Ed’s Teachable Moment: An Open Letter
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.