Category Archives: Writing

Friendship is a root of freedom

“Freedom was once inseparable from interdependence, close ties, and kinship: I am free because of others I can depend on.”

Joyful Militancy

To become what we need to each other, and to find power in friendship, is to become dangerous.

–anonymous [1]

I have a circle of friends and family with whom I am radically vulnerable and trust deeply – we call it coevolution through friendship.

–adrienne maree brown [2]

These are not just words; they are clues and prods to earthquakes in kin making that are not limited to Western family apparatuses, heteronormative or not.

–Donna Haraway [3]

Freedom was once inseparable from interdependence, close ties, and kinship: I am free because of others I can depend on. Today, freedom tends to mean something different. It is about being unconstrained and having options. Look for the dictionary definition of freedom today and one finds rights and choices at the core, applied to an isolated individual. From the Oxford English Dictionary:

“The power or right to act, speak, or think as one…

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Happiness is bullshit

Joyful Militancy

Happiness is not joy. Under capitalism, happiness is a duty and unhappiness is a disorder. Companies increasingly sell happy experiences instead of products: happiness is a relaxing vacation on the beach, an intense night at the bar, a satisfying drink on a hot day, or contented retirement. As workers, we are expected to find happiness in our job. As consumers, we are encouraged to become connoisseurs and customizers, with an ever-more refined sense of what makes us happy. We are encouraged to base our lives on this search for happiness and its promises of pleasure, bliss, fulfillment, exhilaration, or arousal, depending on our tastes and proclivities (and our budget).

The search for happiness doesn’t just come through markets. We are also sold the rejection of upward mobility and consumerism as another form of placid containment: maybe you realize that what really makes you happy is a life in a small…

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Intro to Joyful Militancy

Joyful Militancy

by Nick Montgomery and carla bergman

Introduction

There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.

—Audre Lorde[i]

People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints—such people have a corpse in their mouth.

—Raoul Vaneigem[ii]

Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be a militant, even though the thing one is fighting is abominable.

I

This book is an attempt to amplify some quiet conversations that have been happening for a long time, about the connections between resisting and thriving, about how we relate to each other in radical movements today, and about some of the barriers to collective transformation.

There is something that circulates in many radical movements and spaces, draining away…

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Alternatives to rape culture begin with feminism

Most of us are tired of hearing about Jian Ghomeshi. I am. This is not about him, though it’s partly inspired by responses to what I wrote about the whole thing.  The debates about him have opened up space to talk about rape culture, the pervasiveness of sexual assault, and how to deal with gender-based violence in our everyday lives (because it’s happening around us, whether we experience it or not).  It’s an opportunity for men, in particular, to take a more active role in all this, because if we’re not the perpetrators, we’re rarely active in preventing violence or supporting survivors.  As a man, I’m learning about a bunch of this for the first time, primarily from women who’ve been dealing with it because they have to. I think the public debate is an opportunity to notice some patterns and look around for alternatives. Here are three:

We are in rape culture; it’s in us

There are a lot of statements beginning with “I’m against rape culture, but…” People (usually men) then go on to say all kinds of things that reproduce rape culture. We don’t have all the facts, the women might be lying, this is someone’s private life, etc, etc. When these are pointed out and linked to rape culture, there are all kinds of contortions to explain how we really meant something else, and we’re all really against rape culture.

But if I admit that rape culture is pervasive, then (especially as a heterosexual man socialized into patriarchy), rape culture is something I’m struggling with and hopefully against, some of the time, not something I can oppose because I say so.  A lot of these conversations start and end with these debates and contortions, so they don’t feel very productive, and this is often taken as proof of the inadequacy of feminism. But this is the inadequacy of our engagement with feminism.  Feminism isn’t a stance, it’s a complex array of habits, behaviours, ways of thinking, and collective practices.  How can men welcome criticism?  How can we allow ourselves to be implicated?  How can we have more of these conversations with each other, more often, so that we don’t derail other conversations about supporting survivors or preventing sexual assault?  This is men’s work, a nascent movement to engage men in conversations—and action—around patriarchy and gendered violence.

Neutrality is not complexity or nuance

Another common pattern shares anxieties about the insistence that we should believe survivors.  Others have felt it important to remind everyone that false accusations of rape do exist.  There has been lots of analysis that shows how these sentiments are connected to rape culture.  But something else is going on here too.  When these statements are confronted, feminist analyses of rape culture are cast as simplistic and vicious.  Believing survivors is often contrasted with a more ‘complex’ stance that could productively deal with the conflict.  This ‘more complex’ stance is almost never elaborated, and when it is, it’s usually the simplistic fence-sitting stance, either filled with anxiety and indecision, or with cold neutrality.

The fetishism of law

This ‘neutral’ stance usually falls back on the law. It either assumes that perpetrators will be prosecuted (innocent until proven guilty!), or it takes on the mindset of a judge within the Western legal system as a way of seeing conflict. Judges seek a place of neutrality, with the assumption that they’ll eventually parcel out blame and punishment. Believing survivors gets conflated with rushing to a legal judgement. It’s true that believing survivors is a barrier to neutrality, and that’s why legalistic approaches tend to retraumatize survivors and enact new forms of violence. Feminists such as Andrea Smith have challenged this fetishism of law, pointing to the ways that law continues to uphold genocide, dispossession, exploitation and violence.  “Rather than uphold the law,” she argues, “indigenous feminism demands that progressives work against the law.”  In this sense, believing survivors isn’t a barrier to complexity; it’s the beginning of actually being able to address sexualized violence in our communities.  So what would collective, compassionate responses to sexual assault look like?  What would it mean to move beyond individualistic, principled stands?

