Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Thinking about how cis men can and should be speaking publically about sexual violence

I've been thinking a lot in the last month about how cisgender men can and should be speaking publically about sexual violence and gender oppression.

I've been thinking about this for some obvious reasons and some less obvious reasons. The obvious ones should be – well, obvious. In the last month, these issues have received unprecedented mainstream attention. And not only that, there has been a critical mass of pressure that has resulted in powerful institutions that would normally ignore or dismiss or attack survivors being forced to take some meanintful action in response. There are all sorts of limits to this, and there is a great need for ongoing pressure to sustain and deepen this moment, but it has nonetheless been quite significant.

I have also been thinking about this because the whole situation has made me feel a lot of difficult feelings. Not because I'm a survivor of sexual violence – I'm not, and I know what I've been feeling is a mere fraction of what survivors have been feeling. Neither have I sexually assaulted anyone. But I am, as a cis dude, complicit in various ways in sexual violence and gender oppression. And related issues have wound for years through my own ongoing efforts to work through some of the central challenges in my own life. Hence the many feelings.

One of the things that I've been feeling is a certain sense of political obligation to speak publically on the issue. But I've also been feeling a complicated hesistance, and on reflection I think that some of that hesitance is warranted and some of it is not. So I've been thinking through how I can and should be speaking.

Acting in the World

Acting politically in the world inevitably begins from where we already are – the spaces we're already in, the groups we already belong to, the workplaces where we are employed, the informal networks we're already part of, the activities we already do. Taking action can change our trajectory, bring us into new places, create new opportunities for acting – ideally collectively, becuase I think collective action is what is most needed – but inevitably, in any given moment, our choices about acting must begin from where we already are.

I think perhaps the single most important thing for us cis guys to consider as we reflect on speaking publically – whether that's a Facebook status update, a piece in the New Yorker, a speech in Parliament, or a comment in an activist group meeting – about sexual violence and gender oppression is that if we really take seriously that acting politically starts from where we already are, then speaking publically must be only one small part of how we act. A much bigger, and arguably a more important, part is the political choices we make in the rest of life – all of those things that so many pieces published in the last month, and so many more published in the last 50 years, have named. How do we enact complicity in sexual violence and gender oppression every day? Because assuredly we do. So how do we challenge and change that? How do we relate to the partners, friends, co-workers, family, and other people in our everyday lives? How do we listen, how do we speak, how do we communicate about sexual violence and gender oppression with all of those people? How do we act in small, non-visible ways to support public initiatives led by women, trans people, nonbinary people, and survivors of all genders? And when it comes to the public circulation of knowledge, rather than leaping to spewing our own (perahps dubious) contribution, what can we do to read, watch, and listen to more material on these issues produced by women, trans people, nonbinary people, and survivors of all genders? And in this social media age, where all of us can play a role in amplifying knowledge, what can we do to make sure all of that circulates more too?

It varies with context – if you have a co-worker who, right now, is being attacked for speaking out about abuse she has suffered, then speak up publically and support her! – but I think for most of us in most situations, more of our effort on these issues needs to go in directions other than speaking publically.

That said, however, speaking publically (in an expansive sense) is one element of what I already do. Not that huge numbers of people listen to any individual instance, of course, but writing and making media of various sorts that I send out into the world for people to engage with has been central to my work for a long time. And given that it is what I already do, it makes sense, I think, to reflect on doing it better around questions of sexual violence and gender oppression.

Political Responsibility

So here's what I came up with: In order for speaking or writing publically about sexual violence and gender oppression by cis men to be useful, it must be organized and informed by a logic of political responsibility. That is, in making decisions about when and how to speak, we have to prioritize a recognition that what matters here is the broader issue, and the struggles by women, trans people, nonbinary people, and survivors of all genders to challenge practices of sexual violence and transform the social relations of gender oppression that enable those practices. We have to work at understanding those struggles, and choose our moments and methods of speaking publically such that they feed into those struggles. That's what matters, full stop.

Of course, that's still not a guarantee that speaking publically will be a good choice or will in any way be useful, but it at least avoids guaranteeing the opposite. When that logic of political responsibility gets displaced by other logics in shaping how we decide what we say and when we say it, we need to step back and look critically and closely at what we're doing. We need to be on the lookout for that ourselves, and we need to be able to hear it when other people tell us that's what's going on.

So at the most immediate level, and at the broadest applicability, that means that if there's even a whiff that speaking in a given moment is really about me in some sense, then maybe I just shouldn't. For instance, for cis guys speaking on these issues, it easily turns into performance. And if you're about to say something and you have even a faint suspicion that it's really more about performing a certain kind of politics in order to play activist status games or in hopes of getting into somebody's pants or whatever else, then it's probably best to stay quiet. Another example that has cropped up in the last month has been a handful of progressive men who engage in a certain kind of generalized public confession of complicity. Not that strategic and careful examination in public of elements of one's own complicity is necessarily bad – I haven't seen much of it, but I suspect that it can be quite useful in unpacking the how of complicity in grounded ways, which doesn't happen enough. But while generalized public confession may seem like it follows a logic of political responsibility, I think often it is more about meeting some kind of need in the person confessing and doesn't necessarily contribute much to broader struggles.

