Saturday, April 17, 2010

When the Personal and the Political Don't Mix

An internet advice column responded to the question of a man who was uncomfortable with the idea that, assuming the two of them would marry, his girlfriend would not agree to take his last name. The columnist deftly turns his original question around in her reply, suggesting that perhaps he should agree to take her name or that the two of them could form a new surname unique to the both of them. Inherent in the whole of the reply is the assertion that the soon-to-be husband in question isn't nearly as open and accepting of a woman's right to individual choice as he thinks he is. The major issues expressed in the column are an articulation that men who place demands upon women, especially in situations like these are speaking from a place of privilege and in so doing need to rethink their attitudes. When politically problematic and personal choice butt heads, the two almost always clash.

A particularly popular line of thinking states that, should a woman make a conscious decision to participate in what would at its face be a restrictive, oppressive custom, she should be allowed to do so without being criticized as somehow violating the aims of women's rights. Up to a point, I think this statement is justified but if one expands the application, it becomes more and more problematic. It should be noted that not all oppressions are the same, but in an earlier post this week, I tried to draw a parallel between all systematic injustices. If, for example, an African-American chooses consciously to dress in blackface and to participate a minstrel show, offensive and demeaning though it is, is the practice any less evil and reprehensible if it is justified by deliberate personal choice?

I am completely in support of not putting litmus or purity tests upon people that would denote whether or not that they are authentic enough to consider themselves part of any activist movement. Sometimes as activists we deliberately divide things into politically problematic categories for the ease of highlighting that which we oppose and know to be wrong. We also end up being as rough on ourselves for not living up to our high-minded ideals as we are for those who inspire our disgust and anger. To me, at least, I sometimes sense some cognitive dissonance between “here is something that is clearly wrong, which we oppose” and “well, if you invalidate that which is wrong for you yourself based on personal choice, then it ceases to be objectionable”. I know that many of us attempt to avoid essentialist arguments whenever possible, but sometimes I think evil is just that...evil.

The concept of reclaiming epithets is a related topic to this one. For example, the word "queer", two generations back, was a very hurtful and damning epithet, which has in the past few decades been reclaimed as a very useful blanket term denoting succinctly that which is not heterosexual. Yet, I recall that the first time I heard the term applied this way I still perceived of the word as a pejorative, one which I quite reflexively interpreted to be nonetheless deeply offensive, regardless of the context. As a result, even now it still makes me uncomfortable to write it or say it, even around those aware of its alternate meaning and thus unlikely to draw the wrong conclusion. Though I wish it were not so, I know I'm not the only person who seeks to nimbly walk an often blurry line. Feminism, in particular, seeks to draw no distinction between the personal and political, finding them to be one in the same.

So what happens when politically problematic and personal expression meet? A blogging friend whose insight provided the impetus to write this post put it this way.

When I was a kid I really liked and admired pioneer days. I was particularly interested in making foods (cheese, butter, and so on) that I knew were once made by hand [in the past], but could not [visualize] making by hand in the modern world. So I read the Diary of Susanna Moodie and the Little House series. I bought a butter churn and asked my parents for antiques for my birthday. For me, it represented a way of connecting with women’s history that I was not learning much about in school. I also dressed up in pioneer dresses [as well]. [Doing so] was personally important for me.

At the same time, I think there is something weird about my having been fascinated with a time when people of my kind were chattel. I did not know about that at the time. And I think it half-horrified my mother who was award of what the political connotations were of the things I so wanted to do. On the other hand, how could I be interested in my own history without having the bad stuff [be] a part of it, [too]?

I think it is important to own the bad in ourselves and our pasts. But as far as dividing things into that which is merely personal and that which is politically significant, I am not sure it can be done.

It is tempting for each of us to draw lines of demarcation for the sake of ease: this is what is, this is what is not. This is what we are, this is what we are not. It is ironic, to say the least, that in tactics like these we often behave towards each other in ways that would have us crying bloody murder if our opponents used the same formula or even the same words. At what point and to what degree can we claim supreme rights as individuals to make words, concepts, or phrases reflect our own conscious interpretation? Is conquering evil merely a means of linguistic gymnastics? If Jewish survivors of the concentration camps wish to reclaim the word "Holocaust" to mean something ultimately uplifting and optimistic, should they be allowed? If they did so, would we then be inclined or encouraged to forget?

