Thursday, September 27, 2012

Total Liberation

            The second thing that was always true of feminist movement 
            in the United States was that its agenda really was and is 
            revolutionary . . . it also demands changes like the 
            reconstruction of the relationship between the market and 
            the state and the disassembly of the traditional family. Indeed 
            feminism, taken seriously, ultimately requires that gender
            itself be disassembled, that the category “women” be 
            reconfigured. And feminist theory sooner or later forces a 
            confrontation with the other hierarchies in which patriarchy 
            is embedded, including heterosexism and race.
                                     - Angela P. Harris, What Ever Happened to 
                                       Feminist Legal Theory?

Angela Harris concludes the paragraph with this sentiment: “Faced with this complex and daunting agenda of total transformation, it is not surprising that the people working on it have in recent years stepped back from the larger vision and focused their energies on sub-issues.” Until I read this passage, I did not realize why I found myself discomfited by our studies thus far. Recently, Professor Pruitt mentioned in class that law students seem fond of pushing the law to its limits—where its principles fold in on themselves and ultimately collapse. Listening to discussion and reading for class, I wandered down just that same path. Our framework formed a patchwork quilt, but I could not discern how the smaller pieces connected to the larger question. I found myself myopically distracted by sub-issues, leaving the broader context blurry and incomplete.

And what exactly was that larger question? What is the ultimate goal of all our questioning? What principle underlies the feminist movement? Harris defines a “liberation movement” as “a demand for an end to prejudice and discrimination based on an arbitrary characteristic like race or sex.” Yes! Simple, but potent. This discrimination is both personal and systemic. Historically, the voice of male dominance sought and succeeded to obscure the systemic and focus on the personal.

This philosophy, while still prevalent, is no longer the dominant discourse. As Harris’s article points out, feminist theory is sophisticated – “the problem is not a failure or absence of theory; the problem is political opposition, plain and simple. The big-vision days are over for this work; theorizing has moved closer to the ground.”

Joan Williams, in Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About it, discusses the relationship between the family and labor market in the classic problem of “work-family balance”—a terminology I appreciate. More common reference terms it “work-life balance.” But women and men are not being asked to choose between work and life, but work and family.

This problem posits individual women to solve it for themselves, when it is truly a structural problem that crosses gender and class boundaries. Harris traces Williams’ discussion: “Drawing on generations of feminist theory, Williams shows how individual women have been encouraged to think they can and must solve it for themselves, how stay-a-home mothers and mothers working for wages have been encouraged to sit in judgment of one another, and how today’s labor markets penalize ‘mothers’ and benefit ‘others.’ Her work builds upon feminist theory, but her most important task is no longer theory-building; it is turning theory into practice.”

Knowing that we’ve been given an impossible task in the guise of “work-family balance” is somehow comforting. This particular objective is not something I need to feel frustrated in not achieving; it is not my fault. It is the foundation our current society stands on. To achieve this goal means an overturning of our societal structure as we know it. And if that means toppling a system riddled with unconscious racism, flooded with sexism and heterosexism, and driven by industrial profits instead of social justice, then that’s not a bad thing.


Sarah said...

I appreciate your commentary about how turning a truly systemic problem into a personal one severely inhibits our ability to seek effective change. It just solidifies my belief in the need for us to work together, stick together, and advocate for change on a systemic level.

Sam said...

“And if that means toppling a system riddled with unconscious racism, flooded with sexism and heterosexism, and driven by industrial profits instead of social justice, then that’s not a bad thing.”

A woman after my own heart. I had a philosophy professor who said that the most interesting and radical theories currently being defended in philosophy are feminist ones. But the problem with total liberation, unfortunately, is that change needs to be revolutionary. If one person chooses not participate in the dominate morality, they tend to lose out.

Consider Professor Pruitt’s example of women not being able to talk about themselves or take credit for their work. The solution was for women to act more like the man in the room – in other words, to take on the patriarchal ideals. Challenging the ideals themselves means directly challenging the patriarchy. This is what is necessary for total liberation. However, if a single individual – or a handful of individuals – take this route, they do so at a great detriment to their career.

Jihan A. Kahssay said...

The prospect of revolution is incredibly liberating. There exists in our society a hierarchy that idealizes whiteness, masculinity, heterosexuality, able-bodied-ness, and a host of other characteristics. These idealized and preferred characteristics embody the hegemonic character. It seems that across cultures and time, collections of people have had a tendency to form and maintain some hegemonic character.

Religion is a great example of this: Gods often embody the favored human characteristics of a religious community. Many Gods and prophets are males, for instance. Also, most western depictions of Jesus resemble very closely the western hegemonic character, even as scholars and historians challenge such popular characterizations.

The closer a person can align herself with the hegemonic character, the more likely she is to find herself in positions of privilege and power. By the same logic, the further one finds herself from the hegemonic character (i.e., by race, sexual orientation, gender, class, level of education, able-bodied-ness, immigration status, religious affiliation, etc.), the less power she will likely wield in society. Since most people fall short of exhibiting all the characteristics of the hegemonic character in one way or another, most people experience some degree of marginalization. The crux of the injustice is that marginalized groups tend to bare the cost of the privilege enjoyed by groups that are more closely aligned with the hegemonic image.

Total liberation would be a total dismantling of the hegemonic image. Total liberation, however, would also require that society does not merely assign current hegemonic character with a new set of characteristics: instead, total liberation requires us to tear down both the hegemonic character and the pedestal upon which he stands.

Since I cannot seem to imagine a world where people have no preferences or prejudices, I have my doubts about whether society can let go of the idealization of certain human characteristics. This is where my excitement over revolution gets a bit shaky.

On the one hand, revolution is liberating; but, on the other hand, it is terrifying. Is it possible to live in a society in which people lack prejudices against, or preference for, certain human characteristics? If not, and if -- through total liberation -- we successfully dethrone the hegemonic image of the white, wealthy, heterosexual, able-bodied man, then what imagine will replace it? By destabilizing the hegemonic image, will we create unintended (and undesired) instability in other parts of society?

I am definitely in for the fight, for revolution, for total liberation. I'm just not sure what to expect on on the other side.