"The women of Bikini Kill let guitarist Billy Karren be in their feminist punk band, but only if he's willing to just "do some shit." Being a feminist dude is like that. We may ask you to "do some shit" for the band, but you don't get to be Kathleen Hannah."--@heatherurehere

Sunday, October 08, 2006

No Neutral Ground and The Blindspots of Privilege

In some recent comments, PaleCast once again does us all a favor by giving us some stuff to chew on -- I find the amount of stuff that PaleCast says that I want to give some thought about to be pretty amazing, given that we disagree a good deal of the time (it's tough to find people who disagree intelligently and in a way that makes it fun and interesting to continue discussions).

PaleCast's comment was directed at a post that revolved around possible obligations of men toward women in sort of day-to-day walking down the street contexts, but I want to crib something he said and use it to make a larger point, because I think that PaleCast inadvertantly commits something of an error that we are all liable to commit from time to time: Imagining that there is a 'neutral' way of being, as regards gender inequalities (or race inequalities, or inequalities around sexuality, etc.).

PaleCast frames the debate about what men might be obligated to do day-to-day in this way:
It's not that simple. As I said in my previous post, I see at least three options:

1. Actively hurting the woman, or trying to scare her (wrong, obviously!)
2. Going about your business and ignoring her (neutral)
3. Doing something deliberate to appear more non-threatening (good)

Hence, I disagree with your dichotomy of "intimidate" vs. "respect." Intimidating, bullying, or picking on someone implies intent. If the man ignores the woman and goes about his business, he isn't doing anything wrong, and any feelings of fear she has are 100% her problem.

What I first notice here is that PaleCast does explicitly acknowledge that there may be more options than these three (i.e. "at least three options"). So, even if we take his framework to be something workable, we might allow that there are all sorts of gray areas between the three possible ways of being, and that we probably move between them all depending on the contexts.

But I think the basic framework as it stands is flawed -- and I think that people may want to frame things this way because (in part) they are blinded by their privilege. The problem isn't just with #2, as my post title might imply. I'll get to 'being neutral' in a second.

Regarding intentionally causing harm through intimidation, or intentionally causing good things through being non-threatening: I can, of course, decide to try to be more or less intimidating, and I will have varying degrees of success, depending on the context. That is, if I decide to be more intimidating but I have just been put in a maximum security prison, I'm not likely to be able to pull it off much, but if I decide to be more intimidating and I'm walking into a kindergarten class, there's more of a chance I'll be able to carry out my intention. I think that the context plays at least as important a role in the case of one trying to be intimidating or trying to not be intimidating as does one's intentions. Context counts. Intentions counts. But they alwasy both count for something.

Going About Your Business
I think the idea that as we 'go about our business' day-to-day we are affecting others in both intentioned and unintentioned ways can be sort of intimidating--at least for me. If you think about it too much or too often, it can feel sort of overwhelming. On the other hand, you might also develop an overwrought sense of your importance in the world--thinking that you have some influence on that woman you're walking behind might, if you're not careful, lead you to think that you have more influence on her than she has on herself or some such. One trick is, of course, to recognize both that you do have influence just by walking down the street, even if you believe you're acting 'neutrally', while at the same time recognizing that your influence isn't absolute any more than anyone else's.

Getting back to the importance of context--I think it applies just as much in the case of when one thinks one is acting neutrally as it does when one has other intentions. The fact that context is so important, combined with the notion that intent is also important, pretty much does away with the idea that one can be neutral, even doing something so seemingly innocuous as walking down the street. When you make your way through the world, you are, first of all, making your way through a world of other people; you are also in a world that affects you through various means--including, for instance, structured gender roles. And those structures are important. They're just as important (if perhaps not as obvious) as the structures I would face if I were put in a maximum security prison--to act neutrally there means something different than acting neutrally in a kindergarten class, which means something different from acting neutrally walking down the street (and it depends on which street! what time of day! who's walking around you!).

Going out on a limb here--I think that women understand the impossibility of neutrality in the world better than men sometimes might, and I think that is in part because of the experience of privilege that men have. Men can more easily think that they can walk neutrally through the world, while women have a better hold on the reality of the situation, because they have more often been the recipients of the negative consequences of the fact that 'netural' is a context-specific concept (in some places at some times, for instance, the 'neutral' position on adultery is that women can be stoned for it, just as a horrific example).
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