A Rejoinder to On the Ethical Implications of Being The Man
Developments Editorial Board Member
Miami University (OH)
To recognize that we touch each other in language seems particularly difficult in a society that would have us believe that there is no dignity in the experience of passion, that to feel deeply is to be inferior, for within the dualism of Western metaphysical thought, ideas are always more important than language. To heal the splitting of mind and body, we marginalized and oppressed people attempt to recover ourselves and our experiences in language. (bell hooks, 1994, pp. 174-175)
What happens when one proclaims to use language in a neutral way? Is the neutral use of language even possible? What is lost or gained when one uses terms that, while neutral to some, are far from neutral to others? These are the questions I seek to address in my brief rejoinder to the ethics column titled “On the Ethical Implications of Being ‘The Man’” by Dr. Paul Shang. Far from being a mere conversation over semantics, I suggest language, often shrouded in a cloak of neutrality, has the potential to do immense (albeit oftentimes unintended) harm to others. Consequently, I implore us as educators to be prudent, intentional, and humble in our use of language. As a way of beginning, I start with a personal example of the damaging use of language.
A little over a year ago, I came out as a member of the transgender community, specifically as a gender non-conforming individual. Part of my coming out process was helping others realize the pronouns he/his no longer reflected my identity and experience, and that I preferred people use the pronouns ze (pronounced zee and used in place of she/he) and hir (pronounced here and used in place of his/her) when talking to or about me. This has been tricky for some folks, and there were times over the last year I would become upset when I was misgendered in public spaces. Although it was clear this misgendering was rarely, if ever, malicious, it still stung and continued to perpetuate a system in which my identity as a gender non-conforming student, staff member, and community member was rendered invisible. The invisibility I experienced as a transgender person was fueled by cisgender privilege—benefits of identifying, expressing, and embodying a gender that matches the sex one was assigned at birth—known simply as genderism. Similarly, it is my belief that Dr. Shang’s article reinforces systems of privilege for dominant identities and ideologies, specifically sexism and patriarchy, classism, and the privileging of normalcy.
Before I go further, I must admit that I do not believe Dr. Shang set out to harm the readership of Developments intentionally. However, it is my belief that stating this does not absolve Dr. Shang—or others who use triggering language—from the impact of their words. Furthermore, because I do not believe Dr. Shang to have tried to cause undue harm, my intent is not to vilify Dr. Shang as an author. Instead, my intent is to raise questions and provide a different perspective for Developments readers. I believe it is through the respectful exchange of ideas and dialogue that forward progress can and will be made. Finally, I think it is important to mention the opinions and perspective I share in this rejoinder are my own, and not necessarily that of other members of the Developments editorial board.
The first area of concern comes within the first two sentences of Dr. Shang’s article, in which the author writes, “Somehow, everyone engaged in student affairs work has become ‘the man’ at one time or another. The term the man has nothing to do with gender” [emphasis added] (Shang, 2012). I disagree with this statement, believing the term the man has everything to do with gender and more than that, sexism and patriarchy. The term the man represents someone in a position of power or authority. The conflation of masculinity with power, authority, and control reinforces patriarchy, or the systems that confer privilege to men at the cost of those who are not men (e.g., women and transgender individuals). If this term was not about gender, then the term “the woman” or “the individual” would bring to mind similar sentiments about power and authority, but they do not. The truth is that men are privileged while women and transgender individuals are deemed less important. Ergo, Dr. Shang’s insistence the term the man is not about gender ignores the systems of sexism and patriarchy that privilege men.
The second area of concern I have with Dr. Shang’s (2012) article is when the author uses the word normal in the following passage:
For the purposes of this discussion, it is useful to consider whether or not an event is considered to be disruptive. As an example, many student affairs staff became “the administration” this fall when they sought to preserve the normal functioning of their institutions in the face of a national Occupy Movement, protests over the cost of higher education, or the treatment of undocumented students, etc. [emphasis added] (para 3)
In Michael Warner’s 1999 book titled The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life, Warner articulates, “to be fully normal is, strictly speaking, impossible” (p. 54). Warner goes further by stating:
Even if one belongs to the statistical majority in age group, race, height, weight, frequency of orgasm, gender of sexual partners, and annual income, then simply by virtue of this unlikely combination of normalcies one’s profile would already depart from the norm (pp. 54-55).
