The Christian Feminist Contradiction

In checking my incoming links page this morning, I was kind of intrigued to find myself favourably linked in this blog post, which starts by asserting general agreement with a Guardian article that says, among other things:

…the term “Christian feminist” is an oxymoron; it’s a glaring contradiction in terms on a par with “compassionate conservative” and “pro-life anti-abortionist”…

Christianity is and always has been antithetical to women’s freedom and equality, but it’s certainly not alone in this….

From the very first days of feminism there’s been a recognition that religious doctrine is incompatible with the quest for women’s rights….

In any society where religion dominates it is women who pay the price: we can argue until we’re blue in the face about whether or not any particular religion sanctions so-called honour crimes for example, but what’s unarguable is that men’s interpretation of religion, and the patriarchal values that religion instils, has led to the murders of countless women.

The blogger goes on to talk about more of her own specific experiences within the Roman Catholic church in Canada, and they’re experiences to which I can certainly relate, having been raised in that community. She also talks about what she finds to fill in for what she misses about church, through things like poetry, and being the freewheelin’ kinda Christian (heretic) that I am, I’m cool with whatever experiences of the divine people go for.

The main argument I want to make with regard to this “Christian feminist contradiction” thing is that whenever it’s asserted, it gets pointed out over and over that “mainstream religion” has always been misogynistic, has consistently been used to uphold misogyny, includes countless examples of male dominance and the male paradigm for an image of God/God’s will, and has not, to say the least, been kind to the feminist movement, which is all true, but it doesn’t seem to occur to any one making these points that the problem is the mainstream, not the religion. Religion is the tool here, misogyny is the problem. Atheists and atheistic regimes can find plenty of ways to be misogynistic, and if we somehow manage to get rid of religion because it’s misogynistic instead of getting rid of misogyny, that’s exactly what they’ll do.

It’s not all that different from my reasons for frustration with feminists who talk about eliminating pornography and prostitution because the mainstream industry is misogynistic. I’m not denying that it – or the church – is. The mainstream is misogynistic. This is the starting place from which I’m operating as a feminist – that society as a whole is plenty full of sexism, and it’s worth working to eliminate that. Naturally, you’re going to see the threads of misogyny in religion, as well as in pop culture, in education, in politics, in everything. Fuck, you’ll even see them in feminism. The world has “always been” antithetical to women’s rights, and feminism exists, imo, as a force of hope to change that. Any argument that starts with the premise that because something has always been that way it must inherently be ever so is one that doesn’t place a lot of real hope in feminism, from my perspective.

Quoted above, the Guardian article claims that it’s inarguable that “…the patriarchal values that religion instills [have] led to the murders of countless women”. I guess that would be inarguable, if it didn’t originate from a faulty premise – religion does not “create” patriarchal values. Patriarchal values are imposed on religion (and everything else) by a patriarchal society, and I think the author gets that, because right off, she points out that as men get ahold of religion and begin envisioning a God that goes with it, that God is inevitably shaped as male.

I go through waves of thinking that calling myself a Christian is maybe a little misleading, since, in addition to all that feminism, I do take a lot of my faith practice from other, radically different, traditions, sometimes more than I take from the Bible. And sometimes, someone at my church says something from the pulpit or in conversation about the nature of Christianity and Christ, or I read myself some CS Lewis or something, and I think “fuck this, I’m out”, because if what they say is true, I want none of it. Me and God will get on just fine, perhaps better, without all that “Christian” baggage getting in the way. But then I come across some reading or some passage that really does emphasize the loving, accepting, radically transforming, hopeful faith that I do want to share in, and I sigh and stick the label back on again.

In general, I’m not a fan of being called deluded, or stupid, or condescended to (trackbacks being what they are, I’m sure mirabile dictu will read this, and to be clear, it is apparent that she’s not doing any of those things), but actually, it occurs to me that I’m fully okay with being a glaring contradiction.

Consider this the manifestation of my glare.

