Continuous scales for injustice

I was thinking about why I am ashamed of my posts and don’t want anyone to read them, and pealing back the layers of feelings and thoughts involved, I realized that the reason is simply that I think these issues are ultimately not-important-enough in the universe of issues that I should/could be worrying-obsessing-doing-something-about. So while racism-feminism is something that affects me on a day-to-day basis and frequently reduces my enjoyment of daily life at work and out-in-the-world, and homophobia is just wrong and ridiculous and makes-me-angry-sick-sad, I ultimately believe that my preoccupation with these issues is a frivolous past time – like focusing on a bruise on my arm to avoid thinking about the cancer in my brain. For instance, last time I went back home, I saw a child, about five, sleeping on the sidewalk. I saw many such children every day until I stopped seeing them. And then I came back and spent time feeling furious-helpless because the lady downstairs came and questioned us because someone had broken the apartment lights, and her gut-sense told us that it must be us.

So how do other feminists think about this? Do they too rate their sense of injustice against other injustices in the world?

out of the box

A while back I wrote a post or two about embracing life as a “ze” or “they” or, you know, “person” instead of a “she.” One of my major fears about doing this has to do with relinquishing the privilege of legibility out and about in public, part of the package of privilege that comes with being cisgender.

This weekend I had a most amazing experience. I was at a big summer event, wearing shorts and a tank top, and I felt the most comfortable I may have ever felt with my appearance. There I was with short hair, leg hair visible in boyish shorts, armpit hair not only visible but much longer than I actually like to keep it, and more comfortable than usual. It was if all of a sudden I just stepped over a line and I was no longer trying to be a woman.

The step itself was minute. It was tiny. I’ve been to the same event with the same hairy legs and armpits lots of times. It’s part of the summer, and along with that comes my discomfort with my body and my choices not to conform. People sometimes stare and when they don’t I spend most of my time worrying that they will. I’m always afraid some strange man is going to start yelling derogatory things at me about my “gross” legs. I spend a lot of my time thinking about how I’ll respond and almost daring people to actually say something. Every time someone whispers around me I think it must be about me. And the truth is, up until now, I’ve also felt that my legs are kind of gross. But I don’t shave, cause I also think that shaving makes my legs look pre-pubescent, which is grosser. It’s been over a decade since the last time I shaved and still I don’t actually like the look of my hairy legs in a nice dress.

But this time, something was different. We walked up to stand in line at the entrance, and as I looked around at all the things women around me were wearing, I felt calm, detached, and most of all, apart. I didn’t feel like I was in a struggle with those women over how women should dress or look, trying to make room for myself. I just thought “wow, women do really weird things. I’m glad I don’t have to wear paint all over my face in the sweaty hot or wear shorts that are going to ride up on me every time I sit down.” Later in the day I caught a pre-teen girl staring at my legs (this is the group I actually do catch staring with some frequency). For the first time ever, I enacted my plan for dealing with staring. I stuck my tongue out at her. And I didn’t feel angry or embarrassed by her stare. Instead, I thought “Good. Maybe she’ll know there are way more possibilities than she sees on a daily basis as she grows up.”

The thing is, the only step I’ve really taken is opening myself up to the possibility of being seen by strangers and friends as genderqueer and writing about that here. I haven’t asked anyone not to call me she, or changed my name, or even really changed my appearance. But I think I have decided that I would be prouder of myself if people cease to identify me easily and consistently as a woman. And maybe that’s where the line is. Maybe with that decision in and of itself, I stepped over the line and out of the box marked woman.

Saying what I really think.

I am envious of my dear friend Unamerican. She has found, through what most likely was a not-straightforward process, a spot within academia that reconciles multiple interests and fits within her moral view of the herself and the world. I am jealous while also simultaneously disagreeing with her and being happy for her. Let me focus on the disagreement part for the moment.

Let me back up a bit and start with what I thought/hoped for when I joined academia. I thought: (a) that by joining academia, I’m participating in a parallel world that is set-apart and away and above the industrialist system, giving me the role of overseer, evaluator, and educator. I thought that an academic job, where I might contribute to understanding alternative forms of firm governance and corporate wrongdoing, was a simultaneously more worthy and more interesting task. (b) I also thought/hoped that this more critical view of our existing system would be my contribution as a teacher. (c) and finally, I thought that my presence (as a brown woman teaching a business course) helped overturn implicitly held notions about who does what type of work.

