“How else would you have us say it?”

Reader Gayle left a fabulously intelligent question on the post The personal and the political:

I have seen debates on the subjects you mention where one side mentions that what the other side has said hurts them/shames them/makes them feel inadequate. To which the other side replies, “How else would you have us say it?” What are you thoughts on that power shifting? Or is some hurt inevitable, even if it is unintended, especially in these subjects which are so emotionally charged to begin with?

I was so inspired my response comment turned into a post all its own:

I think you put your finger on it with the phrase “power shifting”. When that question is asked by a group with power (privilege) to a group without/with lesser power (privilege), I think it’s extremely problematical. I see that dynamic a whole lot more in discussions on race, sexuality, and so on: less often, I think, in parenting, where we are ALL very low on the power structure (in the eyes of kyriarchy; it’ll put us on a pedestal, sure, when it’s not trampling all over us, but let us have real power? no way!).

The reason it is problematical within certain power dynamics (say if I, as a white cis woman, were to say that to Monica Roberts, a black trans woman, should she have reason to call me on my language) is because it shifts the responsibility — the work, the onus — from the oppressors to the oppressed. It says “I don’t need to do any learning, I’m going to make you figure this out, I’m going to make you teach me, I’m going to make you justify your pain, make you be responsible for avoiding your own hurt.” It also ignores that odds are excellent there already is an abundance of answers to that very question from the oppressed group, and asking it betrays that one is unwilling to do even a cursory examination of the existing thoughts on the topic; that is, that one is ignorant of and unwilling to do the (incredibly simple!) work of finding and listening to the voices of those without power.

That, obviously, is not good. That power shifting, in fact, is one of the prime ways that kyriarchy — acting through those with privilege against those without — protects itself.

However, in the context of parenting, and the in-fighting of “the mommy wars” and discussions about parenting practices, the power dynamic is, generally, quite different. While someone who uses formula has huge, moneyed, powerful, corporate, industrial aspects of the kyriarchy backing up hir “choice”, on an individual level a formula feeder and a breastfeeder are both on the same bottom rung of the kyriarchy (all else being equal; which, granted, they rarely are). So in that context, asking “how would you have us say it?” can be an act of compassionate bridge-making; but, it requires both being willing to humble oneself and really, truly being willing to listen to and hear the answer.

To further complicate things, there is a significant corporate/kyriarchal interest in many of these topics: there is huge money in undermining breastfeeding, in selling plastic parent-substitutes, in medicalizing birth, et cetera and so on, in addition to the less financial but no less real and powerful kyriarchal forces wishing to convince us that our bodies are broken, that interdependence is wrong, that we are incapable of knowing how to raise our children without the advice of patronizing, patriarchal “experts”. So when I say “formula is inferior” — because it is, because human milk is the biological norm, the standard, and formula simply fails to measure up — I am simultaneously speaking truth to power, and potentially hurting my sister oppressed mothers who for whatever reason use(d) formula. So, if I change my language, soften it,  sacrifice strength and accuracy for kindness and palatability, am I being compassionate to my beloved sisters? Or am I acceding to the pressures of the powerful, greedy, immoral formula industry?

Unfortunately, I think the answer is “yes”. We are left facing a choice; compassion for our sisters? Or effecting change by standing up to the kyriarchy? I don’t think there is any single right answer, but the best path at any given time is going to depend on the specific circumstances.

When speaking with a woman who could not or did not breastfeed, perhaps that is not the best time for using our most powerful lactivist language; instead then we might talk about how fortunate we are that formula is adequate to sustain life now, or perhaps even bemoan the lack of support women have for establishing and sustaining breastfeeding, or discuss the local milk bank or milk share program we’re working to get started. But when writing material directed at formula companies, at women who are facing the “choice” of feeding method, when we are discussing as lactivists the best way to get our message across, when we, as I try to do on this blog, are discussing the larger culture and the kyriarchal influences on our individual lives: then, I think that language is appropriate and valuable.

What about those individuals who encounter it, even in those contexts, and are still hurt? At some point, I think there is a level of individual responsibility that must be taken (remembering that we are discussing a situation among those with roughly equal power and privilege — or lack thereof); at some point, one has to be able to step back and avoid taking, as well as giving, offense unnecessarily.

