Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Moving Out from BelowThe Belt: Theory-Q and Julian Real Discuss Radical Activism and Academic Liberalism

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This is, effectively, part 2 of what may be a series of conversational posts between myself and Theory-Q, a white academically-educated U.S. liberal-to-progressive man who is one of the contributors to a pro-Queer Theory blog called Below The Belt. I hope he is comfortable with them existing on both of our blogs.

Part 1 may be found *here*.

Theory-Q writes:


Many thanks for what is indeed a thorough analysis of my posts. I am sorry to have disappointed you so much, but I am eager to engage with your comments. I see some of your criticisms as a wake-up call, e.g. - to read more radical feminist work, esp. by Black feminists, to find out more about the movement, and to be more informed about Andrea Dworkin.

Regarding the critique on your website…

I do think that Andrea Dworkin is putting forth “a perspective.” There is no necessary identical correspondence between what she describes in her book and the reality “out there.” And since my column on this blog is academically-oriented, I see Dworkin’s view of the world as overly rationalistic and as depending on the presumption that extremely large collectives behave in conscious ways. I am not going to assume that everything she says is true because she is a radical feminist, nor am I going to assume that the way she describes reality is the only way to do it or the best way to do it.

About “the burden always being on women” to figure out how to combat misogyny – this is not at all what I am saying (unless you see Andrea Dworkin as a representative of all women). I believe that if a writer/activist/theorist attacks an oppressive system, they should also provide a plan for overcoming that system. Plenty of excellent writers and activists do not do this often enough – Noam Chomsky’s books on U.S. hegemony, for example, are full of important critiques, but contain precious little about how U.S. imperialism can be overcome.

You are right about my lack of empathy with the author and my lack of understanding for her predicament or of the social context of her work. I don’t think I have enough specific knowledge to understand why she became more pessimistic in the late 1970s, why the whole women’s movement moved in a more pessimistic direction, actually. I also do not know enough about the feminist work of non-White thinkers – I’ve read some bell hooks and a smattering of Audre Lorde, but definitely not enough. I also haven’t read all of Dworkin’s work – my commentary is based on a reading of three works – so I’m definitely not an expert. I do really like that essay she wrote critiquing biological determinism. Evidently, I need to learn more. Thanks for pointing that out – I would welcome more advice on stuff to read.

About the problem residing with men, you’re also right. I am not saying that Andrea Dworkin is completely delusional and that the small numbers of men who have committed themselves to overcoming patriarchy has not led her to become more pessimistic. The misogynistic society, and misogynistic men, are responsible for her pessimism – there is no doubt about this. That misogyny is prevalent among men (and among some women too) is indisputable. But how one portrays that reality, how one responds to it, and how one views its origins, is very much up for debate.

I guess the thread that runs through our disagreements is about the relationship between empirical and normative claims. You seem to believe that people can unproblematically perceive the world “as it is,” that all Andrea Dworkin is doing is describing a problem, and not making a normative statement about what ought to be done to end oppression. In my work on Below the Belt and elsewhere, I’ve argued that descriptive claims cannot be separated from normative claims in this way. I think that when we are discussing complex phenomena such as genders, nations, and economic systems, it is impossible to describe them exactly as they are. This is because social reality is complicated; descriptive claims can never fully capture it. Indeed, there is a real difference between describing the chair in my room and attempting to describe “all women” or “patriarchy.” And since every description of phenomena such as the latter is necessarily incomplete, this means that different descriptions (prioritizing varying aspects) will proliferate and that each description will have huge implications for how one normatively behaves towards the phenomenon. The solutions that one seeks to end oppression (the normative) will depend hugely on how that oppression is described, which elements of it are prioritized, what its causes are viewed as etc… As silly as this may sound, description is not a purely empirical venture!

Hence, it makes a major difference whether one sees misogyny as beginning in the individual minds of virtually all men (as a response to the mother’s powerlessness in the face of the father’s violence) or whether one sees it as a system-level social characteristic, as embedded in collectively held ideas, political institutions, and in expectations about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. Neither of these views is completely empirically accurate, but they both promote different kinds of responses to the problem of oppression. As I said above, with the first response, one might be tempted to write off men altogether as inevitably “the way they are.” The second offers more room for action, more hope for change. I think this is important…

And on more theoretical matters…

I don’t think that seeing power as rooted primarily in ideas that are collectively held about the world is particularly neo-liberal. As I understand it, neo-liberalism assumes that people are motivated by the desire for self-preservation and that they make decisions about the world on the basis of rational (cost-benefit) analyses. In that sense, Dworkin’s view of how misogynistic mindsets are developed is actually very neo-liberal. And I define neo-liberalism here as the extension of market capitalist logic to all other social spheres, which basically involves the assumption that people always behave as consumers, looking to minimize costs and maximize benefits.

