Action Barriers Part 2: Guilt

Action Barriers Part 1: Defensiveness

Guilt should maybe have come first in this series, since the emotional core of guilt is the driving force for the defensiveness, but it also has variations that are equally destructive in ways that I think are tougher to understand.

Liberal guilt is a cliché for a reason, but people tend to think of it as bad because it’s ineffective or somewhat dishonest, not because it’s actually adding to the problem in and of itself. Here is an essay by Zuky on the paternalistic racism of the white liberal guilt-driven dynamic and what it means to not fall into that trap. Note:

Many of my POC friends would actually prefer to hang out with an Archie Bunker-type who spits flagrantly offensive opinions, rather than a colorblind liberal whose insidious paternalism, dehumanizing tokenism, and cognitive indoctrination ooze out between superficially progressive words.

I don’t know how successfully I manage to address these problems in my own behaviour, at least on a consistent basis, with respect to racism and white privilege, but the paragraph above reminds me of the spectrum of behaviours among my family members when we were in Asia last year.

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Action Barriers Part 1: Defensiveness

I have a series of thoughts on, basically, giving a crap, speaking out, and some common reactions to that. The reactions can basically be summed up into guilt, defensiveness and blame. They all tend to be interconnected, but I’m going to take them one at a time—they’re all long, but frankly, I’m okay with that.

To start, defensiveness. The general, well-known form that this takes is for a member of the privileged group—white, male, hetero, with no disabilities, Christian, hell, even first world—or some combination of privileged classes gets into a conversation criticizing sexism, racism or other forms of oppression. Privileged individual—let’s call him “P”—hears me talking about (for example) ‘male privilege’ and relating the concept to rape culture and he interprets what I just said as “All men are rapists”. So he gets angry at me, and defensive.

This is a silencing move. The conversation is no longer about men who are rapists, it’s about men who are not. I’m angry about the ubiquity of sexual violence—I’ve experienced it personally and heard countless other women (and several men) talk about their experiences with it. We talk about being shamed and silenced, and we talk about being afraid of having it happen again and angry that we have to feel that way. But P and I aren’t talking about that anymore. We’re talking about how angry P is, how afraid he is to be considered a rapist.
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Protest, invisibility and the racism of Canadian tolerance

A friend and I were talking about the ongoing transition from the sign-and-picket model of protest to the use of the internet and blogs in various aspects of activism. One point that came out was that one of the advantages of the internet is that you don’t depend exclusively on the major news organizations in order for your statements and actions to have any meaning at all.

The impact of carrying a sign in downtown Hamilton is limited to the number of people who see you carrying that sign. If you get 100 or 1000 people to carry the same sign, more people might notice, but the real impact doesn’t happen unless the Hamilton Spectator takes a picture, the Globe and Mail writes an opinion piece on the issue at hand, or the CBC sends a camera crew. Residents of the Six Nations reserve have been occupying territory in Caledonia for a year and a half now. They’re protesting the assumption of white Canadians (business, the government and the general public) that they get to unilaterally interpret the implications of land claims that have been disputed since the 19th century.

This was news for a while, though even right at the beginning, it was treated more as an escalation in a battle that should have already been over– “Oh, are those people still making a fuss over land claims? Haven’t they gotten everything they wanted *yet*? What more can we possibly hand them?” Now, I rarely hear about it unless I go looking for any updates or I run into one of the handful of people I know who live out there (though I’d rather not ask them, since they tend to focus most on how it’s affecting traffic and business than on the actual issues). Nothing is happening and no one is responding because the protest has been rendered invisible.

I may be wrong, but I suspect Canadians can be even worse than Americans about dismissing racism and ignoring unrest, because it seriously messes with our calm, peaceful, tolerant self-identity. I genuinely wonder if the assumption is that when land claims have been brought up before, and then disappeared, it must have been because we kind, liberal Canadians and our welfare-loving government appeased those greedy, demanding, drunk ingrates. We don’t even have to get around to reframing our racist issues, because nobody requires us to even talk about them, because everybody just knows they don’t exist.

