On Not Being “Nice”

I guess this is kind of an inside baseball post if you don’t follow the feminist blogs.  I’m trying to think how to bring you up to speed without taking a million years.  Let’s play it like this.  Jessica bought a puppy.  Some folks didn’t think that was very feminist of her (because they make the mistake of believing that feminism is a moral position) and, pertinent to our discussion, folks started getting pissed because she didn’t answer them and then didn’t answer them in a way that made her seem contrite enough or something.

Zuzu’s post about the matter is awesome and, if you care about the bigger issues, you should read it.

But between that post and this post over at Pandagon, I’m starting to suspect that there’s a larger issue here.  I think that we, yes, even we feminists, still expect women to be “nice.”  I use the scare quotes because I don’t think that being nice is a bad trait.  I wish there were more nice people in the world.

But I mean “nice” in that way we’re told to “play ‘nice'” or “she’s such a ‘nice’ girl” or all those ways we have ingrained in us that our job is always to put others first and to tend to their needs and to consider their feelings above our own.  What makes this so egregious is that, if everyone is playing that way with other folks we know, there’s not really a problem–in other words, it’s easily sold to folks as a proper way to conduct one’s self, because it does smooth social interactions.

But we women are being groomed not just to put the needs and feelings of people we know above our own, but to put the needs and feelings of people we don’t know above our own.  How the hell are we supposed to do this without a.) being paralyzed into inaction because we can’t actually know what needs and feelings people we don’t know have or b.) being imperialist assholes who assume we know what others need and are feeling in order to put them first?

In other words, putting the needs and feelings of folks we don’t know above our own is bullshit, but it’s bullshit we can’t let go of and bullshit we rarely interrogate.

But look at both of these discussions, how Jessica is being scolded (what a good use of that word) for not putting the needs of dogs she doesn’t know above her own and for not putting the needs of her commenters–their desire for her to feel beholden to them–above her own.  See?  Jessica’s transgression is that she’s not putting the needs of strangers above her own.

And I think the same thing is going on in the comments of Amanda’s post.  It’s not that Amanda is saying something all that new or revolutionary about Ben Folds.  A lot of people think he sucks and for the reasons she mentions.  It’s that she’s not putting the feelings of Ben Folds or the imaginary narrator of the song before her own.

Check out those comments and see if you disagree.  I mean, I could imagine a man writing exactly what Amanda wrote and not getting this same kind of grief.  It really seems like folks who should know better are viscerally offended that Amanda isn’t putting the feelings of Ben Folds above her own.

I hadn’t noticed this dynamic before, but seeing both of these things erupt in the past few days has brought it into focus for me and I’ll be keeping an eye out for it.

18 thoughts on “On Not Being “Nice”

  1. Mm. I get that about the Jessica thing, but I have to say that Amanda’s post really annoyed me. I didn’t read the song that way; unless a song specifically addresses itself to a person, (“ooh baby” “hey there boy” etc.), then I generally read it as taking place in the head of the person singing it. (Or at least, not as being part of a conversation with the subject of the song.)

    I heard the song as an expression of grief/unhappiness/confusion in the wake of an unpleasant happening. Amanda and the people who agree with her seem to be arguing that the imaginary narrator shouldn’t feel the way he does. I don’t like it when people tell women how to feel, and I don’t like it with men either. I don’t think anyone has a right to say “you shouldn’t feel [whatever] about this.” (“You should express your feelings differently,” sure. “You should behave differently,” absolutely… but not feelings.)

    I don’t know about her comments, because I couldn’t get more than four or five in without wanting to throttle someone.

  2. What really bothers me about the whole kerfuffle at Feministing, is the fact that the people scolding Jessice (You know who they are if you read the threads) are accusing her/anyone who disagrees with them of not liking strong women who are loud.
    In what bizarro universe does that argument make sense? It’s possible to be loud and to convert people to your way of thinking, without being patronizing, scolding, or just plain rude. It’s like they’re going to take away my feminist membership card for disagreeing with them.

