Because sexism isn’t something we can turn off like a faucet, or fix like a leak, I asked Lazenby to talk about how we might consider the function of our actions in the context of systems we can’t control, which in fact inform our approach to their demolition.
I don’t really understand the particulars of what Reynard asked me to write about, because I don’t know any of the people involved. What I do understand is the incredible stability of systems when they are attacked on their own terms.
One system that we all live in presumes women can be treated as a bloc. It understands women as creatures who share a common, female essence that gives each woman her female traits. Things like frailty, irresponsibility, vanity, and above all, the need for a type of security—emotional and material—that men are uniquely equipped to provide. The system says: ‘Act as though these presumptions were true, and I will reward all of you with an immensely stable set of relationships between men and women.’
Now, if you find these assumptions about women to be totally false and patronizing, the obvious question is: well, how do you change things at a fundamental, system-wide level? I can think of a couple of ways that people try to do this (while really just engaging the system they despise on terms it can easily repel.) You could:
- • Protest these assumptions simply by ignoring them. In your behavior towards women, whatever your own gender, you could act as though the woman you’re talking to is in full command of herself and surrenders her soul neither to behavior pre-programmed by her two X chromosomes nor to the system’s expectations of her. That is, you treat a woman like an individual. One who is entitled to act however she chooses, even if her behavior seems to be coincident with a stereotype.
- ◦ This is, I think, how a lot of men understand being a male feminist. The problem with this approach to changing the system we live in is that any change it effects will be extremely slow. In reality, the system views people who act this way toward women in the same way the IRS sees someone who commits suicide as a tax protest. You simply cease to be relevant. You might be square with yourself if you resist the system by treating every woman you meet as an individual, but your contribution to that system’s defeat and dismantlement is so minimal as to approach selfishness. Cf. the rising incidence of rape and sexual assault despite Ryan Gosling modeling the role of male feminist to the hilt. (The smugness of men who love to say that they aren’t The Problem because they don’t think of women only as a quavering womb perched on delicate shaved legs is so gross as to become its own problem.)
- • Protest these assumptions by pointing out their falsity, their hypocrisy and the injustice that they create.
- ◦ But outside Supreme Court briefs, this isn’t even worth the effort: Any system whose benefits arise from a lie so deeply entrenched as to seem like truth (“Women are vain.”) is probably not vulnerable to points of logic.
- • Protest these assumptions by violently attacking their source. You could do this in a physical (FEMEN, sometimes) or rhetorical (A. Dworkin) way.
- ◦ The only way you’re overcoming any bigtime system thru violence is to defeat it in an actual land war. To the beneficiaries of a system that treats women as inferior, it would be a dream come true for that system to be attacked with physical violence. The men who benefit from oppressive systems usually have a society’s levers of power at their disposal too, and they know that any physical attack on a system of injustice which infects their society is instantly transmuted into an attack upon that society as a whole. Which lets them call in the cops, and then Nixon gets elected and it’s sic transit Sixties and game over all over again…
- ◦ Rhetorical attacks on the system are a good way to release yourself from its restrictions on freedom of thought and self-conception. But in the end, (when it comes to changing the system, as opposed to yourself) this is moving a beach with tweezers. It is possible to tilt the scales by fighting the system as it exists in individuals, but it’ll take an extremely long time for that pile of converts to lend weight sufficient for dramatic change. (Think about how long it took for literacy rates to make newspapers into sources of political power. And that was just teaching people how to read, not the ins and outs of patriarchy…)
- • If you’re fortunate enough to be in a position of power, you could protest these assumptions by refusing to let them influence your executive authority. E.g., if you’re a loan officer or the editor of a publishing house you could resist the temptation to think ‘Oh, I’m not sure we can take on her loan/book, I think we’re supporting just about as many women as we can these days…’ and judge instead the thing itself, not the person who submitted it.
- ◦ But again, tick tock.
Or, you could try to do something with a lever:
Gandhi has something interesting to say about struggles. Very early on (1909) he pointed out that a struggle against injustice invariably wins the sort of outcome it deserves. So, the victory won by the violence of the French Revolution was The Terror. And the victory delivered by Napoleon as he conquered most of Europe—in the name of the Revolution’s ideals of liberty and democracy was (surprise!) an Empire. Gandhi put it like this:
If I want to deprive you of your watch, I shall certainly have to fight for it; if I want to buy your watch, I shall have to pay for it; and if I want it as a gift, I shall have to plead for it; and, according to the means I employ, the watch is stolen property, my own property, or a donation.
So, the way you fight determines the world you make for yourself after you’ve won.
A trivial way of interpreting this would be to say: “If you want to change the system by policing the opinions that support it, you’re going to create a society where people have to watch what they say.” This might be true, but who cares: we’ve had political correctness for decades and it doesn’t work. A deeper way of looking at it would be to say that it reveals a lever by which a small number of people can enormously magnify their power. This is what Gandhi saw, and it is what led to non-violent resistance.
In effect, Gandhi’s line about means works in reverse: What he pointed out is true not only for those who struggle against injustice but also for the system that perpetrates it. If there is a lie at the heart of any system of inequality, then it is the job of people who want to destroy that system not to expose the lie, but to reveal how that lie poisons every benefit made possible by it. So, if the lie is that South Africans or Indians are morally and intellectually inferior to the British who rule them, then Gandhi’s job is to show how any act of force undertaken against him by the British is cruel and blatantly illegitimate. This was accomplished by offering no provocation to violence and simply allowing calm and unarmed crowds to be beaten by policemen who were expecting savages.
The challenge faced by people who are disgusted by the system that we live in is not how to explain or justify their disgust, but how to force that system to reveal itself as rotten. I think anyone interested in destroying the system of inequality that has infected our society and made women less valuable than men ought to be racking their brains for ways to produce this kind of leverage. Because a powerful machine with a great deal of momentum is all the more vulnerable, and liable to fly apart, when a wrench is thrown into it.