Now – I do understand that the dominance of social constructivism in academic thought during the 1990s and 2000s has led to a complicity with neo-liberalism, in that the system of narrowly concentrated material wealth in the United States and around the world remained largely free of critique. While social constructivists have attacked the explanatory value of materialist theories (e.g. – that distributions of material wealth are the driving force behind a variety of social phenomena), they have not undermined the power of materialism itself, nor the power of those who horde virtually all the material wealth. Thus, it can be said that social constructivism – as it was practiced in the 1990s and 2000s – is complicit with neo-liberalism, and largely silent about its evils, even though its analysis of society does not contain the main tenets of neo-liberal ideology.

Evidently, therefore, social constructivism needs to be transformed – but in what way? I don’t think that it should ditch its focus on the power of ideas in society. While a fist in a woman’s face, gang rape, or sexual slavery are not ideas as such, it is ideas about women and their place in society which make such acts possible. I am not talking about causality here – what leads a man to violate a woman in a specific instance can be a variety of things. Rather, these ideas form the condition of possibility for the man to even think about forcing himself on her. Without the ideas to uphold it, such an act would be inconceivable. Ideas serve to circumscribe the realm of the do-able and the acceptable in society, and until the notion that the body of a woman does not solely belong to her is crushed, rape will always be a possibility.

So how to reconcile social constructivists’ ideational view of social relations with the reality of material oppression? Simply put, constructivists need to critique materialism as a dominant ideology. Apart from fulfilling one’s basic needs (food, shelter, clothing, etc…), the seeking of material wealth is an ideological choice – the ever-greater amassing of wealth and power by a privileged few is dependent on the fact that money and positions of power are imbued with such significance in society, that material possessions are valued so much at the ideational level.

Yesterday, 5:27:32 PM

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My reply follows with a few minor revisions since it was posted to Below The Belt. I'll put those minor changes in bold for Theory-Q to be able to easily note them:

Hi Theory-Q,

I genuinely appreciate your willingness to discuss these issues, and thank you for your thoughtful reply. Would you mind if I cross-post our discussion here to my own blog?

I'll respond to several points trying not to leave any major area of critique or concern you raise unresponded to.

I see the U.S. academic project, in the broadest sense, to be an entirely different and only occasionally overlapping project with that of many radical activists. As I see it, liberal arts exists in academia not to stop rape, genocide, or poverty, but only to examine them in various ways--through the lenses, for example, of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and economics. The Academy, generally, exists to maintain the status quo, if also being open to studying it. And occasionally those who study the status quo might figure out how deeply oppressive and deadly it is, and might be motivated to do something about that, although the current climate is one which refuses almost all radical activist efforts.

I'll note that in my opinion this is not the fault of the radical activists putting forth inadequate or poorly presented ideas, primarily. It is primarily a problem of a corporately controlled media which refuses to allow radical activists to speak to the public about anything at all of substance, about "the status quo". Even Facebook is notorious for tossing off pages of activists who are challenging the status quo, while allowing pages that promote ideologies such as one that HaShoah never happened, or that rape is fun. To reduce the lack of revolution on the radicals being not so good at expressing ourselves, I'd argue, is to basically blame the victim for our conditions. Women who are raped speak out rather eloquently against rape. The ideas some radical anti-rape activists express aren't that complicated: rape is terrorism; rape is subordination (by men) of a class of people (women), and is not just the bad behavior a few rude men.

So a fundamental difference in our own writings is what they are designed to do. And this also gets to what Andrea Dworkin's writing was designed to do. It, and my own, and that of many radical activists, is not designed to get people to think more about things. It is designed to move people to act, to take action against systematised harm. To speak out against injustice, however they can do so without being arrested and killed. This isn't easy. I've had death threats leveled against me, for example. And the threat of being raped and beaten first. This isn't done because I write things that make people think. The threats come because I write things to incite social change, to challenge male supremacist power, white supremacist power, genocidal anti-Indigenist power, and heterosexism too. As Andrea's life partner once remarked, rather astutely--I'll paraphrase, although these may well be his exact words--"If you're not catching shit, you're not doing shit." He said this not to an audience in a college, but to fellow activists. So that was the context. It wasn't meant to shame people. It was intended to offer people a measure by which we might know whether or not we are being successful at challenging the powers that be.