What’s there to write about when nothing is changing? That nothing is changing. Everybody’s bored by protests because they’ve decided that it’s all been said before, and we all know how we feel about it, so we’re not even going to let a year and a half worth of protesting shake us far enough out of complacency to start a conversation about it. We’ll be good and tolerant–and good tolerant people shut up and don’t create a fuss, which, coincidentally, is also what people with privilege who want to maintain the status quo do.

On being a Christian feminist, Part 2: Hierarchy and idolatry

Given that I’ve already established that I think that feminism is a Christian calling, many of my struggles with the church as an institution and with its cultural presuppositions should be immediately apparent. That post was coming from the perspective of how sexist misunderstandings and misrepresentations have been used against women in marriage and relationship roles, alluding only briefly to women’s role within the church itself. That connects to a bigger point about the concept of hierarchy in spirituality.

I think an ideal spiritual environment eliminates the concept of hierarchy entirely. I think that to assume that any individual, or any type/class of individual, is closer to God or more God-like than any other is pure idolatry. I was raised Catholic, but when I came to my own genuine faith for the first time a couple of years ago, I started attending an Anglican church. One of the reasons I can’t see myself ever going back to Catholicism (though anything is possible, I suppose) is that the entire system is based on an authoritarian model and the presupposition that some individuals have or can gain a unique conduit to God. The message that God sends must be transmitted, or minimally, is better transmitted, though priests ordained to do so, and increasingly high-quality, less-distorted messages come from those further up on the Church chain of command. They are better than, higher than, greater than the masses, regardless of how much we talk about priestly poverty and sacrifice.

When I talk about my disagreement with this principle of Catholicism, people generally assume I’m expressing disagreement with many of the individual tenets/interpretations announced by the men in charge, or with the fact that it continues to be only men who are allowed to take on these roles. This is true, but it’s not the point.

The Reformation improved the general issue by allowing people to start reading and interpreting the bible for themselves, removing the need for a third-party, church-sanctioned translator between God and lowly human, and many of the Protestant churches (including Anglican) allow women to be ordained. But I don’t think we’ve yet gone far enough toward the egalitarian structure modeled both in the garden and by Jesus, who, by my reading, established himself as the boss and put everybody else on an equal plane. We talk a lot about priests being “servants” or “serving the community”, but I don’t think we grasp properly that service and humility mean that they are subservient to the people, not glorified by them, and called to both guide and be guided by them, not to command or regulate them. We also refer to them as ‘holy men’ and, when we want to depict a person of faith, a person who is better than others, on television, we reveal him to be a priest.

Recently, a story came out that a Roman Catholic diocese has decided to evict a group of nuns in order to use the proceeds from selling their convent property in order to pay out a settlement to victims of sexual abuse by priests. On one level, the problem is that the church is protecting pedophiles and finding ways to transfer responsibility away from the individuals and institutional elements involved. A further layer down into the systemic problem reveals that the individuals who are being asked to make enormous personal sacrifices are women, despite the fact that the perpetrators are uniformly men. The system is both corrupt and sexist, but I would argue that the specifics of the situation are the inevitable result of hierarchy. It’s not just that we’re denying that priests can do these things, or that we should be more forgiving when they do (though the Church is, in fact, saying that). What is also being said here is that the needs of some are more important than those of other others, because the work they do is more vital, they are less dispensable, less replaceable, closer to God. Now, they’re all these things because they’re men in addition to priests, but, like the broader system of privilege, it’s a problem because it exists, not because of who has it and who doesn’t.

One of the reasons I love the service that I attend every Sunday morning is because, in lieu of a sermon, we have “teaching” which is often done by lay members of the congregation. Several of these people have studied given topics extensively or have a particular passion for and awareness of a specific issue, and we tap into the resources that our church has to offer beyond just the education and thoughts of the one guy wearing the robe (at this service, by the way, he also doesn’t wear the robe, which I personally appreciate as part of refusing to ‘other’/idolize the priest). I appreciate the knowledge that people have, and I certainly appreciate that many of them have spent more time than I have examining this stuff, but no one pretends that these individuals have any increased ability, natural or learned, to access God and understand his will.

