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.

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5 thoughts on “Another Whole People Group Rendered Incapable of Agency

  1. hysperia says:

    Gosh, I fear that it’s unfortunate that we can’t as yet actually read Greer’s essay. After listening to a radio interview with her in which she got to respond to some of the bad-ass press she’s had and the ways it seems she’s been badly misinterpreted, I realized that I won’t be able to judge her work until I do read it. I don’t think that she is buying in to the notion that Aboriginal people are helpless at all. She is, however, pretty critical about the planned government interventions with respect to violence in those communities and she picks up, rightly I think, on the damage it does when female members of those communities are asked to use a police force to resolve the problem of domestic violence.

    Here’s a link to the radio interview:

    http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2008/s2334393.htm

    It by no means resolves all the questions that you or I may have about Greer’s work but in several instances it does show how she has been misquoted, misread and misunderstood.

  2. purtek says:

    hysperia, the link in the post goes to Greer’s article, or at least excerpts of it, so it’s not a case of misquoting or having read an interpretation. Am I missing something else?

    I haven’t had a chance to listen to that radio interview, and I do realize she’s critical of the planned government interventions, and maybe this is just cynicism speaking through, but I can’t really imagine being convinced, since she isn’t exactly an unbiased source on the topic.

  3. Lisa Harney says:

    Perhaps Uppity Brown Woman’s explanation will make this clearer.

    I can understand that someone might be critical of interference in another culture, but the women are asking the government for help to deal with this. Why does Germaine Greer feel that the government shouldn’t be helping when they’ve been asked for help by the women who are experiencing this violence?

  4. hysperia says:

    Hi, sorry purtek, in part I misunderstood you and in part I wasn’t clear. The “misreading” stuff I was referring to had to do the Greer’s publication of a 10,000 word essay that has caused a lot of controversy and that I think has been misunderstood by many. The piece you’re referring to just doesn’t contain enough, from my point of view, for me to make a decision regarding whether or not I agree with her and, for sure, that’s her responsibility and, given the controversy with respect to what she’s written, it’s truly unfortunate. The interview I’ve provided a link to gives her more space to discuss her point of view and likely, I now read her in light of that interview.

    I’ll admit my own bias right now: Germaine Greer almost always freaks me out. But she was one of those early feminist heroes when there were almost none and she’ll always have a place in that world for me. Which, of course, is no reason at all to let her off the hook when there’s good reason for disagreement. I do walk the extra mile though, to make sure that I’m understanding her.

    And, as I understand it, Greer is saying that for the government to intervene in Aboriginal communities in particular ways, like by setting up more ways to send Aboriginal men to jail, is just not going to help. I’m not sure that I agree entirely with her analysis of the reasons. But I do know that in Canada, that kind of intervention doesn’t appear to be working – Aboriginal men (and women) are grossly overrepresented in Canadian prisons and, among men, “domestic abuse” is one of the most typical charges. And this is doing nothing to reduce the rates of violence in First Nations communities. The Criminal Law does provide for alternative ways of dealing with Aboriginal crimes but they are rarely used. What I took from Greer’s perspective on this is not that there should be no help given, but that “we” have to look carefully at the kind of help that might really work. Criminalizing more and more Aboriginal people just might not be it. And there is actually no better way to deprive people of agency than to put them in jail in large numbers.

    As for the precise reasons for which Greer comes to her conclusions, I find her writing difficult to understand at times and I wish she’d write more clearly. Maybe I’m projecting some of my own views onto her writing. It’s something I’ll try to sort out for myself and maybe post something on myself.

  5. purtek says:

    Ah, I appreciate the distinction between the two articles now. Thanks for clarifying.

    I totally agree with you on the fact that the government position in this is not a tenable one, and with the relationship to the Canadian context. I just feel like Greer is calling for some balance to that, but ends of crossing the line into that condescending sort of “empathy” (pity) I keep finding myself coming back to over and over these days. There’s something that still sort of holds it all as “other”, that lets us keep ourselves, as privileged white people, somewhat “outside” of the reality of actually relating to people.

    The addiction model applies here, too (and, in fact, it’s part of the issue). Demonizing addicts seems pretty much proven to do no good, and criminalizing it has been ineffective, to put it mildly. But coddling it, especially when it comes part and parcel with destruction and violence, isn’t going to solve the problem either, and often ends up further dehumanizing and draining people of their self-respect.

    It’s possible that Greer is arguing for exactly the kind of alternative model legislation that you suggest, but all I can see – and maybe that’s the fault of the excerpt – is the pendulum swung toward the pity and the coddling.

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