Wednesday, February 02, 2005

In Search of Better Metaphors

In a response to my "Fake Orgasms" post, Speechless makes an important objection:

[T]he Whore/ Fake Ogasm stuff doesn't work for me. We women have been put down tied down, kicked down and laid down too long to go this route. We need to attack substance 'cause the standard ad hominem arguments cut against the liberal progressive agenda.
I tried to respond to this in the comments, but Blogger ate it...which was just as well, because it's worth discussing more publicly and thoroughly.

The truth is, I hesitated before posting the piece in question. Why did I go ahead with it? I'll try to reconstruct my thinking, if I can, because the language we use is extremely important these days, and it's worth sorting out when and how one goes wrong.

While wondering - all too briefly - whether the analogy was problematic, I felt a flurry of irritating associations. Gallagher, I thought, expresses a generally traditional view of male/female relations...because she's getting paid to express it by men who have a vested interest in perpetuating such ideas. In addition, she often tries to present the Bush Administration as brimming over with competent, virile masculinity. That was where the "fake orgasm" metaphor came in. The role of the women around Bush, it seemed to me, is often to "reassure" everyone as to his virility and power and goodness.

Anyway, with those ideas swimming around in my head and making me angry, I just said "The hell with it," and hit "Publish." I'll explain why that was wrong in a moment, but first, here's another comment from Speechless:
I need to ask: Would you write this way about a man? What is the male equivalent to Whore? What is the male equiv to faking an orgasm?
This, at least, is easy to answer: I would write, and have written, that way about a man (in fact, the description of Ms. Gallagher as "comparatively affordable" was in reference to Armstrong Williams, as was the last line in my post). In this, I'm basically following the lead of sites like Media Whores Online, in which one's status as a political whore is assumed to be gender-neutral.

The male equivalent of a whore, in this context, is simply a whore; the male equivalent of faking an orgasm is faking an orgasm (and men sometimes do this in real life, by the way).

But all this is a distraction from Speechless's more important point, which is whether or not these metaphors are progressive:
Sure there are lots and lots of slurs and put downs against men, questioning their manhood, their virility, their sexual orientation- and those are just as useless for furthering any uselful progressive conversation.
I agree with all of that. But on reflection, there's an even more serious reason why my analogy is faulty, which never would've occurred to me if it hadn't been for Speechless's remarks: I don't actually think prostitutes are bad people.

In other words, I'm attacking Gallagher - whom I find reprehensible - by likening her political behavior to a form of sexual behavior that I don't find reprehensible (which also happens to be a behavior for which women are irrationally and unfairly treated as criminals). That's incoherent thinking, plain and simple. And recognizing it forces one to speculate on the extent to which women like Gallagher, and African-Americans like Williams, are themselves victims. (I'm not saying they are, necessarily; I'm saying it's worth thinking about.)

So Speechless is right: We need a better metaphor for selling out one's integrity and credibility (particularly in ways that add to the oppression of one's own minority group, as Gallagher and Williams have done). Anyone have any ideas?


Anonymous said...

I think you're doing too much handwringing, frankly, for what I thought was a fairly gender-neutral elegant little metaphor. But that's from my point of view as a gay fellow, for whom prostitution, whoredom, and faking orgasms occupies an entirely male universe. I'm willing to accept that in a heterosexual orientation it is primarily a putdown of women.

How then do we explain the lack of vigor in objecting to the exceedingly vulgar and grating use of "bitches" and "my bitches" and "Bush's bitches" and references to Condi as slam puppet to be found without objection by anyone on the larger, and overwhelmingly heterosexual blogs.

Could it be that you're just an easier target?

Phila said...

Well, I'm not really handwringing over the gender issue so much, I don't's more the fact that I'm accusing someone of doing something I don't think is inherently bad, which is just dumb. There are male and female prostitutes, of course, though both cater overwhelmingly to the needs of men.

