Weaponized ideals and ethical profiling

High ethical standards initially seem to be a good thing. Even if we cannot always live up to them, there is value in recognizing and enshrining an ideal. At the same time, ethical standards are not used solely as an object for aspiration. They are also used as a basis for judgment. And that leaves room for high ideals to be weaponized.

The way this works is analogous to racial profiling. For instance, it is well known that in the United States, virtually every driver exceeds the speed limit. Indeed, following the speed limit can often create a dangerous situation. Nevertheless, the police still enforce this ultimately unenforceable law, and when they do so, they tend to pick out members of groups who already receive disproportionate police attention, namely people of color. In the same way, when we’re dealing with an impossible ethical ideal, those who are judged or punished for not following it will often be selected from disadvantaged groups — a phenomenon we can call “ethical profiling.”

This happens most of all when the high ideal is extremely abstract. For instance, we are told that it is ethically most salutary to be non-violent. Though violence may be sadly necessary under certain circumstances, we should aspire to avoid it to the extent possible. In the world as we know it, however, avoiding it completely is often utterly impossible — particularly when “violence” can be so broadly defined as to include property damage, or impeding the normal run of things, or speaking too harshly. Everyone is violating the ideal in some way or other, but only the protestors (by definition a less powerful group than the powers that be) are judged for doing so. This effect is of course amplified when the protestors are black.

We might also think of the demand to cherish every “life” to the fullest possible extent. Really following this demand would require changing literally everything we do every day, even if we’re only limiting ourselves to human lives. Once again, it is an impossible demand, and once again, only the most vulnerable — women with unexpected or unwanted pregnancies — are expected to follow through on it. The ethic of life is weaponized in the service of ensuring women’s subordination and punishing their sexual expression.

None of this is to say that there aren’t people who don’t sincerely hold the ideals in question. For a select few, aspiring to a high ethical ideal becomes a true vocation to which they dedicate their whole selves. The problem arises when the unique achievements of these ethical heroes become a weapon of the powerful — for instance, when the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., is weaponized to shame and denigrate the contemporary black community, or when the heroic voluntary self-sacrifice of Christ is imposed as a baseline expectation on women and the poor. In such cases, we’re dealing less with mere hypocrisy than with something like blasphemy.

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Radical Orthodoxy’s Cure for Misogyny

Call me nostalgic, but sometimes it is good to remind ourselves of Radical Orthodoxy.

I’ve recently been writing on the controversy between John Milbank and Slavoj Žižek in The Monstrosity of Christ (my specific interest is how they disagree about the importance of Kierkegaard and the nature of paradox). In the process of reading the book again, I was stopped short by Milbank’s accusation that that Žižek ‘favors essentially gnostic thinkers (Boehme, Hegel and Schelling) for whom birth implies alienation and the involvement of evil, thinkers for whom birth must be painful, through ontological necessity and not mere ontological lapse. But it is just such metaphysical misogyny which Catholic orthodoxy alone has always challenged’ (194; my emphasis).

The implication is clear: Milbank accepts the literal sense of Genesis 3, in which childbirth is only painful because of the Fall. Originally, ‘in the (unreachable and untraceable) prelapsarian golden age . . . in which human beings took full part’ (171) there was no such pain. For Milbank, to argue otherwise is to give in to ‘metaphysical misogyny’, to present an ontology in which pain during childbirth is fixed in the nature of things.

This is a fascinating exercise in contemporary Catholic apologetics. It outbids feminism by claiming a higher form of feminism. In this ‘higher form’, all trauma and pain can only be seen as alien, and ultimately empty, intrusions of irrational evil. Ontologically, the only reality is a peaceful and harmonious one, in which women have babies without murmur. To suggest otherwise is to inscribe ‘hatred’ of women into the nature of things.

This is bizarre on a number of levels. First, it depends upon the pure fantasy of an Arcadian golden age, which stands in wilful denial of human evolution. Secondly, it attributes pain in childbirth to an ‘ontological lapse’ – to sin, basically. Rescuing us from the supposed spectre of a woman-hating pagan nature, it delivers us into the comforting thought that ‘if it hurts, it’s your own fault really’.