I may be misusing the term "neo-liberal" and my apologies for doing so. I'll stick to a term I'm more familiar with, which is simply, "liberal". As in how politic positions and movements express themselves in the U.S. currently. As someone once said, the problem with liberalism is that it makes promises it has no intention of keeping. This means, specifically, that while liberals are notoriously anti-racist and pro-gay, they have absolutely no social program for making racism or heterosexism be challenged other than by trying to assimilate marginalised people into dominant culture, which remains racist and heterosexist. Do you know the work of Dean Spade?

Here's a link to a speech which gets at some of my own concerns, although I wouldn't say his views express mine exactly. There are clips of this available, and I realise I'm sending you a link to something that is about 45 mins. long. But maybe we could have a whole separate discussion on Below The Belt and A Radical Profeminist about it. That'd be something I'd be interested in doing.


Liberal academic enterprises are not designed, usually, to do anything to remedy the evils of society: to stop rape, to end racism, to curb genocidal practices that are currently globalised. So this very discussion can do several things. I want it to inspire you and others to take action against injustices that are real to you and also to consider the injustices that are not real to you as just as important to take action against.

You may wish for us to engage in lots of theoretical debate. I don't see these two aims to be in opposition, necessarily, but I'll note that I'm not likely to launch into deep discussion about the history of ideas, including the idea called "neo-liberalism", because, again, I don't see "the problem" the same way you do. Here are some of your words that leads me to conclude you see what activists do and don't do as "the problem" with activism not being effective:

I believe that if a writer/activist/theorist attacks an oppressive system, they should also provide a plan for overcoming that system. Plenty of excellent writers and activists do not do this often enough – Noam Chomsky’s books on U.S. hegemony, for example, are full of important critiques, but contain precious little about how U.S. imperialism can be overcome. 

I guess the thread that runs through our disagreements is about the relationship between empirical and normative claims. You seem to believe that people can unproblematically perceive the world “as it is,”

And since every description of phenomena such as the latter is necessarily incomplete, this means that different descriptions (prioritizing varying aspects) will proliferate and that each description will have huge implications for how one normatively behaves towards the phenomenon. The solutions that one seeks to end oppression (the normative) will depend hugely on how that oppression is described, which elements of it are prioritized, what its causes are viewed as etc

Do you appreciate how, from my vantage point as a radical activist working with Indigenous people, working with women across race and ethnicity, working with marginalised queer folks, this kind of discourse isn't terribly helpful, and in many ways functions to be obstructionistic? Diversionary? And anti-change?

Again, there's a place for theorising. But noting that American Indians and First Nations people's societies are under assault isn't really something you and I need to debate, is it? The reality that rape is an endemic globalised problem that functions to terrify a class of people and to sexually subordinate a class of people--and other people too in other contexts, is not something we need to debate, is it? That capitalism functions to oppress the poor I hope is evident to those who come to your blog, and to its contributors.

So, I begin, usually, with truly basic observations that I believe don't require post-structuralist intellectual responses as much as they require--or ought to instigate--responses of outrage and "What can we do about this!?!"

That's where I want most every conversation I have to go: to the place where we talk about strategy, and share news of one another's actions to challenge the oppressive, murderous, and otherwise grossly inhumane status quo.

Dworkin was an activist writer, not an academic writer. Chomsky is a bit of both. Each, I believe, has generously and generally assumed that people can take in information about "what's going down" and find their own best ways to respond to it, hopefully not in isolation. There have been many things written and said about "how to organise", including against gendered oppression, but I'll bet you that there are far more books on "how to critique the idea of 'gender'" in Academia right now than there are on "how to end male supremacy". Why? I'd be interested to know why you think that is the case, and what the function of such anti-activist 'gender discourse' is, politically/socially?