Alternatives exist

There are already a bunch of collective responses to these questions, and unsurprisingly, they come out of feminism.  More specifically, they come out of queer, indigenous, and anti-racist feminism. Genderqueer and trans folks, communities of colour, and indigenous communities have spearheaded most of these experiments, often with the recognition that cops and courts consistently compound violence in their communities, rather than alleviating it, so there’s less willingness to rely on the law and legalistic thinking.

The Revolution Starts at Home is a compilation of insights from folks who have confronted intimate partner violence.   Numerous communities have developed collective responses to violence, which involves establishing alternatives to policing and incarceration while building supportive communities in the process, and reducing reliance on the legal system, often under the mantle of transformative justice.  INCITE!, a collective of women of colour, has organized around this for over a decade, and has developed an extensive set of accessible resources.  In some places, men are also taking more initiative to work with perpetrators and unpack rape culture amongst themselves, while trying to figure out how to be accountable to those most impacted by gender-based violence.  This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are already nascent alternatives to rape culture; we don’t have to start from scratch.  We can learn from them, nurture them and proliferate them.  In recent days, I’ve seen some men (and women) set themselves apart from feminism, claiming that it lacks complexity, nuance, or kindness.  I’ve done this a bunch.  But when I perceive feminism to be lacking complexity, I’m consistently reminded that this is my own failure to engage with feminist movements in more complex ways.  This isn’t to say that there aren’t simplistic analyses written by feminists.  Feminism isn’t a monolith, and there are plenty of contradictions.  But men (especially white, heterosexual, middle-class men) consistently position ourselves the ones who see complexity, nuance, and other possibilities, casting feminism (and feminists) as inadequate.  We rarely approach with curiosity and a willingness to learn.

The real complexities—and concrete possibilities—have been developed by those who are resisting the interconnected systems of rape culture, incarceration, heteropatriarchy, policing, ableism, colonization, white supremacy, capitalist exploitation, and environmental degradation, among others.  Feminism is plenty complex.

i-love-feminism

Five ways Ghomeshi reveals rape culture

– by Nick Montgomery

Edit: most people are tired of Ghomeshi by now, but hopefully all this leads to more engagement in feminism, and an attempt to challenge rape culture and nurture alternatives.  I wrote a second piece about this here: Alternatives to rape culture begin with feminism

There is a frenzy of activity to find “the facts” about Jian Ghomeshi, the allegations against him, and the women who have shared their experiences. Thousands of fans have flocked to defend Ghomeshi and deride his accusers as vindictive slanderers.

Others have expressed their moral outrage that Ghomeshi could be such a monster.  Others have called for us to wait until there are “more facts.”  These are consistent patterns that arise when discussing rape, sexual assault, and gendered violence. They are some of the jianghomeshipatterns of rape culture.

As Jane Kirby explains, rape culture is “anything that normalizes unwanted, nonconsensual sex. In other words, rape culture is anything that makes rape seem like it is not really rape.” It gets disseminated through jokes, TV, music, advertising, legal jargon, laws, words, and imagery, that make violence against women and sexual coercion seem so normal that people think rape is inevitable.” There is also a pervasive idea that “actual rape” is isolated and exceptional. Responses to the allegations against Ghomeshi (including his own) have reinforced rape culture in at least five subtle and not-so-subtle ways:

1. Promoting sympathy for perpetrators and their reputations

In his recent statement, Ghomeshi says that a freelance writer teamed up with a jealous ex in a conspiracy to ruin his reputation. His fans and defenders have reiterated his argument, framing it as a malicious attempt to slander Ghomeshi.

This is a consistent pattern of rape culture: the promotion of worry and sympathy for those accused of sexual assault. It shifts the focus toward doubt and disbelief, toward how unfortunate it would be if the accusations were untrue. It centers perpetrators as (maybe? possibly? probably?) hapless victims of vindictive slander.

 2. Promoting victim-blaming and suspicion

Ghomeshi himself calls this a “campaign of false allegations pursued by a jilted ex girlfriend” Some of the most violent patterns of rape culture are made visible by the slew of misogynist attacks on women who come forward.  This is one of the most consistent and insidious patterns of rape culture.  Anna North writes that:

each of the women accusing Ghomeshi cite the case of Carla Ciccone as a reason they desire anonymity. Last year Ciccone wrote an article for the website XOJane about a ‘bad date’ with an unidentified, very popular Canadian radio host whom readers speculated to be Ghomeshi.

In the days that followed, Ciccone received hundreds of abusive messages and threats. An online video calling her a ‘scumbag of the Internet’ has been viewed over 397,000 times.

Those who speak up about sexual harassment or violence have long been subject to public scrutiny and criticism. But an onslaught of online abuse and threats has become a strikingly common response to women’s public statements — see for instance the threats Anita Sarkeesian and others have received when they speak publicly about misogyny in video games.

