Empowerment, and the perverting thereof…

As part of the “post-modernist” ideology of “third wave feminism,” I’ve seen people on the Internet use empowerment as an excuse to support anything from makeup and high heels to female genital mutilation (to be fair, I’ve only seen the latter once, but I have also read testimonies from willing victims of FGM who said the same). This should give one pause.

Empowerment, in my opinion, should be reserved to things that actually, you know, give people more power: schooling, money, status, fame, access to legitimate violence, influence on executive or legislative power, access to the media, and so on. Those are all things that actually give people more possibilities and more leeway to go against other people’s wishes.

As a radical, I oppose such forms of power because they are, again, about getting others to do what you want and to conform more closely to your values instead of theirs. These forms of power can only bring freedom to the individual at the expense of other individuals, and cannot lower harm or bring more good to society as a whole.

In radical terms, what we want to perpetuate is not power but what is called counter-power, processes which prevent the natural accumulation of power. Every form of power has a general tendency towards accumulation, and has a form of counter-power which prevents it from doing so. Empowerment, from a radical standpoint, should have something to do with resistance. I like this statement from bell hooks:

One of the most significant forms of power held by the weak is “the refusal to accept the definition of oneself that is put forward by the powerful”. Janeway call this the “ordered use of the power to disbelieve”.

I find this quote extremely interesting because criticism of imposed labels is precisely the one thing that “empowerment” junkies do not consider empowering. In fact, criticism of the labels they peddle seems to be the one thing they feel perfectly free to speak up against and threaten.

The cardinal rule they use is: anything that makes you feel empowered is, by definition, empowering. But the corollary to this rule is: anyone who claims to be a victim of what empowers you and dares to criticize it must be stopped at all costs. Because otherwise all we have, from their standpoint, is one subjective opinion against another: maintaining the credibility of their ideology therefore demands the suppression of all criticism.

I would say, first of all, that respecting people’s subjectivity only when they agree with you is no respect at all. But I would also say that empowerment, if it means anything, must include the ability to be intellectually independent and criticize the ways in which people evaluate themselves and each other. A person who cannot do so, and is a slave to all the social constructs that people use to define them, will never be able to live their own life.

So why aren’t they encouraging the people who empower themselves by standing up for themselves? Because they don’t want you to think for yourself. They want you to accept their subjectivity uncritically.

I was born male, socialized as a man, and I could never be a woman. I think anyone who was socialized as a man and claims to be a woman is delusional and being manipulated for the sake of a woman-hating agenda. Certainly it makes me feel empowered to be able to point that out and understand how it all works. But according to them, I’m an evil monster for wanting to empower myself: I should just go along with the program and accept that their delusions are true for them.

Likewise, many women who were in prostitution feel devastated by their experiences (no wonder, as prostituted women experience PTSD at a higher rate than soldiers who served in combat zones). When they speak up, they feel empowered by being able to clearly state their experiences and how the current pro-prostitution discourse hurts them and those they love. And the “empowerment” wonks do their best to silence their voices, because they must oppose anyone who disagrees: while they constantly harp on the exploitation of prostituted women being a “choice” that should be respected, they most certainly do not respect the “choice” of ex-prostituted women to speak up against what was done to them.

Finally, many women are truly empowered by women-only spaces, but they are hated by “empowerment” junkies because they believe that men who are “empowered” by calling themselves women should be accepted in those spaces without question. The actual lives and well-being of actual women do not matter: women should concentrate on the lives and well-being of people who are not women but feel “empowered” by pretending they are.

“Empowerment” (in quotes, to distinguish it from real empowerment) is an inherently subjectivist concept. I’ve already pointed out that liberal feminism in general is half subjectivism and half blaming their opponents for imaginary inadequacies.

“Empowerment” is part of the whole liberal mentality. They believe that the liberation of women comes from feeling “empowered” by such things as makeup, high heels, shaving one’s body hair, stripping, pornography, prostitution, BDSM, objectification in general, “gender identity,” hundreds of different made-up genders and sexual orientations, and so on. They believe that anyone who disagrees with their “empowerment” is ignorant, uninformed, a bigot, a conservative, a hairy lesbian, denying women’s “agency,” denying women’s rights, “cis,” “TERF,” “SWERF,” scum, and so on.

‘Empowerment’ is thus a central tenet of raunch culture, and has become a common buzzword in marketing activities and products such as pole dancing (see Donaghue, et al, 2011), as well as in some women’s positive accounts of their experiences with them (e.g. Holland & Atwood, 2009; Regeher, 2012; Whitehead & Kurz, 2009). This conceptualisation of empowerment is based on a view of female power as being the ability to incite desire in men, and hence wield sexual power over them (see Hakim, 2010). Subjective feelings of empowerment are also constructed as stemming from the self-confidence that (apparently) ensues from being found desirable under the male gaze.

