Sunday, January 8, 2012

Living feminism

What is vital about feminism can be understood best in the lived relation between oneself and women. Feminism as a preconception -- yours or somebody else's -- needn't enter into the equation. Sometimes it can be helpful; other times it has to be overcome in order to really hear the concerns of women in our lives, which may or may not conform to feminism with a capital "F."
The same holds true for working class politics: it's important to have relationships with working class people. In my own experience, the attitudes and preoccupations of working class people can depart significantly from what I believe to be sound "working class politics,” even if their basic requirements do not (everyone needs a minimum level of health and self-possession to thrive as individuals).  
For example, among my own coworkers, there are those who ingratiate themselves with the boss because they think this affords them security; those whose work ethic makes them favored employees; some who do as little as possible and only “look out for themselves”; and yet others who take hostile stands against the boss in self-defeating ways, making of themselves a target while they gripe about the injustice-du-jour.
In a lived work environment it is rarely enough to merely identify, on an intellectual level, what is lacking in other people’s behavior. The office or shop gossip can sometimes be a fine source of information, or possess an accurate view of what’s wrong; but the gossip does nothing to change what is deemed objectionable, and instead thrives on the act of judgment. But the organizer’s task isn’t pointing out what’s wrong and expecting everyone to change their behavior just because the diagnosis is right. I’m more inclined to see the organizer’s role as identifying what needs to be changed in the organizer’s own behavior when confronted with a particular set of circumstances -- including, for example, workers of the sort described above -- in order to engage problems in a constructive way when more often than not they haven’t been engaged at all -- only bitched about. Too often it is intellectuals who talk and diagnose, often correctly, without stepping up to the organizer’s role.  
The same holds true in our political engagement with women. How individual women respond to the lived experience of patriarchy can lead to all kinds of different outcomes. I know women for whom feminism is a straightforward necessity; others who pursue the substance of feminism without walking under its banner; principled women who are ambivalent toward or uninterested in formal politics; and of course women who are either hostile toward feminism or defer to the men in their lives for security -- not unlike the worker obsequious before the boss. 
Once again, in our lived experience with women, we are confronted with how to engage particular situations and specific individuals. Even individuals who practice a politics adversarial to our own can at the same time be victims of patriarchy. Any feminism which includes consideration for all women would enjoin us to shun no one, even if we reject their present point of view. 
A commitment to feminist and working class politics, in practice, will inevitably mean making oneself available to individuals whose views we may reject. Ultimately it means listening to the person in front of you, whoever they are, and thinking about what they are telling you with the advantage of a political education and awareness -- and with an aim toward doing something about it. Expecting that they will change their tune because we made a better argument is folly, through and through; I often see this frustrate activists into a dead end. People modify their behavior when they are persuaded from the standpoint where they already are, not the place where we admonish them to be; this implies that we do best to understand where they are coming from.   
If we are feminists then, simply speaking, we care about where women are coming from -- i.e. not strictly “feminist” women, however this is conceived. Speaking personally, this is for me where things get most challenging and most urgent; for example, getting away from radical purity tests and simply listening to someone like my elderly aunt who over the holidays distinguished herself by describing urban life as compromised by “all the blacks on their drugs.” It struck me as a responsibility that fell right into my lap, though how to approach it constructively vis-a-vis a woman whose information is FOX News for most of her waking hours -- a woman who despite her racism is also someone I love -- is much more the sort of question which occupies my thoughts these days.