

    If anything, a more accurate term would be to “hijack” the word–giving it a new, and never before used, definition/context.

    I find this a waste of time. Utterly.

    I would much rather associate with words that have already been used in a positive context for ages, then to try and rewrite/redefine dozens of words in hundreds of languages to mean something they do not mean, and never have.

    Deva. Goddess. Diva. Queen.

    (You wanna “take back” a word? Take back HEROINE. That WAS ours. THAT, they stole.)

    Negative words will always be used negatively, even if a portion of the population “tries” to use them positively. And those habitual definitions will stick like social glue.

    When I hear girls calls girls “bitch” and “ho” and “slut” (or their boyfriends “pimp daddies”–yuck) it makes me cringe. Not because they are trying to make it positive, but because it sounds like they are insulting each other, and insulting themselves.
    And sure enough, twenty minutes later, when they start fighting over something, they will then up and use the same EXACT words–as they were originally intended: to hurt.

    (“Fuck” by the way, was used to imply a rough, typically unwanted, sexual act. “Go fuck yourself” “fuck off” “fuck you”–none of these are intended to imply you wish the person to experience a healthy, pleasant, gratifying sexual experience.)

    The energy of the word, is powerfully negative, and it will take as much time, if not more, using it “nicely” to try and undo the decades of evil intentions behind it.

    Frankly, we have very few positive words for women, that are “sexual” and not just “neutral” or “motherly.” (Even then, look up the definitions in a few dictionaries–some contexts are STILL negative, or borderline immoral at least, or imply a deviance: Nymph, Sex Pot, Bomb Shell, Brick House, Sexy Thing…almost complimentary, yet still fall so short of being so.) Women get to choose between being mothers or being whores, historically. And don’t ever try to be both–then you’re a witch!

    Our role as mothers is the only positive light, historically, that we have been allowed. Any sex we have must be for the purpose of procreation, or else it is solely for the purpose of male recreation. Our enjoyment of the act is considered with as much disdain as original sin itself. Using that legendary metaphor POINTEDLY: Eve was tricked, then blamed for the trickster, who went unpunished. Sound familiar? One might say Original Rape, and not be too far off.

    Lilith, meanwhile, independent and unyielding to inequality, since she was CREATED equal, got the first nasty tabloid cover photo and smear campaign. After all, the Bible was the first mass-produced, media-for-the-masses.

    Most patriarchal cultures have some mythological excuse for why their women are inferior, and for some reason, inferiority isn’t enough–they have to include cruelty as part of the game.

    Words, names, that come from such cruelty will always bear the same scars as their intended victims. And when one falls out of popular culture from disuse, another replaces it. (You do not hear a lot of “Wench!” and “Cur!” being shouted these days…)

    And that is basically my point: Hijack whatever negative terms you like, they will just find new ones.

    The problem is NOT the words, its the intent. It is the culture behind the intent.

    And until we change the intentions of those who seek to be cruel, they will simply find new words, new methods, of accomplishing their objective: to objectify.

    So, if you want me to go on a WomynWalk, or a Strut for Safety, or a Marvelous March, or a Freedom Frolic, sign me up.

    Fight hatred with anger, and it has only multiplied.
    Heal hatred with compassion, and it is removed from this world.

    Until every man-hating woman forgives, and every woman-hating man regrets, there isn’t going to be an end to cruelty. And cruelty is as cruelty does: in thought, in speech, in action.

    Thus I will only empower something positive, and thus empower myself, and all of us.

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