Sunday, October 11, 2015

Reading blunt feminist words as a cis dude

It's a phenomenon as common as the internet is wide: A cis guy who thinks of himself as broadly in sympathy with social justice goals reads a piece of blunt feminist writing, perhaps one directly addressed to cis guys or perhaps one that merely has implications for cis guydom. He has some kind of reaction to the writing. And he deals with that reaction by exhibiting one of the superficially varied but substantively similar responses that perform a combination of supposed underlying sympathy with specific disagreement, that really boil down to not having actually listened to what the piece in question is saying. It doesn't always take this shape, but "not all men" is sometimes within this family of responses.

I want to explore the reaction that leads to these responses, particularly how they are in part produced by core features of how we build knowledge about the world. And I want to suggest more politically useful ways for cis dudes to respond when they are gripped by such a reaction.

So, first of all, read this. It's a letter, framed as an advice column response, to a pro-feminist cis guy seeking advice about challenging rape culture. It is conversationally written, no-holds-barred in its politics, and matter-of-fact intense, and it is a powerful example of things that all cis guys (in this case, particularly those whose desires include women) should be reading, thinking about, and acting upon. Go on: read it.

My reaction to reading it was complicated. For one thing, it was emotionally difficult. None of what it said was new to me and I more or less agree with where it's coming from, but even so, being pushed to think about one's complicity in oppressive practices and relations is not easy. This kind of emotional response is very persistent and even after we think we're adequately taking it into account, it insidiously works its way back into our responses and choices – it continuously pulls our attention away from truly sitting with the situation and the critique. What I'm writing here isn't focused on this emotional response, but working with it is central to being able to take up and use the rest of what I have to say.

But let's say you do manage to work your way far enough through the emotional resistance we all feel at sitting with this kind of stuff. I think most cis guys who do this, even those inclined to political sympathy with the piece, will still be left with a feeling of what it has to say not quite fitting, of a gap (big or little) between what the piece says about their/our experience and how we actually experience our own lives. Trying to apply its words to our own lives will result in moments where we feel a not-quite-rightness, and for many, this produces an impulse to say things like, "Yes but..." or "It left out..." or "What about..." or "I just haven't exerienced that...", all of which are a perilously easy step from "not all men" and other mechanisms of dismissing the basic point of the piece and disrespecting the generosity of the author in taking the trouble to write it for us.

There are lots of examples I could take from the piece to illustrate this, but I'll briefly talk about two. The first doesn't necessarily come directly from my own experience: When the author writes that she "has had to try to teach every dude she's fucked more than once how not to rape her," I definitely feel a strong emotional charge that I suspect most cis dudes whose desires include women feel at hearing such a stark condemnation of dominant masculinities in the context of rape culture. Because of various quirks of my own journey that I'm not going to get into, though, I don't actually experience the gap in this case (which actually makes it emotionally harder to read, not easier, but that's another post). I suspect that a lot of cis dudes do feel a gap, though. They see the intentional implications of this statement of experience for their own lives, and even if they manage to sit with the emotional discomfort, I suspect a lot just don't see how it applies. For many cis guys, I suspect it feels like a mis-fitting, like there is no way to reconcile her experience with theirs.

Or take another example that I do experience more directly: The piece asserts that "you have been socialized at every turn to believe that sexual prowess is the ultimate way for you to assert your value and place in the world." This one feels less emotionally loaded, and I certainly know what it's getting at. But given my current age and social positioning, while sexual prowess is in the mix, I'm not sure that it feels like it is really the "ultimate" component of masculine belonging that constrains me. So I can't help but be pulled towards a "Yes, but..." that puts that in the context of other core elements of the messed up reality of masculine belonging that vary with race, class, sexuality, age, and other more idiosyncratic features of social location.

In these instances and in many others I could name, the piece is saying important things, but it doesn't necessarily feel like it is quite capturing all of my experience of being a cis guy in the contexts it's talking about, and there would be a related but distinct pattern of fitting and mis-fitting for other cis dudes. And many of us (reinforced by our emotional reactions) will treat this gap as a bug, and a reason to regard the source as somehow in error or invalid. This, I think, is a mistake. None of these expressions of a bit of a gap between what the piece says and my own efforts to apply its insights to my experience are indications that the piece is wrong, that it is badly written, or that it cries out for a disrespectful "But...but...but!" response from some random dude on the internet. I think we need to see this gap as a feature, and a prompt to do particular kinds of work as part of and in response to reading the piece. I repeat: Reading something like this is not a reason to conclude that the piece is not worth paying attention to, but a sign that you (and I) have work to do.

