Friday, October 24, 2008

Unacceptable, but Excusable

First my thanks to the commenters in the previous post, So, who are you?, who tried to seriously respond to the challenge I presented. The really stupid comments went into the trash. I tried to keep the balance representative of what came in. About half were personal stories that I won't be posting. Remember, if you want a direct reply from me, use the contact form linked in the top right hand box.

Why is it so difficult to fight back against misogyny and the violence inflicted on women? Reflecting on the different treatment of racism and misogyny as political issues over the last year, I come up with the formulation that both of these modes of domination are formally unacceptable to most people in society, but that misogyny remains excusable. Racism and misogyny are acknowledged as wrong. There are laws, policies and measures to combat each. The formal opposition to each is having an effect. Barriers to employment, education and equitable treatment have been reduced. You cannot espouse racism and misogyny the way you could into the 70s. It is simply a fact that we don't have a white supremacy party (Howard Dean's paranoid fantasies not withstanding) even if we do have a party that encourages racist behavior.

The chief difference, as every newspaper's breathless articles about it demostrates, is that racism is no longer excusable in mainstream discourse. It is a mark against those who use it. This must not be mistaken for its absence or social extinction, only its delegitimation as an unapologetic argument in "polite" society. It is built into the structure of economics, society, education and politics. Even so, it has to hide what it is, abstracted, coded and whistled.

Misogyny can appear in an unadulterated form in public and private. It remains excusable. He was drunk. She was dressed like a skank. You can't blame a guy for reacting like that. Some sluttishness was probably involved. He didn't actually mean kill her, it's just a sports metaphor. You can understand why someone would want to beat her up. He didn't mean to go that far, but when a guy's riled up, he can't help himself. She should have known that would happen.

An excuse in this context is the attempt to shift the locus of agency, and thus of culpability, to the recipient of the violence, so that the actions of the aggressor become reactions to provocation. "You asked for it." The "asking" exists only in the mind of the perpetrator - and those who identify with him, not with the object of his desires.

The point of this kind of domination and exploitation is to perpetuate itself. As I have written about racism, you don't have to be a perpetrator to benefit from its effects. You can piously scold the benighted Bubbas and Bunkers for their expressions of hatred while enjoying the benefits of a system that has and continues to marginalize minorities. To the degree that racism remains, it is because it benefits a significant class of people to keep things that way.

Rape and other instances of violence against women is endemic because this violence benefits men as a class. If it only benefitted rapists then other men would not be so willing to go along. A trammeled, subservient class that provides emotional, physical and economic benefit in excess of what it receives is a nice thing to have around. It provides rewards that are visceral and personal. Societies such as the Taleban and the FLDS are structured around maintaining an exaggerated version of this subordination. It is more efficient and less work to have a less formal structure. Then, all you need to do is keep certain key activities, such as contraception, in a perpetual state of danger to exert a significant amount of disciplinary force. Leverage - it's not just for Wall Street.

We can look at something like the abandonment of the people in New Orleans to die by inches and immediately recognize this as an instance of racism, even when complicated by other matters like straightforward bureaucratic incompetance. White people would not have been left to their fates in that way. Those who do not have an ideological investment in disempowering citizens and a regulatory state can identify and describe the institutional racial biases that put that particular group at such risk. But where is that kind of analysis when confronted with a pattern of men rounding up women and girls and executing them in public places? If the murderers at the Amish school or Platte Canyon High School had rounded up all Blacks or all East Asians and beaten and murdered them, would we be discussing the psychosis of the murderer, or would we be discussing the pernicious influence of racism?

Misogyny is excused away in great part because it is privatized, a "domestic" form of violence that is a manifestation of the bad relationship between particular individuals, not a pattern of behavior endemic to the society. If it is a private matter, there's nothing to be done except hope the people involved "reform". The violence is decentralized, making it difficult to oppose. The violence flourishes most where tradition is strongest - the family home, the military, religious organizations and academia.