Finally, it ties in with a general orientation of this kind of thinking: secular feminism, it asserts, is predicated on the war of the sexes, upon the need to fight a positive evil. The radically orthodox feminist, by contrast, sees salvation in recalling the world back to a proper, harmonious ordering of things. In other words, this ‘higher’ feminism denounces fighting feminism as a symptom of the problem it seeks to cure, one which further fragments and traumatises the world. This is the line of Sarah Palin: secular feminism turns women into whining victims.The only alternative, then, is to remain within the hierarchical structures of family and church and to reorient them to their proper calling. A woman’s salvation can only lie in and through a restored patriarchal order. And, if we look beyond childbirth to issues of domestic violence and rape, we might wonder how this differs from the recommendation that an abused woman sticks with the abusive partner in the hope of redemption. The logical extension of this perspective is that the solution to women being made to feel like victims is to deny the process of victimisation exists. If you say rape is a reality, you are ontologising rape, and you are therefore a misogynist!

I am not attributing this kind of absurdity to Milbank. However, the logical structure of it is not far from what he actually says about childbirth. And I am tempted to see in this not merely an unfortunate symptom of contemporary conservative apologetics, but its constitutive core. Peace is proclaimed, but only via the myth of the pure, Edenic virginal mother who never was; the finite material world is celebrated, but only by dematerialising the female body; creation is liberated and healed, but only in and through women who keep their place – in silence.

The false rape accusation as witchcraft

One of the primary sources for my devil research is the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, a witch-hunting manual that became one of the first best-sellers of the early print era. As I’ve worked through its theological logic in a couple different courses, I’ve come to see a basic underlying structure to the bewildering array of accusations against witches. The pattern is that feminine sexuality is something unruly and powerful, and if women are allowed to control it themselves, they will use it to dominate men and destroy men’s sexual agency. This is what is going on with the classification of midwives as witches, as well as the frequent claims that witches cause male impotence — indeed, at the most extreme, the text allows that witches can make the male member seem to disappear (though thankfully for us men, this is a mere illusion and the member remains intact through God’s grace).

Much contemporary anti-feminism follows the same underlying logic: if women are allowed to control their sexuality, they will use it to dominate and destroy men. Sometimes the power attributed to women is still quite literally supernatural in scope, as in the claim that legalized abortion will allow women to destroy the white race. The most insidious application of this logic, however, is in the myth of the false rape accusation, which the news media, television drama, and many individual men are deepy invested in. The woman in this myth is an evil creature indeed, seducing a well-meaning man and then using her sexuality as a weapon to ruin the man’s life and reputation.

In real life, of course, a woman would have to be insane to use a rape accusation as a power play, given how hugely tilted the American justice system is toward the accused in cases of sexual assault — and how complicit the media is with the campaign of character assassination that the defense conducts against every accuser. As with all ideological myths, however, the myth of the malicious rape accusation is not about real women at all, but rather about justifying the existing power structure. It’s a kind of preemptive strike, as though they’re saying, “Look at what would happen if we did take rape accusations seriously and gave women the benefit of the doubt! All hell would break loose!”

“White men” as a curriculum

It’s always easier to design a syllabus with only white men — a particularly potent instance of the way Sara Ahmed teaches us to view “white men” as an institution. An inclusive syllabus is a struggle. You can anticipate the dismissiveness, the uncomfortable silence, the angry rejection. The syllabus filled with white men, by contrast, is calm. Their debates are all well-known, and they’ve all staked out positions that have their valid place in the intellectual firmament. They are precisely debates — ritual exchanges of well-known positions and evidence, rituals that we must reenact. After all, those debates have been so “influential”! You don’t have to agree with them, of course, just be able to give an account of them. Such soothing neutrality. Such comfort and familiarity.

