Finding the Balance: The Feminist Facebook Campaign

Yesterday, Facebook finally put out a statement on the site regarding the feminist anti-violence campaign.  In it, they spoke to the balance between allowing controversial ideas, while eliminating that which is harmful.

[W]e also work hard to make our platform a safe and respectful place for sharing and connection.  This requires us to make difficult decisions and balance concerns about free expression and community respect.  We prohibit content deemed to be directly harmful, but allow content that is offensive or controversial.

My fear with campaigns like the anti-violence campaign on Facebook has always been that controversial, but not violent, material would end up being censored by those seeking to prove they’re “cleaning things up”. That is, that Facebook would overreact in seeking good P.R., and start eliminating controversial ideas, even when they did not celebrate, condone or encourage violence.

I have written in the past about my internal conflict with the concept of free speech.  That conflict has led me to tread carefully when people start talking about “hate speech”. In fact, I had to think a bit before deciding whether to join the Feminist Admin campaign this week. However, after careful consideration, the campaign against the violent images about raping and beating women was something I couldn’t refuse to support. These were not people talking about “controversial” topics. These were people reveling in violence, reveling in images of women’s beaten and bloodied bodies. They weren’t trying to arrive at answers to difficult questions. They were just trying to get off on seeing women beaten up.

I consider this blog and the related Facebook page to be controversial. They discuss very controversial topics, such as gender, from a radical perspective. However, I seek to weed out attacks or links that I consider focused on individuals instead of issues. This is why I made a decision a while ago not to post links to some of the more inflammatory radical feminist sites that discuss gender. I felt that some of them were focused on individuals and personal ridicule, instead of being focused on issues. To me, that kind of individual-focused rhetoric doesn’t help anyone. In fact, it turns people off and makes them tune out what is actually being said about the ramifications of certain positions.

The same is true when I discuss my opposition to religion, whether on Facebook or this blog. I abhor violence aimed at individuals because of their religion. I am an adamant supporter of the rights of Palestinians.  However, I cannot in good conscience allow that to keep me from discussing religion as ideology and how it is a tool in women’s oppression.  The stakes for real women are too high.

I would consider the Facebook pages of Male Privilege Activists (a.k.a Men’s Rights Activists, or MRAs) to be controversial, but I would not seek to have one shut down if it didn’t post the kind of content this campaign has focused on. I may despise what they have to say, but I’m not going to report them for “hate speech”. In fact, I’m not going to bother with them at all. I may criticize them, but I’m not going to seek out their nonsense.

Anyway, I hope Facebook gets it right. I hope they can find the balance that allows us to discuss controversial ideas, while keeping the images that celebrate violence out. We’ll have to wait and see, I guess.

Neo-Paganism and Feminism

I was born a member of an old Mormon family, a family stretching back to upstate New York and the origins of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  As a result, I spent many years within the church and still have many family members there.  At a fairly young age, I knew that membership in the church was not conducive to my sanity.  The limits placed on the female were too many to count.  They are also too well known for me to need to enumerate them here.  Suffice it to say that they were killing me, mind and body.  However, it took many years and several false starts for me to shake off not only this particular religion, but religion, in general.  One of those false starts was a turn to the Wiccan religion.

Wicca (and Neo-Paganism, in general) is an attractive option for so many women who are trying to find their way in the world, experiencing the failures of organized religion, but still needing the comfort of a Greater Power.  Its celebration of the Goddess and belief in a time before patriarchy are so important to women who need to believe that there are examples of a better way in the distant past.  I’m certainly not one to claim that, once upon a time, the status of women was not greater than it is now.  (In fact, I actively believe that.)  Goddess worship may well have been a sign of that.  However, we can see goddess worship lasting well into the age of male oppression of females, all the way into modern India.  It is not enough to simply point to the goddesses in a pantheon, and say that women have greater status in Culture X.

