October 12, 2012 § 3 Comments
I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to be an anti-authoritarian. I’ve never actually heard anyone claim to be an authoritarian… worrisome since it seems to me that this is an unrecognized status quo. In the simples, broadest strokes it seems to me that being an authoritarian means believing that those in authority, those with power in terms of unequally large proportions of resources and/or status, are inherently right, good, or better than others and that subsequently they ought to be obeyed. My belief is that we are all taught to be authoritarians. Only through active choice can be unlearn it. And it is hard to unlearn.
The belief that to be good is to obey is the beating, perverted heart of authoritarianism. It functions on many levels in our society but none so stark and formative as the relationship of children to parents. Children are often explicitly taught to think, “I am good when I obey,” often to obey without questioning, resisting, or responding negatively by showing signs of pain, unhappiness, sadness, anger and other “troublesome” emotions while complying. At other times the message is implicit in the withholding of affection or attention or resources or other unacknowledged punishment, which theorists like Alice Miller and John Bradshaw point to as the cause of the construction of a false self, an inauthentic self adapted to the demands of a parental figure in order to survive.
Perhaps the next most stark and evocative example of this dynamic is in religious teaching and hierarchies. First it stands out in the manner in which we relate to our religious “authorities.” I’ve talked before about the idea of the Bible as “the ultimate authority” and pointed to the reality that there is no such thing as a direct Biblical ethic since everything from the translation, to the application, to the picking and choosing of what would otherwise be contradictory in its content, to oftentimes the simple reading of the Bible is in fact through this argument being left to the “authorities” which often means the clergy and significantly to celebrity or widely publicized members of the clergy. The implied message is not to think or engage with ethics and spirituality yourself, but to obey the mandates of others. This is appealing because it allows us to be lazy (our inherent, original sin) and hard to escape because it threatens us with fear of rejection and damnation should our own consciences and beliefs contradict with those messages.
But more heartbreaking and what seems more personal and pivotal to me, it shapes the way we think of God, of the Divine. We see God as an authority figure – self-centered and temperamental, ready to dish out rewards for our obedience and punishment for our disobedience. We imagine God wants to police and restrict us, to water-down our thoughts, correct and censor our feelings, to constrain and reduce our desires. God wants us to conform to what God wants.
For some of us, this isn’t even as explicitly “religious” as all that. I think in our own minds most of all we find ourselves engaged in a disturbed dynamic in which obedience is equated with good. When our shame, guilt, self-consciousness or ungrounded “selflessness” guides our actions, we imagine some external authority approving of us. When we begin to listen to our own feelings, bodies, minds, and conscience we often find ourselves fearing retribution, feeling arrogant, uncomfortable and fearful that we are stepping out of line. Self-violence is the watermark left on the conscience of those raised in authoritarian contexts.
I seriously doubt that many of us would believe in authoritarianism if it were presented as such and the alternative well represented. But we are taught and imbedded in that teaching is deference.
April 7, 2012 § 1 Comment
I think I’ve had enough distance from this subject to write about it, but it’s taken a while. When I first came across the phrase Nice Guy ™ in the feminist blogosphere, it really cracked me up. However, I really had only encountered this type of person in the comments threads of feminist blogs, which probably says a lot more about who I hang out with than the consistency of the world. Well, last year I got a dose of pure Nice Guy ™ tactics in action with a housemate. I feel like I have a whole new understanding of the term and what it encapsulates.
This housemate “accidentally” coerced us into living with a friend of his, which only with very strategic and uncomfortable resistance did we stop. He wanted to get out of his lease mid-year, which is fairly common and usually no bit deal, kind of routine for a big house. We just needed to meet and approve someone, and they would take over his signature on the lease. After we met and declined his friend as a potential housemate, he then proved mysteriously unable to set up meetings with other potentials despite weeks of posting the room. Then he mistakenly had his friend submit the rental application to our landlord. He called us passing it off as a big whoopsi daisy that his friend was all ready and excited to move in even though we had said no. One detail of note might be that he had just sublet his room for three months with no confusion or difficulty just a couple months before. So apparently he “forgot” how it worked in the meantime.
