Soapbox: On Bad Faith

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soapboxI have been thinking about Joanna Russ’s classic of literary criticism How to Suppress Women’s Writing (1983) a fair bit recently, mostly in response to a clickbaity piece in The Spectator back in September that claimed that the reason that the work of female composers is not featured more extensively in educational syllabuses is because the various examples the author could think of are all crap. I paraphrase here, of course, but not by much. I’m not going to link to the article, because frankly I don’t want it to get any more traffic than it has already got, but I will point you to a nice response to it, and to my letter to The Spectator. Between them you should get the picture.

(I did dither about whether to write a response to them at all; part of me felt it was in the category of ‘don’t feed the trolls’. But I also figured that if nobody called bullshit on it, then future historical musicologists might conclude that such views went unchallenged in 2015. And if it needed doing, I was as good a person as any to do it.)

Anyhow, Russ’s book systematically analyses the critical response to the work of women in the arts - mostly literature, as that’s her field, but not exclusively - and itemises nine rhetorical strategies used repeatedly to dismiss and/or diminish it. It came to mind as the Spectator article deployed so many of them, with a smug breeziness that astounded me in two specific ways.

The first was that somebody could toss around clichés like these so unselfconsciously 30 years after they had been so thoroughly critiqued, not just by Russ, but throughout a substantial and well-established body of feminist criticism. It was kind of embarrassing, like when you see a stand-up comedian telling jokes about wogs - it might have been the norm to talk like that in the 70s, but these days even the most UKIPtastic people who delight in being offensive know that it’s rude.

The second was the monumental sense of entitlement the article evinced. This guy genuinely felt he had the authority to pronounce on whether or not ‘genius’ was present in a piece of music after only a few bars listening. It made me realise how useful an addition the phrase ‘check your privilege’ is to practical cultural politics.

That point wasn’t why I started writing this post - it’s just that I keep getting distracted by my astonishment. The thing I really want to focus on is an extra couple of strategies that seem to be getting added to Russ’s list, and which the article brought into focus for me. Both exude the quality of bad faith that Russ identifies as the thumbprint of an exclusionary discourse, and I encourage you whenever you come across them to call them out as such.

There Aren’t Any Obstacles for Women These Days

This one is the flip side of the myth of historical progress - the notion that the reason we know some contemporary female composers (writers/artists/scientists/important people in whatever field) but few if any from previous generations is because the Bad Old Days are over, so women can take their rightful place in the profession at last.

It’s kind of plausible as a narrative until you realise how many successive generations of women have believed this to be true, made careers, then fallen out of history as soon as they are dead (or in some cases as soon as they have children). Every generation thus starts out thinking they are pioneers. It shows bad faith as it purports to be a feminist position, whilst isolating today’s women from the work of their foremothers.

To announce that there aren’t any obstacles for women these days likewise pretends to be pro-women (obstacles are bad, aren’t we all glad to see them go), but is also a position of bad faith, as it nearly always arises in a discussion about the relative absence of women from the profession. Only the week before the Spectator article came out I saw it used in a discussion about the absence of female composers in the catalogues of choral music distributed at the Association of British Choral Directors Convention in August, as a means to rule out obstacles to women as a reason for their absence.

It strikes me that a conversation that goes:

Person A: Where are all the women?
Person B: Well, there aren’t any obstacles these days, so that can’t be the problem

is a pretty clear case of victim blaming. Person B’s subtext is, ‘Well, nobody’s stopping you, so if you’re not making it, maybe it’s because you *are* crap after all.’ (It reminds me of that bit in the Hitchiker’s Guide when, after all the weirdness of the Infinite Improbability Drive, probability returns to 1: ‘We have normality...anything you still can’t cope with is therefore your own problem’)

I used to think this position was just wishful thinking/naivety/lack of real-life experience. After all, I was formed as a feminist in the late 1980s through the series of disillusionments as the ‘we’re all equal now’ rhetoric I had grown up with bumped up against the everyday sexism in the daily life of young women. We wanted to believe we had achieved equality, but just saying that has happened doesn’t make it so.

But the Spectator article brought it into focus for me that this position is itself an actual obstacle to women’s progress. Seeing it juxtaposed with the compendium of tactics documented by Russ, my first thought was: how can you say there are no obstacles, when you yourself are actively using so many techniques that have been used to exclude women from their fields?

And then I realised that its rhetorical role is to disguise, or at least distract from, the exclusionary power its user is wielding. By acknowledging that there were ways in which women were historically obstructed that no longer obtain, and by seeming to welcome the ostensible openness of the professions today, the writer/speaker aims to present himself as someone who is not actually exercising their unearned privileges to shore up their cultural capital at that very moment. It is, I have to concede, daring as well as dishonest.

But now we’ve spotted it, we can treat it is a flag. Anyone who claims women* face no obstacles to anything they appear not to be succeeding at in great numbers can be assumed to be actively building the obstacles they claim no longer exist.

They’re Only Known About *Because* They are Women

This is a variant of the ‘what about the men?’ whinge that appears in the comments section beneath any account of damage or injustice done to women. (Yawn.) To be fair, it is cleverer than the usual version, as it is not only attacks the women who are being reclaimed for history, but does so by attacking the judgement and integrity of the historians who are doing the reclaiming. Nasty.

In effect, it is turning women’s disadvantages back on them for another go. It suggests that all the efforts people have made to dig women’s work out of historical oblivion is nothing more than special pleading, and had this art been produced by a man, it would have sunk without trace anyway. It claims a position of objectivity and meritocracy that is ostensibly fair, in that it purports to judge the work ‘on its own terms’, because what matters is good work, not the sex of the person who made it.

It can only do this of course by making all sorts of assumptions about what constitutes ‘good work’ and the writer’s qualifications to make those judgements, whilst studiously ignoring all the problems of bias built into our critical language through the heritage of bad faith analysed by Russ and others. Old-fashioned critical language is a sure sign of someone putting their fingers in their ears and la-la-la-ing in the face of any aesthetics informed by social politics.

This strategy is the critical equivalent of women in the workplace surviving sustained sexual harassment and getting the promotion, only to be accused of sleeping their way to the top. Like the previous strategy, it exploits the achievements of feminism to attack and diminish those same achievements. I do like a spot of recursion, but only when used responsibly rather than with malice.

*or people of colour, or economically disadvantaged people, or whoever - you can bet power works in similar ways across all kinds of social divides

Oh wow - I can't believed I missed this one!

I remember following a Facebook link to the Spectator article when it first came out, and it left me in a damp and vaguely cross mood for the rest of the evening, so it's really nice to read a post like this that organises a lot of the same thoughts (and more) that I think a lot of people had floating around their heads, albeit with a great deal more evidence and eloquence.

The 'feeding the trolls' concept I personally feel only has a lot of relevance when the original post is mainly inflammatory in nature. Sadly, I don't think Mr. Thompson was particularly trying to wind anyone up. The whole 'proclamation of genius' thing instead reads like he's preaching his enlightened wisdom to the masses, so I think challenging it is absolutely a better option to take.

Apropos of that, thank you! And I hope this doesn't put a damper on your mood either, by reminding you of the whole thing...

Funnily enough, I was just reflecting on this episode in the paper I gave last week in Paris, so it's actually been in my mind quite a bit just now.

It is, weirdly, a source of some relief to convert that feeling of vague crossness into one of very specifically-articulated crossness.

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