Saturday, March 19, 2005

vulnerability, seeds, and memes

Ouch! I'm feeling really vulnerable about yesterday's post. I'm so aware of its shortcomings. There is a rawness to opening up the thought process at such an early stage--exposing my process as it were in all its unwieldly, uncomfortable, gawky, newness...ah, well...this is an Gide said, "If you want to discover new lands, you have to be willing to lose sight of the shore for a long time."

I want to backtrack a bit and revisit some of the insights of the last couple of months that lead to yesterday's post. I want more clarity and precision. I am on the scent of a seed. I can feel it in the back of my mind, buried under a very big haystack of thoughts and an unhealthy dollop of exhaustion. Time to do a little excavating...

The first idea I encountered was in a piece by Sherene Razack that I had the privilege of reviewing for one of my editing jobs. This article is not yet available online (there are plans for this, so I will update when it becomes available) so I will excerpt the bits I found most exciting here.

"We identified three reasons why women don’t feel complicit in each other’s oppression. One is that if we acknowledge out loud that we are oppressors, it diminishes our claims of being oppressed. The second reason is that we know very well that if we don’t keep mentioning our own specific oppression, it will not be put on the table. Finally, precisely because we are implicated in another woman’s oppression, we think of her situation the way that dominant groups do. Believing ourselves innocent, we fall into a politics of rescue in which feelings of pity and compassion, feelings of doing good, work to convince us that what we are doing is the right thing and good politics. The challenge is how to move from pity, which is after all an imperial position based automatically on a hierarchy, to respect and from rescue to responsibility. How do we get to the analysis that these examples seem to demand? How do we get to complicity bearing in mind the speed with which we race to innocence?"

This is where I began to get excited...and to feel a little vindicated...because many years ago in my undergraduate misadventures I was censored and derided by a feminist women's studies professor after making a presention that attempted to use an intersecting oppressions model--to include racialized violence, child abuse, and colonialism--in my analysis of the assigned readings (as opposed to a strictly feminist interpretation). I knew I was onto something challenging and important, but I didn't have the confidence or the tools to communicate it.

In the context of refugee hearings:--"Pathologizing the victim is a short-hand means of communicating gender-based harm and racism is a handy tool in this endeavour. Discussing the battered women's defence in North America, Elizabeth Schneider notes that when lawyers use the victimized aspects of battered women's experience, it reconfirms female incapacity.9In refugee hearings both female incapacity and Third World dysfunction are reconfirmed and the cycle of imperialism continues uninterrupted."
9. Elizabeth M. Schneider, "Describing and Changing: Women's Self-Defense Work and the Problem of Expert Testimony on Battering" Women's Rights Law Reporter 14 (1992): 226 (originally published 1986).

This spoke clearly to my own discomfort around the ways clients were seen (by their counsellors) to be in need of constant protection (by their counsellors). I often secretly wondered what need this was fulfilling in the counsellors. In my gut, I did not believe that these women were being served well by this attitude. It felt elitist, professionalized, and disrespectful of the women's own capacity to care for themselves and make good decisions. Even though we were so careful not to quantify them as victims, I often felt they were thought of and treated as such.

This passage also connected for me to the aphorism, "You can't dismantle the master's house using the master's tools." The fact that refugee hearing lawyers can routinely use the unquestioned and indwelling racism in panel members to win cases for claimants is depressing.

"We must of course begin by acknowledging that the refugee hearing has a very specific racial text, a place where the fantasy of imperialist as saviour (Spivak) is given free rein. It is here that the West indulges itself in the fantasy that it is merely saving people from themselves and that it has had nothing to do with the production of refugees in the first place. When people from the Third World come knocking on our doors we are able to view them as supplicants begging to be saved from the mysterious barbarism of their cultures and countries."

Well said! I loved the clarity of this. Nails the whole sick little opera doesn't it?

"Women's Rights As Human Rights" represents the apotheosis of what has been called dehistoricized and deterritorialized "mappings of Otherized communities and their worlds.". 19 As a formula, it can be simplistic or complex, but in either case, what is difficult to introduce into "women's rights as human rights" is the notion of First World domination.
19. Robert Carr, "Crossing the First World/Third World Divides: Testimonial, Transnational Feminisms and the Postmodern Condition," in Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, eds., (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 155.

Once again, I have always felt uncomfortable with the often self-righteous and superior attitude of Western feminists. One academic, when I challenged her on her attitude towards honour burings in India, defended herself by claiming, "But they asked us to help them." I'm sure they did--but did they mean that denigrating their culture and religious beliefs would constitute a big part of that help? Sheesh...

"...when women are defined by what is done to them, rather than as social actors, it becomes difficult to see the social construction of race and the more complex realities of who is doing what to whom.28 In the case of gender persecution, what is difficult to see is the totality of relations in women's lives and particularly the complicity of First World men and women in sustaining these conditions."
28. Mahoney, "Whiteness and Women," 227.

This is where I began to see the deeper and ongoing nature of colonialism. The fact that it is our complicity--in allowing and benefitting from the continuing colonization of non-white Western European cultures (and perhaps more currently simply non-American)--that deprives individuals in these cultures of their usual means of redress and resistance.

"I would suggest, an unmasking of the trope of pity and compassion and a move towards a more political understanding of why women flee and what our responsibilities are to them. They flee from domestic violence but they also flee from the conditions that inhibit their regular means of resistance."

The only further clarification I could want here, would be a quantification of the term compassion. I believe that the compassion referred to here is probably the shallow, feel-good, paternalistic kind of compassion, rather than the deep spiritual compassion that underpins relationships of interconnectedness, mutuality and respect.

So, one further colonialism a potent and persistent meme or is it a gene?

I am asking these questions and following this seed, because I believe, that just as in the quest for peace, the solution to the quest for freedom from oppression will be found in the identification of a set of competencies required to live that way. In my writing and thinking on violence and peace, I began to understand that most people think of peace as merely an absence of violence and war. It is not. Peace is an active and challenging choice that requires tremendous skills and a community of support to achieve. Most of us do not have these skills and we are poor at teaching them to our children. We should not expect people to behave peacefully when they actually don't know how. We need to identify the skills and create ways and supports for teaching and learning them. I feel the same way about oppression. Until we can identify what skills, attitudes and understandings are needed to live freely (my working definition of freedom at the moment is the capacity to follow one's own heart without causing harm to another) we won't be able to make a lot of progress towards it. We can't continue to define freedom in contrast to oppression. It is not merely the lack of oppression. We need to create a meme that is as potent and persistent as the one we wish to out-evolve. Then we need to start living it and teaching it.

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