“When I ran away from slavery, it was for myself; when I advocated
emancipation, it was for my people; but when I stood up for the rights
of women, self was out of the question, and I found a little nobility in the act.”
As many of us are, I have been paying curious attention to the growing list of prominent men who are being called out for sexual misconduct and are now resigning, either willingly or under duress, as a response to their unacceptable behavior.
There is no question in my mind that these men—for their own sakes and for ours—vitally need consequences for their behavior; more, however, they need to be held accountable for a deeper recognition of the problem that leads to amends—to meaningful change, not only in themselves, but in our culture. The insidious truth is this: their behavior and the underlying ethos that creates the objectification, commodification, and exploitation of women’s embodied selves are not anomalous; these behaviors are normative aspects of our history, our current culture, our institutions and social systems. These are not merely a few bad apples; they are perpetrators of a behavior more common than we admit.
The reality is that we have made only symbolic, patriarchally permissive, and contextualized progress from the days of antiquity when women were, legally and culturally, property. While advances have been made legally and socially regarding access to resources, position, and particular privileges, women are, symbolically and practically, still the property of a colonizing system of privileging—which is to say, women are still property of enculturated maleness. There is and always has been, philosophically and practically, a direct relationship between the colonization of land and the colonization of bodies. This is so, first, by designation of gender—across culture and history—and, then, by designation of the other social inventions of race, class, sex and sexuality, ability, education, etc.
Further, through systems of patriarchal permissiveness, there is a direct qualitative and quantitative correlation between a woman’s freedom of movement and position and her alignment with white, European, androcentric patriarchy. Said more pointedly, white women are afforded more liberty of movement and access to resources than are women of color; cis-gender women are afforded more freedom and access than are women who are otherwise-women. Women educated in white European educational systems are awarded more position and access than those who are not. And, always, women who by voice and action support and perpetuate the views and values of the self-appointed elite are rewarded with even greater access, position, and freedom of movement. (i.e.: remember Anita Bryant and the Save the Children Campaign) Always, however, regardless of allotted freedom of movement, voice, and access, a woman’s body suffers the status of property. The underlying, culturally transmitted belief—one which is deeply dualistic and reductionist—is that a woman’s body is still fair game on the daily hunting ground of self-absorbed males seeking power and dominion: the ego-consoling, masculinity-affirming acts of conquest, made all the more intoxicating when the object is another person and the act is physically gratifying.
From rape-culture college campuses to domestic relations, from corporate offices to doctor’s offices, from street corners to clergy offices and confessionals, from casting couches to ordinary job interviews—however subconsciously or unspoken—from back rooms to the Oval Office, the personhood of a woman is reduced to her body. Women are still colonized, on the landscapes of their bodies, by those who wish to occupy them.
Given this reality, it is not difficult, at all, to see how readily this belief system—rooted in the core belief of male primacy—morphs and twists into the colonization of other bodies.
And, this, this belief system—so embedded in historical culture as to be, simultaneously, subconsciously assimilated and, culturally and institutionally, consciously transmitted—is both the core problem and the very thing that is protected by the mere removal of a handful of sacrificial men unfortunate enough to be named by women who, fed-up and sick and tired, find their voices. These men, and all others who have sexually mistreated, exploited, and demeaned women, do indeed need to be called out, held accountable, and served up a healthy dose of consequences. But this idea of consequences must involve and employ more than the mere admission of guilt. The pronouncement of guilt, alone, is not enough to create transformative change in an individual person. It certainly is not enough to generate social change.
Wise feminist poet, essayist, activist and warrior, Audre Lorde, reminded us of this truth some time ago when she asserted: “guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness” (Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches).
The deeper, more real problem is that we live a culture that privileges. Period. Moreover, we have accepted this—both actively and passively—as normative, as the way things are and must be. And, historically, culturally, and psycho-spiritually, we have done this—as human beings—to our own detriment. Privileging, by nature, exists upon the exploitation and exclusion of others. The consequences are not only to the un-privileged, the exploited and the excluded—though theirs is palpable, observable and measurable; the consequences are to the privileged, as well, who are prevented from a fuller, more meaningful and purposeful realization of selfhood and belonging. The privileged suffer an aimlessness of selfhood and dislocation of shared humanity that no amount of position, resources and addiction-to-more can cure. Human relationality, to be fully realized, meaningfully, necessitates the status of equal value.
As long as we tolerate—and thus, continue to foster—a culture of privileging, we will continue to tolerate and foster a culture of androcentrism, gender polarity, and biological essentialism. This means, we will never achieve a society in which all of us live in liberty of fear and exploitation and are free to become and be fully who we are. No meaningful human potentiality is achieved, fully, unless the potentiality of each person is afforded liberty of possibility. Fundamental to this is the sovereignty of bodies. As long as we tolerate and foster systems of privileging, we will never achieve the noble status of our shared humanity.
So, what of these men (and those, no doubt, soon to follow)? What is the nature of the nobility Douglass spoke of achieving?
Clearly, all this is complex. And I am in no way doing the fullness of it justice here. But it does seem equally clear that mere admissions of guilt and the loss of some position are not sufficient. We know, in fact, that in a culture that iconicizes elite members of our ruling class and celebrates their endless parades of public performance, if a largely symbolic punishment of their sins is the culmination of their consequences, we will soon see them lifted into celebrity as the “fallen men” who now give speeches and write books and profit from their sins. (i.e.: remember Bill Clinton; or worse, Jerry Falwell, or Jim Bakker…need I go on?)
What is required of them, and their countless peers, is a meaningful and measurable movement toward amends. It is necessary that they take responsibility for doing the hard, personal, inward work of conversion. When I use the word conversion, I am speaking of the elemental process of being changed from one condition—one state of being, position, or set of beliefs—to another condition or state of being. The internal condition of these men needs be transformed in a such a way that they are no longer the same persons as they once were and, having been fundamentally changed, they no longer move and have their being in the world as they did before they were converted. Such conversion is evidenced by:
~ a practical and significant understanding of the nature of their beliefs and behavior;
~ acceptance of personal responsibility for having chosen, actively, to think and behavior as they did, by habit and matter of course;
~ and a commitment not only to refraining from doing it again, but to deeper personal awareness and insight regarding what it means for them to develop, be guided by, and foster a real and present respect for the personhood of women, for women’s bodies and personal sovereignty, for the dignity of all persons, and for the inherent right to live free from fear of domination, exploitation and abuse.
Further, this conversion will be meaningful and measurable by their willingness to go forth changed and participate actively—and without monetary compensation—in the education of others, in the diligent and continuous work for change.
We cannot allow the continuation of changelessness. The nobility Douglass refers to is that of living into and acting upon the humane disposition of our shared humanity that can only be found in compassionate, relational, interdependent, egalitarian community with other humans. Every act that brings us closer to the day when such a humane disposition is the way of things affords us of glimpses of our noble potentiality.