The most problematic aspect of modern goddess worship is not where it came from or whether those cultures were patriarchal.  The most problematic aspect is how it represents “masculine” and “feminine” in the modern world.  In my personal Facebook feed today, I came across a shared status update from another page.  It spoke of the shortcomings of the “pragmatic, male oriented reality”, while singing the praises of the “great female powers of intuition”, the “receptive powers of the female shield”, and the “feminine trait of contemplation”. *

Within the Wiccan ritual, there is a very strong belief in gendered forces.  Certain characteristics and natural forces are related to the feminine, while others are related to the masculine.  This is often played out during ritual by plunging a ceremonial blade into a sacred chalice.  In Wiccan writing, there is repeated reference to feminine qualities of the Goddess versus masculine qualities of the God.  The feminine is related to intuitiveness, caregiving, protection of children and the hearth, nourishment, and magic.  Motherhood is all.  The masculine is related to more active concepts, like hunting and protection of the group and the woman.**  These gendered forces must be balanced, but they are still there.  In addition, the argument is that both the feminine and the masculine live within each individual, regardless of sex.  Why they must, then, be referred to in gendered ways isn’t explained.

So, what’s wrong with that?  Well, a lot of things, if you believe (as I do) that there are only human ways of acting, feeling, thinking and being.  There is no innate feminine or masculine way of experiencing the world.  There is no “brain sex“.  This gendered way of categorizing human actions and characteristics is patriarchal at its very core; it can’t lead us from patriarchy, because it’s steeped in it.

I know many women find solace in Wicca, especially Dianic Wicca.  There are still things that I appreciate about it, such as the belief in the “interconnectedness” of life and other forces in the universe.  I still believe in those things, although my belief and appreciation of that connection is scientific instead of magical these days.  I also believe strongly that goddess imagery can help women who are constantly bombarded with the solely male representations of the most important, powerful, divine forces in the universe.  Having the strictly male images of divinity constantly before you, while being told that humans are in “god’s image”, is psychologically devastating.  This is especially true for a young girl.  I still hold dear to goddess imagery for this very reason.  However, I don’t believe that we can be liberated by engaging in magical thinking.  I don’t think we can be liberated by investing in ideas of feminine traits versus masculine traits.  The essentialism will always backfire on us.  We need to put our faith in the strength of real women, not in goddesses or “feminine” qualities.

NOTES:

* I am not linking to the post or directly mentioning the page for two reasons.  The first is that the link leads to someone’s personal Facebook profile, and I don’t want to directly criticize this particular woman or put a link to her profile in a blog post.  This isn’t about a single individual; it’s about an ideology.  The other is that I have interacted with the owners of the page who shared it on several occasions.  They are kind, good-hearted women.  They have shared things from TLSOF more than once.  I’m not writing about this to criticize them or “out” them in any way.  Again, it’s about the ideology.

** There are a few exceptions to this, such as Athena and Diana, but they are rare.

“Responsible Fatherhood” Initiatives, the Nuclear Family and Revolutionary Thought

The idea that the nuclear family is closely tied to the oppression and exploitation of women is common in much revolutionary thought.  Whether it’s radical feminism or Marxism, criticism for the nuclear family and its role in keeping women’s status low and lives difficult isn’t hard to find.  The reasons cited for this may vary across the various political theories, but the nature of the beast is well understood and recognized.  It is through this lens that we should view the recent lawsuit filed in Connecticut by women’s groups to stop the U.S. government’s  federal Responsible Fatherhood Programs offered under the Grants for Healthy Marriage Promotion and Responsible Fatherhood legislation passed in 2006.  The grounds for the lawsuit are that these programs violate Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

I have written about my support for Title IX in the past.  While many in the U.S. equate it with organized sports in educational institutions, the law’s impact and intent is much wider than that.  Yes, it is an act of reform rather than what is generally understood as a revolutionary act.  I would argue, however, that it’s time to recognize that much of the work done to reform the treatment and status of women within the law is actually far more radical and socialist than the endless theorizing or talk of some nebulous, as-yet-unseen revolution that is carried out by many within both the radical feminist and the socialist camps.  In her introduction to the 1972 edition of Frederick Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, anthropologist Eleanor Burke Leacock wrote:

