I have been following the Linda Hirshman piece on why we ought to be telling women to pull themselves out of domestic violence by their bootstraps, and feeling somewhat frustrated at the interest the concept has provoked. There is a certain brutal truth about her point, in the sense that I am fully ready to believe that no one is much interested in helping battered women (other than feminists, that is), least of all Hirshman. No, Hirshman wants to make a splash by distinguishing herself as the feminist who has not fallen victim (heh) to “the current love affair with understanding.” This, of course, is the responsible position – she is responsibly advocating that everybody responsibly quit responsibly caring about other people. How responsibly awesome of her.
Now, Hirshman’s point would be responsibly revolutionary were it to actually change the current state of affairs, but the truth is, we are in no danger of having anyone think that battered women are not responsible for the state in which they find themselves. And I’m not just talking about those women blaming themselves for the state they are in. Not only do teenagers everywhere think that women are “asking” for fists in their face, the rest of us are all well, fine and good with letting this be a “private issue” between two people in a relationship. (Of course, “private issue” is mostly code for “not my problem” in this society, because we only say things are private when we don’t really care about them, which is why the contents of my uterus are still up for societal discussion 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.)
This, of course, is revealed by the fact that Hirshman appears to believe that the only relevant responsibilities in this equation are those of the abused and the abuser. (I shall grudgingly admit she pays minor lip service to the latter, if only to shrug it off in favour of her Greater Point About Responsibility.) About the responsibility of others to help those in need, she has much less to say. (Not to mention the responsibility to not be so fucking self-indulgent as to assume that your “responsibility epiphany” had never before occurred to a single living soul.)
Are you sick of the word “responsibility” yet? I sure am. Here are some words I’d like to hear, for once, come out of media people’s mouths about domestic violence: shelters, patriarchy, fucking assholes, zero-tolerance, etc. You catch my drift. But the truth is that I think Hirshman has fallen prey to that thing, you know that thing, where you say a word over and over and over again until it has no meaning? Other than “Please give me a way out so that I don’t actually have to care about battered women?”
A lot of bloggers have responded, passionately and articulately, with their own survivor narrative, or that of women they have worked with: a favourites of mine is here.
But I wrote this post because I think Hirshman’s position fails in an abstract way too.
I’ve been wandering over to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ place a lot on this just because most of his commenters don’t self-identify as feminists, but they are thoughtful and tend to give me good fodder to reinforce and qualify my views. Unfortunately, even Ta-Nehisi (who as you may know I generally think is amazing) seems to have fallen prey to the responsibility delusion, which he likens to a similar concept of agency in Malcolm X’s calls for black nationalism:
Those of us who preferred Malcolm to Martin did so, not so much out of animus towards whites, but because implicit in Martin’s message was, “your [sic] doomed if these people who hate you don’t see the light.” Malcolm, on the other hand, seemed to say, “Let white folks be white folks. You be you. You have the power to be you, and you have a responsibility to be you.”
Well, there are a number of problems with the analogy, not the least of them being that a societal conception of agency (i.e. overcoming systematic racism) is always going to be rather different from an individual one (i.e. being able to stop that fist from hitting your face). See, to my understanding Malcolm’s message was not, though it sounds like one here, a call to rugged individualism. It was a call to reclaim oneself as a member of a group with a history and an experience that was worth recognizing. Were I, tomorrow, to call for some kind of solidarity of womankind to “Let men be men, and us be us,” well, I don’t even know where to begin saying what “we” are. It seems to me Malcolm’s call has the fundamental advantage of, by claiming yourself, to also have the ability to rely on a community of like-minded people to help you agitate for further space in which you can “be yourself,” which, it seems to me, is the flipside appeal of black nationalism, the idea that by doing something for yourself you can help others.
Meanwhile back at the domestic violence ranch, there is a fundamental loneliness to being the immediate, fist-in-your-face victim of violence, again by someone whom you believe yourself to love. It is lonely because of the stigma, sure, of being the “kind of woman” who stays with a man that hits her. But it is also lonely because there is very little space, in such situations, to carve out the sense of self that has to be there for a call to “agency” to nurture in the first place.
But even more fundamentally, I can’t agree with Ta-Nehisi because I think he is falling prey to an old tautology about what it means to have free wil (or, again, as he calls it, “agency”). Being free to choose doesn’t have to mean that in every situation every choice is available to you. In the real world, which is to say the immediate, concrete one we live in every day, we know that this is the case. We know that this idea that you can shove aside all the societal and personal detritus in your life to “see things as they really are” is nothing more than that: an idea, perhaps fun to talk about on blogs and in college philosophy classes, but in no way reflective or helpful to actual victims of violence.
And the truth is, as in all conversations about the way the powerful (here the abuser) impose their will on those who are less so (here the abused), my loyalty is to the latter. I don’t care whether helping them is frustrating to me because I wonder why they stay. I think trying to help them is enough. And I think it’s the only responsibility there is that really matters.