Friday, January 10, 2014

Philosophizing: Minority, Numbers, Gender, Librarians

Update (1/27/14)

I'm going to leave the post below intact, but after the #libtechgender panel I want to confess a glaring problem with this post: it's pretty clearly essentializing gender (e.g. the penultimate paragraph). If I took away one thing from the panel, it was the importance of understanding intersectionality and that many people have multiple attributes which are oppressed (gender, race, ableness, sexual orientation, class, religion...there are more). Focusing on one difference downplays this intersectionality. For some of the panel's content, Chris Bourg and Cecily Walker both wrote blog posts. Those posts were written before the panel so they don't necessarily cover all that we talked about but they're great reads on these issues.

Before I participate in a panel on #libtechgender at ALA MidWinter, I wanted to articulate some thoughts that have been on my mind.

The word "minority" is unfortunate because of its numerical connotations. When we speak of a "minority" group of people, the proportion of group is not at issue. My thinking follows Deleuze & Guattari:
The notion of minority is very complex, with musical, literary, linguistic, as well as juridical and political, references. The opposition between minority and majority is not simply quantitative. Majority implies a constant, of expression or content, serving as a standard measure by which to evaluate it. Let us suppose that the constant or standard is the average adult-white-heterosexual-European-male speaking a standard language (Joyce's or Ezra Pound's Ulysses). It is obvious that "man" holds the majority, even if he is less numerous than mosquitoes, children, women, blacks, peasants, homosexuals, etc. That is because he appears twice, once in the constant and again in the variable from which the constant is extracted. Majority assumes a state of power and domination, not the other way around. It assumes the standard measure, not the other way around. — A Thousand Plateaus, pp.116-7
This is particularly relevant in America. Here, whites are about to (have already? I'm being a bad librarian and not looking this up) become a numerical minority. And doubtless some pundits will use this to argue that white people should benefit from affirmative action and other programs, opportunistically preying upon a misunderstanding of the word minority. What makes white people a majority is their status as a standard, not their quantity. D&G's example is perfect: white heterosexual men are not a numerical majority, but they are a standard. So much assumes their viewpoint.

Other than avoiding silly conclusions, recognizing the non-numerical status of the majority/minority group helps in one other way: it hints that solutions will not be arithmetical. Numbers are great proxies but they are not the thing itself. As a hypothetical, consider if we attain female representation at library technology conferences in equal proportion to the number of female library technologists. Is our work done? Gender equality! The numbers are equal thus equality! No, again, equality is not a numeric term here. Not until women not only participate in similar proportion but also feel as comfortable, are respected as much, etc. is there anything that could be called equality. So increasing female participation numbers is great, but only as a means to this non-numeric equality. And also, this non-numeric equality doesn't mean "we're all the same" which I feel is used as a pedantic counterargument to liberatory politics. "Equality" means no one group hold the majority position. No group plays standard, has their viewpoint assumed.

There is a lot more to talk about but I'm only going to outline it because digression. Just as equality does not mean we're all leveled into one homogenous mass of humanity, it does not mean power struggles suddenly disappear (on the contrary, power would be more fluid, would circulate far more). Also, the notion of "minority" is incredibly strong in D&G, as the quote above implies. It's an artistic, social, ontological notion even. Because majority is more standard than highest proportion, those considered within the majority group can "become-minority" (specific examples abound in D&G, such as "becoming-woman", "becoming-animal"). This is where the majority members can realize their own liberation. They too are not held to a standard, can embrace alternate ways of being. As an example, patriarchy hurts men, too. They must be manly, be heterosexual, not cry, not show emotion, not get beat up, etc. Ultimately everyone runs into a limitation of the standard, a point where they do not meet its demands.

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