Best moment of the academic year

by Harry on August 19, 2019

I invite other teachers or students to submit their own best moment of the academic year past. Mine was this.

A small class—just 17 students. They had read Amia Srinivasan’s “Does anyone have the right to sex?”. Some of them hated it, because they thought (wrongly) that it expressed sympathy with incels. Others were more intrigued. During the discussion I made reference, as she does, to political lesbians, and as I was saying the word it occurred to me that they might not know what it meant. So I asked them what it meant. The blank faces indicated that none of them had looked it up, which I pointed out (I knew they’d all read the piece). So I asked them to guess, and several made wild guesses. The one who got closest was very uneasy in saying it, I think because he worried that he was being politically incorrect. I finally told them what it meant. Several of them looked concerned, wondering what they ought to think about this. A few knew that I am perfectly capable of making things up to bamboozle them. After an interminable 2 seconds of silence, though, one young woman hit the table, and cried, very loudly: “That’s AWESOME! Good for THEM!”. Her face had that look that a baby’s face gets when it has its first taste of chocolate.

{ 25 comments }

1

EB 08.19.19 at 1:38 pm

OK, I’ll bite. What IS a political lesbian?

2

Matt McKeon 08.19.19 at 1:46 pm

I teach in a program for high school students who have social and emotional disabilities. I was doing a production of Macbeth. I saw the young woman playing Lady MacBeth watching Judi Dench wail her guilt on youtube. “I can’t do that.” she told me. “You’ll do what’s right for you.” I replied hearing how inane I sounded.

During the performance, she was stunning. “You were killer,” I said after the performance, “how’d you do that?”

“I let her go inside me, then I walked around being her.”

3

kingless 08.19.19 at 2:53 pm

My years aren’t academic nowadays but I sure enjoyed reading Srinivasan’s essay and the subsequent exchange with Solnit. Thanks.

4

jackjohnson 08.19.19 at 2:58 pm

May I put in a plug for the work of Joanna Russ — in particular, for
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Female_Man

5

Chris Bertram 08.19.19 at 4:13 pm

In the weird, but not very wonderful, world of the British sectarian left, many were there strategies employed to persuade naive young recruits that it was somehow their moral or political duty to go bed with more experienced cadre who they wouldn’t normally have considered. If anecdotes from some women friends are to believed, PL was often, though not always, a kind of niche variant.

6

marcel proust 08.19.19 at 5:21 pm

I sort of understand CB’s tale, but:

(a) not really (“many were there”?)
(b) is this comment in the correct thread? Perhaps because I don’t understand the comment, it seems to have nothing to do with either “best moment of the year” or any prior comment.
(c) PL =? progressive labor?

7

Harry 08.19.19 at 5:53 pm

Aha! I knew someone would be puzzled. PL = Progressive Labor (Maoists) in the US. But CB is wholly unaware of that, and is referring to political lesbianism.

8

Chris Bertram 08.19.19 at 6:13 pm

I was aware (wasn’t Roemer involved with them?), but thought it was clear from the context of the OP.

9

J-D 08.19.19 at 9:27 pm

EB

The blank faces indicated that none of them had looked it up

Chris Bertram

I … thought it was clear from the context of the OP.

It was to me, if that’s any help.

10

Harry 08.19.19 at 9:29 pm

And Hilary Putnam. And many more.
I had to read your comment 4 times before realising what PL stood for, so ingrained in my head is the association of PL with Progressive Labor. Its almost like someone using SWP to mean something other than the SWP.

11

Harry 08.19.19 at 9:30 pm

“many were there” = “many were the”

12

J-D 08.19.19 at 10:07 pm

I invite other teachers or students to submit their own best moment of the academic year past.

How boreocentric of you.

13

Kiwanda 08.20.19 at 12:30 am

A reasonable article, but both Srinivasan and Solnit get a little too close for comfort to “Sexual preferences should always be respected, and are not malleable, but maybe they should be pushed a bit, as long as it’s in directions we approve of”. In that way lies “political lesbians”, and the sentiment that lesbians who aren’t interested in sex with transwomen are transphobic bigoted terfs, and the feeling that fat unattractive women who can’t get laid are worthy of sympathy, but unattractive shy men who can’t are contemptible (or *must* have attitudes that make them unworthy of sympathy). But this area seems distinctive in the degree to which empathy is difficult or restricted: the loneliness and despair of the sexually frustrated is all too often beyond the interest or comprehension of people (some of them here) who apparently are the objects of endless unwanted sexual attention. And vice versa.

