Here is my talk from The Feminism(s) and Rhetoric(s) Conference last week. I’ll put the abstract here and the talk below the cut. I also added links within the text to blogs I discuss. To forefront on concern of mine about the talk, I use the term “critical-rational,” which I find problematic because it might connote Habermasian rationality that would exclude other discourse styles that are less “rational” in appearance; perhaps instead I should have used “civil,” though I think that term’s also problematic.
In my presentation, I will examine the reaction on liberal blogs to conservative pundit Ann Coulterâ€™s â€œjokeâ€ at the 2007 Conservative Political Action Conference in which she called John Edwards a “faggot.” While the discourse from conservative pundits surrounding gender and sexuality is in itself interesting, the reaction of liberals to Coulter’s homophobic remark are of particular interest, as they have labeled Coulter herself a “tranny,” an “ugly dude,” and “gayer than gay” (among other disparaging remarks) in blog posts and comments to those posts. When feminists confront this liberal discourse as homophobic and sexist, the defense for these insults is often a claim of “parody” to point out the “absurdity” of Coulter’s discourse. Additionally, bloggers claim that their words are not harmful because they are not made at a political conference, but rather on “private” blogs, implying a private/public split that minimizes the potential of civic dialogue on blogs as public discourse. The conception of blogs as private rather than public also allows for the privatization of institutional homophobia and sexism and the absolution of institutional power by straight men. Using Judith Butler’s concept of resignification, I argue that these “parodies,” while perhaps parodic, fail to take into account audience and the marginalized groups harmed, and in fact only serve to strengthen a liberal, straight male bond that continues to exclude women and queer folk from public discourse.
Most of you are probably aware of Ann Coulterâ€™s homophobic comment directed at John Edwards at the Conservative Political Action Conference in March of this year, but to remind you, Iâ€™ll start by quoting her: â€œI was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards, um, but it turns out that you have to go into rehab if youâ€™ve use the word â€˜faggot,â€™ so Iâ€™m â€” so Iâ€™m kind of at an impasse, I canâ€™t really talk about Edwardsâ€¦.â€ I begin by quoting Coulter not because I find her â€œjokeâ€ particularly interesting; though unfortunate, it seems fairly typical of Coulterâ€™s ad hominem attacks and homophobic and sexist rhetoric from the Right. While I think Coulterâ€™s rhetoric is worth studying, as David Elder discussed in his talk yesterday, Iâ€™d rather focus on the reaction to Ann Coulter by liberal men. What I find more interesting is the reaction to her comment, and to Coulterâ€™s gender performance, by self-identifying liberals, mostly men, on the liberal blogosphere. Today, Iâ€™d like to briefly discuss the comments left by liberals on blogs in response to Coulter and her sex and gender performance, and to discuss the defense of such comments and the implications of these defenses â€” particularly in regards to an inclusive public sphere and issues of privacy and publicity.
The liberal blog Think Progress reported Coulterâ€™s comments the same day as the conference, offering little commentary, other than links to previous homophobic comments made by Coulter and links to a few other blogs that discuss Coulterâ€™s comments. 923 comments and trackbacks were left on this Think Progress post in March and April. Many of those comments resorted to disparaging Coulterâ€™s gender and sex performance, usually in sexist or homophobia terms. A sampling:
â€œDude looks like a lady…â€ â€” Elliot Moore, March 2
â€œtranny + skank = trank?â€ â€” Chimpeach, March 2
â€œThat Coulter guy sure is an ugly dude.â€ â€” And You Thought REAGAN Was Stupid, March 2
â€œLast time I checked, Edwards was happily married. Mann Coulter is single. And her Adamâ€™s Apple is bulging in that photo. So whoâ€™s the faggot?â€ â€” Tom3, March 2
â€œTrannie Annie! […] Annie [is] still a boy!! Time for sexual re-assignment surgery! And get rid of that nasty adamâ€™s apple sweetie! Youâ€™re supposed to be a woman! Sheâ€™s a He! Heâ€™s a She!â€ â€” TWEB, March 2
Other comments on Think Progress include references to Coulter as a â€œhag,â€ a â€œcunt,â€ a â€œfemale impersonator,â€ and a â€œbitch.â€ On Wonkette, a snarky blog that often mocks politics, comments followed similar lines, including calling Coulter â€œTrannie Annieâ€ and a claim that she â€œhas a HUGE pair of balls. She shaves them daily.â€ Of course, these type of ad hominem attacks on Coulter are nothing new. For example, a Google search for â€œtrannie annieâ€ and â€œcoulterâ€ reveals 118 websites, including comments on other blog posts, such a 2005 post on Brad Friedmanâ€™s liberal The Brad Blog. Iâ€™d also like to stress that these comments are not taking nuanced feminist stances in discussing Coulter as a man in drag â€” that is, as a woman who is identifying with male power â€” but are instead often resorting to name-calling. While these attacks, I believe, are always inexcusable, they become even more problematic in light of their recent context: They are, in the instances I am discussing today, in response to Coulterâ€™s homophobic remark. It appears that, on the surface, these online citizens have decided that the best response to Coulter is to confront homophobia and sexism with homophobia, sexism, and transphobia.