Sometimes language makes us uncomfortable; sometimes critiques of kyriarchy make us squirm. My responsibility as a woman both with and without privilege is to make sure I’m keeping my side of the street clean: is my language accurate? Is it chosen wisely? Is this the right time and place to say it? Is there a way to say this that will still speak truth while hurting my sister mothers less? Am I speaking from a place grounded in justice? Am I directing my anger at institutions, not individuals? If I am sure my side is clean, as it were, I am free to offer compassion to those who are wounded by my words, without choosing to change them. I am responsible for me, including, yes, how and when I present my thoughts, but I cannot be responsible for what another does with them when she receives them.

Is hurt inevitable? Probably. We live in a society that attacks us women who parent at every turn, when it is not shoving us up on inhuman pedestals and demanding inhuman feats of perfection. We live in a society that is constantly hurting us, telling us we are wrong, telling us we are bad, telling us we are broken, and which is remarkably good at making us tell each other and ourselves that. We are highly sensitive to any perceived criticism, and not without good reason. Of course we are likely to encounter a factual statement like “formula is inferior” or “crying-it-out is not good” and internalize it as “I am a bad mother, I am hurting my child”. And of course we’re likely to lash out when we do.

But I do not believe this is a reason to give up our ideals or our goals or our activism. We can only watch our own words, take responsibility for what is ours to control, and offer compassion and understanding to those who are hurting. To avoid speaking truth to avoid ever causing any pain would be allowing the kyriarchy to control us even more. The world is better served when we can work to change the institutions belittling and constricting and attacking us — including by using words that may be challenging, no matter how carefully they are chosen.

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24 Responses to “How else would you have us say it?”

  1. Another wonderful post! Thank you Arwyn. It is something that I struggle with too on my blog. The need to find the right words to nudge society in a new direction, without coming across as critical of individual choices that were often made in less than ideal circumstances. I want to change the circumstances, change our cultural assumptions, change our policies and politics, not attack individuals.

    • Thanks Annie.

      There’s actually a comment on your most recent post, about adoptive parents already struggling so much and not wanting the “stigma of ‘breast is best’”. This is particularly interesting as an example because there may actually be a privilege differential between adopted and “bio” parents.

      I don’t think this means that because of adopted parents we should avoid using phrases like “life saving devices” in reference to lactating breasts, though. I think instead it’s a case of making sure our side of the street is clean: are we putting down formula? Are we stating something not factually true? Are we directing our comments at an individual or group unable to breastfeed? If no, then I don’t think we’re doing anything wrong.

      I liken it to how I feel when people talk up having a college degree. Those with degrees definitely have an advantage (privilege, we might say) over those who don’t. The statements that having a degree make getting a job easier, are correlated with better lifetime earnings, or even that a maternal lack of a degree put one’s children at greater risk for poverty and associated ills: these kinda make me feel bad, because at approaching 30, I still don’t have a college degree. But those statements are factual, they are well phrased, and they are not directed at me; should I try to get others to cease advocating for higher education because I was unable to complete a degree due to my illness? Absolutely not. I want the mothers of my child’s peers to be encouraged to and supported in getting higher education, for their own good, for their children’s sake, and ultimately for the peripheral good of my own children and possible grandchildren.

      Similarly, an adoptive parent has no reason to feel pro-breastfeeding messages are personal about them (although they have every right to feel however they feel), and every reason to support that message: the more women breastfeed, the more women are supported culturally to breastfeed, the more breastfeeding is promoted as default without insulting formula, the better for adoptive parents: their child is more likely to receive some amount of breastfeeding after birth (any amount has long-term benefits), there are more likely to be milk donors in great enough abundance to provide milk for more families unable to breastfeed (including adoptive parents, single fathers and two-father families, mothers who’ve had mastectomies or on drugs incompatible with breastfeeding, and so on), the potential spouses and parents of their grandchildren are likely to be healthier; and regardless, it creates a better world for others’ children, and that should matter too.