14

sumdepony 08.20.19 at 12:59 am

I found “Does anyone have the right to sex?” quite touching, thoughtfully argued, if anything perhaps a little too apologetic for its more controversial questions and theses. To me the fact that anyone could read it as Incel apologism suggests that maybe there really is something to the claim that people these days are getting worse at handling political nuance.

In discussions I’ve seen about this in the past there’s a conflation between a critique of the political roots of desire, and individual responsibility for changing one’s desires.

15

Alison Page 08.20.19 at 6:41 am

This was my experience of feminism in the eighties. It is a key feature of radical separatism. We didn’t really call it PL though, at least the people I knew didn’t.

I would disagree with Chris – I don’t think people were pressured to have relationships with leaders (as might happen in male-centred groups). But one was perhaps criticised for being heterosexual. For example some activists would refuse to work with heterosexual women, or even speak with them in the room. I sometimes felt that more hostility was extended to other women than to men.

It’s very hard to talk about this, because despite this criticism I did (and do still) think that a lot of good was done, and perhaps it takes a person with a very focused will to achieve that. For example I believe radical activists of the 1980s were ultimately responsible for the legislation to make the rape of married women illegal in the early 1990s. That had massive benefits for women in the UK. But at the same time I think the people who achieved this were quite difficult to be around. Perhaps this is always the case.

And also people didn’t, once you get to know them, follow their own rules. Even the ones who were most harsh to others for breaking the rules.

Gosh, this is getting rather long-winded. I also thought that some of the hostile energy came from an unexamined internalised misogyny, directed at ‘incorrect’ female sexual expression. They just used a slightly different definition of ‘incorrect’ from mainstream culture. I don’t blame individuals for having internalised misogyny, I think we all struggle with what was dumped on us by our culture.

16

Gareth Wilson 08.20.19 at 7:59 am

Do we have to bake cakes for the political lesbian weddings?

17

Harry 08.20.19 at 12:35 pm

Alison.

I don’t think Chris was referring to feminist groups, but to far left groups in which some people used something resembling political lesbianism for their own ends. I heard similar testimony, but never from women in or around women’s groups, only around Trotskyists and (more often) Maoists).

That aside: thanks for writing that. That all sounds exactly right to me, although presumably, as a man, my experience of the more radical elements of feminism in the 70s and 80s was quite different from yours. Its not just the legislative reforms, but changes in the way that police officers approach rape (and, relatedly, changes in the openness to women of careers in the police services), changes in the legal and cultural norms around domestic violence, improved support for victims of sexual assault and violence, including the dramatically improved willingness to talk about it. Its not that things are great, but that however things have improved I think we owe a tremendous amount to the radical feminists who were so widely ridiculed and often reviled at the time.

I share sumdepony’s reaction to the piece – I was electrified when I read it, for the combination of careful thoughtful argument and humaneness (much philosophy is perfectly humane, but rarely strikingly so).

18

Neel Krishnaswami 08.20.19 at 2:13 pm

Alison Page wrote:

. But at the same time I think the people who achieved this were quite difficult to be around. Perhaps this is always the case.

I don’t think it’s always the case, but it’s often the case. Many — perhaps even a majority — of the most morally admirable people I know strike me as pretty clearly autistic. It’s sort of like their difficulty understanding social cues meant they never realised that people actually expect one another to be hypocrites about ethics. People who struggle noticing social cues are indeed often terribly difficult to be around, but at the same time I often felt criticism of them often devolved into cheap shots at their weirdness, rather than any real engagement with their ethical positions.

Anyway, even though you’re talking about an entirely different group of people in an entirely different time, the ambivalence you write about feels very familiar to me, as does the difficulty of talking or writing about things like this. So I’m grateful to you for writing your comment — as you said, it is very hard to talk about, so thank you for the effort of putting it into words.

19

James Wimberley 08.20.19 at 7:07 pm

Gareth Wilson: yes, we have to bake the wedding cakes, but they are all pièces montées with the choux pastry balls decorated as crunchy little heads of despised heterosexual men and traitor women. Isn’t there a pastry shop in Paris called Daumier?

20

Gareth Wilson 08.21.19 at 12:11 am

Damn it, I thought political lesbians would be against marriage and we’d avoid that whole issue. Ah well, I’ll go get the piping bag…

21

Matt 08.21.19 at 1:57 am

I thought political lesbians would be against marriage and we’d avoid that whole issue.

at least some where

(I’m not actually 100% sure if Card would have called herself a “political lesbian” or not, but she was at least w/in the generation where this was a big issue, and was involved with many people who would have taken up the name proudly.)

