Monday, October 27, 2008

Private Matters

Some of my readers (and not just the published commenters) seem confused by discussion of public, private and the excusable when analyzing misogyny.

Right on cue, the AP reports today about a pair of white supremacists who intended to murder African American students and also try to kill Obama. The media frenzy is about the stated threat to Obama, while Damon on Corrente goes to the real problem, which is that the plot to murder people on account of race was the primary motivation: "To me, the main part of the story is the murderous rampage planned against a bunch of innocents folks based on nothing other than their color".

I'm going to focus on the planned school attacks not to minimize what the perpetrators wanted to do, but to emphasize a point I have been making about the privatized nature of misogyny compared to racism. As an aside to the total nut cases who have been innundating my comments and email: A) discussing the lack of attention given to misogyny in no way minimizes racist violence and B) providing a critical view of racism alongside of a critical view of misogyny is not excusing race-baiting against HRC during the primaries, or to minimize the misogynystic attacks on her or Gov. Palin. Smarter trolls, please.

What I want to point to first is the very serious and responsible actions of the ATF to the plot. That these racists did not appear capable of actually carrying out the full horrors of their plot against their initial targets (they evidently confessed to having fired at least one gun at an unoccupied AA church in the recent past) is not much of a concern - to have caused injury well short of death to a single person is reason for revulsion and condemnation. We look at it and can agree without equivocation that this plan was racist and inexcusable. Unlike the two school attacks, on the Amish school and on the Colorado high school, I have referenced before there is no doubt that these men were singling out a class of people without regard to anything specific to those people except a demographic marker - race. We are not confused by any personal histories of the would-be murderers or particularly interested in their motivations. We can see bigotry based on a class in a way we can't or won't see it when groups of women are murdered, or even threatened with violence short of murder.

There is another quality to the foiled plot that needs attention. Racial violence is conducted publically and (though not clearly present in this example) institutionally with state-controlled means of violence and coercion. Strangers seek out racial groups for assault and murder. Institutionally, we see patterns of actions that disproportionately punish non-white groups - "driving while black", the staggering incarceration rate of young black men, the different penalties handed out to different drug users, and so forth. This is violence inflicted in the street and with an audience.

As discussed in the previous posts, violence against women is disproportionately a crime performed within a private space - a home, a car in a secluded place, a locked dorm room, a professional office. The assailants are not usually strangers to us, but family members and friends. The privacy makes it difficult to measure the scope and scale, easy to reduce it to expressions of antipathy between particular individuals or of the psychopathy of the assailant, and extremely difficult to prosecute because of the intimacy and dependence between the assailant and the victim. The institutions of civil society, divided into feminine and masculine space, home and work, emotion and economics, provide constant, unmonitored, unremarkable access to the subjugated class.

This has also been the condition of racial violence in this country, of course, where slaveholders claimed to be acting as paternal authorities over the people attached (willingly or not) to their household. It was the physical and sexual subjugation of people who could not escape and who were, as time and generations went by, the kin of the abusers. America's apartheid, Jim Crow, was defended on the grounds that it was a private matter that outsiders should not interfere with, the paternalistic, patriarchal model of violent control extended to the community. It lingers on in arguments about "state's rights" or the power to systematically treat classes of people as the proper subjects of private violence and coercion.

Another aspect of the public/private which is counter intuitive is that misogyny does not need to hide itself in public, which is why I call it excusable. It is permissable to describe women as their body parts, to have magazines dedicated to demeaning sexualized portrayals of women, to harass, to graphically describe the sexual violence you want to inflict on a particular female as punishment for some real or imagined failing of hers, etc. We can talk violently and derogatorily about women in public venues in every corner of this country, in every socio-economic group, in every place of discourse from high brow to the gutter in a way that is not acceptable to speak about racial and ethnic groups. Ironically enough, to the degree that Obama was unfairly treated by The Village, the language used sought to feminize him, to make him appear weak, unmasculine, vain, girly, "Obambi" in Maureen Dowd's all-too self-revealing terminology. The worst thing she could think to call him was a girl.

