Sunday, August 22, 2010

Eating Crow

The Crow's Eye has an interesting post on the Faggot Question.
It begins with a video game, an entertainment I allow myself from time to time, slaying animated pixels with aging fingers dancing in keystrokes. We lose a match, and the avatar of an anonymous nobody types, all caps and exclamation point, "FAGS!!!!!!!faggotsFAgs!" Which prompts me to reply, "Do you mean to imply that the other seven of us are queer?" "FAGGOT!!1!," he responds.
When challenged and teased, the "anonymous nobody" explains:
"I'm not gay, dude. I don't mean your [sic] gay. I mean you m8s wer [sic]..." "...fucking weak ass players. I hate fucking loosing [sic]." And there it was, one of the new and very modern (perhaps post-PoMo?) meanings of the term. An analog to "bitch," which on top of meaning "breeding whore" and "woman as chattel," has also come to mean "weak ass" guy. Faggot, as Loser. Someone who accepts a lower rank. One who kneels and accepts the dominance of others.
I'm not quite clear about a few things here. Was Nobody one who lost? If so, then he's a faggot too. (Which may be why he attacked the others: to divert attention from his own failure.) More important, how does losing an online game -- or anything -- equal "accept[ing] a lower rank" or "accept[ing] the dominance of others"? These games are set up so that someone has to lose, so maybe anyone who chooses to play such a game (meaning normative, masculist males) is by this definition a loser and a faggot; which doesn't really compute. And in my observation, "bitch" means not "woman as chattel", but an uppity woman: a whore is a woman who'll have sex with you, a bitch is a woman who won't. "Bitch" used between males, of course, means "faggot," which brings me full circle: it's a status imposed by some males on others, not one "accepted" by the subjects. It's no fun otherwise.

I've long thought that one reason why mainstream boy culture reacted with such fury to the emergence of openly gay people in the 60s and 70s was not just that we'd hijacked the innocent word "gay," but that we'd taken ourselves out of their control. How can you keep queers in line by threatening to reveal our dirty secret if it's not a secret any more? How can you establish your superiority as a Normal Person by calling someone a queer if he or she laughs in your face? (One reason I object to Totalistic Safe Space is that it maintains the idea that I should be devastated by being called a faggot, and that I need an authorized person to protect me from devastation. The radical gay movement meant, as far as I'm concerned, that I could put bigots on the run myself with the help of other faggots -- I didn't need the assistance of Compassionate, Healing, Helping Services Professionals.)

What got my attention here, though, was Jack Crow's characterization of this usage as something new, even "Po-Mo." Um, no. Like the Western hemisphere, it was there all along, with people living in it. Richard C. Trexler's Sex and conquest: gendered violence, political order, and the European conquest of the Americas (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995) is a gold mine of lore. For example:
A third clue to understanding this profound contradiction between cultural approval and political condemnation of penetration is the recognition that, even though activity was most seriously condemned by the law, ridiculing a subject or enemy as passive was a standard means of exerting power. That is, the sovereign not only suffered the timeless defamation that he was feminine because he could not defend the public against enemies. He exploited the cultural order’s privileging of activity by denouncing all others’ alleged passivity. An early Christian case is as explicit as one could wish, making use of the fabled effeminacy of clergy. In Gregory of Tours’ sixth-century History of the Franks, Count Palladius, in the presence of the king, hurls this insult against the ‘passive and effeminate’ Parthenius, bishop of Gevaudan. ‘Where are your husbands, with whom you cohabit in lechery and turpidity?’ This was as much as to claim that the celibate bishop had patrons in the saeculum who had active homosexual rights over him.
Anyone in a hierarchy (except maybe the person at the top) has others above him as well as below him. I suppose Count Palladius was trying to climb a rung or two higher by verbally putting Parthenius below him. It's unimportant whether Parthenius was actually "passive and effeminate"; calling him so is a move in the endless, tedious dominance games boys play. That it's "merely" verbal doesn't mean it isn't effective, of course: where actual penetration or violence can't be used, verbal insults are one way to work the pecking order. (And faggots play this game too, the more shame to us.)

In C. J. Pascoe's Dude, You're a Fag: Sexuality and Masculinity in High School (California, 2007), she reports how
In my fieldwork I was amazed by the way the word seemed to pop uncontrollably out of boys’ mouths in all kinds of situations. To quote just one of many instances from my field notes: two boys walked out of the PE locker room, and one yelled, “Fucking faggot!” at no one in particular. None of the other students paid them any mind, since this sort of thing happened so frequently. Similar spontaneous yelling of some variation of the word fag, seemingly apropos of nothing, happened repeatedly among boys throughout the school. This and repeated imitations of fags constitute what I refer to as “fag discourse” [59].
I shouldn't belittle the anxieties of adolescent males, struggling to construct selves in a uncaring, un-understanding world, but hell, why not? There's something seriously wrong here. If such boys just yelled "faggot!" at no one in particular, it wouldn't matter so much, but sooner or later they go after living targets, and it doesn't stop with words. And it doesn't help to claim that kids who are harassed or beaten up as fags aren't always actually gay, that they're just being assaulted as part of boy-culture dominance games -- that's a distraction from the fact that boys and men are being assaulted in the name of Manhood, because of the personal anxieties of their assailants. Those anxieties are expressed in the 'merely' verbal use of "faggot" no less than in the use of fists and feet. As Pascoe also noted:
Contrary to the protestations of boys earlier in the chapter that they would never call someone who was gay a fag, Ricky experienced this harassment on a regular basis, probably because he couldn’t draw on identifiably masculine markers such as athletic ability or other forms of dominance to bolster some sort of claim on masculinity [67].
When I was visiting Korea a couple of years ago, I wrote in email to a friend in the States:
I'm in an internet cafe (called a PC Room here) in my host's neighborhood in a suburb of Seoul. There are half-a-dozen Korean-American adolescents in here, making a lot of noise as they play video games. "You fucking faggot!" one yelled as he lost a round. That's how I know they're American. Very annoying. The place is full of Korean kids the same age, rapt in their gaming, but they aren't making noise. I suspect these kids been sent over for summer vacation to visit relatives. ... Oops, another just yelled, "Move, nigger!" at a character in his game. Maybe I should go over, slap his head, and curse him in Korean. I can see boys like this growing up to become post-colonial academics, whining about how they've suffered from American racism.
Crow informs us at length that he's very liberal in sexual matters:
I don't care one bit about sexuality, so long as all the participants do their thing willingly. You can suck cock, or play model housewife, or wrap yourself up in bondage and submission, for all I care. You can do the auto-erotic, or the anerotic. You can partner up in a loving and monogamous gay marriage, or trip the vampy halls of amphetimated orgy parlors, seeking pleasure in bi- and tri and poly- hetero anonymity, and it matters naught to me.

