Hi. Welcome to the site. Please check out the About Us, and if you have a question about crime and/or punishment, perhaps look at some previous questions along those lines first.
Welcome to Anarchy101 Q&A, where you can ask questions and receive answers about anarchism, from anarchists.

What are some ways to talk about feminism without relying on identity politics?

+8 votes
I am not particularly interested in making general statements about the experiences and emotions of a group of people who share an identifier. I am also not stoked on reinforcing gender binaries, or participating in the representative political game where one women speaks for all women, etc...that said there are times in my life that patriarchy/sexism seems to explain a whole lot. How can I talk about that without falling prey to all the other stuff? What kinds of anti-political post left feminist stuff is out there? (this discussion can be translated to other identifiers)
asked Oct 26, 2013 by shark.heart (1,510 points)
The problem here is with this vague, loaded term ‘identity politics.’ It seems to me like anarchists, in reacting against the ‘social justice warrior crowd’, have shrugged off anything that has to do with issues of identity as worthless liberal recuperation. The fact of the matter is that men are socialized to take up more space, commit sexual assault, and dismiss the emotions of non-men. You can debate the details all you want, but those things are pretty obviously true. People are cast into genders when they are born and spend their adolescence being socialized to fit specific roles. Some of us grow up to reject those roles and actively aim to work on our shit; others revolt against their gender completely and think of their socialization as a bad memory. But the thing is, that socialization is there, and how we react to it is up to us.

To answer the question: I don't know. I'm too afraid to bring it up around anarchists in real life because half will hate you for being into identity politics, the other half will hate you for not being into identity politics enough.
I don't have an answer, at least not yet, but this is a great question.
hey flip. you definitely articulate the reasonable line as commonly understood, and it is a decent line, as far as it goes.

please read me as tentative in the following paragraphs...

one problem with that line might be that it tends toward extremism. maybe that is not the fault of the line, but maybe it is. (i blame christianity for the extremes done in its name, even though christians denounce each other all over the place, so...)
another problem might be that it has stunted our ability (by analyzing things just *enough*) to understand things better. maybe there are over-arching tendencies, but that doesn't have to mean *anything* about any specific interaction or individual. so how do generalizations get in the way of treating each other and ourselves well/better? sometimes it's really helpful to be able to say, "this is not just me, this is a whole group of people". and sometimes it's not helpful.
and sometimes it's both.
just for an example: what if the people who are socialized to be take up more space, commit sexual assault, and dismiss some people's emotions are actually a subset of people that crosses the gender line? and we've been mis-identifying the marker (as gender/sex) this whole time?

i hear you on that last paragraph though. this is one of those conversations that will blow up in your face frequently. makes it better to have online. :)
Can you clarify what you mean by “that line” and how it might tend “toward extremism”? I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying.

I think I see what you’re saying about mis-identifying the marker. It’s obviously possible, considering that there are definitely non-men who perpetuate those things and men who do not.

But how about this: I’m currently part of a mens’ group. That would be considered ‘identity politics’ because we’re acting and meeting based on our shared identity. I know how fucked up my socialization has made me, and I know that it does similar things to other mostly men. Other people, non-men, also work on their shit, they don’t have to be in a ‘mens group’ to do so. But when the vast majority of perpetrators of sexual assault are men, the urgent task at hand for me is to combat that most probable, and undoubtedly relevant element behind said phenomenon.

Again though, I see your point and it’s an interesting one.
the line that "all men have been socialized", or "all women"... pretty much any time someone says "all" anyone...
that is by definition essentializing, i think, and absolutely tends to make people think in certainties and black and whites...

but it's complicated in practice. i know that when i was coming up, the best way for me to avoid feeling the standard white guilt about racism was to accept racism as a fact of life for (north american) [white] people. that immediately removed the question of "whether or not" and encouraged the "how" and "what to do" questions, which are much more manageable. that was meaningful not in some abstract sense (although obviously there are all kinds of philosophical ramifications), but as a rejection of the kinds of defensive, irritating, repetitive conversations that people are still having about racism (and sexism).
personal, affinity-based responses (like men's groups, potentially) to problems that we have/see in the world  can be great, but can also foster thinking that is not challenging on some levels. i'll use my experience with racism again... the challenging white supremacy workshops were all about picking a side, picking a rhetoric, and then training everyone to have the same perspective. last time i checked they were at the point of judging people for not sharing language (if you use the wrong words then you are not one of them, if you're not one of them then you are not working on your shit). (there are anarchists like that, too, of course. sometimes i'm one of them.) being in groups, especially around something that seems obvious to the group members (like man-ness, etc), can be dangerous along those lines. that doesn't mean it's not the best option for a specific thing, or a specific time, or a specific person...