To the degree that the society accepts as normal the use of private violence and coercion against a class of people, you will see public expressions of that violence tolerated, even promulgated, without irony or shame. Olbermann can trash women as such, something that the Incomparable Bob Somerby has noticed about Olbermann in the past.

Two of my favorite bloggers also bring up the public/private split in recent posts, one on race and another on gender disparity in pay. French Doc of The Global Sociology Blog posted a cartoon "Of The Invisibility of Social Privilege and Institutional Racism" that could just as easily be used to describe male privilege. She notes:

This should be mandatory material for any introduction to sociology course to explain the simple yet often hard to understand for our students fact that we do not all experience the social structure and interact with its social institutions in a similar fashion. ...

Moreover, social disadvantages and privileges are invisible, especially for the dominant categories (and sometimes even to the disadvantaged who might buy into the dominant ideology). That society is overall experienced as more structurally and interpersonally violent for the disadvantaged is a greatly under-discussed social fact that contributes to the reproduction of these forms of violence.

The violence against women is reinforced by structures of habitation and the acceptance of a level of violent language and imagery that would be unsustainable for any other class of people. Ann of Historiann has a post Who’s your daddy? that looks at the pay disparity in law firms, and that women are consistently paid less, even when they are married and have children and, at least objectively, have as great a need to provide economic support to their household. Married women with children earn the least, which is another informal structure of society that makes them vulnerable to coersion and violence in the home - low pay and pressure to not work increases vulnerability and also increases the relative advantage of all males, not just those who woud use violence. To my mind, the increasing reluctance of the men on the Left to spend political capital fighting for contraceptive rights has a great deal to do with wanting to reduce the competition. If I'm smart enough to get this connection, so are they.

Back in my grad school days in NYC, the spousal unit and I lived in a walkup in Little Italy. In the apartment above us was a couple who argued and scuffled. The woman was good friends with another woman on our floor. One night, we were brought bolt awake by the sound of the upstairs woman screaming and of things crashing. We scrambled to pull on our clothes, and the SU tried to find a stick or club. The woman downstairs was calling the cops and screaming up the stairwell for the guy to stop beating the other woman. The upstairs apartment door crashed open (big, heavy metal doors) and the woman being attacked ran downstairs to her friend's apartment, slamming the door shut before the boyfriend could get her. He spent the next 15 minutes pounding on the door screaming at them both. The cops showed up and did the arrest just outside our door. After the Miranda Rights, it kinda went like this:

COP: (Conversational, almost cheerful tone) So, why'd ya go beatin' your girl?

BF: (slurred voice) I din't!

COP: But she said ya did. Look, that's blood there. Need a closer look? (sounds of scuffle)

BF: I din't do nuthin'!

COP: Ya broke her nose, asshole.

BF: I din't hurt her!

COP: Ya didn't hurt her, huh? Well, tell ya what. How's about I take this here flashlight an' I smash in your nose? Whadda ya tink? Tink it would hurt?

Ah, rhetorical questions from New York's Finest. They dragged the guy off about then so we didn't get to find out of the boyfriend took the cop up on the offer. Two things have stayed with me about the exchange. First is the cop, who obviously didn't like this abuser, discussing the woman as a belonging and in a diminutive - your girl. The second is the insistence by the guy that he had not done anything, he had not inflicted harm. I think he meant it, that he didn't think what he had done to her constituted harm. Actually, there was a third thing I remember. It is Franca, the maintenance woman, on her knees on the stone steps the next day, scrubbing away the blood. It was spattered on the walls, the stairs and the floor.