      It’s all about remembering that a cultural critique isn’t a personal criticism (when hearing); and that personal criticism isn’t the same as cultural critique (when speaking).

  2. You and your blog rock my world, Arwyn. Totally and completely.

    “I am responsible for me, including, yes, how and when I present my thoughts, but I cannot be responsible for what another does with them when she receives them.”

    This is exactly how I feel. I am contacted nearly every time I write about breastfeeding. I really do my best to choose my words carefully and make it clear that I am working to provide information and support, and not attack individuals who are doing the best I can. Yet many people are caught up in their own hurt. And while I have compassion for them, and clarify my feelings as best I can, I can’t take responsibility for every reaction. I think it’s important to write about these issues, and so I will continue to do so.

    I try to keep in mind that the words of others aren’t directed at me. They’re not thinking about me when they’re writing. I don’t need to internalize everything I read – if I disagree I can just move on. I am a bad-ass mom, and the opinion of a random blogger can’t change that. It helps me keep my own stuff in check when I venture out into cyberspace.

  3. Lovely post and so timely, Arwyn. I JUST replied to another post on phdinparenting, where I struggled to string together some coherent thoughts about a very similar topic!! You are talking about exactly what’s been on my mind.

    You mention the choice between compassion for the oppressed sisters and your fight against the kyriarchy. I really think we have to consider compassion and the willingness to have a discussion as a major part of the fight against the kyriarchy. I don’t think they can be seperated. As feminists we understand what it means to complicit in our own oppression and we’ve seen evidence of this. We are recruited to help maintain the status quo and convince others that no oppression is occurring at all. As a result women refuse to identify themselves as feminists out of fear of retribution. We demonize and blame other women. Those are the best and most effective tools the kyriarchy has ALWAYS had. Divide and conquer. There are so many powerful factors at work. So much noise. The rest of society will judge mothers no matter which choice they make. It makes finding the common ground of extreme importance if we want to make change. Understanding those “less than ideal circumstances” that Annie is talking about. I believe it can be without compromising your integrity, in just the way that you describe.

    You are right about hurt being inevitable, I think. There is so much deconstruction of accepted thought that needs to happen and that process is messy. I can say that because I am still going through it.

    • “I really think we have to consider compassion and the willingness to have a discussion as a major part of the fight against the kyriarchy.”

      So right on, this and the rest of your comment. And that doesn’t mean we can’t be factual and strong in our language, but it does mean we have to be considerate; we have to consider others’ feelings and reactions, even if we can’t avoid hurting them entirely.

  4. “At some point, I think there is a level of individual responsibility that must be taken (remembering that we are discussing a situation among those with roughly equal power and privilege — or lack thereof); at some point, one has to be able to step back and avoid taking, as well as giving, offense unnecessarily.”

    YES, YES, and YES!!!! I can’t agree more. I try to assume that most do the best they can with the knowledge they have and that lack of support is a primary cause for breastfeeding failure. I try to be compassionate when someone bemoans the fact that they “couldn’t breastfeed” for what ever reason. BUT when in my mother’s group that support is offered and it is suggested that a mom “not give formula” in the midst of breastfeeding difficulties, more often than not a formula feeding mom will chime in and get very upset about the advise giver’s directive. As if giving formula is “the end of the world” or the “worst thing they could do” (when in fact it is often the end for a breastfeeding dyad and is often the very worst you can do if you want breastfeeding to succeed) and that the advise giver is somehow commenting on how evil people are who formula feed! It gets very very old. Lack of knowledge is certainly part of the issue, but so is someone who gets their hackles up every time breastfeeding help is requested when the help offered points out dangers of supplementation too early in the troubleshooting process!

    Sorry for the rant. This just happened in one of my groups. Just because I make a different choice or believe in a different way of doing something doesn’t automatically make my choice or my belief a comment on the wrongness of your choice or belief.

  5. Thank you for the incredible response!

    “So, if I change my language, soften it, sacrifice strength and accuracy for kindness and palatability, am I being compassionate to my beloved sisters? Or am I acceding to the pressures of the powerful, greedy, immoral formula industry?”

