Monday, July 23, 2012

This guest post, by Megan Dean, a masters student in Philosophy at the University of Alberta, reminds us that not all subjects move through the world in the same ways, nor are all technologies and practices "selfish" in the same ways. It reminds us as well that interpersonal interactions can be asymmetrical in ways that are scary. This is a useful reminder.

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At this year's meeting for the society for Existential and Phenomenological Theory and Culture, I attended a thought-provoking panel entitled "How Big is the Body?" Tracy Nicholls' contribution contrasted the disparate experiences of listening to music with others—described in rich and vibrant language as the expansion of the body through space—and listening to an iPod—characterized as an isolating experience that effectively limits the body, foreclosing possibilities for community by buffering the earbudded individual from others' “big bodies” which otherwise might “bump into” her. I was drawn to Nicholls' description of communal musical experience, to the feeling of being thrown out of oneself by music. At the same time, I was troubled by her description of the ipod as a technology that entails selfish or even rude disengagement from others.

I always carry an iPod. The central reason for this is not to provide a soundtrack to my day, but to lessen the personal impact of sexual harassment. Appearing as if I can't hear anything isn't always effective in preventing harassers from calling out or making comments, but at least I can pretend I didn't hear them when they do.

Two days prior to Nicholl's talk I had been sexually harassed while in the line-up for conference registration. The incident had left me flustered and upset, and I had spent the rest of that day alone in my room, wanting to avoid running into the harasser again or having to explain my emotional state to colleagues. The harasser's “big body” was one that I'd have been better off having never bumped into. 

Thinking through Nicholl's paper in light of this incident, I suggest that disengagement via iPod should not be dismissed as a selfish, community-degrading practice; while it sounds counterintuitive, I think self-imposed isolation deserves consideration as a useful strategy for building moral communities, or at least for supporting the sorts of persons who can engage in that work.

Some level of personal fortitude is important for political engagement, especially where one's politics is a fundamentally critical one. Such a politics suggests that one will be regularly disgusted, frustrated, and outraged by the everyday behaviour of institutions and individuals. Dissatisfaction, anger, and frustration generated by such encounters can be productive and motivate people to become politically active. It can also be dis-enabling and self-destructive. I draw strength from feminist colleagues and friends, whose support helps me withstand “bumping into” the bodies of “normal” individuals—normal meaning sexist, racist, ableist, and speciesist—without devolving into rigid bitterness, apathy, or ressentiment. Even with this support, the harassment left me upset and frustrated. The fact is that most of us are more than aware that sexual harassment exists and calls for a response. Being harassed one more time did little to enhance my appreciation of this. What it did do is undermine my confidence and lead me to withdraw from an important professional event. Having an option to strategically avoid, however imperfectly, situations like this one merits consideration as a tool for preserving personal well-being and avoiding some of the very real negative individual consequences of sexual harassment.

So while I am sympathetic to the imperative to open ourselves to others in the interest of building better, more equitable and just communities, and I am certain that in many cases, we should confront what (or who) is problematic face to face, we should consider the political and personal value of occasionally sticking the earbuds in and tuning those big, “normal” and unfortunately sexist bodies out.

Megan Dean

3 comments:

  1. Social media, with its insistence on keeping one’s face in public, and sharing one’s thoughts and activities with the world at large, has been very effective as it questions, and attempts to erase, the very idea of personal privacy or personal space in any context. Our only possible response is to actively and explicitly reclaim our privacy and our personal space. If that means an iPod and earbuds, so be it.

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  2. Thank you Megan, for this excellent post. I have to have my ipod with me to manage anxiety, especially as it relates to the potential for street harassment. If I have my ipod with me and my ear buds in not only can I pretend not to hear what is said to me, but the fact that I am engaged elsewhere tends to deter people from attempting to speak to me. I also really appreciate the need to disengage and find personal spaces for ourselves even in academic contexts. Sometimes it is better to retreat into that space than to confront sexist or otherwise bigoted people and situations head on. It is a lesson I have learned recently, and hope to put into practice when need be. Thanks again! :) And I am sorry your conference experience was made unpleasant by another person. I know how terrible that can be :(

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  3. I've been thinking about this post. I have to have my iPod with me, too, to minimize street harassment as well. Also, I have a public-services job which requires having a professional demeanor which says "approach me!" which I am not always good at turning off. It is a daily struggle for me to maintain personal/intellectual boundaries at this job, and truly, I do need to be able to retreat into private, personal space.

    Relatedly I think, the recent "legitimate rape" mess has caused me to pull back from social media, especially Twitter, a bit because it has been so saturating and so triggering. The other day a colleague said that she thought retreating from it too easily became the equivalent of pretending it wasn't there. To me, the all-too-there-ness of it necessitates some kind of retreat, as a form of self-care--I just can't expose myself to certain kinds of things for long periods of time without it wearing on me in ways that I don't think serve any larger purpose.

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