Good morning, lovelies, and welcome to another Friday Feminist Fury Fest! I know we all love to end the week by getting angry about something, but today’s piece is less focused on anger and more on critical thought. I know, I’m failing in my feminist duties, I promise I’ll be back to incandescent rage next week.
Since the election of Donald Trump, there’s been a rise in communal outrage against the conservative and oppressive policies for which he stands. People are busy making anti-Trump memes, armchair diagnosing him with the most stigmatised mental illnesses (check out this week’s episode of Adventures in Misandry below to find out why this is a shitty thing to do), and generally pointing out all the things he’s done that make him a shitty person. There’s a general sense of disbelief that someone like Trump could ever make it into a position of power, but what there’s not a lot of – at least in the mainstream media – is meaningful analysis of how Trump got there in the first place.
While I am proud to call myself a feminist, I’m also the first to admit that our movement has a lot of flaws, and one of the biggest is the need to simplify everything, ostensibly in order to appeal to the masses, but in reality because the majority of our movement is unwilling to put in the intensive work required to understand the reality in which we live. Instead of railing against the classist, patriarchal white supremacy that boosted Trump to the presidency in the first place, prominent feminists tend to point to the man himself, and sometimes to Mike Pence, or even to the Republican Party as a whole. And this isn’t enough. Those guys (emphasis on guys) didn’t get into power on their own, and if we keep focusing on individuals instead of the culture that created them, we’re never going to see the change we need.
To understand why we need to broaden our focus to include culture, and not just individuals, we need to understand how our power structures use individualism against us when we’re fighting for social justice.
Most people who aren’t actively studying social science (and plenty of those who are) don’t have a full understanding of how culture impacts our daily lives, and shapes everything from who runs our country, to who gets paid what, to what we decide to wear in the morning. In fact, our economy and power structures rely on people remaining ignorant of how they work, and one way in which it does that is to perpetuate the ‘rhetoric of choice’ and the ‘myth of individualism’. Of course, we’re aware that our culture shapes us in some way, but most of us want to believe in the idea of individual agency – we want to think of ourselves as having an active and unbiased choice. The truth, of course, is far more complicated.
The ‘rhetoric of choice’ is the idea that the choices we make are independent, unbiased, and come from some mystical core that we call our ‘self’. This is total camel spit, of course. We make choices all the time that are influenced by a fear of what others will think, or a fear of legal repercussions, or just because ‘it’s what we’ve always done’. The problem with the rhetoric of choice is that it says that Donald Trump is a giant turd pie because he chooses to be so (or if he hasn’t chosen it, it’s because he’s mentally ill – again, check out the link below). It’s not that simple. Sure, ol’ Pumpkin Head has made horrible choices that he needs to take responsibility for, and regardless of the culture in which he lives, those choices make him a shitty person. HOWEVER those choices would have had very different consequences in a culture that didn’t actively reward him for making them. He has faced so few negative consequences for his sexual harassment and assault, his anti-LGBT+ rhetoric and policy, his blatant racism (etc) that he feels free to continue acting in whatever way he wishes. Our culture has rewarded him for these actions, so of course he continues to act like that.
The myth of individualism ties in to this rhetoric of choice by not only perpetuating the idea that we are all somehow ‘outside’ of culture and can choose not to participate in it, but also by promoting self-interest as a moral duty. This is doubly so for white men, who are taught entitlement before they can walk and talk. Donald Trump is acting on the values he was taught – maybe not the ones we want to believe our culture values, but the invisible values that we all absorb to some extent, whether we like it or not. And without any reason to address these choices, people like Trump, Pence, Abbott, Turnbull (etc) are going to continue making them.
But why can’t we just focus on holding individuals accountable for their actions? The answer is that of course we can – and should – hold individuals accountable. That’s part of changing the culture that makes shitty people president. But it’s not enough. If we don’t ALSO look at how that person came to act shittily in the first place, we won’t have the full picture. The behaviour becomes that person’s individual problem, rather than the result of a bunch of other factors including their race, class, gender, sexuality, religion and so on. When we just talk about how Trump is a shitty person, we’re missing the rest of the story.
It’s also absolutely vital to remember that this individual focus is far more often the property of white men – if a black president acted like Trump, his shitty behaviour would often be seen as a product of his race. Mainstream feminism still has a lot of issues with race. It’s important to remember that even when they’re being criticised, white men and white people in general get a lot of free passes. A ridiculous number of free passes. Seriously, so many. So. Many. Only certain people have the privilege of being seen as individuals.
Trump is a shitty person because he was raised in a culture is built on white supremacy, misogyny, ableism, trans- and homophobia. And this is the part that makes it so important to focus on culture as a whole, as well as individuals: these things weren’t foisted on him by a bunch of extremists. While he might be publicly encouraged by extremists, the culture in which he was created made all this seem ‘reasonable’ to millions of Americans. This culture made it easy for these ordinary people to choose their own apparent interest over the humanity of millions of others. This culture was what led millions of individuals to believe they were doing the ‘right thing’. These are attitudes that are taught in schools, that are the result of the white-washed history we learn (Australia suffers very similar issues), of the way products are marketed to certain genders, of the way bigots are allowed to spread hate (and cause actual harm) under the guise of ‘free speech’, while activists are regarded as angry extremists for demanding simple respect. Trump is the result of hundreds of years of cultural development that has divided us into categories of ‘human’ and ‘other’.
There is no easy way to combat such an ephemeral concept as culture. It requires constant discussion, constant self-examination, constant education, and a willingness to listen to those more oppressed than us. Because the most important thing to remember about ‘culture’ is that it exists in literally everything around us, and it all seems very natural to those of us who’ve been brought up in it, and that’s how it maintains its power. Culture has its own power and its own motivations and its own purpose that can be completely unrelated to those utilising that culture. It’s a living, breathing entity that is so big we can barely comprehend it. But we need to do more than understand it. We need to act on that understanding. A lot of us want to believe that if we try not to do the wrong thing, we’ve done enough. But that’s not enough, for the same reason that getting angry at Donald Trump isn’t enough. Our being ‘good people’ (there’s a phrase that I’ll deconstruct another day…) isn’t enough. Our not being obviously oppressive won’t change those oppressive cultures and systems that make life harder for certain people.
I won’t lie, it’s a big ask. There are people who’ve been studying culture and social structures for decades who’ve barely scratched the surface, and here I am saying we all have to do it. Of course we can’t all become experts. But what we can do is take responsibility for our own position in these structures. In fact, it is our responsibility to do so. We have an obligation to our fellow humans to make the world a better place – not just for ourselves, but for all of us. We MUST take time to listen, learn, and act to make our world a better place. Changing an entire culture seems like a pretty monumental job, but it is possible – look how different the world is from the world of a century ago. We can make things better, and paradoxically, we can start with ourselves.
Check out this week’s Adventures in Misandry, where I talk about how diagnosing Trump with mental illness is a dick move. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y2_LmZlW9uo&list=PLmL6Dj1MgLnlbO2RILYQFXZp8canaP6ou&index=1
All Rights Reserved to Cambrey Payne 2017. Acknowledge sources when sharing and do not repost without original source.
Image from: https://www.city-journal.org/sites/cj/files/20160126-sm.jpg