Some interesting articles
Letters I've written
Techniques of Oppression:
Anger, Bigotry, and Minorities
Anthro 194J: Cultural Construction of the Masculine
This paper is a final project for a class titled "Cultural Constructions of the Masculine." It is not precisely about 'masculinity' per se, any more than the class itself was. Instead I have chosen to discuss the current war being waged by minorities against oppression that is being directed against them by society. As hegemonic society is an expression of the desires of the privileged, and the privileged in this society are generally older white males, I suppose I could also claim this paper was about attempts to dismantle the trappings of patriarchy, if I needed a closer association (within the paper) with masculinity.
A few caveats before I begin. Firstly, this was not an easy paper for me to write. Nevertheless, I do feel what I am about to discuss should be said; I happen to believe the axiom 'silence implies consent.' Secondly, as a student in a social science, I have discovered current authors are being compelled to write themselves into their works, or see their essays and books discredited because their 'prejudices' are not clearly stated 'up front.' I find this discreditation a belittling example of mental sloppiness to avoid thoughtful consideration of what are on occasion genuinely innovative or well-thought-out ideas. On the other hand, I can certainly see the uses of such a tactic. A chatty discussion of what are mostly opinions is almost impossible to refute; it is hard to deny that someone thought a particular thing. Therefore I shall be using first person while writing this paper - it is, after all, about my opinions on certain rather emotionally 'touchy' subjects. Finally, while I made every effort to remove all occurrences of the words 'you' and 'one,' a few still linger within the paper. This is not an attempt to exclude any particular group, or to assume that I am the norm and all my readers will be precisely like myself. Instead it is simply literary convention. If this disturbs you (whoever you the reader happen to be), I apologize and suggest you stop now, as you are likely to find this paper offensive.
So are minorities really waging a war, or am I simply being melodramatic? In his essay Truth and Power Foucault writes:
As soon as one endeavors to detach power with its techniques and procedures from the form of law within which it has been theoretically confined up until now, one is driven to ask this basic question: isn't power simply a form of warlike domination? Shouldn't one therefore conceive all problems of power in terms of relations of war? Isn't power a sort of generalized war which assumes at particular moments the forms of peace and the State? Peace would then be a form of war, and the State a means of waging it.
A whole range of problems emerge here. Who wages war against whom? Is it between two classes, or more? Is it a war of all against all ... in this civil society where permanent war is waged? What is the relevance of concepts of tactics and strategy for analyzing structures and political processes? What is the essence and mode of transformation of power relations? (1972:123)
If Foucault is correct, power expresses itself in a wide variety of ways. One of those is indeed war - a war to maintain or topple hegemonic racism. In this case minorities are indeed in a battle for survival; are perhaps constantly and desperately combating abuses of power directed against them from within hegemonic society. So how best to win this war? Consult an expert. Sun Tzu writes,
All warfare is based on deception. ... Anger [the enemy's] general and confuse him. If the general is choleric his authority can be easily upset. His character is not firm. If the enemy general is obstinate and prone to anger, insult and enrage him, so that he will be irritated and confused, and without a plan will recklessly advance against you. ... Nothing is better than to protract things and keep him at a distance. ... When he is united, divide him. ...disrupt his alliances. Do not allow your enemies to get together. ... Treat captives well, and care for them. This is called 'winning a battle and becoming stronger.' ... Generally in war the best policy is to take a state intact; to ruin it is inferior to this. ... Thus, those skilled at making the enemy move do so by creating a situation to which he must conform (1963: 66-69, 76-78, 93).
Excellent advice. A pity it is being so successfully used by the majority against minorities.
I believe Kate Bornstein put it best:
I think that anger and activism mix about as well as drinking and driving. When I'm angry, I don't have the judgment to select a correct target to hit out against. I do believe that anger is healthy, that it can lead to a recognition of the need for action, but activism itself is best accomplished by level heads who can help steer others' anger toward correct targets. A correct target is the group that has both the will and the power to oppress you wherever you go (1994:83).
Sun Tzu would be proud. Here is someone who understands that anger is a means, not an ends.
Unfortunately Bornstein's revelations are not shared by all. With lamentable frequency many individuals within this society (regardless of whether they are members of minorities or not) are becoming locked into a vicious cycle of anger and demand. If one is constantly demanding, how can one move forward? Growth occurs from within; it is not handed to you. Anger does not help one to grow. The spoiled brat and the terrorist are our societal role-models for those who expect their loudly and publicly announced anger and outrage to immediately bring them some benefit. Self-centered children or egomaniacal assassins... do the oppressed truly wish to be associated with either of these?