[W]orking-class women, not only in their obviously basic fight on the job but also in their seemingly more conservative battles for their families around schools, housing and welfare, are actually posing a more basic challenge than that of the radicals.  By demanding that society assume responsibility for their children, they are attacking the nature of the family as an economic unit , the basis of their own oppression and a central buttress of class exploitation. (Intro, pp. 44-45)

Now, I would deny Leacock’s assertion that the family is the basis of women’s oppression*–it is a patriarchal and capitalist tool in our oppression–but I otherwise agree with this take on the use of so-called “liberal reform” measures as a way to attack the structures of patriarchy and capitalism.  It is through that lens that we should view this lawsuit.

So, what is the basis of the lawsuit?  The complainants argue that the Responsible Fatherhood Programs offer education that is funded by the U.S. government.  This includes job skills, which should be a special point of contention.  Those educational programs either offer their services on reduced bases to women or exclude women altogether.  They also argue that denying women from federally-funded programs is a violation of equal protection under due process.**   Those are the legal grounds of the lawsuit, but they are not why I support this filing.  The most offensive part of the program is its championing of marriage as the ideal and in the best interests of government and society.

These programs have a major component aimed at encouraging “healthy” marriage.  What that means, we can only guess.  After all, some of the money for these “healthy marriage” programs in my state goes to religious organizations.  In fact, the state explicitly encourages such organizations to apply for grant money:

The American people have long shown their considerable compassion and generosity through a broad range of community-based entities, including a diverse group of faith-based organizations.  Faith-based groups provide critical human services, and, in emergencies, they consistently stand shoulder-to-shoulder with government in the first line of response.  Our nation is stronger for their work.

We already know the view of marriage that is touted by the majority of religious organizations.  We’ve read their texts and seen their behavior.  It doesn’t take a radical feminist to analyze the “skills” that are most likely to be touted by faith-based organizations when it comes to marriage–especially in a state like Arizona, which is dominated by Catholics and Mormons.  Are we to stand by while the government funds these organizations?

Of course, even if administered by secular organizations, the focus on marriage and the nuclear family as the desired environment for child rearing is essentially regressive and capitalist.  This is not to say that the role of men in child rearing is trivial or unimportant.  I will also not deny that within the society we now live, there are very real advantages to raising children within a marriage.  From social pressure to health care to tax breaks, the government and social institutions push marriage as the desired state of being in many ways, especially when children are involved.  In fact, this is the very reason my spouse and I chose to marry 21 years ago.  That doesn’t mean they are right, and it doesn’t mean this is what we should be fighting for.

NOTES:

*I do believe that women’s childbearing capacity is the basis of our oppression and exploitation, though.  I believe that control of women’s reproduction led to the creation of the family as the basic economic unit, and that is closely tied to the development of goods-as-commodities, surplus and an assumption of patrilineal inheritance as the “natural” order of things.  I also believe that patriarchy grew out of that, but has taken on a life of its own that can and does persist even outside capitalism.  I have outlined that, essentially adapting Engels’ paradigm, in other writings.  It is true that this particular pattern did not unfold exactly the same in every society.  However, it is primarily true–especially in Western cultures and those cultures subjugated by Western cultures–and, as such, is a useful paradigm.  To say that there is no real reason, that patriarchy arose simply because that’s just how men (and, by extension, women) are is an essentialist view, and I reject essentialism.

**It is important to head off any “what about the men” objections here by noting that there are federally-funded programs that help only women and children, such as the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.  However, these programs help women to the exclusion of men only insofar as those women are pregnant or breastfeeding.  They also exclude women who are not pregnant or breastfeeding, even if they are mothers of young children.  This is a very real biological difference based upon sex, and one in which men cannot biologically participate.  It is in no way the same as excluding women from educational programs simply because they are women.

