"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

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Ally Work: Argument and Influence

The recent dustup that started as an innocent posting of a puppy picture on feministing that has blown up into a pretty angry 'discussion' has got me to thinking about how we all communicate with each other, the responsibility of feminists to each other in general, and the responsibilities of feminist allies to communicate well with each other and the larger world. Recently, Geo expressed some disappointment with the community aspects of Feminist Allies as agroupblog--I don't think he'd mind my mentioning that he felt a lack of community here. And I think there is a decided lack of community here--part of that is just blogging reality (we're all busy), part of it is personality quirks (we interact and communicate in various ways) but part of it probably has to do with lack of direction as far as what allies (and feminists in general!) ought to be doing, at least as far as my understanding of it all. So I've begun thinking of narrowing focus over here, of thinking more about what I (we?) want to do here, and about the larger question: What are the best ways for feminist allies to go about trying to change the world?

Framing Feminist Work as Ally Work
One of the reasons that I frame the flavors of feminism that I embrace from the perspective of an ally is that I think doing so pays tribute to some of the intricacies of working passionately on something in the face of not always being explicitly invited to the party, of feeling directly influenced by something on a deep level and wanting to influence right back. I also frame things this way because I think men are in a particularly interesting position to change the minds of other men as regards feminism--because patriarchy is so ingrained, female feminists have some roadblocks set up before them in terms of changing the minds of men, roadblocks set up explicitly and implicitly by some of the basic structures of culture itself. Put more bluntly: It's possible that many men are more likely to listen to other men about feminism than they are to listen to women about feminism.

Choosing an Audience
This is not a happy thought. It sort of pisses me off that it might be the case, but really it's just a vestige of the current social system, an accident of history that comes from a long, long period of patriarchy. It's something that feminists have to face up to, and make decisions about, if one of their goals is to influence those who don't (yet) agree with them. I think many feminists understand this, and do make choices based on the current situation. Sometimes they choose to not want to influence men so much (i.e. radical feminists often see changing the minds of men as merely a possible byproduct of changing the world so that it's not so misogynist). Sometimes they choose to keep men in the mix, but not focus so much on men, since in many ways the focus of everything is often on men. Some feminists (bell hooks comes to mind) get a lot of flak for suggesting that we need to enlist men as allies just as much as we need to enlist women. I imagine there are some feminists who focus on men almost exclusively, thinking to change things from within the current power structure (though I haven't met any, which is interesting). I think all of these strategies are valid, that they all get some work done. I try to not fault anybody for choosing one over the other, even though I, of course, fall into the camp that thinks enlisting men as allies is one of the more important things we can do as feminists (especially as feminist men). Even if we share a lot of the same concerns, our paths for getting to our goals may be different.

How Do We Go About Actually Changing the World?
But aside from basic questions about choosing an audience as writers (and activists) who do feminist work, what are the best ways to actually change the world? What are the best ways to change minds? What are the 'central' causes we need to champion? When is it ok to not respond to criticism, to draw lines, and when do we owe it to each other, to feminists and self-identified non-feminists to respond?

I understand that there are no blanket answers here, though there may be some general guidelines. And one of the most general tenets of what I want to accomplish is this: I think that passionate-though-reasoned discussion (not simply laying out arguments) can get some work done. At times I wonder if I'm of the disposition to get any of this work done, because I oftentimes feel like I'm not getting my ideas across, or that I'm not understanding the ideas of others. But I'm convinced that such discussion is possible, and worth a lot of work--and, I'm convinced that such discussion can actually change people's minds.

It's not that only discussion can do this. Sudden changes in one's life can cause basic opinions to change. Some opinions tend to change 'naturally' with age and experience. But I also think that discussion, when it's enjoined by people who care about each other as people, who respect each other to a large degree as people, can get us somewhere. Not all of the time. Not in every way. But I wouldn't spend so much time writing if I didn't think that I might, at times, be able to give a take on something that somebody else maybe hasn't thought of, if I didn't think that something I say might lend itself to changing minds.

Of course, writing--and blogging in particular--isn't always about changing minds. Sometimes it's about cheerleading and preaching to the choir. And there are lots of times and places for that. It's good to feel a sense of community, and preaching to the choir can serve that purpose. I am still suspicious when people seem to be only preaching to the converted, but I also see that there is a lot of good to be done by doing so, some of the time. And, frankly, the jury is still out on whether or not blogging engenders discussion, in my mind. Short, angry posts seem to get a lot more attention, and more "discussion" than longer, well-reasoned arguments tend to get. There is kindling enough for flamewars forever and on into eternity, probably, for as long as the Interweb exists, because of the nature of the medium. (Of course, impassioned, angry responses to the opinions of others aren't only happening in the land o' blogs. It happens in classrooms, on TV, and even among my close friends at the dinner table.)

How Do We Go About Changing Minds?
Despite all of this, I still think that discussion, with respect and care, can change minds. My opinion in this regard is probably partly because of my background in academic philosophy, which sort of hinges itself on the idea that communication of ideas can change minds (though some philosophers would disagree). But part of why I believe this is simply from experience. I have changed, in part, because people have pointed out blind spots to me, because people have offered perspectives that I didn't think of (or didn't have access to). Discussion has increased my understanding of things, and it has increased my ability to empathize with others. So one way in which I think we go about changing minds, the main way for me, is to talk, talk, talk. That doesn't mean that I will discuss anything ad nauseum with anybody--we all draw our lines, based on limits on our time, as well as lines based on moral intuitions (I don't, in general, tend to care to take time to try to change the minds of hardcore misogynists, for instance).
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