Breaking Silence as Strategic Complicity

On the day when I drove my family and my belongings out of the town where I’d been persistently ignored, marginalized, and shunned for several years, I lost my voice. The symbolism was glaring. I couldn’t even whoop and holler and damn the place to hell at the top of my lungs like I’d been dreaming of doing. All I could manage was a loud hiss through my teeth and a middle finger jammed violently against the driver’s window. It took a voice therapist and lots of vocal exercises at home to bring me back to speech nearly a month later.

I’ve been ignored plenty of times in my life, silenced through others’ refusal to believe me, to take me seriously, to think what I had to say (or write) was worth saying. But this was silencing on a whole new level. Each time I began to reach out about the emotional abuse, each time I named the domestic violence, each time I asked for help, nothing good came of it. People nodded sympathetically and then reinterpreted what I was going through, usually in ways that blamed or pathologized me. So I shut my mouth and opened my arms – the skin on them, that is. People could silence my voice, but they couldn’t erase the story I wrote on my arms. Although I still struggle with shame, I’m proud of those scars because they tell the story of my survival.

So when my former student Kyla Rapp wrote a super-smart response paper to the first volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality that analyzed the public self-disclosures of rape survivors as a form of confession, she really made me think. Anyone who works with Foucault’s theories knows confession as a negative word – relocated from the realm of the religious to the realm of the medical during a massive shift in the modes of European power, confession elicits information from the person confessing and grants the confessor ultimate power to affirm, efface, interpret, or deny the truth/Truth of that information. Confessional forms of discourse make us manageable as bodies, minds, individuals, souls through the intertwined workings of state and scientific power – particularly, in History of Sexuality, as they relate to sex. It makes sense that the same ideas would apply to people who are open about being survivors of domestic violence and/or sexual assault. But then why is breaking the silence so crucial to so many of us?

Maybe these forms of power are so deeply woven through our beings that when we obey them we feel better. Maybe what Foucault called the “confessional imperative” is so strong and also so undetectable within us that those of us who are silenced by people around us feel oppressed by our inability to heed its call, and feel liberated when we manage to break those bonds of silence and confess at the top of our lungs. Maybe.

But. And.

If people had listened to me from the start, I could’ve gotten the help I needed to escape the violence long before it caused me the serious damage that feels on some days like it’s permanent. When I was in the midst of the abuse, it was the stories of other queer survivors that helped me to name what was going on, even though I couldn’t accept that naming at first. When I speak of my experiences in the classroom, I see some students freeze in recognition. So many of them over the years have teared up in my office when I showed them my arms or spoke openly of my experiences, normalizing them and proving that we can still survive and thrive.

I’m far from the only one to point out the importance of naming and sharing one’s experience, and attending to others’. Womanists, feminists, queer folks, communities of color, trans folks, veterans, survivors of all kinds of violence – so many people have been saying for so long that it makes a real difference in our lives and in our societies when we refuse to be shut up and shut down. But Foucault was on to something too. Can we reconcile these seemingly contradictory tales about silence and voice?

For one thing, I wonder whether there’s a difference between speaking when compelled by to do so by the form of power that Foucault named biopolitics, and speaking in the face of a power that compels silence – perhaps the form of power that theorists call necropolitics. Foucault was worried that the activists around him were intent on breaking a silence that he believed was nonexistent; he thought that in declaring themselves “Gay and Proud” they were playing into a system that inextricably linked same sex desire to a specific human type – a “species,” he called it. But what if you’re breaking a silence that insists you don’t exist at all? Then again, by claiming or even creating identity terms – survivor, HIV-positive, in recovery – we’re still buying into a system that wants to pin us down, to place us in boxes. We’re doing it a favor by jumping in those boxes all by ourselves.

I’ve been mulling over this problem for a while, and I’m thinking that maybe Gayatri Spivak’s idea of “strategic essentialism” is useful here. In response to worries about the political efficacy of very valid challenges to a monolithic idea of what “women” were, Spivak suggested that we should continue to use the term “women” in an essentialist way for political purposes, understanding that since the reality of sexism makes “women” appear to be an essentialist category, treating it as such for strategic purposes might make sense.

Maybe the connection between silencing, power, and the confessional imperative works similarly. Not everyone is equally subject to the confessional imperative – some people, usually those less important to the state, fall more often under an imperative of silence. But even in the face of such an imperative, choosing to confess simply lands one right within the central regime of biopower – kind of like escaping a prison cell only to realize you’ve gone into the guards’ mess hall. But in a Foucauldian understanding, there is no outside to the walls of power; one can only resist power by subverting it from the inside. Can anyone wholly resist the confessional imperative, the demand to “identify oneself,” in a culture driven by identity? Does it do any good to acquiesce to the cultural imperative not to talk about such “private,” “intimate” things as sexual and domestic violence? Or is there perhaps a kind of “strategic confession” through which we might cunningly give in to the confessional, identitarian imperative by speaking “Truths” and naming “identities” disobediently, saying the “wrong” thing at the “wrong” time?

Can we subvert power from within through strategic confession? Is that what breaking silence is, at its best? If so, how might we do it better?

 

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.

Wouldn’t you like to be a FQR too?

I’M A FQR.

No, I don’t mean it like that. And this isn’t a confession – that would never do, Foucauldian that I am.

