in praise of infighting part 2: let’s talk about tone

Let me just lay it out here: I’m a cranky little fucker. At the age of 25 I already have frown lines marking my forehead. Many of the people who’ve met me have told me I’m the most sarcastic person they’ve ever met. My writing voice, as anyone who takes ten minutes to skim here knows, is consistently abrasive. Which is not to say there isn’t anything I like. For example: Reign In Blood, long bike rides, breakfast for dinner, my Schecter (not top of the line, but still a solid little thing..[in a Nigel Tufnel voice] the sustain is incredible). But I find the best fuel for my writing is things that annoy the shit out of me.

Which brings me to something that’s been on my mind a little bit: tone, and tone policing on the bloggernetz, especially when it comes to “women’s issues” and feminism. Three things have made me think of this: the fallout from the Amanda Palmer/Evelyn Evelyn nonsense, the Rejectionist’s review of Maggie Stiefvater’s book Shiver, and this post here, which refers to my drunk-ass shouting about the Jessica Valenti/Nina Power blogfight about a month ago. (Apparently, that post’s fame will never die! Hails!)

What do all three things have in common? Hand-wringing over the mean tone of the critical person(s) in that particular situation. I honestly do not have the stomach to revisit Palmer’s blog right now (I’m also about three beers deep, which may have something to do with it), but pop on over to her Evelyn Evelyn and post and watch all the sycophantic “omg, those mean disabled feminists just don’t understand the delicate flower of art!” comments. That is, until you start projectile vomiting from every orifice.

And here’s some words about the Rejectionist:

1. If this is really your viewpoint, that’s great. However, you titled the post as a review. A real review consists of an overview, as well as high points and low points. This was just a rant. Not only did it come across as a diatribe instead of a helpful review, you managed to push your own brand of censorship.

2. You chose to rant instead of educate and have muddled your message. If you really want the majority of people to hear and listen to what you say, try saying it with a littl grace.

3. Wow. I’d say the books did what they were meant to do — engender conversation. Pity some of it wasn’t more respectful of the authors’ efforts.

And me:

1. (in post) Smellen gleefully chimes in that the sort of individual empowerment Valenti advocates is narcissistic crap deserving of a punch in the face…and Sady points out that if we’re to the point of suggesting that face-punching is appropriate, something has gone terribly wrong.

2.. (in comments) Sady is definitely critical of Power’s argument, but that comes from a place of productive discussion. Smellen’s face-punch argument, though, like Power’s belittling of Valenti, makes me shut down and have trouble hearing the other, possibly useful, things that she is arguing.

(I should point out that I’ve never actually advocated violence against anyone – any mention of violent acts is hyperbole born of frustration. But then again, if you’ve got basic reading comprehension skills, you probably know that.)

Okay, so. Let’s talk about the implications, especially in feminist circles, of dismissing your critics as a passel of cranky bitches with chips on their shoulders. Let’s talk about what it means to demand that people who disagree with you play nice with their criticisms. As you may have guessed, I am not OK with that kind of shit.

Why? Well, first, as a history-readin’ kind of girl, I know there’s a long-ass legacy, spread across all sorts of anti-oppression movements, of “well, I’d listen to them, but they’re just so damn harsh…” Usually used to dismiss legitimate criticism that may very well have been couched in less-than-sweet terms. And while I’m not trying to claim an oppressed position vis-a-vis the people chiding me for my cranky ways, it does indeed strike me as an easy way out. Like, why address my actual arguments when you can just grumble about what a meanie-pants I am? Why actually, y’know, think about things when you can shift the focus to how my tone makes you feel?

Don’t think I don’t know what it’s like to see harsh-ass criticism of an assumption, a viewpoint, or some cherished cultural object of mine. (Oh my, the word count just displayed as 666 HAIL SATAN! anyway). I used to see that shit and put on my defensive pants. But now that my skin has gotten a little thicker in that regard, I actually consider the points, and you know what? Since I’ve learned to put my tender feelings aside, I learn a lot more. And I regret how many substantive criticisms I dismissed before, since I thought the author was OMG a meanie. You know what? Sometimes, shit gets frustrating. People get annoyed. They write in ways that reflect that annoyance. Does that mean they have nothing substantial to say? Um, NO.

And can we parse this kind of thing a little, especially when it comes to female writers? I could just be wearing my Paranoia Goggles but I don’t know that the Rejectionist and I would be scolded for our crabbiness quite so much if we weren’t ladies/writing about lady-issues. There’s an imperative in certain folks’ interpretation of feminism along the lines of “if you can’t say anything nice about other women and their literary/political efforts don’t say anything at all.” I saw it in the comments to Valenti’s weak-ass rebuttal to Power; I saw it when I attempted to criticize Zana Briski’s use of missionary rhetoric in Born Into Brothels and the faux-empowerment ad copy of Suicide Girls* in my women’s studies classes; I saw it all over Mary Daly’s eulogies. And you know what? That shit is toxic. As I said in the first post in this (ongoing? probably) series, where would feminism be without internal disagreements? Also, what are the implications of telling female writers to, y’know, just be a little nicer and not quite so strident next time around? What might that have to do with the stereotyping of outspoken, crabby women as shrill harpies who say nothing of substance? Even if you aren’t purposely invoking that stereotype, maybe think about how exhorting someone to play nice in the feminist sandbox might play into that.

So, yes. I’m a crab. I’ve made my peace with it. And here’s Morbid Angel! A NIGHTMARE OF HAIR

*for the record, this is not a simple anti-porn stance. My gripes are with SG’s labor practices and how they market themselves.

