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Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Speaking Feminism: The Whom Rule



by Eudaimonatrix)

(and an accidental linguistic easter egg)

[trigger warning: domestic violence, sexual harassment]
 
[trigger warning: stark and explicit references to domestic violence] Awhile ago I saw a great TED Talk by Jackson Katz called: Violence against women—it's a men's issue. Go watch it now. I’ll wait.
 
 
[waits for 18 minutes, or, if you want to see where I’m going here, for a couple minutes while you watch starting at about the 2:28 mark]
 
In the video, the speaker uses grammar to elegantly illustrate how objectification and victim blaming work, and are desperately inter-related. His illustration centers on simple sentence construction: how the way we use the subject and the object in a sentence send radical signals about how we’re thinking about accountability, agency, and domestic and sexual violence.
 
Today’s comic from The Oatmeal is also grammatical: How and why to use “who” and “whom” in a sentence.  I usually get a kick out of The Oatmeal’s grammar humour, and this comic is no exception (I don’t know why unwashed koalas are funny, but man, the lols…). The grammar tip basically boils down to
 
Whom = enquiries about the object (him in a properly constructed sentence)
Who = enquiries about the subject (he_ in a properly constructed sentence)


Handy tip. Now I know how to keep who and whom straight. AND….[drum roll] how to tell if you’re objectifying or victim-blaming someone using grammar!

 
The ‘subject’ in a sentence is the ‘doer.’ They have the agency (and are ostensibly accountable for the action taking place).
For example:
DudeBro shouted “nice tits!” at the Stranger.
Who shouted? DudeBro, the subject. Whom was sexually harassed? The Stranger, the object of the sexual harassment, whom you  (depending on who you are) feel sympathetic towards, angry on behalf of, or entitled to bother.
 
Passerby intervenes, by telling Dudebro “yo, Dudebro, not cool.  Not a consent-based interaction, man.”
Who intervened? Passerby, the subject doing the talking. Whom got told? Dudebro, the object.  Notice how in this case the Passerby is brave, and the one in control?
“Whatever, [insert homophobic expletive]. She’s got great tits, and she should cover up if they’re not for me to compliment,” sayeth DudeBro.
Now, here’s an interesting one. The DudeBro is a subject in that he said the thing. However, let’s look at what he said. It’s not easy to pick out from the sentence construction (simple sentences are usually subject-verb-object, as in the first 2 here). So let’s use the who=he (and I) and whom=him (and me) rule.
She is the subject. She is the one who has something and should do something.
Me (in this case, Dudebro me) is the object.  Her doing something (or not doing something) has an effect on him.
Who is in the wrong? She is (yep, the Stranger is a she – go figure).
According to whom? Dudebro, who implies through his sentence structure that her appearance in a public space affects him.
Presto. See what happened there? The Stranger is objectified. Then Dudebro (who objectified her in the first instance) is challenged to be accountable for his behavior, and turns the Stranger into the subject so that he can blame her for the action being challenged. Hopefully the scene continues with Dudebro getting an eloquent can of rhetorical whoop-ass getting poured all over him, but we'll leave that up to your imagination, dear readers.
Easter egg time!  The thing that got me thinking about this originally was that the whom-him mnemonic doesn't work for 'her.' As a matter of fact, that shortcut would be whor-her. Telling, no?
(Note:  Mat Inman & The Oatmeal  have been the source of some really sexist “humour” and rape “jokes” in the past, and the comic I link to above actually has a tangential joke about sexual harassment in it that relies on the old “dudes who harass women are just socially awkward, you guyz” standby). I’m still a fan – albeit a critical one. My complicated relationship with sexist media will be something to get into another day).  
 

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