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’.