This is why the question has to be turned on individual men to drive home that you are absolutely complicit in a social system that excuses rape, beatings and murder of women because they are women. Until men confront and punish the men who engage in this, it won't stop. Which means giving up your privilege, which is more than anything the ability to remain oblivious of the damage done because you have the luxury of not having to face it.

As I said in an email to someone earlier today, perhaps the unrecognized violence here is that done to the men who would never consider doing such a thing, yet are always judged on the basis of the worst they might do. Of all the men I know or come into contact with, there are exactly two who have my absolute trust that they will not do me harm if offered the opportunity to do so. I'm married to one and the daughter of the other. Every other man I am around is on my scale of "probably not an immediate danger" to "get away from him now". I do not ever ride in a car alone with a guy if I can help it. I'd rather walk or take the bus or wait for a female friend or call the spousal unit to come pick me up. I don't meet in rooms with doors closed. I don't invite male friends over unless the spousal unit is at home. I watch what my male coworkers do, listen to what they say, judge how they talk about women, constantly evaluate whether they are erratic, bullying, dominant, or exhibit other behaviors that indicate potential danger. I don't have a choice about remaining ignorant of the behavior of the men around me because it very much is the difference between life and death. Every. Single. Day.

I'm reading the comments on the earlier and finding a lot of excuses for why men don't know what their fellows are up to, or why it's not really what it looks like, or how are you supposed to know if somebody did something, or some other explanation. Mandos (the tender of souls in Tolkien mythology) asks if it is responsible to remain oblivious. It is certainly easier to remain oblivious. It will be less work for you. It leaves the women out there having to defend themselves from all sides, but at least you won't be uncomfortable around the guys while joking about the hawtness of the new girl in marketing. I think that even asking the question indicates a knowledge that the price for your oblivion is the abuse of the women around you.

When I discuss misogyny in my academic voice, men feel reassured because it is an amorphous "they" who are discussed, maybe a statistical sample, it's a problem over there, not here. It's a voice I cultivated in academia so I would be taken seriously, manipulating abstractions that did not challenge the actual situation, which was having a professor with a three decade track record of propositioning, molesting and forcing himself on his female students as my graduate advisor, specifically assigned to him to show to the university that he was "rehabilitated" after his most recent incident, one that cost the university plenty to keep it out of the papers. When my voice shifts, dropping abstractions and addressing the fact that violence against women is done by men indistiguishable from you and I am tired of hearing excuses for why you don't know anything about the crimes around you, you feel personally threatened.

Welcome to the club.



Námo Mandos said...

I'm reading the comments on the earlier and finding a lot of excuses for why men don't know what their fellows are up to, or why it's not really what it looks like, or how are you supposed to know if somebody did something, or some other explanation. Mandos (the tender of souls in Tolkien mythology) asks if it is responsible to remain oblivious. It is certainly easier to remain oblivious. It will be less work for you. It leaves the women out there having to defend themselves from all sides, but at least you won't be uncomfortable around the guys while joking about the hawtness of the new girl in marketing. I think that even asking the question indicates a knowledge that the price for your oblivion is the abuse of the women around you.

Mandos is the imprisoner of souls and the executor of often excessive and unjust law (cf. the Doom of Mandos and its collateral damage), not just the tender of souls.

Fair enough, though. Obliviousness is clearly a function of privilege. But so is my obliviousness to all kinds of evil in the world, and my ability to avoid any number of other kinds of oppression. I knew, however, that this is going to descend into a "My Brother's Keeper" discussion.

But I'm not sure where you're going with this. Are you asking for a discussion of ways for individual men to act practically against rape? I mean, I could go around to every male individual I know and ask them, "Have you every raped someone?" Not sure how that would work out.

Or are you calling for the organization of some kind of movement? To do what? These movements exist. They don't seem very effective.

