Friday, September 12, 2008

Thoughts on feminist processing.

When I was in graduate school, some of my peers were involved in something called "Collective." This group was, yes, a collective, and it was made up of students who were teaching together - teaching colleagues, one might say. The aim of the group was to use collective process to help grad students, working in teams, to teach sections of the same intro Women's Studies course. The collective would meet each week to go over the readings for the upcoming class sessions and to process issues that were coming up in the group, either within the teaching dyads, within the various class sessions, or within the collective group itself.

The meetings, scheduled for about two hours, frequently ran long. My friends would emerge from Collective looking dazed. I would often hear stories about who had cried in Collective, who had made someone else cry, who had made a patently racist/classist/heterosexist comment, who was oppressing someone else with her privilege.

These exchanges were made possible by the use of Criticism/Self-Criticism, or Crit/Self-Crit, for short. This was, in effect, an open opportunity for anyone to publicly level charges against anyone else in the group, as well as to also note what one has realized about one's own abuse of privilege. The purpose was to allow for people to help each other to recognize their own places of privilege, and to challenge each other when it seemed they were stuck in an "ism."

But this practice quickly meant that a competition for most oppressed/least privileged, as well as least oppressive/best ally, was under way.

The typical pattern was this. Someone would do something to upset another member of the Collective; this very often happened within teaching dyads. The person who was upset would then go to others in (and also those outside of) the Collective and complain. By the time the week's meeting had rolled around, everyone in the Collective was already angry with each other, having taken sides in whatever fight was brewing. Instead of a private discussion, the teaching dyad would now have involved everyone in the Collective, as well as many friends on the outside, in the debate. Stories were spread widely of L.'s classism, of S.'s homophobia. You might think that this was an opportunity for women of color and lesbians and working class women to finally have a voice - and at first, it seemed like it might be. But what happened very quickly was that everyone became subject to a vicious process. Almost no one was protected (I will say more about this in a minute). M. denouncing L.'s classism one week felt like righteous justice, and therefore, was done harshly. But two weeks later, L. was the one harshly denouncing M.'s homophobia. Always, ALWAYS, someone was near tears, someone was enraged, and everyone was exhausted. And all of this was shared in the public forum of the Collective, and often leaked out into the even more public forum of the school at large.

Let's not forget one important reason that people didn't immediately reject such a difficult and painful system: it was likely that, no matter how humiliated or hurt they were one week, they would get to chastise someone the following week. They would be the one who would get to school someone else on appropriate language, behavior, or dress. That opportunity is very tantalizing, folks.

Was there learning? Probably. I do think that everyone learned something about their own privilege and prejudice. But at what cost? Several people lost friends. And no one, it seemed, learned anything about confrontation. No one learned how to say to a working partner, romantic partner, or friend, "hey, I'm really upset about this. Can we discuss it?" The process was tilted toward venting, not toward using "I" language.

There was one instance I recall in which one person seemed, for a time, to remain exempt from criticism. She managed to constantly cast herself as most oppressed in the group, and this was ingenious, because it meant that she had all the power in the group. It meant that she could - and did - make anti-Semitic comments, for example, and that no one would call her on them. It meant that she could - and did - bully other people in the group because everyone was so cowed by her that they were sure that she must be right - until she turned her fury on them. Because what she was after was not justice, but power. (I googled her: she's a grassroots activist, and I'm sure she's very successful at what she does. But I would never want to work with her.)

It reminds me of an earlier post about what happens when you try to dismantle privilege through a concerted effort to oppress someone (i.e., forceably remove what you perceive as their privilege). It doesn't work. It makes a lot of people miserable, and at the end of the day, all that you've proven is that you are a bully.

If we want to see real change, if we want to challenge each other to eradicate the isms that we have hidden inside us, then the route to that is never public shaming. The only route to that is direct dialogue. How many times lately have we seen positive outcomes - for anyone - from public shaming? Seriously?

Sometimes, let's be honest, the goal is not change. Sometimes, when someone is standing on your neck, you don't have the luxury of saying, "hey, you probably didn't mean to, and you maybe don't even notice, but you are standing on my neck right now. Could you step back?" In that case, the proper response is, "get the hell OFF!" But in this case, it really doesn't matter what reaction this receives, as long as the person gets off your neck, right? And the problem with feminist processing is that we confuse our goals. We think that we want to have productive dialogue, when we really want to yell, "get the hell OFF!" And there's certainly a place for that.