Who would want to disrupt this equilibrium with arguments that don’t already have their pat answers, with positions that haven’t already been incorporated into the repertoire of reasonable options? Why gum up our political discussions with questions of how we structure our households, how we act in our most intimate relationships, how we go about excluding and corralling some so that others can feel comfortable and safe? The pushy interloper’s positions don’t seem to belong to the set of familiar toys we know how to manipulate. They don’t seem to allow us to take up our accustomed stance of studied neutrality, don’t let us assess them from afar by clear rational standards everyone would agree on. We’re trying to have an intellectual debate here, and the pushy interloper insists on asking us questions about how we live our lives. Worse, they seem to be insisting that we change our lives — and not in the uplifting way of that Rilke poem!

The endless conversation: who could want to bring it to an end? Who would dare interrupt it? Better to tell, once again, the story of how secular tolerance solved the problem of religious conflict while leaving room for the exploration of spiritual truth. Better to review the three ethical options: utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics. Better to trace the progress of those scientific and artistic and literary traditions in which white men have been in such intricate, intellectually satisfying dialogue over the centuries.

To bask in the influential and the great — who would turn away from this to pick a fight, to document a struggle, to leave no room for neutrality? Why would we turn away from the influential and the great, from the guaranteed payoff of quality (well-attested!) and prestige (well-deserved!) to risk our world enough and time on texts that almost certainly are not the very best, and that surely can’t dream of the level of influence of the greats. And where would there be room, when we already know for a fact that they must read Homer and Dante and Plato and Aristotle and all the names we all know how to name in the syllabus we could all sketch out in five minutes or less if pressed? Surely you would never ask us to deprive one of these great and influential texts of its rightful place in service of a divisive partisan agenda.

So much easier, then, to reproduce influence under the guise of neutrally, objectively responding to it. After all, we already know the correct liberal positions we’re supposed to have — a skill we demonstrate when we ignore or explain away passages in which the influential greats contradict them. We all know that one must transcend those merely time-bound elements to reach the universal truths, whereas the texts you’re asking us to include do just the opposite, openly wallowing in the merely particular, the concrete, the historically conditioned. Don’t we enter the seminar room to escape from all that? And aren’t we glad of it? Isn’t it calm? Soothing? Comfortable?

Why would men minimize or dismiss street harrassment?

By now, everyone with an internet connection is aware of the appalling video depicting a woman being harrassed on the street over 100 times in a single day. What’s striking to me is the reaction on the part of men who presumably would never participate in such overt harrassment. On the one hand, we get the by now familiar #NotAllMen approach, with one unfortunate tweep asking why no one notices the many men who didn’t harrass the poor woman. On the other hand, though, there are a variety of approaches to minimizing the harrassment — basically claiming that everyone is blowing it out of proportion and the woman should simply shrug it off.

Again, I’m willing to stipulate that all the men I’m describing would never actually harrass women on the street. Further, it’s clear that many men are absolutely desperate to believe that systemic patriarchy is actually just a matter of individual behavior on the part of men who they are not. We can see this in the claims that Islamic society as such is irredeemably sexist (whereas in the West, it’s purely a matter of individuals) or in the stereotype that only ethnic minorities or working-class people (i.e., not the enlightened) participate in such harrassment.

Why this investment in explaining it away, then? Why not simply scapegoat the harrassers? I think here we’re dealing with an unconscious acknowledgment that they are complicit with the structure that enables street harrassment. Even if they aren’t going to engage in such crass behavior, all these men are clearly going to be doing things that are along the same basic continuum. “Checking out” women, commenting on their appearance in conversation — are these not basically subtler versions of what the street harrasser does? Simply dismissing street harrassment as completely unacceptable opens up a potential slippery slope!

Even more, every heterosexual man benefits from a situation in which every woman is constantly reminded that she is regarded as a sexual object. There is considerable ambient pressure for women to adapt their appearance to male expectations, which results in a better aesthetic experience for men. Women even internalize these pressures, dressing in broadly man-pleasing ways “for themselves,” because it makes them feel more confident or put together — and if that doesn’t work, the fashion industry is happy to nudge women in that direction insofar as women’s clothing is by default more form-fitting and revealing than the equivalent garment for a man.