  3. Totally OT: I just found your blog via zuzu’s blog. I so love the cartoon of the cat in pants. It reminds me of Ramona Quimby’s pants for elephant.

  4. Mag, I see your point and I think a lot of folks have made that point in the thread. Obviously, when discussing the song, it’s an interesting question. But what I find interesting is the way that some folks seem almost offended by how Marcotte asks the question, as if she’s not being careful enough of Folds’ feelings. Can you imagine if all criticism had to take into account whether you’d hurt the feelings of the artist? That would be the end of meaningful discussion.

    MoxieHart, thanks. I drew that cat myself–the top end of my artistic talent, I’m afraid. And good point that they are convinced that they’re being good feminists and that the problem is that people just don’t think they’re handling themselves correctly.

    I do think, in that case, that they’ve made the mistake of believing that feminism is a moral position. I’ve argued against this for a long time. Being a feminist doesn’t make you a better person than non-feminists (at least not automatically). And being a feminist doesn’t oblige you to be on the “right” side of every social justice issue. It just requires you to believe that women are fully human–which, in this case, means fully capable of making decisions that otherd disagree with.

  5. I wonder how much of the “you should be nicer” thing (with respect to the song thread, anyway) is due to more general personality issues than the specifics of the thread? I mean, here I think there’s the issue of how we expect women to behave, sure… but there’s also the issue of how we expect community members to behave. The same way I say that blogwars are about community history as much as whatever the actual offense in question is … I think threads and arguments play out the same way. I know that I reacted the way I did partially because I didn’t like the actual content of what she said, but partially because of my past experience of Amanda as a community member and a conversationalist.

    Which, I think, also kind of applies to the Jessica thing, but a little differently. I think we expect leaders (whether they’re administrators of a wee blog or Big! Name! Bloggers!) to act differently than we expect regular folk to act. When a person gets in front of thousands of people and says something, there’s this sense that they shouldn’t take personally most of what is said, and that they should be gracious and facilitate conversation, and so on and so forth. (By default, anyway; people can and do create personae that explicitly deny this… bloggers who don’t comment in their own threads at all, bloggers with particularly caustic personae where the commentors can expect at best to be mocked, and so on…. but I think they have to work to create the perception that ‘this is how it is.’)

    Now, because of the way the internet works, I think this feeling gets all muddly. It’s pretty easy to not take it personally when you’re on TV and the people heckling you are doing so from their living rooms. It’s a lot harder when you’re blogging, because, well, these people are in your living room. Or wherever you keep your computer. And you’re more likely to experience their criticisms directly, because you can respond to them directly… and you can look things up and get a pretty good idea of what people are saying about you, at least ‘in public.’

    I think that problem gets exacerbated as a place gets bigger. When blogs are small, the community is kind of intimate. Commentors might not all know each other, but there seems to be more parity between the position of blogger/moderator and commentor; when there are only four voices, the conversation sort of depends on everyone equally. But as a place gets bigger, and the conversation gets more stratified (old hands vs. newbies, the devil’s advocates vs. the sycophants, moderators vs. unruly commentors, and so on and so on), that dynamic changes.

    The blog begins to open up and feel more like a public space – where people are having conversations independent of the blogger’s impetus, and which just hapen to be reacting to whatever was said at the top of the page – and the relationship between blogger and commentor changes. It’s harder for a big blogger to say “this is my living room, and you will act like you are sitting on my couch and saying these things to my face” than it is for a small blogger to do so, both because a big blogger (to stay big) must avoid driving off too many people and because it doesn’t feel like sitting around in someone’s living room any more. You don’t have 50,000 people in your living room conversations. And if you have to moderate people you don’t know for civility and whatnot, that gulf increases; because now you’re the distant Enforcer of Rules, rather than a Gracious Host asking that everyone play nice inside.