Am I saying that people with their feet on other people's necks get a pass? Of course not! If someone tells you to get the hell off, you should immediately jump back. This is not the time to stand there talking about how you didn't mean to put your foot there, and are they sure you're really actually stepping on them because you're pretty sure you're not, and so on. But the reality is that most people are incapable of doing this, or at least are unlikely to do this. And so that means that it's time to strategize. What do you want to happen? What's the most likely way to make that happen?

At the end of the day, "process" has become, at least in some circles, a sort of safe way to gossip: "I need to process what happened" means "I really need to vent about that assholish thing P. did." And if I vent to you about this, then I certainly don't need to talk to P. about it and tell her that she really upset/hurt me. But that's not processing, that's gossiping and venting, and it doesn't move anyone forward, ever.

I don't think many people look back on Collective as a shining example of how to treat each other well as feminists, nor as an example of a useful feminist process. And as for me, when I start to hear Collective-like approaches for dealing with conflict, I run as fast as I can in the other direction. I'll take my conflict direct, please - not behind my back, not in passive-aggressive emails - just honestly, like maybe you respect me a little. Because I respect you. I might not always be able to hear you right away, but I almost always get there. And I am willing to bet that you do, too.

15 comments:

Trinity said...

Not quite the same thing, but the whole "everyone gets to be really mean to others because they're OPPRESSORS" thing, well, reminds me a bit of these dynamics I experienced.

Octogalore said...

Awesome post. And I like your conclusion -- if there is mutual respect, there should be a way of directly handling conflict that achieves resolution -- whether that's acknowledgment of privilege, understanding of dynamics that it might obscure, an opportunity to explain without defensiveness, or all of the above.

Public tarrings and featherings among supposed allies who do have, or should have, mutual respect usually don't accomplish those things and are typically, in my experience, motivated by things other than the desire to accomplish those things.

Trinity said...

I think those spaces lend themselves to drama, too, some of them. Because they set themselves up as "The Oppressor is bad, and women should feel free to not be polite!" Considering how likely it is that in any group of women, membership in other social groups is going to vary, this just plain MEANS everyone is going to shout at everyone else.

Daisy said...

It has taken me awhile to respond to this... not because it isn't brilliant--but because it is. :)

I was just thinking that women as a group, as we have been currently socialized, damn straight-up-simple just don't know how to handle disagreement, slights, disrespect, in a community. Whatever the subject(s). Men (patriarchal cultures to be precise) have developed very ritualized, stylized ways of handling conflict, they call it diplomacy and military intelligence and all like that. In all cultures, from the wild-west shoot-out to Samurai to the formal duels that "gentleman" challenged each other to, to basic street values ("You talkin to me?")--they have very specific lines that one crosses and is aware one has crossed it. Then, the duel, the slug-out, the war, whatever.

No such carefully-drawn lines regarding respect and disrespect exist in women's cultural settings and groups. Yet these standards do exist, of course.

I sometimes think slugging things out and then bowing and putting it aside--would be a lot preferable than these periodic emotional disembowelments women do to each other. You know, I would prefer a few broken bones, no biggie. Broken hearts are worse, and that is how women fight --by withholding affection and/or what you so astutely described: what happened very quickly was that everyone became subject to a vicious process. (Does that remind anyone of high school?)

I hate to admit this, but on this one? The guys have it right. Simple dueling is more humane

Always, ALWAYS, someone was near tears, someone was enraged, and everyone was exhausted.

My grandmother would have called this "the vapors"...

Let's not forget one important reason that people didn't immediately reject such a difficult and painful system: it was likely that, no matter how humiliated or hurt they were one week, they would get to chastise someone the following week. They would be the one who would get to school someone else on appropriate language, behavior, or dress. That opportunity is very tantalizing, folks.

I admit that it is.

You are a fabulous and insightful writer, PF. :)

It is interesting that these events generally take on the characteristics of Marxist purges and any disagreement is taken as further proof that you are just oh so far gone, rather than trying to argue to clarify, to learn, to try to make real changes. I argued with vegetarians for years before I became one myself, for instance. But always, my arguments were regarded as coming from a place of good will and love, as between family. We are all progressives here, was the assumption. My education about anti-semitism was similarly very gentle, the assumption always, that arguing meant I cared, not that I didn't care.