Or take a much narrower instance: I think that, in general, if a given instance of speaking publically about sexual violence or gender oppression is attached to opportunities to make a living and/or build a career, cis men should be very hesitant about taking those opportunities. By definition, doing so introduces a logic other than political responsibility to the choice to speak. I'm not going to say they should never take them – though others would, and I wouldn't argue with them – but especially if there is even a hint that those opportunities and the attached resources could go to a woman, trans person, or nonbinary person who is doing this work, in most scenraios I can imagine the politically responsible thing for a cis man to do is to step back.

As narrow as that instance is, though, it connects to something much more broadly relevant. One of the weird dynamics of how this plays out is that cis men get affirmation, recognition, and social reward for even minimal acts of public speech against sexual violence and gender oppression that is vastly greater than any affirmation, recognition, or rewards that women, trans people, and nonbinary people get. In fact, often we get applause for saying things that bring them nothing but scorn and abuse. Moreover, this easily crystallizes from a moment of excessive affirmation into a sort of personal branding as "a dude who gets it" or "one of the good ones." Now, this isn't entirely under the control of the cis dude in question, but nonetheless there is an obligation to refuse and disrupt this branding.

Partly this is because there is a long and awful history of men who behave abominably towards women and trans people in their private lives in part protecting themselves by building a public reputation as a progressive guy who "gets it." Think of the Canadian media personality with the initials JG, a certain prominent male women's studies prof (HS) who went down in flames a few years ago, and a certain comedian in the news right now. Part of defusing that predatory tactic is to constantly trouble, to the extent that the individual in question can, how this affirmation is allocated and the ways it gets turned into a brand.

More broadly, though, it's important because it is a crucial way that a logic other than political responsibility manages to sneak its way into our decision-making. Because it is seductive to get this kind of affirmation. I mean, I can't say it has come up often for me in the last few years, but even so I can think of three or four times in the last year and a bit where the particular context led to enough of that kind of excessive positive feedback that I felt its pull (as well as its icky-ness). And it very easily leads to saying and doing things publically that are much more about one's own needs than about what would flow from an honest assessment of political responsibility. So to preserve our ability to make good decisions, we need to push back against this tendency towards excessive social rewards and consequent personal branding, and to work to not become attached to receiving them.

And the final thing I think we can do to speak publically from a logic of political responsibility is to work really hard to do so from our whole selves. Which may sound strange and abstract, but I think it might well be the most important point that I'm making here. We can't just pick one issue that we recognize in an intellectual way is important and focus on getting good at talking about that in a public way. Our reference point can't be "Oh, well, I think gender is important so I'll learn about that and talk about that." Rather, we need to recognize, even if we can't fully articulate, the totality of what we're implicated in. We need to start from all of who we are, from a recognition that we are simultanously immersed in social relations organized in a huge number of ways, along many different axes, that organize violence into some people's lives and unearned benefit into other people's lives in a whole lot of different of ways, always and all the time. There's an all-at-onceness to who we are as people and to the social relations that we're in. Acting from a logic of political responsibility, including that slice of it that involves speaking publically, means always starting from how we exist in relation with all of that. Not necessarily talking about all of it, all the time – I mean, you couldn't, right? – but grounding our decision making about what and when and how, in that big picture. It's huge and it's messy and it's hard, and it's so big that it makes any kind of political purity or performance of being "good" pretty much impossible, but we need to stay in it.

There are lots of reasons why this is important. I think emphasizing starting from all of who we are, all of where we are, all of what we're already doing helps to maintain that logic of political responsibility because it involves always going back to that bigger picture of the social relations that surround us, that we create, that create us, and asking, what do we need to do to act with responsibility here, now? I think it helps us remember that speaking publically is only one narrow part of what we need to do when it comes to acting from where we already are, because even for those of us whose work involves (in a broad sense) speaking publically, it really amounts to a pretty minor part of life. I think it can be useful in disrupting the risk of personal branding, because it forces us to constantly confront how it is all so big and multifaceted and messy, so it makes it that much harder to fall into cultivating a reputation (or believing our own) for 'getting it' on any particular issue. I think it leads to better politics, because it's a better accounting of how our world actually works and a better grounding for making decisions – single issue understandings are always limited. And it also leads to better politics because it pushes us to learn from political traditions that already have this understanding of the world, whether that is the long Black feminist tradition and Kimberle Crenshaw's concept of "intersectionality," works that integrate marxist insights about the social world with analyses of patriarchal and white supremacist social relations like Sylvia Federici and Himani Bannerji, or any number of other radical theorists like Dean Spade or Eli Clare or Sara Ahmed. And, personally, I think grounding efforts to act from a logic of political responsibility in our whole selves creates space to be putting that responsibility into some kind of healthy relation with our work for our own liberation, and for a vision of a better world that includes space for pleasure, desire, and joy rather than the moralistic grimness that can (especially among cis guys who take the politics seriously) so easily result from devotion to some sort of abstracted future.

So. Those are a just few incomplete thoughts on how cisgender men can and should be speaking publically about sexual violence and gender oppression in the current moment. I haven't really said much about the content of what we might want to be saying in this moment, but I'm keen to hear what others think about that. What have you been saying, in this moment of difficult but vitally important heightened mainstream attention to sexual violence and gender oppression? More importantly, what have you been doing beyond that narrow slice of life that involves saying things in public?


In line with some of the work that I did on book reviews in late 2016, right now I'm experimenting with producing video versions of various kinds of writing that I'm doing. I think the written version above is a bit clearer than the video version, but I make essentially the same points in both, so if you are someone who would rather watch than read, check this out:

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