Malala Yousafzai

Who We Are, Who We Might Be

formerly, The High Cost of Education

The calendar and anniversaries create meaningful echoes, and this week has given us one such opportunity for past and present to resonate. The world is reeling because alive microphone recorded a presidential candidate — who was not a presidential candidate at the time — speaking in grotesque candor about women. The candidate in question has long been shocking the public for his views and pronouncements on essentially everything under the sun. That this week’s revelations should be in any way revelatory is to feign shock at hearing a dog bark or a lion roar.

The candidate’s apology-sans-apology offered the excuse that this is simply how guys talk to each other in the locker room or the dorm room or the board room when women aren’t present. Which, though by no means true, is oddly — odd, given the mouthpiece — honest.

Stick with me.

Four years ago today, 9 October, 2012, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head on her way to school by a Taliban gunman on account of her having had the gall to be inquisitive and desirous of a proper education. She was 14 at the time.

Correct. A 14 year old girl so terrified the mighty Taliban that they attempted to assassinate her. (And, again, in the event that you’ve managed to miss this story in its entirety for the last four years, Ms Yousafzai has not only made a full recovery, but was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2014.)

The story stays with me for a host of reasons. First and foremost, because it should. Because I'm human and what happened is an outrage.

Also, Malala’s tale haunts me because I have daughters. Inquisitive daughters. Outspoken daughters. Intelligent and funny and beautiful and perfect daughters. And so, of course, it is easy for me to see Malala as each of my daughters in turn.

But really, the heart of the matter for me is much larger issue; one which was illuminated this week for a population which quite simply prefers not to think about such things as the impact of abdicated accountability and the complex impact of simple thought and word on action.

There is an exercise I perform with my students every semester where I invite them all (though separately by gender) to offer any and every euphemism they can think of to refer to the other sex. I usually wait until we are far enough into the semester that they are comfortable pressing some boundaries and won't be quite as inhibited in their response.

I start with the women — by which I mean, I give women the first opportunity to tell me the words they use to refer to men. Almost every time, there is a brief pause before, Asshole. There are then giggles.

Sometimes the first word isn't 'asshole'. Sometimes it's, Dick! Either way, once the floodgates are open, the aggression soon issues forth and every slur imaginable follows. Some, I must admit, are quite witty. And all beget a nervous laughter and titillation at getting to say out loud — in class — what they feel in their hearts.

Then it's the men's turn. Bitch. Priss. Dyke. Usually the C-word follows (which is evidently too distasteful to too many for me to print here, but you surely know what I mean), though interestingly not the P-word (I’m struggling to keep this article readable by all audiences) used by the candidate to refer to what he feels is an acceptable handle for a woman he’s only just met. That word, interestingly, is used by both women and men to refer to men who aren’t being man “enough”.

We go back and forth, wringing the cloth dry of every last spiteful epithet either half of the class can think to say, until I point out that I only asked for euphemisms. I never required, or even asked, that they be negative in nature. The point of the lesson is about the way words — even words we don't really mean — affect our discourse.

I then go on to make the point that the vast majority of the insults are feminine in nature. If a man is unliked, he's as likely to be a douche as an asshole. And if he isn't perceived to be man 'enough', well, take your pick: is he a woman, a girl, a bitch, or those P- and C-words I'm politely refraining from using?

Yet if a woman is somehow failing to win our approval, she's not a dick. Nor, really, is she even likely to be an asshole. She'll be a bitch — probably a fucking bitch or even a little bitch which, I was surprised to learn, seems to pack more sting. Or, if she's really won our disapproval, she’ll be a, you know, P- or a C-.

And — I hasten to add — this is the language used by the entire class. Not just the men. At which point I ask the men and plead with the women to explain to me: what is so wrong with being a woman that the very fabric of our language is woven so that to insult if fundamentally to imply femininity?

And how, you ask, does this have anything to do with Malala Yousafzai?

It ties in to Malala because, four years ago, when I first heard of what happened to the girl and why, I thought to myself that it must take serious balls to challenge the Taliban at the age of eleven. (Though 14 at the time of her assassination attempt, she had been an outspoken and uncommonly articulate advocate of women’s rights to education for years.)

I immediately regretted what was meant as a compliment and have sought to rectify it ever since. Because of course that’s the point: she is a girl. That was the problem from the start. That was why she was not allowed to learn how to factor an equation, or study the stars, or express an opinion.

No, of course, the actual physical balls in this story belong to the cowards, as they so often do. It’s just that our language — and thus our culture — refuses to acknowledge that fact.

I apologize — not only to Ms Yousafzai but to all women — for even thinking to compliment her by bestowing any gender onto her heroic humanity. My God, how I wish even one percent of the world's population — balls or no balls — had the spine to stand tall as this child has done.

And today, four years later (one presidential cycle, as it happens) I have to ask what might a candidate who has expressed no interest in empathy, no interest, frankly, in education, who would forbid this Nobel Prize winning child from entering our nation on the grounds of her faith and his populist view equating it with the very people she has literally risked her life to oppose, who has happily boasted of using his celebrity as entitlement to offer women less respect than he would a cut of steak; what might such a man actually learn from the courage of a young Pakistani girl with a thirst for knowledge, a sense of character, and a well of courage most will never know?

The narcissistic buffoon only said what he said because he’s been encouraged to say it all of his life, and the praise he gets for saying it, the applause, the laughter, the (unbelievable) presidential candidacy, feels too good for him to ever give it a second thought, let alone resist it. Sure it’s the moral equivalent of sludge, but that sludge has buoyed him to within arm’s length of the White House.

I would just like to see us put the disingenuous indignation aside for a moment and ask ourselves if we really don’t know how this came to be.