Wednesday, December 06, 2006

"Practice Lists" and De-Weaponizing The Phallus

From time to time on this site I have linked to or reposted a particular type of content that might be accurately labelled the "practice list." In such a piece of writing, a particular progressive or radical political goal is identified and a list of individual behaviours or individual political practices is enumerated that can contribute to achieving that goal. In this post, I want to consider both this form in general -- its pros, its cons, its uses, its limits -- as well as a specific example of this form from a post by Stan Goff called "The Weaponized Phallus (and five easy-to-remember steps)" (which you can read as just linked on his site, or with lots of sexist comments from supposedly progressive men on a liberal U.S.-based news site here).

Just barely below the surface of this particular form of document lurks a disjuncture, or at least a potential disjuncture, between what it claims it wants to achieve and how it sets out to do that. In other words, what exactly does it mean for a piece of writing to claim to want to create social change while pontificating about individual practice? What connection between individual and social might such documents presume? How might those of us with other analyses of such connection engage with such documents?

There are probably two stereotypical examples, polar opposites in some ways but very similar in others, that serve to paint a picture of the range in which most people's answers would fall. The first is an unsophisticated liberal analysis (also found among some sorts of Christians who may or may not be liberal in the colloquial sense): the social is comprised of atomized individuals, so all we need to do is individually convert enough people through education to our ways of doing things and the world will be painlessly changed for the better. Often this is put in words that sound a little less simplistic, but this is what it boils down to. Now, obviously I don't buy this, but lots of people do, from which I think we can conclude a couple of things. The first is that the very fact that the practice list is easily understood as "reasonable" by a great many people who see the social in something like this way makes it a useful political tool -- particularly if it is written in a tone that does actually encourage engagement, challenges people, invites people to be dialogical with the text, rather than just saying "do this or you're bad", then it is engaging people where they are at, engaging them in a way that introduces potentially valuable political challenge but that is not so far outside the framework through which many of us already understand the world that it just gets tuned out. The other thing we can conclude is more a recommendation to people who write practice lists: write them recognizing that some people will engage in them with this assumption but do not assume yourself that this is how the world actually works.

The other stereotypical extreme would include fairly orthodox, structuralist Marxisms, and also probably some more sophisticated versions of liberalism that work in similar ways at least in this respect. Under these understandings, individuals exist over here [extends left arm out with hand in a fist] and the social exists as independent structures over here [extends right arm out with hand in a fist] and they interact by those structures imposing themselves on inidividuals and shaping their lives. People whose ontologies work like this fall into two camps. I would guess that a minority, perhaps a small minority, are openly disdainful of anything that smacks of apolitical individual change-thy-self-ism -- they are anti-PL. I would further guess that most people who fall into this category would see some value in practice lists -- they are pro-PL -- but, true to the way the ontology works, however valuable they might find it to be on an individual level, any explicit connections they might draw to change in the social would be fairly and might just boil down to the understanding of the first example given above, and they may not able to explain convincingly why they see a connection there. In the pro-PL group, you have an audience fairly open to practice lists in general; the anti-PL group would be more resistant, obviously, and would be unlikely to be convinced by any explanation the pro-PLers in this category might advance. As well, intense resistance to the specific practices recommended in the list on the part of members in the pro-PL group could be operationalized by shifting, in the particular instance, to the claims of the anti-PL group -- turning "I don't like what this is asking me to do" into "Well this isn't going to change anything anyway." (And, yes, even those of us who think we think about things are quite capable of doing this and maybe not even realizing it.) I think that for some folk in the pro-PL group, though they are unlike the "simplistic liberal" group described in the preceding paragraph in that they do have some sort of analysis of the social, are probably quite like that group in that whatever valuing (or not) they might give practice lists in a particular instance may be based to a certain degree on moralistic individualism. Which isn't necessarily bad, but it should be recognized for what it is.

So here is my take, which I think avoids for practice lists the traps of "they are everything", "they are nothing", and "they are definitely of moral value and maybe political value but I can't really explain why and if I don't like the specific content well then maybe they don't have any value in general."