Laura Thompson, Desiring to be desired: A discursive analysis of women’s responses to the ‘raunch culture’ debates.

What all the examples of “empowerment” I’ve listed previously, and I think most examples of “empowerment,” have in common is that they portray the world in a fairy tale fashion, completely omitting inconvenient facts like exploitation, oppression and victims. Everything is all hunky-dory as long as you wear the rose-tinted glasses. No one’s ever a victim if you wear the rose-tinted glasses. And it’s all about you, you, you.

This brings me to the other weird belief, that feminism victimizes women by virtue of calling them victims: that, in essence, using the label “victim” is what turns people into victims, because being a victim is a purely subjective state.

This seems to be a form of positive thinking, or even a Life Lie, the bizarre concept that by concocting an imaginary, positive storyline for your life, you will magically make your life better. It seems they believe that by weaving a story of “empowerment” (a Power Lie?) where you are not the victim, you magically become something other than a victim. But a prerequisite to such delusion is to ignore facts.

[T]he meaning of ‘victim’ has changed from being someone who has been abused or exploited by someone else, to a character trait that implies personal weakness. The intention is to make being a victim something to be ashamed of, and to imply that a person cannot be both a subject and a victim at the same time. This means that no one wants to admit to being a victim, and saying that someone has been victimised by someone else is akin to insulting them…

[S]ome sex-positive feminists have taken this logic to its natural conclusion, declaring that even prostituted children should not be considered victims, but rather active subjects. This is a completely false dichotomy – of course people (including children) in desperate circumstances are often resilient and intelligent. This shouldn’t excuse the abuse and exploitation they suffer at the hands of perpetrators, nor mitigate the urgent need to change the structures of oppression that facilitate their abuse.

Is calling a prostituted child a victim a statement of fact? Yes. Is refusing to call a prostituted child a victim empowering? No. What you label the child does not change the social conditions which created eir hardship. Does calling a prostituted child “empowered” help eir liberation? No.

The quote also highlights the confusion between stating that someone has been victimized and believing that they are powerless. “Empowerment” junkies seem to believe that they are the same thing, but they clearly are not. Saying someone was victimized refers to what happened to them, not to who they are.

It is vital for us to be able to clearly identify acts of victimization in order to understand how oppression works and how to argue and fight against it. To claim that doing so “turns people into victims” shuts down critical faculties. It is oppressors, not people trying to identify the oppression, who “turn people into victims.” We are the ones who want to change that.

Stating that you are “empowered” but being utterly unable to identify the institutions, hierarchies and ideologies which exploit and oppress you is not liberation or power. But that subjectivist mentality ultimately feeds exploitation and oppression: letting woman-hating happen without a word, without even acknowledging that it exists, sends a clear signal that woman-hatred is acceptable in our societies.

People who silence victims’ voices to preserve “empowerment” are guilty of aiding and abetting woman-hatred. Such people cannot hold any pretense of feminism. There can be no feminism if every principle of the Patriarchy is explained away as a “choice.”

And we see that, taken to its logical extent, “empowerment” feminism leads to anti-feminism. Take for example this quote from an MRA that I’ve commented on before:

You are so detached from your power as a human being. I am subordinate to no, one nor will I ever be controlled… Women are not oppressed by men.

Or this image:

You might say, well, these are silly extremists who hardly reflect the opinion of a great number of people. But how does one draw the line? If we are obligated to accept delusional thinking as regards to pornography, prostitution, BDSM, transgender dogma, and high heels and makeup, then on what criterion should we stop there and not buy anti-feminist ideology wholesale? Or is any sort of logical consistency too much to ask for at this point?

17 thoughts on “Empowerment, and the perverting thereof…

  1. purplesagefem September 14, 2015 at 08:31 Reply

    Awesome Dilbert comic! :-D

  2. antiplondon September 14, 2015 at 12:23 Reply

    Also, and I think it was Sheila Jeffreys who framed it this way first (or at least that’s where I saw it first), we exercise agency within oppression – so many people (libfems, sex industry advocates) see ‘agency’ and ‘oppression’ as mutually exclusive concepts, which is rubbish, of course. A person with a gun to their head told eat shit or die still has a choice, and the ‘agency’ to make a choice, and they are still very much oppressed by that situation.

    • Francois Tremblay September 14, 2015 at 14:28 Reply

      That’s fine. As you probably know, though, I don’t believe in “agency.” I think it’s just a way to blame the victim and adds absolutely no conceptual content to a sentence.

      • antiplondon September 15, 2015 at 12:25 Reply

        Fair enough!

        ‘Agency’ is a fairly pointless concept anyway, as we have it all the time, and under all circumstances.

        But if people are going to argue ‘agency’, we need (or I do at least) a reply to that.

