Society Must Be Defended #readin

When I saw Paige West and J.C. Salyer’s call to mark January 20th with a read-in of lecture eleven of Michel Foucault’s Society Must Be Defended, I was excited to re-read the lecture in light of the right-wing ascendancy in U.S. politics. As West and Salyer note, this lecture in particular is a useful text now because “it demands we simultaneously consider the interplay of sovereign power, discipline, biopolitics, and concepts of security, and race.” I did my reading a little bit early, because I knew that I’d be busy on Friday, as a series of direct actions were being planned to disrupt the inaugural proceedings (and we were largely successful). This post is partially about Foucault and the read-in, and partially an initial foray into thinking through Friday’s events. More to come, I’m sure.

Foucault’s lecture is critical because of its close attention to biopolitics and sovereignty, something crucial to a number of the issues represented at the direct actions on Friday. As West and Salyer noted, this is a time when “the reaction to activism against persistent racism has been to more overtly perpetuate racism as political discourse, [and] we need to remember and re-think the role of racism as central to, rather than incidental to, the political and economic activities of the state.” Same with sexism, same with xenophobia, same with homophobia, same with Islamophobia. Many of these ideologies are part of the American state in general, of course, but they are all crucial and central building blocks of the current administration’s claim to power. Losing the popular vote by millions, Trump has no real mandate to govern. The only mandate he can lay claim to is a voting bloc built around white supremacists, misogynists, and nativists.

“Sexuality,” Foucault states, “exists at the point where body and population meet. And so it is a matter for discipline, but also a matter for regularization” (251-252). The rise of biopolitics and biopower brought about a new set of technologies that measured and quantified the population that needed to be regulated, in addition to marking the body that needed to be disciplined. Efforts to measure, maintain, and control reproduction and fertility were at the center of this in the late eighteenth century, and continue today as the struggle over the bodily autonomy of women is unfinished.

An important point that Foucault highlights, though, is how “the emergence of this biopower… inscribes [race] in the mechanism of the State. It is at this moment that racism is inscribed as the basic mechanism of power, as it is exercised in modern States” (254). This has roots in settler colonialism and the slave trade, and racism continues to be tied to the state now. The racial logic of biopower leads the state to wage war not against a political enemy but against a racial Other. “From this point on, war is about two things: it is not simply a matter of destroying a political adversary, but of destroying the enemy race, of destroying that [sort] of biological threat that those people over there represent to our race” (257), i.e. for white supremacists, not a war on terrorist organizations in specific locales but a war against Muslims everywhere, not an effort to reform immigration policies but a war to prevent particular races from entering this country, not a war on crime but a criminalizing of black life.

Reading this lecture before #j20, it became readily apparent that the commonalities between the various groups offended, affected, targeted, and attacked by Trump and his supporters lie in the biopolitical. In the first days of Trump’s administration, it is clear just how right those fears are. He has appointed white supremacists to senior government posts, including Customs and Border Protection. He has signed an executive order restricting abortion access that has serious impacts for women’s reproductive rights and health globally, and which promises to actually increase the number of unsafe abortions, in an effort to exert control over women’s bodies. He approved both the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines (which he has stock in), while simultaneously instituting a blackout at the EPA and other agencies. His senior appointments promise to destroy our planet, eviscerate labor, and punish the press for holding his government accountable.


These four people were at the center of a blockade of one of the entrances to the Trump inaugural parade. The Future is Feminist blockade lasted six and a half hours and was just one of over a dozen actions on Friday, January 20th.

On the day of his inauguration, we saw a coalition of activists stand in the way of Trump’s rule. Every single issue-based group involved had good reason to resist a Trump presidency. Women’s rights, black rights, indigenous rights, Muslim rights, and labor rights have been under attack from before the beginning. Climate, anti-war, and anti-police activists have been under attack as well. Certain forms of protest are being made illegal, meaning mobilization against the government will become more difficult. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about Friday, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say as we move into (and push against) this new government. But for now, the key takeaway is that all of these groups and more came together Friday to ensure that there is no smooth transition to an authoritarian regime, to show a refusal to acquiesce, to be ungovernable, to defend society with their bodies and their voices.

