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Contextuality (is best, boys)

January 20, 2013

I cannot shake this title from my brain.  This is because I cannot ‘hear’ the word “contextuality” without having a dubious Rugby song referring to copulation with members of the animal kingdom running through my head.  I apologise to those of my readers who may not know the song and who may be of sensitive dispositions. If you should choose to google the song you should be warned, it is rude and, more importantly, not very good.  I have chosen to write about contextuality and I feel compelled to use this title (I have tried others, to no avail), so let’s just move on, shall we?

Now I have put the title in context (ha, see what I did there?) I can get on with the more serious topic of this blog post.  I am going to use one sentence as an example to which my statements shall refer throughout.  It is a very famous sentence, and for reasons I shall explain, is a fine one through which to explain the essential nature of context in all forms of communication.

All men are rapists

It’s a shocking sentence, isn’t it?  I don’t think very many people will disagree those are four controversial, offensive, strong words when strung together to form a sentence.  They make a statement which will provoke anger, and both aggressively offensive and virulently defensive positions.  Four simple words which together would seem to make a claim that is applied to an entire gender; a claim of illegal and predatory behavior and implying a universal action committed by an entire gender.  Four words that desperately need to be put into context.

The quote derives from a book called “The Women’s Room” by Marilyn French.  It is a work of fiction, and the words are stated by a fictional female character defined as a militant radical feminist.  The character makes the statement in direct response to the rape her daughter has suffered.  The full sentence is “all men are rapists, and that’s all they are.”  This means the context of the original words is that of a fictional utterance used to create and build a particular character, and that they are uttered in direct response to a violent and vicious sexual attack suffered by her daughter.  As originally written the words were never intended to be a statement of fact or representative of a political ideology as a whole, but are words of one character in one work of fiction.  In context they do not mean what they have been perceived to mean.

So how did the context become so skewed?  These very famous four words have been taken out of novelized context ever since they were written, and used in different formats by different writers for many years.  They have taken on a life of their own.

The statement has been taken literally and assumed to be a legitimate belief in feminist discourse.  Andrea Dworkin, a famous and influential radical feminist, is often credited with promoting the term as a belief and with holding the belief herself (along with being credited as stating that ‘all heterosexual sex is rape’).  Ms Dworkin herself clarified that she did not make either statement nor does she believe either to be true.  The rumour that she, and feminism as a whole, hold these statements as truths still persists and is believed.  The context in which the statement is repeated is vital to an understanding of why this perpetuates.

Belief in the statement “all men are rapists” as an ideology fundamental to feminist belief is ascribed by opponents of feminism.  The assertion is made specifically by those who believe that feminists hate men.  When the sentence is used by such people in their arguments, it is in the context of being not only opposed to feminism but also to misunderstanding and perpetuating the misunderstanding of what feminism is actually about.  This may be a deliberate propaganda or a genuine misguided belief.  Either way, knowledge of the context in which the statement is expressed is vital to an understanding of the opinion being expressed.

I am a feminist so must admit to a bias; feminism of course is varied and myriad in belief and is more of an umbrella term under which intersectional inequalities are also addressed, and is as problematic and misunderstood as any broad political and social theory.  My belief and identity as a feminist does not affect the truth of what I am saying, and I would strongly urge anyone with doubts about this to research independently to verify my assertions.  I’d encourage that in any case, about any asserted fact, or any expression of opinion.

Back to the topic in hand.  The context of the quote is not that feminists believe all men are rapists, it is that those who oppose feminists believe they do.  There may be people who identify as feminists who do believe that, but it is a false syllogism to say that therefore it is a feminist belief.

I take part in a lot of online debate, with people from many different cultures, whose first language may not be mine, whose experiences and understanding of the world is very different to mine.  Context is vital in those discussions, and I am nowhere near perfect at it.  I will be misunderstood, misconceived, and will unintentionally mislead.  It is inevitable.  I know what I mean, but may not be careful enough in wording or expansive enough in my point.  I’m flawed, I will probably ramble (okay, will definitely ramble), I will use long words that come from my years of exposure to sociological theory and practice, and I will definitely make linguistic errors.  Communication is a two-way process, often simultaneous multiple two-ways (pause to get mind from gutter into which it slipped), conducted between myriad interchanging people.  It’s complicated, people!

Perception in communication is influenced by a wide variety of factors; body language, tone, commonality of one’s first learned language, whether one is communicating in one’s first language, dialect, emphasis, education, perspective, life experience, age, gender, cultural identity, racial identity, belief systems, colloquialism, sense of humour, emotional state of communicator and communicatee, and more that I simply cannot think of at the moment (please feel free to comment below the article if you think of any more).  All of these affect the context of what one reads, writes or says.  I believe putting what one ‘says’ in context is fundamental to being understood.  My personal philosophy is not to assume, but to ask questions, and to accept sometimes misunderstandings will not be overcome.  I know it is not always possible to succeed but it is always possible to try.

  1. awesome article! misunderstandings, lack of context and personal perspective are truly the evils of this world when trying to communicate thoughts… I just wish other humans would be aware of such and look more at what has been said then ask questions (to themselves if not the author) to see if what they think something means or was intended to mean is what it was intended…

  2. I began to write “All statements beginning with ‘All…’ are already fiction” but then I realised what I’d just done. I’ve heard “All men are rapists” said (and meant) by a few women in my time, and I always reply “No, all *milkmen* are rapists” – because that’s manifestly absurd, and then given that they’re a subset of men…
    My own context is as someone who was raped by both parents, so I take any assertion of the irreproachable nature of women (or men, or other) with a pinch of salt, but I’ve also known my fair share of angels of all sexes, and everything in between.
    Thanks for writing this. For the record, the book title is “The Women’s Room” (plural).

    • Title duly amended, can’t believe I missed it! Actually, yes I can…

      • You can what? (sorry, it may be obvious, but I’m ill and not clear-headed tonight!)

        • I can believe I missed it (having the title of the book wrong). I wasn’t clear, and by being unclear missed the point of my own blog!

          • Don’t fret, I’m just a proof-reader and can’t help noticing – it’s much harder to spot your own typos :).

  3. To put it even more in context, the full quote is “All men are rapists and thats all they are. They rape us with their eyes, their laws and their codes”.

    And they do – the male gaze, the permanent legal state of consent and rape culture are all part of the ways in which men get away with rape over and over and over again.

    I wrote a bit more expanding on this here if you are interested.

  4. wonderful post, thank you.

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