Though I find this reading accurate (these comments are homophobic, sexist, and transphobic), most commenters, when confronted with this accusation, deny it and defend their rhetoric or resort to ad hominem or ethical attacks targeted at those who point out their apparent hypocrisy. For example, comments like these were confronted by a remark left by â€˜beefeaterâ€ on the Think Progress post, who points out that posters had called out Coulter for her ad homimen attacks. â€œbeefeaterâ€â€™s post then reads: â€œAnd the next 40 posts go ad homoniem [sic]. Now thatâ€™s funnyâ€ (comment #62). Rather than take this remark for its face value and interrogate their own discourse, commenters on Think Progress turned to ethical attacks on beefeater, implying that beefeaterâ€™s comment was not valid because he or she was conservative (which appears unfounded), and then ridiculing his or her username and the possible homoeroticism behind it.
In fact, these liberal commenters often made the assumption that anyone who called them out on this type of language was a conservative. On my own blog post regarding this topic, where I quoted a critique from the feminist blog I Blame the Patriarchy in March, a commenter who called himself â€œHoward Davisâ€ wrote, â€œThis posting is a joke right? Ann Coulter makes the homophobic remark, yet it is the “liberals” fault for homophobia? Do you right-wingers accept responsibility for anything you do? Ever?â€ (Faris et al.) â€” making the assumption that because I was critiquing the discourse of liberals that I therefore must be a conservative, and that my viewpoint is invalid.
â€œsnozzberryâ€ is another commenter who objected to the transphobic comments directed at Coulter, and was very quickly accused of being a conservative. Once snozzberry later revealed his, her, or hir progressive politics more explicitly on Think Progress, other commenters continued ethical attacks instead of taking this critique seriously, including calling snozzberry a â€œsnob.â€ This is in line with other comments that accused critics of â€œcomplainingâ€ or â€œwhining,â€ or that, in the grand scheme of things, their concerns about this language against Coulter doesnâ€™t matter.
Resorting to calling other commenters conservative and dismissing their concerns is only one of the ways in which commenters respond to critiques, though. Just as often commenters defended their discourse as somehow parodic of Ann Coulter and therefore justified. Some claim that by using â€œtranny,â€ as well as other such words, they are not using it as a â€œslur,â€ but rather as a â€œjokeâ€ to point out Coulterâ€™s absurdity. A few even claim that they are attempting to â€œoutâ€ Coulter as transgender and it is perfectly fine to call her a tranny, as if they know her gender and sex identity because of her body and gender performance. Commenter â€œGaryâ€ wrote on my blog post, â€œUnless you’re actually in danger of harm, making fun of someone’s homophobia by accusing them of being homo is hilarious. ESPECIALLY when you aren’t a homophobe, and even funnier when you’re gay yourself.â€ Other comments left at Think Progress imply that these slurs are not making fun of transgender folks, but are instead making fun of Ann Coulter. The logic seems to be similar to the logic behind resignification, as described by Judith Butler and others: that one can make a citation in a different context in order to give it a different meaning.
However, what these commenters who call Coulter a â€œtrannyâ€ fail to take into account when attempting this parody or resignification is audience. Certainly, these parodies do work as parodies within certain audiences: straight, cisgender men can use these parodies in order to poke fun at Coulter and point out how ridiculous and irrational her discourse is. However, when the audience is a wider than solely straight, cisgender men, the act of parody no longer works, and sends a message to many women, queer folk, and trans folk that they are not included in this public discourse. In â€œCritically Queer,â€ Butler shares her reading of the resignification in Paris is Burning by drag queens; according to Butler, the audience of a speech act matters greatly, and the citations made by the drag queens in the film serve as speech acts to create bonds among those drag queens. We might view the slurs launched at Coulter in a similar way: it is a bonding mechanism among straight, liberal cisgender men in order to solidify a group identity.
