Saturday, May 07, 2011
Context, calling privilege, and comparing down
John Sutherland (whose books on literature I enjoy - he’s having fun - not being an egghead) wrote a piece for the Guardian Weekly (which I’ve taken to reading - so light and fits in my bag) about context. He says everyone is accusing everyone else of taking their words out of context. He reminds us that this is a term from literary criticism, which I have some interest in, literature being my field of study. To summarise, at Cambridge in the 1920s (think T.S. Eliot) the English faculty shifted from talking about ’works of literature’ to talking about ‘literary texts’. The term bred into subtext, intertext, paratext and context, culminating with Jacques Derrida’s announcement: There is nothing outside the text. So, the idea that we are to contextualise everything has seeped into public discourse. Sutherland says we should give the term back to the literary critics, but I don’t see how that is possible. We open our events with acknowledgement of country. That provides context. When we present a paper or write a piece we state our context: I am a white woman, living in a first world country. My paper is about this and not about that. I acknowledge that. But I’m talking about this.
The feminist blogosphere is aflame with discussion over calling privilege. I call privilege, and not just in regards to feminism. It’s just that I am aware, as are we all, I assume, that we are privileged and there are many other unheard voices left out of the conversation. I’ve noticed it in feminism. At the f collective conference last year there was no discussion about women outside Australia, even though a woman from DRC was on a panel, and no-one fucking asked her what we could do to help. That made me angry. If the f collective conference had been framed as a middle class white women’s space, then I wouldn’t have expected anything else. But the conference was promoted as being for everyone when, clearly, it wasn’t. And yes, the moderating was lacking, which became evident when the last session, which was supposed to round up where we go to from here, turned into a mud slinging match, accusations of tokenism and “I, as a real feminist declare that those people (not present to defend themselves) are not feminists’. The story of feminism in a nutshell. (But, hey, I didn’t organise a conference, and I understand the work they did do and why they couldn’t do everything, and talked to them about it afterwards, and congratulated them on what they did achieve.)
I think there are two things going on here. Lets look at some context.
Where are the feminist activists? What actual activism is going on here? Are there any spaces where feminists can work together? From my experience, feminism is a broad church. Basically we want gender equality, but what that looks like in reality is different for different people. Maternal feminism might be different from sex-worker feminism, from ethic minorities to GLBTQ to differently abled to intersections of all the above. If the only real presence feminism has is online, then that is not enough, and too heavy a burden for those who run the sites or blogs. One group can’t be all things to all feminists. We need more groups and more representations and generally more feminists being active. And yes, I understand this is unpaid, unrecognised work. That’s the only kind of work (child care, housekeeping, committees, writing letters to newspapers, filling the gaps) I’ve been doing for the past eleven years. Which isn’t to say I’m a super feminist, because in a lot of ways I’m not, and because I identify as other things as well. Things which may or may not intersect with feminism in other people’s worlds.
So, my second point. Perhaps it links in with environmentalism and the global economy. Generally we are becoming more aware of our place in the world in relation to other people. To the workers in China who make our electronic devises and live and work in dehumanising conditions. Our western lifestyle is based upon overseas poverty. To the contamination of soil and water caused by the damage to the nuclear reactor in the Japanese earthquake. That our burning of oil and coal matters. To the consequences of the Global Financial Crisis. We are all connected - to the advantage of some and disadvantage of others according to the distribution of power. We are seeing ourselves in context. Which leads me to what I’m trying to do, and trying to teach my children, for our own happiness and to be responsible citizens of the world. And that is comparing down instead of comparing up. Being grateful for what we have. Being Pollyanna and playing the glad game. We don’t need to live in a bigger house, because the fact we have running water makes us wealthy in global terms. Comparing down, and being grateful, rather than comparing up and being envious and unhappy.
Perhaps part of the problem in the feminist blogosphere is that so many people are now ‘getting it’ and they want to let people know they ‘get it’. In time when we all ‘get it’ the dust will settle and the context will be taken for granted. Like a new greenie or a religious convert. It takes time to integrate and learn to talk to people about these revelations. To be respectful and mindful and engage in the conversation aware of the contexts. We could call privilege in all kinds of situations - the list of top ten things a woman needs that includes red lingerie, the latest electronic gadgets and kitchen appliances. Or, a list that includes clean water and food, medical assistance, to be safe. You get the picture.
So, I’m thinking that John Sutherland won’t have his way. Context is here to stay, and that’s a good thing. We don’t want to abandon asking ‘what are the assumptions and who is being excluded?’ We don’t want to do that when we talk about access and equity. For schools and services and advertising and everything. And to abandon that question would mean a total rewriting of the English curriculum, and a few other curricula as well.
So, where do we go from here? We become the change we want to see. Like Toni Morrison writing the books she wanted to read. Like the Muslim woman who designed a burkini. Like the mums who make and sell vintage style children’s clothing. Make your own blog. Start a babysitting club. Write a song. Stage a play. Start a feminist bookgroup. Make a space for the people you want to connect with. It will take the pressure off the feminist bloggers.