Blogger Elizabeth Hawksworth unpacks this eloquently:

What I want to talk about is the reactions that I’ve been seeing to his statement. A lot of people have been giving Ghomeshi the benefit of the doubt while full-on accusing the woman of ruining his career. Without knowing anything but what Ghomeshi has told us, people on Twitter and Facebook have been gleefully maligning her without taking into account that maybe there’s more to the story, here… Women everywhere are sexually assaulted by men in power. Many don’t bother to speak up because of reactions and consequences like this: Ghomeshi is a man in power and he is also well liked and well known. Chances are, he will be almost universally believed, while she will be accused of lying to get something from him. And while there is an extremely small percentage of women who do accuse men of sexual abuse in order to get something from them, the majority of women don’t. The majority of women speak up because they want justice. And right now, we don’t know what the real story is – but as someone who never spoke up when a man in power put me through hell, for a variety of reasons – I believe her until further notice.

3. Remaining neutral and waiting for ‘all the facts’

Many have responded to this debate by calling for sobriety and patience. Toronto Star columnist Vinay Menon—while making sure not to condone the “shocking allegations”—expressed regret that “many have already picked sides” before “all the facts” are known.  Menon reminds his readers that Ghomeshi is (legally) innocent until proven guilty.  We should approach sexual assault as judges would, presiding over a criminal trial.  But there is no criminal trial here; no one is pressing charges.  What matters isn’t whether we decide the Ghomeshi is guilty, but the ways we talk about the whole thing, and the implications of that.

The focus on innocent-until-proven-guilty shifts the onus back on survivors to prove that a sexual assault ‘really’ happened.  ‘Picking sides’ (or supporting survivors?) is cast as irrational and hasty, with neutrality held up as the ideal.  Due in part to this tendency, survivors of sexual assault don’t think they’ll be believed, or they fear that ‘concrete proof’ will be demanded of them—even by friends and family—and often they’re right.  As Ruth Davenport writes:

Women, it seems, must always have an agenda. We don’t actually slap scarlet letters on them anymore, but thanks to the internet, women who accuse a man of any kind of misbehaviour risk having not only their identities exposed and publicized, but also an eternal water-torture drip-drip-drip of daily character assassination.

Refusing to file a formal complaint – the decision made by approximately nine out of every 10 sexual assault victims isn’t a case of modesty or manipulation – it’s simple survival. And modern rape culture is thriving on it.

This focus on “due process” is linked to policing, courts, and incarceration.  It naturalizes these systems as the only way of responding to sexual assault.  As Vikki Law recently argued, this carceral mindset justifies the expansion of policing and prisons (especially in poor communities of colour), and discourages grassroots, community-based responses and long-term organizing against gender-based violence.  This is not to say that survivors shouldn’t report rape as a crime, or that supporters shouldn’t support them doing so.  The point is that this legalistic mindset gets in the way of supporting survivors, unlearning rape culture, and organizing to dismantle it.

4. Casting the concept of rape culture as alarmist, conspiratorial, or crazy

A few months ago Jian Ghomeshi actually hosted a “debate,” about whether rape culture is “helpful or even accurate,” in which Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute denied the existence of rape culture, claimed that drinking is the reason for sexual assault, and blaming women for being assaulted. MacDonald’s opponent, Lise Gotell, sounded shocked that she was put in a position where she had to explain things like “drinking doesn’t cause rape, it’s the decisions of rapists that cause rape.”  By constructing a debate around whether rape culture ‘actually’ exists, and legitimizing its detractors, Ghomeshi and the CBC framed rape culture as a suspicious idea, creating barriers to understanding rape culture and the ways it can be named, challenged, and dismantled.

This year, the wake of campus sexual assaults and misogynist violence at Canadian universities led to broader discussions about rape culture on campuses, spearheaded by feminists, and this elicited an anti-feminist backlash.  Detractors have suggested that the concept of rape culture is a fanatical misunderstanding of culture and norms. Quotation marks are magical. In the hands of its anti-feminist critics, rape culture becomes “rape culture”—a strange and distorted view of reality, founded on irrationality and conspiracy. The same sentiments are circulating now, in relation to the recent scandal.  Reactionaries understand this tactic all too well, using it to frame issues like climate change: by turning it into a question of legitimate debate (“so-called climate change”), they’ve already scored a victory, because they derail any conversation about collective responses to the problem.

5. Constructing rapists as inhuman monsters

Part of rape culture is the persistent tendency to cast perpetrators of sexual assault as unredeemable monsters, and rape as an exceptional event.  The frenzy surrounding Ghomeshi reflects this: it is dramatic and revelatory, antagonistic and isolated. Either Ghomeshi a guilty monster or a hapless victim of slander.  Sexual assault is terrible, but it’s also pervasive. As Jane Kirby explains:

Young men are taught that rape means jumping out of the bushes, attacking a stranger, and violently forcing her to have sex with him. While this can be true, they often don’t know that 70 per cent of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, and that they could rape their classmate, friend, girlfriend, or wife. They might not be sure what consent really means.

When sexual assault is understood as an exceptional act committed by monsters, it’s impossible to talk about the ways that it’s happening in our communities and amongst our friends, families, and co-workers.  This is not about policing the way that survivors talk about their perpetrators; they should use whatever words they want to.  Those who see rape as as something perpetrated by anonymous monsters (unsurprisingly) tend to be people who have never experienced sexual assault or supported those who have.  Like the perpetrators, they are usually men.  I used to think of rape this way, and I’m still prone to understanding sexual assault in simplistic, either/or ways.  But hearing stories of survivors makes very clear that rape and sexual assault happens between friends, family, and partners, and it’s complicated and layered.