    This is the crux of so many issues surrounding parenting. I tend to gravitate a lot to language that is more on the individual level, but am trying to be a student of the other side, too, to learn and understand it better. I worry that in jumping back and forth from compassion for the individual to critiquing of the kyriachy, the individual is “exceptionalized” too much or granted a victim role rather than just being listened to and respected for herself. I feel that sometimes we don’t need to just talk about how the system failed her and how hard she tried, and instead need to recognize her for her feelings and positions, built on her experience and what she feels is true, even if they aren’t exactly the same as ours. Because if her experience isn’t the same as ours, then how likely is it that her critiques will be the same?

    I’m not even sure if that makes sense…I hope you follow what I’m saying.

    • Those are some really interesting points, and I think (I hope!) I’m following you.

      I don’t think compassion and critique are necessarily incompatible, just that sometimes we are forced to choose, and which side we err on must be based on the specific situation.

      I’m not sure whether this is “exceptionalizing”, and I don’t see how it’s victim-izing (although I see how it could, I suppose), but is rather pragmatic, and something we do all the time in our everyday lives; we all talk different, have different topics of conversation, different language, different attitudes depending on who is around us, with or to whom we are speaking.

      “Because if her experience isn’t the same as ours, then how likely is it that her critiques will be the same?” This is an excellent point; so often, the best thing we can do is to shut up and listen, whether or not we agree, whether or not (we think!) we know what they’re going to say.

      I’d love if you could come back and expand on your points.

  6. Ha – yes, you follow me better than I follow meself at times!

    Sadly, the time that I usually get to actually peck out more than a few words seems to fall b/w 1-3 a.m., so not always at my peak moment of clarity and often times my gut will be saying something that my head hasn’t worked out the ration for yet. I will try to expand, though.

    “Exceptionalizing” — I often hear people say to someone, after she has shared her story, that she’s an exception…that what they are saying doesn’t apply to her because of what she has said. It happens in many subjects, including breastfeeding, birth, etc., but also in non-mommy subjects like business ethics when the individual doesn’t fall into the average behaviour we are describing. First of all, it makes me wonder how many exceptions there are (if we could hear every story) but — more important — if what we are saying needs modification in some way if indeed there are a number of exceptions to it…maybe there are gaps that we don’t see that these exceptions are characterizing?

    “Victim role” — this is something that I’ve experienced, so maybe my focus is off, but here goes anyways. If someone tries something and fails, it is sometimes pointed out that she fell victim to X, Y or Z. And while X, Y or Z could be barriers of various sizes that may have hindered her in reaching her goal, I find that saying that she is their victim takes the power from her and gives it to these barriers. I would rather help her be aware of these barriers to help her succeed next time but not tell her that she is a victim of them.

    I’m really enjoying this conversation and how it’s pushing me to think more clearly about things.

    • Ohhh, yes! That “…oh but I don’t mean you!” thing. The “well you’re different!” thing. That’s always bothered me. Yes, we have to be aware that cultural critiques aren’t personal criticisms, but if you don’t have an awareness of the vast variety of human experience (aka “exceptions”) built in to your theories, then they’re nothing more than sweeping generalizations, and you probably deserve those offended glares you’re getting.

      That’s really not what I’m trying to say here at all: rather, that we can use strong language in our critiques of the kyriarchy, as long as we are careful that our language (and the ideas they express) is inclusive of “exceptions”. (ex: “College graduation is correlated with higher income” — on the population level –, not “You’re a loser if you don’t go to college” or “Anyone with brains gets a degree”.) If we are careful in that way with our language, and in when and where we use it (don’t bust out with that when I’m talking about my regret for never finishing school, m’kay?), then I think we can safely say that while we are sympathetic to those hurt by it, that’s not our responsibility.

      I really like the distinction between identifying barriers and characterizing someone as a victim. I think I try to do that in my language, but I’ll definitely keep that insightful distinction in mind from now on, thank you.

  7. It also ignores that odds are excellent there already is an abundance of answers to that very question from the oppressed group, and asking it betrays that one is unwilling to do even a cursory examination of the existing thoughts on the topic; that is, that one is ignorant of and unwilling to do the (incredibly simple!) work of finding and listening to the voices of those without power.