Some harsh words were exchanged between the two of us after a craigslist post I put up produced over 20 responses in 24-hours, our landlord and I had a difficult conversation in which I was told the information he’d gotten was that “the house” had been slow in finding someone despite repeated resistance from our roommate when we offered to help search, and I somehow magically managed to find us a new housemate in exactly 8 days. Included in his passionate defense of his actions was the phrase “the reason I am trying to convince you all to live with my friend is…” after he asserted multiple times in person that he was not trying to control our decision, but about his friend…
Having moved out into his girlfriend’s old room literally two minutes away, he failed to return his key, and to this day his things are still being kept in our house. I cleared off his bathroom and food shelves for the new roommate, eventually giving his things to donation boxes. He still comes by to get his mail, which he never had forwarded, making an appointment with a current roommate then showing up randomly on another day. He’s been asked to come get his stuff and said he would be over that weekend, then not come and not said anything about it.
But here is the part that really gets to me. During this whole debacle and even to this day, most of my other housemates say he was just a nice guy who had good intentions. That he thought he was doing the right thing trying to make us live with his friend or explain his behavior by saying that he is just “really laid back.” You know that feeling you get when after you’ve become feminist someone goes into apology mode about sexism – the one where you feel you might burst a blood vessel in your eye or go into a self-defense blackout? Yeah, I got that every time my house attempted to talk about it for a long while.
My understanding of a Nice Guy ™ type is someone who wants the relational privileges of appearing nice, but does not actually divest of their sense of entitlement. As such, they will be nice and sweet, until they don’t get what they want. Then they’ll coerce you nicely, then blow up. They’re those people still think their boundaries are somehow set within your space and can’t seem to figure it out when you indicate otherwise. A good example would be when my friend’s abusive mother, upon discovering the concept of boundaries, tried to set a boundary that she had to call her once a week. Something key missing there.
Nice Guy ™ types want the ego gratification and extra benefits that come from being considered nice by others, rather than being considered pushy jerks, which to my sensibilities sets their coercion in a new realm of creepy. It’s bad enough being coerced, let alone having someone try to control what you think and how you feel about them during the process.
When you set a proper boundary with a Nice Guy ™ and claim your rightful space, they don’t adapt or even negotiate. They typically go on a rampage and try to convince you that you are abusive for not giving them what they want and being “nice,” and if you then call them out, for saying “bad things” about them and “making them feel bad.” Whatever it takes to get the world back to its right state of being, where they can walk into other people’s space and have what they want without their entitlement being questioned. You know, where they get their proper reward for being so nice.
February 21, 2012 § 3 Comments
I was recently on my favorite blog Yes Means Yes and read a post by Jaclyn Friedman on the sexual politics of the show Glee. Towards the end of the article was this section outlining a marvelous confluence of coercion in everyday life:
“Not so for the Parents Television Council, who have launched a ferocious campaign against the show, saying, ‘The fact that Glee intends to not only broadcast, but celebrate children having sex is reprehensible.’
That the Parents Television Council considers seniors in high school ‘children’ tells you nearly everything you need to know. The rest you need is about their willful denial of the importance of context. They seem to believe that any depiction of teen sexuality — including depictions of teens negotiating safer sex, and an early Glee episode (which gave me false hope for the show) that saw a lead character unapologetically informing her peers that girls have their own sexual desires, and another one challenged by male performance anxiety — is a danger to ’our children.’ In order to believe this, you must also believe that all teenagers are a) too dumb to tell the difference between the vapid, ornamental bunnies on the deservedly cancelled Playboy Club and, say, the smart, abrasive, complicated and proudly sexual Britta on Community, and b) would be completely asexual if they could only avoid the sexy grip of Evil Television Shows. These are far more childish beliefs about sexuality than any held by most of the teenagers I’ve met.
