Thursday, May 14, 2009

Who Takes Responsibility for the Responsibility-Takers? Hint: Not Linda Hirshman

Hello! And welcome back to Anti-Feminists Say the Darnedest Things Week here at Tiger Beatdown!

For they do say things, these anti-feminists. DARNED things! Things that sound very dismissive, and critical, and devastating, until you realize that they make absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Today, we will be discussing my two very least favorite statements in the history of discussion about feminism. They are:
1. Stop playing the victim! And,
2. Why can't you take responsibility for yourself?
I hate these statements, so much, you guys. Whenever somebody makes these statements, in the context of a discussion about feminism, I want to hit him or her in the face, with a dictionary, in the hopes that some knowledge of the English language and all of its many definitions for words will somehow penetrate that person's skull. Because, in all the many years I have seen people employ this rhetorical tactic, I have almost never seen anyone use it in response to someone who is actually pretending to be a "victim," or shirking actual "responsibility."

I have, however, seen people use it (frequently!) on folks who are actual victims. Of, like, crimes.

For example: have you heard about this Double X thing? Ha ha, yes, of course you have, because I am slow. However, it is illustrative, in that two separate writers on that site combined their powers to create a near-perfect example of how this rhetorical tactic actually works!

Short version: Linda Hirshman, in the way-back-long-ago, wrote that women who don't leave their abusers are bad and stupid and wrong, and we should shame them, because that is very helpful. Megan Carpentier, at Jezebel, wrote about Linda Hirshman's statements, in a manner that basically amounted to, "um, FALSE." Linda Hirshman can hold a grudge, apparently! Because then she wrote an article to the effect that (a) since current Jezebel writer Megan Carpentier and former Jezebel writer Moe Tkacik have both been raped, and (b) Moe Tkacik did not report her rapist, and Megan Carpentier did not report her FIRST rapist (important distinction, there: take note of it), that (c) Megan Carpentier and Moe Tkacik are personally responsible for the fact that their rapists may have raped other ladies, so (d) everybody who writes for Jezebel is a hypocritical rapist, Jezebel is a website for rapists, and if you read Jezebel you are going to get raped, and it will be your and/or Jezebel's fault, so there.

Which, you know: this argument (Megan Carpentier didn't report her rape, and is therefore responsible for rape, and also should not write about rape, ever) would not make any sense EVEN IF MEGAN CARPENTIER WERE NOT CURRENTLY SEEKING TO PROSECUTE HER (OTHER) RAPIST RIGHT NOW, WHICH IS SOMETHING SHE HAS WRITTEN ABOUT MANY TIMES, ON JEZEBEL, LINDA HIRSHMAN. But this is not the point; the point is that the "responsibility" argument is used in the piece, like so:
Given the high level of risk the Jezebel life involves, it is surprising that the offense that arouses the liberated Jezebels to real political fury is the suggestion that women like them might be made responsible for the consequences of their own acts, or that there might be general standards that define basic feminist behavior. Suggest that women report the men who rape them for the sake of future victims, say, or that women should be asked why they stay with the men who abuse them, or urged to leave them, and the Jezebels go ballistic.
Um, "responsible" for what? The crimes that someone else may have commited? Crimes committed against them, which were, pretty much by definition, performed against their will? Both, apparently!

Which, understandably, pissed a whole lot of people off - people like the folks at Feministe, and Feministing, and, um, Jezebel - and they wrote about how this was a really stupid move on Linda Hirshman's part. ENTER THE BRESLIN - Susannah Breslin, that is - who responded to all of the criticisms of Hirshman (because Hirshman herself was... having a sandwich? In the bathroom? Crying about all the mean girls on the Internet? God only knows; maybe she was just so busy telling other women to TAKE RESPONSIBILITY that she couldn't take responsibility for writing her own response) as so:
It seems to me that "feminist" sites like the aptly-named Feministe are interested in having it both ways. They want all the power their feminist foremothers promised them—and the right to play full-time victims of the patriarchy. Get over it.
"But, Sady," you are saying, "you must have quoted this out of context! I even clicked through to the link to the Feministe piece, and it still makes no sense whatsoever! Especially given that the Feministe piece was not at all victim-y!" To you, I say: nope, it didn't make any sense in context, either. And I read Susannah Breslin's blog! I like some of her writing! This was still a weird piece: one that managed to address all of the criticisms thus far aimed at Hirshman and/or the site with a resounding, "no, YOU shut up!"