Modern Feminists are well-known for their desire to counteract rape culture by educating men about what constitutes informed consent for sex. In so doing they seek to highlight the numerous instances in popular culture where unhealthy views and attitudes encourage a blatant disregard for boundaries. Every now and then, one hears about news stories or personal anecdotes involving women who willfully ignored the unfortunate, but necessary proper precautions needed to protect themselves from sexual assault and ended up being taken advantage of as a result. I should state here before I am misunderstood that I never believe that placing full responsibility regarding rape prevention onto women is a good idea and that I believe that men should bear the ultimate burden of proof. Still, the world in which we live is imperfect, and such are the sort of unfair steps and extra effort woman have to take into account for protection's sake. I seek not to blame the victim here, since I am referencing instances where it is verifiable that women were aware of the risks well beforehand, articulated them beforehand, and yet still did not act in their own best interest.

Situations like these are not frequent, but they are numerous enough to be troubling. These women either blame themselves for their own foolish choices, or with a shrug of the shoulders assume that such is the way of men. To them, that which happened was merely a case of unfortunate luck on their part. Put this way, if life is a card game, they simply drew a bad hand. In circumstances like these, it is particularly difficult to not immediately be judgmental and preachy, though an uncomfortable kind of reluctant acceptance of bad decisions and worse outcomes is the inevitable conclusion drawn. As much as we try to reject Paternalism, it is an inevitable view and one upon which we may not ever completely shed ourselves. Not being Paternalistic would require us to believe that humanity always made proper decisions. I doubt any of us believe in a particularly optimistic anarchist worldview. What we are left with then is that mix between between the personal and the political, two constructs which in many ways are like oil and water. To echo what my blogging friend said above, I'm not sure we'll ever find a way to dissolve one in the other.


Anonymous said...

Thanks you for the mention in this post.

Since you were linking my comments, I thought I would also cross-post this one, because I think it explains a little more about why I don't think it is so easy to divide the issue of taking a huband's last name at marriage into a question of personal choice or political problem, and why the two are entwined.

"I agree the practice of women taking their husbands names is problematic. But I... [think] I would not want to blame individual women who do take their husbands’ name. I am also not sure I would characterize this as a personal choice... [or if there are personal elements to the choice, I do not think they are entirely personal but are affected by political structures in which we live]. I don’t think it is a purely personal choice because many things are set up to be easier if you make that choice. Examples:
You don’t have to explain yourself to relative
If you have kids you don’t have to re-make the choice when getting the birth cert
If you have kids and want to travel alone with them it is easier if your passports match

So I don’t think women who make that choice should be blamed for doing so. But I do think it makes sense to look at the systems that make the choice easier and ask whether they could be changed. In fact, if both choices (keep wife’s name, choose new unique name for both, take husband’s name, take wife’s name) were all equally easier then I would be more likely to say IT IS THEIR PERSONAL CHOICE in all caps because the choice would be more free."

My preferred method of dealing with cases such as these would be to ask women why they make the choice. If features of the political system factor into the choice (like those mentioned above), then work directly to address the structures.

Blame leads only to defensiveness. But we can engage each other in so many other ways, for example, ways that ask others for help in the difficult work of changing political structures so that they are more open.

A Sane Person said...

I should state here before I am misunderstood that I never believe that placing full responsibility regarding rape prevention onto women is a good idea and that I believe that men should bear the ultimate burden of proof.

I believe placing any kind of responsibility regarding rape prevention onto women is completely unjustifiable. Women are not raped because of what they do or do not do, women are raped because rapists rape. Why the fuck is that so hard to understand? I appologize for my tone of voice, but this persistent victim-blaming, however nuance or subtle, drives me up the fucking wall. I have written a post just recently about how much this angers me. Go read about Hannah's rape and tell me how is she responsible for not preventing her rape? Unless your belief is that women should never ever socialize or do anything that will place them in an environment where there are men, women will never be able to prevent rape, because it's not their actions that cause rapists to rape is the fact that rapist rape. There are women around the world raped by their husbands - so should women avoid marriage as a method of rape prevention?

Sarah said...

Re: women who are raped.... Kevin, tell me what these "high risk behaviors" are. I try to conceive of the "rule-breaking" situation which is most likely to lead to rape...say, getting really drunk at a college party...and wonder how many men will do the exact same thing that night and have their only concern be how badly their head will hurt the next day. If a man engages in the same behavior, nobody even really thinks it's that foolish.

When you go out on a date, do you feel the need to evaluate the risk of whether your date is going to rape and murder you? Do you analyze every flirtation and suggestion of intimacy from a date not with the question of whether you want to engage, but whether it's a prelude to violence? Do you set up a buddy system before going to a party, not just to have a designated driver but so that if one of your friends goes missing you know they should have checked in and you know to call the police? Because that is how women live.

