Sunday, October 17, 2010

The right side of correct; the correct side of right

I'm quite perplexed with the letter "Stay lean, SIA girl" (Oct 9) by Teo Yee Chee, and rather astounded by review of the letter by Barnyard Chorus.

Here's the blog article:

How to tell the world you're an asshole

Oooh, who likes getting all het up and furious first thing in the morning? You had better if you, like me, get the Straits Times on subscription. In today's Life! section, a letter from Asshole Alpha:

Stay lean, SIA girl

I refer to the report, I Don't Mind A Fatter Singapore Girl by Jeremy Au Yong (Life!, Oct 9).

I do not mean to be disrespectful or discriminate but I honestly do not want to sit beside an overweight person during a long flight, especially when flying home.

Singapore Airlines did not become a leading airline just because the SIA Girl looks slim, clean and pretty.

She is just one of the building blocks that fit very well into the whole operations. When there is a lapse or drop in service quality, SIA has to correct and improve. In every successful business, there are certain identities and standards associated with it. These form its culture and infuse its soul.

It is easy to say you do not mind having a fatter Singapore Girl but it will be a problem for many.

Teo Yee Chee

Fatphobia: check. Equation of service staff's physical features with 'service quality': check. Commodification of service staff as mere 'building blocks': check. Cluelessly trumpeting the opinion that the other people should be in service to the pleasure of your unpleasant, privileged ass: check. (The one grain of truth in this letter: that many will share the same retrograde views that you hold.)

Hey, Teo, next time you might want to lighten up on the disingenuity, and just declare that you think fat people don't deserve to be treated like fellow humans. I have a lot of things to do and it would save everyone's time if I didn't have to point out the contemptible ridiculousness of your opinions before I told you to fuck off.


ETA: I haven't read the original Jeremy Au Yong article that this letter refers to, but I don't have high hopes for it.


For Teo to publicly voice his discomfort with fat people, I feel it is a little insensitive.

But for the rest of his letter, I read it to be merely pointing out a phenomenon shaped and influenced by an oppressive order/cultural logic.

In this cultural logic, slim women are considered desirable and fat women are considered less desirable.

Because of the way society is organised according to this cultural logic, businesses follow suit and capitalise on it. We end up commodifying bodies because there is a preference and a demand for desirable types.

Teo makes this more salient by saying the business that is SIA is built on this cultural logic. At least that is my reading.

He goes on to comment that "It is easy to say you do not mind having a fatter Singapore Girl but it will be a problem for many", which I read to be a comment on the cultural logic of gender.

As an observer (not helped by his opening statement), Teo finds himself flamed. It's nothing new when the right to express your opinions is accompanied by the responsibility to accept a multitude of (mis)readings, criticisms, character attacks and flaming from a variety of folks. Perhaps even my reading of Teo's letter might be read as undesirable and wrong.

So in this case, Teo is portrayed as one who engaging in the process of reproducing the cultural logic of gender - Teo is read as complicit (no thanks to his open fatphobia).

Perhaps Teo, presumably a heterosexual man, you know, those types way below the pecking order of the Oppression Olympics, is already prejudged in the eyes of feminist detractors.

Thus, all his observations are readily read to be approval, indicative of his complicity in the cultural logic of gender (or the gendered logic of culture, whichever).

Yes, let's go a little poststructural on this (and explore the inherent contradictions):

1) Man observes and comments about a social phenomenon, e.g. society desires slim women.
2) Critiques of man say he is approving of the order and complicit in it.
3) His observations and comments about the social phenomenon are read to be social processes that reinforce the prevailing order.
4) Then again, how can we be certain that the structuring of critique of the man is not within the prevailing order? Are we assuming that the subversive questioning of the complicit and approving man is independent of the cultural logic and prevailing discourse?

If neutrality (assuming Teo was "neutrally" trying to explain the phenomena by speaking on behalf of SIA) is seen as a position and a process tantamount to complicity, what about the critique of neutrality?

Does the critique of neutrality exist as an entity, a position and a process that is non-complicit?

I think we are often too preoccupied with the critique of neutrality and framing it as a position or a process complicit in some prevailing discourse or oppressive framework, that we pay little attention to the political process and motivations behind the critique of neutrality itself.

It appears that some of us expect a little too much from others when they are making observations of society. They might not be in the position to articulate their observations with a sociological imagination or any feminist thought. They simply just explain the conditions we are in.

But amidst the multitude of readings, some will read Teo's letter to be indicative of his approval of such a cultural logic.

Perhaps, even within the domain of reading itself, there appears to be a "charmed circle" of readings.

At the top of the hierarchy of "correct" readings would be the reading that Teo is complicit, and that his neutrality and attempt to speak on behalf of SIA to comment on the cultural logic of gender, constitute his approval - still complicit.

And at this stratum, enemies are well-established, such as businesses (that obviously exist within the oppressive cultural order). Explaining on behalf of businesses would mean the "explainer" is read to be sympathetic and hence approving of the business.

Rather than reading an observation as a commentary on a social phenomenon, some of us readily make accusations that the observer is "guilty" or complicit.

But parts of our resistance, subversion and critique of the observer and the structures that shape him (male noun!) and whatever he observes, are constructed on the very same plane on which the observer and phenomena exist - the same cultural logic.

In the "charmed circle" of readings, there also exist a "charmed circle" of readers, stratified by gender, sexuality, physiology, race and so on. And we find ourselves in a battle for who's right and more "authentic".

Teo, at the end of his letter, gives us, or rather me (and how I read it), a reality check. There is a gulf between political correctness and actual feelings and opinions (which can hurt and divide people).

Who rules the domain of political correctness, and is there a hierarchy of opinions and within the hierarchy of opinions, is there a hierarchy of identities for the expression of opinion?

There will always be people who are uncomfortable with other people, and it's important to continually point this out. That is what I read Teo to have done.

And again, his vocalising of discomfort with fat people is also in itself a commentary about how there will be people who are uncomfortable with others. It is a phenomena we are all part of.

I believe it's time for us now to look at his observations and do something about ourselves first.

Perhaps my reading of Teo's letter is on the wrong side of correct, or the wrong side of wrong in the eyes of another reader.

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