Misogyny, Maya Angelou, and Words

A lot has happened since last week.  As a heads up, the first portion of this post is about misogyny and the UCSB shootings last weekend. If you’d rather not read about it, skip below the comic!

Last weekend, a man murdered 6 people and injured 13 more. Misogyny is largely being credited (not much in mainstream media, however) as the primary driver behind his violence. The killer left behind several youtube videos and more than a hundred pages of a violent manifesto. His parents had reached out to his therapist, and the police met with him, but nothing came of the meeting. Part of this is because they based their judgment of him on their face-to-face interaction, rather than on his digital droppings of his thoughts and opinions, perhaps a misprioritization in our current world.

As I’ve written before, there is a real risk in defining people based solely on what they post on social media. But when so much of someone’s thoughts and feelings are revealed online, their narrative becomes more transparent. This man’s narrative was one of violent, extremist misogyny.

As Laurie Penny describes it for New Statesman:

“”The ideology behind these attacks – and there is ideology – is simple. Women owe men. Women, as a class, as a sex, owe men sex, love, attention, “adoration”, in Rodger’s words. We owe them respect and obedience, and our refusal to give it to them is to blame for their anger, their violence – stupid sluts get what they deserve. Most of all, there is an overpowering sense of rage and entitlement: the conviction that men have been denied a birthright of easy power.”

Kevin Powell writes for CNN, calling for a broader definition of masculinity:

“Sooner rather than later we must ask ourselves when and how we are going to redefine manhood away from violence, retribution, guns and killing? When will we teach men and boys that power comes not from the barrel of a gun, that there are other ways to express or deal with pain or trauma, ways rooted in peace, love, nonviolence?”

Arthur Chu (recently internet-famous for his success and strategy on Jeopardy) takes nerd culture to task for being particular enablers and mythologizers of misogynist ideology:

“the overall problem is one of a culture where instead of seeing women as, you know, people, protagonists of their own stories just like we are of ours, men are taught that women are things to “earn,” to “win.” That if we try hard enough and persist long enough, we’ll get the girl in the end. Like life is a video game and women, like money and status, are just part of the reward we get for doing well.”

He, like Powell, sees an issue with the American culture of masculinity:

“we live in an entitlement culture where guys think they need to be having sex with girls in order to be happy and fulfilled. That in a culture that constantly celebrates the narrative of guys trying hard, overcoming challenges, concocting clever ruses and automatically getting a woman thrown at them as a prize as a result, there will always be some guy who crosses the line into committing a violent crime to get what he “deserves,” or get vengeance for being denied it.”

If you’d like a taste of how widespread the impacts of misogyny are, take a look at #YesAllWomen on Twitter, or the When Women Refuse tumblr. The former is primarily personal recounts of harassment and misogyny experienced, and the latter compiles stories and news articles about what happens when women refuse men.

A blog post from a couple years ago does well to establish how simple it is for misogynists and serial sexual harassers to be almost implicitly accepted, like a missing stair:

“Have you ever been in a house that had something just egregiously wrong with it?  Something massively unsafe and uncomfortable and against code, but everyone in the house had been there a long time and was used to it?  “Oh yeah, I almost forgot to tell you, there’s a missing step on the unlit staircase with no railings.  But it’s okay because we all just remember to jump over it.””

A more recent blog post tabulates an escalating list of sexual harassment behaviors. If you’ve ever gotten irritated because you can’t talk to a woman at a bar, or because someone misunderstood your intentions, this list is a great example of why. I am personally familiar with almost the entire list.

