Power versus Behavior

There’s a problem in progressive/liberal/hippie, and even in centrist, circles that I’ve been struggling to see as a problem and to name for a while, and I think I’ve finally figured it out.

We’ve gone from critiquing behaviors attached to positions of power to critiquing behaviors. This creates false equivalencies, and results in the people these critiques were originally created to help being equated to their oppressors while said oppressors get to feel validated in their feelings of fragility.

(ok monstrousjoy, that was a lot of big academic jargon words in one sentence, but what the fuck does it actually mean?)

Here’s an example:

We have collectively realized in recent years that men talk a lot more in group settings, and get called on a lot more by facilitators, than women, and we’ve recognized this is a problem, and decided that gender parity in amount of words spoken is a good thing to strive for. However, we are, for some reason, uncomfortable saying, for example, “I’ve been hearing a lot from the men in this group, let’s hear what the women have to say.” What we say instead is “let’s hear from some people we haven’t heard from.” The problem being highlighted is no longer male entitlement and male dominance, but the fact that some people talk a lot.

First of all, why don’t we feel comfortable saying “So far this conversation has been dominated by men. How about just women speak for the next ten minutes?” or, for that matter, “the white people in this group have been taking up too much space. For the next ten minutes, I want all whites to listen to what people of color have to say instead of speaking?” Why are we so afraid to name power dynamics within our own groups? Perhaps it’s because to do so would be to admit that our own groups are not immune from the forces of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc that we claim to want to eradicate in larger society. Perhaps we have yet to shake the notion that naming power dynamics is somehow impolite (a notion that in itself serves to reinforce and protect such dynamics), or maybe we are afraid (sometimes rightfully so) that the people in the group with power will be offended, and we’ll be putting ourselves and the other marginalized people in the group in a dangerous or uncomfortable position by setting off the volatile combination of power+fragility.

We may also be clinging to a false liberal ideal of equality, where equality, in the case of the example, means that everyone gets the exact same percentage of airtime, and the real problem, the threat to equality, is that some people talk more than others, not that one class of people feels that their words are inherently more valuable because they belong to that class, have been conditioned to believe everything they say is worthwhile, and that they are entitled to space to speak and a rapt and deferential audience when they do. This erroneous conception of equality and the threats to it are what lead people to thinking that reverse sexism is real, or that a woman shouting profanity at man (who otherwise has all the same social positions as she does) in the street is part of the same societal problem as catcalling.

Now, many self-styled progressives understand that there is no such thing as reverse sexism, and that a woman shouting “asshole!” at a man for stealing her parking space is not the same as catcalling. Yet these are the same people who frame group problems as being about people talking too much (as opposed to men taking up too much space), or sitting with legs open on public transit (rather than men taking up one and a half seats, and refusing to budge even when someone sits next to them). This reinforces systems of oppression while making us all feel like we’re holding each other accountable. It’s bullshit.

I’m a butch(ish) white Ashkenzi Jewish woman who had to navigate southern WASP spaces growing up. I have learning disabilities and I’m neuroatypical. I have had the way I speak, the amount I speak, the way my body occupies space, etc, critiqued as “too much” or “undesirable” since I could speak and position my body. White, straight, gender conforming, neurotypical cis men, on the other hand, are given the messages that what they have to say is valuable, how they say it is in keeping with their emotions, which are always acceptable and important, and that they deserve exactly as much space as they feel like taking up. When we frame the problem of who speaks more not as a problem of power but as a problem of personal behavior, those of us who have been conditioned to be hypercritical of our own behavior and always see ourselves as the problem/invalid/inappropriate/not valuable are enabled in our own self-silencing and self-devaluing habits, and those of us (the most privileged and powerful in the room) who have been conditioned to see themselves as inherently valuable and who feel victimized anytime their hegemony is eroded will also be enabled in their own problematic behaviors. “Everyone be aware of how much space you are taking up! Before you speak, ask yourself, ‘why am I talking :)!'” serves to encourage those used to being told to shut up to shut up, and those used to thinking they have every reason to dominate the conversation to dominate the conversation. The women in the group here “remember, nothing you have to say is valuable, so be quiet so the important and smart people can talk!” while the men hear “your points are valuable, and therefore you deserve to speak and shouldn’t feel like a bad feminist because of it.”

Critiquing behavior will always serve power because it serves it shield power from critique. Behaviors are all neutral, all contextual, all dependent on the who/how/when/where/why. To pretend otherwise is to be complicit in power’s double standards masquerading as true equality. We don’t want to believe this. It contradicts the simple ethics we were taught as children. Sharing is good, yelling is bad. But when a teacher demands that a child receiving free lunch “share” their fruit with the child whose parents pack them meals from Whole Foods because the rich child likes apple slices better, we should be able to recognize that sharing, in this case, is not a positive good. When the woman of color snaps in class and lets the rich white man have it, we should also recognize that yelling, in this case, is good. Behaviors become negative when they serve to reinforce oppressive systems, and when they do non-productive harm. What I mean by this is, sometimes a privileged person needs to have their feelings hurt in order to grow. Sometimes an abuser needs to be hit for their victim to escape. To label behaviors as always good or always bad limits the ways in which marginalized people can stand up against their own oppression, and rarely results in meaningful critiques leveled at people in positions of societal power.What makes speaking at length with conviction a problem is that straight white cis abled men use it as a tool to silence and invalidate others, and that they are given credence (and feel entitled to it) even when they have no evidence or knowledge to back up their assertions, not the fact that anyone could speak longer than anyone else, or that anyone’s conviction might make it difficult to form a worthy counter-argument in the moment. A woman, whether or not she is wearing a tie, and especially if she is Black, does not “exercise male privilege” by speaking at length with conviction on a topic on which she is an expert. In fact, she disrupts systems of sexism by doing so. A woman whose body occupies space differently because of disability and/or fate, especially if she is black, regardless of her hair-length, does not “exercise male privilege” by not having her legs primly crossed at all times. She defies enforcement of misogynistic body policing. Unless we go critiquing power, rather than politely critiquing behavior, we stand in very real danger of regressing in our beliefs around what is and is not appropriate for marginalized people.


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