I’m not trying to be annoying with these, I promise. But I am more or less freestyling on my dislike of certain arguments in an ongoing way lately, in Trader Joe’s, on the dancefloor*, while clipping my toenails. Seriously these are more or less windows into the brain of PilgrimSoul, with all the crap corporate stuff filtered out.
Here is another variety of internet feminist argument that I’d like to unpack a little. Feminist X posts some kind of attempt to critique a phenomenon on a systemic level. Feminist X is reasonably measured, but may say something akin to, “Men in our culture,” or “white people in our culture.” Cue comment explosion.
Comment #1: I’m not like that!
Comment #2: I think the real problem with prejudice is GENERALISATION. Let’s all quit generalizing about each other and we all should be fine.
Comment #3: I understand what you’re trying to say but I find this sort of rhetoric divisive. Everyone is different.
Comment #1 is often dismissed with, “if it’s not about you, it’s not about you,” but doesn’t that seem like letting people off the hook a lot of the time? I mean, most white people’s kneejerk reactions to observations about structural racism are, “hey! Not me!” If you are open to conversation on the subject, it seems to me, just as often as not you discover that the issue being talked about is you. In other words, your initial reaction is not always the right one, and there seems something altogether too easy to letting people disclaim their part in the structure, no?
That said, it’s certainly true that with Commenter #1s we all need to decide whether or not to waste time trying to point out to assholes that while we understand they may not feel like assholes, we beg to differ. Or even that everyone is an asshole some of the time! (I sure am.) This has always been less than a crowd pleaser, in my own experience. But I do think it is essential for us to all nut up in these discussions and admit that yeah, whether or not every member of a privileged class engages in an activity, all of them benefit from it.
Moving on to Commenters #2 and #3, we have a new kind of problem, which is to say: these people plainly have no understanding of what it means to have social power. And let’s face it: understanding social power is more or less a prima facie requirement for being able to call yourself feminist and anti-racist more than nominally. To be a feminist and an anti-racist (and it seems both of these incorporate a little something of the other) is to be engaged, I think, in retracing and rebuilding the current architecture of power. I don’t think we have great claims to agreement on what the finished product would look like, sure, but at least we’re all committed to excavating and dismantling what’s sitting there right now.
And the current architecture of power would be vastly misdescribed as being some kind of war between “generalities” and “specifics.” Most of us live somewhere between these two poles. If you think you don’t – if you think that you never generalize – look me straight in the eye and tell me you’ve never spoken these words: “Can I have a fork?” See there? Fork is a generality. You might, in response to this query, receive a plastic fork, or a silver fork, or a stainless steel fork, or one with a plastic handle, etc etc… I’m pretty sure you catch my drift. All language is in some sense shorthand, which those of us who had to encounter the nightmare of semiotics in undegrad know. When I say there are clouds in the sky you know what I am referring to, although you accept without comment that my clouds may look very different from the ones you’re imagining.
Now we can get wordy and meander and qualify qualify qualify, and there is a time and place where these things are necessary. Like, for example, trying to proclaim one’s personal priorities “women’s priorities.” Usually, personally, I try to speak from my own experience and the experience of the affected who have, in those instances, tend to have already spoken for themselves. I’m starting to be a little quieter about experiences not my own because I am wary of mischaracterization, or the picking and choosing that happened with that Audre Lorde post.
I guess to me though the issue is that so often the latter two arguments are wielded as ways to shut down the narratives of the disempowered. For example, in the context of prostitution: “not all prostitutes are coerced.” Okay, sure, now we’ve qualified, but does that mean that anti-trafficking efforts are fundamentally objectionable, given that they do sort of assume a degree of coercion? Because usually that does seem like what the “don’t generalizers” are trying to do, in the feminist context. In the context of mansplaining, which has come up elsewhere for me recently: “not all men do that.” Umm, yeah, sure, but a shit ton of women say a hell of a lot men do, and their irreverence about it is a coping mechanism (full circle!) that deserves respect and deference, IMHO.
As for divisiveness, I guess I want to ask these people what it is they think that makes us united. Because as I’ve detailed above, I’m over here digging down into the foundation, and man, you don’t even seem to know where that is. I don’t even seem to have the kind of power over you that would let me show you where these problems are, which is a real fucking pain in the ass. I cannot seem to keep your attention, because you listen to what I say and then look for the ways it hurts you and call that divisive, but you never turn that lens on yourself. You never ask yourself these questions.
These are all the reasons I find this ” don’t generalize” argument kind of bullshit in the context of liberatory philosophies and movements. Because while I totally dig intersectionality, I do not totally dig the way its implications have been reread to mean that there is no oppression that isn’t personal, and that the general context, the context of the power, the patriarchy, white supremacy, whatever you want to call it, isn’t “real context.” It’s all “real context.” It’s all worth talking about.
*I actually haven’t been on the dance floor in ages, old and creaky as I am, but I liked the rhythm of the word and kept it in.