Taking socio-political critique as a personal attack.


From Sinfest.

There is a peculiar phenomenon which exists in all critiques of social institutions, but especially in radfem: every time a radfem provides criticism of some social institution, many women will object on the grounds that their experiences are different or by communicating their Not My Nigel! syndrome. When talking about pornography, some women will say that the pornography they’re into is less exploitative; when talking about prostitution, some women will say that they know some privileged prostitutes who are not exploited or abused; when talking about the inequality of sex, some women will say that their Nigel is the bestest in all the world and that he would never ever ever abuse his privilege.

It must always be pointed out that radfem is not about the individual, but rather about the patriarchy, which is a universal system of privilege. Within this system, women have to decide how to “deal”: deciding where on the scale from complete submission to complete revolt they wish to position themselves. Whether a woman who voluntarily, and in full knowledge of what she is doing, positions herself at the end of complete submission (think Sarah Palin or Phyllis Schafly) should be blamed is an issue of contention. But it is widely agreed by radfem women that women who make compromises with the patriarchy are not to be blamed for those compromises.

These knee-jerk reactions to criticism apply to any socio-political issue, not just radfem. It can be pretty obviously transposed to other statements against institutionalized prejudice, such as racism or classism. Other ideologies may receive variants of the “my X is not that bad” rhetoric (“my religion is not that bad,” “my version of statism is not that bad,” “my parenting is not that bad,” and so on). These responses are as irrelevant as the “Not My Nigel!” responses.

In a variant of this, socio-political critique can also be explicitly used as a personal attack by people who oppose the critique. All the opponent has to do is “remind” you that your position is supported or exists only because of the mainstream. For instance, men may lament “but what about the menz??” or argue that men have made modern society possible for women (“we hunted the mammoth for you!”). Statists may argue that anarchists are hypocrites for using public roads and public libraries (or may even argue that such usage disproves anarchism). Atheists may be reminded that they were raised in a Judeo-Christian culture and should not stray from it, that science came from a Judeo-Christian culture, and so on.

Feeling personally attacked by a structural analysis is as bizarre as blaming one slat of a wooden floor for the fact that the house is in bad repair. But it makes sense when you keep in mind that we are taught that methodological individualism is the only serious way to approach any issue, and that methodological collectivism is mainly relegated to the dustbin of history.

This all may not be as obvious as I think, so let me clearly state my main argument:

1. We are indoctrinated to believe that our society is egalitarian and that therefore problems can only be solved at the individual level. (see atomistic individualism)

2. Victims of social institutions are held to be responsible for their own victimhood. (see cultivating hatred through personal responsibility)

3. Therefore non-radfem women see radfem criticism of social institutions as a personal attack against their own actions and as a statement that they are responsible for their own patriarchal exploitation, even though this is not the radfem intent and that it really makes no sense.

This reasoning is ingrained in our linear thinking, and the reaction by non-radfem women is instant and automatic, as any thread on some radfem conclusion reveals. No matter what the topic, women will pipe up and feel offended that the radfem is attacking their own lives, even though she is doing nothing of the kind.

The consequence for activism is what we observe with funfems and other forms of mainstream activism- their solutions are tailored to an individualistic, capitalistic, democratic society. They try to address collective problems at an individualistic level, a noble but ultimately pointless process. Obviously we do need people on the ground resolving individual problems, but to only address individual problems is to put oneself on an unending treadmill. As anarchists say, one needs to “strike at the root,” the systemic causes of the individual problems.

These mainstream activists, like funfems, liberals, pro-choicers, church-state separation advocates, and so on, are effective at helping individuals but are ineffective as agents of change because their actions are framed within the system that oppresses them. And they frame their actions in this way because the system is invisible to their methodologically individualistic ideologies.

What about “the personal is the political”? Aren’t all of our decisions political in nature? Sure, but there’s a step between evaluating actions in a political context and berating people for them. I believe we do bear collective responsibility for the harm caused by our social institutions. In the same way, men and women share a collective blame for the patriarchy, but no individual man or woman is directly responsible for the patriarchy and its effects on individual women (hence the word “collective”).

More importantly, “the personal is the political” also tells us that our actions must be analyzed within the larger context of the patriarchy’s vast influence. Personal decisions are made in response to the situation a person is in, and the situation a person is in reflects the political situation.