Over the last year and, in different ways, the last five years I have come to know more about ontologies of the social that are explicitly reflexive (we create the social together by our doing) and that also embrace anti-fetishism or anti-reification (whatever exists in the social world does so because of people, and "society" and "institutions" and "structures" have no existence independent of sensuous human doing -- people are at the centre, not things). One of the many appeals of this sort of ontology is that it elegantly and simply overcomes the apparent irreconcilable divide between the individual and the social. On the one hand, it is the sum total of all individual actions that constitute the social, so they are not disconnected -- there is a clear causal connection there. On the other hand, this recognition is about as far as you can get from liberal atomized individualism, where some sort of mystical unstructured addition of individuals is what creates the social: Rater, social doing is regulated and constrained by texts and other discourse that is activated as social doing itself by individuals in local sites, so a campaign based on education or individual conversion is inadequate, and doing that is socially organized to produce oppression must be collectively challenged. Though it is something I have learned less about, a branch of sociology called ethnomethodology has shown in experimental ways how human doing reflexively constitutes the social -- its early practice involved what were known as "breaching experiments", which basically involved individuals behaving deliberately differently than expected and seeking to understand how their immediate social environs were put together by looking at how their differences in behaviour changed things.

From this ontology (and from a dash of fairly basic sense about social change) we can conclude a few reasons how practice lists can, if carefully written and depending on the specific contents, be useful. This shows that changing our individual behaviour is not just individual change, but also contributes to changes in our immediate social environment. Practice lists can help us shift our contributions to the constitution of the social world. This is, inevitably, small and local, but because it can prompt resistance and conversation and talking and listening, it can be one important mechanism for us learning more about our social world and for contributing to changes in it. Obviously on its own this is inadequate, and collective action to change the ways in which human behaviour is regulated on larger scales is necessary too, but even at a level that some might dismiss as purely individual, anti-racist or anti-sexist or anti-heterosexist practice contributes to creating the social and to at least making visible and perhaps in small ways subverting the ways in which these oppressions and others are socially produced.

This has very concrete, practical implications. This ontology argues that only collective challenge will change the larger scale ways in which human doing is coordinated to produce oppression. By definition, "collective" means it can only happen through working together, though the exact social organization of this working together may take many different forms. Working together is a form of political practice, and as such it can potentially be improved by suggestions related to individual practice. For example, the list provided in the specific example that I will be considering below is not only important for men figuring out how to treat the women in our lives with personal respect and acting in ways that shows support for their struggles for their own liberation, but also has very concrete implications for working in a social change group: Doing the things it recommends, and/or other things like those, could very well be useful in practicing sustainable "working together," presuming you don't want to exclude women from your group and that you want to allow the possibility of serious functional alliances with feminist women's collectives.

I have said in a number of places that the specific content of the list matters, which should be obvious. If the recommendations are bad, then the practice which they would inform would be bad. Obviously you need to engage with the content, analyze it, think about it, decide whether it is, indeed, a potential contribution to liberatory practice. As always with that kind of work, listening, particularly to those who experience nasty stuff that you do not (while not renouncing your own capacity for judgment) is a key to making that engagement meaningful.

At least one or two general distinctions can be made between categories of content in practice lists, however. The first is perhaps trivial: I am obviously talking here about practices which are not directed purely inwards but that have manifestations that are social, that reveal themselves in interactions with others. The other is more significant: The kinds of relations with others that are impacted by these shifts in practices make a big difference. Of primary interest to me are practice lists that talk about direct interactions between human beings. That is where our impact on the social can be most direct. However, you can find practice lists that are about recommending what you should consume. These, too, are about relations among people -- relations between you and those who produce the products that you consume. This is not irrelevant, and certainly getting money into the hands of a feminist collective of coffee growers instead of a big nasty company is a positive (if very small) contribution. However, those of us who tend to be pulled to this sort of practice list -- indeed, to this sort of practice -- tend to be those of us who are actually able to engage in it, and only a tiny slice of the world's population is really able to engage in this sort of progressive politics of consumption. Perhaps more importantly, excessive focus on this kind of practice helps those privileged enough to do it delude ourselves into excessive attention to the limited change that can occur by engaging with other people via market relations and neglecting our inevitable embededness in the many and multifacted social relations in which we exist as more than just consumers of goods and services produced by other people's work.

