Friday, 2 August 2013

On saying what you mean. Part two

Before I begin this properly, a little announcement: some of my writing is now going up over at FEMUSINGS, a brilliant new(ish) feminist news/humour site. The bits up there at the moment are all cross-posted from my blog so you are not yet missing anything new, but that will soon change. It also means that my totally arbitrary self-imposed 30 day rules are changing, because averaging much more than one blog post a day will definitely kill me, no exaggeration. So on days that I post over there, don't expect anything here! Them's the breaks.

Now, when we last left our train of thought (or what passes for a train of thought around these parts), I had just had a lengthy whinge about the misuse of the word "troll" in current discussions, only to suggest that as word misappropriations go, it doesn't really matter. Leaving aside the question of what kind of crazy person would write that much on a thing they know doesn't matter (A: a crazy person who has to fill a blog post a day, that's who), the next pertinent question would be "when does this sort of word use matter"?

My answer to that is lovingly contained in a 70-page Master's thesis currently locked in a vault somewhere in Tsinghua University's library, and if you want to know more you should go and look it up, the end. No, just kidding ‒ about you reading that thesis, not about its existence. It's long and dry and Chinese visas are getting more expensive and harder to obtain so let me just tell you what I think is interesting and then we can all move on with our lives.

So. International Development, at its heart, involves a lot of one group of people (development professionals) talking about another group of people (poor people, often women, generally entire countries' worth), for the benefit of a third group of people (i.e. the ones with money). This all takes place with the best of intentions, but still involves an uncomfortable amount of neocolonialism, generalisations, oversimplifications and the occasional hidden neoliberal agenda. (That's neoliberal the "open all your markets and buy all our stuff" economic policy, not "wouldn't it be nice if everybody could do what they want" ‒ the latter generally doesn't get as much airtime as it perhaps should). What this situation leads to, aside from a lot of potential for frustration and a fascinating thesis, is a particular kind of development discourse

Let's step outside the British feminist bubble for a minute and consider what might be general international problems for women, because it's still not a great world for most of us most of the time. Most of the list involves violence from men. Rape still happens everywhere, at appallingly high rates, and is explained away far too often. Sometimes it is used as a weapon of war. Marginally less awful but even more likely to be ignored is the prevalence of domestic violence. There were a couple of high profile cases in China whilst I was interning over there which activists hoped would change public opinion somewhat, but it remains intractable there as everywhere. If you are a woman you are more likely to be worried about your general security, about having enough to eat and a place to sleep and stuff that you actually own to help you live; more often than not you have to worry about those things for your children as well. And then there's maternal mortality and natal healthcare, good luck with those. It's extremely unfashionable to talk about the world as if it's bleak and hopeless because of course it isn't, few people have unrelentingly awful lives all the time, but some of these things (especially the violence) are just endemic. No number of uplifting "woman gets microloan and improves village!" anecdotes

Some of these are big, complex, international issues Instead of this, too much "development" (Full disclosure: I speak specifically from gender and climate change here but I'm not so overspecialised that this generalisation is inaccurate) stops at telling us that women in developing countries (in itself an enormous simplificitation of most of the world's states) are "vulnerable". They might not be suffering right now, because being vulnerable doesn't imply present harm. But something might happen! Like climate change could happen. To that figurative woman. And then there would be a problem, because of farming. And then her husband might get mad, or move away. Whoops! But she's only vulnerable right now, we're not saying any of these things are true now. Being "vulnerable" in development is sort of like the negativity equivalent of describing a person as "interesting". What you mean is a whole range of different nuanced things, some more serious than others! What you have said is one, not very interesting thing. "Vulnerable" = generically bad. But maybe not even happening yet! So no worries.

What we must strive for, is for women to be the opposite of vulnerable. And the opposite of vulnerable, in development-speak, is "empowered". Being development-empowered is great because it can be applied to literally anything, from high-falutin' metaphors about helping to bring up the rising sun of prosperity on a golden dawn of happiness (not a literal example but some things come close), to "woman x is empowered to take her cow to market on Thursday". What women are rarely empowered to do is actually be in power. Usually, empowerment involves talking, or being able to do things that women were doing anyway but a little bit more efficiently. Occasionally there are role changes involved. FUN FACT: Studying what "empowerment" means when it is used in development literature has given me a general hatred of the word. 99 times out of 100, a person using "empowerment" in any context does not actually want to talk about power relations, because talking about power relations at its heart involves a discussion about why so many men rape and hit women, even women they claim to love, and men don't like talking about that, it makes them angry and defensive and anyway women have been known to hit men so the gendered point is irreverent, case closed. Whoops, that was a tangent. Anyway! When women are "empowered", we can assume that generic good things are happening to them, and they are hopefully less "vulnerable". Hurrah!

In both cases, words are being undermined. The vulnerability is a very specific state with a very specific meaning, and that meaning exists because it is useful to have in the english language as more than just "generic bad thing". Empowerment likewise. If we want to talk about generically good and generically bad things, we have words for that too: "good" and "bad". Unfortunately, this is where it becomes problematic that the issue of development is effectively a conversation between three groups of people. Group two (actual affected people) and hopefully most of group one (development professionals on the ground) understand that things are complicated and nuanced and there are no big international simplifications to be made. But groups one and two also need money and support. They need to talk to group three, to movers and shakers and policymakers, and sometimes also to the average Jo on the street who has just been accosted by fundraisers. Group three are unlikely to be affected by entreaties to "stop this generic bad thing" if it's written like that, but if it's sprinkled with some important sounding words... well. Who can argue about vulnerability and empowerment? And thus, ridiculous meaningless discourse is born.

I hate it! I know this is is a very arrogant and hypocritical statement coming from a woman whose development career hasn't even reached the "employment" stage and whose favourite form of humour is "say something ridiculously wrong in a deadpan manner and hope people trust you enough to know you're joking", but when the most used words in your vocabulary are meaningless flourishes, meaningful debate is becomes incredibly difficult. I'm not defending precise language in the grumpy old man way of refusing to believe that English ever changes, because it does, I love it for that, please look back to my enjoyment of "sexting" (the word not the act!) as irrefutable proof of this fact. But there's a difference between change and decay, especially in some fields. To return to yesterday's example, if "troll" becomes synonym for "abuser", the internet will easily adapt, because the internet can invent new words ridiculously easily (unrelated: today I learned what "subtweet" means. I wish there was a facebook equivalent because that is a phenomenon that needs a name). But what do we call empowerment, if "empowerment" doesn't mean empowerment any more? Particularly if the strength of the new use of "empowerment" relies on the power (oh god) of the old use. It's all too much!

This has all gone on too long, and I feel this is not the entry for flowery closing words, so: Dear everyone. Say what you mean. From Adrienne. The End.