Guilt and Language July 2, 2012Posted by craftlass in beliefs, current issues, politics, women's rights.
I am a feminist and atheist.
These days, those words are treated more like curse words than any term for genitalia. It’s a clever way to try to take the power out of them, it makes a lot of people apologize for being either or both. Language is a living thing, as any writer or English major can tell you, and usage can completely change the meaning of the word.
For example, let’s look at “conservative”. Politically, it used to mean someone who believed in small government, letting people make their own choices as long as they don’t harm other people on purpose, and allowing the market and society to sort things out without government intervention. These days in America, it means people who want to shrink the parts of government that help people, grow those that don’t, think companies are somehow more human and should have more rights than actual people, and want to restrict the rights of individuals if they happen to be anything but straight men. Often, it is also used to describe people who want America to turn into a theocracy, as long as it’s based on the Christian Bible (usually the woman-hating King James version that was commissioned by a man who was probably gay, but let’s not dwell on those ironies beyond a good chuckle).
See? Words are malleable. A century ago I would be a staunch conservative, now I’m a wild liberal simply because I believe in a person’s right to choose how to live her or his own life. I am exactly the same person with the same convictions, either way. It’s the definition that has changed.
I was raised very Catholic (as seems to be the case with many atheists). One of the classic stereotypes of that particular religion deals with guilt. Catholic children are taught to feel guilty about everything, even just being born. Catholic parents, clergy, and teachers often use guilt as a tool and it can be pretty effective. My poor godmother still has the ability to make me feel truly awful about the fact that I’m not Catholic simply by telling me that she thinks it is her fault, that she did something wrong and could have made me devout if she had just done something different. She’s completely wrong about that, it was the Church and the Bible that made me an atheist and the only way she could have changed those was to go back thousands of years to change everything about both. Still, letting her and other family members down is the only thing about my choices that bothers me. I got pretty lucky in the family lottery of adoption and would love to make them all proud in every way but I can’t deny basic truths about myself just to make anyone feel better.
Similarly, I see a lot of women who are strong supporters of women’s equality and rights who are afraid to call themselves feminists. There seem to be two causes for this: 1) They are not quite sure what feminism actually means and don’t want to use a term they don’t understand; 2) The word has a lot of negative connotations these days. The former is a good reason to not use a label and should be inspiration for further study, the latter is a horrifying one. When people demonize feminism and we allow them to take the word away from us we are handing over the power of the word. Isn’t that analogous to handing over all of our power? Isn’t that the exact opposite of our goals?
There is so much misinformation being disseminated about feminism. I think it’s a pretty simple thing, feminists want equality and full participation on every level of society and for women to be able to make their own decisions. What is wrong with that? With the exception of true misogynists I think most people want that, when you boil everything down to the essence. I don’t want women to control everything, I just want over half the population to have an equal voice. This is not how things are at this time. When Congress bans women from testifying about contraception, when state governments relegate the women within them to working only on minor areas of state law, when politicians equate women with livestock… We are nowhere near equal. If anything, we are losing the ground that the generation before mine paved for us.
According to Save the Children, the United States is one of the worst places in the developed world to be a woman (they make it painfully clear that we can not begin to compare the developing and developed world, so please don’t comment that women here have it better than those in places like sub-Saharan Africa, okay? We know that already). We are behind in almost every category they study, from amount of women in powerful positions in government to basic needs like being able to breastfeed our children without reducing our paychecks significantly.
In a country that reveres children to a sometimes unhealthy point isn’t it weird that we care so little about the only people who can bear them? Once again, oppressive people want us to feel guilty for wanting careers, wanting to choose whether and when to get pregnant or not, even down to guilty about what we wear or how we have fun. I recall an old friend telling me about her stint in a mental hospital and how one of the ways to show you are ready to be let out is to do your hair nicely and wear makeup because that is “normal” behavior for women, even if you’ve never owned a lipstick in your life. Really? Should I feel guilty because makeup is something I generally reserve for the stage and fancy nights out when there are real things to worry about? A woman could be crushed under the weight of it all and many are. There are so many levels of societal oppression and even the little things are part of an overall pattern that culminates in things like the War on Women and women who truly believe they are worth less than their fathers, husbands, and even the sons they have raised.
I’m done with all of it. I refuse to give in and feel guilty about who I am and what I fight for. I didn’t get a choice about being born female, intelligent, and with some talents. I do get to choose how to use what I have, though, wherever it came from.
I’m taking my cue from the gay community, who took the insulting meanings out of “gay” and “queer” and turned them into positive ways to identify themselves. Go to any Pride March and you’ll see countless examples of how words with formerly negative connotations are now celebrated as empowering. It breaks my heart when I hear young people using them as insults again, but I think the positive aspects will far outlive any negative ones in time, especially if we keep educating relentlessly about how it’s okay to be whoever you were born as or have been sculpted into by your experiences.
Restricting or abolishing the use of a word never has the desired consequence of eliminating the meaning, but changing the definition can. It takes the guilt and stigma out and replaces it with strength and unity. It takes time and constant effort but it’s one of the few things that can actually change the way people think in the long run.
I am a feminist and atheist.