Another Whole People Group Rendered Incapable of Agency

Germaine Greer’s feminist philosophy is, to say the least, problematic, and her track record on any other kind of anti-oppression work is absolute bollocks. We’ve been over here for a bit in our irrelevant little corner of the blogosphere talking about agency and how, when certain segments of the population talk about sex workers, it sounds an awful lot like they’re saying that the effect of past physical, emotional and sexual abuse, not to mention drug addiction or alcoholism, has rendered these women nearly brainless, helpless pawns tossed about in a sea of patriarchal fatalism, salvageable only by the kind hand of a feminism that understands that only the eradication of porn by way of a declaration of its suckiness that we’ll all sign before we move to our penetration-free island. And simultaneously, Germaine Greer is publishing very similar arguments in a pretty damn widely circulated publication, only this time, she’s talking about Australian Aborigines rendered powerless to not beat people by rage at their experience of racism.

See how that sounds an awful lot like sympathy? It’s understandable that people would feel rage if they’ve been victimized by an incredibly racist society, if they’ve experienced horrific abuse, both personal and systemic, and if they’ve watched those they love experience the same abuse. That rage needs to be acknowledged and respected and addressed. None of this healing shit is easy. And it’s not okay to send it violent forces that will perpetuate the cycles of racist violence under the guise of increasing vigilance with regard to spousal abuse, child abuse, and sexual violence.

But then, see how it also sounds an awful lot like saying that “these people” are beyond help, that their rage, their victim-status, their place in the cycle of violence, is now a given, an immutable reality, and well, given the circumstances, we can’t really expect much better of them? Call me crazy, but if you’re talking as though entire populations of people are incapable of making basic moral decisions, I don’t think, in practical terms, it makes all that much of a difference if you argue that it’s because of centuries of colonial violence or because of genetic inferiority, especially if you’re speaking in these fatalistic, completely solution-free terms. I’m not denying the impact of abuse on one’s psychological makeup, I’m not denying the existence of a rage that is destructive to self and other, and I’m certainly not denying the feelings of hopelessness, despair and yes, anger, that characterize addiction.

But none of that makes a human being stop being a human being and an attitude born of genuine compassion has to see that. It has to work from a place that considers how to get through the layers of destruction and rage and let that human being just truly be. It has to be collaborative and cooperative and in no way can it be condescending. If someone is playing out hir self-hate on the bodies of others or on hir own body (whether that be through self-mutilation, addiction, or sexual behaviour/work that really has become a trap or an expression of a complete lack of self-worth), that’s not okay. In my experience with people who have done any or all of those things because of that self-hate, on some level, they usually know that. There’s a word for those who say that the poor dear just can’t help it, things are just so bad for hir, sie has suffered so much – “enabler”. It doesn’t help, and it nearly inevitably includes the comforting ability of said enabler to continue to see hirself as superior, the other as almost…well, subhuman.

This agency thing matters. This agency thing is really this human thing, and whether it be Germaine Greer with her Pontius Pilate hand-washing routine or the various members of the blogosphere “save the whores” brigade, missing it means, flat out, that you are participating in dehumanization.

On Empathy

I’m hoping I can keep this one short, but, well, that might take a miracle. I’ve been continuing to swirl some thoughts around in my head about the use of activism as therapy (which was something I put on the list, like, four outrages ago), but I think I’m going to have to limit it to making this basic point about what empathy is and is not.

This is sparked largely by Ren’s gauntlet-throwdown, in turn fueled into being by the latest portion of Maggie Hays’ manifesto. Maggie includes the note that:

we [radical feminists] fully empathize with women in the sex industry.

From the American Heritage Dictionary:

em·pa·thy (n)

  1. Identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives. See synonyms at pity
  2. The attribution of one’s own feelings to an object

I initially expected to see a dictionary definition that looked more along the lines of what I found under “sympathy” (“Mutual understanding or affection arising from a relationship of affinity”), and while I’m still enough of a descriptive linguist to recognize that dictionaries don’t make meaning, meanings make dictionaries, this entry will suffice to help make my point, just from a different angle. Those definitions sort of reinforce the idea that empathy can almost have two directions – one in which the empathized-with defines the emotional trajectory, and one in which the empathizer does. The former requires patient listening, carefully putting yourself aside in order to really get at the reality of the other person’s situation, motives, emotions. The latter means you project your feelings onto a recipient (I’m going to be generous and avoid the temptation to read “object” in that definition in a non-grammatical context, because I don’t think it would be accurate given that it’s a dictionary and all).

