First off, let me introduce myself: Like our esteemed host, I am a medievalist. I’m an academic, and fairly junior in terms of production and reputation. Technically, I’m senior faculty. I’m an associate professor, in Oz and UK terms, a senior lecturer. I’ve been head of my department (really not the distinction it is in some places -- lots more unpaid responsibility in exchange for a title). I’ve also worked outside academia, so I’m as old as many of my senior colleagues. I mention this because age is a dynamic that matters. I tell you these things because the matter to my story: I have as much job security as I’ll ever have, and I’m old enough that the changes achieved by and for women from the 1960s on are things I lived through and remember. I’ve also watched as the idea of feminism has been re-cast and the term rejected by women far younger than me. It’s too strident. It’s not necessary: we have all our rights now, so why keep fighting those old battles?
Several times in the past year, I’ve been told I need to pick my battles. It’s sensible advice, and the reasons for such a phrase are sensible. Pick your battles correctly, and you have a better chance of winning the war. War. Historically, it’s a thing waged more by men, at least on the field. We all use it, though, if we are members of western culture. It’s so much a part of our culture that it seldom occurs to think about it and what it means. I have been told this by women in the past, but recently, the advice has come from men, in situations where I was dealing with men. “You have to pick your battles,” they said, as if we all knew we were in a war. It was only after the second or third time that I began to ask myself if we were fighting the same war.
The most recent of the incidents was pretty silly. I’d got pulled into a rather weird conversation online. I am a member of several academic listservs. One in particular is rather large and has a high proportion of senior male scholars and their students. The women on the list who speak up are often retired or are independent scholars, i.e., not “real” academics. And of course there are many lurkers, especially amongst junior faculty or those more sensible than I am when it comes to not engaging with people who have a lot of clout. In the US, at least, the most obvious senior faculty in my field are men, unless they particularly work on “women’s history.”
Someone had made a comment that was, intentionally or not (language was an issue), sexist. He’d been called on it, politely, by a couple of women. No response. For some bloody stupid reason, I stuck my oar in. I did it politely, giving him the benefit of the doubt, explaining why women would find the statement sexist. Meanwhile, several men stepped in, claiming that perhaps there was a language issue, and some implying that people, me included, might be taking this too seriously. Some, including well-known senior colleagues, began finding other instances where similar phrases were used, and had not been deemed offensive. He would keep using such phrases, then. A few suggested we simply move on: this wasn’t to the point; it wasn’t appropriate; we women were too sensitive. Off list, there were other conversations happening. Women thanked me for speaking up, because they felt uncomfortable doing so. Some eventually did anyway. A couple of men also stepped in, when it was clear that, intentional or not, the person who had given offense was also perfectly capable and willing to make intentionally sexist comments. And I got an email from a (retired) male colleague telling me to pick my battles.
Before that, I had been dealing with a lot of work-related garbage. The dynamics were different. Gender certainly played a role. But so did age, academic reputation, seniority, and very different views on the relationship between faculty and the university and the role of faculty in general. There are, at least in the US, faculty who still believe that they are exempt from doing anything other than teaching their courses and getting their research done. There aren’t many, and in fact their impression of what their job is, is based more on what they’ve got away for years with than anything that has ever been the norm. There are one or two on every campus, and my department is home to one of ours. Somehow, I ended up being charged with getting the department to come up with norms and standards that could demonstrate to outside agencies that the students we taught were actually learning something. The rest of the department worked well together, but our special snowflake resisted. Trying to be heard made me crazy. Being stymied and dealing with people who would rather stonewall than cooperate was infuriating. Again, I was told to pick my battles.
What is interesting to me is that the contexts of this advice, although they seem different, were rather similar. The motivations for the advice, when explained, were different. In the former case, picking my battles also meant, ”I don’t really care to hear about this.” I should feel free to fight the good fight, but really, not there and not then, because it was my war, and not this other person’s. He shouldn’t have to be sucked in to taking a side. I refrained from pointing out that, unless he’d written to the apparently sexist type, my correspondent was taking a side. There’s little sense in wasting an e-mail on someone who thinks that, no matter if the cause is just, if he doesn’t want the war to intrude on his life, it’s perfectly ok to tell others they should just stop fighting. The fact that he thought he wasn’t choosing sides was telling, though. Apparently, asking a woman to take her battle elsewhere -- “but I have been there and fought that battle already” -- is not taking a side. Attempting to shut down a conversation because one doesn’t like it, or worse, thinks it unimportant, is not the same as choosing sides if it’s not one’s war. Dude, it’s sexism. It should be your war.
The context of the second case made the advice seem much more like sensible advice. After all, we were fighting the same war, my mentor and I. We had the same long-term goals. We worked together, and he had a better view of the big picture. He was giving the best advice he could; he was telling me what he would do in my place. It was advice founded entirely in looking out for my best interests, professionally and personally. Why should I object?
I object, I think, because … well … he’s a man. And when he says, “pick your battles,” he really means it, but that’s because he can pick his battles. A woman -- or any minority person -- has to deal with a different situation. Picking one’s battles happens more often between equals. If the opposing army has a constant advantage, then it’s much harder to pick when and where to fight. Given that women and minorities in our society seldom have that advantage, the minute battle is engaged (is anybody else tired of the military metaphor?), there is a second front. There is the initial front -- say the one over whether someone makes a sexist comment and should apologise or even acknowledge it -- and the secondary, but probably more vital, one -- whether the offended party has a right to fight at all when gender (or race, or sexuality, or …) plays a role in the issue at hand. That’s a battle we fight every day. And it’s a battle we don’t get to pick. It’s just … there.
And that’s why I have a problem with being told to pick my battles. It seems like a luxury that I just don’t have. If I back down, it might look good to everybody else, and yeah, I took the higher road. People remember that. But over time, especially if the battles are with the same people, or over the same thing, what is the cumulative effect? When the reasons for the battle are tainted with, or worse, rooted in, sexism, or racism, or any sort of bullshit privilege, then the person with privilege -- the general with the bigger, better-equipped army -- can declare a win any time his less-privileged opponents back down. This isn’t because they’ve backed down, per se. It’s because the simple act of backing down reinforces the general’s sense of entitlement: the natural order of things has been maintained. There was a challenge. The challenger backed down. Surely the challenger realized that she was in the wrong.
I know some of you are probably thinking, “but if other people know that you took the high road, then isn’t that enough?” My response to you is, “It should be, but it’s not. Taking the higher road is the moral victory that makes us feel better; it also leads to an awful lot of complacency. Where would we be if if our foremothers had settled for the high road? I’m pretty sure there would have been no suffragettes chained to lampposts! Change is never born of complacency. It’s not something that comes from picking which battles you want to fight, but from fighting the battle you can’t afford to ignore.”
I’d still rather not have to fight at all.