I cannot wrap my head around wondering or worrying how other people copulate. I really can't. I cannot honestly imagine a more tedious and ridiculous waste of my time.
As always, I'm deeply gratified and reassured by such open-mindedness. It just doesn't mean much as long as the open mind in question still harbors atavistic structures of male dominance and power.

But, Crow continues:
I have no damned fondness for kneelers. For people who take a knee. Who serve a master willingly. Who ply sycophantic crafts and the courtier's homage to power and might. For cops and prosecutors and mafia under bosses. For shop floor tyrants and people who vote for Democrats or Republicans, for Labor or Tory, for Christian Democrat or Revised Media Tinpot Fascist. Or, the people who work for them. Or the Democrats and Republicans, themselves.

For the bourgeoisie. For everyone and anyone who does obey, willingly. For people who choose to lose, because the alternative bears too heavy a cost. Because their dignity fails them, or they never had enough of it.
Stirring stuff. But girlene! What does this have to do with calling people "faggot" because you lost a round of an online video game? Jack explains. He is referring to:
Servants of power.

You know - faggots...
Well, no, I don't think so. For one thing, people in a hierarchy willingly embrace their position, because even if they're not at the top, they get some privilege (and reflected glory) from their patrons, and they're still above the losers below them. For another, Jack is still buying into the boy-culture fag-discourse dominance game, which also assumes that a man (or a woman) who is willingly penetrated is a 'servant of power', a punk, a whore, a bitch, a faggot. Which at best is a distraction: sexual penetrability has nothing to do with what Jack Crow is talking about, and the assumption that it does is not benign. What Jack is doing here is a more articulate, more sophisticated version of the online game-player's "faggot!" outburst -- working out his own anxieties about manhood and status by accusing others of what he fears. You gotta serve somebody, Bob Dylan sang, but you also gotta have somebody to sneer at because they're lower on the food chain than you.

Someone else commented on the post. (No permalink, but there are only six comments as I write this. Look for Charles F. Oxtrot.) First, it's all the fault of "political correctness."
Somehow America ran away from personal responsibility in the 2d half of the 20th Century --probably because personal injury litigation is a nice "driver" of profiteering for those who might not have a profitable work niche otherwise-- and the result is that we now have a babying culture, where political correctness has more evocative and persuasive power than real harm (or real threat thereof) for a great number of Americans.
Well, we all have our little agendas. As I pointed out, these games are not new; they have nothing to do with political correctness. The commenter went on:
It's a rare adult in America who hasn't had to suffer verbal insults and ego injuries at the words of another. Some of us may have known it only on rare occasions at schools or on playgrounds; others may have had a hard time escaping such attacks even in their own homes, from their own parent(s). Probably most of us fall between those ends.
Indeed, and I probably suffered less as a kid than most from fag discourse. But I was lucky.

Oxtrot went on to say:
Some subcultures in America have a group relational game that depends heavily on one's ability to creatively insult another. Lots of people call this game "The Dozens" but I've heard it called "ragging" and "jagging" as well. I'd imagine that most anyone who grew up as a part of that subculture knows how to see words as just words.
This is not a bad point; there are indeed games of ritual insults. Sometimes fag discourse is just such a game, but it is more than that: it also routinely extends to assaults on non-players. Some of us have suffered more than "ego injuries" from boy culture. But even where the abuse is only verbal, I want little and big faggots to learn self-defense so that they don't have to be helpless victims of other kids and adults. It's fun to watch the guys who just called me "faggot!" whine and complain of my meanness when I call them on their stupidity and viciousness; I think more people should have that experience.

To the extent that "faggot" and "whore" are used as metaphors for "kneelers," "those who obey," it's even more important to call out the people who use these words. The confusion of sexual receptivity with toadying and collaboration with the more powerful is itself part of the problem. I don't believe we will do anything about injustice and inequality by calling their perpetrators and collaborators by sexual insults. That just keeps the values of the system in place. Above all we must refuse to play by the fag-discourse rules, and we may hold those who do in contempt -- as long as we don't call them faggots ourselves.

P.S. Trexler also wrote, p. 109:
Various cultures have used sexual signs and gestures of subordination to express reverence toward their gods and lords. Indeed, only those ready to avoid the topic will be surprised that some corporal expressions of religious reverence, such as kneeling, bowing and prostration, remain formally close to certain sexual postures.