One thing that's going on here – and this is by far a lesser component, but still worth mentioning – is just the fact that it's a short piece that is written to be engaging and accessible, so of course it misses nuance, leaves things out, and hurriedly papers over complexity. That is the nature of accessible short-form writing, of whatever kind. In fact, this piece – much like a lot of feminist writing – goes farther than you'll find in a lot of other kinds of writing to engage with nuance and complexity despite the limitations imposed by being accessible and short. So read with a little bit of generosity, and hopefully the inherent limitations of the form won't distract you too much.

But even if we allow for the form of the piece, and take our emotional reaction into account, some of the gap persists between how the piece describes events and actions that are within the experience of cis men, and how cis men ourselves experience them. To account for this, and to provide a basis for my insistence that this is not a problem with the piece of writing but a sign of work that we cis dudes are politically obliged to do, we need to think in a bit more detail about how we (and everyone else) know things about the world.

Every day, we move through the world. We experience things, we encounter people and objects, we read and see and hear media. Constantly and actively, based on those experiences and encounters, we are producing knowledge about the world. And constantly, that is sedimenting into us and shaping how we will go about producing knowledge tomorrow. Though there is certainly an element of randomness and individual journey to our experiences, that journey takes place in a social landscape where the patterns of things that you are likely to experience – the kinds of harms and risks you are likely to face, and the kind of benefits you are likely to accrue – are to a significant degree socially produced in ways that depend on where you fall in the complex array of differences that are currently socially significant. And different patterns of experience feed into how we approach learning about the world in future moments. There will be things that our pattern of experience has pushed us to pay attention to that other people might not, and vice versa. There will be things that are important, that loom large, that shape our narrative of things, that for others might seem trivial, and vice versa. There will be certain things that will feel physically or socially close to us and others that feel distant, some that we are trained to turn towards without really realizing and others that we turn away from. All of these things go into producing the standpoint from which each of us knows the world, such that my knowledge of the social world will not necessarily look the same as yours in a way that does not necessarily mean that either of us is wrong. Which isn't to say that I'm claiming there is no world out there for us to know, just that it looks different depending on where you're standing. And differences in how the world looks depending on where you stand are at their starkest, to the point at times of becoming a fairly significant faultline, when what's at issue is some social phenomenon that harms some and benefits others – consistently experiencing harm focuses your attention and emotion and perception and knowledge production practices in certain ways, while absence of harm or passive benefit or active benefit shape them in very, very different ways. (Thanks, Dorothy Smith and Sara Ahmed for writing things that fed into the ideas in this paragraph!).

So that's what's going on here: The author is writing from her standpoint, and you're reflecting on experiences that you know from your standpoint. The fact that they don't quite match up is a reflection of how all of us know the world.

There's more to think about here, though. The author of this piece has made some pretty deliberate choices in how she talks about rape culture and the place that cis dudes hold within it. Often, those of us who are writers think long and hard about our audience, and we tailor what we say and how we say it in ways that are likely to increase engagement and buy-in from those readers. It would certainly be possible for someone writing about the role of cis men in rape culture to do so in ways that would decrease the emotional discomfort I talked about and decrease the epistemological gap. Among other things, that can include working to accommodate the range of standpoints experienced by cis guys. The author of this piece chose not to do that, and I would guess that there are a couple of very good reasons why. One reason, which she touches on in the piece in other contexts, is that one feature of gender oppression is that women and other gender oppressed folks end up doing various kinds of labour for cis guys that they shouldn't really have to do, including explaining and doing emotional caretaking around our role in gender oppression. But beyond that general principled stand is the fact that, in this case, cis men themselves seeing this very gap in how we know the world and doing the work to overcome it is central to the political point the piece is making.

To me, what this piece is demanding is really an explicit instance of working deliberately and consciously to know the world in light of what I described above about how that happens. In general, as I first suggested some time ago and have slowly tried to think through since then, a great approach for learning about the world beyond our immediate direct experience is to take my experiences, your experiences, and her experiences over there, and to figure out how they are connected. Because no matter how different they are, they are all products of the same social world, and from the starting place of those differences, we can investigate how those differences were socially produced, and therefore learn about how the social world is organized. Which is, y'know, pretty key in thinking about working to change it.

And that's what this piece is asking cis dudes to do: DO NOT start from the combination of our emotional discomfort and what seems to be a lack of perfect epistemological fit to move towards not-all-menning; instead, start from those things and recognize that we are being called on to do our half of the work in figuring out how the range of experiences of gender oppressed folk within rape culture match up with our range of experiences. Where does it all come from? How is it put together? And, most importantly, what can we do to challenge and change it?

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