I think empathy has been given an undeservedly good reputation these days, equated with unselfishness and compassion and loving kindness. I am, of course, in favour of compassion, though if I explained what I mean by that this would most certainly not be short. I basically think it’s a good idea to try to understand another person’s actions and motivations and to see them as a beast that also has feelings – really a radical thought, I know. But to “empathize completely” with a limited number of others? Well, first of all, that’s going to push a lot of your emotional energies into one particular channel (and therefore limit your ability to be compassionate towards those who don’t fall along that narrow, tunnel-vision stream), but second…that’s a little scary, actually, and kind of a lot like not recognizing what is you and what is not. Like I said a couple of months ago:

I often think about people who have boundary issues not just as people who have trouble maintaining their own or who are inclined to violate those of others, but as people who seem to actually lack the understanding of where you start and they end. Meaning they take on emotion that’s yours in ways that are just inappropriate, and becomes kinda controlling, and can be really overwhelming…

And now that we’ve reached the point of definitely not short at all, it was actually another comment by Ms. Maggie Hays that put me to mind of this earlier in the week (it’s worth reading in its entirety, to get the whole picture of where this “empathy” is coming from, but the choice quote):

I do hope you accept my hugs and apologies. I screwed up and I’m crying just now… I’ve screwed up and it’s truly distressing to me…
I know that you won’t believe me after all this but= please contact me any time you need comfort, I will be there.

(from this thread, bold emphasis mine). You know, I believe, in this case, that Maggie is empathizing – that she is taking all of her emotion and transferring it right onto this other person who was apparently upset by something she said. She’s blurred these boundary things so that instead of actually stopping and listening to the other person whose pain is so upsetting to her, she’s pushing out with her own distress about her own actions and her own screwing up. Personally, I would believe her offer to contact her if I were in need of comfort – I would believe that she would be there and respond, I just wouldn’t want her to, because this (per)version of “empathy” involves way too much of Maggie Hays’ emotions, and way too little of the emotions of those she is empathizing with.

I have family members who have done this during some of the most difficult periods of my life, including following sexual assault – I somehow found myself having to comfort them because the fact that they couldn’t/didn’t protect me was so painful, because it hurt them so much to see me in that kind of pain, because they didn’t know what they would do if I couldn’t be okay again. It’s not a sign of an emotionally healthy adult human being with a solid sense of self. I think there are some that have this conception that crying over the pain of another person (including pain that you maybe caused yourself) should ingratiate you to that person, should lead that person to think that you must really really care about hir, to marvel at and be thankful for the depth of your feelings, when…no. Really, it should (and often does) make the other person feel like you don’t really know how to deal with what’s happened to hir, you aren’t really prepared to be there in a way that is other-centred, and that you have boundary issues.

In that case, I definitely have an elsewhere to be.

Again on this “Ally” Thing

I’m at the point of having a bit of a love/hate relationship with the internet in general and blogging in particular, so I’m again in my “late to the party” mode regarding this letter by Queen Emily, this thread from The F-Word, and the multitude of posts that followed afterwards. I think 95% of the “hate” side of this relationship can be summed up with the tension I feel when reading those posts that Ren links, and shaking my head at the ever-deepening recognition that there is no damn way there is ever going to be anything resembling collaborative conversation with some people who call themselves “feminists”. And honestly, that’s all I can say about that.

What I really want to note is this “ally” word that comes up again, specifically in the comment thread on the F-Word. I’ve written about this before, but I need to say it again, because in amongst the comments that were outraged at the F-Word for posting this at all and the comments supporting Queen Emily’s original point, there were several that either outright asked for kinder, gentler language on the subject or alluded to just how difficult it is, as a cis person, to be maligned for not understanding yet. Specifically, in what seems to me to be a spectacular display in missing the point, commenter Ellie says:

For a lot of people there are real questions they have, real issues to be discussed, regarding transwomen. Are you saying that if we try to discuss certain issues we are not allies?…I’m probably going to get ripped to shreds here, but I’m not trying to deny transwomen anything, all I’m saying is thatt o move forward, to bring transissues more into the sphere of feminism, we need to discuss, introduce ideas to people, allow individuals to express opinions or ask question without being called a bigot or acccused of not being an ally, just get people to a place where they actually want to listen.