A feminist critique of “cisgender”

“The pattern of gender, constituted through gender’s repeated performance on the stage of life, demonstrates that males and masculinity are institutionally dominant over females and femininity.  Gender is not just a fun dress up game that individuals merely identify with in isolation from all contextual and historical meaning, but the most powerful tool of structural oppression ever created by humans.

“Notwithstanding variations caused by intersecting factors such as economic class, national jurisdiction, and cultural differences; the collective female social location is consistently less than similarly situated males in terms of: (i) material resources received as an infant and child, (ii) respect, attention, and intellectual encouragement received as an infant and child, (iii) risk of being sexually exploited or victimized, (iv) role within the hetero family unit, (v) representation and power in government, (vi) access to education, jobs, and promotions in the workforce, (vii) property ownership and dominion over space.[vi] “

via A feminist critique of “cisgender”.

The Individual and Collective Action

The standard definition of the radical Leftist is a person who recognizes that oppression and exploitation are based upon class.  One is not exploited or oppressed by a capitalist, sexist or racist system because of any individual achievement or lack thereof.  It’s not something that happens because an individual chooses it, and it’s not something that ends because an individual desires it to end.  Instead, that exploitation and oppression are based upon the very fact that a group of individuals are separated into a class considered appropriate for exploitation or oppression.  Individuals within the given exploitable class are viewed as “naturally” deserving of their lot, while those in the exploiting class are likewise considered deserving of their position based upon nothing more than class membership.  One can not by sheer force of will decide not to be oppressed or exploited so long as one continues to be a member of the class assigned the lesser status. In order to end exploitation and oppression, it is necessary for collective action, action that fully dismantles the very system that allows this to exist and to continue.

Fine, so we have that out of the way.  Where does that leave the individual?  Simply believing in the necessity of collective action and the community does not mean we give up our status and responsibilities as individuals, does it?  I flat-out reject any suggestion that it does, although some seem to argue in that direction.  Collective action doesn’t spring up out of the ground like Athena from the head of Zeus.  It comes about because of individuals who collectivize.  Individuals who dissent through action, organization and speech (written or otherwise)–all of which are important in any movement building.  Within a collective movement, it is just as important to dissent through action, organization and speech when an individual member of or group within the movement sees things going off the rails.  We don’t march forward into the darkness as a group, simply because to do otherwise might take an individual act to stop it–especially when we know that the darkness leads off the edge of a cliff.  Sadly, I’ve found that many who call themselves radical are willing to go to any ends to be seen as one of the collective.  This is the appointed leader, you say?  Okay, then let’s follow him wherever he goes.  If his path leads to destruction, let’s continue to defend him as infallible.

The reason I became radicalized was that I saw a moral failing in the world of capitalism and patriarchy, where people are expected to do the bootstrap dance no matter how the deck is stacked against them.  I realized this selfishness and lack of concern for other human beings was in and of itself an atrocity.  That wasn’t a collective conclusion; it was one of an individual human being.  That moral stand led me to movements that believe in the common good, in the collective, in the community.  I refuse to engage in the cult of personality, where the Great Leader is honored over the common good and the end goal.  That’s not radical.  That’s not Leftist.  That’s not anything I would ever want to be a part of.  The responsibility to remain committed to that morality doesn’t end when one becomes radicalized.  In fact, I believe it becomes more important.

When we see a Leftist movement become supportive of rapists and rape culture, what do we do?  We speak out against it.  We organize with others within the group to stop it.  We dissent.  We try to expose this betrayal within our own movement so it can be rectified.  That is but one example of how we can never let our moral centers get lost, but it is hardly the only one.  We must never become so beholden to the specter of the dreaded Individualism that we forget that.  It takes strong individuals within any collective organization to keep that organization moving in the right direction.  Failing to step up and do that is cowardly.  It is also the ultimate betrayal of the exploited and oppressed classes.