In March I wrote an article titled How Western Feminists Got Hogtied. To accompany the piece, I chose a very explicit image (below) of a middle-aged white woman in office attire, hogtied with her hands bound to her feet behind her back. The hogtie is a particularly humiliating way to restrain someone, which is why it is generally used either by barbaric police, criminal thugs or people who are into heavy S&M. I thought the picture was appropriate exactly for that reason – it suggests feminists are constrained in an extreme way that leaves their self-confidence in shreds. The point of the article was that Western feminists are in one hell of a bind vis-à-vis misogynistic aspects of Islam.
On the one hand, Western feminists are scolded for assuming that Muslim women cannot fight ‘their own’ battles. On the other, they are chided for “othering” Muslim women, as though Muslims were alien exotic creatures whose culture must be fundamentally different from their own. When Western feminists critique Shari’a law, honour violence, FGM or religious dress, they are told that their own Christian culture has behaved similarly or worse, but in the next breath they are reminded that Muslim women are “uniquely placed” to understand the religious patriarchy of “their” culture because it is impenetrable by Western women’s minds or “lived experiences”. Muslim women too are told that to speak out against sexist aspects of their religion or culture makes them traitors or bedfellows with “colonialists”. On both sides of the aisle, women are being muzzled.
By using this hyperbolic, literal image to illustrate the piece, I wished to suggest the extreme extent to which Western feminists find themselves constrained when attempting to express vital solidarity with Muslim feminists. Plus, as any journalist knows, striking images that provoke curiosity are a proven way to ‘hook’ potential readers and draw them in so that they will notice your article amidst the constant flow of other online demands for their attention.
It didn’t take long for feminists to complain about that article, apparently not because they disputed its content, but for the image of the hogtied woman. The way the regressive left have fixed their attention on policing verbal and visual language demonstrates a petty fundamentalism about words and images that is especially troubling in light of how important language and rhetoric really are. Words and images do matter, and they matter quite a lot. If they didn’t, I would not have spent the last decade or so writing myriad articles and essays in defence of free expression.
In her 1993 Nobel Laureate acceptance speech, Toni Morrison recounts the tale of a wise old woman, a rural prophet reputed for her wisdom. One day a group of youths bent on disproving her clairvoyance come to her home and attempt to exploit the one disability that sets her apart from them: her blindness. “Old woman”, one of them taunts, “I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me, is it living or is it dead?” When the woman does not answer, the young visitors cannot contain their laughter, whereupon she interrupts them, replying in her soft but stern voice, “I don’t know”, she says. “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.” Morrison explains what she takes the old woman’s answer to mean: “if it is dead, you have either found it that way or you have killed it. If it is alive, you can still kill it. Whether it is to stay alive, it is your decision. Whatever the case, it is your responsibility.” The blind woman shifts attention away from assertions of power to the instrument through which that power is exercised. Morrison uses the parable to draw a parallel between the small bird and language and between the woman and a practised writer.
The old woman is worried about how language is handled, put into service, even withheld from her for certain nefarious purposes. She “thinks of language partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but mostly as agency – as an act with consequences.”
I understand Morrison to mean that words are not ends in themselves. They are a language; tools or means by which agents further certain ends. When we read a word or an image, we must ask what purpose or role it plays in the context of its use. We can ask what kinds of ends it serves, and what the agent’s intention is when using it. The mistake my critics have made vis-à-vis the image of the hogtied woman is the fat oxen fallacy: the belief that he who drives fat oxen must himself be fat. Every representation of sexism is not sexist, nor is every representation of racism a racist representation.
Birth of a Nation is not just a depiction of racism; it is a racist film. As such, it has even been used over the years to recruit people to the KKK. On the other hand, 12 Years a Slave also depicts racist behaviours and speech, but in a film which is not itself in the least bit racist. On the contrary, by its depiction of racism, it has gone a long way to discrediting racists and their bankrupt ideology. Thelma & Louise depicts sexism (a lot) but is a feminist movie about two women who reject patriarchal America’s “justice” system and would rather drive off a cliff than be subjected to a sexist legal system. Paul Verhoeven’s film Elle (recently reviewed here) depicts a woman who desires her rapist and yet is deeply feminist film about internalised patriarchal violence and its devastating effects on women.