  3. mandyjanesaddiction September 15, 2015 at 07:46 Reply

    This is a really good article. it’s writing like this that has helped me understand what “agency” and “free will” and “empowerment” really mean. A couple years ago I would have just gone along with the choice crowd, and not even bothered to think about what they were saying. It all sounded so good on the surface!

    Now, when I see some earnest twitter feminist going on about makeup, sexy clothes, or whatever making them feel empowered, I think what is empowering about it? If you can wash or take off whatever it is making you feel powerful then it’s not anything real. It’s alright to do something that makes you feel good, but it’s fleeting. We shouldn’t pretend these things give us more than that.

    I have some ideas about the “victim” label stuff, but I don’t know how to put it into words at the moment. It feels to me like a reaction to MRA types calling feminists “professional victims” whenever they talk about oppression. I need to think about it some more.

    I’ve been reading your blog for awhile now, don’t know why I haven’t ever commented before.

    • Francois Tremblay September 15, 2015 at 15:11 Reply

      No worries, I’m just glad to hear from you! I’d like to hear your thoughts about the “victim” label at some point. I haven’t written too much about it because I don’t think it’s really my place to do so. But it is still important to point out when terms are being used as a rhetorical strategy.

      • mandyjanesaddiction September 15, 2015 at 17:03 Reply

        My thoughts about the victim label are clouded by an exchange I witnessed on Twitter a couple days ago between Meghan Murphy and some twitter feminist (can’t remember who she is). Meghan was talking about campaign to have her fired from Rabble, and the woman called her a “professional victim”. This made me think of the “I’m not like other girls” thing, where we sometimes pick up the abusive language aimed at us and then target other women with it. This would go with equating victim with personal weakness that you quoted in the article, I think, along with wanting to seem cool or whatever.

        I can understand why some women might not want to think of themselves as victims of anything, no matter what’s happened to them. They are tired of feeling this way, and being treated this way… but it pisses me off that they think a prostituted child should not be considered a victim.

        • Francois Tremblay September 15, 2015 at 17:36 Reply

          Agreed entirely!

        • Independent Radical September 15, 2015 at 21:01 Reply

          My thoughts on the “victim” label are that it should be boldly and unashamed used by people who have been harmed in some way (most people). Being a victim does not mean being “weak” and even if someone is weak, hating the weak (instead of standing up for them or giving them support) is fascist. Nor does “victim” necessarily refer to someone who passively tolerates oppression. Victims can fight back and should be celebrated when they do (though those who do not should not be the targets of hatred). I think combating victim-hate is an important part of combating reactionary politics.

          And is it not telling that “I need liberal, sex-positive feminism, because I don’t see women as weak, pathetic (insert other words regularly used by reactionaries to insult those with less power in society) victims” would make just as much sense, so long as they deleted the word “non-existent” (used to describe patriarchy in the original).

          • mandyjanesaddiction September 16, 2015 at 06:21 Reply

            Independent Radical, I agree with you that people who have been victimized shouldn’t feel ashamed to say so. I live in the US, and the culture here is to hate victims. It’s hard to get past that sort of indoctrination, I think. Instead of hating perpetrators, hate the victim for being weak, hate the victim for speaking up, hate the victim for not getting over it. Doesn’t matter what a person is a victim of, they need to pull themselves up and stop whining! It’s such a powerful silencing tactic.

            I’ve come to think of sex positive feminism as kind of fake feminism. It seems like undercover woman hatred. I have seen some sex positivists who do some good work, like making informative videos about how the female body works… but lately most of them seem to think defending the sex industry is somehow the most important thing. They completely ignore any woman who doesn’t have a story that fits their narrative. I know you have witnessed these things, and probably been thinking about them much longer than I have. It’s all a bit new to me, so I still feel flabbergasted by it. It’s hard for me to understand how they don’t see that they are rewriting misogyny with feminist sounding language.

            • Francois Tremblay September 16, 2015 at 15:45 Reply

              I know how amazing it is, mandyjanesaddiction. I’m still amazed by it! The rabbit hole is extremely deep, isn’t it? And once you get to the most right-wing ones like Wendy McElroy, you’re basically in MRA territory.

              • mandyjanesaddiction September 16, 2015 at 16:12 Reply

                Shit, I just googled her and watched part of her rape culture video. I wonder if people like her purposely misinterpret rape culture? She’s obviously not a dumb person.

                • Francois Tremblay September 16, 2015 at 17:02

                  I dunno, are you sure about that? Because her entries sure are fucking dumb.

  4. mandyjanesaddiction September 16, 2015 at 17:10 Reply

    I don’t know! I only watched a few minutes of the video. Sometimes I wonder if people are serious when they say things. Like they could be misrepresenting for political reasons. At the beginning of the talk she went on about how she was brutally raped and didn’t blame the culture, she blamed the man, which seemed to me to be so bizarre that she would have to be intentionally misinterpreting rape culture.

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