    I don’t think that’s a valid point within the context of a single conversation. It is also generally true that information on almost everything people ask about is easily available for discovery by even a casually motivated individual. But if someone who knows is right there, you’re already talking to them anyway, and in fact they are the ones who have just pointed out that you should know this in the first place… might as well ask them.

    …at some point, one has to be able to step back and avoid taking, as well as giving, offense unnecessarily.

    Well, that’s the entire other half of the equation, isn’t it? “Be conservative in what you do, liberal in what you accept.” You can’t expect that people won’t be offended merely by watching their own statements. A message could be taken more ways than anyone can imagine, and so even if a good-faith effort is made to avoid being offensive, the recipient will eventually be faced with having to deliberately choose the non-offensive interpretation, even if it was not their initial or strongest reaction, in order to maintain their own side of the conversation’s good faith.

    • “But if someone who knows is right there, you’re already talking to them anyway, and in fact they are the ones who have just pointed out that you should know this in the first place… might as well ask them.”

      It’s true that I was more addressing that point to online discussions, in which there really is no good excuse for not Googling (even in a “single conversation”, even in a real-time chat, one can take a moment for self-education), but I think we need to be careful even in in-person conversations. When there is a significant power/privilege differential, it can be taking advantage of that imbalance to demand that the person in front of you take their time to educate you on what (as they say) you should already know.

      There’s a big difference between humbly requesting their assistance (“Do you have any suggestions for where I can learn more?” “Would you be willing to offer some ideas right now?” — preferably after apologize or ask them to excuse your gaffe) which they in no way owe you, and putting them on the spot to correct your behavior/language. (Implicit within “How else would you have me say it?” is the threat that without a suggestion from them that you, the person with power/privilege, deem “good enough”, you will not change your language, and thus will continue to hurt the already oppressed person/group.)

      So no, I’m not sure it’s true that even in a single, face-to-face conversation, that one “might as well ask them”. I’m reminded of the scene in Down With Love where the male editors ask the one woman editor for a coffee “since she’s up anyway”. Similar thinking; similar oppressive, offensive outcome.

    • AR: I’ve written a lengthy critique of this post below, but want to make another point here.

      When we *advocate* for a particular viewpoint, we are not merely having a conversation. We are trying to persuade others to change their minds, and, more than that, their behaviour. The practicality of this is that, to optimise our chances of success, we do have to put more effort into avoiding offence than we would if we were simply trading views for purposes of academic interest. If we speak about formula in a way that offends a formula-feeding mother to the point where we make her less likely to seek breastfeeding help in the future when we need it, then we can pontificate all we like about how she should take responsibility for her own reactions rather than expecting us to alter our perfectly-truthful-and-therefore-automatically-justified statements, and maybe we’ll even be right in some abstract sense. The only problem is, none of that is going to get her baby breastfed. But taking the extra trouble needed to modify our statements and make them less harsh, and hence make pro-breastfeeders in general look more approachable, just might.

  8. Thank you for your great post! I enjoy reading blogs such as your own and PhD in Parenting, but have several times in the past felt criticized, judged or guilty as a result of comments made. However, I kept reading, because I agreed with what was being said; I did not post comments because although I felt attacked or hurt, I couldn’t articulate a counter argument because I didn’t disagree. I became aware that my hurt feelings were the result of my own issues that I needed to deal with – feelings of guilt, disappointment, failure and bitterness resulting from my inability to breastfeed though I desperately wanted to (my baby wouldn’t latch, even after 14 weeks of visits at a well-known breastfeeding clinic, an osteopath, and a chiropractor – I pumped for 5 months but still don’t feel like I “breastfed” my baby – like I said, my own issues). Gradually, I’m dealing with my issues and feeling less and less criticized, guilty, judged… I know I did the best I could given the circumstances I was in (though, as you may be able to tell, I still have a tendancy to justify and defend my actions/decisions to others). It’s like Eleanor Roosevelt’s old (and perhaps overused) quote says: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

    It’s true that lactivist language and breastfeeding campaigns are not particularly sensitive to those who cannot breastfeed, but that’s not their job! Breastfeeding campaigns and lactivism would lose their impact if they stated things like “Breast is best… but formula is a decent alternative.” That said, it would be nice if there was some support for those of us who want to breastfeed but, for whatever reason, are not able to.

