Humility is Not Humiliation

Lots of things have me thinking about this, but it was a conversation with my long-time mentor and former undergraduate professor Alice Bach that made me decide to write about it. Alice had posted a story about yet another respected and fairly high-profile white feminist from the generation before mine who was engaged in making openly transphobic – particularly transmisogynist – comments. Many people today call such feminists “TERFs” – trans exclusive radical feminists. I’m not convinced that I like that name, because I don’t want to cede a term like “radical” to someone whose idea of liberation and justice is so limited. I’m also not sure I want to share the word “feminist” with them. Of course, feminism isn’t mine to gatekeep – nothing is, really – but their feminism isn’t the feminism I advocate for.

My conversation with Alice about this particular instance of a well-known and (formerly) respected feminist engaging in public transmisogyny helped me to connect several other recent instances of well-known feminists behaving badly – and not in the positive way of “well-behaved women rarely make history.” I’m talking about repeated instances of respected white feminists in their 60s, 70s, and 80s making public pronouncements that, in my opinion, aren’t feminist. I’m becoming less and less shocked when this happens, but I still feel let down, betrayed. I learned some of my feminism from these folks, and most of the rest of it from their feminist critics – are these prominent white feminists still fighting the same battles they were fighting in the 1980s, without noticing that the field around them has changed and that on some fronts they were on the wrong side back then? If so, why?

The big example that kind of rocked my world was the scolding that Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright issued to “younger women” whose intersectional and inclusive approach to feminism was leading them to support Bernie Sanders instead of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary race. Albright repeated her famous claim that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other,” demonstrating if nothing else her hypocrisy in refusing to help women whose choice of candidate differed from her own and in supporting a candidate whose approach to helping women has been markedly limited to specific kinds of women. Steinem went so far as to claim that “young” women (if I weren’t such a feminist, and proud of my years, I might be honored to be called “young”) were simply going where “the boys” were. In her eyes, apparently, feminist women who didn’t share her choice of political candidate were mindless sex kittens toadying to the men. What a heterosexist, misogynist claim to come from the mouth of a respected feminist leader!

So what happened? One answer is that the 2016 Clinton campaign was a perfect illustration of the limitations of identity politics – but that’s for another blog post. Another is that misogyny is alive and well, and not just outside of feminism. Clinton’s opponents, not only among Republicans but also among some Democratic voters, made that obvious. Unfortunately, Gloria Steinem made it obvious too. And in the end it’s pretty much always the case that there isn’t a single, definitive answer to questions about human actions. But one thing seems clear to me: When you come into activism fighting against very real humiliation, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish it from humility. And good leadership demands humility.

A bunch of activist readers just felt their hackles go up. That’s exactly my point, though, so give me a chance to explain.

People who study power and privilege have known for a long time that these things are hard to perceive when you hold them, and easier to perceive when you don’t. This idea is at the root of many feminist ideas about how we know what we know, and it grounds a lot of arguments about why someone’s social location – their assigned and self-identified gender(s), their race, their class, and so on – is important to how they perceive the world. Ask anyone around you about who has power over them in an important part of their lives, and they’ll give you a long list. Ask who they have power over, and the question becomes harder to answer except in cases of strictly institutionalized power dynamics. A middle-management worker will tell you they have power over the people who report directly to them, but they may forget that they have the ability to make other subordinate workers’ lives hell too, by walking through a flowerbed that the grounds crew recently planted, or by leaving their wastebasket overflowing with gross stuff for the janitors to have to clean up. So if your activism focuses – as many people’s activism does – on social problems that make you powerless, then it may be hard to see the ways you also have power and privilege right from the start. It may be even harder to notice the increase in your power and privilege as you become well-known, advance in your career, and the like.

These prominent feminists, like other prominent social justice leaders who fall far short of embracing a profoundly inclusive model of justice, seem to suffer as many of us do from a limited capacity to distinguish humility from humiliation. Having built their lives and careers on fighting against their own humiliation and that of others like them (in whatever sense they’re able and willing to recognize others’ likeness to themselves), they may find it difficult to refuse to play the expert, to listen instead of pronouncing, to support other feminists from behind instead of upstaging them and leading the parade. The humility that power requires to serve the cause of justice may look too much like humiliation.

But it’s not. If all these ideas about power and privilege being hard to perceive when you have them hold true – and I, for one, think they do – then the more prominent someone becomes the more reliant that person must be on the input of others and the more sensitive they must be to clues that they may be overstepping and misusing their power. Leadership requires the humility to recognize that one may be wrong, that others may be wary of calling one out, that true respect and trust must be given and earned, not demanded along with one’s laurel wreath of victory or the accumulated scars of an activist life.

Humility is not humiliation. But too many people who’ve built their lives on fighting their own and others’ humiliation are still fighting while the battlefield has changed. Ironically, without humility, they – we – may not be able to tell the difference between the two.

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