Making rapists into monsters pathologizes rapists, searching for individualized ‘disorders’ rather than linking sexual assault to misogyny, male entitlement, and patriarchal socialization.  It also discourages perpetrators from being accountable for sexual assault.  Perpetrators are faced with the choice of being seen (and seeing themselves) as evil, inhuman monsters, or existing in a state of denial and doing whatever they can to discredit survivors who come forward.  If more men were capable of unpacking our relationships to rape culture and patriarchy, we could create more supports for perpetrators and be more proactive in addressing rape culture, without putting the onus on survivors and their supporters.  All this shit swirling around Ghomeshi could be an opportunity for more men, in particular, to join the many women, genderqueer, and trans folks who are interrupting rape culture and nurturing alternatives.

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This was written by me (a man), but all of these points around rape culture—insofar as they represent meaningful insights—were drawn directly and indirectly from women, genderqueer and trans folks, and a few men. The fuck-ups are my own.

Resources:

Like a lake in a thunderstorm: men, patriarchy, and feminism

For all of us who are men who believe in social justice, who want healthy and beautiful lives for our loved ones, and who are working for positive change in the world, let us commit or re-commit to making feminism central in our lives, values, and actions.

Chris Crass

A friend recently pointed out that in the wake of the Isla Vista shootings—and the feminist responses that followed—the silence from male allies has been deafening. As many feminists have explained, the Isla Vista killings were not an extraordinary occurrence; rather, they were a particularly violent and visible outcome of misogyny and male entitlement. My friend challenged me to write something in response to all this. I’m grateful for that challenge because the process of putting this piece together has reminded me how much I have to work on, and how important it is for men to do this work individually, interpersonally, and collectively. As Cecilia Winterfox writes:

It’s both exhausting and diversionary being expected to hash out the basics with men who haven’t bothered to think about their own privilege before. Men are not entitled to expect feminists to educate them. Real change will only happen when men accept that the burden of education is on them, not on women.

The burden of explaining and combatting patriarchy and misogyny consistently falls to women, and men can do more. I am not writing to convince anyone that patriarchy, misogyny and rape culture are real and they need to be challenged and dismantled. Women, queer and trans folks, and some men have explained and re-explained what these structures are and how they work, why it’s hard for men to see them, why all men are implicated, and some basic ways to change our behavior. The outpouring of feminist analysis that followed the Isla Vista shootings has created more space to have more radical, constructive, public conversations about misogyny, rape culture, patriarchy, and the role men can play in uprooting these systems. How can men take this as an opportunity to deepen our commitments to feminism? How can we be more vocal and active in addressing misogyny and patriarchy? If we were better at taking this on, what would we say and do? What are the obstacles? What are the potentials and pitfalls of this work? There are a bunch more questions below, drawn from feminist theory and practice.  I don’t think these questions are asking for straightforward answers from men; they’re asking us to respond to them with integrity, openness, and uncertainty. These questions ask us to challenge ourselves and each other, without any guarantees or formulas. Sometimes what we need to do is embarrassingly simple, sometimes it’s complex, but it’s never easy, because easy isn’t transformative.

What are men waiting for?

It’s less risky for men—especially straight white men like me—to speak out against patriarchy: As Ben Atherton Zemon writes:

When I write about feminism and men’s violence against women, I often receive supportive comments. While some of the praise is earned, much of it gives me a lot of credit for doing very little.

Atherton-Zemon contrasts this experience with that of women he knows who are consistently stalked, verbally abused, and threatened with rape and murder for speaking out against patriarchy and misogyny. How can men be responsive to this? It’s absolutely crucial for men to interrupt patriarchal violence, and become more vocal in challenging sexism. But if we just join in feminist conversations, we can end up silencing the women who’ve been having them for a long time. How can we make more conversations happen, and help create more feminist spaces and conversations?

makeitfeminist

These questions aren’t new; they’re part of an ongoing, too-quiet, too-small conversation about men’s work: the ways men can challenge patriarchy and gender-based violence personally, interpersonally, among families and caregivers, and in broader communities and institutions where we live and work. I’m not an expert in feminism, or men’s work, or anything else I’m writing about here, but I am really lucky to have men in my life who are constantly modeling feminist practices to me, and to have inspiring women in my life who are holding me accountable and providing feminist leadership. At the end of this piece there’s a list of online feminist resources, which I’ve drawn on and quoted to write this.

This piece centers feminism—and the culprits of patriarchy and misogyny it confronts—and I’m writing primarily to men and other masculine-leaning folks, from my own experience as a white, educated, middle-class cis-man. While I’ve learned from people with very different experiences, my perspective and analysis are still shaped by a confluence of massive privilege, sheltered and benefitting from the everyday, layered violences of racism, ageism, ableism, colonialism, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy, among others. What I write will be most relevant to other white, heterosexual men. We are also the biggest perpetrators of violence and misogyny, which means engaging white hetero dudes is an urgent task, and we can and should develop an intersectional, anti-oppressive praxis. All men are starting from different places, with different experiences and things to work on, but we can learn a lot from sharing those experiences and trying to figure things out together. We can’t wait until we feel like experts, or until we’ve figured it all out, because unlearning and confronting patriarchy is a life-long project, full of mistakes.

How can we unlearn patriarchy and support the leadership of women?

