Of Radicalism and Spiritual Fatigue

faded_righteousnessI once called myself a radical feminist. I know: it seems strange now, given the bad name that radical feminists have earned for themselves among trans folk. But it’s true. That’s how I once identified. That identity—one of radical rejection of the norm and those that enforce the norm—was forged in pain, abuse, and oppression.

I was abused during much of my childhood and most of that abuse came at the hands of boys. Some of it came at the hands of my father. By the time I turned 17, I was done with maleness and masculinity. Not too long after, I decided that I was pretty much done with boys and men. I didn’t trust them and that mistrust was forged by the impact of male fists and the bruises of male words. I had been demonized because of my femininity for so, so long. I had internalized their violence and their hatred for too many years. I had secretly seen myself as twisted and broken for an eternity. I was ready for change.

Radical feminism appealed to me because it placed the blame for the fucked up ways of patriarchy squarely upon men’s shoulders. No words were minced. No excuses were made. Radical feminism was a fiery, take-no-shit approach to dealing with sexist oppression. It appealed to me because its intensity reflected my own anger and hurt. Finding one’s anger and hurt reflected in a philosophy and a movement can be a beautiful thing. It can provide a space of healing. It places the blame for the crazy messed-up feelings upon the true source of your pain and it makes no apologies. It turns the pain away from your core and aims it outward. It brings relief from self-hatred. It brings relief from the craziness. It’s powerful. It’s wonderful. It allows you to simply grow.

There is a danger, though. If one fails to move forward—beyond the hurt and the brokenness—one can become mired in anger, hatred and fear.

For me, boys and men came to embody everything that was broken in society. They inherited privilege, embraced violence, and reveled in the hate and abuse that they foisted upon women and girls. They came to symbolize the essence of hatred and violence. Deep down, that’s how I felt about them. I pasted on a kind, understanding face when I interacted with them, but at my core, I didn’t trust them. I saw them as inherently flawed and dangerous creatures.

At the same time, I told myself that it was unjust to hate males simply because they are male. That’s prejudice and it’s bad. So, I pretended that I didn’t really hate them. I wanted to be understanding and open-minded, you see. I tried to tolerate them in spite of myself.

I know this story sounds twisted, but this way of seeing is so easy to embrace when numerous members of a group have repeatedly abused you. It’s easy to see that group of people as being flawed beyond redemption. It’s easy to see all of its members as being less than human. It’s easy to see them as demons bound in flesh. A part of you wishes they would vanish from the planet.

There is a danger in radicalism. Yes, it places blame for oppression squarely upon the shoulders of those who deserve blame. In many respects, radicalism provides a very clear image of how power works in an oppressive system. I’ve no complaints about that. It’s a strength that has fostered wave upon wave of positive change in society. The problem is that radicalism can sometimes lead to defining responsibility for oppression as the sole characteristic of the group in power. In so doing, this can foster the perception that members of the dominant group are capable of nothing more than violence and abuse. Therein lie the seeds of dehumanization and hatred. Therein lie the seeds of prejudice and violence.

Hatred is an emotional cancer. When you hate a portion of human kind long enough, that hatred—and the anger and fear that generates it—comes to infect everything. It can spill over and taint your view of the entire world and everything in it. It can spill over into every relationship you have. Everything is tarnished by a pall of negativity. Cynicism and mistrust seem to be the only acceptable worldview. Anything less is naïve pie-in-the-sky thinking. It isolates you. It alienates you. It becomes a recipe for chronic depression.

Ironically, the anger and righteousness that once fired a person’s radicalism and soothed a person’s spirit can so easily turn upon them and eat them whole.

There must be a more balanced way of being.

These days, I try to see the world in a more open way. I try to accept that I’m capable of the same degree of hatred and prejudice that my oppressors are. I’m not innocent. I’m not perfect. I’m human.