Over here in reality, we know that many teens explore sex. It’s true that television can influence how they think about sex, which is why erasing all sexuality from the airwaves is never the answer. Sex is a part of human life, one that many teens are working hard to understand for the first time. Silencing the media’s conversation about sexuality just drives the subject underground. That leaves young people less equipped to negotiate safer sex and contraception, and to articulate needs and boundaries. Instead, we should be working toward a media that prioritizes the quality of its sexual messages over the quantity of them. Much like all of us would do well to do with sex itself.”
In broad strokes, both the parents and the feminist in question wan these children to grow into a healthy, mature sexuality. But the tactic is totally in contrast. It is not what is being taught that these parents are reacting against. The priority of these parents is not to protect their children from coercion and teach them to protect themselves. Though they confusingly and bizarrely cast the television show Glee as coercing teenagers – cough, cough, excuse me – children into having sex. But coercion is not truly their enemy, sex is, and anyone who is not them threatens to provide information or influence causes them to react because these parents want the power to control knowledge about sex and to coerce their children to say no to sex or yes within a tightly controlled set of parameters and don’t want anything to threaten that power.
Essentially, they have the legal right to do so. Their children are their property, there is essentially no transition of rights into adulthood, cultural or legal. You hit eighteen and you belong to yourself. Before that, you’re theirs. There are many parents who do not want to relinquish control over their children, and are merely forced to by the passing of time and their children’s’ uncontrollable encroaching autonomy. (Though, in my view, there are some children too demoralized and controlled to ever truly get out, who do not survive in one way or another.)
Benevolent patriarchy is a term I learned from bell hooks (who taught me just about everything I thought I should’ve learned in college) that describes the behavior of those who hold power for the supposed good of others. In the nineteenth century on women’s rights, it was common to hear the idea that men wanted to protect women from rights to choose for themselves for benevolent reasons, to protect them. Patriarchy has at least two manifestations, especially outlined in the Second Wave movement, the domination of men over women and the domination of men (and women, which is often understated) over children.
I am challenging a pseudo-sacred cultural assumption here. A lot of loving people have children. But a lot of people have children. It is untrue to claim that all, and perhaps even that most, parents love their children. It is true to claim that all parents have substantial power over their children. Unlike the once considered “natural” domination of men over women, children are inherently helpless and subject to parents. And history has proven time and again that without substantial checks and balances human beings do not use power well, that is they use power for their own seeming gain typically to the detriment of those under them. There is more mitigation of that power now than ever before, but the work is not nearly done.
The nuclear family is perhaps the most unchecked, private sphere of domination in our society. We all begin as children, and it is there that most of us cut our teeth on oppressive systems, starting with helplessness in the face of almost total control by parents. There are laws against physical cruelty (historically recent laws beginning only past a certain point) and yet no laws regarding psychological cruelty or domination committed by parents against their children. If you were not abused as a child, you are in the fortunate minority – fortune here meaning merely that you were privileged with what ought to be extended to every human being and as yet has not.
Why so many parents are terrified of their children having sex or merely knowledge about sex may seem like a mystery. But parents were once children, too, and it is very hard for people not to pass down trauma. And many institutions of power are also invested in controlling human sexuality. Abstinence only education is an attempt to maintain control over human sexuality rather than to place power where it belongs, in the hands of the individual. Parents hate all sex ed because it threatens their control. Religious groups hate sex ed because it threatens their control. Political groups hate sex ed because it threatens their control.
As Shulamith Firestone said, “Power, however it has evolved, whatever its origins, will not be given up without a struggle.” Quality sex education would give rise to the powerful and dreaded monster informed consent. It threatens to put the knowledge necessary for young adults (notice the avoidance of that phrase by the Parents Television Council) to claim ownership over their own bodies, their own sexualities, their evolving right to choose.