~ by Smellen on February 23, 2010.

9 Responses to “in praise of infighting part 2: let’s talk about tone”

  1. This is the TPoH poster–just wanted to let you know that I appreciate your suspicion about tone-complaints, and point out that I did *not*, in fact, complain about your tone. I mentioned your post in the context of explaining the argument w/in the feminist blogosphere. I stand by the “gleeful” characterization. Cuz really, it was. Right? And there’s no reason to view that as a bad thing.

    • Thanks for the clarification. You are right that writing that did make me gleeful, mostly since it combined two of my favorite pastimes: 1)arguing and 2)consuming bourbon.

      ETA: what frustrated me about that particular exchange was someone whose writing voice is just as snarky and abrasive as mine (which I definitely do not view as a bad thing…quite the opposite, actually) was complaining about me being, um, snarky and abrasive. While Sady did make a point to implicate herself when she talked about the general somewhat-nasty tone on the bloggernetz, I can see from looking at her subsequent posts that her writing voice hasn’t really changed a whole lot in the past month. Which is fine. Shit is fucked, and as I have said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with commenting on it in an angry, sarcastic, or otherwise less-than-pleasant manner. But…dude, don’t point to me as the Heather Chandler of the interwebs when my tone is not terribly different from yours.

      so, my quibble was not with your write-up of that, really, but with the situation itself.

  2. I’m all about you today, Hell!

  3. Smellen,
    I want to second philosophyerin in agreeing that there are reasons to be suspicious about tone-specific arguments. And in my comments on her post, I’m really more the one who complained about tone. I appreciate what you’re saying here, and you are correct that I didn’t make any actual structural arguments about your original post on Valenti/Power; my bad on that one. Saying your argument was “face-punching” was not the best way to say I disagreed.

    I do think that discussing tone CAN HAVE merit, and I’ll always stand by that belief. I don’t think that critiquing tone is ALWAYS the same thing as calling other women over-aggressive or crazy bitches or the like. (Just as an example, I will always have a problem with Keith Olbermann, no matter how much I might agree with him at times, for exactly the same reasons – I don’t think that a full-on attack stance is always productive.) However, I’m going to keep in mind what you say here, and in the future if and when I make tone-specific arguments, I’ll double-check myself to be sure I’m not just reiterating patriarchal critiques.

    • Yes, critiquing tone can have merit. I mean, part of the reason I don’t read much stuff by prominent atheists (Richard Dawkins, et al) is the persistent “I AM RIGHT, DAMN IT” tone I see in their work, which ties in to my general distrust of people who think in absolutes. And I guess part of my whole Valenti argument was a tone critique, in that I was frustrated with her and some of the folks commenting who were insisting that “accessible” feminism needed to be written an a really over-simplified, pandering manner (“yes, we must adopt the ‘talking to third-graders’ tone when writing for The Masses”).

      It was just very irritating to see that the critical responses to that post seemed to consist of “Wow, what a black-hearted fiend!” rather than any actual argument. And even though I was drunk and pissed off when I wrote that, I did at least attempt to make points. I can think about and respond to critiques of my views. There’s not a whole lot I can say to “OMG, you are wanting to punch people! You BEAST.”

      Anyway, thanks for listening. Like I said, I’m not trying to be like “DO NOT MAKE TONE ARGUMENTZ, EVAR” but I get a little nervous when those arguments involve angry women.

  4. I second you completely on Dawkins.

  5. Have you read “The Coming Insurrection” yet? It may not be directly related to this discussion, but is extremely relevant to the larger conversations of feminism, violence and our social ways.

    Full text here:
    http://www.farnish.plus.com/amatterofscale/mirrors/insurrection/coming_insurrection.htm

    Contains the remarkable insight that pacifism depends on being able to choose violence and *not* choosing it, rather than abhorring violence from the outset.

    • I’ve been meaning to read that for a while. Haven’t gotten through the whole thing yet, but that’s mainly because I’m old-fashioned and reading anything that lengthy on the computer starts to make my eyes/brain turn to slop after a while. I do want to read a little more about that take on pacifism. I tend to be suspicious of pacifists, because of my general distrust of people who think in absolutes and because so many of them (in my admittedly limited experience) are folks of relative privilege who are far too quick to pass judgment on those with fewer resources who have resorted to violence. (I should also note that I think the middle-class-radical romanticization of political violence, which does not leave room to talk about the complications and problems that may arise from violent action, is the other side of that tiresome coin.)

      PS … I started reading Cyclonopedia (this time I skipped that wretched introduction). It’s amazing! How the hell does he even keep all those ideas in his brain, let alone synthesize them into a coherent whole? WHA’ HAPPENED?!

      • “(I should also note that I think the middle-class-radical romanticization of political violence, which does not leave room to talk about the complications and problems that may arise from violent action, is the other side of that tiresome coin.)”

        It is a tiresome coin, and one far better minted outside the Western world. Which seems to be one of the points of “Insurrection,” to identify that complications and possible necessities of violence, and also to discuss violence as a bargaining chip if indeed you’re opposing an already-armed force.

        “PS … I started reading Cyclonopedia (this time I skipped that wretched introduction). It’s amazing! How the hell does he even keep all those ideas in his brain, let alone synthesize them into a coherent whole? WHA’ HAPPENED?!”

        Incredible, innit? I’m convinced there’s a state of mind you access when working on something like that, akin to vertigo. Philosopher’s delirium.

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