Friday, September 15, 2006

 

on why i may or may not be a bad person

last night i went to modern times bookstore to hear readings from 'bitchfest', a 10-year-anniversary collection of articles from and for bitch magazine. and, since anyone who knows my habits at all will know that this trip was an oddity when viewed in the context of my normal standardized social calendar, i shall quickly confess that i have not suddenly developed a new conscientiousness regarding feminist issues; rather, i was attending because friend b(2)rendan was one of the seven authors doing readings.

i have a very minimal education on most—if not all—issues that bitch magazine typically encompasses. my gender studies coursework was limited to a single class called 'gender, nation, cinema' as part of my film studies minor. a very good course, it's true; but probably not sufficient to grant me credentials in any serious conversation about any variety of gender theory. and aside from this course, i think the most reading i've done on the subject of feminism has been a brief foray into 'backlash' by susan faludi. not to say that i've never taken part in educated discourse on gender and feminism—no one in the davis progressive scene could have possibly come out unscathed in that regard, unless they felt like making dozens of enemies—but i don't have a firm background on the subject.

so. i went through a surprisingly challenging set of minutes during and following the event last night. each of the pieces i heard was interesting, and each one made me think. (well, except maybe for the one on christian virgins as sexual deviants—hilarious, yes, but not terribly thought-provoking.) and i could and would enjoy spending several hours talking through a lot of the points that the writers brought up. but i felt, both while i was listening and then afterwards when i tried briefly to express some thoughts, that i wasn't qualified to be critiquing or commenting on the subjects at hand. that made me uncomfortable and nervous, and i believe i got noticeably snappish and frustrated.

upon further pondering on both the readings' subject matter and the meta-issue of my security with the topic of gender theory, i have come to the conclusion that i am limiting myself and being lame.


but i'm still not sure how to devise an acceptable solution.

see... the bulk of my insecurity stems, i believe, from the fact that i tend to disagree with large chunks of dominant feminist theory. and so, when i find myself disagreeing, i assume that i must be WRONG, probably because i don't know enough about the subject, or possibly because i didn't understand the author/speaker's words. because really—why would a nice progressive girl disagree with feminists unless she was being a totally clueless idiot? oh, and pompous. a totally clueless pompous idiot.

but then when i step back a level—and last night was a good night to observe, since there were a bunch of topics being discussed—i notice that i don't disagree with *all* gender theory or feminist theory. i love love love everything i've ever heard on masculinity, maleness, reverse-sexism, and such. also, last night i had no argument with the pieces on body image, and was in fact particularly interested in the piece regarding envy and desire with respect to body issues and how women view each others' bodies. as a matter of fact, *everything* last night rang true for me except for one piece (the one regarding 'girl power' and its counterproductive effect on the feminist movement; i was bothered by what i saw as the author's simplistic and judgmental views of mainstream imagery). and because everything sat well with me except for one subject—and a subject that i know i've taken issue with before—i'm suddenly feeling a lot better about my opinions. i mean, i'm a smart girl. and i'm interested in social theory. so i can generally have long and excellent conversations with friends about this sort of thing without it devolving into a sharp difference in opinions (even if i sometimes do need to be filled in on the proper terminology and the newest thoughts from academia). and because this is true, if i'm finding myself NOT agreeing with a sub-set of theory, i'm thinking that maybe i should trust myself and keep trying to enunciate what i disagree with.

the problem remains that, while *i* might trust me, this excellent self-assurance won't necessarily grant me credibility with people who know more on the subject than i do. and so here's the part of the problem where i don't have a solution yet. in the present case, i'm hoping that a long conversation with a friend who's knowledgeable in feminist theory and who generally trusts my intelligence will be a good start. but in the longer run... i think that my tendency towards self-deprecation and my inability to feel comfortable in a subject until i speak the language perfectly are going to continue to impede my public (or semi-public) speaking on the subject. ach, well... i suppose i'll just have to do some reading...? given the parameters of my personality, i suppose that's all i can do. and that's fine...but in the meantime i'm still feeling frustrated.


not a very good incentive for me to stray outside my normal trains of thought, is it? yuck. i don't want to avoid subjects because i get insecure about not being smart enough. although, to be fair to my brain and ego, which i love, adore, and cherish, i will remind them that this tends to only be problematic in a few politicized areas of thought.

(and a note on this issue from a broader viewpoint: i have similar issues on the subject of affirmative action, another progressive foregone conclusion that i don't really agree with. over time i've come to terms with this because i think i understand my perspective pretty well and can feel morally okay with my opinions. so i think it's likely that over time i'll be able to more eloquently and logically explain my disagreements with feminist theory. it just might take some work. oh, and some willingness to piss people off :)

Comments:
i read a couple of feminist blogs and generally remain silent in commenting, even when a post really incites thought, for the very same reasons.

the only advice i can give, which i try to follow myself, is that when in such public conversations and feeling insecure about whether your POV coincides with the current academia/better-informed knowledge-set, be careful to present your thoughts always as the result of what YOU have experienced, i.e. base your comments on your personal experiences and do not present them so much as cultural theories. people can then speak to your experiences, and you are much less likely to get into a theoretical debate about something which you haven't studied.