Yes it is complicated to teach young people about sex. Yes to do so responsibly it will take more resources than we commit now. But will it honestly be more risky? Is anyone noticing how rampant child sex abuse, unacknowledged rape, unintentional pregnancy, and other unchecked pain and untended suffering surrounding sex exists in our current culture? In my view, the sex negative generation has had their time. A long, long, long time. They have proven incompetent at creating a healthy, sane, or safe world or cultivating ethical and happy sexualities in people. This may seem like a low blow on my part, but since the Catholic sex abuse scandals, I feel anyone touting sex negative messages and appealing to benevolent patriarchy as deserving our trust hasn’t got a leg to stand on. It is time to try something new. And, honestly, I’d be shocked and amazed if we could mess it up any worse than it already is.
Parental ownership of children needs to be challenged on every societal level. Parents need to rethink their role. As a parent, you are raising a human being who belongs inarguably and only to their own individual self. They can and will choose for themselves (eventually) and you have no right ethically (albeit still legally, but times, they change) to dominate and control them. It is your appropriate role only to support and equip them to make the best choices they can once they are able and ready. Our broader society does not seem to know what rape is. And it certainly does not know what child abuse is either. I’d like to ask those Parents Television Council folks, why don’t you ask young adults – er, I mean children – how they experience the show… or yourselves. Sound scary? Cause if it does, you should do some thinking.
September 26, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I’ve been thinking about consent as it relates to leadership. It occurs to me that leaders would rightly be those with the most advanced and creative consent skills. The whole idea of a democratic leader is someone who represents the collective body, advocating for both the desires of the majority and the rights and wellbeing of the minority at the same time. The concept of consensual leadership, however, seems almost an oxymoron by today’s understanding. Leadership is generally tied up in power play and understood as control by express means of threat and coercion and the display of power (like what would be commonly deemed appropriate for a dictator, military leader, dog owner, or school teacher) or covert means of manipulation (like what would commonly be deemed appropriate for politicians, advertisers and PR persons, preachers leading their flocks, or seemingly nonviolent parents still exerting control). It reminds me of the way dating and making romantic or sexual connections is viewed, the skills required for flirting, cruising, or having sex being tied up in the mainstream with power play and “getting” something, while the skills needed for consensual, healthy, and meaningful connections are something are consent skills like self-awareness and authenticity, ability to ask questions despite awkwardness, management of consent paranoia, etc.
June 10, 2011 § 3 Comments
A while back I read this blog post called “Schrödinger’s Rapist” about the ways in which men communicate respect or lack of respect for consent in everyday, nonsexual interactions. Straying from the original intent of the post, it was an important experience for me to find a discussion of consent ethics outside of just sex and to begin to apply radical feminist moral ethics to everyday life. Consent, and in contrast coercion, I found could form a strong basis for a moral ethic and clarify many moral questions and make the process easy to articulate. And, like in the case of sex, it can be seen that coercion goes far beyond the individual or even small group interaction into a broader scale. I found myself asking more and more, What’s going on with consent in this situation? This will be a series of posts on consent in everyday life (so not just sex).
For this first post, I want to focus on an area that has been very prominent in my life lately, how parents relate to their children. I first heard someone state plainly that children are seen as the property of parents and denied basic human rights in our culture reading bell hooks. I learned later how much second wave feminism had focused on the rights of children, the most powerless and subjugated group in our culture, and increased consciousness and law regarding child abuse. Children are at the very bottom of the totem pole when it comes to hierarchies of power.
And we all begin here, at the bottom. I think this is where we learn a lot of our lessons about cruelty and despair and abuse of power. I believe abusers learn to abuse from suffering injustices. This is not tantamount to excusing abusive behavior, but a lens for perceiving models of restorative rather than retributive justice, for creating actual change and not just perpetual cycles of abuse.
Harriet Taylor Mill once stated that women were the only group in the world subjugated and told that this is their privilege and blessing. I think there is one other group – children. Children are supposed to be grateful to their parents. It seems the prevalent ideology is that in being born, children owe a debt owe a debt to their parents they will spend the rest of their lives repaying.