I exist at the nexus of many forms of privilege and disadvantage. I’m not simply a woman, a transgender person, and a lesbian. I’m also white, able-bodied and American. I’m not poor. I have a college education. I live in a clean, quiet, safe neighborhood. I pass as cissexual. In many respects, I take my comfort for granted. I may be oppressed, but I’m also privileged: deeply so. I can be a part of the solution or I can be a part of the problem. I contain the potential for good and evil. My life’s path is the hair’s breadth that separates the two.

Radicalism doesn’t appeal to me so much these days. I have grown tired of seeing the world in black and white. I prefer shades of gray. I prefer color.

Power has carved bloody wounds and scars upon my flesh. I can not deny this. I also can not deny that I share flesh and blood with those who hold power. So too, I am the beneficiary of power. I am made of the stuff they are. I am human. I am the living potential of love and I am the living potential of hate, unified as one.

I have resolved to embrace the notion that there is good even in the worst of my oppressors because there is not only good within my own being, but there is also evil. I am connected to the worst of those among us because I am undeniably human… and so are they.

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~ by timberwraith on April 17, 2009.

18 Responses to “Of Radicalism and Spiritual Fatigue”

  1. I’ve been wondering how to comment to this because I see so much of myself in the things that you talk about.

    “There is a danger, though. If one fails to move forward—beyond the hurt and the brokenness—one can become mired in anger, hatred and fear.”

    Yes.
    This is the breakthrough point that I’m struggling (and mostly failing) to find. I worry so much that anger, hatred, and fear is at the end of the road that I’m rushing so blindly down.

    I’m still young so I have some time to find myself still but… I already feel exhausted. The battle to find my voice has been so long and so difficult and now that I have it I’m throwing my voice out with raw emotion because I’m not honestly sure how much longer it will last.

    …and in the process insuring that it will not last very long.

  2. Also, may I use your post as a reference point for something that I’ve wanted to write for a bit?

  3. By all means, please don’t hesitate to use my post as a reference point.

    I wish I had some sage advice to offer. I don’t really. I’m 40, not quite young and not yet old. I still struggle. I’m still working through this stuff. That’s why I wrote the above post. It’s part of the process.

    I look forward to reading your new post.

    Good luck, Ellie.

  4. I can but agree with what you’ve written here. Radicalism holds danger because a radical mind often becomes one-tracked. To me it is all too obvious that radicalism leads to extremism and fundamentalism – and no matter the ideology extremism is always bad.

    When first I started reading blogs in larger numbers I also ended up buying into much of the radfem world-view. But as I read more and more I realised that attitudes to trans women, sex workers, BDSM’ers just did not compute with me. We’re supposed to be feminists, we’re supposed to be all for women having the ability to make the choices they want, not just the choices “the enlightened ones” would like them to make.

    Suffice to say my blogroll went through a major overhaul at some point. Now I’m gonna add your blog to it, because you write some really insightful posts and I’ve really enjoyed reading them. The hatred from the radicals only serve to turn people away, radicalism does nothing but alienate the very people whose minds ought to be changed.

    Let the radicals live alone on their little separatist islands, and let the rest of us live in and interact with the real world.

  5. Hi, jemimaaslana.

    I’ve got to rush off to work. I’ll share some more thoughts on radicalism later today when I get back.

    Thanks so much for linking my blog in your blogroll. May I have the URL for your blog? A hyperlink didn’t appear in your name, so I’m not sure how to find you.

  6. Of course you may: http://jemimaaslana.wordpress.com/ How odd that it didn’t show up, even though I was logged into my WordPress account when I posted. Anyway, there you have me. I’ll check back in again later.

  7. Thanks for the link, jemimaaslana. My day just ended and I’m too pooped to do a proper response. Tomorrow…

  8. I’ve been thinking a lot since your initial comment, jemimaaslana.

    When I put on my sociologist’s goggles, I realize that radicalism is nearly inevitable when a group of people struggle against the oppression of the ruling factions in society. There have been strains of radicalism in the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the women’s liberation movement, and so on. The social forces present in these kinds of group dynamics will generate a radical response in some portions of a movement. It’s a given. When people are responding in anger to widespread abuse, a subset of that group will allow that anger to drive them in ways that leads to both the negative and positive facets of radicalism described in my original post.