Domestic violence, the systematic infliction of violence and threats of violence on household members, may be privatized, but it is not private, which is to say that it is not simply an altercation between two individuals but is a relationship of power that the society chooses to maintain as normal, natural, and outside anyone's ability to address because it's a "family matter". Just like chattel slavery used to be. Violent acts are performed by a significant minority of men for the simple reason that they know they will probably get away with it, but those acts in turn take place in a milieu where contemptuous degradation of women is as common as the nearest Hooters restaurant or the pharmacist who won't fill birth control prescriptions. Why wouldn't they think they can get away with it when the majority of men give no indication that they have any interest in changing the terms of the interactions?

I'm back to my original question to the men - who are you? Don't bother to tell me about what a great guy you are or how offended you are that I would compare you to those bastards who beat and rape. Anyone can appear sincere online. Since I don't know any of you in person, I have no way to know whether your words and your deeds coincide. Only you know if you are making excuses for not standing up and excercising the 1st Amendmant rights you hold so sacred for those who want to spew murderous misogynystic crap, and doing so on behalf of those who have to live on the receiving end of that violence. A system that promulgates misogyny also keeps intact the structures that engender classicm, racism and homophobia.

You can excuse yourself, or you can do the right thing.


PS - I look up from my blogging and see this posted by Echidne, Modern Day Sex Slavery. Someone is buying the use of these children, in enough volume that it is worth risking arrest to run these operations. I read this post and all I want to know is who is visiting these brothels and handing over dough to fuck barely pubescent girls?


Shainzona said...

(Keep your head down, Anglachel. You're in for it today!)

As always, a very powerful statement from you:

"Domestic violence, the systematic infliction of violence and threats of violence on household members, may be privatized, but it is not private, which is to say that it is not simply an altercation between two individuals but is a relationship of power that the society chooses to maintain as normal, natural, and outside anyone's ability to address because it's a 'family matter'."

I haven't thought about it in years, but that power structure kept me from getting raises ("You already make 'enough'/you have a husband.") and kept my personal self-worth focused on how I looked physically (in competition with other females) and if I demurred sufficiently (to be allowed to hang around with the boyz). I even remember having an art director report me to his boss because I hadn't carried his portfolio when we traveled - I was the first female Senior VP in the company...but that didn't matter.)

As I draw closer to the end of my life, I weep inside (actually crying right now) for what I did/had to do to survive in the business world because I am a woman. It's the only part of my life that I would like to live over - and change.

I am thankful that I was never raped physically. But psychological rape hurts as well.

Koshem Bos said...

I don't doubt that many women suffer from the reality the post bemoans. I don't doubt that women are abused, their salaries are lower and are expected to "make coffee." But painting all men with a thick brush defeats the purpose of the post.

There are many decent work places that treat women and men equally. Respect, responsibility and salary in such places are color, ethic and sex blind. Such places and many men do the right thing.

Personally, I have enough scars from fights to do the right thing, I don't mind being accused for transgretions I didn't commit, but I don't enjoy it.

Historiann said...

Thanks for the link, Anglachel. This is a great post. I don't understand the anger that some of your commenters expressed about your previous post on rape. I guess it's a buzzkill for women to tell the truth.

On privacy, safety, and men's and women's different expectations and experiences thereof, I wrote a post a few months back in which I suggested that all men on college campuses should be required to travel at all times with a female escort or in groups. So that women students can use their campus without fear of harrassment and molestation, we should invert our assumption that all women must consider themselves victims, and instead assume that all men are perpetrators. (Hence the escort or group-travel system, with which all women are familiar.)

Unknown said...

What an interesting juxtaposition today. I started out the day on a typical 'lefty blog' that has a post expressing outrage that convicted sex offenders' rights are being curtailed. The comments are filled with outrage and concern about the dangers for men of being falsely accused of sexual abuse and for the rights of convicted sexual predators who have harmed and scarred women and children for life.