The final general theme that I want to touch on with respect to practice lists is the general approach we use to engage with them. To do that, I want to introduce the specific example I'm using here. To see the full post, go here. Excerpts are reprinted below, interspersed with some specific comments from me. After that, I will use one specific point to segue back into more general comments.

[S]o-called “progressive” men (people really should look up the sordid history of that modifier), those who claim to stand for justice and against domination and exploitation, engage in the self-same, woman-hating, weaponized-phallus trash-talk as right-wing men.

In fact, here is a critique of a specific Canadian example in an older post at Marginal Notes.

And here is a small step I am proposing to left-wing men. Stop that. Stop it right now, and never do it again.

Here is a short list, with explanation, that I’d like you to stop:

(1) Stop using gendered language thoughtlessly. There is a politics to language... When you use male nouns and pronouns to describe human, you are reinforcing the idea and practice that makes male the norm. Calling the species homo sapien “Man” is a problem. Calling land and ships and other things “she” and “her,” that men are seen to control, is a problem… because it assigns the controlling role to males. Saying that “it is colder than a witch’s tit” is a sexist turn of phrase. Using the term “balls” to describe courage, and making courage a male characteristic, is a problem. Calling people who lack courage or strength “pussies” is a devaluation, as well as objectification, of women.

(2) Stop saying things that are homophobic, and stop tolerating homophobia. Homophobia, as Suzanne Pharr once pointed out, is a weapon of patriarchy. When you make jokes about prison rape, that is homophobic, as well as buying into a notion of rape as legitimate tool for social control, and masculinity constructed as sexual revenge. The ideological basis for men’s control over women is what Adrienne Rich called “compulsory heterosexuality.” Policing people based on the masculine-feminine binary is policing a binary of domination and subjugation.

I would quibble a bit with the explanation here -- certainly homophobia supports the subordination of women in general, and that is poorly understood by many people so it is important to draw it out, but it seems to me including some condemnation of it because it supports, oh, say, the subordination of the people it most directly targets, i.e. queer women and men, might make some sense too.

(3) Stop saying clueless shit about sex that makes sex an unmitigated good (in reaction to the theocratic right’s squeamishness about sex). It might sound liberated if you are still trying to shock you aging parents, but it erases women’s experience of sex as often obligatory, manipulative, humiliating, and even frightening — one of the practices in a system where they are on the wrong end of social power. ... [S]ex has been experienced as violence by millions of women… imposed by men who took physical pleasure from their violence.

Crucial, crucial, crucial. I might have phrased it differently in order to make more clear that there is diversity within women's experience and within the ways they exert agency in response to that experience, but even if it is not monolithic it is still overwhelming the extent to which many women (in different ways, and particularly those who consensually have sex with men) " as often obligatory, manipulative, humiliating, and even frightening." So, yeah...stop erasing that!

(4) Stop reinforcing the devaluation of women by measuring them by some media-concocted version of what they are supposed to look like. This is a tough one, because we het-men (and even gay men) have been trained very early and very thoroughly to cast the pornographic gaze on women first… judging her “fuckability” (think about that term before we inquire about anything else). This is a form of oppression, and until we make an intentional effort to stop that, everything we say about relieving oppression is hypocrisy. If we say we are for justice, and we say we are against oppression, and we judge women this way, we are frauds… and we deserve to have no one listen to us, ever.

I'm going to come back to this one.

(5) Stop thinking it is okay to attack the “enemy’s women” based on their gender. When you make a sexual remark to put down Anne Coulter or Condi Rice, or crack on them about their appearance, you are attacking them based on their status as women… which implicitly attacks all women. That shit is not cool. It doesn’t make you a more effective progressive (or whatever). It makes you an oh-too-typical male misogynist. You are still engaging in sexualized revenge.

See also the example from Marginal Notes linked above.

This just scratches the surface, but I don’t want to overwhelm anyone. If you want to add one more step, start calling others out when they do this stuff, too.

Time to de-weaponize the phallus; let it revert to the humble pollination device it was designed to be. You’d be surprised at the implications.

