Wednesday, 16 February 2011

in support of exclusion

as i mentioned on my own blog a couple of days ago, i've been busy this week doing the taku manawa human rights facilitation programme. one effect is that i'm away from the internet all day & am so busy in the evenings trying to catch up with various things that i don't have time to engage on the blog.

i've been reading what maia has written regarding the wellington young feminists' collective and the various (and often angry) responses to that. i'm sorry that i haven't been able to support her in that discussion, and honestly feel a litte initimidated and nervous about treading into that territory. however, as part of the course, i have to give a 3-5 minute speech tomorrow (huge challenge for me in keeping it that short!) on an aspect of human rights, and this whole issue maia raised & the discussion around it has been churning in my mind all day.

so i'm going to be talking tomorrow about inclusion and exclusion, because i think we don't have enough decent conversations around that. and when we do try to have those discussions, it becomes quite distraught and pretty emotional very quickly. which is not a bad thing. emotion is important, the way people feel about an issue is important, and the fact they are moved to anger or hurt or frustration - well, that needs to be expressed.

but most importantly, disagreement (or maybe dissension is a better word) is a healthy thing. i was concerned by many commenters on maia's thread dismissing the issue she raised as trivial, unnecessarily disruptive & causing feminists to nitpick with each other. i have a very different view - i think that it is in the discussions around small things that the big issues get raised. the raising of the seemingly trivial or minute actually opens the door into things that have major implications, and it allows us to explore our own assumption and the way we are interacting. despite all the anger and some nastiness on that thread, i found so much of value, so much to think about and it made me challenge my thinking about something that i would otherwise have passed by without even noticing. i really don't see how that can be a bad thing.

i know that it's difficult, when there's a group that thinks it has a shared understanding, to dissent or disagree on something, knowing that by doing so you are disrupting that sense of common purpose. and it is highly likely that those with the most power within the group will feel attacked by the challenge. how they responsd is critical: to dismiss the dissent is actually dangerous to the group. it stifles the expansion of thought and the exploration of ideas. it teaches individuals to keep silent when they feel hurt or excluded, and so those individuals disengage from the group and something valuable is lost.

however, there is another side this notion of being inclusive versus feeling excluded, and this is what i'll speak about tomorrow. a lot of the field of human rights is about inclusion (and i don't claim to be any kind of expert in this area, 3 days of training so far can only give me a very shallow overview). it's about behaving in a way that makes others feel welcomed and valued, makes them feel part of the group.

but that very notion, the notion of being inclusive, actually excludes some people. it excludes the people who don't want to be inclusive, who want to stick to their prejudices and who want to make moral & ethical judgements based on the characteristics of another. so, in other words, we are actually not being inclusive when we take a rights-based approach - we can't be if we are to protect those very rights. if we are totally inclusive, then we in fact say that human rights don't matter.

the problem then comes down to who we exclude and how we exclude them. who decides? how do we draw our boundaries so that each individual can clearly determine whether or not they fall within them?

the problem becomes even more difficult when various rights compete against one another. we see that most clearly on this blog at the intersection of ethnicity/race and gender. some of the discussions we've had around the te papa memo on menstruation, for example, or on discussions about the burqa. to generalise, there are times when a person's right to practice their own religion or cultural traditions will clash with the right to not be discriminated on the basis of gender.

i can't find the post now [ETA: ok, i've finally found it], but i do recall writing one where i argued that the wearing the burqa was not a feminist act, even though it is a valid choice for women to make. in that case, i'm excluding women who wear the burqa from the tent of feminism, even though i totally accept that they themselves may believe they have made the choice to wear it from a position of strength and empowerment, and even though they may come under the tent on many other issues. so one person can be both in and out, can be a feminist on some issues and not on others. similarly, i believe that the whole boobquake thing was not a feminist event, even though the majority of those who took part thought of their own participation as an act of empowerment. (i won't go through all the arguments regarding my position on that, as it was very fraught at the time, and i'm only raising it as an example of drawing boundaries.)

but again, we come back to the basic question: who decides? and on what basis?

for many of these issues, the community or the group has to decide. it decides based on debates on a variety of forums, and through these, coming to a shared agreement. of course, there are plenty of times when agreement doesn't happen, when a whole subset feel excluded and rejected, and might leave the group to form another. or the whole group just collapses because no resolution can be achieved.

that is the reality and messiness of human interaction. but just because the end result is often negative (eg a split or collapse of the group or a failure to come to any kind of understanding), it doesn't mean that exclusion is bad, or that discussions about what should be excluded should be off the table. i think, in fact, that we don't have enough discussions about what should be excluded. we don't spend enough time at the edges, trying to determine where the boundary might actually fall. often, we're too afraid to have that discussion, and i know i've chickened out many a time because i just don't feel safe enough and strong enough to fight my point.

that's why i really admire maia (even though i've had my disagreements with her). she has done exactly that: challenged a particular boundary and stated why she thinks a particular post on a facebook group falls outside the boundary of feminism. having read through all the comments, i believe that her arguments are valid, though i might not agree with her solution & prefer alison's instead.

to conclude a rather long & rambling post, what i'm trying to say is that not only is it ok to exclude some things, it is actually crucial to do so. i'm saying it's important to have those difficult discussions about where the boundaries lie. and it doesn't really matter if we can't come to a consensus, because there are some principles that should never be compromised and people should stand their ground and fight for those. to take any other approach is to expect easy answers to difficult solutions, and is often to silence those who are feeling marginalised or hurting.

No comments: