Pressured and Told By Whom?

Whenever the passive voice begins to be overused in a piece of writing, you immediately know that some wild, completely unsupported projection is awaiting you. Look at the following paragraph, for example:

Straight women are pressured to be nice, to be polite, to give him a chance, to not make a fuss. Straight men are told that having any boundaries around physical contact with women is unmasculine, since a real man ought to want sex with every woman who wants sex with him.

Who is this mysterious being that pressures women into being polite and tells men not to have boundaries “around physical contact”, whatever that even means?

The advice I always give to my students is that whenever they use passive constructions, they should ask themselves whether they know who performs the action introduced with the passive voice. The paragraph I quoted would be a lot stronger if the author tried naming the people or the entities who do all this pressuring and telling. Of course, when the blogger I quoted does attempt to state who is performing these undesirable actions, s/he falls into yet another trap: a useless, uninspiring generalization:

Western culture encourages people of both typically male and typically female socialization to not firmly enforce their boundaries.

This statement sounds like “Western culture” is some magical creature that floats above men and women telling them what to do and encouraging them “to not firmly enforce.” I’m deducing from this statement that, in this author’s eyes, there must be Eastern, Southern or Northern cultures that do encourage its men and women “to firmly enforce.” It would be nice to hear about them because I don’t think I ever heard of their existence and their profound respect for boundaries.

Again, “typically male” and “typically female” socialization differ widely between, for example, my country and the US. They differ so much as to be almost exact opposites. Does this mean that my people are suddenly excluded from belonging to the Western civilization?

Nothing bores me more than hearing all these vapid generalizations about how “society”, “our culture”, “the Western civilization”, etc. make us do all kinds of things. As if society and culture somehow existed outside of us. The appropriation of “Western” as something exclusively English-speaking is also quite annoying.

And yes, I’m in a crabby mood today.

3 thoughts on “Pressured and Told By Whom?

  1. “Western society” has no meaning at all in academia. It’s like a terrorist cadre that keeps disbanding and regrouping according to the needs of power and powerful rhetorical thinkers.

    “Western civilization” is everywhere and simultaneously nowhere. Somehow, there are social forces, but no individual is positioned to know exactly where these boundaries are: where do they begin and where do they stop? Narrow the term a little and talk about specific nations and the problem remains the same. Where does the USA stop? It certainly seems not to have stopped at its national boundaries so far as economic and cultural influences are concerned. Go to Zimbabwe and you will see how the British colonial influence of yesteryear has been largely replaced by attitudes from the American deep south — the result of decades of work by American evangelicals.

    The nature and meaning of “western civilization” is an unsolvable epistemological problem, at least from the point of view of the use of this term by people who do not have the time to make independent and exacting intellectual analyses. And for those who do, even the intellectuals will disagree.

    When the layperson invokes the term, “Western civilization”, they seem to be referring to the fact that the feel that there is something coercive and generally out there in the world that is oppressing them. To give a name to an objective force of coercion seems like the first step in freeing oneself from the actual oppression one feels.


  2. On pressure to “give him a chance,” etc., it’s what mothers tell daughters about dating. The desire is to get the girl partnered up and she is supposed to see boys and men as possible partners, not reject what might turn out to be a good deal, etc. This is in a lot of advice books and so on, too … don’t choose people on gut feeling, look for the “diamond in the rough,” ignore your own reactions, and most importantly, be a good hostess.


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