    Anyway, thank you again for your thought provoking posts! I’ll keep reading… and taking responsibility for my own feelings.

    • Thanks for that comment. :) I only want to say that my definition of breastfeeding is a woman or parent giving her baby her milk, no matter the delivery method, OR a woman feeding her baby at her breast, no matter the substance.* Sure, the ideal, the biological default, is getting breastmilk from direct suckling at the breast, but it’s not the only form of breastfeeding. Pumping for five months rocks. Be proud of yourself.

      *I use “woman” and “her” here because the majority of parents who breastfeed are female, and this is a female-centric blog, but I know not all are. Men, both cis and trans, have been known to breastfeed (and even more have been known to nurse for comfort), and I do not mean with this to belittle or dismiss them or their breastfeeding.

  9. But there’s an obvious and crucial question here that you’re not asking at all: *Is* saying things in potentially hurtful ways effecting change to a greater extent than saying the same things in less hurtful ways? Is there any evidence whatsoever that a harshly critical statement like ‘formula is inferior’ effects any greater change in the world than a less unpleasant way of stating the same thing such as ‘formula just isn’t as good’?

    Because I haven’t seen any. I know it’s a popular theory, but I have seen *no* actual evidence for it. And the problem is, I *have* seen evidence that that sort of criticism is harmful. Not just because it hurts people’s feelings, but for the rather more concrete reason that it may put women off seeking breastfeeding advice when they need it.

    Lots of women with breastfeeding problems are using/have used formula – they’ve given their babies bottles when they were having problems because they thought it was what they had to do (or, occasionally, because it really *was* what they had to do), and/or they’ve formula-fed a previous baby. If those women have seen you or other lactivists refer to their actions as ‘inferior’, how comfortable are they going to be in seeking out breastfeeding counsellors?

    Bear in mind that the world doesn’t always separate itself out neatly into women needing breastfeeding support and everyone else. That woman reading your article on feeding choices is, a few months down the line, going to be a woman making some actual feeding choices, and some of those women are going to be faced with the decision of whether or not to call a breastfeeding counsellor. If the face of the breastfeeding movement that a woman has seen is making these kinds of comments about formula (and words like ‘inferior’ really do pack an extra vicious punch over and above simply making it clear that there is a difference between formula and breastmilk), then there is a very real risk that she will be put off seeking this help when she’s at her most vulnerable. Maybe you separate out the different situations perfectly well in your mind; maybe you’d never dream of making that kind of statement to a woman who’d actually used formula; maybe the breastfeeding counsellor that that woman could ring would never dream of making such a statement at all under any circumstances. But the problem is, *that woman isn’t going to know that*.

    I repeat a point I touched on above: The use of words like ‘inferior’ to describe formula carries an extra-vicious punch that simply talking about the differences between formula and breastmilk does not. You’ve raised the analogy of your experience as a woman without a college degree listening to others extol the disadvantages of being without a college degree. But what you haven’t said is how you’d feel if someone were to make the statement that a high school education is inferior. Not just that it isn’t as good as a college education, but that it’s *inferior* to a college education. How would you feel if you heard that term used about your education at a time when you were particularly vulnerable yourself? Are you absolutely positive that it would make no difference at all to your willingness to approach the person who used it, or other people from the same movement, on the subject of education in the future?

    Your criteria for using a particular form of words seem to centre primarily around accuracy. I feel it’s just as important to put our words through a second filter: What harm will be done by these words, and is it likely to outweigh any good that they do? Harshly critical statements about formula do have the potential to harm. Have you any evidence that they do any good that can’t be achieved in a less critical and hence less harmful way?

    • You said “If those women have seen you or other lactivists refer to their actions as ‘inferior’, how comfortable are they going to be in seeking out breastfeeding counsellors?”

      I think an important distinction here is that we are not (or at least I am not) referring to a woman’s actions as inferior. Rather, we are referring to the substance (formula) as inferior.

