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Mary Beard · The Public Voice of Women · LRB 20 March 2014
"There is more to all this than meets the eye, however. This ‘muteness’ is not just a reflection of women’s general disempowerment throughout the classical world: no voting rights, limited legal and economic independence and so on. Ancient women were obviously not likely to raise their voices in a political sphere in which they had no formal stake. But we’re dealing with a much more active and loaded exclusion of women from public speech than that – and, importantly, it’s one with a much greater impact than we usually acknowledge on our own traditions, conventions and assumptions about the voice of women. What I mean is that public speaking and oratory were not merely things that ancient women didn’t do: they were exclusive practices and skills that defined masculinity as a gender. As we saw with Telemachus, to become a man – and we’re talking elite man – was to claim the right to speak. Public speech was a – if not the – defining attribute of maleness. A woman speaking in public was, in most circumstances, by definition not a woman. We find repeated stress throughout ancient literature on the authority of the deep male voice. As one ancient scientific treatise explicitly put it, a low-pitched voice indicated manly courage, a high-pitched voice female cowardice. Or as other classical writers insisted, the tone and timbre of women’s speech always threatened to subvert not just the voice of the male orator, but also the social and political stability, the health, of the whole state. So another second-century lecturer and guru, Dio Chrysostom, whose name, significantly, means Dio ‘the Golden Mouth’, asked his audience to imagine a situation where ‘an entire community was struck by the following strange affliction: all the men suddenly got female voices, and no male – child or adult – could say anything in a manly way. Would not that seem terrible and harder to bear than any plague? I’m sure they would send off to a sanctuary to consult the gods and try to propitiate the divine power with many gifts.’ He wasn’t joking.

What I want to underline here is that this is not the peculiar ideology of some distant culture. Distant in time it may be. But this is the tradition of gendered speaking – and the theorising of gendered speaking – of which we are still, directly or more often indirectly, the heirs. I don’t want to overstate the case. Western culture doesn’t owe everything to the Greeks and Romans, in speaking or in anything else (thank heavens it doesn’t; none of us would fancy living in a Greco-Roman world). There are all kinds of variant and competing influences on us, and our political system has happily overthrown many of the gendered certainties of antiquity. Yet it remains the fact that our own traditions of debate and public speaking, their conventions and rules, still lie very much in the shadow of the classical world. The modern techniques of rhetoric and persuasion formulated in the Renaissance were drawn explicitly from ancient speeches and handbooks. Our own terms of rhetorical analysis go back directly to Aristotle and Cicero (it’s common to point out that Barack Obama, or his speech writers, have learned their best tricks from Cicero). And so far as the House of Commons is concerned, those 19th-century gentlemen who devised, or enshrined, most of the parliamentary rules and procedures that we are now familiar with were brought up on exactly those classical theories, slogans and prejudices that I’ve been quoting. Again, we’re not simply the victims or dupes of our classical inheritance, but classical traditions have provided us with a powerful template for thinking about public speech, and for deciding what counts as good oratory or bad, persuasive or not, and whose speech is to be given space to be heard. And gender is obviously an important part of that mix."

"These attitudes, assumptions and prejudices are hard-wired into us: not into our brains (there is no neurological reason for us to hear low-pitched voices as more authoritative than high-pitched ones); but into our culture, our language and millennia of our history. And when we are thinking about the under-representation of women in national politics, their relative muteness in the public sphere, we have to think beyond what the prime minister and his chums got up to in the Bullingdon Club, beyond the bad behaviour and blokeish culture of Westminster, beyond even family-friendly hours and childcare provision (important as those are). We have to focus on the even more fundamental issues of how we have learned to hear the contributions of women or – going back to the cartoon for a moment – on what I’d like to call the ‘Miss Triggs question’. Not just, how does she get a word in edgeways? But how can we make ourselves more aware about the processes and prejudices that make us not listen to her."
2014  marybeard  classics  feminism  gender  voice  communication  women  speech  ancientgreece  ancientrome 
september 2014 by robertogreco
Mary Beard Takes On Her Sexist Detractors
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"Finally, Beard arrived at the contemporary chorus of Twitter trolls and online commenters. “The more I’ve looked at the details of the threats and the insults that women are on the receiving end of, the more some of them seem to fit into the old patterns of prejudice and assumption that I have been talking about,” she said. “It doesn’t much matter what line of argument you take as a woman. If you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say that prompts it—it’s the fact that you are saying it.” Such online interjections—“ ‘Shut up you bitch’ is a fairly common refrain”—often contain threats of violence, a “predictable menu of rape, bombing, murder, and so forth.” She mildly reported one tweet that had been directed at her: “I’m going to cut off your head and rape it.”"

