Archive for September, 2006

you know, the more I think about this false consciousness stuff, the more I think that where it applies most clearly is to the ruling class, those benefitting by social structures that oppress others. (I know, this isn’t a new insight and is represented in Marxist literature.) Internalized oppression is a phenomenon that isn’t to be taken lightly, which is kind of what this post is playing around with, but also important is to recognize that those who are benefitted by patriarchy, in this case, but also by other oppressive systems notably racism and heterosexism do not realize that they benefit, or that the structures are the way they are.

Jess’s comment on the false consciousness post brought this to mind for me whilst I was in the shower – I do my best thinking there, I swear to y’all! – about the guy who emailed me a couple months back resisting feminism so strongly and denying that women are still oppressed by gender roles. I think a lot of men simply don’t want to admit that they are privileged and benefit from the oppression of women. I also think a lot of men don’t recognize that we’re talking about social constructions that have occurred over hundreds and hundreds of years, and not a result of biology or natural selection or evolution. so false consciousness applies most directly to these people, I think, and also contributing to this is the liberal ideology that we all get to where we are based on our own abilities and merit and nothing else. so when rich white men look around and see an absence of women, of people of colour, of disabled people, of gay/lesbian/bi/trans people, they think there is something inherently superior about them, that they have worked hard and look at all those other white rich men who have worked hard and those lazy stupid “others” no matter how hard they work can never get to the same position because they are “naturally” and inherently inferior. The tokens who do make it up the ladder of success are used as evidence of the american dream – not as evidence of people in control of networks who decide a black woman would be good for ratings, for example… but for so many people, the american dream is nothing but a slap in the face as they struggle againt socially constructed barriers to success. It’s an insult, because the same system that tells us that anyone can do anything if they try hard enough rewards people based on luck – the luck of one’s gender, race, sexual preference, ability, etc. So the message spoken out the side of our society’s mouth is that some people will never really be successful because they don’t fit the mold. Those who do fit the mold simply are made to believe their hard work got them to where they are, and so are the tokens who use their own experience as fuel for the white capitalist patriarchy’s fire. But what does that say about those who can’t overcome socially constructed obstacles? It says: They are lazy, they are stupid, they want to fail, they “choose” the lives they have, they are undeserving of social assistance, they are unworthy of sympathy. Or, there is something wrong with them. It’s the way they were raise (blame the mother), it’s their religion, it’s the size of their brains, it’s because they are biologically inferior, their IQs are “naturally” lower. ETC.

Unearned privilege gets some people very far in the world without even having to try. Combine that with a culture that encourages their every effort and a system that supports them, and it sure does seem like they deserve what they get in life – and by contrast, we ALL deserve waht we get in life. Sounds like false consciousness to me. I think we’d be smart to acknowledge that.

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I’m sick of Darwin. I mean, Darwin was a genius, he devised our modern understanding of biology, and that’s great and all, but I’m sick of people using Darwin as proof of the end of biological development. You know, maybe Darwin wasn’t right about everything. Like the fact he basically ignored social homosexual behaviour in animals and focussed on sex as a purely biological function for the purposes of reproduction. I don’t think he meant for his theory to be taken to mean that we have stopped evolving, just as an explanation for how we’ve evolved thus far. Like the infamous argument about hunter/gatherer societies, and that humans evolved this way and so they must be stuck there somehow and that it proves men are superior to women in some twisted an inexplicable way. Maybe Darwin’s interpretation is fucked up, ever thought of that? Maybe women were actually revered as the bringers of life and were considered superior and so didn’t have to do all that hard work of catching animals.

Could/did Darwin predict that people would be evolving using non-organic materials, like those folks who are implanting computer chips into their arms so they can open their houses without using keys? (you know what I’m talking about, right?) Or technology like artifical parts that replace things like heart valves? And would he have predicted things like transplants using porcine and bovine parts? What did/would Darwin think of cyborgs? And why do people use Darwin to make believe that we have stopped evolving?

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Okey-dokey. This is a pretty hotly contested theory, in both Marxism (where it originated) and in feminism. It seems to me as though it is a concept that needs some discussion. Beware: academic jargon/lingo awaits. Keep Wikipedia open in another tab (they have a great series on Marxist thought).
The basic theory of false consciousness arises in Marxism. The idea is that the capitalist system controls the proletariat (and perhaps other classes) by misleading him/her about the very nature of the capitalist system itself through institutional processes. The proletariat does not know the true manipulation of the capitalist system over his/her life, but is lulled into a false consciousness. People believe they know what’s going on, but they really don’t, and so people do things to support the system – the very system that oppresses them – without having that intention in mind. This is a theory linked to other Marxist theories about the value of social relatinoships, alienation of labour, class struggles, dominant ideology and cultural hegemony (another favourite of mine, the theory that one class can rule a diverse society). Feminists have latched onto this theory and attempted an unsure union between Marxism and feminism that didn’t really seem to completely come together. In jumped radical feminism, for whom false consciousness is not simply about labour-power and commodification of labour. It is about the traditional category of “woman” constructed by society to control and subjugate individuals by prescribing and proscribing behaviours that reinforce the domination of the hegemonic patriarchy.

