My friend arrived for dinner visibly agitated. In one of his leadership classes, one of his classmates had shared an example of sexism at work – as an intern in a fancy firm, she was apparently kept out of the conversation in her first week by all the men she was working for. “That’s not a gender thing. Every intern goes through that”, he had protested, and had subsequently been, in his words, attacked by the other women in the class. “You feminists”, he started narrating the incident to me in anger, “so conveniently turn your weaknesses into a complaint about injustice”.
Another friend on the table chimed in, recounting his experience with feminism. He had been in a group activity in class where they had to find a solution to a hypothetical problem that involved stranded ruined planes in deserted islands. One person in the group made a “rather stupid suggestion” that the group heard out patiently, before they decided to go with the suggestion offered by another person, who did in fact, with have some flying experience. The former was a woman of colour, the latter, a white straight cis-gendered man. This distinction was pointed out by someone during the debriefing, as a sign of subtle racism and sexism working in the group dynamic; a suggestion the group found offensive. “I have nothing against feminism”, the third friend said, “I just don’t know why everything has to be about gender all the time.” The first friend nodded. The terms “humanist”, “bra-burning femin*zi”, “men’s rights” were thrown around in the conversation.
My first instinct was to judge, brand them as chauvinists. I wanted to lecture them, trace the history of feminism through the many waves and schools of thought and the broad range of issues it encapsulates, convinced that once people know the same things as me, they have to feel the same way; right? I felt like a defender of the whole feminist movement, the same way one feels about one’s family; it’s by no means perfect, but if anyone says anything against it, one must vehemently defend to protect the honour. Being a feminist has been such a huge part of who I am, of the battles I’ve fought and the things I’ve believed – this felt personal. Losing this “battle” not only meant being proven wrong, it also discredited so much of what I stood for.
One of them noticed the frustration evident on my face and changed the tone, “we are on the same side, J”. I didn’t agree with a lot of what they said, but this debate looked a lot different from the same side; it felt less like a battle. It was now no longer about who wins a territory, but rather a discussion about what is best for the territory. Suddenly my defensiveness vanished. “Feminism is complex”, I tried to summarise what I was feeling, “and it’s kind of unfair to reject an entire movement because you don’t agree with some people’s versions of it”. I confessed that I was saying this as someone who has had her fair share of tussle with several tenets of feminism – do I agree with all of them? I don’t. If feminism as a whole perfect? By no means. Is feminism still important? Yes. Absolutely.
“What is your feminism”, one of them asked. I paused. Usually, I am pretty clear on where I stand on most issues. Pro-choice: definitely. Strongly vouch for inter-sectional conversations in feminism. Vehemently protective when any girl is accused of “asking for it”. Kind of pro-slut walks. Each of these, however, felt like different spectrums that I stood at different points on. To reduce it all to one center point where all the spectrums merge perfectly would probably be a blessing, but if it were a good idea – I wasn’t entirely sure. Also because a part of me wanted to leave the space open to change my mind on those issues, not out of flakiness, but more as openness to points of view hadn’t yet considered. Yet, some sort of allegiance felt necessary. However, on merit of the same allegiance and family metaphor, I shouldn’t have to defend my feminism – despite what places it takes on the different spectrums, they all lie within the basic tenet of equality, and thus within feminism. Why then did it require extra justification?
Words from Roxane Gay’s TED talk, “Confessions of a Bad Feminist” rang true in my head: “We demand perfection from feminists, because we are still fighting for so much, we want so much, we need so damn much. We go far beyond reasonable, constructive criticism, to dissecting any given woman’s feminism, tearing it apart until there’s nothing left.” For an “intellectual issue”, there was too much feeling, too much decision making in that tiny situation on the dinner table. I could hear the responses I was used to hearing play out on cue in my head “seriously, stop being so dramatic about it”.
Now, anyone who knows me knows that I am dramatic. Proudly so. I also happily take the blame in being an “overthinker” who “reads too much into things”. But sitting on that table, all these thoughts and feelings stirring up inside me, I couldn’t unsee this. My discomfort came from a place of power inequality – a dynamic that I am as much to blame for playing into – but a dynamic that is very real, despite all the good intentions. A dynamic that comes from a certain assertion of normal, which puts (my) feminism outside of this “normal” forcing me, indirectly, to justify my stand to those standing within that normal to be accepted by them. “Hegemony”, I was taught this was called in college. The “normal” that was created by a group that yields power, a “normal” that gets so embedded, that everyone just assumes it is true. A normal that then becomes an ideology that makes decisions for the people within that dynamic, often without the person even realising that they are agreeing to this cultural domination. Sitting here, in this group of well-meaning men I love being asked to justify my feminism, we were all playing by this normal, perpetuating it, without really being fully aware of it.
I tell them that, as kindly as I can. Thankfully, they take a moment to take it in (or maybe just to eat their food, but I am going with the more assuring explanation of the silence that followed) before one of them responds, “but aren’t you trying to create your own hegemony, such that the new normal makes feminism the normal, and those of us outside of that now have to explain to you? Aren’t you fighting for domination, in a fight against domination?”