2 Answers

+2 votes
as an anarchist (with strong individualist tendencies), i don't see it as possible to talk about feminism without engaging in identity politics. the crux of both is an essentialist perspective. there are two boxes into which individuals get placed: oppressed/victim and oppressor/abuser. what makes them essentialist is that the primary criteria for placing someone in one box or the other are those "essential" characteristics: male/female, white/non-white, etc. rather than the observable behavior and actions of the individuals involved.

lest i should be misunderstood, let me make this clear: i am NOT saying abuse and oppression don't exist. nor am i saying that women and other non-white-male individuals aren't more prone to institutionalized prejudices and oppression than white males, by and large.  what i AM saying is that oppression ought to be looked at within the specific context in which it occurs; and that is not limited to the big-picture context of "society", or civilization or what have you. every relationship between individuals has power dynamics, and those dynamics ought to be examined, critiqued and potentially tweaked (or massively changed if necessary) at every opportunity. it makes no difference to me what color, size, shape, income or genitalia describe the individuals involved; if the power dynamic is coercive or oppressive, it should be dealt with. i have no interest in the oppression pyramid, and there is no other way i can describe essentialist thinking.

take this statement: "The fact of the matter is that men are socialized to take up more space, commit sexual assault, and dismiss the emotions of non-men. "

is that really any different from the feminazi proclamation that "all men are rapists"? it is an absurd universalization, one that is empirically inaccurate in my own lived experience. socialization does not solely come from the mass of society (and all its public relations tools). one's intimate circle of friends and family can also be huge influences, and "society" does not automatically trump them as influential factors. i know many men who were not socialized to commit sexual assault, dismiss non-male emotions, take up more space, etc - at least based on both meaningful discussion and observed behavior.

i guess this is more of a comment than an answer, except for maybe the very first sentence. :-)
answered Oct 30, 2013 by funkyanarchy (11,350 points)
indeed :)
so, one last clarification (maybe).
re: being self-created or not...
if we are significantly formed by the world we live in, and the world we live in is sexist, then how does that sexism manifest? how do we talk about it in ways that respect both what we have done to get out of that perspective, and acknowledge what is (or seems) irrevocably broken?
by "doesn't mean anything" i meant that you reject the complexity of the negotiation between group membership and individuality. (shit, and this whole time i'm writing like group could be defined as just other humans. which i don't think is true. but that is really getting into a different conversation!)
it's fine for you to say that you want to engage with other people who deny those constructs, but to me that is the easy way out, and it is following a line that denies some of my experiences (i'm not making a moral point there. you have no responsibility to my experiences, obviously).
shark.heart is asking a question that is complicated and difficult, and your answer is not acknowledging the difficulty (or at least, it wasn't initially. maybe you have at this point?).
k. think i'm done now. hope that is clearer.
i am not sure if this is the case, but i feel like there is simply an irreconcilable difference between my own perspective and way of relating to "the world" (as an individual that *desires* only to relate with other individuals), and perspectives/ways of relating that seem somehow inherently bound to seeing "groups". (that may make no sense to anyone outside my own head.) perhaps you have found a good balance between those perspectives. right on.  even i (as i keep trying to point out) don't see it in black and white. i just find myself strongly repelled from the "group identity" way of seeing and relating to the world. perhaps some residue from my attempts at eliminating all forms of dogma from my life? these questions (in this case, all around individual vs group) are huge and important ones, and although i seek simplicity in virtually everything in my life (hence, my taking the "easy way out" is quite conscious), i try not to be reductionist or ignore unavoidable complexities. so your use of the terms "simplistic" and "easy way out" are ones that resonate (positively) with me, but they also cause me to look more deeply at that part of myself in this context. self discovery/creation is perpetual.

i/we have edged away from the real focus of the original question. plus
i am not doing a great job of clarifying my own perspective. i really do dig these kinds of discussions, i just find them severely lacking when not done face-2-face. maybe sometime we can pick this up irl...