Now, I am officially coming out as a big-time fan of Marx. 🙂 I think he’s brilliant. I wish I had a tenth of the brilliance of this man. However, he’s been heavily criticized, and so especially has his theory of false consciousness, mainly on the point that it paints the general masses as gullible and unthinking and easily manipulated, removing individual agency and autonomy. Personally, I think this is a mistake on the part of Marx’s critics. I do not believe Marx’s theory to be incorrect just because it failed to be presecriptive. I think Marx’s true value comes through the descriptive nature of his work.

Now, I happen to think that Marx is right about false consciousness. I think that people are easily manipulated as a group – group-think, mob mentality, etc. from first-year psychology, all of this seems like points in favour of Marx. It seems like when people are in groups, and being addressed as a group – particularly a group that is not in a position of social power, they do lose segments of identity. Especially when individual members of groups are treated by the hegemonic ruling class as simply members of social group X rather than taking into account the complex and  multi-dimensional nature of identity. Yet, this is how it happens. Based on membership in a group, many people think they know everything of significance there is to know about a person. I think that’s part of why I’m a feminist – I don’t want my identity, as I know it (very complex!), to be lumped in under the heading “woman.” This struggle is, for me and many other women, a battle for self-determination and personal identity. And so, in my opinion, false consciousness is something that compromises these things. The argument shouldn’t be whether or not false consciousness exists, as critics hold. It should be about how to overcome this obstacle to greater personal empowerment and individual identity. False consciousness is something we are prone to as members of oppressed social groups, and it is something that needs to be paid special attention if we individuals are to break free from labels that hedge us in.

so, in terms of feminism, feminists have labelled pretty much everything to do with femininity and traditional feminine roles as behaviours subject to false consciousness. I agree. Where I think radical feminists have gone wrong, however, is by labelling EVERY woman who participates in these activities a femme-bot of patriarchy. Here’s the catch: behaviours that support patriarchy… well, they support patriarchy. I don’t think there’s any way of getting around that. If I think really hard about why it is I participate in a particular practice, and I decide that I happen to really enjoy doing that particular thing, then I have to accept that this thing I enjoy doing is marking me in a certain way. It is marking me, under our unequal society, as an unequal member of an oppressed group.

I am a woman. It is not my fault I was born with specific physical characteristics to which society attaches the label “woman”. I do not like being associated with negative things just because I have been assigned the name “woman”. Yet, I am what I am, I am embodied in the way I am embodied, and I do not have any reason to change the way I am embodied. I am comfortable with my embodiment. I may not like the way my embodiment marks me to others, but that is not sufficient reason for me to surgically alter my embodiment.

As women, I think it is important to recognize the ways our behaviours support patriarchy. It is important so that we can decide what to do about that. Once again – till I’m blue in the face! – feminism is not about making women into men. Feminism is about taking away the negative associations with being female. I think there are some behaviours that should be abandoned, like female genital cutting for instance. But primarily, feminism isn’t a struggle against a set of behavioural dictates handed out by patriarchy. I would hope that feminism is more than that. I would hope that feminism is about breaking down ideologies that divide people into distinctive groups and oppress them.

Do I believe that some women are under the spell of false consciousness? Hell yes. Do I believe all women are? No I don’t. Do I believe all women who participate in traditional feminine patriarchy-supporting behaviours are experiencing false consciousness? Again, NO! Are they nevertheless supporting patriarchy? Yes, they are…  Is it better to not do anything that supports patriarchy? Not necessarily… and I’d like to see you try. Make money? you support patriarchy. Own a house? you support patriarchy. Own a car? yep, again, supporting patriarchy. Do you put down other women for their more blatant participation in patriarchy-supporting behaviour? guess what – you support patriarchy.

Under an equal society, I would be free to wear whatever I wanted to wear, because there would be nothing negative attached to the wearing of lipstick of high heels or pencil skirts or corsets. I would be free to have children or not without any snide remarks about my womanhood. I would be free to do whatever I wanted to do without negative attachments placed on me for either being too feminine or not feminine enough. That is what my feminism is about.

have at it!

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