There you go. By and large, despite my quibbles, I think the specific content of this list is politically sound, that a certain level of disruption and subversion of gender oppression would occur simply by large numbers of men embracing these practices in their everyday lives, and that social movements would be definitely strengthened if the men in the movements were to do these things (and, hopefully, the many other sorts of things that discussion of these points might lead us to).

Now back to (4). The first reason I want to go back there is to echo a couple of the leftist men who commented in Goff's comments section: For me, at least, all of the other items on this list are no-brainers, and while I make no claims to perfection, they are, more or less, already part of my practice. But (4) -- well, let's say I'm not immune to it, I am very ashamed to say in this public forum. This particular post is hardly the first time I've encountered the idea that resisting our deep training to do this is a politically important practice, and it is something that I have put effort into doing. But, while I certainly do not do it all of the time, and there are implied qualitative elements in Goff's characterization of it that do not necessarily resonate with my experience of doing it, I certainly have not yet fully thrown off this particular part of my training into masculinity.

Beyond that, though, I want to focus on (4) because I think it provides some fairly important examples of the limits of the practice list as a form because of the likely approaches to reading them that they will encounter, particularly with stuff that is as deeply ingrained as this.

A key defining feature of the practice list, at least most that I have seen, is that its items tend to be quite short. This has advantages, certainly -- it means that the document is more likely to be read, for one thing. Despite this brevity, it is still often enough to spark the kind of dialogue on the topic at hand that is probably more often than not the immediate goal of the author.

At the same time, texts that are spoken or written or broadcast or projected do not erupt from nothing into the middle of a blank field, they enter into a preexisting mish-mash of competing discourses. It is a truism that the farther the point you are making or the language you are using is from the dominant discourses and dominant commonsense, the more you have to say to make your point (or the less accessible your language has to be). Therefore practice lists, since they are meant to challenge conventional commonsense but are short and accessible, are very prone to being swept up in discourses that mean they get read in ways that distort their intended meaning. This is especially true when they are being read by people whose privilege is being challenged, because there is a sort of visceral and emotional reaction against really hearing such challenges even at the best of times, and dominant discourses that provide enough static to allow credible misunderstanding are often useful semi-conscious tools in achieving this.

One discourse that is particularly easily imported into the reading of practice lists is puritanism. After all, this particular form of document calls to mind a certain other list of ten instructions that a number of the powerful faith traditions on this continent tell us were handed down from on high. There are a number of different approaches to understanding the ethics and morality of human behaviour that trace some lineage to those two stone tablets, but puritanism is a very powerful one in North America, no less in secular left spaces than in more overtly religious ones.

Item (4) can be read in this tradition as being solely about a fairly narrow behavioural proscription, a formulaic telling that you must obey or you are "bad". This discourse can easily overwhelm whatever consciousness the rest of the article tries to create or broader analyses that readers might have about how this is not a judging for the purposes of directing towards eternal reward or perdition, but rather a deliberate intervention into social relations of domination and subordination. The individual choice to do or not do in this case, or in any generic practice list item, is obviously something judged politically by the author. But that is not the same as the oh-so-easy automatic reading of it into this massive and oppressive tradition by which the only reason for behavioural injunctions is to sort human beings into "good" and "evil". By such a reading, readers are then trapped into either embracing or resisting the particular scheme for sorting, and set themselves up for accusing the author of simplistic thinking, when all along the author intended it as a doorway into a complex and much broader series of questions. In the example I'm using, there are far larger questions about masculinity, sexuality, interpersonal capacity, and the damages that masculinity does to those socialized into it that mean that (4) need be read not only as a narrow "thou shalt not" but also as a single piece of a path towards a rich field of possibility -- possibility of what men ourselves might gain, in our selves and our relationships, from genuine progress in the struggle to put an end to the intertwining of masculinity and power-over, masculinity and violence.