When I tried to discuss the matter of audience on my own blog with a few commenters, I was met with serious resistance. â€œGaryâ€ brought up another interesting situation that might elucidate these blog commentersâ€™ general misunderstanding of audience. He cited Larry Flyntâ€™s â€œAsshole of the Monthâ€ feature in Hustler, in which the magazine placed the face of a public figure like Jerry Falwell coming out of a cartoon donkeyâ€™s butt. This act, â€œGaryâ€ said, works because Falwell finds it offensive, not because it is an attack on the rear-ends of donkeys. â€œGaryâ€ states that â€œthe jokes against Coulter are of that ilk. Crude, but meant to offend HER, not others.â€
I partially agree with Garyâ€™s reading of the â€œAsshole of the Monthâ€: this act does not work as a denigration of donkeys. But â€œGaryâ€ misses the primary audience of this monthly feature: Hustler readers who are, generally, straight men who would disagree with the censorship of pornography that Falwell supports. This image does not work because Falwell finds it offensive, but because readers of Hustler assume he will find it offensive and can bond â€” at least through the medium of print â€” over their mutual contempt of censorship of pornography. Similarly, Ann Coulter does not read these comments left on blogs (though perhaps she does, she is not he primary audience). The primary audience is other liberals who are contributing to the comments section or who simply read through them. They bond over their mutual contempt over Coulter, and rather than do so through rational-critical discourse, they choose to do so by tossing slurs at her, thereby excluding anyone from this bond who finds slurs like â€œtranny,â€ â€œfaggot,â€ â€œdyke,â€ and â€œbitchâ€ offensive.
As queer theorist Michael Warner points out in â€œPublics and Counterpublics,â€ â€œthe kind of public that comes into being only in relation to texts and their circulationâ€ (50) â€œis a relation among strangers,â€ â€œis self-organized,â€ and â€œexists by virtue of being addressedâ€ (60, 50, 55, emphasis original). Publics are also addressed in both personal and impersonal terms, meaning that there is an identification process between the reader and the text (57). When the liberal male contributors to these comments use slurs, a certain identification process takes place among those readers, I assume: they identify with the use of these slurs to denigrate someone else. Those who donâ€™t use those slurs in denigrating ways (feminist women, queers, and transfolk) dis-identify with the public and are excluded. The use of these slurs, then, not only shows a misunderstanding of audience, but also a misunderstanding of publics.
This misunderstanding of publics is an important aspect of the defense of the use of these slurs. When confronted with arguments against calling Coulter a â€œtranny,â€ â€œbitch,â€ or â€œfaggot,â€ many commenters claimed that their comments did not carry any weight because they were not public. On my blog, â€œGaryâ€ urged me to not compare Coulterâ€™s â€œvery public and official statements delivered at a major conservative political conference, attended by Presidential candidatesâ€ to â€œfreewheeling commentaryâ€ made by â€œprivate bloggers.â€ On Think Progress, a comment left by â€œJusticeâ€ offered a critique:
â€œSo why all the anti-transgendered remarks by all you purported liberals who purport to give a damn about queers? Coulterâ€™s remarks are unremarkable for their consistent ugliness, but all this trashing of her appearance and questioning of her gender are only part of the same stupid hate she displays so brilliantly. Get a clue and make a real difference in this world, or shut the hell up.â€ â€” Justice, March 2
This sparked comments in defense of private â€œtalkâ€ that does not have the publishing and official political backing that Coulterâ€™s discourse does. â€œBluedog49â€ writes, â€œHey Justice, talk is talk. Public policy is more importantâ€ and in a later comment adds â€œI think the only difference is that liberals are speaking to power and people like Coulter are speaking for power.â€ â€œCory,â€ who identifies himself as a gay man, adds, â€œafter all Iâ€™m not in the press or writing books and my words are only shared privately online between people who can understand where my anger comes from.â€ The assumption here is that a blog post, which can be read by anyone who has access to the Internet, is a private space. This assumption also weakens the agency of these very comments for creating change through public discourse: instead of viewing these comments as acts in a public space, where these commenters can engage in civic discourse, the view is that they are private and the commenters have little or no power to help to shape public discourse. This view also limits the possibilities for online discourse to be a part of public debate on issues and to actually affect policy and consciousness.