Maybe it isn’t all about you. Maybe the things that turn you on, make you feel hot, and give you orgasms aren’t *just* about your own personal, private, individual life. Maybe the things you do are shaped by outside forces like patriarchy. Maybe your actions have a larger impact. Maybe you didn’t spend your formative years deep asleep in a magical fairy cave only to awake from your slumber to suddenly and mysteriously have fantasies about hog-tying and raping women…

Just like I don’t care what specific kinds of porn you are into, just like I don’t care how much super awesome empowering fun stripping on stage for an audience is for you. You liking something doesn’t make it innately ‘good’. There is no protective bubble around things we think are fun.

As I said before, it’s hard to look at a Sarah Palin or a Phyllis Schafly and excuse their actions. That’s because we recognize at some level that there’s a difference between passively coping with the patriarchy and actively, voluntarily supporting the patriarchy. It’s the difference between a woman getting pepper spray to cope with rapists and a woman holding a rapist’s victims down so he won’t rape her instead. Both are coping mechanisms, but the latter is a crime, while the former is not.

But, and here’s the thing, we blame these actions for being criminal in nature, not because of a prior socio-political criticism. Radfem does not say “it’s wrong to hold down a woman so she can get raped” or “it’s wrong to speak against the equality of all individuals” because these things are basic ethical issues which should not even need to be stated. People may disagree on the punishment or restitution to be imposed on the accomplice, or on the kind of equality that one should advocate, but those are finer points.

If a woman calls the cop on a man who assaulted her, she is legitimizing the violence of the State (including the disproportionate violence directed against women), and putting herself and her assailant under an unjust amount of risk. But we can’t blame any woman who makes the calculation of risk and decides that calling the cops is better than not. It’s the system we need to blame, not the woman who feels she has no better choice.

But if a woman decides to become a cop, go through the schooling needed to do so, and threaten, assault and railroad innocent people as all cops do, then we have to blame that woman as a criminal element. But by and large, this is not the kind of woman we talk about. On the whole, we talk about normal women with an ethical compass struggling to cope with a patriarchal society, not sociopaths who love to degrade or hurt other women. It is to these women that we say, “it’s not about you/your Nigel.” It’s about the P.

I leave the final word to a IBTP commenter named “eb”:

For all I know, you can be the Holy Fucking Virgin Mary mother of God but you still don’t live in a vacuum. Just because you are a good person, doesn’t mean bad things don’t happen in your name or because of your choices.

Step outside the ‘I’.

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19 thoughts on “Taking socio-political critique as a personal attack.

  1. anyasok December 5 2012 at 22:58 Reply

    A lot of it is nurture and not nature which is why I think our system is poisoning everything.

  2. Ms Vanilla Rose December 12 2012 at 3:55 Reply

    Sarah Palin? Could you not have found a better example of a woman trying to fit patriarchal norms? There’s a heck of a lot wrong with her views. But one could make a fairly solid argument that a woman who gave birth in the same year that she ran for vice president of a fairly large country is helping to break down the notion that women have to choose between career and family.

    • Francois Tremblay December 12 2012 at 4:05 Reply

      Yea, you got me, I’m just trying to make you ashamed of your sexuality through my use of Sarah Palin as an example. LOL!

  3. Ms Vanilla Rose December 12 2012 at 5:33 Reply

    Wow. I would have thought you would confine your response to, you know, either matters you had raised in your particular blog post or in my brief comment on one aspect of your post. But you chose to drag in something I had posted elsewhere. You really have got the hang of this de-railing lark!

    • Francois Tremblay December 12 2012 at 14:12 Reply

      Very funny. My answer was relevant, I thought, what with you using procreation as a feminist activity. And how about Phyllis Schafly? I used her as an example too. But she had children and worked too so she must be a feminist icon as well?

  4. Ms Vanilla Rose December 19 2012 at 17:30 Reply

    I didn’t use procreation as an example of a feminist activity per se. Neither Palin nor Schafly is a feminist icon, and I never said they were. Susan Faludi, in “Backlash”, does point out the fact that many female icons of the religious right have managed to combine careers with motherhood-marriage. Apparently without being aware of the gap between what they were saying and what they were doing.

    In theory, a more accurate example of complete submission to the system would be if a career woman with children were to give up her career solely because she had decided to embrace the values of the religious right. (As opposed to deciding to spend more time with her children for its own sake.)