Even among men who have are committed to feminism, women and trans folks are consistently silenced and marginalized, and men—especially white, middle-class, able-bodied, hetero-cis-men—end up in positions of leadership and recognition. When these problems are raised by women, men often get defensive. These problems aren’t new; feminists have been naming and resisting patriarchy for centuries. In the 60s and 70s, organizations like Movement for a New Society, a radical feminist anti-war organization, explored the ways that men tend to talk first, too much, too loud, and too often. Men take conversations over, we get defensive, restate what others have said, present our ideas as definitive, put down others’ ideas, intellectualize and avoid vulnerability, condescend and compete, and speak for others in meetings and conversations.

The fact that all of these behaviours are still widespread attests to the persistence of patriarchy. I struggle with these things all the time, and constantly find myself taking up more space in conversations with a lot of women in my life. It’s a life-long project to change our conduct by thinking relationally, being mindful of how our ways of speaking impact others (especially folks who aren’t white hetero men). How can we learn to listen and be more curious, vulnerable, and attuned to the ways we speak and hold ourselves? How can we create spaces of emotional connection and ongoing care—especially with other men—beyond mere exchanges of ideas or opinions?

What would it mean for men to root feminism in our everyday lives?

One way to move beyond conversation is to center care and the reproduction of everyday life, for which women are often responsible. I have been part of these patriarchal dynamics in activist collectives, shared houses, and intimate relationships, and it’s still one of the major things I need to be working on. Women and others not socialized into patriarchal masculinity are left with the less gratifying, less public, less visible forms of work, like sweeping floors in the house, caring for friends and family, and making a budget for the organization. Being mindful of what needs to get done to care for people and maintain collectives and communities in material ways—and doing it—is really basic and it’s embarrassingly difficult for me sometimes. It’s also not a question of good analysis: the male role models in my life haven’t developed these capacities by reading the right books, but by being proactive, vigilant, and accountable to the women in their lives. What do we do when nobody’s looking? I think these low-to-the-ground, quiet forms of feminism are among the most important. They tend to be less public and less celebrated, and they are absolutely crucial to creating space for women to take on more of the creative and visionary work of smashing patriarchy (and other things).

A consistent reminder from friends and mentors who read earlier versions of this piece was the reminder that as men, we’ll almost always benefit from taking on feminist practices: we will often be congratulated, recognized, and valued for doing work that others are always already doing. Being more vulnerable and emotionally available makes me a more attractive partner or lover; learning anti-oppressive practices makes me more hirable; developing a feminist analysis lends me authority and status; and I can be congratulated for doing childcare or housework just because it’s unexpected. Taking on feminism can shore up new forms of male privilege in weird ways. What are the implications of all this? I think part of it is a reminder there’s no endpoint: as C.B. Egret explains in Ex Masculus,

there also isn’t a plateau you are going to get to where you can brush your hands off, claiming to have reached official ally status. The work is life. It doesn’t end but only gets deeper and richer and fuller, like a lake in a thunderstorm.

Thunderstorms are powerful, exhilarating, dangerous, transformative, and humbling all at the same time, and there’s no shelter in the middle of a lake. I’m learning that there’s a deep ambivalence in taking on feminism as a man, especially a man who benefits from other layers of privilege. A lot of unlearning patriarchy—like becoming more vulnerable and emotionally available—can be a transformative, life-affirming process, and it can end up reinforcing patriarchy in all kinds of ways. Men can use emotional literacy to manipulate situations and center their own needs in new ways. We can allow ourselves to be celebrated as feminists, in ways that reinforce patriarchal, self-centered conditioning. But ambivalent doesn’t mean ineffective or unimportant: I think it means that feminism, for men, will always be tricky, full of pitfalls, and absolutely crucial. How can we be attuned to this ambivalence, and navigate it with integrity? How can we push ourselves to take on practices and roles that are unlikely to be celebrated or even noticed? How can we redirect recognition or privilege in ways that benefit or support others? How can we have more of these conversations with each other as men, and how can we support each other in deepening individual and collective feminist practices?

bellhooksmenfeminism

How can men work collectively to challenge patriarchy and misogyny?

I am just starting to think about how to engage other men beyond my circle of close friends, and even among friends, really uncomfortable transformative conversations are rare. I am often scared of this work with other men: scared of implicating myself, scared of letting down my defenses and being vulnerable, and scared that I’ll mess it all up or do it wrong somehow. One problem I grapple with—especially when I’m scared—is the tendency to distance myself from patriarchy and misogyny. Paul Kivel, a long-time men’s work activist, points to the pitfalls of talking down to other men about patriarchy:

[It] made us the “good” men with the “right” ideas and allowed us to feel powerful by attacking and berating other men. We became the best liberated men on the block, and that became another way of winning women’s approval and attention. It also allowed us to feel self-righteous toward other men.

It’s always easier for me to create distance, rather than finding a way to implicate myself in discussions about patriarchy and misogyny. Predictably, this shuts men down, and it makes the conversation safe for me, as long as I can stay on the “good” side of the good/bad men dichotomy. The worst part of this is that it makes it difficult to talk about and address misogyny and violence in a meaningful way: nobody wants to be the bad man.

Alexandra Brodsky writes about the urgent need to engage in uncomfortable conversations about “the texture of 20-something heterosexual sex in America, the insidious habits and habituations that look exactly like violence except, somehow, we’ve decided they aren’t violent.” It means having conversations about the ways we—as men—are implicated in blurring and crossing lines of consent, the ways we feel entitled to sex and the fulfillment of our fantasies, and how we let all this dissipate into the silences of rape culture and patriarchy. To address all this by implicating ourselves is profoundly uncomfortable. “We will have to disrupt the whole body, and though all men can help, most won’t want to. Today’s allies might think it’s easy not to be a rapist but find it harder to accept that their desires are not paramount,” Brodsky writes.