When liberal men deny the power of their words on a blog because they view it as a â€œprivateâ€ space, we â€”those of us who are committed to inclusive civic discourse â€” need to consider how we can call into question notions of privacy and publicity. In â€œA Semiotics of the Private/Public Distinction,â€ feminist Susan Gal notes how, because of the fractal nature of the public/private dichotomy, oneâ€™s situation can determine whether an act or place is considered private or public. A blog is much like the sidewalk in front of a store or the living room that Gal describes. A sidewalk appears public to most, but then, when a storeowner is sweeping it, it becomes a private space: a place that the storeowner must tend. A living room is often viewed as private inside a private space (the house), but once guests are involved, the living room becomes public in comparison to the rest of the house. If two guests whisper to each other in the public living room, there is a private space within this public space that is still within the private space of the house. It seems that a blog is much the same way: either private or public based on oneâ€™s perspective. The act of reading and writing a blog is possibly a private one: sitting alone at oneâ€™s computer in oneâ€™s home. But also, it is public, with an unlimited readership.
How then, among many questions, do we unmask the public aspect of online discourse? What type of space is a blog, what type of discourse is helpful, and who is included? It seems to me that these liberal blogs like Think Progress are often debased into private spheres akin to high school boysâ€™ locker rooms, where, if memory serves me correctly, women are not allowed and queers and transgender folks are criminal. Additionally, it is disconcerting to consider that some of these liberal men who leave these comments feel they are â€œspeaking to powerâ€ while Coulter is â€œspeaking for power.â€ Comments like these not only deny the commenterâ€™s agency as someone engaged in public discourse, but also deny the institutional power that men are granted qua men in our society.
Iâ€™d like to return to â€œGaryâ€â€™s comment that I quoted earlier, that these jokes toward Ann Coulter (or others who are homophobic) are funny â€œUnless you’re actually in danger of harm.â€ It seems here that another serious concern that feminist, queer, and trans activists must take into account is what constitutes harm and how to convey a different understanding of harm than the traditional concern for bodily harm â€” that is, an understanding that harm to dignity is important. As I re-read these comments, I also read comments from women, queers, and trans folk that state that these words harm them, but these claims seemed to go unaddressed, or if they are, they are dismissed as overly sensitive. On my blog, I too tried to confront â€œGaryâ€ by referring to his use of the word â€œharmâ€ and insisting that harm to dignity was important to take into consideration. I linked the use of â€œtrannyâ€ and â€œfaggotâ€ being hurled at Ann Coulter to the use of these terms on the school-yard and how, if they are coming from straight men, they are generally not well received by queer or trans folk. However, â€œGaryâ€â€™s response might well have been a â€œboys will be boysâ€ reply. He writes in response: â€œI doubt you will ever see the end of teasing and competition in schoolyards and the adult equivalents of those places, especially when testosterone is involved. Those who do not conform will always have to develop a tougher skin.â€ Rather than continue in discourse about what type of harm we should prevent (in my view, harm to dignity as well as physical harm), â€œGaryâ€ chose to continue in the naturalizing discourse that we will always be cruel to each other and that it is incumbent upon the targets of the cruelty to â€œdevelop a tougher skin.â€ It seems that here, even when people testify to the harm done to them by these words, liberals fall back on discussions of rights (such as the right to say what one wants) rather than discussions of dignity.
So, Iâ€™d like to attempt to wrap these various ideas together in a conclusion. I have to admit that I was infuriated as I read and re-read these comments and wrote this talk â€” that the acts of reading and writing about this topic evokes an embodied response in me. That someone would deny that â€œtrannyâ€ is a slur, or not understand that the term is contextual and should only be used in certain context (â€œredployedâ€ in Butlerâ€™s terms [â€œCritically Queerâ€]) is beyond upsetting. That liberals, who generally espouse tolerance and acceptance of difference, cannot understand when someone else says that a word hurts them, breaks my heart. That the side of the political fence that most lays claim to rational-critical discourse falls repeatedly into ad hominem attacks and canâ€™t move beyond attacking Coulterâ€™s body and gender performance and into thoughtful discussions of bodies, gender, homophobia, and transphobia, is distressful. As a scholar of online media and public spheres, I am hopeful for the potential of online discourse for affecting change, but online discussions such as these reaffirm my beliefs that perhaps political scientist Richard Davis is correct in The Web of Politics, where he writes that the Internet may in fact exacerbate power differences: â€œThe gap between the politically active and the inactive will grow larger. The Internet will offer greater advantages to a political elite while simultaneously erecting another barrier to participation for those who are uninterested and uninvolvedâ€ (Davis 184). By the word â€œuninvolved,â€ I understand it to mean those historically and currently excluded from most civic discourse: women, queer folk, and transgender folk.