I mean it like genderfuck, like “fucking with” gender in performative ways that challenge or even undermine gendered norms and assumptions, that playfully tease or fiercely throw sand in the face of complacent assumptions about what it is to be (or that we all must be) a gendered being.

I mean it like religionfuck, a word I introduce at length in Queer Nuns (forthcoming in April 2018 from NYU Press) – a parallel and interrelated, performative fucking with religion that challenges assumptions and edicts about what religion is, who belongs, and who gets to decide such things.

The work I do, the tradition and the intellectual community that I engage with, is feminist. That means feminist in the inclusive, intersectional, none-is-free-until-all-are-free, this-is-not-your-home-or-your-safe-space-this-is-a-space-where-we-do-justice-work (to paraphrase Bernice Reagon) sense. And that includes religion.

My work and my tradition and my intellectual community are also queer. Not like Queer as Folk; like Queer Nation. For some of us, naming ourselves queer isn’t (or isn’t only) about resisting categories or wanting some sort of umbrella term. Actually, I worry about umbrella terms sometimes even as I see their usefulness. But for me and other folks, maybe especially those who are around my age, naming ourselves queer is a political statement. It’s an anti-normative, anti-assimilationist, radical as in changing-things-from-the-roots-up, move. A lot gets packed into a word sometimes. And that, too, includes religion.

And now some readers are backing slowly away, shaking their heads, thinking about religion as the opiate of the women, religion as the opiate of the queers, religion as bad people who do bad things to people like us. And that’s exactly why feminist and queer include religion. Because that’s a cramped, narrow, and exclusionary take on religion. And cramped, narrow, and exclusionary are anti-feminist and anti-queer, at least in my sense of those words.

That’s why I’m a FQR.

But why write a blog about it? (Do they have to flaunt it?)

I’ll admit, I’ve been struggling for years with feeling like my interest in blogging is completely self-centered. Not that I think that about other people who blog; like most of us, I’m really good at holding myself to a double standard. (I don’t need men or cis people or straight people to do it for me; you’re all off the hook!) So whether or not that’s true – or more importantly for me, whether or not other people will think it is – I’ve decided to claim it. This blog is for me. I’m making it public for some reasons that are also for me. And I hope that at least a few people will find it engaging and interesting along the way, because I think a lot of the time I’ll be raising more questions than answers. If you know me well as an academic, particularly as a teacher, you know that’s what I love to do.

When I’m not fretting about being self-centered, blogging is another way for me to live out my commitments to public intellectual work. I’m not a very good street activist – I get discouraged by street protest really quickly. Maybe that comes from being so involved in the protests against the Iraq War in the early 2000’s, where the only thing that seemed to change was how many activists got arrested, how many forms of civil disobedience were prosecuted as felonies, and how badly the press underestimated the numbers of protesters – or how often the stories completely disappeared from news sites soon after being posted. I absolutely and deeply believe in the efficacy of street protest, but I don’t feel it, so I’m pretty bad at getting involved. I’m also not very good at the public engagement kind of activism – the kind that engages with legislators and other public leaders. First of all, I’m not convinced that legislation is the route to justice much of the time. Second, I have that same problem as with street protest – it doesn’t feel effective to me. Honestly, it feels like a discouraging waste of time and energy. And I know that other people believe it works, and I’m completely prepared to accept that they might be – maybe even probably are – right. I strongly believe that activism takes all kinds – the writers, the donors, the marchers, the lobbyers, the people on the front lines mitigating the harm done to victims.

And the teachers. That’s what I can do; that’s what feels to me like it changes the world. Every day in the classroom. Every time someone tells me they read something I wrote and it affirmed their experience, or helped them to help someone else. Teaching and writing are the only things I do that I’ve actually, directly seen make a difference. But my teaching happens in a specific place, and my writing is getting more theoretical. And there are so many times when an issue requires immediate commentary, not a book-length study. And I can’t imagine getting picked up as a columnist by any press, anytime soon. And besides, then I’d have to write about what their editors want me to write about. It’s hard to be a FQR when you’re beholden to corporate news. So – this. Maybe at least once, something I write here will be read by someone who needed to hear it, or who might change their mind about something because of it. I hope.

This is also a space for experimentation. I have lots of little things I wonder about that aren’t really conference paper material. I have questions, things I want to poke at and ponder aloud. I’m really interested in expanding or shifting my writing style and practice, but I’m not ready (perhaps never will be) to do that in a book. So my posts here, which I’ll try to update about every two weeks, will ask questions, explore, and ponder. They’ll be less formal than my usual writing, and sometimes more personal. More of my own personality may come through here. It’s there in my formal writing, but I have more leeway to be playful here. If I dare, I might throw in more creative writing as well. I’d love to hear back from folks. I really like the idea, which I learned from Sara Ahmed, of using blogging to emphasize, encourage, and (more completely, certainly not fully) democratize academic thought/writing processes. I hope to feature the writings of other FQRS as well. If you choose to read, I hope you’ll be interested and engaged, maybe even FQ’d with a little, by what’s here. I hope you’ll do me the honor of engaging respectfully with it. So in keeping with being a little more openly myself and a little less formal, let’s end with a saucy riff on the old Dr. Pepper ad.

I’M A FQR, SHE’S A FQR, ZE’S A FQR, THEY’RE A FQR, WOULDN’T YOU LIKE TO BE A FQR TOO?

C’mon, everybody’s doing it. *Tosses hair.*