Untangling the Threads: Is there a cure for liberal infighting?
Editor’s note: I wrote this before I really grasped how insidious and universal white supremacy is. It was also before I taught mainly students of color, and learned that sometimes I should really just shut it. I’m leaving it up because I think it’s important to see where I’ve come from rather than erase it, but some of it is a bit cringy. Be warned.
So if you read my blog or know me at all, you know I spent the last couple years doing academic research on aggression on these here interwebs. I eventually chose to look at my data from a psychological (psychodynamic) perspective, wherein I examined the potential motivations for peeps to engage in said aggression. This proved enlightening, as it underscored what psychodynamic theorists (Freud, Jung, Vaillant, among others) have been saying for over a century: everybody has issues.
Rather than trying to decide the validity of anyone’s arguments, instead I looked for cues (clues) about what kind of stuff was going on unconsciously. The use of sarcasm, for example, demonstrates the writer’s tendency toward middling defenses like displacement or isolation. Name calling and violent language are less mature, most often indicating projection or in more extreme cases, acting out.
So why am I talking about this? Shouldn’t I be working on my book or something?
I have a confession. I originally planned to concentrate on online aggression among women, and use a Jungian Feminist framework. But I was so very put off by the rigidity of the feminist perspective in the Academy. Like for reals.
It’s hard to sort out. It’s been hard for a while. I started acquainting myself with mainstream-ish tomes of feminism like The Beauty Myth, The Chalice and the Blade, Women who Run with Wolves, and The Feminine Mystique before I started my PhD. I excitedly signed up for a Feminist Theory class my first semester. And then backed away slowly.
Part of this was because I’d never been asked to think about my privilege before. Like ever. I now consider this kind of pathetic and sad on the part of my previous 3 degree-schools, especially the one where I got a master of Leadership and Ethics. The fuck didn’t we talk about Marx and structural inequality? Why didn’t we read Gareth Morgan at the very least? In retrospect, I feel like the whole ethics thing was watered way down.
I digress. Anyway, it’s painful and confusing to face one’s own privilege. Especially when one’s professor refuses to let anyone in the class of diverse women who are less aware of the basics of feminism than I (and I am woefully ignorant of anything beyond pop-feminism at that point), talk to each other and relate on an interpersonal level. Because The Man.
So it turns out my prof was a real-life Radical Feminist From The 70s ™ and REALLY really didn’t want anybody having feelings or sharing or any of that shit. Because THE MAN. It was kind of like being a beginning initiate into a religion and having someone tell us we weren’t real Christians/Muslims/Jews unless we believed the most rigid, dogmatic version and didn’t question or discuss anything. It kind of sucked.
But, on the other hand, I was beginning the lifelong process (at 42) of confronting my ample privilege and recognizing that (a) that didn’t mean I was incapable of deep suffering and (b) there are certain types of shit I will NEVER face that many other people do daily, because structural inequality. Stressful and humbling, but necessary. Said teacher’s approach to presenting this information? Unhelpful, cryptic, and censoring.
Eventually, I wove the parts I grokked in with my self-concept because I gave up on the idea of perfection or being “finished” with growth. Especially as I progressed through my PhD and became more embedded in the developmental perspective which is: We develop. Forever. Then we die.
Also, teaching brought with it many difficult but enlightening lessons about my blindness to the views and experiences of others. I’ve learned to welcome them, as much as I dread fucking up and none of my students telling me that it’s really time for me to pull my foot out of my mouth.
Okay, so the nowadays.
The nowadays is full of crazy. The Rad Fems (who I find less and less rad) are policing the language of Fucking Everybody. Fucking Steve Martin (not known for his feminism anyway) gets drummed off Twitter for saying that Carrie Fischer was pretty to him before he knew her as the badass she was. Horror.
This then leads to the anti-fems saying “I fucking told you so all feminists are the suck!!?!!”
This is not unlike some of the interactions I’ve watched/participated in recently as I’ve tried to get involved in progressive activism. “I have this opinion about this thing.” “Your opinion is ignorant/hurtful/stupid.” ALL BRAINS EXPLODE.
I find myself trying to moderate, calm people down, and mostly failing. People are scared. They’re on the defensive. They’re traumatized. They’re extending the trauma by bringing it online, the perfect place to get further traumatized by some random person who just does that.
So how do I make sense of all this crazy? How can I help the causes of civility, civil rights, open communication, the defense of the constitution, and other little things like that?
Well, I think I need to retreat back to my comfy place of the intrapsychic (psychological) perspective for a bit. Bear with me.
Academics and others often break the human experience into three levels:
- Structural/Social/Macro – Society and its rules and norms.
- Interpersonal/Relational/Meso – Relationships between people.
- Intrapsychic/Psychological/Micro – Our internal worlds.
Here’s where I think we are screwing up.
