It appears this past week has been a good one on the internet for self-reflection. Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown, as always, rocked the casbah with her article about taking a deeper look at ourselves, especially within the context of social justice movements, which can prize doctrinal purity over…truth? Hard work? Ugly situations? All of the above plus more? One of my favorite excerpts, that unfortunately hits a little close to home for me:
At some point, we learn what we’re rewarded for saying, how we’re rewarded for seeming, and then we say those things and seem that way, for the reward. It’s like any other set of social norms. But when feminism is used this way, not as a means to get into truth, but as a means to make truth easier or even to avoid it, it’s really not all that different from, say, reading a lot of Ayn Rand. Granted, the results of its clueless or selfish application will probably be better than what the Objectivists have managed thus far. But it’s still something you do for you, rather than for the sake of doing it; it’s a means of propping yourself up. Of self-glorification.
I don’t think we’ll ever end the epidemic of sexual violence in our culture (never mind the rest of the world) until we find a way to effectively redefine masculinity for men. I don’t think we’ll ever truly fight back against rape until we find a way to cripple patriarchy, somehow. We might be able to patch up some of the damage here and there, but without addressing the root of the problem, the causes of sexual violence in the first place, we’ll never reach a lasting change. I truly believe these things. I want to help smash the patriarchy like Feminist Hulk, crush the violent and emotionally constrained mechanisms of contemporary American masculinity, and change our culture. I write about those big picture ideas because they make sense to me. But I also write about them because it gives me credibility without having to actually do any of the boring, difficult, or stressful day-to-day work of actually changing any of it.
I want people to think I’m really smart. I want people to think that I understand anti-oppression work, even if I really don’t. I want people, especially the progressive people that I tend to spend a lot of time around to talk about me with some form of admiration, and I want those people to accept me as part of their community. I write and talk about big, amorphous concepts like the patriarchy and rape culture on this blog and in other places partially because I really do think in a pretty meta way about social issues, but also because it’s a way to impress my peers and colleagues, and to sound like I know more about the world than I really do.
The theoretical world of sexual violence prevention, and feminism as a whole, is a lot…easier…for me to work with and understand than the actual day-to-day work. I don’t really have to do anything to encourage all of you to fight patriarchy in a blog post; and what does that even mean, in a concrete sense? I’ve tried to give a couple of examples in previous posts: changing the language we use around friends so they know we don’t blame victims of assaults, producing our own media with new narratives that help to redefine gender roles, etc. Honestly, though, giant social constructs like patriarchy aren’t ever destroyed or even challenged directly; not successfully at least. They are defeated gradually as bits and pieces of their various supports are knocked out from under them.
Knocking out those supports means a lot of sweat and a small amount of inspiration. It means calling legislators, over and over and over again, to support the restraining order bill 258E (which thankfully, passed). It means constantly raising money by calling donors, calling legislators, calling friends, calling anyone, to keep programs like SANE running. It means staffing things like the BARCC hotline 24 hours a day and talking to survivors who need help. It means standing outside in Downtown Crossing, trying to hand out flyers about the Clothesline project for hours.
With the recent spate of violence in Boston, I’ve been thinking a lot about the success of the early ‘90s Operation Ceasefire initiative. Operation Ceasefire didn’t succeed because Boston officials and community members decided to tackle giant issues of oppression and injustice - those aren’t things you can fight with specific action. It was targeted at stopping the flow of guns into Boston, decoupling drug issues from violence, and getting faith communities and activists mobilized. It took local, state, and federal government money and personnel, and neighborhood activists and organizations all working in concert, and on specific tasks to accomplish Ceasefire’s goals. Not surprisingly, ending the physical manifestation of violence in Boston’s inner-city neighborhoods did help to address larger social inequalities as well (and then Ceasefire lost funding and momentum, and we’re crawling back up to where we were. Great).
I don’t really like confrontation very much. I’m not very good at it. I’d much rather write a post about fighting rape culture than actually have to, say, call my state senator and yell at them for not supporting the restraining order bill. Every now and then, though, I need to remind myself that as much value as writing or shouting “fight the patriarchy!” or “fight rape culture!” have as slogans, they aren’t particularly helpful in actually changing the state of affairs in the wider world. We will better fight rape culture by taking on specific issues - how can we make reporting sexual assault to local police easier? How can we make it easier for male survivors to find a therapy or discussion group when they need help? How can we help universities create more coherent rape policies on their campuses? Each one of those specific issues requires a lot of hard work that is often boring (stuffing envelopes, handing out flyers), confrontational (calling decision-makers, working with officials), or stressful (fundraising), but it also results in concrete victories like new legislation, new health clinics, more staff members for a local rape crisis center that actually change the world for survivors of rape and sexual assault.
I have, historically, avoided that work because I’m not great at it, and because it find it boring (because it sometimes is), confrontational, and stressful. It’s so much easier to sound like I’m fighting the good fight, than to actually do it by getting my hands dirty and jump in. If I don’t, then a lot of the rest of this is hot air; feminism and social justice as accessory, or a line on a resume.