Coates Responds to Mourdock’s Remarks

Ta-Nehisi Coates reposted a piece he wrote two years ago in light of the comments Senate candidate Richard Mourdock made about pregnancy.  I really recommend checking it out.  I don’t know what Coates would think of the following comparison, but he and W. E. B. Du Bois make up the entirety of a an obviously very short list of writers who are men and whose writings on women I’ve found to be down right enlightening.


In regards to Du Bois, what specifically comes to mind is his chapter “The Damnation of Women” in Darkwater.  (Chapter starts on page 110.)

Only at the sacrifice of intelligence and the chance to do their best work can the majority of modern women bear children. This is the damnation of women. All womanhood is hampered today because the world on which it is emerging is a world that tries to worship both virgins and mothers and in the end despises motherhood and despoils virgins.  The future woman must have a life work and economic independence. She must have knowledge. She must have the right of motherhood at her own discretion.

That was written in 1920.

6 thoughts on “Coates Responds to Mourdock’s Remarks

  1. I would be interested in hearing your take on John Scalzi with regard to ‘down right enlightening’. ( In particular, if you search the site for ‘sexism’, both the ‘speaker for the geeks’ post and the ‘lowest difficulty setting’ post were, I thought, right on the money.

  2. It’s funny you should mention the “lowest difficulty setting” piece. I had a *lot* to say about it when it first came out. The gaming world has lots of metaphors ripe for the picking when it comes to oppression-related phenomena. I thought the difficulty setting bit is a great start, but unfortunately implies something of an all-or-nothing essentialism. (For the metaphor to work, your difficulty setting gets picked before you enter the game and then you’re locked into it.) Having come off a three year WoW Binge when this originally came out, I thought some of the mechanics in that game had a better match to mechanisms of oppression and privilege. For instance, some MMOs have pieces of powerful equipment that your high level character pass off to your low level ones, and I thought that could be twisted into a spectacular metaphor for how privilege gets passed on through the generations. (There’s not many gaming nerds on here, so I’ll forego the details.) But I also understand that the difficulty setting thing is more concise and pithier.

    His Geek piece seems funny (I just skimmed over it) but also kinda weird that he’s invoking hierarchy in order to give himself authority when he tears it down. I do very much appreciate this line though, “When a geek sees someone else grooving on the thing they love, their reaction is to say “ZOMG YOU LOVE WHAT I LOVE COME WITH ME AND LET US LOVE IT TOGETHER.”

    Overall, Scalzi seems like a cool dude, but he’s not telling me anything I don’t already know about myself. So that’s how I would measure him up against the “down right enlightening” category.

  3. Cool. I’m not qualified to judge what women know, and it is good to get a perspective on the difference between what Scalzi is saying and what TNC is saying. I read them both and think, roughly, ‘yes’.


    (Also: “I’m not qualified to judge…” sounds awkward to me on re-reading this, but I am unsure how to improve on it. I just mean that I don’t want to assume anything about the way in which women, jointly or severally, approach these things, or understand their own positions vis-à-vis them.)

    Regarding the difficulty setting metaphor: “For the metaphor to work, your difficulty setting gets picked before you enter the game and then you’re locked into it.” – Isn’t that actually how it works, outside of some few trans-options (which come with their own difficulties?). Or is your concern something like that we ought to endeavour to change the difficulty settings? (If so, I think the two issues can be usefully separated: It is in fact the case that women have things harder in various measurable ways. This is ‘locked in’ for all presently living women because of how things are now (and even if we change things, the past difficulty will bleed into the future…). It is not necessarily locked in for even relatively-soon-to-be-born women, and we should really try to change things)

  4. For the difficulty setting, my worry is this: Having your setting locked in before you have even entered the game world implies that there is something innate about you (biologically, metaphysically) that will make your life hard or easy no matter what your life ends up being. But that’s not how kyriarchy always works–it can shift around from place to place. Yes we take biological things (skin color, body types, etc) to represent these stations of race/gender/class/etc, but our lives can take on different tenors based on where we drop into the world. Someone with the same genetics could have a different difficulty setting if they were born in country X as opposed to country Y. Or neighborhood Z as opposed to neighborhood W. And that’s obscured when we say “you’re on the difficulty setting for straight white man” because it’s hard to see how that ‘fact’ about you would change whether you were in one place or another.

    [For another gaming analogy we could compare the Daelish elves and the city elves in DAO. Same elf, same genes, but different difficulty setting based on where they’re dropped into the world. There is racism against the Daelish, and it even defines a lot of their culture–but they just have different material circumstances from the city elves. For instance, they have ways to protect themselves against sexual assault from humans that the city elves are denied because of their social and political status.]

    So while in a sense you can get ‘locked’ into privilege/oppression–it’s based on ‘where’ you drop into the world (geographically/culturally) as much as your starting features. And you can move between places and cultures in your life that can ‘change your difficulty setting.’ (I read a really interesting piece some years ago about African American ex-patriots in Paris. People said things like, “my race just doesn’t mean the same thing here.’) But a lot of this nuance is lost when we think about a difficulty setting that is set at the start of the game.

  5. To follow the tangent here — to me the problem with the “lowest difficulty setting” concept is that it’s telling people their lives are “low difficulty” in a rather indiscriminate way. But this is only a statistical truth. Thus it provokes the ire of those straight white men who feel — whether correctly or not — that their lives have been quite difficult, after all. It evokes the reaction, “You don’t know me! So presumptuous!” And in many cases this reaction will be eminently justified. (Some straight white males have no legs!)

    On a logical level, the separation of race, gender, sexuality into “difficulty setting” and wealth into “dump stats” (I don’t know what that term means, but it’s separated) is arbitrary and unjustified. Based on his follow-ups, the author actually seems naive about class: apparently he thinks that anybody can fit into any social class, if only they have the income (and, presumably, the clothes). Unfortunately, the reality is that the boarding school crowd can make us for who we are just from how we talk. And you’re not even going to make it in the upper middle class suburbs if you’ve got bad teeth and say “ax” for “ask.”

    Our current President, for example, picked up his dialect in a private prep school that costs $18k per year. He went to Harvard for a graduate degree, like his father before him. His mother had a PhD and worked as an executive in international organizations. He is a straight black man with substantially more privilege than the vast majority of straight white men. Barack Obama is of “the 1%,” not only in terms of income, but in terms of his entire psycho-social-cognitive developmental history. That is why he was able to become President.

    Yet according to the arbitrary separation of the “difficulty level” from “dump stats,” white men born into circumstances that make entrance into the world elite (let alone the Presidency of the United States) impossibly out of reach — from birth — are supposed to consider themselves to be “playing at a lower difficulty level” than our President.

    Since this is patently not the case, there will not be enlightenment, but only backlash.

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