Lisa responded pretty thoroughly to this comment here, but I want to add an answer to the first question, bolded above (by me).

I don’t know if Queen Emily wants to say that, or Helen G, or anyone who was involved in that thread, but me? I will absolutely say that yes, if you want to discuss “certain issues”, like whether trans* women and men reify gender essentialist, or whether cis women require certainty that the person they are speaking to about their experience of rape has lived her entire life as a woman and therefore understands as no one else possibly could, or exactly what kind of language and what level of anger might make you willing to participate in the discussion, in a conversation that started about hate crimes, violent murders, and deadly levels of systemic ignorance, then I am calling you “Not an ally”.

Note, of course, that this is not the same thing as calling you a bigot, and the fact that you think it is speaks volumes on your level of understanding about privilege. In the logic 101 sense, it would seem obvious that all bigots are non-allies, while all non-allies are not bigots. The world isn’t divided neatly into these binaries of “Good People” and “Bad People”, where all the “Bad People” are the misogynists, the racists, the homophobes, the transphobes, the whole damn checklist, and all the “Good People” get put straight into the “ally” camp, with a gold star for awesomeness pasted to their forehead, so we will always know that there’s no need to accuse them of anything, because even if they’re saying something upsetting, it must just be a misunderstanding.

You don’t get to be called an ally just for not being a bigot. That would be the bare minimum requirement for the “Lessons in Not Being an Asshole” club.

I do say this with some level of compassion, though I know my sarcasm comes through a lot more than my kinder gentler side on this blog. I’m chock-full of privilege, over here, and I can relate to the desire to be a good ally as part of living up to your own conception of what makes you a good person. But I find I get myself a lot farther along toward that conception if I stop expecting other people to call me a good person, and especially if I stop expecting thanks/praise/affirmation from people I’m supposedly trying to “help” (though not much of a fan of how condescending that charity-model can be) or with whom I am allied. It’s just not about me, and it’s only my pride that gives a whit about what I’m being called.

Mkay?

Quick Note: Go, Torontonians, Go!

Backstory: A Neighbourhood “Safety Association” has committed itself to ridding the neighbourhood of sex-trade workers. Their website features the following, presumably new, disclaimer:

WE RECOGNIZE THE RIGHTS OF ALL PEOPLE, AND THIS IS NOT DISCRIMINATORY AGAINST THE SEX-TRADE WORKERS OR TRANS-GENDER SEX-TRADE WORKERS (primarilyat this corner).

Then proceeds to state:

Sex-trade workers should not be operating in such a densely populated area, surrounded by schools and a hospital – surely the residents and students here have a right to surroundings where they can walk, work and live without sex-trade workers and their johns.

I think we’ve got some radically different ideas of what the word “rights” means in those two sentences (emphasis in the second, mine). The attempt to rid the neighbourhood of the property-devaluing menace of sex work has primarily consisted of the harassment of the women, specifically trans women, working in this neighbourhood, and has extended to the point of threats and violence against these women.

Of course, the neighbourhood safety association really has the best interest of women at heart, and while they are concerned with their property values, they are also deeply, deeply concerned about protecting sex workers:

The sex-trade workers themselves are at constant risk from being picked up by johns that intend to do them harm.

So it’s totally in their best interest to walk right into the arms of those who intend to do them harm using different weapons.

Tomorrow night (Friday, August 15th) at 11 pm there will be a protest against this violence and this “solution”. I don’t know if any Torontonians read me, but on the off chance there’s even one of you – just go. Being unfortunately dependent upon public transportation, I can be there only in spirit.

What Rape “Prevention” is Not

Frankly, this (also via Renée).

I don’t even know where to start with that goddamn website, though Renée has done a pretty good job of highlighting how not only does the language shift responsibility onto women, it reinforces the way we are told to be constantly on guard against rape. At this rate, within a couple of years, it’s going to be the only thing women think about, ever. Victory will be ours!