How can we engage each other in these conversations, as men? How can we create a shared language that helps us hold each other accountable? How can we support each other in setting goals, making commitments, and following through on them? One way that men have begun to do this is by holding men’s circles: intentional, pro-feminist gatherings of men to address patriarchy and misogyny among ourselves and in our communities. I recently found a zine called Ex Masculus: critical reflections on pro-feminist men’s groups, with writings from folks with a wide variety of experiences of men’s work. Toby explains the importance of men’s groups:

I know that in my life it’s been the times I’ve been with other guys (whether in formal groups or just hanging out and having real discussions) that have been the best times to work through my lifetime of socialization as a male. To some extent we know what the other person is going through, I am able to empathize with how hard it is to challenge those privileges and get to the bottom of why I treat people the way I do. It’s other guys who are able to support me when I make a mistake and need help figuring out what I did, and how not to do it again. Without some intentional space to make that possible it usually just doesn’t get talked about (p22).

The contributors in this zine share a broad array of insights into men’s work, and a common theme is the challenge to deepen our practices in these groups so that they are more accountable to women and actively challenge patriarchal violence. C.B. Egret explains that men’s groups can go wrong when they function as spaces “for other men to ‘confess’ their privileges and conditionings to one another, pay penance as such, pat one another on the back and go home feeling like good feminists” (51). Egret makes it clear that this is not about dismissing the ways that men’s groups can be spaces of care and healing. The point is that this work can be deepened, so that it’s more transformative for men involved, and leads to meaningful action beyond meetings. Vanessa, another Ex Masculus contributor, raises some crucial questions along these lines:

  • how do we deal with situations that come up where people we like are perpetrating abuse and assault in our communities?
  • how can we change our culture to begin to see confrontation as constructive?
  • where in the depths of ourselves are we recognising a need for a men’s group? is there shame there? guilt? is there fear? what else?
  • are we afraid of accountability processes?

Other contributors raise similar questions, pointing to the possibilities of using men’s groups to hold perpetrators accountable, provide support for survivors, and help create community healing and care. This is a high bar for men socialized into patriarchy—especially those new to feminism—and I read these as visionary goals that we can aspire to in men’s work.

Everything I’ve learned continually points me back to the recognition that there’s no universal formula, and we’re all coming at this with different experiences. Men’s groups are only one response among many that we can take to be more active in confronting patriarchy and misogyny on an everyday basis. How can we be more active in taking up the quiet work, the caring work, and the work that we won’t be recognized for? How can we engage with other men in ways that open space for transformative conversations about patriarchy and misogyny? How can we be accountable to women and trans folks and take leadership from them? What’s stopping us? I’ll end with some further questions by Vanessa, from Ex Masculus:

  • who have you abused in your life? how?
  • what comes to mind when you think about how the majority of the women and trans people you know could be survivors of sexual assault?
  • what do you have to gain from talking about your life experiences with other people relating to having male privilege?
  • what experiences have made you want to be accountable to people you have hurt?
  • how has your gender socialisation shaped your practice of consent? your sense of entitlement?
  • what makes you different from other “men”?
  • have you ever used the rhetoric of feminist allyship to gain credibility, or to seem attractive, to feminists you thought were cool / hot?
  • when you become down on yourself because of the amount of work you need to do to unlearn patriarchal indoctrination, how do you stay brave?

Acknowledgements

This piece wouldn’t have been possible without the feedback, edits, advice, and ongoing support and mentorship offered by Jeanette Sheehy, Kim Smith, Carla Bergman, Seb Bonet, and Dani Aiello. I wasn’t able to be responsive to all their insights, questions, and critiques, so I’m responsible for all the mistakes, omissions, problems, and other crappy bits.

Resources

Autonomous Politics and Liberal Thought-Magic

Anarchism is often dismissed as incoherent, naïve, and ineffective.  This is Nancy Fraser’s position in a recent essay called “Against Anarchism.”  It’s an excerpt of a longer essay, part of a book entitled Transnationalizing the Public Sphere: Nancy Fraser to Debates Critics (coming out in 2014).  For those who don’t know, Nancy Fraser is a famous political theorist (for academics, at least).  Imagine being famous enough that you need a whole new book to respond to people who disagree with you!

Fraser’s criticisms are worth engaging not because they’re particularly perceptive or unique, but because they’re exceedingly common: these are some of the reasons that people dismiss anarchism all the time.  I’m not out to mount a systematic defense of anarchism here (or ‘neo-anarchism,’ as Fraser calls it), in part because there’s no coherent, singular political tradition to defend.  Anarchism means many things to many people (which makes it pretty silly to proclaim you’re against ‘it’).  What is it about anarchism that’s so threatening to people like Nancy Fraser?  I think Fraser (and many others) are actually threatened by what I’ll call ‘autonomous politics,’ which is both narrower and broader than anarchism, encompassing currents of marxism, indigenism, queer politics, feminism, and anarchism.  Autonomous politics is also too complex to be a coherent whole, which is part of what makes it so threatening.  My suspicion is that Fraser hates autonomous politics not because it’s ineffective, but because it undermines her whole worldview and political project.  Autonomous politics threatens to destabilize liberalism and the tired old tricks of conventional politics, revealing their irrelevance for changing things here and now.