"Beard’s ancient world can seem, at least on the surface, rather like the more urban and liberal parts of our own. Her Rome is polyglot and multicultural, animated by the entrepreneurialism of freed slaves in overcrowded streets. At the same time, Beard warns against the danger of smoothing away the strangeness and foreignness of Roman life. Her latest book, “Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up,” which has just been published, is an engaging exploration of what made the Romans laugh—bad breath, among other things—but it also explores dimensions of Roman sensibility that have become elusive to us. Beard observes that there is no word in Latin for “smile,” and makes the striking suggestion that the Romans simply did not smile in the sense that we understand the social gesture today. […] Beard’s popularizing bent is grounded in a deep knowledge of the arcane, and she gives new insight into the hoariest of topics, according to Elaine Fantham, a well-known Latinist who is a generation Beard’s senior. “If you are a Latinist, you are always being asked to talk about Pompeii,” Fantham says. “When Mary does something, it is not old hat. It becomes new hat.”"

"Gill’s review of “Meet the Romans” had been a turning point, Beard explained. “That is when it became kind of a personal calling, because I spoke out and said, ‘Sorry, sunshine, this is just not on,’ ” she said. “The people who read the Mail are middle-aged women, and they look like me. They know what he’s saying. For all the very right-wing, slightly unpleasant populism that the Mail trades in, its readership is actually people who know an unacceptable insult when they see it. They’ve got gray hair. He’s talking about them.”"

"In another highly publicized incident, Beard retweeted a message that she had received from a twenty-year-old university student: “You filthy old slut. I bet your vagina is disgusting.” One of Beard’s followers offered to inform the student’s mother of his online behavior; meanwhile, he apologized. Beard’s object is not simply to embarrass offenders; it is to educate women. Before social media, she argues, it was possible for young women like those she teaches at Cambridge to enjoy the benefits of feminist advances without even being aware of the battles fought on their behalf, and to imagine that such attitudes are a thing of the past. Beard says, “Most of my students would have denied, I think, that there was still a major current of misogyny in Western culture.”

Beard’s zest for the online fray seems indefatigable. If there is a newspaper comments section excoriating her, readers may be surprised to come across comments from Beard, defending herself. If there is a thread praising her on Mumsnet, a popular British site for parents, she may pop up there, too, thanking her admirers. When she feels that she has been misrepresented in a newspaper article, she takes to her blog to explain herself further. If she gets into a Twitter spat, it is likely to be reported on by the British press, to whom she will give a salty, winning quote. When asked by the BBC what she would say to her university-student troll, she replied, “I’d take him out for a drink and smack his bottom.”

There is, she acknowledges, an irony in the imbalance of power: as a prominent scholar, she does have a voice, however unpleasant the threats to silence her may be. Most of her Twitter detractors are grumbling to only a handful of followers, at least until she amplifies their audience. She has discovered that, quite often, she receives not only an apology from them but also a poignant explanation. After she published the genitalia photograph on her blog, the man who ran the site where the image had originally appeared wrote her a long letter. “He explained his personal circumstances—he was married with kids—and he said how he should never have done it, in a way that was very eloquent,” she told me. After a “Question Time” viewer wrote to her that she was “evil,” further correspondence revealed that he was mostly upset because he wanted to move to Spain and didn’t understand the bureaucracy. “It took two minutes on Google to discover the reciprocal health-care agreement, so I sent it to him,” she says. “Now when I have a bit of Internet trouble, I get an e-mail from him saying, ‘Mary, are you all right? I was worried about you.’ ”

The university student, after apologizing online, came to Cambridge and took Beard out to lunch; she has remained in touch with him, and is even writing letters of reference for him. “He is going to find it hard to get a job, because as soon as you Google his name that is what comes up,” she said. “And although he was a very silly, injudicious, and at that moment not very pleasant young guy, I don’t actually think one tweet should ruin your job prospects.”