I was stunned to see that basic assumption evaporate recently. *Poof* into thin air, like Keyser Söze.

It doesn't work. It makes a lot of people miserable, and at the end of the day, all that you've proven is that you are a bully.

What gets me is, why do people in these situations act like they are dealing with enemies, rather than friends? Perhaps that's the most confusing of all.

Thank you for writing this, and for your witness and wisdom.

Trinity said...

"the assumption always, that arguing meant I cared, not that I didn't care."

I think this is the key here. Now, the arguing means you didn't learn enough feminism before coming inside.

Renegade Evolution said...

yep. and sometimes, it really is time to yell "get off my neck".

Plain(s)feminist said...

I think those spaces lend themselves to drama, too, some of them. Because they set themselves up as "The Oppressor is bad, and women should feel free to not be polite!" Considering how likely it is that in any group of women, membership in other social groups is going to vary, this just plain MEANS everyone is going to shout at everyone else.

Yeah, because also, in these spaces, we're actively trying to do things differently. It's frequently well-intentioned - Collective was all about really helping people to change the way they saw the world and behaved in it. So we suspend a lot of the rules of engagement of the real world, AND we also assume that because everyone is in this space with us, we are all alike. And when someone screws up in a way that makes friends doubt him/her as a friend, or when someone else expresses their difference in a way that makes others uncomfortable, then all of a sudden, the "safe" community is full of people who no longer feel like allies. (Which, Daisy, is part of the answer to your question about why people can act in these situations like they are dealing with enemies: they feel like people they thought were friends have suddenly revealed themselves to be enemies.)

Daisy said...

Which, Daisy, is part of the answer to your question about why people can act in these situations like they are dealing with enemies: they feel like people they thought were friends have suddenly revealed themselves to be enemies.)

You really are brilliant!

belledame222 said...

Hey, y'know, just a quick note: I think, sometimes, "process" just means "let's let whoever needs to talk about what just happened, for closure as much as anything else." it doesn't necessarily -actually- mean a long intense jargon laden and confrontational deconstruction that goes on and on and is still going on days or weeks later...

and for the record, I never liked the term much, or the, well, process, or jargon in general; just, well, sometimes, yeah, conflict happens, and, well, not everyone is going to see what went down the same way, and it may just be that it's not actually resolvable in a way that's satisfying to all parties, sometimes. which sucks, yes.

as my development professor said,

"Groups are inherently unstable."

also I pretty much take it as a given that backchannel always happens as well, because, y'know, it's how people work.

Plain(s)feminist said...

Hey Belle,
Yes, it's true that backchannel is a natural part of group interactions, but part of the notion of feminist process is doing things differently, no? I think empowering women (and men) to confront each other in strategic (I was going to write "positive," except that, as I said in my post, there are different goals in different situations, and they are not all for positive discussion) ways.

And "process" defined as "let's let whoever needs to talk about what just happened, for closure as much as anything else," is still
not dealing directly with the problem - it's venting. If a problem isn't resolved, venting is all that's left, but very often it seems to be the first rather than last reaction. Just as an observer of social interactions, in general, it seems that the more there is venting, the less likely it is that there is any actual confrontation with an eye toward resolution, and the less likely there is to be resolution (here, I'm thinking of my own family!).

(Please also keep in mind, in case it's unclear, that while I am talking generally about feminist process, and while some ideas may be applicable to certain situations beyond the Collective, the Collective is the centering point for this discussion.)

Plain(s)feminist said...

Which, Daisy, is part of the answer to your question about why people can act in these situations like they are dealing with enemies: they feel like people they thought were friends have suddenly revealed themselves to be enemies.)

You really are brilliant!

Well, I appreciate the kindness, but I'm thinking that there are plenty of times when people straight out explain this, that they say "I don't feel safe here" or "I am hurt by this," and if the reaction is something other that "whoa - that's not what I wanted to happen, I'm so sorry," then it is realistic for them to feel that they are among enemies. Because an enemy is not just someone who wishes you harm - an enemy is also someone who you see as a friend and then find out that they can still hurt you or that they haven't been listening to you all this time or that they haven't noticed that they are hurting you. I think we all definitely need to do a better job of listening when someone says "you hurt me," and sometimes it's a hard thing to do.