    • Francois Tremblay December 19 2012 at 18:24 Reply

      I didn’t say it wasn’t a gradient. But your implication that Sarah Palin is some kind of feminist icon is just silly.

  5. Ms Vanilla Rose December 29 2012 at 15:11 Reply

    Vanilla Rose: “Neither Palin nor Schafly is a feminist icon”.

    Francois Tremblay: “Your implication that Sarah Palin is some kind of feminist icon is just silly.”

    Are you sure you read what I wrote?

    • Francois Tremblay December 29 2012 at 16:10 Reply

      Maybe you don’t think she’s an icon, but you admire her.

  6. Ms Vanilla Rose January 1 2013 at 7:07 Reply

    Nina Power has some interesting things to say about Sarah Palin in “One Dimensional Woman” (no, the book wasn’t just about Mrs Palin. But you have probably already read it and know that.). I detest what Sarah Palin stands for. But I take on board what Ms Power wrote about how Palin has managed to turn her perceived weaknesses into strengths. I think that there is something to be said for turning weaknesses into strengths, depending on what they are. Eg, being ignorant and unwilling to learn is a weakness that should be criticised, but coming from a background which was deficient in terms of opportunities is not something to be ashamed as. Because of course we cannot help the situation in life into which we are born.

    The above shows that I admire Power for her ability to analyse these matters perceptively, not that I admire Palin.

    Also, “Backlash”, a book I admire greatly, has a lot to say about how the media and politicians can distort facts so as to make it seem as if there is something wrong with women who want to have children and have a career. I sort of like that Palin gave birth and ran for VP in the same year.

    I also admire Susan Faludi. She must have put so much work into writing “Backlash” and yet she managed to stand back and let the facts and statistics do most of the talking.

    I appreciate that you, as an anti-natalist, don’t see things in quite the same way. I don’t have children and I certainly don’t think that there is anything wrong with that. At the same time, obviously I don’t think women should feel pressured to choose between career and children; nor should they be made to feel bad for being at-home mothers. And, of course, there is the wider question of why men are seldom expected to choose between career and children. And the question of how career, in terms of paid work, is seen as so important in capitalist society. Which, naturally, paints a picture of people who aren’t in paid work as idle and useless (unless they are at-home parents with a spouse earning money).

    When all is said and done, however, Palin is no more worthy of admiration per se than the detestable Margaret Thatcher*. Except Palin gave us far more to laugh about in terms of outfits and child-names.

    (* I know I shouldn’t single out individuals, particularly, as Thatcher would have got nowhere without people agreeing with her policies. She was only part of a system, but on the other hand, she did have some choice …)

    I’m not sure whether this explanation comes across as (a) even less clear or (b) so obvious that it’s banal. Hopefully neither. Anyway, best wishes for the new year. And here is a greeting which I drew earlier: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-7OEEQI4okHg/UKSq0BSigfI/AAAAAAAAAk0/JLwq8w-xcFo/s1600/DSCN9185.JPG

    • Francois Tremblay January 1 2013 at 13:53 Reply

      Hail and well met. Backlash is on my queue. I’ve got so many topics to read about nowadays!

  7. Ms Vanilla Rose January 1 2013 at 7:09 Reply

    Typo. “Ashamed of”, not “ashamed as” in the first paragraph.

  8. Ms Vanilla Rose January 3 2013 at 3:08 Reply

    I first read “Backlash” nearly 20 years ago, and I still think it is a great book. A lot of Faludi’s accounts of media distortion are almost amusing in terms of the chutzpah of those involved in the lies. Then you get to the part where she describes the effect of the backlash on real women and that part is heart-breaking.

    • Francois Tremblay January 3 2013 at 3:09 Reply

      They were all asking for it, doncha know. How dare they be women. Why it’s enough to make me enraged.

  9. Ms Vanilla Rose January 3 2013 at 3:21 Reply

    Although my favourite book of all time remains “The Dispossessed”.

  10. [...] debate methodological individualism because that’s a whole other issue (see my entry “Taking socio-political critique as a personal attack” for an indirect take on that). Suffice it to say that I find the proposition that individual [...]

  11. […] systemic analysis of BDSM. The basic principle is that criticizing BDSM as a practice is really a personal critique of everyone who practices BDSM by “choice.” Any critique of BDSM must therefore be an […]

  12. […] you get people who complain that they like doing whatever and you can’t tell them what to do. But feminism doesn’t tell people what to do. The point of feminism is to make a systemic […]

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