    With the increasing distance comes a change in the way people talk, and the way they expect people to talk to them, and the kind of demands they’d make. I’d be surprised as all hell to have a big-name person e-mail me because they liked something I said in one of their threads … both because so many people are saying things in their thread that I’m pretty sure all of our voices blend together, and because they’re Big! Name! Bloggers!… they don’t socialize with the ‘little guy’. (Regardless of whether or not that is empirically true, that’s the perception… which, in the case of commentor aggression, is really more important, alas.) With this distance, you expect people to act more public – to be nicer, less emotional, to be politic. And when they don’t act this way, everyone gets thrown and cranky.

    (Of course, most of this, from what I can tell, is one way. I think that people at the top of the big-names are probably a bit more distant and politic, but that’s probably a self-selection thing as much as anything else. A blog making its rise, particularly, doesn’t seem to change for the proprietor with the same rapidity as it changes for the commentor. It’s still your virtual living room, even if it has more people. Which tends to lend people to act like it’s still a small place, increasing the dissonance when people don’t react appropriately.)

    None of which is to say that either woman deserves to be yelled at for not being nice enough. Nobody does. But I think that their status as big-names both enhances their gendered responsibilities (we expect so much more from ‘public’ women than ‘private’ ones), and has a dimension all its own: how we expect the proprietors of public spaces and public personae in general to act.

  6. Hee, Mag, I just don’t know what it’s going to take for akismet to recognize you as a person! As for your brilliant comment, I think that you’re right on all kinds of levels, but a discussion I’d like to have, because I just don’t quite understand it exactly, is in what ways our perceptions of “public women” is shaped by the ways we’ve historically been able to treat “public women.” I’m going to rely on the Professor to chime in here, I hope, but I think the idea of “privacy” and “the private sphere” is so closely linked with our ideas of womanhood that we’re still struggling to figure out how to understand women out in the world.

    I mean, look even at how we talk about blogging. We have some feeling of inviting people into our homes, of playing host to them, of having a living-room level discussion–in other words, I think there’s a way in which, in order to feel free to speak freely, we imagine ourselves in a private space… granted, a private space where almost everyone is welcome, but a private space nevertheless.

    It makes me wonder how much of our feeling comfortable in the world often relies on transforming the parts of the world we have to deal with into extensions of our “homes” as opposed to feeling like we have the right to be in the world as it is.

    Hmm.

  7. You what’s ironic? Zuzu and MoxieHart’s main criticism of me is that I’m not nice enough. That I’m not allowed to criticize because my criticisms aren’t polite enough.

    I have never suggested that Jessica put the needs of a dog above her own needs. I have suggested that she doesn’t have a right to own a dog. Those are very different things.

    And I’ve never criticized her for being rude or “not nice enough.” And regardless of what Moxie thinks, I haven’t objected to people disagreeing with me. What I’ve objected to is being called crazy or otherwise marginalizing my opinions as irrelevant because they aren’t mainstream.

  8. Pingback: Shall I Never Go to the Park Again? « Tiny Cat Pants

  9. Elaine, I don’t have a dog in this fight, so to speak (ha), but from the outside, it seems to me that you’re being criticized not for being “not nice” or “not polite” but because you’re being offensive. Suggesting that pet ownership is the same thing as slavery is just offensive. It’s not “not nice” or “not polite.” It’s at the least deeply hurtful and almost bordering on evil.

    I can only assume that you’ve not really thought the comparison through or perhaps you don’t understand slavery as an institution as it was practiced here in the Americas (especially in the Southern U.S.).

  10. equating pet ownership to slave ownership is offensive, but only to people. pets generally don’t see things in those terms. dogs especially, even if we could explain to them what “slavery” meant, would not agree that they were enslaved — they’d start talking about being pack members and what pack rank they held.

    i’m not really sure what cats would think of this argument, but anyone who thinks pet cats are slaves has never had a cat.

    shaming us humans for treating animals as not being human is nonsense, because most animals don’t want to be treated as humans. even saying that our pets “think they’re human” is anthropomorphizing them too much; most pets seem to think humans are of their species, not that they are of ours.

