Getting on My Soapbox
April 5, 2016
Emma Davey ’18
Many of you have noticed that I haven't had a blog in awhile. And by many of you, I mean my grandma. Have I been super busy? Yes. But also this blog has been a work in progress for months. I have written it piecemeal through this school year, whenever anything made me mad. So I present to you the various things that have gotten my goat, so to speak, about Oberlin and the way we have recently been portrayed in the media. Because it's happened a lot. Shout out to lazy journalists who have blown a lot of things out of proportion (also known as The New York Post!) - this one's for you!
Political correctness is an elusive specter that haunts liberal arts education, especially "liberal" liberal arts education. I'm not sure it actually exists, or at least in the form that the older generation is quick to point out. I hate to trot out the tired cliché of having Merriam-Webster define it, as if I am a prosaic valedictorian trying to define friendship, but I can't think of how else to convey a definition. Merriam-Webster defines "politically correct" as "conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated." I think what the outside world has marked "being politically correct" is probably what my fellow Obies would deem "not being an ass****." I don't see using someone's correct gender pronouns or listening when international students call out cultural appropriation as an inherently political act. I see that as being a decent human being. If I say to someone on the Internet, "hey man, that was kind of racist!" that's not censorship. Certainly we all have the right to free speech. But the right to free speech is freedom from government retribution. It doesn't mean you get to say whatever you want without consequences. According to many of our country's leaders, political correctness is LITERALLY killing our country. All I can say is that if you think political correctness, not racism or sexism or xenophobia, is the biggest problem America faces today, then you should rethink your priorities (and your presidential campaign). I also find it quite amusing when those who are most offended by political correctness are the same old folks who freak out when you say "Happy Holidays!" instead of "Merry Christmas." Who's overly sensitive now? But backlash against political correctness isn't even the province of outright bigots like Donald Trump either - an older generation of progressives likes to rail against it as well, especially comedians who are lamenting the apparent loss of comedy. Not even sorry, but I really don't care that Jerry Seinfeld feels like he can't play college campuses anymore when there are countless people who are being constantly dehumanized (or even killed) simply because of their race, sexuality, gender, or religion. If the expense of the new PC culture is that a rich, middle-aged white man can no longer tell certain jokes, that's a sacrifice I'm willing to make.
On a similar but different note - a word about trigger warnings, as they too have been incredibly overblown. A trigger warning is actually very simple. It's a preface before some form of media that basically says "Hey friend! There's some unpleasant material up ahead! Do what you gotta do about that!" It's a heads up. It takes a few seconds to announce one in class or type one up before a lengthy rant. It is not censorship. The material that you're about to view still exists in its original form. All that's changed is that someone who has experienced the trauma specific to that work doesn't have to be surprised by its presence, and instead gets to decide how they wish to engage with it. It's the same thing as a spoiler alert for Star Wars. You expend absolutely no energy by prefacing your movie review with a warning about giving away plot points, but now your friends will know what to expect. Yet trigger warnings are met with derision. We would understand if our friend was upset with us for revealing what happens in a galaxy far, far away, but for some reason, we can't extend that same courtesy to a trauma survivor trying not to relive their experience.
This isn't to say I always agree with how activist culture plays out. The rise of the Internet and social media make it easier to keep us informed and updated, but it also makes it easier to lose a bit of kindness when hiding behind a screen. Conversations about inequality are always important and not always easy to have. They don't have to be comfortable. But I think sometimes myself and my fellow Obies can remind ourselves that we are incredibly privileged to have access to the kind of education we do. One of the best things I've learned here was at a PRSM training during my first month: "Ignorance does not necessarily equal aggression." Sometimes people are terrible, but sometimes they genuinely just don't know.
Feminism and riot girl
I'm in the middle of Girls to the Front by Sara Marcus, a book that I am long overdue to read. Because she knows me so well, my mom got it for me not too long ago, and I finally got a chance to start reading it over spring break. The book's cover promises "the true story of the riot grrrl revolution." For those of you not in the know, riot grrrl was a feminist punk movement in the early 90s that is closely linked to third wave feminism. And yes, the excess of the letter R is correct. It was a time when young women were collectively fed up and doing something about it, starting bands, making zines, and putting on protests. They addressed the radical inequalities of society at large, but one of its primary goals was to challenge the male domination of the insular punk community, which was supposed to be liberation from social norms, but was really only true liberation for those white able-bodied men who could mosh to their hearts' content. For young feminists like me, who were born in the 90s but weren't alive/conscious during its heyday, riot grrrl has a kind of mythical status. I am by no means an expert on the subject (and to be honest, I don't listen to a ton of the music aside from Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney), but I've always had a deep appreciation for the movement, especially because its work is by no means over. But is the riot grrrl mythology accurate? The movement was revolutionary, yes, but who was that revolution for? Mostly white cisgender middle-class women. Riot grrrl was more conscious of intersectionality than feminists before it, but the movement was by no means inclusive of all identities, a fact that is conveniently omitted (or has been conveniently forgotten) in the retelling of its story. I've been thinking about this a lot, both in my academic feminism and my personal feminism. How are we to deal with the fact that our idols and inspirations are problematic? How do we discuss social movements of the past? These are difficult questions without an easy or one-size-fits-all answer. I think we can definitely appreciate what the riot grrrl movement accomplished, but still hold it accountable and try to move past the romanticized narrative that has come about. The idea of college girls starting a national movement is obviously super appealing to me, and I think it's important to learn lessons from its mistakes. Especially since a recurring theme of the book is about how riot grrrls everywhere balked at what they saw as unfair and inaccurate media coverage, something I'm sure many of us Obies can relate to. Because being a part of activist culture at Oberlin makes me excited for what we can all do together. We can use the story of riot grrrl to fuel our feminist fire, but also to create our own movement, one that is inclusive of all identities.
Also, so far Oberlin has been mentioned a couple of times in the book, and I'm really curious about its role in riot grrrl! The author went to Oberlin as well. If anyone has the hook-up, or if there are any former riot grrrl alums out there, please let me know!! I am very interested in your experiences!!!!!!
*steps off soapbox*
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