Thursday, April 14, 2011

Membership has its privileges

Since my last post I've been thinking a lot about political guys and socially engaged gals, and now I think I'd like to turn the focus on myself as one of these political types of guys. I can speak as someone whose political development has happened in large part because I was able to single-mindedly focus on one thing over a long period of time. When I look at other guys like me, there's a similar sort of pattern. We've managed to specialize in one particular area very well -- like theory, for example -- and having done that, we want to remain in that space because that's where we feel in control. Everything outside of this space is suspect; for radicals, it's too commercial or too low-brow or whatever. So you end up insisting that everyone should arrive where you already are -- and insofar as they don't, or won't, they're dumb.

What's funny is that I see this pattern replicated in all kinds of cultural activity between men and women, where the men have invested huge amounts of time in trying to excel at one thing, in order to ensure that they can be seen as the best or the go-to guy or at the very least not be questioned in whatever it is they do. It literally doesn't matter what the activity is. It can be yoga or cooking: rest assured, there will be some dude who spends the bulk of his time trying to be just as good as he humanly can at one thing, while spending the rest of his time working to ensure that he only does that one thing around other people. Think about how this plays itself out in the business world, for example.

What immediately separates women from men in this regard, however, isn't that women can't be just as good in any particular capacity, but that women by and large don't spend the bulk of their time invested only in one thing. The reality of women's lives is that they don't have the same luxury to do this. In fact, when I reflect on my own life, it is precisely the fact that women were constantly taking care of lots of things around me that I was able to focus so singularly on what I liked to do. This kills me about gender -- how many times guys get really good at something because women are fielding everything else. Totally random examples: I'm reading a biography about Sophia Tolstoy, and it's all the same; if you watch the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, about street artists, it's the same once more.*

Let me reinforce the fact that I am totally this kind of guy, and the more I understand about it, the more it makes my skin crawl. Not because I'm a bad person or because I haven't done useful things with whatever talent I have -- and that's important. Guys who focus narrowly in particular areas frequently have lots to give that everyone can appreciate and celebrate. The problem for me comes when someone like my partner, who works more than full-time, hears what I, someone who only works part-time, have to say about some current affair, only to declare that I'm "so smart" because she had no idea what was even going on. There's a reason for that, and it has zero to do with intelligence, but a lot to do with privilege.

* Yet another documentary where only men go to extreme lengths at the expense, if also with the admiration, of their families can be found by the title Kings of Pastry.

1 comment:

Katie said...

Hey! I loved this post and I have a few thoughts to share.

1.)Like you, I observe that the way women participate politically is effected by our roles in society, in relationships, in the family, and the time-consuming work that goes with those roles.

2.) There are other reasons too though! I was thinking it might be cool to do some research on the reasons why by interviewing women and/or creating an online poll/questionnaire.

These days I'm a big fan of research rather than theory and personal observation alone. Of course for research to be really accurate it needs all kinds of fancy design and analysis, but as a basic kind of soliciting feedback from women, online surveys could be awesome. Not that your observations aren't great. They always resonate for me.

3.) Personally my reasons for being politically engaged in a different way than many politically engaged men include:

-Finding "male egos" in activist groups tiresome. I think this relates to the way men are socialized to have their personal worth conflated with roles like leader or expert. These are things related to the emotional aspects of gender roles. I've seen dudes repeatedly have this emotional need to have social status in the group. I just find it an uninteresting and time consuming distraction from the work at hand, when any one of any gender brings their ego needs to an activist project.

-Another turn off for me has been that males in a group or in political circles will actually not include me in conversation unless they find me sexually attractive. It's the "be desired or be invisible" thing.

-Things I'm turned off about when it comes to left wing political subcultures in general which are perpetuated by both women and men are: rigid, inflexible thinking, an uncomfortable emphasis on political purity, judgmental attitudes towards ourselves and others on degree of purity. That has been my experience over 15 years of association with left/progressive/activist realms.

All of these kinds of things are reasons why I now participate only very selectively. These things have just not made if very appealing to be involved. In fact many of the people who do manage to stay involved actually seem to thrive under these subcultural conditions! The social dynamics seem very strange to me. I want to see some research on those!

Also, Ryan, I don't think your wonderful writing and thinking work has only to do with privilege. It has partly to do with your abilities, effort, sincerity, and persistence. It has also to do with the sacrifices you have made to prioritize this work over other kinds of efforts which would have brought you more privilege. So I want to acknowledge that.

Another thing that turns me off about the left in general is that while we, appropriately, spend a lot of time analyzing the way our personal levels of privilege effect our lives, we sometimes are socially discouraged from acknowledging legitimate achievements. I think most people have a healthy emotional need to be acknowledged for their efforts, good qualities, and sacrifices. Making this part of our culture as politicos could make the work of participating more appealing to both women and men.

Ok! Rant over. One day I'll start a blog instead of just spamming yours. Congrats as always on your fabulous contributions.