But colour me confused here, because everything on that site says that this “device” is designed to prevent rape. Except…in order to work, penetration – vaginal penetration – has to occur. Which is to say, rape. I mean, that’s all over and above the fact that sexual assault can take many forms, including those that don’t involve vaginal penetration, those that involve penetration with a foreign object or those that don’t involve penetration of any kind. I mean, here I am trying to impose logic onto a clearly “does not follow” premise, but among the FAQs it even assures us that the rapist will not initially feel the RapeX (because, of course, at the moment of the rape, he has been possessed by a crazed demon that doesn’t notice things like that), and that when he does, the pain will be sufficient to render him incapable of killing you while you run away. So it’s not like you’re supposed to use it as a deterrent or something like that…it’s all about the after-the-fact identifiability and getting the rape to end relatively quickly after it begins.

Which is not what the word “prevention” means, unless I missed a memo somewhere.

Building the Perfect Mother

Lots and lots of people have commented on the People cover featuring Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and all of their white children. Renée at Womanist Musings, however, says a number of things that drive the issue right home, both in yesterday’s post and the one that she wrote a few weeks ago:

As a society we pay a lot of lip service to respecting motherhood, but in truth unless you are of a certain colour or class, it is more likely that you will be punished, or somehow stigmatized for “choosing” to give birth.

Angelina Jolie is valued as a mother because she looks right, she has the right image – we are supposed to look at that People cover and think “This is what a happy family looks like”. The looks of love, affection and commitment to one another reinforce – these children will be cared for. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware of the other children, those ones we’re not seeing, the ones who would make us go ‘one of these things is not like the others’, and you’re thinking that they, of course, would be welcomed under that caring, glowing, rich umbrella image.

Renée has a good contrast post from earlier this month as well, looking at the way Erykah Badu’s pregnancy is being talked about in some media circles. Just in case we’re tempted to believe that the class concerns really do arise out of genuine desire to see children raised only in families that are capable of caring for them financially, that story provides a nice counterpoint.

I’d like to add, however, that the fetishization of Jolie as mother – and the construction of the perfect mother-shaped pedestal – is problematic in and of itself, not just in the contrast point. We’ve got a very nice mother version of the virgin-whore dichotomy going on up there, don’t we? One happily married, loving, generous spirit (the narrative on the nature of Brangelina’s early relationship has completely disappeared by this point – as well it should, because, y’know, don’t care, don’t judge, but that’s part of the character we’re creating here, the archetype the media is constructing), one a bed-hopping, ungrateful, outspoken slutty bitch. And it’s always obvious why that sucks for the one on the “bad” side of that dichotomy, but the damn am I also sick of the “good” side of it.

I really don’t have an opinion one way or another on whether or not Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt really are the wonderful people they play on TV. A lot of evidence suggests that they really do direct a substantial portion of their ample resources toward organizations that provide concrete support to women and children in war zones and areas of extreme poverty. My problem is not with the real Angelina Jolie, it’s with this character others are writing for her. That Jolie is not actually a person, she’s the perfect Hollywood mother, she’s the woman with the life toward which we should all aspire, she’s the lost little girl come around to finally find love with the man of everyone’s dreams, she’s hope incarnate. That half of the dichotomy is never allowed to make mistakes, and it reminds me, again, of this old post of mine about the impact of that self-sacrificing mother image, the playing out of the pressure for perfection.

Issues around motherhood often lead to some of the most heated debates in feminism, and frankly, I hate them. I think, often, they are yet another battleground on which we fight out our picture of what a perfect woman should look like, and none of those battles ever provide the space for women to just be human. There’s an all-or-nothing around a “good mother”, just as there is around a “good girl” and a “good feminist”. Just imagine the narrative if Jolie and Pitt were ever to divorce – say Angelina is caught having an affair. Pedestal broken. Now she’s nothing.

I could go on and on about various elements of this narrative – I already have, really, and since I have a headache, I suspect I’ve done a shitty job of it – including the father factor and how that comes into play, but the point is that there’s a perfect mother construction going on here, and it sucks because of what it says about everything that doesn’t fit, but it’s also built on a classically tenuous pedestal, and it sucks for that, too.