Stuff People Ask Me: Part I

 

 

I’m not very good at directly answering questions. I usually find a way to ask the question back to the person asking. It seems that in most cases, this is exactly what they wanted. So I listen intently to their responses to their own questions, not because I am good or kind, but because this is how I learn. And I actually enjoy the collaborative space of listening and learning.

But this year, I am actively working on the relationality of “sharing” my answers to a lot of questions people ask me that I would typically avoid. For example, a former student just texted to ask me what I think of the #metoo campaign. While I appreciate how many women were courageous and shared their stories (I participated myself by using the hashtag on social media, although I didn’t share the details of any personal abuse stories publicly), I think it was really more of a way of feeling better about ourselves and our collective situations (like the Women’s March), without specifically proposing or outlining steps for systemic change. I also think the #metoo campaign leaves out the voices of the most disenfranchised and conflates microaggressions with criminal violence. I think systemic patriarchy won’t capitulate until we address how capitalism requires these hierarchies. Competition over presumed scarcity of resources is how we teach leadership, power, and masculinity in our culture. Whether its a ball or a company or a woman’s body, the goal is to dominate. This is even how we teach men to be good men, by so often measuring a man’s worth by his ability to provide. And so many women teach each other (through deifying marriage and the nuclear family) that being owned by a man (as long as he is “nice”) is desirable and socially elevating.

I mean, before #metoo, who didn’t know this is the world we live in, really? (Shout out to SNL’s “Welcome to Hell” skit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1l26UFQ06eQ) Who are we trying to reach here? “Good” men? So many men I know really don’t see themselves as part of the problem. Since so many of us conflate sexual violence with criminality, we don’t identify ourselves, or our friends, as part of the problem. Men don’t see how their entitlement presumes, but doesn’t require, consent. And women often don’t see our own capitulation to and perpetuation of hierarchies as systemic patriarchy (and rape culture) either.  

Like Brock Turner (who is just one of hundreds of thousands of American men who have acted on their presumed entitlement to women’s bodies), Harvey Weinstein is a problem, but he’s not THE problem. Women rallying to show how common this type of behavior is may look like progress, but it propels the illusion that someone in power is listening and something will change. Let’s face it: it was mostly women with social capital who participated in this campaign, and it was primarily women with social capital we collectively heard. It’s not irrelevant that all these women have been harassed or assaulted, but its not the whole picture, either. Its relatively well known now that Tarana Burke came up with the “metoo” slogan 10 years ago to address the pervasiveness of abuse in minority communities. But of course, hardly any one had heard the phrase, let alone used it, until a white celebrity coined it recently on social media. I can’t help but wonder how many women who work in service industries have stories they could tell, but don’t. Where is their #metoo? Think back to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s household help. Did anyone publicly ask to what degree she felt agency in her choices? Does her story matter? Publicly, the stance was to pity Maria (without any real discussion of what the agreements might have been in their marriage to begin with), but was she the only victim here? In I Love Dick (which is a fantastic read!), Chris Kraus claims, “Who gets to speak, and why, is the only question.” Who do we listen to? After this long-held secret in the California governor’s home broke, who started a campaign to share the stories of domestic workers across America? Who would have dared participate? Who addressed the inherent power imbalances in the sexual politics of domestic employees and those who own their services? How much more common have the sexual violations of household help (documented and undocumented) been by employers in western culture than the injustices between directors, producers, actors or their assistants? Who gets to tell their stories, and who listens when they do? Lauren Berlant claims:

Thus sex, activism, stranger encounters, reading–any collaborative practice–are not just performances of disavowal of the object’s placeholderness but scenes of a drama of attention in which we seek to work out relationality, which is a task alongside of our aims to explain, maintain, and control the encounter….to me it’s not politics if we are not trying to see how to change the consequences of what happens when the scene we are in shifts our orientation in ways we do not control….Because of our curiosity about how it will work out (will it be broken down or transformed?), because of our desires not to be defeated by life, we enter the scene of relationality that is also and ultimately a demand for collaboration; relationality disturbs fantasy enough that it is open to crazy controls and also to absorbing and generating new social relations.”

I’ve been pondering how we relate to these questions and where and when and how we participate in dialogue that could actually generate new social relations. Who tells their stories? And whose stories do we share? As I write this, a friend asked me how I make time to read books when there are so many other compelling things to do. I hastily sent her this blog on how to read more, from Austin Kleon: https://austinkleon.com/2014/12/29/how-to-read-more/

And then I stopped to ponder. Why did I share his opinion rather than my own? Why do I make the time to read books? And do I let the ideas from these books propel dialogue that shifts my relationship to control or to voices outside of my current social sphere? While I love Austin’s advice, I’ve never followed any of these suggestions for any length of time. I read approximately 100 books a year (in addition to whatever articles I assign), because reading is like eating to me. But I didn’t say that. I evaded her question. Mostly, I make time to read like I make time to eat–in random bursts, on the go, when and how I can, carrying with me whatever I enjoy the most.

I metabolize words like I metabolize sugar. I’m voracious and mildly irresponsible with my choices, but I’ve persisted this way for decades. Like my food choices, I’ve generally considered reading a guilty pleasure, one which, as a mom of young children, I justified by calling “my work.” I’ve made time for work throughout my entire adult life because my “work” is how I have supported my family. And while I still consider “reading widely” a necessary part of my job as a journalism adviser, I no longer have to justify it. I continue to consume words like calories, for quick energy and access to deep thought. Reading and sharing ideas from what I read is my relationality, and books feel the most satisfying. But without sharing these ideas, I am not actively collaborating in a dialogue that could promote social change.

In no particular order, here are my top 10 reading pleasures (in book form) from 2017:

The Fact of a Body, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Love and Trouble, Claire Dederer

We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Notorious RBG, Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik

Nasty Women, eds. Samhita Mukhopadhyay & Kate Harding

Sex, or the Unbearable, Lauren Berlant & Lee Edelman

Love Warrior, Glennon Doyle

The Power, Naomi Alderman

A Uterus is a Feature, not a Bug, Sarah Lacy

We Were Witches, Ariel Gore

For the record, this is the first time I have answered this question publicly. It occurs to me now that the second wave feminists were perhaps right, that the personal may be political. In any case, if anyone cares to know what I’m reading in 2018, I’ll keep answering this question.

 

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