Then I come here and read this (thank you, Anglachel). Why is it that so few on the left are concerned about sexual slavery, prostitution, and other forms of exploitation of women and children? I do not argue that it is not worth worrying about the rights of criminals, but isn't sexual slavery at least as concerning? I literally *never* see discussion of how to stop this destruction of women and children, except for here and 1 or 2 other places - all by female writers. I guess exploitation is OK with lefties, nothing to get too worked up about, as long as it is being done to women and children and as long as men can continue to buy the sex they want.

Falstaff said...

To me, misogyny is the deepest problem we face, the darkest heart of our darkness. It will take evolving past, not legislating or electing past (sadly evident this cycle). The perspective you've been presenting is adequate to that understanding of the problem -- and, imo, a number of your commenters have not chosen to look over that edge. It's not a comfortable edge to look over, to be sure. It takes a kind of fearlessness that, say, Andrea Dworkin possessed (e.g., a willingness to question not just society, but biology itself, in "Intercourse").

In any case, I am (as often) grateful to you for what you're doing here.

cellocat said...

Imagine what our country might be like now if, upon the return of our troops after WWII, women's teams, women's work, and women's new freedoms had been celebrated instead of ignored, repressed, or reversed.

I agree that this is a matter of evolution. But I also think that it's imperative that we hold up the standard that we need, whether or not we're going to get the results we need. If not us, then whom?

Those of us who have men in our life who hold us in esteem, who respect our opinions, and with whom we have relationships of integrity and trust, we need to start with them. If not them, then who? Are we going to start going up to random men and challenging them on the street? Perhaps, but I think the kind of change we need starts at home. This is not to imply that those men with whom we have good relationships are guilty of the assault and rapes we've been discussing. This is to say that these men are more likely to hear us, to allow themselves to be challenged on such a deep and profound level by us.

As we keep talking about this, it helps the themes stay alive in our society, laying the groundwork for more action as women acquire more control & power externally (politics, business, etc) with which to act upon these issues.

Rather than "painting all men with a thick brush" we are saying that these things affect all women and all men, and all men are responsible, and all men can help make the changes we need. I am not accusing all men of being potential rapists, but I will say that I think every man who cares about feminism, women's issues, and women's safety should consider leaving his comfort zone sufficiently to start talking with other men and challenging them. Yes, it's your job. It's all of our jobs.

Hollowbone Crone said...

Makes an interesting point, doesn't it?

Anglachel said...


Thanks for the link. What is of interest to me is why is this of Palin, the VP choice and not McCain, the Republican nominee? Why does the top of the ticket get skipped?

Because it is acceptable to treat women this way and then claim it is just a joke, geez, don't you have a sense of humor?

Given this kind of shit, no, not really.


Anonymous said...

Oh gawd I hate to see an act of violence portrayed as a joke against ANYONE but there is actually a dog whistle hat tipe to racism going on in the photo of Palin referred to at the LA Times and it makes me physically ill how easily some people come up with those images and actually do think they're funny.

I truly do try to understand why so many men become defensive when they are asked to challenge masculinity. I search myself for signs of that defensiveness with respect to other forms of bigotry and I admit I have found it more often than I'd like. But at least I don't agree with myself and I do challenge myself when I'm defensive. If some of these men would just take half an hour with their mouths closed and their defenses shut down, surely they would realize that they are NOT, each and every one, being accused but rather, strongy encouraged to take responsibility. A responsiblity they might take on with respect to other forms of "ism". I can only think that, at some level, they are loathe to part with their privilege.

On a personal note, in an important relationship with a male, long ago, I realized that it didn't matter how much I believed in my own equality as long as he wasn't going to grant it to me. Equality is a reciprocal relationship. It's important that women know we are entitled to it, but we really can't achieve it without men (and women!) My only alternative in that relationship was to end it. But women can't end their relationships with all men any more than racialized groups can end theirs with "white people". To fail to grasp this is to participate in oppression. The best tool of tyranny is the silent complicity of citizens - somebody said something like that. I can't remember who but it sure does make sense to me.

You are giving me hope with your persistence on these issues than I've had in awhile, despite the stubbornness of some commenters.