Monday, August 6, 2012

On Young Feminists

This has been making its way around facebook recently:  Why are young women so afraid to call themselves feminists?

I still regularly hear students say, "I'm not a feminist, but...."  They know intuitively there's still an injustice here, but they're loathe to openly address it.

It makes me think of a study done with a group of people waiting in a room to have a test administered as part of an experiment.  The first subject was taken, secretly an actor, and pretended to have trouble with the test.  She was subsequently given increasing electric shocks by the administrator.  The real experiment, of course, was about the subjects listening and reacting to the experience from the waiting room.  At first, they all felt badly for the woman, but, after a short time, powerless to help, they began to denigrate her. "The more the victim suffered, the lower their opinion of her became" (p.211-12). By the end of the test, they despised her as she yelped at each pretend jolt of electricity.  The researcher's conclusion:  we have an unconscious bias against those who come out at the bottom.

It's uncomfortable to align ourselves with any people who've been victimized.  It lowers our own sense of power in the world by association.  This is why it really is important to appear like we've got our shit together even when we don't.  If we appear vulnerable and weak even for a moment, we'll be ostracized for it which will make our lot even more difficult to manage.

And it's why it's uncomfortable to align ourselves with a group of people - any group - that's really struggling with a difficult battle.  It's not just that we need a well built and some cheaper meds and all will be fine again.  In a way, that's an easier fight.  It's something we can all agree to get behind, and we feel better as soon as we donate or write a letter.  This is much trickier.

It's trickier to stand up to speak out when there is no clear solution - when we feel helpless.  Then we'd really rather attack the victims than help them.  It's trickier to say we want reasonable jail sentences for sexual assault, rape, and confinement - particularly when the victim's a child.  Just like in the study, there's a weird instinct to suggest the victim must have done something to provoke it.  It's how we help ourselves believe we're safe from such atrocities.  But it's an illusion.

It's trickier to speak up to get safe spaces for women and girls who are being abused at home where they live until they can get manage independently. We give up social power when we support victims.

I already wrote about what happens in a classroom if a student suggests donating money to a charity to help girls who aren't allowed to go to school:  a chorus of, "What about the boys?"  The argument seemed to be:  Because some boys in a different part of the world are forced to join rebel groups, therefore, we shouldn't support these girls' education until every boy worldwide is safe.  Curious.

It's trickier to say we want to help women because a lot of people get swept into a false dichotomy:  if we're helping women, then we're not helping men.  They see it as either/or.  But anywhere women are helped to achieve equity with men, it helps the entire community; women and men benefit.

Sure if we help women it means it limits the freedom of men to rape and assault women, to have a choice of prostitutes who have no other alternatives but to service them, or to be the only authority in the household, but I don't see that as a concern for people who don't want to associate with feminism.  At all.  What is a concern is that if they align with the less powerful class in solidarity, they become less powerful - they become second class.  It's no different than aligning with anti-poverty groups or environmental groups (and there are some clear benefits for the haves if have nots exist even on a minimal scale).  They are all hard problems and trying to change them sticks you with some of the least powerful people (or other animals) in the world.

But that's all a crock.  It takes courage to step out of the safe zone.  And, as feminists, once we step there, once we feel how much strength it took to go there, we don't question how much power we have.

And I do too have a sense of humour, dammit!  

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