sorry for "dominating" this damn comment thread! :-)
oh, and in case i really did not acknowledge the difficulty of shark.heart's original question, i acknowledge it for sure, here and now. it is an excellent question. and i surely did NOT answer the question.
i agree that it is better for relationships to have them face 2 face, but i'm not sure it's better for the conversation, to the extent that those can be differentiated (i am falsely abstracting conversations. but i will continue because it amuses me. fuck it).
that is, i find that in relationship i sometimes cave to wanting to get along, or to be light hearted, or to make or hear a joke... here it is possible to take a break for a while and think about it, and then come back and start up again...
anyway, i guess i'm just saying that both F2F and online/in writing have their place.
your final two comments more than satisfied, thank you very much!
and yes, i think i am totally simplifying by talking about group and individual (perhaps there is a key to actually answering the question in that premise), but there is something about anarchists generally organizing themselves in to either emphasizing one or the other that is easy to fall into (at least rhetorically). let's find another way to talk about those tendencies!
(you first! :D )
i agree, there are some benefits to an online discussion vs f2f, regarding time and space to think things through before responding. (i wish i took more advantage of that! ;-) ) not sure how much that "pro" is offset by the "con" of missing visual clues/body language and tone, as far as clear communication.

i'd still much rather deal f2f, but where/how i live, the opportunities for that are limited at best. so i appreciate this. and many of the folks here.
+3 votes
I think that you can talk about feminism without relying on identity politics, but, in the first instance, I'm don't think you should. There are serious problems with the notion that social inequalities along identity lines have been overcome and should not be spoken of -- i.e. the all too familiar "identity blind" discourse that provokes such a knee-jerk reaction whenever one makes a statement about gender, class, race, and so on, insinuating that to speak of such things is to perpetuate them. This tendency leads to what might be called gender-blind sexism, color-blind racism, class-blind classism, and so on. I offer this answer tentatively, and not with any sort of claim to elaborating the subject in detail (because that would mean writing a book), and before continuing should say that a number of authors have worked on this question of gender identity (and its abolishion), namely queer theorists like Judith Butler, Eve Sedgwick, Michel Foucault, among others. The best recent work I know of from a feminist perspective is Linda Zerilli's Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom, which is, interestingly, calling for a return to what is often called second-wave feminism. Also, Hardt and Negri's Commonwealth deals extensively with the question of identity politics in relation to revolutionary politics (just to try to answer the "what kinds of stuff is out there" question and not to pretend that I came up with any of this on my own).

Identity, whether gender, class, race, nationality, etc, is a form of violence, and is implicitly connected with most any kind of oppression you can name. There is good reason to want to do away with identity politics and it seems right that this is the goal of any revolutionary politics. But there is nowhere else to start except identity. The Zapatistas have an interesting notion in this regard, encapsulated in their slogan that demands "not to be who we are, but to become what we want." This is a break with identity politics in that it acknowledges the place from which the revolution sets out, in a shared identity of Chipas, the family, Christianity, other traditions, etc., but this is not the intended end of the struggle. The end, instead, is undefined, and does not drive toward a fixed identity but rather a space in which self-transformation is possible (while recognizing that a struggle must take place for this to happen). In terms of gender, this is different from a feminism that might call for equality with, or recognition from, the oppressor (men). This would be to say that the point of starting out must be as feminists, as women, but that this ought not to be the intended end (as dot says in the comment above about reification). The end of feminism must be to abolish gender altogether (working toward queer theory, perhaps), though it is naive to think that that has been accomplished and so identity politics remain necessary, at least in part. The first task of identity politics must be to make visible the violence of identity, but all too often this politics remains stuck in this task and begins to defend that identity as if it were a kind of property instead of moving on the the second task (and the more important) of a struggle for liberation from identity altogether.

Stepping away from the question a little bit, and to close, this is why I would never say "I am an anarchist" or any such phrase, since I don't think of anarchism as an identity but rather as a revolutionary tendency of thought and action that seeks liberation from identity politics (and that's why I like it). Again, I apologize for this all too inadequate answer to a very important question.

-e
answered Nov 2, 2013 by dashe (1,000 points)
No apology necessary; like most good responses, this opens up a discussion rather than closing it off.
Thanks for the suggested readings.
I also appreciate the discussion of the multifaceted tasks of identity.
Often when I am telling someone about an experience in which I felt or acted like a "woman" it is in the effort to be seen as an individual, to connect with another person, to be understood, all of those things that being a "woman" does not offer me.
@shark.heart: if you haven't read "only a tsunami will do" (a piece in the old green anarchy mag, might be in the recent "best of..." book), you might find it interesting and relevant.
...