      Personally, I don’t see a big difference between “inferior” and “just isn’t as good”. As far as I’m concerned, they are synonyms.

      Also, I think people need to realize that just because something is inferior in absolute terms, doesn’t mean it was inferior in the specific circumstances in which they used it. If you tell me that a Big Mac and fries is an inferior feeding choice compared with steamed vegetables, brown rice and grilled chicken, I will agree with you even if I happened to have fed my family McDonald’s that evening because I was too exhausted to cook anything.

      • @Annie: I agree with you about the distinction, but the point is that we need to think about whether people listening to us are actually going to hear it that way.

        To carry your analogy a step further: Let’s say that you’re going through one of the biggest emotional and practical upheavals of your life. You’re sleep-deprived, your hormones are all over the place, and you’re in that state of fragility where the least negative comment has you teetering on the verge of tears. During this time, you’ve been feeding your children on McDonald’s. You feel guilty about it because you know it’s not really the healthiest thing you could be feeling them (and, given the way this sort of emotional state magnifies all negative reactions, you probably feel *really* guilty). You’d really like to do better. You know there’s a dietician in town you could consult for advice on how to make the children healthier meals. But… you also know that dietician talks about how inferior McDonald’s meals are, and, in the state you’re feeling at the moment, you’re just not sure you can handle anyone saying anything negative.

        Now, you’re a strong-minded and determined woman, and, in that situation, maybe you would seek out that dietician anyway in spite of what she had a habit of saying. But can you see that it’s possible that maybe another woman in that situation would be put off by it?

    • I disagree that “inferior” carries an “extra vicious punch”. Formula is inferior to breastmilk. Formula feeding is not necessarily inferior: sometimes it is necessary (and so in that specific circumstance might be better). Formula feeders are in no way inferior: they are just parents doing their good enough. It might be “extra vicious” to say those are inferior. But the factual statement that “formula is inferior” is not.

      An analogy: dialysis is inferior to a functioning kidney. Would someone on dialysis feel that statement was an “extra vicious punch”? Would they feel guilty about being on dialysis? Of course not. They might hope to get a kidney transplant — also inferior to their own working kidney, but better than dialysis. Those are all factual, inoffensive statements, because we live in a world in which OF COURSE having one’s own functioning kidney is standard, no one is getting dialysis because they “chose” to, and there is no shame in dialysis when it is medically necessary. We are grateful for it, just as we should be grateful for formula and for donated milk. In a sane world, a non-misogynistic, non-kyriarchal world, we would feel the same about formula as we do dialysis: I am trying to talk about how we get there, and our language is a significant part of that.

      You talk about language; here is what I know as a feminist: our words matter. It matters whether we say “Congressman” or “Representative”. It matters whether we say “Stewardesses” or “Flight attendants”. It matters whether we speak of “mankind” or “humanity”. Our words help establish a worldview, that can either exclude or recognize the humanity of women; similarly, our words help establish a worldview that is either anti-breastfeeding (including “breast is best” — it is not best, it is the biologically expected) or in which breastfeeding is standard.

      Yes, we need to watch our language to avoid unnecessary offense: thus, it is inappropriate to refer to formula as “poison”, or say we pity formula fed babies, or talk about “those irresponsible formula feeders, they just didn’t try hard enough.” Those would be inexcusable, understandably off-putting. But we MUST change the way our culture talks about and therefore thinks about breastmilk and formula, and our language is an incredibly important part of that. When we change the culture, we make it possible for more women to breastfeed, and to be supported in breastfeeding.

      If you disagree with such a basic precept of feminist theory, this might not be the blog for you.

      • Blast, I still can’t get my website to come up on this. I’m at http://www.goodenoughmummy.typepad.com.

        @Arwyn: I’m not disagreeing with the fact that our language has a great deal of effect on the way we think. I’m pointing out the other side of that coin: that our language has great power to harm a situation as well as to help it, and to do so in much more fundamental ways than leaving people with hurt feelings. This is why it concerns me to see someone talking as though our decision as to whether or not we make a particular statement in an advocacy context should be based only on accuracy without also taking into account the potential of that statement to backfire and do more harm than good.