In the case of my example, it is not only the form of the document that evokes puritanism, of course, but also the content of this particular list item because it is at least tangentially related to sexuality. It may be hard for some to understand this based on what is actually written, especially if you read it generously and as it was intended, but I suspect a very common reading of this item by men (perhaps only second to, "Aww, man, but this is harmless fun!") is as a blanket rejection of masculine sexuality and a blanket rejection of the body, and perhaps as a shaming that they/we automatically associate with all of the other attempts to shame us about sexuality that permeate our society. I mean, in my head is stuff like the paragraph or two below, and my gut still sometimes throws reactions like the above at me. I think this happens, by the way, not just by reading the practice list into puritanism but also into another powerful social discourse: dominant ideologies of masculinity, i.e. That's Just How Guys Are. In that (mis)understanding, guys are always thinking about sex (which is understood in ways that erases guys who don't, women who do, and often any kind of queer sexualities); that such constant evaluative looking is a natural and inevitable consequences of desire; that it's all the fault of the ideological construct known as "hormones", which bear only a passing resemblance to the actual biochemical compounds that bear the same label; and because it is seen as so natural and inevitable and tightly linked, asking men to break ourselves of this habit is tantamount to demanding that men renounce desire, or at least embrace a kind of bloodless, almost body-less facsimile of it.

Of course I do not presume to know intent, and some people who make injunctions like (4) probably do intend it in a somewhat puritanical way. And it is certainly reasonablye that even feminist women who make such demands and do not intend even a whit of puritanism should not have to waste time and energy holding men's hands and telling us how else we might understand and act on them. And I don't want to presume to speak for the author of this particular pracitce list. All I can present is how I have engaged with (4). Perhaps one of the biggest resons why (4) is not about denying desire or denying the body is because the practice that it is opposing, at least as far as I have experienced it, really has very little to do with embodied, in-the-moment desire on more than a formal level most of the time anyway. It is ritualistic, it is banal, it is superficial, it is about consumption; it is not about passion, ecstasy, unencumbered engagement with the physical, or mutual co-production of delight of any sort. And I do not think that seeking to break that behaviour, and to embrace a general everyday practice that is animated by the spirit behind the attempt to break that behaviour, at all requires renouncing attraction, denying or denouncing desire, pretending that desire exists in nice tidy compartments in life, or necessarily seeing oppression in the mere fact of reacting in embodied ways to the embodied beings around us. One of the greatest benefits for me in hanging around mouthy, bold, aggressive, feminist, sex-positive queer women has been an appreciation of the fact that it is entirely possible to be blunt and open about experiencing attraction and desire and reacting in embodied ways to embodied people and acting on all of these things in conventional and unconventional ways, and never losing a sense in language and action that it is all about engagement with people. Not always but often that sense of engagement with people flickers in and out or disappears entirely when it is hetero men who are making sexuality, relationships, love, and lust the focus of spoken discourse or other sorts of action. In fact, the very specific form of gaze that (4) objects to is not about embodied practice at all, it is about systematically removing one aspect of the bodies of women around us from physical reality and embedding it in social (and internalized psychological) discourses very tightly tied to use and largely divorced from actual social context and from actual bodies. And this is not, as it may sometimes be intended and more often than that is read, some kind of recommendation to pretend that only some kind of untainted, quasi-spiritual desire is legitimate; rather, it is an injunction to strive to treat people as whole, complex, physically embodied, and socially embedded, as you experience whatever emotional, physical, intellectual, sexual, political, spiritual, or other experience that their presence and actions inspire in you. And to allow critical political interrogation (within yourself at the very least, and perhaps in safe social spaces) of the ways these responses have been socially constructed within us, and how best to enact them (or not).

In conclusion, I think I will continue to occasionally post stolen or borrowed practice lists. Their use is limited because their brevity and accessibility makes them prone to being read into dominant oppressive discourses (like puritanism and dominant ideologies of masculinity in the example given). However, they still serve to provoke discussion, and provide an entry into discussion for people who are able to advance more complete, sophisticated analyses of the politics on which the lists are based. As well, treating seriously the content of such practice lists is really just one part of recognizing that our own political practice as individuals is not purely a moral question, as some on the left treat it even if that is not the language we use, but a question of intervening in the everyday production of the social in ways that, though they are local and small, still have an impact and can contribute to or inhibit our efforts to create larger, collective movements to challenge oppression and exploitation.

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