And in the past 12 years within western academia, it is true that some of these did hold. It is true, for instance, that as a researcher, I have had the opportunity to study the industrial system as an outsider. However, what is also true is that there is almost no demand/interest in such work, and the bar for publishing/getting a job/tenure in such areas is impossibly high, which tends to happen when there is too little demand for a particular type of work. I cannot, in good conscience, encourage PhD students who are interested in this field. The reasons for this dearth become painfully obvious as soon as you walk into an MBA classroom. This is a place populated by keen middle-aged men (and a handful of women) who have shelled approximately 50K in the hopes that an MBA will give them a boost in the career-race. They want courses on leadership and motivation and negotiation skills and technology strategy. They don’t want to hear about how the industrial system is organized and which types of arrangements are most likely to lead to corporate wrongdoing, and you can’t teach something people don’t want to learn. No demand for a particular type of teaching -> less interest in that field of research (on average, 3 people read the articles published in top-journals in this field) -> a greater and greater reliance on contribution to core theory to justify research -> high bar for publication/tenure -> a handful of white men survive and dominate the field -> activism consists of these few getting together once every couple of years and bemoaning their irrelevance.

So at least in my little bit of the universe, there is no connection between academia and social relevance.

in defense of stridency

I am the kind of person that enjoys being loud, definitive, and often strident. This does not mean that I enjoy dominating other people or converting them to my point of view, but I often find it is a struggle just to openly hold my own beliefs, many of which are anti-mainstream. I am the kind of person who literally gets a jaw ache after a meeting or a cocktail party where I have self-censored and not spoken the majority of my thoughts. To some extent, this just makes me an extrovert. I think it also relates to my understanding about social change, which is, put succinctly, that the only place one can be free is in the struggle, but that connection is too elaborate and of too little interest to anyone else to unpack here.

More relevant to our project here, my inability so much of the time to just say what I think is directly tied to the racist, sexist, classist, speciesist, capitalist, ableist norms in the society at large (and society writ small in the institutions where we work and play). If what I fervently believe is anti-racist, then it stands to reason that it will be perceived as radical, and strident, and maybe even antagonistic, to the majority of people in a racist society. I’ll be a bitch if I say what I think.

I’m writing in circles here.

Maybe instead I should start at the beginning. I see myself as a person with a strong moral compass and a strong sense of ethical standards. Being an irreligious person, and a person who believes there’s no such thing as god, and having been raised outside of any formal religious or ethical traditions, I have spent a significant amount of thought developing my own sense of how to be a good person in the world.

I’ll explain this through an example. I don’t eat meat of any kind. And I do so for ethical reasons. Sure, it’s better for the environment. Sure, it’s pretty good for my health. But the fundamental reason I don’t eat meat is because I think it’s wrong to eat another living animal if it is completely possible for me survive (and even thrive) without doing so. And, if you really press me, it’s true that I find it abhorrent for others to eat meat. I think it’s wrong.

However, this is never, ever information that I volunteer. I do not shame others for what they eat, or ask them not to eat it in front of me. I simply refuse to eat, prepare, or have meat in my own house. If you ask me why I’m a vegetarian I will give you the short answer “for ethical reasons” specifically to avoid making anyone feel judged or uncomfortable about their own choices (which, after all, are theirs to make). It’s only if you keep asking that I’ll say what I said above—that I think it’s wrong to eat animals. The vast majority of people dearest to me in the world eat meat and a good portion of those disagree with me on the moral question; for me the test of those close to me isn’t whether they meet my moral standards, it’s whether I can be explicit and open about my moral standards with them and find a situation of mutual respect and tolerance.

The trouble is, this is how I see myself but this does not seem to be how others (less close relationships) react to me. When it comes out, as it did recently, that I hold some kind of core ethical belief, people sometimes react as if I’ve become a Puritan right in front of their eyes. As if it were unfashionable to have a moral compass, or as if I had begun praying for their souls right there at the dinner table. When my friends discover that I think they are wrong for eating meat, I wonder if they feel like I did in high school when I realized a Baptist friend was certain that I was on my way to hell, and that this fact regularly made him very sad?

The thing is, I feel like I’ve learned to live with having a lot of people around me who’s relationships with me co-exist with their sadness that I’m on my way to hell. Those are irreconcilable ethical differences, and to me the only thing we can do is set them aside and agree to disagree. They’re at once very deep and somewhat unimportant, because that’s how the world is. It isn’t consistent or tidy or permanent. In fact, that’s why I feel I need to have a clear sense of morality so that I can be guided in all this murkiness, but that also means that my sense of morality has to allow for change and compromise and above all the complete humanity of others. Which means respecting their autonomy and ability to make judgments and what David Foster Wallace called “the richness of their interior lives.” But somehow I feel that others are not always able to do this for me. When I sense that I disagree on some fundamental level with a friend (for example, about the existence of god), I don’t attempt to get them to tell me what they think so I can convince them otherwise. I think that fundamentally disrespects the other, because it implies that I don’t respect their ability to develop ideas as correct as my own – why am I sure I know better than them? I am sure of that for myself but it’s wrong to impose that.

My fear of how others will react to what I really think leads to self-policing, which inevitably leaves me feeling silenced and somewhat lonely. I have a deep need to say what I think (maybe we all do), and I don’t think this need implies a similar need to have others agree with me. I just wish I was sure I could count on receiving the same respect in return.