Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Feminism Contextualized

As often happens in the ol' world of blogs, response to a comment or to comments often turns into a bit of a lengthy comment itself, which one may then turn into a post. I like that this happens--I think that in some ways it means that a conversation may be happening, which, for me, is one of the main goals of this groupblog.

Roots and Continuums
In the comments on my post about responsibility, context, and the feminism of walking down the street, it became apparent that my flavor of feminism, that the way to which I came to feminism, informed my view there in ways that may be important to point out. I may have mentioned this before, but I came to feminist theory from philosophy. (I came to feminism from various places, but the theory part of it showed itself first to me in philosophy classes.) Feminist theory that is rooted in philosophy has as one facet a strong thread of anti-essentialism and dichotomy-busting. That is, the notion that there is an 'essential nature' of women that is different from the 'essential nature' of men is strongly contested--and in the philosophic feminist stuff I tend to like, that part of a larger argument against essentialism in general. And along with the anti-essentialism comes the bursting of a lot of the bubbles of dichotomies--man/woman, strong/weak, mind/body, etc.: All of these have been called into question by feminists like Simone de Beauvoir and bell hooks, to name just a couple off the top of my head.

And for me, what often replaces the dichotomies are continuums. So, instead of being either wholly determined or completely of free will (to take a philosophic example), there is a continuum of free will and determinism, and we may find ourselves at various points along that continuum at various times. Similarly, regarding being held responsible for how our actions might affect others, even when walking down the street, we may be held more or less responsible (rather than either completely responsible or not responsible at all).

I think continuums reflect the complexities of reality, and, to be less grandiose, of day-to-day life, better than dichotomies. And this is informed by, and further informs, my preferred flavors of feminism.

Now, on to the responses proper to Eric's comments.

Continuum of Responsibility
I appreciate your comments, but we're still missing each others' points, I think, so I'm going to take a slightly different tach, and use the concept of a continuum of responsibility to discuss your further points. The notion of a continuum of responsibility is given as a contrast to the notion that we can always make hard and fast judgments regarding responsibility, along the lines of "I am completely responsible for X" or "I am compltely not responsible for Y". I think it's helpful to think of those two statements as limiting cases which never completely hold for beings that interact with other beings. So, now on to your points, given that conception. I'm not going to make an argument for this position here--I think it's a conception that comes from a good deal of what I've said so far and, hopefully, will get fleshed out more in my responses to you.

Shin Kicking
"However, there is a different between suffering for my actions. I kick someone in the shins and they feel pain, and interpreting my actions to be something they are obviously not like walking down the street minding my own business and saying nothing, or doing nothing to you."

Yes, there is a difference, but it's not that shin-kicking implies ultimate responsibility (though it implies a lot) and walking down the street minding your own business (and that will mean different things, depending on who you are and what street you're walking down--my point about context) implies no responsibility at all. I think that it's easier to ascribe responibility to the shin-kicker than to the 'neutral' walker-down-the-street, of course, but both are to be held responsible to some degree for their actions. So, while there is a difference between the two, it is a difference in degree, not of kind. Take the guy who is 'neutrally' walking down the street, except that every once in a while, he will pretend to kick somebody in the shins, to make them flinch. We would hold him responsible for that. Then there's the guy who walks just a little too close to you, so you have to veer off a bit. We'd hold him responsible for that. I'm claiming that, as we go down the line, there can be multiple facets of responsibility, and that it's not cut and dried. And, to return to the example from the previous post, I think that even somebody who thinks they are being 'completely neutral' ought to be held responsible for his (or her!) actions, expecially given the context of a society that is sexist toward women, a society that contributes toward violence against women in myriad ways--given that context, I think men don't have the option of walking down the street in an absolutely 'neutral' way.

Schizophrenic
"If that causes you or anyone to "suffer", then the responsibility is no longer with me. That's like saying I am responsible for a Schizophrenic walking down the street alongside me and screaming out loud that, "I am the evil monster from the Abyss and I want to hurt him or her!" When we look at it from this angle, we see quite clearly I have no resposibility for that interpretation. There is no innate value in my actions that should cause them to react like this. In fact, the entire interpretation may rest completely with the person's mental illness. They may point to the next person that walks by them and deride them the same way."

You don't have a lot of responsibility for this person, in this example--but I'd still say you have some. You may be able to choose, for instance, to ignore him or stare him down; you may choose to cross the street after hearing him berate somebody else. Sure, you aren't the sole cause of his laments, but you are a cause, and inasmuch as you might be able to lessen his struggle without causing yourself too much pain (i.e., crossing the street), I think you have a responsibility to. That you're not the main cause of his laments doesn't mean you're not contributing to them, or that you might be able to contribute less to them.

(Oh, and...probably not the best analogy, by the way, because you're (inadventantly, I'm guessing) comparing women who are feeling cautious about men walking down the street to schizophrenics. I know that wasn't your point, but it sort of came off that way to me.)

Actions "In Themselves"
"Because there a difference between "actions done to a person" and "actions that are in and of myself ". So I guess I don't care how people feel, react, or care about my actions in themselves. My concern and my responsibility begins when the action is directed towards someone, and not at a concrete inanimate sidewalk that my feet happen to be pounding against with each step that someone might interpret at happening towards them."

This is exactly the way of thinking that some flavors of feminism want to rail against--while there may be a difference in intent regarding any action, that doesn't mean that some actions are (wholly) either 'done to a person' or 'in and of myself'. That is a false dichotomy. In this world, we are surrounded by others (usually and often). Whether we intend to affect them or not, we affect them. So, there are few (if any) actions which don't effect anybody but oneself. From my point of view, my responsibility begins by simply being a social animal, not when I intend to affect others. I think this is the nature of our social reality. To be clear, that doesn't mean that I am ultimately and absolutely responsible for anybody else's reactions to my actions--they, too, live within a social world where their actions fall along the continuum of responsiblity, and as such they have some responsibility for their reactions to the actions of others. But that others have some say in how they react to me doesn't mean that I have no responsibility for how I act in the world--for how I might affect them, intentionally or unintentionally.

There's much more to respond to in Eric's comments, but I'm going to leave it at this for now, as the post is getting pretty long, and I have a responsibility to our readership (and to my fingers) to keep things bloggish and readable. :)
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