  11. So please do tell, Elaine? Please tell us all what to do with all out dogs? Where do they go? How do they eat? How do they manage?

    Ya see, my dog, she’s terribly afraid of thunder. When she goes all crazy and shakes and cowers during a thunder storm, how does she manage in your world? She was missing for 2 days a few months back, and didn’t manage all that well on her own. She spent hours at the vet being rehydrated and was on antibiotics and muscle relaxers for for several weeks after. She also has a hypo-thyroid problem. She takes medicine twice a day for that.

    I suppose the free dogs will administer her medication.

    There are so many holes in the view of dogs as slaves. I know there are plenty of folks out there that mistreat animals and should not be allowed to own animals, but I’m not one of those people. Please, please, please explain how this all works.

  12. Elaine.

    Seriously.

    Wow.

    I don’t even know what to say to you. I mean, you’re aware that very little in the first two paragraphs of that comment is true, right? You don’t have the right to do whatever you want to animals that you own. Not just anyone can declare herself a “testing facility” and start pouring chemicals on animals. That’s overseen by the government. Pet stores have government oversight and if animals were dying there, the owner of the store could be held accountable.

    Comparing ownership to animals is indeed trying to equate it to the enslavement of human beings. Don’t treat your readers like idiots. Of course it is. Why else use the word “slave”? You want people to say “hmm, this is a living being and humans are living beings. If it’s wrong to hold humans as slaves, it must also be wrong to hold animals as slaves.” You cannot ask us to draw the comparison in order to move us to your side and then ask us to believe you didn’t intend for us to draw the comparison.

    And your lumping pet ownership in with animal testing is just ludicrous on its face. Animals who are being tested on are being harmed. My dog is not. My owning of a dog does not make it easier for people to accept animal testing; in fact it is precisely because people own dogs and cats and rabbits and whatnot that your movement against animal testing has any traction at all. If we didn’t know our animals and know that they do indeed suffer and feel pain, there’d be no one to be appalled by their unnecessary suffering in testing facilities.

    More than that, and to get back to zuzu’s original point, if you cannot understand how comparing how companion animals are treated with how human slaves were treated is offensive then that’s just more of an argument for why you should STOP MAKING THE COMPARISON.

    If you cannot understand how much it hurts people to yet again have their suffering and the suffering of their loved ones compared to what animals go through…

    Okay, you know, I’m going to try to explain this to you. Slavery, as practiced in the Western Hemisphere, especially after the 1700s, was soul-eviscerating. Not just for the enslaved people, who were stripped of their names, of their families, of their religions, of their cultures, and of their freedoms, but also for the slave holders. Holding slaves meant living in constant fear of uprisings, in a weird state of acknowledgment and denial of the enormous suffering you were directly responsible for, and most importantly, it meant being or becoming the type of person for whom the basic unit of humanity, the family, had no meaning.

    Men raped women and then sold their own children. Sons raped their own half-sisters. Women owned their own siblings (look at Jefferson’s wife).

    Owning other humans is depraved enough. Refusing to recognize your own family as your family so that you can have sexual access to them and make money from the sale of them is a whole other level.

    That kind of fucked-up-ness has soul-deep and long lasting implications, the kind of stuff we still haven’t gotten over and probably won’t.

    To suggest that what I’m doing to my dog by owning her is in any way comparable to what happened on plantations is just… It’s just offensive.

    It makes me think that you a.) don’t understand that dogs are not the same as people and b.) don’t have a very deep understanding of what it means to be a person.

  13. *winces* I knew I shouldn’t have clicked on that…

    Aunt B. pretty much said what I would have.

    I do find it interestiing, though, that given where your comment comes in the thread, and the issues raised immediately above it (overpopulation, pet medical needs, logistics etc.), and in the other thread (mutual domestication, lastin psychological effects thereof, and again, logistics… not to mention human rights and hierarchies of need)… you don’t appear to have addressed anything other than the single, inflammatory rhetorical issue.

