Saturday, 19 February 2011

going beyond the individual

i think we've had some great posts put up here in the last week, and have really appreciated being able to think through the issues raised. i wanted to take up one point raised by deborah in her post on everyday feminism & knitting, which she put extremely well:

Part of the way it plays out is in the relationships I form with other people, which I try to base on respect. Respect for them as people, respect for their purposes. That respect can include criticising their choices, or approving of them. It certainly involves holding them responsible for those decisions. Only children and some people whose capacity to act autonomously is in some way diminished are immune from responsibility. Being up for criticism is part of being adult. Equally, those who criticise are responsible for what they say. There are no one way streets for adults.

for me, feminism goes further and looks at improving the choices available for women. i also hate it that so much of the discourse concentrates on individual choices and ignores the way institutional and cultural structures impact on those choices. it is, in effect, the neo-liberal approach of reducing everything to the individual, which i think is a deliberate strategy intended to actually alienate individuals from each other and to protect power structures from collective opposition.

i've seen it played out in practical terms on the stop the the rock's win a wife campaign facebook page. i've been following most of the discussions there (and may i once again express my admiration for those who are fighting the good fight, and apologise for not being able to put more time into helping them).

there have been any number of people who stop by to tell us that it is the choice of ukranian women to join these agencies, and that we feminists are evil for trying to restrict these choices and deny the ukranian women a chance at a better life. the disconnect is funny - they recognise that the individual choices of these women may be influenced by economic conditions in the ukraine, but have no interest in the factors that lead to those conditions, nor are they interested in measures that might be taken to improve those choices. neither are they interested in the fact that all women are affected by the way these agencies are set up and the way the competition is set up.

reducing everything to individual choice, by pretending society doesn't exist (hello margaret thatcher) and that if it does, it has no impact on that choice, makes it easier to ignore our collective responsibility to improve choices for women and for other marginalised groups.

i think we need to be saying "that choice isn't good", even while we support the individual who made that choice, acknowledge that it actually might be the best choice in the circumstances, and make sure we don't blame or shame the individual for making that choice. it's not always easy to do, and i know that in some cases it might well be impossible to criticise the choice without being seen to criticise the individual. and i know it sounds too much like the "love the sinner, hate the sin" doctrine that we see to excuse marginalisation of various kinds. but i think what i'm trying to say is something different, ie support the individual while working towards better choices for all individuals.


john said...

Well said. Simply taking the very simplistic argument that "everything comes down to choices" usually involves avoiding a close look at both the number and nature of those "choices". It is no coincidence that we have phrases such as "Hobson's choice" and "lesser of the two evils" in our language...


Deborah said...

Nicely said, anjum. I've been thinking about choice, turning some ideas over, but I haven't gotten anything coherent written yet. Mostly I'm trying to think my way through the idea that choice is not context-free, either in the sense of why people make particular choices, as you discussed, and in the sense of how that choice impacts on other people.

Maia said...

I also thought this was a really important. I absolutely agree about the individualism aspect of this, and the connection with neo-liberalism.

I find the idea 'feminism is about choice' really hard to respond to. It doesn't resonate with me at all and I disagree with it politically. Maybe this is because some of the things people are talking about I never felt like I had choices about, because my body often meant that I was dealing with ugh how do I do this, or not really seeing how anyone could do one of hte options, let alone lots, rather than feeling like I was actively choosing.

The choice between paying hte electricity bills and buying food is a choice (and a choice that women are usually the ones that have to make), but it's a fucking shitty one. There are so many times when, as John said we're having to choose between terrible things.

To me freedom would mean less choices rather than more, because we'll be able to say both or neither, or fuck this for a joke more often.

And I think it's true that one of the feminist movement has achieved has given women more choices. But in so many areas the reason it has failed. Just take having a child - it's such a classic no win situation - yes you can now do paid work with a child, you can get childcare and so on, but it still involves a series of sucky choices for most people I know.

I'm not sure that I agree with you about holding people responsible for their choices. Because one of the key things for me, is that you can never really know what people are choosing between. What the other options are or mean or don't mean. Often it can seem like another option from the one someone is much better in any number of ways, but that isn't even an option for them because of things about their life that you can't see.

I think people are responsible for the effect of their actions on people they have power over, and people they have relationships with. But I'm not sure how much wider I'd take that responsibility.

David Grice said...

It also goes into the area of conflicting choices. If we are to champion "choice", and say that it is their choice to join the agency, then it is our choice to make our voices heard and to act accordingly.

It is hypocritical for someone to say that the Ukranian women should have their choice to join an agency, but we should not have our choice to do what we are doing.

As has been discussed on the FB page, we do need to be careful when it comes to declaring certain choices as "poor". It would be improper, in my view, to "make" people feel bad because of the choices they made (bad or good).

Rather, we need to allow people the freedom to make fully informed choices. To have the information available to them, and support mechanisms that break down the oppression so many fall under. And I think that is what you are getting at in your last paragraph.

So many people seem to think that mere "choice" is all there should be. But as others have said - between what? If it was a choice between joining an agency and living a destitute life, then you do what you feel is right. If it was a choice between joining an agency, living a destitute life, being a strong independent person with their own means of support, and just living a normal life in a country where there is fairness, equality and opportunity for all ...well, our choices are going to be a little different.

Your comment about how there is disconnect - "all women are affected by the way these agencies are set up and the way the competition is set up" - so many of the people critical of the campaign seem to think we can just close our eyes, and the evil of the world won't be there.

I borrowed from Bob Geldolf in one of the comments - "there's a world outside your window, and it's a world of dread and fear". No matter how tightly you close your eyes, it will still be there. We can choose to pretend it doesn't exist, or we can act and face those evils, and try to make things better.

I know what I choose.

Monday said...

Thank you anjum.

And Maia - thank you for your comment on this thread (and your comments / posts elsewhere), it really resonated with me. I have often found myself saying half heartedly 'feminism is about having the power to choose' whilst my brain tries to process some pretty complex objections that I didn't (until now) have the clarity to verbalise.

I've quietly followed the series of posts over the past few days and would like to thank the blog contributors, Maia in particular, for some very intense but thoroughly enlightening discussion.