22

Moz of Yarramulla 08.22.19 at 5:04 am

This was part of why I enjoyed studying the more political/philosophical side of feminism and philosophical sociology more generally. Thinking about why we do what we do, and why we should do it differentlky is fun. But also, autism spectrum stuff does lead to a lot of mutual incomprehension, even in those more academic contexts. At least in part because people are so reluctant to say “this is all just fictional world-building and no-one would ever actually do it”. For those of us who took it as the actual literal study of ethics, law etc it was quite shocking to find that out.

I have also got into some really weird situations by being quite willing to talk about stuff like sexual ethics, because apparently many people only do that with people they actually want to have sex with. I am often totally blind to that kind of meta-level of a discussion.

If you want a real going-over, ask me about my opinion of the “legal system” and why I find claims that a “justice system” exists offensive.

23

Moz of Yarramulla 08.22.19 at 5:27 am

But, to the original question: I’m not in academia any more, but interact with that world at times.

My academic fun in the last year or so has mostly been with the notion that “ignorance of the law is no excuse”, and trying to get various experts to explain even conceptually how that could work. Firstly, sheer volume, and volume of changes. Most countries statue law is *enormous* and we’re supposed to know all of it? Then there’s case law, and de facto law as well. More directly, it’s not the broad strokes “killing people is sometimes wrong”* stuff, it’s “failing to act in compliance with the result of Smith vs State of Bologna 1973 when transacting with an entity indirectly covered by the Vagrancy Act 1742” sort of nonsense. Also, the existence of courts of appeal directly contradicts the theory that even highly trained legal experts like judges are never ignorant of the law. Then we get into speed limit signs which are obviously unnecessary since no-one is ignorant of the law as it applies to speed restrictions on the road they are driving on!

On the occasions when I’ve got someone to take the question seriously it has been quite fun because it’s such a simple, obvious, even axiomatic part of the legal system, but it’s got all these glaring problems. The final answer is, as always, “the state will use violence against you if you don’t obey”. Which is another one of those “normal people don’t like to say it” things.

https://law.stackexchange.com/questions/32/when-is-ignorance-a-legal-defense

* murder, or unlawful killing is unlawful**, obviously, but killing in self-defense is sometimes ok, killing when instructed by the state is generally lawful, and so on.
** yes, that commandment in the Abrahamic book is tautological, both in the original and in the later translations (offer available only to eligible customers)

24

Sophie Jane 08.22.19 at 8:13 am

@Alison Page It’s very hard to talk about this, because despite this criticism I did (and do still) think that a lot of good was done, and perhaps it takes a person with a very focused will to achieve that… But at the same time I think the people who achieved this were quite difficult to be around. Perhaps this is always the case.

The benefits were real, but that generation of radical separatists and the liberal feminists they influenced are also driving the current wave of transphobia in the British press and academia. So, like you, my feelings are distinctly mixed.

25

J-D 08.24.19 at 10:02 am

Moz of Yarramulla

murder, or unlawful killing is unlawful**, obviously, but killing in self-defense is sometimes ok, killing when instructed by the state is generally lawful, and so on.
** yes, that commandment in the Abrahamic book is tautological, both in the original and in the later translations

Some statements are tautological, but a commandment, by definition, is not a statement. ‘The open door is open’ is tautological, but ‘Open the door!’ can’t be tautological, even if it turns out that the door in question is already open. Likewise, ‘Unlawful killing is unlawful’ is tautological, but ‘Do no unlawful killings’ can’t be.

Also, the principle that ignorance of the law is no excuse doesn’t mean that people are required or expected or assumed to know the law: it means only that the way the law treats you is independent of whether you know the law: and it has to be that way, or the law wouldn’t work. Consider this example: under common law, it was not a crime for a husband to force his wife to have sex with him. This rule was amended by statute so that a husband forcing his wife to have sex with him counted as the same crime as anybody forcing anybody to have sex. Now, suppose that after that statutory amendment came into effect a husband was prosecuted for raping his wife and pleaded in his defence that he wasn’t aware of the change in the law. If that plea were accepted, the purpose of amending the law would be largely defeated. The case has to proceed on the basis, not that the defendant is assumed to know the law, but that it makes no difference whether the defendant knows the law. The law can’t operate on a different basis. Otherwise you’d have a law that, for example, perjury is a crime for people who know that it’s a crime. As a practical matter, that makes no sense.

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