Fraser’s broad argument is that democratic politics works on ‘two tracks.’  On the first track, “publics in civil society generate public opinion,” and on the second track “political institutions make authorized and binding decisions to carry them out.”  Chief among these formal institutions is the State, and she explains that anarchists reject this second track, because they think “the administrative logics of the political system are bound to colonize the independent energies of society.”  Anarchism, she says, rejects this second track in favour of “a single-track understanding of democratic politics.”  This is the spectre of autonomous politics: practices that short-circuit the relationship between institutions and the publics they are supposed to represent.  Fraser’s charge is that this single track politics is fundamentally undemocratic: anarchist politics becomes isolated, unaccountable, and vanguardist.

So, anarchists, are you accountable (like a good liberal) or are you unaccountable (and therefore undemocratic)?  Will you be a good citizen, or a bad outsider?  This is liberal thought-magic: the strange spell that funnels everything back into ‘State’ and ‘public,’ making it difficult to imagine any other kind of politics. 

boschmagI think the current of anarchism that’s particularly threatening to Fraser is the one that dissipates the spell of liberal thought-magic.  Some currents of anarchism (and other radical political traditions) aren’t simply anti-State or anti-institutional: they point to the ways that institutions always pull us back into relation to these organizations, like black holes.  Autonomous politics short-circuits the relationship between formal institutions and publics, enabling new, open-ended relationships and practices to emerge that don’t fit into the liberal framework.  In the anarchist tradition, this autonomist current can be traced to folks like Gustav Landauer, who insisted that the State can’t be attacked or destroyed.  The state and other formal institutions are social relationships:

The state is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another.

For practitioners of liberal thought-magic, the prospect of ‘behaving differently toward one another’ is naive, if not dangerous.  There are always two tracks: formal institutions and publics who contest and transform them.  This is crux of liberal democratic thought-magic: two tracks of politics locked in communication and change.  There is no escape, no alternative.

This makes autonomous politics—practices and actions that don’t aim at reforming institutions or mobilizing publics—frustrating, confusing, and menacing to liberal thought-magicians.  Autonomous isn’t just ‘outside’ Fraser’s two tracks; it threatens to undermine the whole edifice and break the spell.  How?

First, the persistence of autonomous politics is a reminder that the modern conceptions of ‘State’ and ‘civil society’ are only a few centuries old.  Part of the thought-magic is to insist that life beyond the State is nasty, brutish and short, and it will continue to be, without the rigidities of the two liberal tracks.  Of course, there was incredible hierarchy, violence, and patriarchy before the rise of the modern State (in some places—particularly in Europe).  The State has transformed these brutal relationships, institutionalizing and industrializing some of them while subjugating others.  But before and beyond and after the State, there was (and is) an incredible diversity of ways that people organize themselves, resolve conflicts, engage with neighbours and more distant ties, and relate to land and their home places.  This infinite complexity is politics, and it will always be more complex than liberal thought-magic wants it to be.

Liberal thought-magic insists that because some of these non-State relationships were and are brutal, we must dismiss autonomous politics as a scary, violent, unthinkable way of living and relating.  It sneaks in the racist and Eurocentric view that indigenous peoples and other autonomous currents are primitive, naive, savage, unrealistic, or it simply erases their existence.  Fraser gestures briefly at “isolated indigenous communities struggling to subsist off the grid,” lumping them in with “relatively privileged but downwardly mobile youth.”  These are the main subscribers to autonomous politics, she thinks (the rest of us know better).  Of course, insisting on the necessity of the State probably doesn’t sound as good to undocumented workers, prisoners, indigenous land defenders, and others being crushed, criminalized or erased by the State and other modern institutions.  But it’s not just about being privileged (or not) by the State and its politics: it’s also about the effect on our political imagination; this is what makes liberal thought-magic so magical.

Second, autonomous politics threatens the role of the liberal political theorist: liberal magicians make recommendations for how things should be, in terms of the ‘proper’ relationship between formal institutions and publics.

Critical liberals like Fraser come up with ideas about how they could be much different, but not too different (the dual tracks of State and public needs to be preserved).  In her article, she mentions her contemplation of “hybrid strong publics,” which aims “not at collapsing the two tracks of the public sphere model, but at softening the border that separates them, making them more porous to each other, and enhancing the flow of communication between them.”  Fraser’s role is to talk about how this relationship could work better, and (as she demonstrates here) to police threats to this relationship, reasserting the necessity of the two tracks.

This liberal thought-magic is always augmented by admitting that formal institutions are not really all that democratic and responsive: that’s all the more reason to keep trying to make them better and nicer!  Ignoring them is irresponsible, tantamount to giving up.  A theorist’s role is to criticize this relationship, and present a normative argument for the way that things should be. 

The liberal theorist tends to speak from a mystical non-place, with little reference to the people and places to which they’re connected in everyday life, or to the concrete political practices they’re engaged in.  But once the spell starts to dissipate, the categories of ‘State’ and ‘public’ start to appear more and more as one kind of politics among others, and liberal political theorists start to sound shrill and particularistic, protecting a centuries-old political project that has been globalized through colonization and imperialism.  Indeed, from the perspective of folks trying to change things—even people trying to influence formal institutions—the role of the liberal political theorist isn’t much use.  It encourages us to see everything in terms of the two tracks: State and civil society, and encourages us to inhabit the mystical non-place where we get to fantasize about how things could or should be.  To experiment with other ways of seeing and being in the world tends to be perceived as ineffective and naïve, if not outright undemocratic and dangerous.

