A Civil Debate

Posted: October 25, 2011

I have a friend in facebook. Lets call him Tintin. I have these loooooooooooong debates with Tintin on status messages. I put down status messages on women’s issues and he, pretty much disagrees. It is obvious. We have different world views, especially when it comes to gender issues. Needless to say, he makes fun of my “feminism” and sometimes makes teasing comments on my “associations”. Many a time, our debate ends with Tintin upholding the views of the society of which we are a part of. I disagree stating that the conventional societal view needs to be questioned.  We part, agreeing to disagree or me complaining that I want to sleep. Why am I talking about Tintin here?

I am thankful to Tintin. And I am not being sarcastic. I am genuinely thankful. For demonstrating to me, how to be civil in a debate.

Tintin may voice views, I might term as patriarchal but I never find them condescending. There has not been an instance when he makes comments that are cheap or in which he personally attacks me. I guess, I might have attacked him personally or even made fun of his “conventional” views. Yes. I have played it dirty when I felt the heat. But not once have I seen him do that. How I wish I could debate like that!




This post is inspired by one of the posts in Women’s Web. I noticed a comment which said that the author was just ranting and that there was nothing extra ordinary about the post.

I wonder, why are we mean in debates? Why do we have to make the other person feel bad in order to make a point? How difficult is is to be civil in a debate?

Masculinity in debates 

I am often criticized for simplifying masculinity and femininity. I understand that it would be intellectually dishonest for me to generalize that all men display their masculinity obnoxiously and women, their femininity.

But, have you noticed that discussion forums are usually male spaces? Intellectual prowess is often demonstrated through a show of power. The more vocal a person is, the louder he is, angrier he can get, the tougher he can talk, he is good and “wins” the debate. If the essence of your point is about how much “more” you know than the other person, the better. “How big am I?” or “How small you are?” is an important part of the male conversation especially in an intellectual debate. That’s a show of masculinity – reminds me of the old one. The show of power.

How does the power game play out in an intellectual debate?

This is often done by making the other person defensive. Clearly demonstrated by the example stated above. In an intellectual world, there is nothing which can hurt more than the statement “you don’t know enough, missy.”  Frankly, I had not seen such comments in Women’s Web before, that it felt out of place to see it.

Then the breed of comments that I hate the most. Mostly on posts of gender issues. I am not talking about the bitterly chauvinistic comments. I hate them too. But here,  I am talking about the ones on the other side of the bridge.

I believe, feminism is for many of us, a personal issue. Many of us are grappling with the idea. This is not a “cause” that we facebook about. It’s about us, our life.

Am I feminist enough, if I change my name after marriage?

Am I feminist enough if I stayed in marriage with a husband who makes chauvinistic statements but still loves me? Before I forget, I love him too.

Am I feminist enough if I did a little more housework than my husband?

Am I feminist enough if I made compromises on my career to accommodate my husband’s career?

Am I feminist enough if I did not react to the a##&*#$ who eve teased the girl traveling with me? I was afraid. Is that wrong?

Am I feminist enough if I did not complain to the police station when I was groped last time in the public bus?

Am I feminist enough if I don’t enter the puja room or touch the gods during my periods, to appease my mother?

If I voice these dilemmas out, am I less of a feminist?

I have had friends, who have read extensively on gender and feminism, believed firmly in women’s rights but who felt that their choices in their marital lives were not always straightforward. It never is. Being a feminist is never an easy choice. You have dilemmas at every point of your life. I, therefore believe that being a feminist is an evolution. I am aware that I have deeply entrenched gender biases. I cannot escape that. After all, I was socialized in a patriarchal society. I also have patriarchy in me, like many other women out there. But I am also a feminist. An evolving feminist.

Therefore, I appreciate writers who post about their dilemmas. I love commenters who do that as well. It reminds me of these conversations that I have with my female friends where I don’t have to be the perfect feminist. I can be the one with the fault lines and the one with the contradictions. My friends understand where I am coming from. We listen. But we play the devil’s advocate reminding each other of the peeping patriarchy in our thought process. That is how we evolve. I am thankful for friends like that.

When a feminist writes her dilemmas, she is adding to a very important process of public discourse. If these dilemmas do not have space in the public sphere, we would only be debating in an artificial world of security. Similarly, there are feminists at every stage of this evolution. Let every feminist get the space to voice their feminisms. If you are past it, let it be. Good for you. You can question and engage critically, and help in the process of evolution. But lets not be mean and make it a power play. Reminds me of those men.

🙂 No, not all men. Moreover, the commentor I mentioned above is a woman.

The beauty of process 

I am a sucker for process. Have you seen the video on consensus of the Occupy Wall Street Movement.

http://vimeo.com/30513599  I am sure, there are gender power plays within the Occupy movement as well. But my point is not OWS now, but rather the need for a process to be truly inclusive. We all exclude. Really. Consciously or unconsciously. If there is no process, the powerful, the rich and the dominant voices would be heard. Survival of the fittest – I loved Ayn Rand once. Wow! It seemed so fair, that the smartest, the most intelligent and the most successful person should get it all.  Of course, because I had the potential to be among the smart, intelligent and successful. At that point, I did not know that the reason that was possible was because,  I was just plain lucky for my opportunities.  The same goes with gender issues. I think, many of us have internalized patriarchy at different levels because we have grown up experiencing different levels of patriarchy. Our evolution as feminists would depend on how much we have internalized those notions.

What we need is a space, where our  deeply entrenched patriarchal view points can be voiced. A space, without fear. If  someone was to put me down, either by abuse or condescension or intellectual elitism, I would withdraw from the conversation. An opportunity is lost for an engagement with patriarchy. You cannot wish it away if you dont engage with it. Especially because it is so deeply entrenched and subconscious. Even the biggest supporters of women’s rights in public can be very chauvinistic in their private lives. We need to engage with them. Frankly, I see Women’s Web as that space. Lets keep it that way. A space for civil debate. Yes. You can debate like that.

As I said, thanks to Tintin for showing it was possible.

For teaching me that even with opposite points of view, you can be polite and respectful.

For demonstrating that a debate need not be a show of power.

For being a gentleman.

Preethi is currently pursuing her Graduate Studies in Sociology in Purdue University in the US.

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