Unlike some people, I've never had the burden of needing to blog or comment anonymously or semi-anonymously in the entire time I've had an "internet presence." Pretty much as soon as I started blogging, JTB became my online monicker, and has always been linked to a personal description full of both personal and professional identifiers. On Google, Blogger, Wordpress, you name it, I comment as JTB.
I've been following with some interest, given my previous interaction with the blog on the limerick thing, the conversation on Theoblogy in response to Tony's question, "where are the women." My first reaction to this post was positive--despite what some criticized as a prejudicial phrasing of the question--because, after all, concern about the unintended homogeneity of our communities, particularly our Christian communities, is a commendable concern. Moreover, it seemed clear from the post that Tony felt the absence of women's voices on his blog commentary to be a lack and that he was asking for feedback to rectify what he considered a problem.
Very quickly, as the comment thread spun itself out, a couple of things became clear. The first was that many women did not feel like the comment threads were a space they could enter and be heard or respected; various reasons were offered for this. The second was that Tony was quick to defend his good intentions against these proffered possible reasons for the lack of women's voices in the blog comments.
Since I myself had dared to enter the fray on the limerick discussion, and had been hard put to defend my (and Julie's) critique of the limerick contest in conversation with Tony and others, including having to absorb without retaliation more than a few unconstructive and personal comments, I think the suggestion that the general atmosphere of the blog as hostile to women's voices is pretty accurate. That's not to suggest that this is anyone's intention; on the contrary--it's clearly unintentional. But it is something that can be intentionally addressed, which is what I took Tony's post "where are the women" to be a step toward.
Of course, to move toward intentionally addressing an unintentionally hostile atmosphere, you must, as my friend Jimmy has suggested, first stop and listen. Even if it's hard. Even, I dare to suggest, when it's angry.
Of course, no one really likes to listen to angry people. So maybe it's no surprise that the only female commenter to get a respectful "thanks, helpful as always" response was Rachel Held Evans, who very carefully modulated her comment in an exaggerated "feminine" tone, complete with parenthetical giggling:
"...Now I’m going to get all radically honest: I can’t quite put my finger on exactly why, but sometimes I still feel a little uncomfortable with the emerging church dudes. Maybe it’s the CONSTANT need to return, (giggling), to the vagina controversy (my goodness! i’m so over it, guys! can we please talk about something else? like, my BOOK maybe?), or maybe it’s the fact that at emergent events there’s always enough alcohol flowing to encourage at least one guy to say something mildly inappropriate, or maybe it’s because I still don’t know what the hell process theology is, or maybe it’s because theology is sometimes treated as a sport with winners and losers and points scored…I don’t know. It’s like, when I’m a woman in the conservative evangelical world I feel completely invisible; when I’m a woman in the progressive/emerging world I feel a bit exposed, like a spectacle. I hate offering that critique without any solution to it..and without even defining it properly… but it’s just what popped into my head. Maybe some other women can comment on it."It's a conundrum that women constantly face in any dialogue, f2f or online: do we duke it out with the boys on their own terms? Or do we go with the non-threatening, sweet "feminine" persona? How can we best be heard? And when does playing this "feminine" game work in yielding strategic gains, and when does it stop working, as it clearly acquiesces to problematic assumptions regarding gender? And how do we make that determination? And is there any way to free ourselves from these two highly unsatisfactory options, and just, you know, speak our minds without so much angst?
I started this blog, waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay back when, as an exercise in using my voice, precisely because the hypermasculine and competitive culture of the doctoral seminar was giving me anxiety attacks. I needed a space where I could just say what I thought, without the second guessing and the queasy stomach and the trembling hands and the uncontrolled flushing on my neck. And it worked. I found a voice as JTB.
Anyhow: following up on a suggestion by someone else in one of the discussion threads in this set of posts, today I thought I would try an experiment.
So I commented under the name "James." And wrote exactly what I would have written as JTB. That is to say, I was myself. With a pretend penis.
And lo and behold! Not only was I respectfully engaged, I actually won agreement from someone who challenged my original comment.
As JTB, in response to my numerous comments on the limerick contest post, I was told my critique was ludicrous; that to hold my opinion suggested I lacked even a modicum of common sense; that I labored under various mistaken assumptions; that I was a buzz kill; that I was vaginal retentive (as opposed to anal, that's for boys only?); I was even limericked about (a particularly sly dig, given the context); I was never acknowledged by name or as a colleague; and genuine follow-up questions went unanswered completely.
As James, I was addressed by name; asked genuinely critical questions; received an affirmation of the importance of my point; and when I defended my original point, received a concession from my respectful challenger.
In case you're doubtful that my writing style remained consistent, with only the apparent gender of the name as a variant, here are the stats from the "gender guesser":
Comments as "James" on "Benefit of the Doubt":
Female = 196
Male = 1400
Difference = 1204; 87.71%
Comments as "JTB" on "Feminist Theologians Don't Like Our Vagina Limericks":
Female = 1583
Male = 3255
Difference = 1672; 67.27%
Make what you will of this. But here's the takeaway as I see it, and if you don't mind, I'll let James have the last word--"he" seems to be more successful a communicator than JTB:
"I don’t mean to suggest that some are free of the responsibility of charitable interpretation, sympathetic imagination, or in Tony’s phrase, benefit of the doubt. Of course he, and you, [are] correct to suggest everyone must do this for successful dialogue. What I want to underscore however is that in many cases benefit [of] the doubt is synonymous with privilege, in that some of us are accustomed to taking for granted that our actions and statements will be received accordingly–and others, sadly, are not. Tony occupies a place of privilege in discourse here first because it is his blog, and in this case, the privilege of being white, male, straight and theologically educated is also not irrelevant given the topic. Tony’s suggestion is right on; but I think it is misdirected if we think it should be directed at commenters first and foremost."Tony, your female and feminist commenters deserve the benefit of the doubt. We appreciate your desire to hear our voices. We spoke up at your invitation. Some of what we had to say was angry. Some of it was hard to hear. Some of it (maybe) even crossed that fuzzy line into personal. But we offered our voices in a space you yourself intuited wasn't quite welcoming, because you asked. So give us the benefit of the doubt. Because we don't have the benefit of the penis.