Because that's how these conversations go, and I have been through them one million times (in e-mails, in blog comment sections, in real life):
1. Somebody makes a dick move.
2. You say, "wow, that was a dick move."
3. They say, "OH MY GOD TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR ACTIONS STOP PLAYING THE VICTIM."
This allows the maker of dick moves to avoid owning up to his or her own dickishness, or the fact that s/he is the aggressor in the situation, and to pretend that the real problem is that you object to the situation s/he has created. Now, there is something that a person who employs such a tactic is, very obviously, not taking - it begins with the letter R, and rhymes with "phlesponsibility for one's actions" - but let's avoid that one, for the moment. Let's talk about what victims are.

Because the "victim" role is passive, isn't it? I'm not speaking, here, about people who have been victims of crimes, like rape or abuse, since we all know that you can take every imaginable precaution and do everything that you learned in self-defense class and terrible things can still happen, which are not your fault, but the fault of the person who does the terrible things to you. I'm talking about what the word "victim" usually summons up. I've known people who actually do "play the victim," for whatever reason: they're reactive, passive, unwilling to do anything to advance their own interests. The world happens to these people, and they rely on other people to take care of them, and to take pity on their weaknesses. They define themselves as weak, and they live up to that self-definition.

These people tend not to be feminists. Because feminists - whether or not they have been victims of crimes - are engaged in continual acts of strength. To be a feminist is to be, on one level or another, an activist: actively engaged in confronting the problems of the world and seeking to change them. They confront injustices. They speak up. They refuse to shut up. They cause trouble. They take responsibility, not just for their own happiness, but for the betterment of the world around them. They also (especially if they are lady feminists) continually make the point that they are not weak, they are not passive, and they are not incapable of independence or self-determination. They are, in short, about as far from being victims as possible.

Because victims say, "what happened to me was fucked up, my life sucks, the world sucks, and there's nothing I can do about it: I guess I'd better stay at home and weep and hope that some big strong person will come to save me." Feminists, on the other hand, say, "what happened to me was fucked up, and I think I know why it happened, and I want to change the entire goddamn world so that it stops happening to other people. Also, I think I can do that. The world-changing thing, that is." Which is a lot of responsibility to take on oneself, especially for a group of people that are supposedly so damn irresponsible.

"Playing the victim?" Hell, there are a lot of people out there who would probably like more feminists to act like victims: it would shut us up and get us out of the way, at least. However, when I look at my own personal life, it's pretty clear to me that, if I am meant to be playing the victim, I am not doing a very good job - because, alas, when people act like shits, I continue to tell them that they're being shitty. And that's not "playing the victim." That's refusing to be one.

21 comments:

  1. Thank you for this. I can't even begin to say how amazing this is. How do you always know how to articulate what we feel in our hearts and minds but don't know how to say?

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  2. THANK you. This is one for the bookmarks.

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  3. "what happened to me was fucked up, and I think I know why it happened, and I want to change the entire goddamn world so that it stops happening to other people. Also, I think I can do that. The world-changing thing, that is."

    Yeah! You have no idea how good I felt after reading that! Or maybe you do, and you felt that good after writing it! Because, seriously, now I have superpowers. Woooooo!!!

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  4. Wow, it's like you're taking all the thoughts I have that I've never come across on the internet, and now I'm finally seeing them be verbalized through your blog. Thank you.

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  5. This kind of logic is SO FASCINATING.

    I have a story.

    Once upon a time, I left my abusive husband. He wasn't pleased.