    I agree with the sentiments you have expressed. And yet, as much as I fear the negative aspects of radicalism, when it comes to nascent political movements, such as the push for trans rights, I’m not sure I how much I want to discourage it. From looking at past movements, I suspect that radicalism can serve as an important driving force in bringing about change. On the other hand, taken to an extreme, the kind of division that is sewn by radicalism can rip a political movement apart. Consequently, I am left feeling uncertain. Sometimes I feel neutral about radicalism in the push for trans rights. Sometimes I’m heartened by the growing radicalism I see. Sometimes I’m disgusted by it. It depends on the day and the person in question.

    It’s kind of like trying to harness the power of fire. Fire is useful. It’s a powerful force and you can do so many things with it. Fire can change earth into steel. Fire cleanses. Fire is a force that can be harnessed to build things where nothing once existed. Nevertheless if you don’t tend to fire properly, it will consume and destroy all around it. Radicalism is like that. So is anger.

    Again, I do want to emphasize that I’m not disagreeing with your comment. There is an incredibly unhealthy dynamic that exists in on-line radical feminism. In this case, I think the fire has escaped the forge and foundry and is now burning down the surrounding buildings.

  9. I think you put it so well in the post, actually:

    “The problem is that radicalism can sometimes lead to defining responsibility for oppression as the sole characteristic of the group in power. In so doing, this can foster the perception that members of the dominant group are capable of nothing more than violence and abuse.”

    and

    “When you hate a portion of human kind long enough, that hatred—and the anger and fear that generates it—comes to infect everything. It can spill over and taint your view of the entire world and everything in it.”

    This I believe is exactly what has happened among some radical feminists. They actively exclude trans women, because they cannot look beyond the trans women having been born physically male. Then technically they shouldn’t have a problem with letting in trans men, though I doubt any would be truly interested in entering that sphere. It is also what happens when radfems decide that sex work is a social cancer created by patriarchy and then proceed to silence and berate women who actually like their occupation in sex work. Not cool and those were the reasons I was turned away from radical feminism.

    I was very attracted to the unbending ideology that patriarchy or the kyriarchy received sole blame for the systemic ills that women suffer, but when that blame extends to any woman who does not agree fully and completely and therefore she is tainted with patriarchal standards, that’s when I jump OFF the band wagon.

    Radicalism can indeed by a great primus motor for getting things started and for the drive that it sometimes needed. But it leaves no room for independent thought, it leaves no room for the individual and no room for disagreement, and while it may bring revolution it will eventually only bring about devolution rather than evolution.

  10. In a word: yup.

    I like your blog, by the way. I just added you to my blogroll.

    I noticed a funny thing about WordPress blogs recently. If you are logged in and comment on another WordPress blog, the hyperlink to your blog will not appear within your name. You have to log out before commenting. Very strange.

  11. Thanks. I try to keep it a good place for as many groups as possible. Though right wing-nuts and other such extremists will find it an unwelcoming place 😛

    I never noticed that about WordPress… that is odd. Perhaps they expect us all to be smart enough to place the username in a link ourselves. Such a compliment 😛 Wee is teh_smrtst hehe very impractical, though.

  12. I was very attracted to the unbending ideology that patriarchy or the kyriarchy received sole blame for the systemic ills that women suffer…

    As I reread your comment before, this stood out to me. I don’t think many radical feminists truly recognize the notion of kyriarchy.

    I’ve seen kyriarchy positioned as an alternative to the notion of patriarchy. The notion of patriarchy places primacy upon male dominance whereas the notion of kyriarchy includes the idea that there is no oppression that has primacy. A society’s power structures create a complex web of dominance and subordination that shifts with context. Power is relative.

    In contrast, radical feminists I’ve encountered in blogdonia generally place primacy upon the notion that men are the ruling class. All other types of oppression tend to be pushed into the background in their analysis. They may throw in a few token words addressing multiple, intersecting oppressions, but patriarchal domination tends to be positioned as the be all and end all of oppression.