Daisy said...

PF, you mentioned the Maoist process of Crit/Self Crit... which I have experienced in a variety of settings. I have seen it used very positively, such as by the Clamshell Alliance. I am wondering if the reason for that is: so many of them were pacifists and committed to not being aggressive in their speech (in all things, in their everyday lives, too), which effectively defused most potentially incendiary "criticism" sessions, rather as 12 step groups also do.

Saying, in effect, "Hey I do that too, you aren't the only one!" is another 12-step tool that I hold dear... I have used this for so many years that I am usually pretty shocked when people set themselves up as flawless critics of a comrade's behavior, without copping to something negative or unwanted in their own. (So, admittedly this is a bias of my own.)

I have to say, I don't quite believe that their own prejudices don't play at least a teensy part in the way they deliver that criticism, since some people in groups (all groups) are, as you have correctly pointed out, simply never criticized and totally immune to the same criticisms being leveled at others.
And when these same folks claim they just don't have those prejudices? Well, I think we are ALL conditioned to have biases and prejudices to some degree. Everyone.

And that is what Crit/Self Crit was designed to address: I criticize myself for being a materialistic, gas-hogging shit who loves new cars, but Daisy, your habit of buying new leather boots every few weeks is just as bad as that. We both need to deal with our materialism.

That is far easier to digest than: You are a horrible evil shit for not caring about the cows and wearing expensive leather boots, you bourgeois asshole.

Responding to that, I am just liable to look out the window, point at the new car and say, EXCUSE ME??? And not hear a damn thing they say.

And this is REAL LIFE example from 1978 (remarkably similar to "Collective") so thought I'd use it here.

Daisy said...

Because an enemy is not just someone who wishes you harm - an enemy is also someone who you see as a friend and then find out that they can still hurt you or that they haven't been listening to you all this time or that they haven't noticed that they are hurting you.

That's also called "marriage" and "parenthood"...as well as simple friendship. Seriously, I think you have described the state of being human. People hurt each other all the time, use hurtful language all the time. I often choose to ignore it. Like, if someone writes a post in which vegetarians (or Christians or Catholics or southerners) are portrayed as sanctimonious scumbags, which is fairly common in Blogdonia, I almost universally ignore it. Doesn't mean it didn't hurt, but it does mean I didn't want to keep the hurt going.

What happens in these types of situations is, you want to go back to all the times you were wounded and said nothing, and dig it all back up and make an issue about it.

Or, you gracefully exit "collective" rather than turn into the ghost of Gregory Zinoviev.

Trinity said...

Daisy, I definitely see how that can help. But personally I'm starting to think that all this criticism isn't productive. I feel much more interested these days in criticizing the broken system than in criticizing the people. Or... well, eh. That makes it sound like I never criticize people and that's a lie.

I guess... eh. I feel much less like criticizing people's behavior or politics Has A Meaning beyond "personally, I think you're (being) an asshole." Like over at my place I'm in a towering rage at V, and politics is some of why. But even if that's true and I win an argument and she comes to see that transfolk are people... that doesn't change the murder rate, y'know? So yeah, I'm human, I can yell back when someone yells at me. But that's no longer something I see as "feminist" or whatever. That's just "yelling at someone for being an asshole."

Daisy said...

But personally I'm starting to think that all this criticism isn't productive. I feel much more interested these days in criticizing the broken system than in criticizing the people.

That's a great idea.

Or, the people we do criticize should be the people in positions to do major harm, Bush, Cheney, McCain, Palin, local mayors, local congress, media outlets (Fox) and so on. (Apologies for being US-centric, but then again, I think our bad presidents end up hurting the whole world.)

In the piece I wrote about my father (here), I was thinking, did he really do harm? Yes, he actively and physically harmed ME, my mother, my stepmother, my brother, his own father, his sisters, etc. So, we can actually look at people's lives and try to gauge how much influence they have, and over whom. Obviously, a more powerful man of a more powerful class, could do even more harm, with the same (lack of) ethics my father held to.

If we are going to dole out punishments, we need to make the punishment fit the crime. (But like PF says, I'd rather not adhere to the old pre-feminist models if we can avoid it.)