My critiques here are not necessarily new; they echo concerns voiced by many other feminists: the exclusion of women, as well as queer and trans folk, from public debate; the way objections to masculinist discourse are dismissed out of hand by many men; the continued ways in which those who claim to be allies for women and queers do not listen to the concerns of women and queers; the focus on the gendered bodies of women public figures instead of on their verbal discourse; the liberal dichotomy of public and private that often relegates issues and discourse important to public discussion to the private arena. The same questions that have bothered feminists and democratic theorists since the beginning of these movements remain: How can we effectively change discourse in public arenas so that listening is a central aspect of civic discourse? How do we develop public spaces in which we engage in hermeneutics based on listening, rather than a hermeneutics of suspicion in which claims by feminists, as well as by conservatives (or supposed conservatives), are not dismissed out of hand because of the identity of the speaker or writer? How can the public sphere become more inclusive? How can we develop a public sphere that is based more on rational argument and less on denigrating the bodies of others? And, as feminist commenters on Twistyâ€™s blog I Blame the Patriarchy ask, how do we confront others when we are angry or even outraged at what appears to many of us as blatant misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia?
These last questions echo the questions asked by Krista Ratcliffe in her keynote address yesterday. She asks how we are to â€œlisten rhetorically and get others to hear,â€ as well as how we can â€œhave civil discourse when others arenâ€™t civil.â€ Ratcliffe suggests continuing to reframe ideas in ways that can help others hear, an important tactic for keeping alive the idea of success. I like Ratcliffeâ€™s focus on success, as well as her stress on agency, belief, possibility, and hope. It seems that there must be some hope for change, as many who make sexist, homophobic, or transphobic comments directed at Coulter continue to engage in dialogue with those question their discourse. I too am considering a conversation I had with a feminist professor and friend as I was explaining this talk to her. She asked me, rightly so, I think, why I was more outraged at liberals who call Ann Coulter a â€œbitchâ€ or â€œtrannyâ€ than I was at conservative pundits who use similar language. This outrage, I think, comes from the dissonance between the expectations liberals have set for themselves and the actions and words I see from them (and of course, I do not mean all liberals when I state this). My friend stressed the importance to me of radical feminist and queer communities to try to find ways to make alliances with liberalism because of the high ideals of liberalism: valuing difference, liberty, rational discourse, and inclusion. Perhaps it is by calling attention to these ideals â€” and adhering to them ourselves â€” that we can engage in discourse that calls into question discourse that serves to exclude others from public arenas of discourse.
â€œAnn Coulter Says Something Provokizzzzzzzzzz.â€ Wonkette. 2 March 2007. 4 October 2007 http://wonkette.com/politics/ann-coulter/ann-coulter-says-something-provokizzzzzzzzzz-241224.php.
Butler, Judith. â€œCritically Queer.â€ Play with Fire: Queer Politics, Queer Theories. Ed. Shane Phelan. New York: Routledge, 1997. 11-29.
â€œCoulter: I Would Talk About Edwards But â€˜You Have To Go Into Rehab If You Use The Word â€œFaggot.â€â€™â€ Think Progress. 2 March 2007. 4 October 2007 http://thinkprogress.org/2007/03/02/coulter-edwards/â€.
Davis, Richard. The Web of Politics: The Internetâ€™s Impact on the American Political System. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.
Faris, Michael, et al. â€œAnne Coulter Strikes Again; Thousands of Liberals are Just Like Her.â€ Sispyphean Task: Electronic Surgical Words. 3 March 2007. 4 October 2007 http://sisypheantask.blogspot.com/2007/03/anne-coulter-strikes-again-thousands-of.html.
Friedman, Brad, et al. â€œExclusive: Conservative Group Denounces Ann Coulter!â€ The Brad Blog. 10 October 2005. 4 October 2007 http://www.bradblog.com/?p=1940.
Gal, Susan. â€œA Semiotics of the Public/Private Distinction.â€ Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 13.1 (2002): 77-95.
Twisty, et al. â€œLiberal Dudewatch â€™07: Their Forbidden Love for Ann Coulter.â€ I Blame the Patriarchy. 2 March 2007. 4 October 2007 http://blog.iblamethepatriarchy.com/2007/03/03/liberal-dudewatch-07-commentary-on-commentary/.
Warner, Michael. â€œPublics and Counterpublics.â€ Public Culture 14.1 (2002): 49-90.