    Here’s a really great interpretation of kyriarchy:

    Who’s at the bottom of the pyramid? Who do you think are at the bottom of the pyramid who are less likely to scheme and spend extravagant resources to further perpetuate oppression? I think of poor children with no roads out of hell, the mentally ill who are never “credible,” un-gendered or non-gender identified people, farm workers, modern day slaves…But, the pyramid stratifies itself from top to bottom. And before you start making a checklist of who is at the top and bottom – here’s my advice: don’t bother. The pyramid shifts with context. The point is not to rank. The point is to learn.

    I don’t think many on-line radfems have taken such a nuanced approach to analyzing oppression. Placing such primacy upon the notion of male domination can leave a person with some major blind spots. You are going to have a hard time recognizing the deeper complexity of how multiple threads of oppression knit together in forming a myriad of possible power relationships between multiple classes of people.

    Have you encountered many radfems discussing the term kyriarchy, jemimaaslana? Perhaps they now are doing so, as I stopped reading radfem blogs several years ago.

  13. […] was off, something was bothering me.  And then I came across this post (which is excellent by the way) by hauntedtimber.  Not only does she make some excellent points, I […]

  14. Hmmm, you’re right, now that I think about it. I don’t recall where I’ve seen it used, just that I don’t see it used all that much. And I’m guilty of forgetting it myself – patriarchy is a term that is just so ingrained with me by now. I think I’ve seen one or two radical feminists use it, but Debi Crow who is one of them, broke with the radfem circles for the same reason I did: the despicable treatment of women who are voluntarily in sex work. The other one was Anji as far as I recall. But neither of them have their own blogs anymore, personal lives and children take up too much of their time for them to devote much to an online community. I think you might still find Anji on Mothers for Women’s Lib once in a while.

    The radfem blogs I read can be counted on one hand. Some do have very sharp insights that I appreciate and like to read, and some have very good posts that I read, because, if nothing else, it’s beneficial to know what you’re disagreeing with. For instance I disagree most of the time with 9-2, but I still read her blog, Rage Against the Man-chine, because whether or not you agree with her, her posts are undeniably well-written and thoroughly thought out.

  15. I’m glad things got better. When abuse occurs, it’s an unfortunate circumstance, but just because all your abusers were male wouldn’t mean all males were your abusers.

    I am male, and I seek greater masculinity, but I wouldn’t seek to do harm or oppression to any creature.

  16. Everyone,

    Ideas are flyng around my head! Thanks for the thoughts and comments.

    Continuing or unabated anger is difficult for me to be around. It’s tiring, exhausting. Anger is good, part of life. Staying in it, being angry as a persona is not good, in my opinion.

    I met radfems in the 70’s when I was a very young woman and found the angry persona did not fit. I was completely perplexed by the anger and resentment towards sex workers at a Barnard Conference in the early 1980’s.

    Color and shades of gray are more appealing to me as well. Intentions, and attidudes matter as much as words as far as I’m concerned.

    I think that cooperation is the goal. Women running everything could be as one-sided and oppressive as our largely male dominated culture here in the USA.

    Must dash.

    Catherine

  17. I wrote about kyriarchy here!

    Apologies for length; I get exercised, on occasion!

  18. […] I wrote this a little while ago: Radical feminism appealed to me because it placed the blame for the fucked up ways of patriarchy squarely upon men’s shoulders. No words were minced. No excuses were made. Radical feminism was a fiery, take-no-shit approach to dealing with sexist oppression. It appealed to me because its intensity reflected my own anger and hurt. Finding one’s anger and hurt reflected in a philosophy and a movement can be a beautiful thing. It can provide a space of healing. It places the blame for the crazy messed-up feelings upon the true source of your pain and it makes no apologies. It turns the pain away from your core and aims it outward. It brings relief from self-hatred. It brings relief from the craziness. It’s powerful. It’s wonderful. It allows you to simply grow. […]

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