  14. Aunt B – Actually, cruelty to animal laws are often only for cats and dogs and don’t cover rabbits and other pets. There are some protections for certain “work animals” like carriage horses, etc. But, yes, if you wanted to torture a pet rabbit just for fun, you probably could. And if you wanted to kill pet fish just for furn, you probably could. And if you neglected some hamsters or parakeets, you’d likely get off scott free.

    Men raped women and then sold their own children.

    Some breeders force their females to mate and then sell their puppies, often earlier than the mother dog would have nudged them into independence. They have devices called “breeding chairs” or “rape chairs” that lock females into place so they can’t escape the male.

    My complaint about pet ownership has always been about buying pets, the way Jessica did, from breeders and it’s never been about taking care of rescue animals. I have no qualms about Zuzu’s dog at all. My argument is about putting a price tag on an animal. It’s about creating a consumer demand for an animal when animals should not be products to be consumed.

    To suggest that what I’m doing to my dog by owning her is in any way comparable to what happened on plantations is just… It’s just offensive.

    It makes me think that you a.) don’t understand that dogs are not the same as people and b.) don’t have a very deep understanding of what it means to be a person.

    I have never suggested that your guardianship of your dog is slavery. Stop mischaracterizing my argument.

    I have a dog and I understand him pretty well. His priorities are food, sleep, play, and snuggling. He’s wonderful and I love him very much. But I don’t think we’re the same.

    I do, however, feel that he is not a product. He does not have a price tag.

    Now, you don’t need to personally attack me by saying I’m subhuman because I care about animals. Being human is not defined by our difference from other animals. Being human is defined by our shared, human experiences, like love, conversation, understanding, philosophizing, writing, cooking, etc.

    I have never said animals are humans. I have said that “personhood” extends to many non-human animals and I’ve said “animals are people too” meaning that our shared capacities for physical sensation, emotions, and thought processing demand that we not treat animals as property.

  15. In what sense, Elaine? If animals aren’t property, what are they? Are you talking about extending legal personhood to my dog? Like a corporation, my dog would have the legal fiction of personhood? Would folks be able to sue her? Would she have a right to free speech? If a dog is a person, what right do I have to spay her?

    You have a great luxury in life if you never have to think about your dog in terms of his monetary value to you, I’ll say that. I’m not so fortunate.

    Some breeders force their females to mate and then sell their puppies, often earlier than the mother dog would have nudged them into independence. They have devices called “breeding chairs” or “rape chairs” that lock females into place so they can’t escape the male

    Yes, but look here–you’re lumping all breeders (People who ‘force’ their female to mate and then sell their puppies) in with people who breed vicious dogs for fighting (people who use breeding chairs or rape chairs). You know that’s not the same thing.

    It’s also certainly not comparable with human slavery.

    I don’t know how to make it any clearer. You are alienating potential allies with your insistance that people are enslaving dogs in a fashion similar to what we did to other humans 150 years ago.

    It’s not the same.

    There’s nothing wrong with buying a dog from a reputable breeder. It’s a way to acquire a dog. My brother acquired my dog in a highly immoral manner and ignored the dog until he was forced to get rid of it. Am I supposed to feel that the dumbass part of how he got the dog was that he went to a breeder? No, I can assure you that his reasons for getting a dog would have been just as immoral if he got one from the shelter.

    I don’t understand why you’re so determined that people who love dogs are immoral unless they acquire the dogs in a manner that you feel okay about instead of being determined to stop dumbass evil people from being able to get their hands on dogs at all.

    Why are you attacking your allies instead of your enemies?

  16. You have a great luxury in life if you never have to think about your dog in terms of his monetary value to you, I’ll say that. I’m not so fortunate.

    Replace the word “dog” with “child” and you’ll start to understand my point.

    You won’t be able to understand my meaning until you try to understand. So, either drop the defenses and let’s have a conversation or forget it.

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