Given Warner’s commentary on the concept of being normal, it becomes clear why the preservation of “the normal functioning” of institutions of higher education may be misguided at best and impossible at worst. Furthermore, the hegemony of that which is deemed normal comes at the cost of other individuals or groups who are deemed abnormal, deviant, or criminal. For example, Dr. Shang suggested those who protested in the Occupy movement or on issues regarding the inhumane treatment of undocumented students are abnormal, thus reinforcing a system that privileges those who do not stray from “the straight and narrow” (Ahmed, 2006). Not only is normalcy a fallacy, but the invocation of normalcy privileges some (e.g., upper level administrators trying to keep order) at the cost of less powerful others (e.g., student, faculty, staff, and community protestors).
The last concern I have with Dr. Shang’s article comes when the author stated:
[The administration] worked hard to keep their campuses safe, which sometimes meant being involved in discussions or making decisions about limiting the right of entry of homeless people or political activists or others who were not the customary students, faculty, or staff. (para 3)
In this passage, the author conflates being homeless and/or from a lower socioeconomic status background with being dangerous. Concurrently, the author suggested those who are members of the campus community (i.e., students, faculty, and staff) are unequivocally safe. These equations are founded on the false logic of outsiders as dangerous and insiders as safe. Within higher education, we have plenty of examples that tell us this thinking is false. We see students, faculty, and staff doing harm to others regularly, just as we see examples of those who are homeless or from lower socioeconomic status background not causing harm. These scenarios that contradict Dr. Shang’s statement are not surprising, and yet the author wrote the above statement without irony or hyperbole.
These three examples from Dr. Shang’s article bring me back to the questions I presented at the outset of this article:
- What happens when one proclaims to use language in a neutral way?
- Is the neutral use of language even possible?
- What is lost or gained when one uses terms that, while neutral to some, are far from neutral to others?
Rather than providing definitive answers to these questions, I suggest they remain open so that you, as readers, can build off the dialogue created by Dr. Shang’s article and my rejoinder. Therefore, in closing out this rejoinder, I would like to offer two additional thoughts. The first comes from Jabari Asim’s 2007 book titled, The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why. In writing on Dave Chappelle’s reaction to being told he should not use the “N word” in his comedy, Asim quotes Chappelle as saying,
I’m not so concerned when black intellectuals say the N word is awful … If people stop saying the N word, is everything going to be equal? Is the rainbow going to come out of the sky, and all of a sudden things will be better for black people? (p. 211)
Asim goes further by stating, “Chappelle’s response is more than a little disingenuous … Yet, I think he is right. Suggesting that Chappelle refrain from using racial language (to parody racist attitudes, after all) is to profoundly miss the point” (p. 211). While Dr. Shang was not trying to parody sexist attitudes, I agree with Asim’s point that striking language from use is unlikely to solve the systemic inequities (e.g., sexism, racism, genderism) subaltern populations face. Instead, we need to interrogate such use of language rather than pretend this language is not loaded with sexist, racist, or gendered meanings. After all, Gloria Anzaldúa (2007) prophetically wrote, “The answer to the problem between the white race and the colored [sic], between males and females, lies in healing the split that originates in the very foundation of our lives, our culture, our language, our thoughts” [emphasis added] (p. 102). The split referenced by Anzaldúa calls to the fore the mind and body split that hooks (1994) discussed in the quote cited at the outset of this rejoinder. If we are going to participate in healing our lives, our communities, and ourselves then we must begin talking about the ways in which language reinforces and/or deconstructs systems of privilege and oppression. In this way, we can revel in being what Sara Ahmed (2010) referred to as the feminist killjoy and (re)claim our rightful spot at the table where dialogue and discussion move us beyond the myth of neutrality, the hegemony of normalcy, and the limitations of oppression.
Ahmed, S. (2006). Queer phenomenology: Orientations, objects, others. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Ahmed, S. (2010). Feminist killjoys (and other willful subjects). The Scholar and Feminist Online, 8.3. Retrieved from: http://barnard.edu/sfonline/polyphonic/print_ahmed.htm
Anzaldúa, G. (2007). Borderlands/La frontera: The new mestiza. (3rd Ed.). San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books.
Asim, J. (2007). The n word: Who can say it, who shouldn’t, and why. Boston, MA: Houghtom Mifflin Company.
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York, NY: Routledge.
Shang, P. (2012). On the ethical implications of being “the man.” Developments, 10(2).
Warner, M. (1999). The trouble with normal: Sex, politics, and the ethics of queer life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
About the Author
Z Nicolazzo is a doctoral student in the Student Affairs in Higher Education (SAHE) Program at Miami University. Ze is a past Chair of the ACPA Standing Committee on Men and Masculinities and is a current member of ACPA’s Developments Editorial Board. Hir research interests include transgender and gender non-conforming students, activism in higher education, and alternative epistemologies, methodologies, and representations of knowledge.
Please e-mail inquiries to Z Nicolazzo.
The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.