You would probably say that I'm just making excuses. Guilty. But just because it's an excuse, doesn't make it wrong. Just as in anti-racism movements, it's a perhaps unfortunate fact that the bystanders (or perps) have to take their cue from the victims.

I think some of what you are saying is contained in this essay by Andrea Dworkin. Leaving aside the stuff about porn and prostitution (which usually generate enormous flamewars on their own), she makes this interesting statement:

And I want one day of respite, one day off, one day in which no new bodies are piled up, one day in which no new agony is added to the old, and I am asking you to give it to me. And how could I ask you for less--it is so little. And how could you offer me less: it is so little. Even in wars, there are days of truce. Go and organize a truce. Stop your side for one day. I want a twenty-four-hour truce during which there is no rape.

But as you point out, it tends to happen behind closed doors. And as long as it happens behind closed doors...

So it's up to women who experience it and its knock-on effects to say what they want done, even if this may not be just.

Námo Mandos said...

As to your other question, why misogyny remains excusable, I think you sort of answer it yourself. To me, another key to the answer is understanding what men get from misogyny and rape on an individual level. Then the answer probably lies there.

Koshem Bos said...

In trying to understand the post several questions arise. Do you imply that all men share a collective guilt for misogyny? Or are you trying to raise level of consciousness in men about there individual duty to prevent and stop mistreatment of women?

Is there a difference between rape and other forms of violence and mistreatment of women? If the associate guilt is a result of men benefiting from taking advantage of women, how different is it from the commonplace jockeying for positions in which individuals, including women, benefit from climbing over other individuals shoulders?

I resist collective guilt. I am not responsible for abuse of women more than I am responsible for Bush's war crimes. True, I didn't do much to prevent both, but my leverage is negligible.

I leave in a racially and economically mixed community. When you go to the community's beach you'll see groups of mixed races enjoying themselves together, mixed couple, etc. Do the people in my community share the racism guilt with people in Mississippi?

Shainzona said...

I woke up this morning with your post from yesterday on my mind (I’ve got to get out more often!) as well as the comments from some of the men who protested their association with rape/rapists. I concede that many (most, I hope) have never actively considered, condoned or participated in a rape (my spousal unit being one of those) so was thinking about how/why those men should have to bear the burden of the rest.

My mind wandered back to the Dem. Primary this year. I confess to being totally outraged at the way Senator Clinton was (and still is) treated. And I place that blame squarely on Barack Obama’s shoulders.

I remember when he made his “Greatest Speech Evah” on the subject of race (my, how short-lived that was!) and the MSM was all over itself about his greatness. And then I watched this “great” man play his little games, his smirks, his brushing HRC off his shoulders like bothersome lint, the background theme music that was played when he entered a hall to the screams of his followers. And I thought, if only.

If only Barack Obama had the balls to have made another speech about how important it was that his opponent was a woman, how great she was to have “come as far” as she had (oh, thanks, guys!), what an intellect she was, etc. and then chided everyone else for ever suggesting anything else.

If only Barack Obama had the balls to actually be great, and actually be the change that women have been waiting for.

But he didn’t make that speech. And the absence of that speech allowed everyone to jump on the bandwagon that he had constructed and laugh and screech and be rude and give/get high fives and thumps on the back for their snide and derisive comments about this female candidate.

So what do I expect for all men – my spousal unit included? I expect him/them to stand up and say “this is wrong”. Not laugh at jokes that smear and make fun of anything female or feminine. Not condone comments made to/about a female co-worker. I expect them ALL to stand up and say “No More”.

That will be a good first step.

Unknown said...

Nobody, male of female gets away with sexist crap around me.

It's the primary reason I won't be voting for 'The Precious' nor looking to support him. He's dug himself a very deep hole with me.

A fact which he and his idiot supporters seem totally unaware of.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for both of these posts. I've added my 2¢ over at BlueLyon

Anonymous said...