  10. I agree with Rebecca that it is difficult to hear that a decision or situation you lived through is being in one way or another criticized. But also like she said, that is the individual’s problem.

    In the case of breastfeeding, breastmilk is best, period. If you have chosen to give formula you are choosing an inferior method and there are risks and side effects of that choice. (Education)
    Now if there are reasons that actively breastfeeding causes the mother emotional harm or is just not possible, the only thing I can think of is a history of abuse, a medical reason or death. Then yes, of course we are grateful that formula is an option to keep her baby alive. Yet, that baby still deserves breastmilk, and has that mother done everything possible to provide that? pumping, a wet nurse, purchasing breastmilk…(support)
    In our hopes of not hurting feelings we are putting babies at risk. End of story. (responsibility)

    All similar arguments can be made for natural birth, another area that is often censored to keep women from feeling badly. If you are part of the 10-15% that actually needed a cesarean birth to keep you and/or your baby alive, then you have nothing to feel bad about and you should already know that (education) – otherwise you put yourself and your baby at risk, period. (responsibility)

    Now there are other issues of parenting that I don’t think are that black and white yet again, everyone is sharing from their own experience so parents who don’t agree can hit “X” and close down the page – it’s not the writers job to be sensitive to the possible experience everyone else has ever had in life.

    • @Shanta: If we were talking about a conversational situation, I would agree with you that – to some extent – it is the individual’s problem if she feels herself criticised (though that does *not* absolve us of the responsibility to watch our words and think about how we can say things in a way that will avoid that feeling as much as possible while still getting the important messages across). But we’re talking about an advocacy situation, and that’s different. We are trying to persuade people to change their thinking, and, more than that, their behaviour. And, if that’s what you want to do, being sensitive to the experiences and reactions of the person you’re trying to persuade generally works a whole lot better than offending them.

      You know the saying that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar? The problem isn’t that in our aim to avoid offending people we are putting babies at risk of not being breastfed. The problem is that offending people is likely to reduce the chances of them breastfeeding their babies. We should try to avoid phrasing our information in offensive or hurtful ways (where possible, and I do recognise it isn’t always possible) not just for the obvious reason that that’s more pleasant for others, but because it’s likely to increase, rather than decrease, our chances of getting women to breastfeed.

  11. Hey, nice post. I found your blog pretty recently and I was happy to read that you were in agreement with Mad Pride ideas too. The one thing that I would disagree with, though, is that I wouldn’t say that the roles being played out in an unequal-power situation, such as between you and Monica Roberts, are those of oppressor/oppressed. I imagine it like this: There’s a jail full of prisoners who have to work for the owners, and it’s got different levels, and some of the prisoners are treated better than others, but that doesn’t mean that they’re the ones actually *doing the imprisoning* of the worse-treated prisoners. Other than that, though, this is a really sharp, thoughtful look at how we go about being allies to each other in bad, confusing, complicated situations.

    There are so many ways in which these inequalities play each other out: Say a young boy is being treated in a way that goes against his liberty and autonomy as a human being, and it’s his mother treating him this way, and I’m another woman- In this situation, even though I might personally have more understanding of the mother’s situation, by responsibility, first and foremost, is to defend the kid, even if it means that the mom will be pissed off or offended- though of course if there’s a non-offensive way, try that first. I guess the gist of it is: One shouldn’t let empathy for another person allow them to let *that* person do something that harms someone else.

    And then, of course, there’s the tragic pattern of people being hurt and humiliated by authoritarian systems, who then try to regain a sense of power by hurting people when they get the chance to. It can be towards someone typically less powerful, like a child, or someone who is only less-powerful in the moment. Say a man who grew up in poverty sees a rich woman as one of the people who usually has it better than him, but for the moment, he’s hired muscle in a mental institution and she’s a patient. Now he can even do things without them being violent crimes, because the state has declared such violence to be *legal*! Yeah, it’s fucked up all around… I should really read Pedagogy of the Oppressed, like one of my socialist friends keeps telling me to… Thanks for being a voice.

  12. Pingback: "Don't Judge Me" | PhD in Parenting

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