Man reading a newspaper with mass shooting headline, exclaims "maybe we should outlaw personal nukes", someone in the next panel responds "but HE was the problem!  all your idea does is punish responsible nuke enthusiasts, and the last panel returns to the first man, who looks downtrodden and says "I just wish there was more we could do"

Wednesday morning, Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou passed away. The Paris Review interviewed her in 1990, and it’s a beautiful interview. On her life:

“Oh my God, I’ve lived a very simple life! You can say, Oh yes, at thirteen this happened to me and at fourteen . . . But those are facts. But the facts can obscure the truth, what it really felt like. Every human being has paid the earth to grow up. Most people don’t grow up. It’s too damn difficult. What happens is most people get older. That’s the truth of it. They honor their credit cards, they find parking spaces, they marry, they have the nerve to have children, but they don’t grow up. Not really. They get older. But to grow up costs the earth, the earth. It means you take responsibility for the time you take up, for the space you occupy. It’s serious business. And you find out what it costs us to love and to lose, to dare and to fail. And maybe even more, to succeed. What it costs, in truth. Not superficial costs—anybody can have that—I mean in truth. That’s what I write. What it really is like. I’m just telling a very simple story.“

Angelou also discussed at length her writing process and how she interacts with her writing:

“I really love language. I love it for what it does for us, how it allows us to explain the pain and the glory, the nuances and the delicacies of our existence. And then it allows us to laugh, allows us to show wit. Real wit is shown in language. We need language.”

Jason Somers would agree with Maya Angelou about language, especially the English language. So much so, that he declares in a blog post that you’re probably using the wrong dictionary:

“Google’s dictionary, the modern Merriam-Webster, the dictionary at dictionary.com: they’re all like this. They’re all a chore to read. There’s no play, no delight in the language. The definitions are these desiccated little husks of technocratic meaningese, as if a word were no more than its coordinates in semantic space.”

He contrasts these dictionaries, which focus on a basic definition, with an old version of Webster’s dictionary:

“Notice, too, how much less certain the Webster definition seems about itself, even though it’s more complete — as if to remind you that the word came first, that the word isn’t defined by its definition here, in this humble dictionary, that definitions grasp, tentatively, at words, but that what words really are is this haze and halo of associations and evocations, a little networked cloud of uses and contexts.”

Artist, author, and poet Austin Kleon feels the same way about dictionaries. Indeed, as I’ve mentioned in an earlier newsletter, definitions of words tend to be perceived as prescriptive, rather than descriptive. An essay by Catie Disabato disavows this notion, reminding us that:

“Words are symbols. They have no inherent meaning, only the meanings we give to them, collectively, as a group.”

Using a more descriptive dictionary could perhaps help reverse this trend.

Digital enhancements and unexpected shifts, like moving from print to digital dictionaries like those embedded in our laptops and that exist on dictionary.com, have also shifted the definitions of words. Alexis Madrigal looks at how autonomous vehicles could shape how we refer to drivers, contrasting it with the definition of a computer:

“a computer was a human for more than two hundred years. And in the span of some decades, that meaning has been completely and totally drained from the word.”

Matt Buchanan explores this shift further by commenting on the creation of a glossary of terms for Twitter:

“Perhaps the recently erected Twitter glossary, designed to explain things like “retweet” and “favorite” to bewildered new users, is indeed helpful to someone (dads?). But to whatever extent it is a guide to what Twitter is, it’s also a glass-and-steel-condo-like monument to what the Internet was, when some words meant other things, like “favorite,” which was (n) a thing you liked more than any other thing, not (n) a hollow unit of social currency or (v) a thing that one does to remind another human that his or her life has some value to you that is greater than absolutely nothing.”

Enough nerding out about words, here is some music (full of WORDS!) words are beautiful (I lied about stopping nerding out). There is a band called Bad Bad Hats. Given their name, their hat taste may be questionable but their songstyling is most certainly not. Their song Super America is superb. It is free to download. The EP that it is a part of, is also free to download, and pretty great. You should download it and listen to it. If you like Bad Bad Hats (even as a fashion choice, I’ll forgive you), you may also enjoy Slow Club and their song Giving Up on Love.

If you enjoy words and dictionaries as much as I do, I will remind you of the Oxford Dictionaries blog, and also point out this book about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary (I haven’t ever managed to get through it, however).