on that note, IMO percpetions based personal experiences are just as valid as those presented through an academic lens. never let the book-smarts make your feelings feel inferior because they can quote journal articles and authors. just because you haven't acadamically dissected your POV does not make it less valid.

also, i have found that i disagree with MANY of the things that other progressives take as somehow proven truths, and to me, political views of any size, whether minority or majority, are no less susceptible to GroupThinking than the mainstream. just becuase everyone at Bitch magazine agrees a certain way on a feminist issue does not mean that it is not a flawed view or that the agreement to see thigns that way is not the result of countercultural pressure.

you are a smart girl. believe in how you feel/trust your instincts, but keep an open mind to have that informed by those who know more on the subject. you can't go wrong that way.
 
i think there is an important distinction between strong positions and strong reactions. positions develop from informed critical thinking, and take a great deal of historical and current information about the topic into account. reactions are formed without much context and are generally incorporated into an already existing position that serves as a metaphor or comparison.

(ex. if someone has a strong background in american women's studies, their reaction to gendered, cultural practices in another country would likely be based on gender relations in the US - based on their positions. this was, and still is, a huge problem in many women's studies programs.)

so i think amy gave you some really good advice for how to conduct yourself in a discussion about subjects that you have a reaction to. sticking to your own experiences - when you don’t present your own experiences as universal - is a good way to present your thoughts without positioning yourself as an “expert”. but i think it is also useful and appropriate to give your non-personal, theoretical reaction, if you present in the form of a question. (ex. but what about x?, wouldn’t that change your reasoning?) and i don’t think this just annoying conversational protocol. when one takes the time to study and think about a topic, they are doing so in the form of a question: “what is this all about?” if you haven’t engaged in this form of questioning yet, then it’s much more appropriate to have questions than answers. otherwise your company will eventually find you both naive and pompous (for good reason) - and probably stop taking you seriously. not much that is worth discussing is “common sense”; no one should expect that they can jump into a discussion they no little about and contribute very much. it’s like joining an organization, showing up to your first meeting, and expecting that your comments will be as valuable as those from someone who knows what’s going on.

however, this is not to say that reactions aren’t valuable and shouldn’t be taken seriously. sometimes reactions can jolt a dialogue into a fresh and productive direction. oftentimes this happens when someone from a different academic field or someone with significantly different life-experiences (from those currently engaged in the topic) throw their reactions into the mix.

unfortunately, i think that it is often the case that those with positions on a subject are often annoyed or reactionary when faced with someone’s reaction - even if it was presented in a productive manner. i would say this occurrence is the major issue people have with political correctness. and i think this is probably the reason that amy suggested presenting your own experiences (because it’s hard to yell at someone when they are just speaking about themselves). nevertheless, i think it is extremely important that people say what is on their mind, even if they expect an annoyed reaction from people who presumably know more about the topic. if someone doesn’t understand why saying “x” is offensive, having someone reprimand them for saying “x” without explaining why it’s offensive isn’t productive at all. likewise, reprimanding someone for expressing an opinion that runs counter to a widely-accepted belief doesn’t help that person understand why the belief is widely-held. there’s no quicker way to put such an irritated person in their place than to say, “sorry. i’m just asking a question.” the only way people are going to get comfortable with a topic and develop their own positions is if they feel comfortable discussing it with those who are more knowledgeable - which is exactly what you (orange) said you wanted to do.

but having a productive discussion is all about presumed levels of competency, so it’s never going to be perfect. (ex. if i were having a conversation with a first-year college student about feminist theory, i would position myself as someone who is much more knowledgeable about the topic. if i were talking to a women’s studies grad student, it’s more likely that we’d be engaging as equals in parts of the discussion, and i would be asking questions about other parts. if i was talking to an awesome professor, i’d probably be blushing while i asked them questions.)

i think all of this is important to consider when thinking about the article you took issue with. the first thing i would say is that, until you read the article in its entirety, you should reserve judgment. the author noted that she left out the entire section about what was actually being co-opted by “girl power.” the second thing i would say is that, because the article was written for bitch, it presumes a certain level of understanding of feminist thought. so, while it may appear that a judgment was simplistic, it is just as likely that such a judgment is based on widely-accepted and well-considered reasoning (that was left out because it was been unnecessary and bulky). the third, and related, thing i would say is that writers have only so much space to make an argument, and so they must make judgment calls on which positions need explanation/clarification/reasoning and which they can simply state and move on - which sometimes results in poor judgments (which doesn’t necessarily say anything about the value of their position). the fourth thing that i would say is that you should figure out exactly what rubbed you the wrong way about the article (if you still feel that way after reading the whole piece) so that you can have a discussion about it.

ultimately, i think that for someone to feel strongly enough to engage in an argument over a position (as opposed to a discussion where people are building off of each others ideas), they should feel comfortable publishing those ideas (i.e. publicly putting their name on the idea). too often i think that people become very vehement about a subject that they wouldn’t dare write about because it’s easy to distance yourself (and revise) from a past conversation.

so, that’s all to say that of course you’re not a bad person (you’re a good one!) - and that your concern and self-awareness about the topic put you way ahead of the vast, vast majority of humans. it is also to say that i would love to talk to you about your thoughts if your interested in doing so.

apologies for the length.

- b(2)
 
what did b2 write/read, by the way?
 
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