Monday, August 6, 2012

On Complicity and Mindfulness

"The basic assumption with which we must start any theorizing about the past is that men and women built civilization jointly. Starting as we do from the end result and reasoning back, we thus ask a different question than that of a single-cause 'origin.' We ask: how did men and women in their society-building and in the construction of what we call Western civilization arrive at the present state? Once we abandon the concept of women as historical victims, acted upon by violent men, inexplicable 'forces,' and societal institutions, we must explain the central puzzle-- woman's participation in the construction of the system that subordinates her..... 
The patriarchal mode of thought is so built into our mental processes that we cannot exclude it unless we first make ourselves consciously aware of it." -Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy
Here, a couple of points stand out to me.

First, Lerner's contention that men and women built civilization jointly seems so simple to me. Yet, dominant narratives seem to posit that it was men who primarily built civilization, with some feminist narratives inferring that, therefore, it was men who primarily built patriarchy.

If we accept that men and women built civilization jointly, with women being subjects in history rather than passive objects who historically only had things happen to them, it is, I believe, logical to infer that women have also, as Lerner argues, participated in building patriarchy and legitimizing it. I don't think that would be a contentious concession for many feminists. And, not only because women like Phyllis Schlafly exist, but because I think most of us- all of us?- are complicit in it to some extent. Complying with how one is "supposed to act" according to the sex one was assigned at birth has its own set of rewards, safety, and pats on the head- and those reinforcements can be quickly and violently withdrawn from those who do not comply, as many trans* people talk of knowing all too well.

Where I see most value in feminism is doing exactly what Lerner suggests in that last sentence: consciously becoming aware of the patriarchal mode of thought. Lerner defines patriarchy as "the manifestation and institutionalization of male dominance over women and children" in families and society, but I fall more into thinking about sex/gender subordination from a kyriarchy approach.

However, I think her more general point remains: People are going to be complicit in problematic power and kyriarchical relations if they do not consciously think about them and if they are not aware of them.

As a related example, I was recently in a conversation with someone on Internet where a woman opposed to same-sex marriage asserted that "homophobia is a relative term" and that it's "mostly" used to silence the opposition, implying that (a) homophobia mostly exists in people's imaginations, and (b) that people who assert that others are being homophobic are only doing so to "defame" their political opponents. This woman, consequently, does not seem to see herself as being heterosexist, privileged, or bigoted.

In fact, we hear a lot in debates about LGBT right, from those who oppose LGBT rights, about how the opposition isn't homophobic and how there are only like 3 actual bigots left in the world. But, I'm always wondering.... when have these opponents of LGBT rights taken the time to consciously think about the power structures that preserve heterosexual privilege? When have they become aware of the internalized homophobia and heterosexism that we all possess by virtue of living in a homophobic/heterosexist society. And, when exactly have they done the work to actively rid themselves of these problematic mental processes and privileges?

By the way they speak about us and to us and explain away our concerns and inform us that bigotry isn't a real thing in the real world, I'm just not convinced that many people, no matter how nice and well-intentioed they think they are, have done this type of work on themselves. We live in a soundbite society where many people think in Bumper Sticker catchphrases.

So, it's like the declaring of oneself to be Not A Bigot reflexively comes before one actually and mindfully considers whether one might be a bigot or not.

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