When I began taking 20th century history classes and hearing stories about the terror of living with a gestapo regime, I would wonder, "Gee, what's so strange about that?"

And then again, when I became involved in the gay and trans rights movements, and heard men (and people raised as men) discuss how frightened they were about the possibility that their orientation or chromosomal makeup would be discovered, and the violence that they might encounter from strangers or friends...again, I thought, "You think this is unusual?"

Matthew Shepard was heinously murdered because he was gay, but that happens to women because we are women every single day and nobody bats an eye.

Looking over my back, following unstated curfews, not ever fully trusting any man, always expecting a van to pull over and make me disappear, always trying to hide - that is how I live my life every day. And that is how my mother lived her life, and my grandmother, and my friends, and if things don't change that is how my daughters will live their lives.

If a man got so drunk he couldn't stand up at a college party, and three people decided to rape him and film it and then brag about what an easy little slut he was...tell me, was it his fault for ignoring the risk? I do not know a single man who, if he were a woman who acted the exact same way, would not have engaged in seriously risky behavior a thousand times over.

By suggesting women have any responsibility for being raped, you're perpetuating a double standard - that it's okay for men to act in certain ways, but not women - purely because of the actions of rapists. Because of the actions of haters and bigots and misogynists.

Comrade Kevin said...

Sarah, I'll try my best.

Let me begin by mentioning that I was using the scenario in question more as a means upon which to base an argument. I didn't intend for it to be taken literally.

I was responding in particular to a post on Feminist, which is here.

To quote from the original post,

"I am not interested in demonizing Williams, but I do think it is important to hold her accountable to her words and intentions. A catchy anthem that essentially says, 'I got drunk and I don't remember everything, but the sex was spectacular," is normalizing a violent and dangerous epidemic that we are still fighting to get recognized as, what it is, rape."

This is what I meant. And in this situation, this is a woman who disregarded the risks involved and sadly ended up being taken advantage of.

And I know all about the multitude of defensive tactics women must use to keep themselves safe. I am not a woman, but do listen and I have had partners (including my current one) who have been honest and open with me.

Again, you're missing my point. I am trying to take an argument that is very hard-line with many people, including yourself, and try to make parallels to other sensitive topics, revealing in the end that it's very difficult to be consistent in our political beliefs when personal choice gets in the way, as it often does.

Sarah said...


I can't quite tell if the actions that you're comparing to a black American putting on blackface and mimicking a minstrel show is the "getting drunk at a party" behavior or the "pointing fingers at a woman who got drunk at a party" behavior.

Regardless, it seemed to me that you were saying this...:

" is particularly difficult to not immediately be judgmental and preachy, though an uncomfortable kind of reluctant acceptance of bad decisions and worse outcomes is the inevitable conclusion drawn." the "typical" response regarding a woman who has been raped. In using that as an example for the personal v. political, you're suggesting that there is an inevitability about that response itself.

Besides which, you're still framing it in terms of "bad decisions" and "foolishness" that we somehow should be trying to prevent (because if we don't then women will "either blame themselves for their own foolish choices, or with a shrug of the shoulders assume that such is the way of men"). You set up a false dichotomy here - either we encourage women to protect themselves using "appropriate" precautions or we adopt a "reluctant acceptance of bad decisions and worse outcomes". The rapist, of course, doesn't enter into the equation - it's all about what women should do to respond to a problem for women involving women.

You say you aren't blaming those "who willfully ignored the unfortunate, but necessary proper precautions" and "ended up being taken advantage of" (a cute little euphemism for violent assault if there ever was one), but all the word choices and framing of the issue in this post suggests that you are doing precisely that.

Please rethink your analogies.

Comrade Kevin said...

I'm writing a post to the Feministing community right now seeking to kind of put things into context and hopefully that will answer your reservations fully, analogies and all.

Comrade Kevin said...

Again, let me explain. The point is not to neglect the presence of the rapist or to speak to tactics that seek to discourage men from the violent act itself. Rather, this is a bit of social commentary and critique, since what we often do on this site is respond to a problem for women involving women. Regarding rape prevention, we're very good at articulating anti-rape strategies, but I often question whether these really speak to the man who rapes on terms that he can understand. Often we seem to be talking only to ourselves. I recognize that I probably should have made this post about twice as long to explain myself more efficiently, and again, that's my fault.

Anonymous said...

I thought you might find this post interesting because it relates to your topic about how actions and decisions can be interpreted