Consider an example of indiscriminate use of anger. Audre Lorde writes:
I am astonished that Lorde can put these two paragraphs in the same article, and not see the answer to her own question. Or this:
I found these examples incredibly sad. True, Lorde has every right to be angry. However, is Lorde surprised that racism is perceived as a "Black women's problem," when she arrogantly turns away from any attempt to communicate? How patronizing of her to assume she knows precisely what someone else is thinking, merely due to the color of their skin! Is this not the very essence of bigotry? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word 'oppress' as follows:
1a archaic: SUPPRESS b: to crush or burden by abuse of power or authority 2: to burden spiritually or mentally: weigh heavily upon.
Audre Lorde is rightfully angry at her oppression, using definition one. I do not see how this justifies her oppressing, as in definition two, another person. Since when have two wrongs made a right?
Well, perhaps her actions caused some benefit? A closer examination of her essay seems to be in order. What were the results of Lorde's anger, according to her? She alienated the very people who might be able to help, who were nervously and tentatively reaching out to her. She helped establish a mental division between "Black" women (as "harsh") and other "women of Color," who seemed to become oppositionally defined as more reasonable.
I find in Lorde a perfect example of Sun Tzu's advice. She is angry and confused as to who her true enemy is. She lashes out blindly at white women, but is at a distance from the white men who are as much if not more to blame for her anger. She is divisive; she cannot install or maintain alliances; and she strikes out recklessly at those who might be willing to aid her. To paraphrase Sun Tzu, Lorde is deceived by her anger into doing the will of her enemy; she is conforming to the situation set up by the hegemony. Furthermore, considering her vitriol, I found myself wondering -- does such careless and unfocused anger truly exemplify a desire to initiate true change? Or is it simply a blind lashing out, for revenge or for attention? As Bornstein notes,
I kept hearing people define me in terms they were comfortable with. It's easy to play victim, and to say that these people were being malicious, but assuming the worst about others is simply not truth, and it's not a loving or empowering way to look at other people (1994:50).
Bornstein later notes her own reactions when she let her anger go, and started accepting individual people as unique and distinct, rather than as lumped categorizations:
My joy at the look on their faces was the beginning of my sense of humor about all of this - I was no longer humiliated by their definitions of me (1994:51).
Bornstein had lost the need to find approval and identity in the expectations of others, and as a consequence she also lost the crippling dependency on anger - the very anger which seems to still be a necessary crutch for Lorde. Indeed, from the sound of Bornstein's writings she has become stronger and more self-assured as a result. There is a power in claiming one's identity rather than getting mired in anger at others, due to self-doubt and uncertainty.
The various proponents of minority causes can be likened to commanders in a campaign. Some of them do well, and some do poorly. Isn't it strange that the ones most celebrated are the ones that are most successful - and the ones that are least violent? Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. come easily to mind. Both of them forever changed the hegemony of their countries. Perhaps I am being a little harsh towards Lorde - after all this is only one of her (doubtless many) writings. Still, I found it sad that in this essay she offers no constructive solutions - only destructive anger.
Furthermore, it is not as if anger is the only emotion open to women of color involved in the 'war' against bigotry. Fatima Mernissi, who surely has as much reason to feel anger as Lorde, writes the following inspiring words:
If you want other people to stop being monsters who attack you as soon as you open your mouth to say something interesting and unique (of course!), you have to begin by giving up the boxer's posture. ... I began by writing articles that were vitriolic. ... Many of my friends and colleagues ... recognized themselves in the vile portraits, and acrimonious discussions ensued. The, one day, I came to the conclusion that I really had to find a different method. What if I accentuated the positive, the things that were right, that gave hope, instead of getting bogged down in all that was wrong? Perhaps I would help myself - and others too - to see how you could wade on through the mire, and perhaps how you could avoid it - possibly even how you could learn to fly. And, anyway, what was there to lose from imagining a better world? This shift opened up to me incredible doors of friendship and comradeship and brought me harsh but constructive criticism and so much emotion, so many dreams and hopes reciprocated by readers of both sexes, giving me the boldness I needed to continue my explorations. ... I have lost my anger along the way, or at least it is expressed in a different way (1996:3).
She notes later in the same essay:
To write, you have to let out your anger one way or another, or at least get on top of it, since putting it down on paper hardly solves the problem. I do not read a writer because she infuses me with anger; I read her because she spreads before me paths which explore a myriad inextricable ramifications of those little pent-up emotions and knotted affects which constitute anger, humiliation or frustration (1996:3).