With this in mind, I should situate myself: I’ve spent lots of time reading about liberal politics, and I was once firmly under its spell; I read about how the State should be, and how institutions could be different.  I can’t say that’s all gone and I see everything clearly, but I’ve become critical of liberalism (obviously) and I’ve found other forms of thought-magic (including currents of anarchism) more useful in thinking through the ways I relate to people, and to the political projects I’m part of.  I’ve developed priorities and values that don’t make sense from the perspective of the dual tracks of State and public.  I don’t have a replacement for Fraser’s thought-magic because I’m trying to be open to a diversity of traditions and encounters.  Can we work together politically, will we be adversaries, or will we ignore each other?  For me, that’s a question I’ll try to figure out when I meet you.  Even if you’re committed to liberal thought-magic, we might be able to work together, depending on how we relate.  That doesn’t mean I don’t have my own commitments, baggage, and ideas; it means I’m trying to be open to the encounter, and meet you where you’re at.   

Third, autonomous politics threatens to proliferate the tracks of politics.  There aren’t one, or two, but many tracks, institutions, and actors.  It’s not about pretending that ‘the State’ and ‘the public’ don’t exist: they’re no less (or more) real than other social categories.  They’re not exactly irrelevant, either: they continue to exert a strong pull on most people (all the more reason to be critical of them and the kinds of politics they normalize).  Fraser accuses anarchists of assuming a single, autonomous track (and therefore they’re unaccountable to anyone outside this track).  But many of the most prominent and radical tendencies of anarchism, feminism, indigenism, and queer politics gesture at the infinity of political ‘tracks’.  Not all of these tracks are ‘publics’ or ‘formal institutions;’ these categories erase the complexity of allegiances, alliances, tensions, anxieties, adversaries, and enemies that criss-cross contemporary political actions and groups.

From the perspectives of autonomous politics (and there are many), questions of accountability are diverse, determined not by abstract ideological arguments but often by one’s everyday lived relationships to people, communities, places, and ecosystems.  These kinds of people are dangerous to the State (and to liberal thought-magic) because their loyalties and commitments can never be easily fitted into the liberal tracks of ‘public’ and ‘State.’  More worrisome still, they often insist on relating to others horizontally and across difference, refusing to accept the authority of formal institutions.  Fraser would like to dismiss these currents as particularistic, vanguardist, or isolationist.  There are isolationist, vanguardist tendencies of anarchism, but there’s more to autonomous politics.  Autonomist politics is often perceived as isolationism by people like Fraser, who conflate isolationism with a refusal to engage with the State and other institutions on their own terms.  Police, bureaucrats, politicians, and other institutional representatives have no a priori legitimacy or authority here; it’s up in the air: they might be obeyed, attacked, engaged or ignored.  This is not because autonomous politics embraces an anything-goes nihilism: they often point to authorities and values that are erased by liberal thought-magic, such as family, community, indigenous nationhoodecosystems, and non-humans.  This is because autonomous politics enables new (and old) relationships, alliances, solidarities and connections.  

Autonomy doesn’t just mean separation.  The categories of liberal thought-magic (‘the State’ and ‘the public’ or ‘civil society’) are like powerful black holes, sucking everything in and erasing the complexity of political life.  By the same token, warding off these categories and necessities enables other values and practices to emerge: it becomes possible to think and act differently.  I’m sure Fraser would have no problem jamming these emergent values and solidarities back into the liberal paradigm: it’s some powerful magic.  But for many people, the spell is losing its power.

Who ensures that autonomous politics is accountable?  There’s no universal arbiter or judge.  You will have to find out for yourself what different forms of politics are like by engaging with the people who practice them.  For those who yearn for a universal arbiter of justice or accountability or democracy, it may be useful to remember that it has never existed: the universalist dream is a fantasy that has never succeeded in representing everyone, and it is one that has tried to erase and subjugate the political universe in order to live out this fantasy.  Autonomist politics appears more realistic here, rather than naive: we need to relate to each other, figure things out together, and struggle together, without guarantees.  

I think these are the reasons why Nancy Fraser hates anarchism and autonomous politics.  At a time when liberal thought-magic works on fewer and fewer people, the magicians are getting worried.  It’s increasingly obvious that States and other formal institutions are not only undemocratic; they’re increasingly designed to absorb, placate, divide, and destroy grassroots movements while defending the exploitative status quo.  As Fraser points out, it’s dangerous to pretend the State and other formal institutions don’t exist (it’s one of many tracks), but it’s at least as dangerous to pretend that there are only two tracks to politics, fervently conjuring liberal thought-magic.  Fraser has written a whole book ‘debating her critics,’ but many proponents of autonomous politics won’t be interested in debating her; they’ve dislodged themselves from the black hole of the State and the public, and these orbits appear strange and dangerous to liberal magicians.  But I think even the liberals like Fraser know that there’s a whole political universe beyond their myopic orbits; they’re just trying really hard to ignore or condemn the political aliens.

This post, I hope, is somewhere in between engagement and departure from liberal thought-magic: I’m hoping to help ruin the spell, and try out some other forms of thought-magic.  I don’t have a coherent alternative to Fraser, in part because autonomous politics refuses any singular alternative: there needs to be room for all kinds of different magic, and there are no guarantees to politics.