by Dorian Commode
“The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power; cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both. Any attempt to “soften” the power of the oppressor in deference to the weakness of the oppressed almost always manifests itself in the form of false generosity [...] In order to have the continued opportunity to express their “generosity,” the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well. An unjust social order is the permanent fount of this “generosity” which is nourished by death, despair, and poverty. That is why the dispensers of false generosity become desperate at the slightest threat to its source.”
- Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
This article is an exploration of the way those of us already invested in the destruction of patriarchy and gender create space to talk with and educate each other. It is not patriarchy 101, nor a proposal of specific solutions. In the tradition of popular education, I believe that the oppressed already contain enough information to assess and destroy our oppression, but that we must structure spaces in a way that such information is brought out in an actionable way.
Patriarchy remains a structural element of global society. It is neither about to be destroyed by the class climbing of a few highly privileged women, nor the injustice system “locking up rapists,” nor by genderfucking. Every transperson and woman I know (and a significant amount of men) has experienced some combination of sexual assault or domestic violence, almost entirely at the hands of men. Following the logic of The Shock Doctrine, this near universal, continuous experience and helpless witnessing of torture primes us to think of ourselves as individuals in permanent conflict with “The World”, incapable of solidarity and unable to resist the ongoing waves of violence we experience on larger economic scales as well as the regular abuses and entitlements of men*. As I wrote this article, I was “mildly” sexually assaulted by someone in my community. Of course, he honestly wants to do what he can to be a good feminist, and I honestly believe him. The condition of privilege is that of ignorance — the easiest thing is to participate in oppression. It is not an outlier.
Of course this is urgent. It’s been urgent for 5000 years. Of course men* of conscience want to defect. Of course they don’t know how. “What should I read?” I don’t know. “Educate me.” Are you ready? Am I? Are we? To be educated as an oppressor is to be reduced from a position of power as the oppressed free themselves. Since when should the oppressed not have to educate the oppressor”? Who else will?
While the quote above should be considered by all “allies,” the “oppressor” Freire referred to was not the privileged individual (man, white person, straight person, etc), but the economic ruling class. His “oppressed” are the economic/racial underclass. Men compose the majority of this ruling class, and are fused in a cross-class alliance with other men, most clearly within the Men’s Rights Movement which blames women, transpeople and queers for their (for poor/working class men, very real) disempowerment. If the privileged man* is not an oppressor, per se, what is strategy is left for common struggle? How will the privileged defect from their alliance with the oppressors? When must we struggle against them, and when can we struggle with them?
Articles like this one tend to provoke resentment, defensiveness, or unthinking submission from privileged people. Are these responses the failing of the writer? Or the fault of the “fucked up” reader? This lack of connection between voice of oppressed and ear of privileged is simply that — one that hasn’t been made yet. To focus on the “fucked-upness” of individuals is to silently acknowledge that the best we can do is get a few people to act slightly better. We need them to, yes, and a lot more.
The notions of declaring oneself a “male feminist ally” and forming a “feminist men’s group” (much like the whites-only anti-racist group) persist as “the” way to organize as aspiring feminist men. This is rather bizarre, considering that some prominent male feminists of the 70s ended up founding the Men’s Rights movement.** A group of privileged people, especially a group such as men, who are generally socialized to be competitive and uncommunicative, getting together in a “safe space” to talk about their privilege seems to me like an incubator for anti-feminist activity. Let me explain:
What I’ve seen of organized feminist men’s groups, and in subculture that considers itself feminist is this: those men who are best at talking the feminist talk are elevated as “good men” who can be trusted, regardless of their actions. I’ve known male women’s and gender studies majors who refuse to wash their dishes, feminist queer men who mansplain abortion rights, macho bros who feel really righteous when they “kick rapists’ asses,” men who are so excited to use “bitch” again now that it’s ok if you attach “basic” or “white,” and on and on. At worst, I was around a men’s group organized by two (unacknowledged) male rapists. These guys were, of course, “good dudes.”
This is what happens when talk is more important than walk, when someone can be considered an “Ally” as their static identity. Ally is a verb, something which must be done, not something to be. As long as we allow ourselves to fall into thinking that there are Good People and Bad People, rather than reacting to what people Actually Do, we will continue to be fooled by those who say all the right things and do all the wrong ones.
