Language and Inclusivity: The Bay Area Creative Music List

IAWM list

May 21, 2001

A lot has been made about "political correctness" in the USA, but I wonder just how common it really is. Some women in the composition department at the University of Texas recently complained about continual atmospheres of male crudeness in classes that made them feel unwelcomed and uncomfortable. 

I have no idea if the accusations about UT are true, but there was another situation I closely observed for two years that was quite astounding. Mills College hosts, but does not own, a listserv called the "Bay Area Creative Music List." The focus of the list is free improvisation, which is a very large part of the new music life in the Bay Area. 

It was by far the most crudely macho and sexist list I have experienced. As just one example, language referring to music in terms of male genitalia was a regular part of the discussions ("this music has balls, rock with your cocks out", etc.) This was not just occasional but a standard characteristic of the discussions. And unlike in Texas, there is no question about what was said. It was witnessed by the entire list and put on record in its archives. Due in part to this atmosphere, only one woman regularly participated on the list during the two years I monitored it -- even though Mills is a women's college. 

When I raised the topic of language there was, of course, intense denial and resentment. I was mobbed, but after a couple weeks of intense debate, a woman lurker wrote:

"Language makes a difference. "Rocking with your cocks out," for example,
doesn't offend me as a phrase. (I curse like a longshoreman in real life.) But
in a group where that kind of language is the norm, it DOES make me feel less
included. [...] If you put people off by using language that dis-includes
them *by definition*, they take it as a warning sign that this group might not
be for them. Then they drift away in search of people and places where they
hear familiar, inclusive terms. ....people don't feel as safe in
a group where they don't see any people like them."

I suggested that Mills might ask the list to move to a private server such as those supplied free of charge by Yahoo. I reasoned that especially a women's college might not want to host a public display of sexism -- to say nothing of the low intellectual standards it represented. (The music department is otherwise a relatively good place for women.) The list's members, however, called upon the Mills faculty for support. The faculty responded that they could not control the list and that they did not want to. The idea of moving the list to a private server was not addressed.

As is usual when language issues arise, the counter arguments ran along the lines of free speech. People rightly note that restrictions of language are often more dangerous than the problems they might resolve. On the other hand, sexism and crudity are hardly necessary for the self-expression colleges and universities cultivate -- and all the more so for a women's college like Mills. In fact, as the correspondent quoted above noted, such atmospheres limit the self-expression of women by driving them from participation. Women's freedom of speech is thus reduced.

One Mills faculty member said "anarchy" should reign on the list. Unfortunately, anarchy in this sense removes the protections of the marginalized while allowing the status quo an unrestricted exercise of power. For the BACM list, this meant that a normative standard centered around a crude, male view was further solidified. Such "anarchy" is not anarchy at all, but a quasi-Darwinistic assertion of order created by unrestricted, collective male power.

Once this order is established on a list, it exercises a strong atmosphere of intimidation. Dissenting voices are mobbed. In this case, a crude, exclusionary male atmosphere continued, even on a server coming from a women's college.

Freedom of speech is very important and should never be questioned unless there are very good reasons. Unfortunatley, there are times when overtly crude atmospheres limit women's rights to self-expression, and inhibit their participation in the intellectual and artistic activities of institutions of higher learning. This is anything but freedom of expression.

William Osborne