    At one point, lacking friends who were willing to help me out here because "choosing sides" and "not my problem" and "really awkward", I had to go give my ex some of his stuff.

    He owed me money, and when I dropped off his stuff, I waited an extra second or two to see if he'd give it to me. I could tell he was waiting an extra second or two to see if I'd ask. And since I knew his entire purpose here was to drag things out, I decided, fuck it, I don't need money bad enough.

    Later he discovered an UNBELIEVABLE AMOUNT of things I had unfairly taken when they were not mine, such as spatulas, and crockpots my grandmother gave me for my birthday, and I really ought to return those things or I would be all kinds of mean bitch. I told him I would return his spatula when he paid me what he owed me. He said he wasn't going to pay me, because I NEVER ASKED, which is what GROWN-UPS DO. I said paying back debts without a pretty please is something grown-ups do. We ended our conversation, and the last words we ever spoke to each other, with, "I'll give you your money when you can be ENOUGH OF AN ADULT to actually GROW UP AND ASK me. So go ahead. Act like an adult, and ASK ME FOR THE MONEY I OWE YOU."

    Hey there I have been wronged.
    YOU ARE WRONG FOR NOT *NOT* BEING WRONGED
    I, uh, what?
    WHY DON'T YOU STOP BEING WRONGED
    Gosh, that'd be nice.
    MAYBE ONCE YOU STOP BEING WRONGED YOU WILL NOT BE THE KIND OF PERSON WHO IS WRONGED ANYMORE
    I guess that's a superficial sort of sense...
    YOU HAVE MY SPATULA

    Yeah, I guess that wasn't really a relevant logic meltdown, sorry.

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  6. So, I tried to read the double X a few times on Slate. It didn't work for me because it didn't seem like most of the women who wrote there were feminists. I mean "most". There were some good thinkers there too. However, for what I tuned into, most writers were women with centrist politics who were all put in one common thread simply because they have vaginas. And I really didn't get why you'd put all the women in one place. Sure, they talked about "women things," but having a vagina doesn't a feminist make. The clitoris isn't a default button. Neither is the second X chromosome. You can be a misogynist and still possess a vagina.

    Let's just look at some of the headlines in March of this year:

    1. "Michelle Obama needs to put on some pantyhose" why? it's environmentally bad to wax/shave and tan.
    2. "Do Hormones Cause Shopping Sprees?" I don't know because I couldn't even click the link.
    3. "Should Birth Control Pills be sold over the counter?" Some say yes, others no. Apparently, we women need a prescription in order to visit the doctor for pap smears. So, like, we shouldn't be allowed to have to make these difficult decisions on our own. Oh also, insurance doesn't cover over the counter medication (even though most insurance already doesn't cover birth control.)
    4. "Decoding Michelle Obama's farming outfit" Ummm.... I don't even know. Couldn't click.
    5. "Is Julia Roberts Old?"

    So, I've got a serious problem with people trying to revoke my feminist card because I didn't report my rapist. I've got even more of a problem with these people trying to revoke my feminist card.

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  7. "what happened to me was fucked up, and I think I know why it happened, and I want to change the entire goddamn world so that it stops happening to other people. Also, I think I can do that. The world-changing thing, that is."

    That is the essence of Radical Feminism, right there.
    XX is part of the backlash, designed to convince women that they are responsible for what men do, that has been going on for three hundred years, or thereabouts.

    Actually, Harriet, I thought it was an excellent rendition of logic meltdown. I think we've all heard it a time or twenty.

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  8. I've been kinda "meh" on Hirshman when she did the whole "Women, stop trying to have meaningful personal lives as well as careers! Man up and go out and show the men you can be just as manly as they are and don't need to do weak girly stuff like have families!"thing. And just breezed right past the whole strain of feminism/progressivism that discusses the unhealthiness of making work antithetical to the rest of your life, and its connection to patriarchy's devaluation of caring work and yadda yadda has she never bothered to read any actual feminists?