I think that misogyny is a manifestation of the same personality traits that cause people, not just men, to react in a suppressive and sometimes violent way to behaviors that imply, due to the observer's preconceptions, a weak and passive personality. In this way both men and women who exhibit qualities that are considered effeminate by our many of our cultural backgrounds face a similar discrimination and danger from socially aggressive males.

Men can avoid this confrontation by simply acting differently, but women are automatically expected to fit the role of a submissive. Self-perceived dominants are threatened by a perceived submissive's attempts to both assert their personal freedom and their disregard for the dominant's authority.

I think you can see where I'm going with this. This may be better viewed as part of a larger issue of authoritarian versus humanist attitudes and upbringing.

(Reposted: I don't think my first attempt worked with the Google profile)

cellocat said...

I'm tired of equivocation on this issue. Many people say, essentially, "It's too hard," and "I'm not my brother's keeper", etc. So, here's the thing...

To be honest, yes: we expect you, individual men, to speak up. This is not because you are personally responsible for other men's rape or harassment. This is because you are responsible for aligning your actions with your values. If you value safety and equal access to equal rights for women, then go outside your comfort zone and say so in a way that counts when it counts.

If I, as a woman, do so, I am risking the same rape or harassment given to the women whom I am trying to protect. I risk losing my job, being touched in an unwanted fashion, being assaulted. If you, as a man, do so, you are (generally) risking much less. One voice is small, but many are powerful (with quite a bit of leverage, actually), and if 30% of the male population of the USA made a point of challengin sexism and misogyny when it happened, we'd be in a very different situation.

And it's not a question of an old-fashioned defense of the lady's honor. It's a question of challenging behavior that *should* be unacceptable. If you're on a team, and one member of that team is black, and you catch a person or two on your team cracking racial jokes, do you say something? And if you don't, how uncomfortable do you feel? Quite, I'd bet. And significantly more than if you hear a person cracking jokes about women's body parts, I'd wager.

Have you ever watched another guy eye a woman's breasts when talking to her? Have you done it yourself? In a professional situation? Call yourself on it. Call others on it. Do it, not because of group guilt, but because you want to be an honorable person of integrity, truthfulness, and courage. And if not, then damn it, feel just as uncomfortable as you would if you heard a colleague referred to with a racial epithet.

Falstaff said...

Mandos, re: "So it's up to women who experience it and its knock-on effects to say what they want done, even if this may not be just."

Isn't that pretty much what Anglachel is doing here -- a woman who experiences (has experienced) it and its knock-on effects saying what she wants done? I do think your citation of Andrea Dworkin is right on. Dworkin was truly radical, in her willingness to follow a thought all the way, undeterred by norms or taboos. And with something as deep as misogyny -- something that, I would argue, lies deeper than "society," and hence will be much harder to evolve past than racism -- isn't such radical thinking necessarily at a pretty far remove from near-term practical proposals?

In other words, isn't Anglachel doing here a version of what Dworkin fantasizes in the typically powerful passage you quote? Isn't she asking the radical question, simply for the sake of changing consciousness? And isn't that a legitimate thing to do?

Námo Mandos said...

Falstaff: I read the first post as primarily asking men what they know or do about rape. And I answered, it's terribly easy simply to remain oblivious. Then it was suggested that there is a double standard and white people are not permitted to remain oblivious to racism (not entirely sure about this, myself). And that obliviousness is the luxury of the privileged class (true).

These are descriptions of the problem, not solutions. Raising consciousness is not a solution in itself. The most "solution" I've heard so far is that men should call out misogynistic behaviour. Fair enough.

But it doesn't solve the problem of obliviousness. Anglachel points out that men's obliviousness is not an excuse. But she also points out that, unlike racism, misogyny is privatized (I know some people who would disagree that the difference is so sharp, but for the sake of argument...). By deduction, what Anglachel must want is for men to help end the privatization of misogyny and rape. What form this is supposed to take is what eludes me.

That's why I quoted the Dworkin bit. You can call a truce if there were a central authority for doing so...