The inability to distinguish the words and images in films from the uses to which they are put has lead to a blunt sanitising of language and visual culture that only closes down debate and critical perspectives and stifles progress. It kills language and assumes that words/images are sacred shibboleths or monoliths that can only ever be used in one single way. Trevor Phillips argued against this simplistic approach to language in his Channel 4 documentary Has Political Correctness Gone Mad? He also argued against it in his book Race and Faith: The Deafening Silence (Civitas, 2016), where he argues that “any limitation of free speech is, in the end, an erosion of the last defence available to minorities in a diverse society.” (p. 54) Phillips argues, rightly in my opinion, that Parliament should renew and formalise a presumption in favour of freedom of expression. This means that the current accretions and caveats on freedom of expression (which I have addressed elsewhere) should be swept aside and replaced by legislation ensuring that only forms of expression that directly encourage physical harm (not mere offence) be subject to legal restriction. In practice, Phillips accepts that this might mean that people are permitted to address him as “nigger” (or to me as a “dyke”) but they would be prohibited from, say, pointing at him and instructing others to “get that nigger” or to point at me and shout “kill that dirty lezzer”.
I am reminded of an interview with the actor Roy Scheider, who played detective Buddy “Cloudy” Russo in The French Connection. Scheider remembers watching the movie in a cinema in uptown Manhattan very near the border with Harlem. Consequently the audience was racially very mixed. When detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) says to Cloudy, “Never trust a nigger”, black viewers burst into applause. At last, an honest representation of police racism! They cheered this line probably because it represented something that resonated with them, something honest and truthful about how (many) white cops behave and speak. When Cloudy responds, “He coudda been white.” Popeye Doyle simply says, “Never trust anybody.”Similar depictions of police racism in Sweet Swetback’s Baaddaasss Song (1971) also gave sweet relief to black American audiences who finally saw a film that presented a reality they recognised.
My point is that the ‘N-word’, in this instance, was not being used to promote racism. It was a movie that was about, inter alia, a racist cop. Similarly, Roots features characters that use ugly, abusive language about “negroes”. But the film’s characters utter these epithets to show us what it was like to be one of those “negroes”, not to applaud racism. The French Connection merely shows, in an honest way, the ruthless and amoral attitude of cops and the pervasive bigotry that formed the cultural backdrop of the film. Director William Friedkin had his start working in the TV documentary format and decided to apply its stylistic techniques to a narrative film, making it as realistic as possible.
Friedkin is himself no bigot and his film The People Vs. Paul Crump (1962) almost certainly saved the life of its eponymous black inmate and certainly exposed the systemic racism and brutality of the notorious Chicago police, as well as leading to a revaluation of a penal system that prioritises retributive ‘justice’ over rehabilitation. The documentary is an impassioned plea for mercy on behalf of a black prisoner whom Friedkin believed was innocent. As it turned out, Friedkin was wrong, and the prisoner confessed to the murder many years later. If Friedkin can be accused of any prejudice, it was in favour of black ‘suspects’ and inmates.
I return to Toni Morrison’s observation that language is susceptible to death. For her, a dead language is “unyielding language, . . . Like statist language, censored and censoring. Ruthless in its policing duties, it has no desire or purpose other than maintaining the free range of its own narcotic narcissism, its own exclusivity and dominance. . . . Dead language actively thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, suppresses human potential.” It is also sentimental, exciting reverence in schoolchildren, providing shelter for despots, summoning false memories of stability, harmony among the public. Oppressive language, says Morrison, does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Representing a hogtied woman is not necessarily equivalent to endorsing the act depicted. It can also be used to shock us into recognition of how far women are constrained by the rhetorical abuse of language, particularly by words like ‘Islamophobia’ that do indeed “provide shelter for despots”.
The ultimate irony is that a piece about how feminists are duped into fighting each other when they should be presenting a united front against patriarchy, only led to more hair-splitting intra-feminist squabbles.