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  9. "Because feminists - whether or not they have been victims of crimes - are engaged in continual acts of strength. To be a feminist is to be, on one level or another, an activist: actively engaged in confronting the problems of the world and seeking to change them. They confront injustices. They speak up. They refuse to shut up. They cause trouble. They take responsibility, not just for their own happiness, but for the betterment of the world around them. They also (especially if they are lady feminists) continually make the point that they are not weak, they are not passive, and they are not incapable of independence or self-determination. They are, in short, about as far from being victims as possible."

    QFT, Sady.

    I haven't read the Double XX thing yet though I did read the XX factor every now and then. I'm not surprised it's not particularly good.

    And after all, you don't even need a second X chromosome to be either a woman or a feminist; or at least, that's what I'm trying to do.

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  10. I found this via a Pal's Twitter link. I have clearly stepped into the middle of something that I only half get. I do not mind at all, because the writing is SO DELICIOUS. Original poster, commenters, everything. Even the punctuation and use of italics. Delicious. And ooh, the rhythms.

    It doesn't hurt that I suspect I agree with Sady, et al. That may, in fact, be biasing me. But even were I on the side of dumb and wrong (which may yet turn out to be the case), I am pretty sure I would still be prose-smitten.

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  11. Yeah.

    Moreover, a lot of the people shrieking "stop being a victim!" at one set of people are also shrieking "stop being such a bitch!" at another set of people.
    What they really want is for us to stop being. I guess.

    --Snow Black

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  12. Yes, absolutely, a thousand times yes, you hit the nail on the head with your eloquent and incisive analysis of oppressor-victim rhetoric. Whenever someone tells a feminist, "Stop being a VICTIM! Take RESPONSIBILITY!", what they are really saying is, "Stop complaining and tolerate my shit already!" It's kind of hard to stop being a victim of oppression unless you put a gun to the heads of the people oppressing you and ask them kindly to please stop it OR ELSE. The only available defensive weapon is a feminist's voice, and, to that end, I say "thank you" for wielding yours so effectively. And entertainingly.

    I did notice a bit of ableist privilege seeping through in this post, however. It's great, and I'm very happy for you, that you have the mental and physical fortitude to be a Boot Straps kind of gal and have no trouble taking charge, manifesting your destiny, etc. I kind of have to take issue with what you've said about people described as thus: "I've known people who actually do "play the victim," for whatever reason: they're reactive, passive, unwilling to do anything to advance their own interests. The world happens to these people, and they rely on other people to take care of them, and to take pity on their weaknesses. They define themselves as weak, and they live up to that self-definition." I've worked professionally with numerous people fitting that description, and there is generally an underlying mental health issue (personality disorder, depressive disorder, etc.) that has facilitated and shaped that victim-y worldview. With a little counseling, and medication if necessary, it can be corrected, but intervention of some kind is usually needed to get the "victim" to understand that their perspective on life isn't normal or healthy, nor is it a fundamental aspect of their personality. So what you see as a professional victim of sorts, I see as person in dire need of professional assistance. Of course all of this is not at all readily apparent to a person who hasn't worked within the mental health system, and so it's understandable when people draw simplistic conclusions about others based on their own life experiences and mental health status.

    Anywho, keep wielding that awesome weapon!

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  13. THANK YOU for this! The XX Factor/Double X writers (with a few exceptions) make me utterly insane, but this little exchange nearly made my brain explode with rage. You restore my sanity!

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  14. You win the world for this.

    I don't get this in regards to feminisms real often (I'm a dude and people are usually too confused about why I would care about teh ladyz), but I was (am?) a victim of physical and sexual abuse through my childhood and adolescence, which is something I can finally say without necessarily triggering some sort of fucked up flashback or panic attack or whatever.

    But when it's brought up -- no matter how on-topic -- there's invariably at least one person who tells me to "quit playing the victim" or implies that it's somehow my fault, because I was old enough to "do something" long before I actually did (I was 14 when I was removed from the, um, situation). And THAT is a conversation I can't go very far into with stupid people without provoking Issues.

