Okay. Here’s a little exercise for you women readers. Go to a word processor and write about something that really gets your goat. Doesn’t matter what. Racism, sexism, So You Think You Can Dance – something you care about. Write at least two sentences. Write casually, not formally or academically – like you would in conversation with a friend, or on your blog. Make sure you come to a conclusion or give your ideas on a subject.
Seriously. Go do it.
Finished yet? No? I’ll give you another second.
Alright, awesome. Thanks for bearing with me. Here’s what I wrote, on the thing that’s currently irking me (lack of wi-fi in my location):
This is a damn college campus. Why isn't there some blanket wi-fi? I think that the entire campus should be able to access the net on their laptops as well as they could at any coffee shop.Look at your sentences. Look at my sentences. Specifically, look at the way we begin our sentences.
Did you say your idea outright? Or did you couch your suggestion – as I did – in “I think”? If not “I think”, what about “I feel” or “I believe”?
When I was writing above, why didn’t I just state:
The entire campus should be able to access the net on their laptops as well as they could at any coffee shop.“Should” implies that this is an argument and a suggestion, making the necessary linguistic distinction between fact (“This is a damn college campus”) and proposal (“The entire campus should have wi-fi”). So why do I further explain that this is just MY thought, just MY suggestion, just MY little idea by starting with “I think”?
One of the ways the kyriarchy/patriarchy works its way into our language is through the way we structure our sentences and frame even our most valid and strongly held beliefs. Isms integrate themselves into speech so that even people who dedicate their lives to fighting oppression use oppressive language, whether it comes from ignorance or lack of vigilance. Just the other day, I said that a racist comment on Feministing was “lame” in a private conversation. I immediately caught myself, but still.
In well-developed and generally applicable arguments – not about your personal comfort level, but rather about larger issues – couching opinions in “I think” and “I believe” is a way to distance ourselves from our argument. It’s almost a form of apology, and it’s a way to defuse or deflect the criticism that will inevitably come from agents of normativity. Instead of making the argument forcefully and demanding that people listen to my ideas, I’m saying “this is just little old me, but…”
There can be benefits to saying “I think” or “For me”, especially in one-on-one arguments, or reflective, less developed arguments. When you’re trying to put the person you’re arguing with at ease (as I usually try to do in this space), it’s helpful to frame ideas in this way and not say “THIS IS WHAT YOU MUST THINK.” It can make your thoughts less threatening and more persuasive.
But when making a forceful argument to someone who’s just not listening, or to a general audience, feminist shouldn’t shy away from being threatening. That’s what we’re here to do – to threaten the systems of oppression and dismantle the kyriarchy.
It’s not like I’m doing this intentionally, or you’re doing it intentionally – it just slips out. It’s how I’ve been taught and trained to write my arguments and frame my thoughts.
Readers who are writers and bloggers, I’ve got a challenge for you next week: Next time you’re making an argument forcefully, in a blog post, email, or comment, add an extra step to your editing. Go through your sentences and see how they begin. How many begin with “I think”? “I believe”? Try taking a few out – it won’t hurt – and read your argument again. Convinced?
If you did the exercise above, post your results in the comments!