On the structural level, as a hyper educated upper middle class white lady, I need to listen to the experiences of people who face far more discrimination, bigotry, and oppression than I ever have or will. I need to understand that I cannot walk in their shoes, and pretending that I can is delusional. I also (and this is the really tough bit) need to recognize my collusion with the forces of oppression if I am not actively fighting them. Ouch. That part is hard and sometimes makes me feel ashamed or guilty. It also motivates me to grow and contribute to positive change.
On the interpersonal level, I have relationships with lots of people who have many different experiences. My black friends may be relatively privileged; some of my white friends may come from deep poverty. My gay friends may have a great deal of social status or very little. We relate based on shared experiences, interests, etc. Each relationship is unique; we make up the rules as we go along. The structural stuff may have a lot of impact on the quality and depth of our relationships, or very little. For example, my skinny friends may say stupid shit about their diets, or complain about feeling fat in front of a fat person; I decide whether I want to give them information about oppression of different body types, or just let it go.Ultimately, it’s between us how we navigate this stuff in the context of our relationships. I believe that in some relationships ignoring these kinds of things will erode existing intimacy; in others it’s not that important.
On the intrapsychic level, we are all the fucking same. We have the same range of emotions. We have the same fears and hopes. We fear death, loss, sickness. We desire love, safety, connection. Culture has some effect on what we value and how much, but our basic psychological material is the same. Structural inequality and privilege affects the kinds of trauma that might be primary in our lives–or not. It depends. I think the main thing that comes from oppression is a lack of safety, but it’s not unique to structural inequality. It can come from a history of mental illness (also a form of inequality in cultures that don’t treat it like ours), or a loss of fortune, or a contentious divorce. Each person’s deepest, darkest fears are their own, no matter how they measure up to anyone else’s.
So here’s where I think stuff goes haywire. Here are some terms that have been thrown around historically and lately on the internet:
“angry black man”
What do these phrases have in common? They all reference emotion. Emotion is not structural. It’s not even interpersonal, really. We trigger emotion in others – we don’t cause it. Emotion is intrapsychic. Freud imagined emotion coming from the viscera – literally from the guts. Emotion cannot be interrogated like privilege. It can’t be controlled by others (much as many would prefer it that way). Emotion lives in our bodies and must be processed through the body and the mind.
We can’t process this stuff structurally. Not really. Yes – recognizing the social systems that allow certain kinds of behavior by certain people but not others is super important. But it doesn’t heal. And the thing that really worries me is the amount of shaming I see people doing to each other online. Not because the targets will suffer forever, but because it’s just another way of avoiding feelings and by extension, relationship. Feelings are not structural. Structures may inform what feelings we cling to or avoid, but that’s it. At the core, like I said, it’s the same set of basic human emotions. The end.
So if I use the language of social justice to shame someone for being angry, or sad, or fearful, am I educating them? Am I helping my cause? Prolly not.
I tend to think about this in terms of parenting. There are certain times when I can’t avoid hurting my kid’s feelings. She needs to know if she does something destructive. And her wails of “You hurt my feelings!” don’t fall on deaf ears, but I don’t back away. On the other hand, if I’m angry, tired, sad, or otherwise freaked out and I yell at her or say something hurtful, that’s on me. Even if she did something annoying, I’m responsible for responding disproportionately. She needs to know that I’m fallible, and that I’m not too attached to my authority to admit when I’m wrong. She needs to know that I wasn’t coming from a loving place, and that I’m sorry.
So when another professor explained structural inequality to me in a way that, while compassionate, still made me feel uncomfortable and guilty–that was okay. I needed to sit in that place for a while. She was coming from a good place, not a destructive one.
But as I watch these clusterfucks play out online, I see a lot of traumatized people using the language of social justice to beat other people over the head. (And just FYI, it’s not relegated by privilege. It’s equal opportunity verbal abuse.) And that just seems self-gratifying and defensive to me. It comes out as sarcasm, ridicule, name calling, and verbal attacks. In fact, it shows the same kind of immaturity and general projection as the conservatives who are parading their victory over progressives as if they won a football match. If I was doing research on this stuff, it would all end up in the massive data dumping ground of projection and displacement. And while those are human behaviors, they are not righteous, they are not generative, and they are not, above all, compassionate.
Compassion can’t happen when we’re acting out of our lizard brains/hindbrains/Id. Compassion only happens when we can face our own fears, anger, and shames, and then open up to other people and see them as sharing the same human strengths and faults.
If we try to battle our feelings out based on structural high ground, we won’t move.
Early in my relationship with my now husband, I read Men are From Mars etc. etc. It’s not a lengthy or particularly deep tome. But I got something profound out of it nonetheless. Whether it’s gender, or background, or culture, we’re are often very different from our partners. It behooves us to learn to communicate with them in ways they understand. I distilled it down to one question, that I think applies to the current discussion:
“Do you want to be right, or do you want to have a positive outcome?”
Because for reals. Which will it be?