Let’s Stop Telling Women How to Speak

Apparently there’s a new Chrome extension that will cut out words and phrases like “just” and “sorry” from e-mails. The app is aimed at women and is being marketed as a New Year’s resolution to help them stop using gendered words that temper their assertiveness. It’s the textual version of leaning in, I guess. From the article linked above:

The Just Not Sorry extension, which is downloadable at the Chrome app store, underlines self-demeaning phrases like “I’m no expert” and qualifying words like “actually” in red in Gmail like they’re spelling errors. Hover your mouse over the red words, and you’ll see explanatory quotes from women like Tara Mohr (“‘Just’ demeans what you have to say. ‘Just’ shrinks your power.”) and Sylvia Ann Hewlett(“Using sorry frequently undermines your gravitas and makes you appear unfit for leadership.”).

I’m all for an extension that links us to some cool quotes or whatever, but an app that tut-tuts people for using language that is labeled as “female” and therefore demeaning is, uh, problematic. I don’t think we need someone to tell us that using “sorry” makes someone unfit for leadership – maybe I want to sound empathetic. (Also, side-note that I’m totally aware that I’m a guy and this is totally different from my point of view, I promise).

Telling women to stop using qualifying words like “just” or “actually” is a coded way to telling women to talk more like men. Hidden under all that less-assertive-language policing is the misogynistic structure of, you know, everything.

This app is just another one of the ways in which women’s behaviors are deemed problematic. The impulse to tell women to stop using uptalk, for example, “implies that if women just spoke like men, our ideas would be valuable. If women just spoke like men, sexist listeners would magically understand us, and we would be taken seriously. But the problem is not with feminized qualities, of speech or otherwise, the problem is that our culture pathologizes feminine traits as something to be ashamed of or apologize for.

Uptalk and vocal fry, along with other speech patterns, get associated with women (and are subsequently denigrated). When it comes to whether or not we encourage women to change their speech, we become complicit in supporting a system that says to be successful is to behave according to a specific set of gendered ideals. This is just the sexism of our society manifested in a feminism self-help book whose goal is to act more like men. What we should be doing is carving out spaces where different language and speech patterns are all accepted in a more inclusive society that doesn’t try to mold people’s speech to a norm.

Here’s a brilliant quote from Debbie Cameron (who has also previously written about qualifying language and gender) on the new app:

Apart from being based on naïve and simplistic ideas about how language works, the other big problem with the ‘women, stop undermining yourselves’ approach is that it presupposes a deficit model of women’s language-use. If women use the word ‘sorry’ more than men (and by the way, that’s a genuine ‘if’: I’m not aware of any compelling evidence they do), that can only mean that women are over-using ‘sorry’, apologizing when it isn’t necessary or appropriate. The alternative interpretation—that men are under-using ‘sorry’ because they don’t always apologise when the circumstances demand it —is surely no less logical or plausible, but somehow it never comes up. As I said back in the summer, the assumption is always that ‘a woman’s place is in the wrong’.

And if we expand our scope a little bit, her point on arguing the alternative is really important. The extension is based on the huge assumption that qualifying or deferential language is somehow a bad thing, even though it has many uses. As mentioned above, I use this qualifying language a lot, and I know it might “seem less assertive” or whatever, but I am aiming to be more inclusive, more empathetic, less of a douchebag.

This is why I really liked this article by Adam Gopnik on “The Conscientiousness of Kidspeak,” in which researchers found that teens’ use of “like” or “you know” or “um” is actually a sign that the speaker is more thoughtful and considerate of the listener and is trying to convey additional meaning beyond the words in between. Instead of telling young girls to cut out these markers, we should try listening to them. The assumption is that teens and the internet are ruining the language when maybe they’re making it better.

The point is, we shouldn’t be telling women to speak more like men – that won’t lead to any change. But if we can create spaces where women can talk like women and not be chastised for it, we can hope for an entire society that is more equal and in which women can just be accepted regardless of how they act. Why say “sorry” less when we could just empathize with people more? Why lean in at the boardroom when we could ask everyone else at the table to lean back a little and include those who don’t have a seat? Why tell women to change the way they speak when we could just actually listen?