At the same time, Beard questions a narrative in which her troll is recast as her errant son and she takes on the role of scolding but forgiving mother—a Penelope who chastises Telemachus for being rude, then patiently teaches him the error of his ways. “There is something deeply conservative about that reappropriation of errant teen-ager and long-suffering female parent—it is rewriting the relationship in acceptable form,” she says. “If I said to my students, ‘What is going on here?’ and they just came out with a happy-ending story, I would be very critical. I would say, ‘Haven’t you thought about how the same sorts of gender hierarchies are written in different forms?’ ” Despite this analysis, she feels emotionally satisfied with the outcome. “Some of these adjectives we use, like ‘maternal’—try putting ‘human’ in there instead,” she told me on one occasion. “If being a decent soul is being maternal, then fine. I’ll call it human.”

"Her wrongness lay not in her political position, she explained to me, but in the language she chose to express it. Beard believes that there was a very brief moment after 9/11—“a kind of extra-ordinary rhetorical aporia”—when there was not yet a consensus about how to define the attacks, and that this gap had firmly closed in the interval between her composing her contribution and its publication, two weeks later. In the years that followed, she added, “we have constructed a series of ways in which we can disagree about 9/11 without it being hurtful.” Beard remains in occasional contact with some of the people who were angered by the L.R.B. essay, and feels grateful to all those who engaged with her rather than demonized her. Through listening, she made herself heard."

"I was an intellectual control freak, and Greek was quite good for that—you could be good at it. You could master it.” She appreciated the ancient languages precisely because nobody spoke them anymore. She told me, “Part of the pleasure of knowing Latin is that you don’t have to learn to say, ‘Where is the cathedral?’ or ‘I would like a return ticket, second class, please.’ You actually get to the literature. You don’t always have to be making yourself understood.”"

"As Beard continued through the basement, her eye fell on a dozen Roman tombstones arrayed against a wall, in a gloomy half-light. They were from a site on the Black Sea, and each was engraved with a standardized image of the dearly departed. “They look horrible, don’t they?” she said. “It’s good to come along and say they are awful. You are so trained to admire them. At school, the older the object is the more respect you were supposed to give it. But you can look at them there, all piled up, and they appear to be what they are: mass-produced, not very good gravestones. Thank God the ancient world was democratic enough that it turned out crap.”"

"In “Oh Do Shut Up Dear!,” Beard’s lecture at the British Museum, she referred to one of the very few occasions in Roman literature when a woman is permitted a public voice. After Lucretia, the wife of a nobleman, Conlatinus, is raped by Tarquin, a royal prince, she denounces her rapist, then kills herself to preserve her virtue. This rape story, as told by Livy, sets into motion the founding of the Roman Republic: Lucretia’s defenders swear that hereditary princes will no longer assume privileges through violence. In her lecture, Beard acknowledged that it is easier to document ways that women have been silenced than it is to find a remedy to their silencing. (Virtuous suicide is not an option.) The real issue, she suggested, is not merely guaranteeing a woman’s right to speak; it is being aware of the prejudices that we bring to the way we hear her. Listening, she implied, is an essential element of speech."
trolls  internet  twitter  listening  feminism  rape  academia  gender  history  ancientrome  2014  commenting  web  online  socialmedia  materalism  empathy  civility  behavior  grace  humanism  discourse  classics  ancientgreek  latin  hibrow  lowbrow  culture  democracy  cultureproduction  power  marybeard 
september 2014 by robertogreco

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