I could see where he was going with this. I had recently entered into one of those futile but heated Facebook debates about this with another friend, who had shared that godawful video mocking political correctness and “oppression olympics” that went viral recently (I refuse to share the link because, like, contributing to that demand (not happening!)). For those of you lucky to not have seen it, it shares the story of a “privileged man” in a classroom, who essentially gets ostracised for everything he says because it offends some group, and in the end, despite being deserving in his merit, he doesn’t win a certain prize in the math class because equity rules take away points from him and give them to others in the class. Now, if that video was more good-heartedly funny, I would have probably loved to use it engage in a discussion about the the balance between assuming good intentions and pointing out inherent deeply coded systems of injustices, something that I would love to be able to get perspectives on. But, this video made me acutely uncomfortable instead, not because of its exaggerated tone, but the crude way in which it tries to justify its message through a lens of meritocracy.
In the discussion that followed, the much-too-common debate trick of exaggerated exceptions was used neatly, wrapped in reason-appealing notions. So there was the classic “but what about the women who take advantage of these moments and cry wolf in cases of rape”, to discuss the undue misuse of feminism by women to get their way, or worse, to get attention – apparently that’s what happens when we create conditions for women to feel safe and be supported for things like rape. I would probably have agreed to the extent that men need to be given the benefit of doubt when making a decision in these cases, a narrative that sometimes gets skewed. However, the fact remains that the fight against victim shaming/blaming, the fight to give women right to complain against rape without feeling afraid is still too real. While there would definitely be cases of women misusing this power, it is still only the exception. The “self-defense murder” is used so frequently too, but one doesn’t question the need for that law. Several schools misuse the funds that they receive to improve education, but we don’t question the need to push in more funds into education. “Why then does this fight get questioned”, I asked, I must confess, rather aggressively/ defensively.
To which, another commentator said – “look at the context of the video; why does privilege need to feature in a discussion in a math class. It takes away from the learning math”. Conveniently forgotten here is the point that unfortunately that discussion hardly ever shows up in classes other than the social sciences and humanities, but I see his point. A fellow (male) feminist joined in and tried to reason with the barrage of men supporting that video. In a long back and forth that followed, on and off facebook feeds, one of the men said, “look, I am all for equity, but the competition is already intense, and then some populations get unfair advantage because they belong to populations that were once discriminated against”. A point that my friend on the dinner table was also perhaps alluding to; that sense of threat, very real and disconcerting to them.
On the dinner table, I tried to engage with the same thing a friend who fights for racial justice once said to me – “Ideally, we could take a blank slate and start off equally. You know, give everyone the same starting points, same rules, let the best runner win. The problem is, this is a long marathon, several people have already started running a long time ago, and now we are trying to give some people who weren’t allowed into the marathon at all, the chance to catch up by giving them shortcuts in the initial parts of the race. It does not sound fair, and I constantly wonder if it is, I mean everyone else did run the whole route, but it seems also just, once they make it to where the other runners are, who by the way, are still competing, they have a chance to become equal runners. Some of these runners we provide shortcuts to might be Bolt-like fast, and may zoom ahead in this marathon, and all those people who have been running this whole time might have every right to be p*ssed, but I do intend to fight for that Bolt-like person to at least have a chance to fight the race”. My friend didn’t seemed convinced, unfairness always seems too uncomfortable, but when put in the context of the justice issues, the latter feels way too important not to fight for. In my work in inclusion and belonging, I truly struggle with this balance. It is hard to always be able to clearly distinguish between fairness and justice – fairness cannot always be promised or even possible, but justice is ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to access situations where fairness is possible. The means to this are complex, often with much space for improvement, but the debate needs to be about the best way to seek justice, not about whether or not justice is required.
For anyone who has been following the news lately, this fight feels way too real. And to be honest, I am terrified of having that conversation. I am sure there are things I can learn in the conversation, things I hadn’t considered before, and there is value to me opening up my mind about it while also sharing what I have learnt, but the issue feels too sensitive to allow for that, perhaps even too personal lately. In my head it always looks like this: say there’s a destructive object that we are all trying to diffuse, a goal we all share in common, and one way to do that is to shoot it at the right spot. Now, if a person holds this object in their hands, wears a bullerproof jacket and asks me to shoot the object, I would still not do it, because I will still be worried about shooting the person. The best way would be to put the object on a more neutral table, and then try and diffuse it. A conversation about complex topics like these feels like this object – when we refuse to address the complexity of it as a given, oversimplifying it or avoiding it because it is complicated – we cannot diffuse it. We cannot diffuse it if we hold it on our bodies, where there is always a fear of getting shot, of it becoming personal. It needs to be put on a neutral table and diffused collectively, where the differences in our approaches to doing that might just bring us closer as a whole to doing that. But if we don’t diffuse it, it is going to blow in our faves. I don’t even know if we will ever diffuse it entirely, but isn’t that still a fight worth having?
The issue on the dinner table was never resolved fully, but it could have been much worse. For me though, that conversation feels like a reminder of hope – hope that it might be possible to somehow engage in these conversations more deeply and empathetically, learning through them, that some people in this debate might still be on the same side, and perhaps, by accepting the fears and feelings, all of which are very real, and acknowledging the complexity of everything that we are all fighting for, we might at least begin to start working together. Without this hope, I wouldn’t know how to proceed in the world that we see around us lately.
A shameless plug to end this: A hope that lays at the center of the “Library of Perspectives”. To get started on this, I am currently working on an experiment in feminism, and the sides to it. Get in touch if interested. More on this experiment, soon.
Aug 26, 2017. 9.13 am