    This is the second post of yours this week that's going into my permanent bookmarks (mostly to easily send to annoying people who need a clue). Rock on, Sady.

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  15. @Nanella: That's a very fair point, and well-taken. Thanks for calling me out on that.

    @Harriet Jacobs: Actually, that was the clearest (and most hilarious!) description of that logic-stream I have read yet.

    @Everybody: AWWWW, thank you.

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  16. @Nanella: Being disabled/depressive/mentally ill is not the same thing as getting everybody around you doing everything for you by manipulating them into pitying you. It is, in fact, possible to be in a wheelchair and become president of the United States. While keeping it out of the public eye. And there plenty of people with a history of mental illness who still do great things.

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  17. I think the anonymous commenter here missed Nanellas point. Or, more likely, just doesn't get it.

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  18. I don't understand why Breslin calls Feministe "aptly named." What's wrong with that name?

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  19. @Anonymous: I hear you, mental illness does not necessarily have to be incapacitating, and thank Maude for that! With the appropriate support and treatment protocol, the prognosis for most mental health sufferers is pretty optimistic (of course, type of illness and severity play a crucial role). The problem is that we cannot accurately hold everyone against the same recovery yardstick...there are infinite variations of every clinically diagnosable disorder. How many people are aware that there is no monolithic disorder known as "bipolar", for instance? There are several clinically recognized types and even more hypothesized variations. So, e.g., one person with BD will not fit the same profile as the next person with BD and so on.

    Things get a little tricky when we talk about "manipulation", as well. What a psychologically healthy person interprets as "manipulation" may, in actuality, be a product of distorted reality. A person with warped self-perception may honestly believe themselves to be weak and incapable of functioning independently. This may be a product of their upbringing (learned helplessness), a symptom of neurochemical imbalance, or a combination of both and/or other factors.

    Even the act of "baiting" others into feeling sorry for you is symptomatic of two or three mental health disorders, just off the top of my head. But it's frustrating (no, make that FRUSTRATING!) for family and loved ones when they're having to deal with this kind of mentally exhausting pathological behavior over and over, ad naseum. Pandering to others' dysfunctionalities is not the same thing as being compassionate and supportive. Tolerating it isn't healthy, either; that only serves to perpetuate the dysfunction and ultimately harms everyone involved.

    So, if you're following what I'm saying (and if I'm making sense...I hope), the objective in recognizing dysfunctional behavior as symptomatic of a mental health disorder(s) is not to perpetuate the behavior, but to acknowledge that a soluble problem exists, and, now, how are we going to get from recognition of the problem to a satisfying resolution? It can be a very long, difficult process for everyone involved because no two MH sufferers are exactly alike, the system is far from perfect, the pharmaceutical solutions are far from perfect (and unpredictable), and so it essentially comes down to trial and error when cobbling together an effective treatment plan.

    There is nothing simple or straightforward here, I'm sorry to say. I wish that weren't the case.

    I'd like to add that "manipulation" is not really a stand-alone dysfunctional behavior. A chronically manipulative person is not a psychologically well person -- there are bound to be a host of accompanying disordered symptoms.

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  20. @Anonymous: I'd be careful with that line of thought, were I you. While it's definitely true that disabled people, or folks with mental issues, can accomplish a lot, it's also true that there can be structural problems or symptoms of the illness that prevent them from so doing, and telling people to "overcome" without honestly looking at the obstacles they face can be sort of a lazy pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of rhetorical ploy.

    In this case, I think that what Nanella was saying, in her comment, is that the kind of codependent (such a '90s word! Still works, though) behavior described here, while not always the product of an illness, can mask a deeper, undiagnosed or untreated problem, which will need to be dealt with before the codependent behavior can be changed. Does that make sense?

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  21. Wow. Sady, you deserve a medal for sorting through all that Double X crap. I can't make sense of what these people are trying to accomplish - they have the intellectual rigor of a bag of squirrels. Thank goodness you can keep an eye on them, so I don't have to.

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