I have a friend who is fifty. He’s been everywhere in life, from Howard Zinn lectures to real estate fortunes to crack addiction, violent crime, and prison. He has been forced by circumstances and also led by his own search to deal with a lot of confused parts of his psyche. He told me a story about his childhood once. His father had beaten him with a belt so severely, he bled through his shirt the next day at school. He went to the bathroom to look. When he pulled up his shirt, he saw a friend’s reaction in the mirror and realized for the first time there was something abnormal in his experience at home. Today, he talks about his parents with no anger in his voice. He still visits them on holidays and supports them when he can. He feels sympathy for them, much more than he ever does for himself. If he shows any strong feeling in telling stories of his abuse, it is shame.
Many people will take it as a sign of his character that he still “loves” his parents after all he suffered. If I described this same behavior in a woman who related to an abusive husband in this way, I think the critical lens we’d use would be quite different. Yet a child in possession of abusive parents is even more helpless than a adult caught up in an abusive relationship. We still think, however, that everything parents do is excusable, that children should and must still “love” and “honor” their parents, who in many cases never loved or honored them. It’s a bizarre to me really. As bizarre as the mental gymnastics and compartmentalized paradoxes of systemic sexism and very similar, in fact.
My close friend and lover, Valerie, introduced me to the work of Alice Miller, an essential part of her way of interpreting the world. Miller does work on how child suppress trauma and carry on patterns of abuse and the roots of violence on an individual and societal scale. I think we need to face the facts that a lot of parents are abusive and begin to untangle the threads of how this has become commonplace and how we can no longer even see it in our current frame. The entitlement that parents exhibit towards their adult children has become quite shocking to me as I look around my life now and a sign of something very wrong with the way parents relate to their children.
Last year, I had the flu and was talking to my father on the phone. He was ranting about a news broadcast, which he often does, and I said, “Listen, I’m trying to keep up with you, but I’m not feeling up to speed like usual. Can you just slow down a little and take it easy and keep talking about what you’re telling me?” He said yes and continued in exactly the same vain. I repeated the rest two more times in different ways, always getting a sympathetic agreement before he continued in exactly the same behavior. I finally just got off the phone and the distinct thought, “That is more overriding of my consent I’d tolerate from anyone else in the world.”
I finally realized how intense this pattern was when, after two years of not visiting home, I had told my father a number things about both my and my brother’s experiences of our mother. My parents are separated and have no contact with each other now. I told him stories he had never heard that shocked and angered him. I told him I wasn’t having contact with my mother and finally gained his support in the decision, despite his religious trepidations about honoring parents and forgiveness, and convinced him to stop encouraging my brother to have contact with our mother, as well. I was coming back to visit, and I asked if the rest of the family knew my brother and I weren’t going to see our mother or if they would be shocked. He said they knew and wouldn’t question or judge us. And before I even got there, he had invited my mother over to his house to spend time with me against my explicit, repeated, consistent, and even impassioned expression of non-consent.
Valerie recently spoke to her mother after three years of ceasing all contact. She was confused by the experience of having a lot of experiences her mother had denied in the past confirmed. It seemed like things had changed. The conversation began after her mother called her 13 times in half and hour, leaving her six messages, and sending her several texts. And during the conversation, Valerie had said she didn’t want to discuss certain topics, which her mother would agree to and then continue to bring up until they were discussed. I said to her, “If you think of it in the terms of feminist sexual ethics, it seems like you had an experience of someone verbally showing support for your emotional well-being and consent and blatantly disregarding them both with actions. Seems like that’s not different, just advancement to Nice Guy ™ tactics.”
I am sure early feminists went through the mental struggles with terror that asserting their rights against abusive behavior would break down the way society functioned, eradicate their bonds with men, make them less “loving” and bad people, drive them mad, and leave them dangerously alone. Yet they were brave enough to shape a new world where they struggles to keep the things they valued without the compromise of submitting to a system of dominance and abuse. I feel like today we’re on the cusp of a similar upheaval surrounding parents’ abusive relationships to children, at least in communities of people similar to my own. And I think that, even when I can’t fully envision it and feel terrified, the end result will be a world that still functions just fine without relying on the commonality of abuse.