Everything conspires to push women toward making themselves visually pleasing for men, and the street harrasser is only the most visible symptom of this general trend. There is certainly something regrettable and uncouth about their behavior, but at the end of the day, they’re on “our” side. We may not agree with their tactics, but we share the same principles — and so we can opportunistically denounce them (in order to make our objectification techniques seem more acceptable by contrast) or explain them away (in order to naturalize the order of which they represent the outer fringe). In the last analysis, though, the street heckler is covered by the equivalent of a “no enemy on the left” principle. After all, without those brave men out there on the front lines every day, women might forget they exist to be ogled by men!

Theologian, Token, Troublemaker: Casting Female Identity in Academic Career Development

This is a guest post from Kate Tomas, DPhil candidate in Theology at Oxford University. It continues the discussion opened by Marika in her post from yesterday. – APS

I read Marika’s post on the SST Gender, Feminism and Theology panel, and as the woman who raised the issue in the first place, (and subsequently had a bad experience as a consequence), I feel the need to respond.

The organizers of the panel, along with Dr Matthew Guest, who was one of the men on the panel, attempted to fix the PR problem I had raised. Their solution was to find a woman – any woman – to be physically present. As Marika knows, I think tokenism is bad, and that tokenism requires tokens, and tokens are actively formed, not simply found. Tokenism complicates women’s agency, and we have to be aware of this when being asked to be a token. 

Having said that, I really think Marika was put in a difficult situation by being asked to be the token. Those who asked her occupied (and occupy) positions of power. Like me, Marika was a graduate student (now a Dr following her viva) and like hundreds of other graduate students, we are both looking for jobs. The organizers of the panel have jobs. They are also potentially in positions to give jobs. As Marika wrote she has ‘often felt that subtle pressure to play nice in both academic and Christian contexts; and I have felt it at SST specifically.’ Asking a female graduate student to be the token woman on a previously all-male panel, just because you have been called out, is more than subtle pressure. Read the rest of this entry »

A darker, grittier Louis C.K.

There has been something disturbing about the current season of Louie, an undercurrent of anger and even violence that lends Louie’s depressive misadventures a more sinister edge. One episode has him permanently injuring a woman he’s slept with when she insists on tickling him, and another features him tuning out what he believes to be rejection and venting his anger by destroying a piano with a baseball bat. He has recurring fights with his ex-wife, openly admitting that he’s too angry to contribute anything of value. Most alarmingly, he all but forces himself on his Hungarian girlfriend Amia (who cannot communicate with him in English) and a couple episodes later attempts to rape his old obsession Pamela — and regards it as a triumph when she very reluctantly consents to kiss him. To put it bluntly: what the fuck, Louie?! People still seem willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, and it doesn’t seem that he’s presenting his encounters with Amia and Pamela as anything to be celebrated — but he’s in very risky territory and the way he handles this in subsequent episodes will make a huge difference.

My most optimistic reading as of now is that he’s trying to enact a kind of internal critique of pathetic white male sexuality. Specifically, he’s showing how difficult it is for even the “nicest” and most “sensitive” guys to break out of the patriarchal habits of possessiveness and entitlement, and how vulnerable even the smartest and least stereotypically masculine men are to challenges to their masculinity. After all, he only forces the issue with Amia after getting continual ribbing from his friends, his ex-wife, and even Amia’s elderly aunt. The situation with Pamela is a typical Nice Guy scenario where he feels he has put in his time — but it has soured into resentment after she has denied him so long, so that he can’t respond positively to her offer to give romance a try. Yet once she’s opened the door, he has official “permission” that she can never revoke. He also seems to believe that Pamela’s habitual sarcasm (which is also clearly a threat to his masculinity) gives him permission to ignore her clear rejection of his advances.

This stew of insecurity, entitlement, and wounded, angry pride is all too familiar to me from my adolescent days. Seeing it played out in a grown man is alarming and sobering — and it shows how deeply engrained the habits of patriarchy are in essentially all men. Our society is so completely fucked that taking women seriously as autonomous human beings with their own preferences and priorities is only rarely the first pattern of behavior that is modeled for and inculcated in young men. Feminist men are almost always converts, and the potential for backsliding is always there. The question for me is whether Louie will continue to strike the painful balance where his behavior is both undeniably pathetic and undeniably scary.


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