To put things bluntly, in these two essays Mernissi appears to try to inspire to greatness; Lorde seems intent on assigning blame.
Let us not be confused here. I am not trying to say, in any shape or form, that oppression against minority groups doesn't happen, or can be justified by any stretch of the imagination. There is no doubt that it does happen, and it should be stopped. Nor am I attempting to label all minority group members as unjustifiably angry, or to say that Lorde has no right to be angry. That would be an incorrect and essentialist view of my views. It is merely my puzzled observation that on occasion some of the victims of oppression - those who would seem to be most intimately aware of the need to end bigotry - are often just as blindly brutal as their oppressors.
Why is this? I don't have any simple answers. What I do know is that I've seen the rhetoric against racism become institutionalized - and as a result, become itself racist. A good example of this is in the furor a few years ago over a column in a college newspaper. The white columnist announced the formation of an organization for the support and advancement of the causes of white people. He even published a comprehensive constitution for this organization. The constitution contained phrases such as "working towards the advancement of the white race" and similarly race-specific and -exclusive statements. Condemnation from all quarters was immediate, vocal, and furious. His detractors were even more angry when they discovered that he had "misappropriated" the constitution of the Black National Congress, and merely substituted the word 'white' for 'black' in the document. The author insisted that he was not being racist, but rather was using this juxtaposition as a method of exposing racism.
The reactions he received are an example of the automatic responses enforced by this particular mode of thinking. These people are unwittingly reacting in a racist fashion; their racism is distressingly insidious for the very reason that it is unconscious - it is not done knowingly, ergo they cannot see it, and thus it cannot quickly and easily be corrected. Why did they react with such furor? Perhaps it was because they have been taught that any organization purporting to defend the rights of whites is wrong? Or perhaps it was the embarrassment of not wanting to admit to being caught in an unconscious double standard? Rather than examining the content and drawing their own thoughtful conclusions, they were immediately reacting only to the word 'white.' Their rhetoric against racism had become racist.
It doesn't matter what color your skin is - judging someone else by the color of their skin is still bigotry. Bigotry is easily (if infrequently) noted by checking to see if a double standard is being applied to a situation. Consider the above example. Would the critics of this white man's column have reacted with such immediate vitriol had the columnist been Asian? -or homosexual? -or female? Odds are the reactions might still have been somewhat disapproving - anger can be intoxicating, after all - but equally likely that displeasure would have been nowhere as acrimonious. When the color of someone's skin, or their biological sex, or their sexual preference changes one's reaction to them, a double standard is being performed. Like racism, there is no excuse for double standards - what is done unconsciously can be just as hurtful as that done deliberately. It is my personal opinion that unconscious actions should be forgiven a little more easily than deliberate attacks, but that is just my opinion - your mileage may vary.
An example of double standards may be appropriate here. Aida Hurtado, in her article On a Reflexive Theory of Gender Subordination, writes eloquently concerning oppression - then falls prey to an apparent need to assign blame. She writes of her "own fable to explore the unspoken rules of power" - but she carefully neglects to mention that these "tricks" are characteristic of humans, not merely of whites. A friend who is also a woman of color mentioned disgustedly to me later that Hurtado seemed to have forgotten that everyone does those things - it's human nature to abuse power.
It is a shame Hurtado succumbs to the need to assign blame. Oddly enough in her footnotes she even quotes a relevant passage that she seems to have missed, "The protester, while seeking always to carry the banner of truth and justice, must remember that the fires of commitment do not bestow the gift of infallibility (Bell 1994:xxi)." And yet her entire article is based on self-designed, labeled categories of relative power values. She seems to have forgotten that her study subjects are as much cultural resources as actual individuals, and her use of broad and dismissive categorizations are themselves as intellectually limiting as what she purports to be fighting. She does not seem to see that imposing such restrictive cultural roles inhibits us, forcing a hierarchical, oppositional set of meanings that stifles the true breadth of human response. Such a "topography of closure" imprisons the individual, forcing "mutually exclusive spaces where one term inevitably dominates the other" (Kondo 1990: 29). Hurtado's paper ends with a call to surpass such repressive power relations, but she cannot seem to conceive of repression as originating from any class but 'white.' Indeed, it is noteworthy that she herself applies hierarchical standards within her paper. Through this (possibly unwitting) demonstration of how one of her subjects ('whites') perpetuate stereotypes, she falls prey to the insidious urge to apply stereotypes herself.
introduction - page one - page two - bibliography