The dangers of purity

‘I wish’, someone said to me yesterday, ‘that people who call themselves feminists would stop telling me what I’m not allowed to say’. It turned out she’d been on Facebook, looking at feminists’ reactions to the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the 49-year-old judgment in Roe v Wade. I’d been doing the same thing on Twitter, so I knew exactly what she meant. Though the news prompted a range of responses from feminists, from learned legal analysis of the judgment to practical advice for women living in states where abortion is now a crime, one surprisingly prominent theme in posts and tweets was what words and images we should or (more often) shouldn’t be using.

One predictable bone of contention was the word ‘women’. There were many reminders to use inclusive language, bearing in mind that women weren’t the only people the judgment affected. There were also many statements of the opposite view, that inclusive language was a distraction: the judgment needed to be named for what it was, an attack, specifically, on women’s rights.  

Then there were tweets castigating the authors of other tweets for referring to supporters of the judgment as ‘pro-life’. As critics of it pointed out, that’s their own preferred term, which they worked hard to get others to use because it paints them in a positive light. It’s also, however, a lie, insofar as the only ‘life’ these people are ‘pro’ is the life of the as-yet unborn: the minute an infant leaves the womb it becomes a matter of indifference to the ‘pro-lifer’ whether it has adequate food and shelter, or whether it goes on to be killed in a school shooting, etc., etc. Their political opponents should not play into their hands by using this terminology.

Visual imagery also came under scrutiny. One much-liked and retweeted message took issue with people who were using an image of a wire coat hanger to signal their opposition to the Supreme Court judgment. The coat hanger has a long history of being used as a symbol in the struggle for reproductive rights (it was carried, for instance, at a demonstration in Washington DC in 1969): it’s a reference to the desperate methods women employed to induce abortions before abortion was legalized (as one ob-gyn who was around in those days told the LA Times, coat hangers were only one tool that was used: others included ‘knitting needles and radiator flush’). But people who had added this venerable symbol to their profiles were told off for promoting something so gruesome, stigmatising, outdated and inaccurate. Did they want women to think that the life-endangering coat hanger was their only recourse, when they could and should be using mifepristone and misoprostol? As one commentator observed, ‘a five-pack of pills may not be as striking as the coat hanger, but it’s a far safer and more accurate image to promote’. 

If this kind of thing bothers me, it’s not because I don’t think our communicative choices are a legitimate topic of discussion. I certainly have views on them: I do try to avoid ‘pro-life’ (I prefer ‘anti-abortion’), and for reasons which I’ve discussed in a previous post, I think it’s important to use the word ‘women’ in relation to attacks on reproductive rights (though I also think that in many contexts it should be ‘women and’). But while discussing the implications of your linguistic choices may be a good feminist practice (one that’s helped me clarify my thoughts on many occasions, and has sometimes changed my views more radically), ultimately I don’t think any feminist can claim the authority to tell other feminists what they’re ‘not allowed to say’.

One problem with this kind of policing is that it often owes more to the latest viral hot take than to any deep understanding of the way language and communication work. Consider, for instance, the criticism that the coat hanger image is outdated and inaccurate, and should be replaced, in the interests of accuracy and up-to-dateness, by an image of a pack of pills. This argument implies that the image makes a quasi-factual statement–something like ‘this is what people use to perform illegal abortions’. But of course, that’s not what it does: the coat hanger is a symbol, standing in for the general idea of illegal and unsafe abortion (regardless of the method used). It was chosen for that purpose because it’s gruesome. And symbols like this don’t become ‘outdated’ as times change, they just acquire new layers of meaning. In this case, the combination of the coat hanger’s gruesomeness and its association with the era before Roe vs Wade enables it to convey a point which was made by the dissenting Justices Kagan, Sotomayor and Breyer–that the Supreme Court’s decision takes us back to a less enlightened age. Today’s young women have fewer rights than their grandmothers, and will be forced to fight the same battle an earlier generation fought. The hanger can convey this complex set of meanings because of its history as a political symbol; they would not be conveyed by an image of a pack of pills.

Another problem with this genre of criticism is that it comes across as one-upping and/or talking down. The person who tells you not to use the coat hanger image because it’s ‘inaccurate’ is never saying she herself would mistake it for literal information on what to do to end a pregnancy: she’s always worried about the potential for some other, less smart or less well-informed woman to misinterpret it. She’s also implicitly claiming the moral high ground (‘I care more than you do about those less privileged than myself’)—a move I might find less annoyingly smug if I thought her concerns were justified. Of course, not all the women who might need abortion drugs will know about them (or how to get them without risking arrest): disseminating that information will be an important political task. But it can surely be done without suggesting that some women are too stupid to recognize a political symbol when they see one.  

I’ve been talking about specific examples, but what really troubles me is the strength and pervasiveness of the general phenomenon. Why, in a political emergency, did so many feminists choose to engage in self-righteous point-scoring about words and symbols? And how can this obsession with political and linguistic purity be anything but an obstacle to the concerted action an emergency demands? It’s dividing feminists when they need to stand together (and on an issue where there’s actually a high degree of unity), and deterring others from getting involved (most people are reluctant to speak up if they fear being scolded or shamed for using the wrong words). At times, scrolling through what feels like an endless stream of disapproving comments, I’ve found myself wondering what kind of political messaging (if any) some of these online critics would find acceptable, and whether they have any interest in actually winning political battles.

Too many recent feminist campaigns have been plagued by disputes about ‘problematic’ symbols, from the wearing of the pink pussy hat on women’s marches against Trump to the use of the coat hanger symbol and imagery from The Handmaid’s Tale in protests against the Supreme Court decision. Almost any symbol that ‘works’, in the sense that large numbers of people recognise it, understand it and feel a connection to it, will sooner or later be denounced for being exclusionary, or stigmatising, or appropriating someone else’s historical suffering–in short, for not being ‘pure’. But that kind of purity is an impossible dream, and the quest for it can derail our politics. Though in progressive circles it’s a truism that language matters, there are times when other things are more important.