I do appreciate your statements about not having enough knowledge of Dworkin's work and of other radical activists' writings, particularly those by women of color. There is, in my experience, never enough time to gather up all the knowledge one might need to act, and I think it's important we not make being fully informed a prerequisite to engaging in political activism. Nor should misguided, unguided, unaccountable, irresponsible action be what people with privilege "just go out and do". This is all to say, engaging in responsible, informed, political activism is one way to get an education, a very good one, in fact. Not one that capitalist, racist, patriarchal society will give you any degrees for, usually. And one gets informed in the process of doing it responsibly. For me that means being accountable directly to the people who are activists and are also the population targeted for the specific harm we're working to end or curb. I oppose most white activism against racism if whites are not directly accountable, in meaningfully engaged relationships of cooperative action, to those we structurally oppress who are fighting racism. The same with sexism, heterosexism, and genocidal atrocities.

A sort of personal question is this: what do you wish to do with your many talents and abilities? You have a voice, a writing style which is sharp and not obtuse, and a platform, on your blog. What do you wish to do about rape, genocide, and poverty, on Below The Belt?

When you, as a white man, take up the issue of whether or not Dworkin is describing reality, the first and potentially diversionary question is this: whose reality? As someone who has studied post-modern and post-structuralist philosophies of the White West, I will affirm that no one can accurately describe the whole of reality, but the whole of reality is, for you, really only what those you know and engage with, and are impressed or influenced by, collectively agree it is. Whites and men are uniquely positioned, as classes of privileged people, to regulate and control how oppressed people speak of their reality.

Dworkin fully owns that what she writes is her own view and supports her readers and listeners to take from it what is useful and leave the rest. But to request that any activist only or always couch their discourse in terms of "how I see it", is to do to women and non-white people what white men have always historically done: to place oneself over and above the speaker/activist, as an authority on "reality".

My challenge to men and whites is this: what if you read the work of radical feminists and radical anti-racism activists as if their reality WAS reality? This isn't making an argument that there's only one; it is making an argument for the importance of recognising the subjectivity of oppressed people as just as valid as any other, particularly in political contexts (in societies) where marginalised voices become understood as less-than-truthful. And it is to put forth a hope that whites and men can learn how not to control (or attempt to control) discourse when the discussions are about people being beaten, raped, and killed en masse.

I've gotten a threat or two. Malalai Joya has to move most nights from place to place because both the Taliban and the U.S. invaders want her dead and have many threats out to accomplish this heinous task. You can read all about it in her autobiography, A Woman Among Warlords. Here's a link to it:


But women leave each day, intimately, with men who threaten their lives in non-verbal ways. And Indigenous people are not being relocated across the globe from their homelands because of a failure to communicate effectively their own needs and viewpoints. These things are not done because of improper sharing of ideas; they are done because of structural differences in power, concretely arranged, systemically and institutionally imposed, and interpersonally and socially enforced.

As for a critique of liberalism, I welcome you to read some of the written work of Catharine A. MacKinnon, a U.S. Constitutional Law professor, an attorney who has fought for women's human rights globally, and a feminist writer. 

If time permits, I recommend reading the first few chapters of her book, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. Links follow, but it should be available through a library system, as should Malalai Joya's book. Specifically I recommend, for now, the four chapters which comprise section one of the book, "Feminism and Marxism"; in it, she discusses the problems within U.S. white liberal feminism, offering up a marxist critique. She also offers up a radical feminist critique of Marxism, or at least some branches of it. Further along in the book there is a single chapter I'll link to separately which you may wish to start with as it's available to be read online. Here's the one that's immediately available, which may tackle some of your own criticisms of some forms of feminism.


Beginning with the link above may suffice for out discussion. But here is a link to the whole of the book:


In two other MacKinnon books, there is a chapter in each which deals with some of the issues you touch on and I think you will find them to be very engaging and useful.

The first of those is called "Keeping It Real: On Anti-"Essentialism", and is found at Google Books, in her book Women's Lives, Men's Laws:


The other chapter is called "Postmodernism and Human Rights", in her book, Are Women Human?: And Other International Dialogues, which may also be found at Google Books. But another incarnation of it appears in a PDF doc, here:


Additionally, and for now, I'd recommend reading this book by Andrea Smith called Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, particularly chapter 7, "Anticolonial Responses to Gender Violence", and chapter 8: "U.S. Empire and the War Against Native Sovereignty". Here is a link to that book:


Finally, I want to thank you for reminding me to use non-corporate links to books! It's really something I'd gotten sloppy about, in part because I know most of my readers cannot afford to pay full prices for books and may not have access to them through libraries.

I look forward to your reply, Theory-Q.

Cheers. And Happy Solstice! I hope you got to see the first Lunar Eclipse falling on a Winter Solstice in about 450 years.

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