Why is this a feminist issue? Because to my mind, feminism provides us with a model that goes beyond flipping the dichotomy and helps us start to see things in terms of completely opting out. Feminism, to me, isn’t about putting women in positions that have been created and defined under the conditions of patriarchy, it’s about radically rethinking the whole structure. It’s through my initial questioning of the male power structure of the church that I personally started to see the problems with inequality, and I only get more convinced that they’re bigger and deeper than those surface representations.

It’s idolatry to see some as higher than others. It’s putting them closer to and almost in the place of God. Sexism creates a dichotomous version of this, but a hierarchical structure is just setting more layers into the idol-chain.

Random Hamilton fact: Canada’s first birth control clinic

Relatively recently, I came to the realization that Hamilton has become my home. By choice rather than necessity–this place has not only grown on me, I will actually admit to liking it now. In that spirit, a few days ago as I was walking by the old (now unused) train station on Ferguson, I was finally inspired to stop to read the historical plaque thing that’s there.

I was somewhat surprised to find that it didn’t talk about anything related to the train station, its commercial relevance to the city or province, or, you know, the usual stuff about steel and whatever. Instead it told me that this was the site of Canada’s first birth control clinic, established in the 1932. During the Depression. When birth control was illegal because it would “tend to corrupt morals”. It was established by quite the awesome lady, Dr Elizabeth Bagshaw*. Reading into the subtext of that link, this obviously exceptionally intelligent woman who had to scrape and fight and argue for the right to study and practice medicine was segregated into the “less than” field of obstetrics, because not only do we not want to have women as physicians, we don’t really want to supply the doctors to meet their needs. She provided birth control advice to any woman who needed it at a clinic that remained illegal until 1969.

That kind of story intimidates the crap out of me. The magnitude of that kind of fight, that kind of action, that kind of in-your-face risk-taking. So this is one of the things I’m coming to love about Hamilton: it’s not entirely coincidence that this woman would live and work in this town. There is a history of agitation, activism and bigger community here that we can still work with and build on.

I’m cool with making that home.

*I’m less than impressed with the reference to a “career woman’s life” and the implications thereof in an article written on behalf of the National Archives.


I love the word joy. I love finally having enough experience of it to recognize how different, and how much more powerful, it is than simple ‘happiness’.

From slacktivist just throwing some thoughts around last week:

Quoting CS Lewis:

“an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”

And expanding

Not quite a glimpse of the transcendant, perhaps, but just enough to suggest that something transcendant is or should be possible.

That last one? Refers to the words “Avengers Assemble!” Joy becomes the idea the we can join, create something and create motion. When we studied the Inferno in first year Comp Lit, my prof really liked to focus on the idea that the further down in the layers of hell one went, the more trapped, stagnant, rendered immobile the sinners were, until Satan himself is locked in a block of ice unable to move anything but his mouth. Hell and suffering were immobility, joy is the opposite.

And joy and hope are not far apart. We can’t wrap our fingers around it–in my experience, the very act of trying means I lose the joy, in much the way Buddhists talk about attachment and clinging. Satisfying the desire would somehow ruin it, but knowing that desirable but unknowable something is there, somewhere, and hoping to get at in somehow, someday…that’s joy.

Masculine feminism: Don McPherson

Despite the conflict I feel around over-crediting male feminists (as I discussed over in my post over at the Hathor feminism site), I must admit that I loved this story on Don McPherson posted at Feminist Allies.

This is a guy who has spent his entire life completely enmeshed in the world of professional sports, probably among the most hypermasculine, aggression-sanctioning, sensitivity-eradicating environments that exist. And he’s not just speaking out against sexism or gender-based violence, he’s even getting at the passive-voice construction use and the ways that our basic discourse serves to reinforce the woman’s role in the dynamic.

I love this quote (emphasis mine):

“We don’t raise boys to be men. We raise boys not to be women or gay men

It’s interesting to think about the ways this ‘negative-defining’ position contributes to “anxious masculinity”. If all value definitions are based on NOT statements, then any feature that would counter that NOT must be fought and eliminated. If we were constructing solid beings of ‘positive’ stuff, the things that men are wouldn’t be shaken quite so easily.

If this guy were a current Ti-Cat, I may even have been moved so far as an “Oskiouioui” (I did have to look up how the hell one might spell that. I haven’t fully Hamiltonized yet, clearly).