I'd like to think I'm not groveling after forgiveness so much as being grateful for a chance to think more clearly. In some ways, it's not that different from the term "Uncle Tom," which I object to on the basis of actually having read the book in question; that character has a specific, completely radical rhetorical function that makes the usual critiques of him totally beside the point, IMO. I've got no problem hurling invective around...I just want it to be accurate and meaningful. And in this case, I'm not sure it is.

Is there actually a better word than "whore," or a more powerful metaphor for selling oneself? Beats me...I'm curious to find out.

Phila said...

BTW, just for the record, I don't see myself as a "target." I've read many of Speechless's comments, and I trust her judgment; she's more than welcome to say anything she wants here. This is just a friendly discussion, in my opinion, and now's as good a time to have it as any.

Anonymous said...

Well you're right, it is a good discussion, and my use of the word "target" really was clumsy - I didn't mean to imply anything about Speechless's motives and I see that's how it could be taken. My apologies.

As a matter of coincidence I had also mulled the use of "Uncle Tom" as a substitution metaphor. It's in the right direction, but not quite the right literary reference.

Despite not yet coming up with something, I think the sentiment of your original posting is right. There is nothing genuine that I can detect about the right wing enthusiasm for the Iraqi elections (except of course that it ratifies the policies of President Bush). Ultimately the disconnect divides between my disbelief in the stated motives of the right of center: First, that there is any real concern for the Iraqi people by the right wing, who think nothing of the use of appellations like "towelhead". And second, what has been proven (exhaustively over the last 10 years) to my satisfaction as a lack of real understanding of what democracy is all about.

Of course that doesn't prevent poseurs like Gallagher from pretending either point.

I am still really bothered by the vulgarisms to be found strutting their stuff in the larger blogs.

(And as soon as I can get the sign-in to accept me I'll post non-anonymously.)

Phila said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Phila said...

Thanks, Anon and Joshowitz. Again, I really do feel that in many ways, "whore" best describes what people like Williams and Gallagher are and do, given our rather unfortunate cultural conventions. But to what extent does the power of that characterization draw on what is, after all, an anti-progressive point of view? I mean, when you come right down to it, who's more objectionable, Maggie Gallagher, or a call girl? Who's more socially destructive? Who's less forgivable? Who's more likely to suffer from plying her trade? Who has more power?To me, Ms. Gallagher is inherently more objectionable and more dangerous to society. So why equate the greater of two evils with the lesser (especially when the lesser is not inherently evil at all)? Why use the image of the powerless person to stigmatize the powerful one? There's such a huge disconnect between the reality of prostitution, and its metaphorical use as a pejorative...ultimately, I really think my comparison was more of an insult to prostitutes (of both sexes) than to Gallagher and Williams.

What made the insult seem apposite - at least to my mind - was the Right's pretence to particular sexual morality; that, I think, is why Joshowitz says the comparison "works." That's what makes it so emotionally compelling to call these people "whores." But is it really worthwhile to do so? That's well worth debating.

Phila said...

Goddamn's been doubling posts and comments constantly.

Thers said...

In the contrarian spirit, I'd say that it would be wrong to call Gallagher a "sex worker," but that "whore" is OK. The stipulation could be that "whore" is for these purposes indicative of one who surrenders personal integrity for profit or comfort and is thus contemptible. In certain demotics whore or "hoor" is gender neutral, anyway.

Phila said...


Yeah, as I said I don't find the gender issue to be all that compelling. And one can make a very good case that "whore" is the correct word to use.

And yet...isn't it interesting that we have so few simple pejorative names for "one who surrenders personal integrity for profit or comfort and is thus contemptible"? I'm hard-pressed to think of any others.

Anonymous said...

Hope I'm not getting here to late to suggest a different metaphor.

How about a "Judas"? The whole 30 pieces of silver thing?

Of course, this raises the question of whether you want to move into the realm of religious metaphors. But maybe for these whor...oops, I mean traitors, the religious image will resonate, since many of them are Bible thumpers.

Hope you're doing well! I love the Hope blogging!

Mrs. K8