The evolution of a caucus of privileged people into a reactionary group is predictable because it imitates the structure of mainstream society — a space in which privileged people are listened to, but worse because the rest of us aren’t even there to observe or react. If men* need a space to process the (very real) hurt they carry from patriarchy, it’s probably best that they do that within organically developed, trusting friendships with people of many genders. Within a group of men* discussing feminism, it’s unlikely that members have a high enough degree of vulnerability and trust with each other to avoid a competition to be “most feminist.” It seems like a set-up for men to feel good about themselves either by ascending to the top of the hierarchy of “good dudes” or to engage in indulgent self-punishment for being “bad” (hire a dominatrix, it’s simpler). to make
Women and transpeople make groups for ourselves because we don’t have spaces in mainstream society where we hear each other and see each other as valuable. These spaces have far more potential to transgress normal social relations. I say “potential” because women-only spaces are an essential part of maintaining patriarchy. The kitchen, the laundry, the servant’s quarters, the boarding school, the brothel,*** the finishing school, the female-dominated care industries, and the private discussions in which we discuss those most unpleasant things: abortions, yeast infections, rape, who to watch out for. Those things that men just shouldn’t have to think about. Women also enforce gender norms on each other in these spaces: discussing men, instructing each other how to act and look in order to please them, putting each other down for our gender transgressions.
We need to change the way we relate within groups of oppressed people, too, and not assume that we are radical or feminist simply by getting together. Someone who experiences a certain type of oppression knows better than someone who doesn’t what that experience is like. What one does with that information varies.
I think it would be more useful, as far as discussions go, to have mixed gender groups in which men* are actively obliged to both speak honestly and respect other’s ideas. Women and trans people in such groups must also transgress expectations to not upset or offend men, to actively name when men are being overbearing or disrespectful, and to name and discuss openly aired patriarchal ideas. We’d have to challenge ourselves to be radically unsafe in a group of people with whom we could feel (but never actually be) safe around. Conflict in such a space could easily be dismissed as “too hard to deal with” (for men who have the option of avoiding discussions of patriarchy), or as a product of the irreparable ignorance of the privileged. Or it could be avoided. Or it could be productive.
We are not yet equipped for insurrection against patriarchy. Discussion groups, caucuses, and collective action make possible this insurrection by fusing the information we already have into something actionable, which then can be reanalyzed and turn into something even more effective. The discussion group is not an endpoint. What I’m proposing is the most challenging of actions- telling the truth to each other and ourselves, so that we might do something useful together. Maybe we will decide to try doing clinic defense again, become union organizers, get guns, learn to do abortions, infiltrate legal advocacy, opt for political homo- or asexuality. Who knows? We need to talk about it first.
THINGS YOU CAN DO TO BE AN ALLY:
Feminism has given us the adage “the personal is political.” Meaning, in part, what you actually do is the truest indicator of what one will continue to do. Your actions are your politics. You can aspire to something different, sure, but what you do is what you believe is ok or necessary to do right now.
- Listen to people, especially those who don’t get listened to as much as you do. When you think their experiences or complaints sound too bad to be true, ask yourself where that denial comes from. Get in their shoes. Part of female socialization is constantly putting oneself in other’s shoes, try doing the same so we can try staying in ours. When someone has a patriarchy-related problem ask if there’s something you can do, don’t be disappointed if there isn’t, do not try to be a primary actor in the “resolution” nor reneg on responsibility to act.
- Be nice to people. Assume that most people, especially those that experience oppression(s), have gone through some fucked up shit.
- Seek validation outside of activism, that’s what good friends are for. Successes are few, and trying to “look busy” or be seen as a “good ally” rarely assists in strategic collective action.
- Clean up after yourself. Seriously. It is a continual problem that men don’t clean up their shit, I assume this comes from a confidence that “someone” will come deal with the mess, or that the mess is “not a big deal.” The sense that someone will take care of you or that getting other people sick won’t impact you is an entitlement that most people don’t have. Oppression is always economic. One’s health and stuff is precious and costs money that is often hard earned. Yes, there are messy femmes, I live with them. It’s annoying but the political and social weight is just not the same.
- Don’t participate in trends like calling women “basic bitches” or whatever. It’s still sexist.
- Sexual tension is often used as a form of social control. Men have the option of using flirtation to insure themselves against being challenged, whether or not they are actually sexually interested in their subject, as femmes and women are less likely to compromise getting laid by being argumentative. It’s unacceptable to rely on being charming, sweet, or flirtatious as a way to avoid responsibility for ones actions.
- Learn and practice feminist theory: Reading ideas and stories of women and transpeople is a great way for men to educate themselves without overburdening those people. Remember that this is not “self-education,” the writer did the work and is educating you, and someone had to make the reading list. That said, I’ve known plenty of men who’ve read all the right stuff and still act like sexist assholes. Why? Because they equate thinking with doing something. To be a true ally you cannot just do the homework — you must take what you’ve learned and actively apply it to your life, your behavior, your sex life. The future is unwritten, comrades.