July 15, 1999
If someone publishes a blanket condemnatory statement about any definable group he will be pilloried in the media before you can shout “sensitivity training!” More likely, though, the statement would never see the light of day—such is our culture’s tolerance for “offensive speech.”
Though these last quotation marks may seem unnecessary—how could such statements be anything other than offensive—they underscore the perverse way we define and treat commentary that offends our collective sensibilities.
Say what you want about genuinely offensive speech, it reflects honestly held views. You may not like what some people say or the way they say it, but you are under no illusions about what message they’re trying to get across. Because these views are expressed openly, their offensiveness is easily recognizable and can be ignored or countered as circumstances dictate.
When offensive speech is tarted up to look respectable, it becomes insidious, because we are made to believe that it isn’t offensive. We often see this tactic on the left side of the politically correct divide among those who feign reasonableness by couching their screeds in words pleasing to the ear and eye.
Such people may not be as acutely dangerous as, for example, roving gangs of neo-Nazis, but their views are no less uninformed and “offensive” to those they attack. In this light I give you the column by Satya Das that appeared in the July 12 Province.
Like many of us, Das, an Edmonton-based journalist, is concerned about the violent state of the world and wants to do something about it. Fair enough, but then you read the headline, which is unfortunately lifted from Das’s lead: “If men would just step aside and let women run the world.” (Oddly, the word “just” doesn’t appear in the text. Give the editor a minus-2).
At first I thought Das wrote a satire because I couldn’t imagine anyone making such a bald statement. Alas, my search for wit and humour proved fruitless; he was obviously in earnest. For a piece so magnificently inane, no amount of direct criticism or rebuttal could expose its shallowness better than an examination of the author’s own words.
He begins with a fact (most of the world’s leaders have been men) and an assertion (men have a greater propensity for confrontation and violence) to set up his contention that female leaders would make the world a safer place, if only there were enough of them. Socrates would not be amused by such syllogistic chicanery.
Das’s assertion about men is probably true, but it’s applied too broadly to be of any use. He would have us believe that all men are warmongers by virtue of testosterone poisoning. Consequently, Genghis Khan and Franklin Delano Roosevelt come off as equivalent because they both carry a Y chromosome.
On the other side, we have the equally offensive stereotype of women as paragons of peace and understanding. Das writes “men have by and large forfeited any right to rule the world,” and holds out women as the only hope “to challenge the precepts and visions of a world led by males.” Funny, isn’t it, how absolutist statements like this exist in a rhetorical vacuum, unencumbered by the real world?
Let’s take Das’s example of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher (1979-90). If you happened to be on the wrong side of Britain’s economic divide, ol’ Iron Lady was anything but compassionate. As education minister in Edward Heath’s Conservative government, she earned herself the nickname “Maggie Thatcher milk snatcher” for cutting free milk for school children.
Das never demonstrates that he understands the nature of government or that economic and political factors, to say nothing of individual character, are greater determinants of behaviour than whether or not a leader sports a penis.
Let’s assume for the moment that a woman becomes a leader and turns out to be a terror like Bloody Mary—does the fact that she’s a woman mitigate her cruelty? If a woman turns out to be a master manipulator like Livia, wife of Caesar Augustus, is she more estimable because she isn’t a man?
“What we need is a critical mass of female leadership,” writes Das. Unfortunately, he doesn’t try to convince us that such a mass is even needed. He’s content to assert that it is needed, and then proceeds to erect a wall of rhetoric around it to make his conclusion seem credible.
Readers who manage to see through Das’s contrived peace-loving patter, will recognize it as a blatant piece of anti-male propaganda. How such offensiveness managed to finds its way into print is another question.
Das offends men because he tells them that they’re by definition unfit to run countries. Yet, he also offends women. By equating aggression exclusively with men, he assumes that all women are nurturing pacifists. By doing so he reinforces the prejudice that women who happen to be aggressive, or even belligerent, are just “men in drag.”
Making the world a safer place is a noble enough goal, but it can’t be accomplished though ignoble means, no matter how nice they’re made to look.