‘The Last Shall Be First’: Call Out Culture, Faith and Feminism

images_boys

 

I have been thinking, a lot, about ‘call out culture’ recently: as a Christian and a feminist, there is a tension that exists between challenging the entrenched norms that perpetuate oppression, and practising the grace and forgiveness I am called to. Criticism and self-reflection are vital tools when your conversation and activism is focussed on aspects of patriarchal and kyriarchal structures of hierarchy and power.  Often it means discussing complex and painful issues, and whilst challenging the entrenched myths and norms [both interior to, and exterior of the self] which perpetuate oppressions, how do we do that without falling to self-righteous finger pointing, or failing to speak up when justice demands it?

Critiques of call out culture can be nuanced, and reflective of the context in which our lives are lived – Flavia Dzodan’s essay on the subject for Tiger Beatdown 4 years ago remains one of the best on the issue: it is thought provoking, placing the era of blogging and social media in the context of the emergence of ‘reality show’ programming, examining the performativity of call outs and asking serious questions about what motivates people collectively and individually. (And if you haven’t read it yet, I would recommend that you do).

On the other end of the spectrum was the infamous Michelle Goldberg piece, which itself became a focus of ‘calling out’: it’s juxtaposition of ‘toxicity’ with black women and women of colour was indicative, not only of how white feminism can use words like ‘intersectional’ without a comprehensive understanding of the necessity of de-colonializing self, but how accurate Dzodan’s earlier piece had been. When call out’s are about performance in an era of Big Brother TV, magical intent and calcified liberal social politics, we act and react in the context of the cis-white-hetro-normative systems, losing sight of how other people are being subsumed in a society which forces us to clamber over one another in an un-winnable race to survive.

We cannot ignore the structural racism that exists around much of this conversation: black and women of colour – both trans and cis gendered – have faced appalling reactions from white feminists, recalling the days when Francis E Willard and other white suffragettes put white women’s votes above the lynching of black people, and the White British press tried to smear Ida B Wells.

What, then, are we ‘calling out’? Just sexism? Or are we asking not only others to look at their words and behaviour, but ourselves as well? As Dzodan’s piece challenges us – for whose benefit do we make these call out’s?

ByF8SsOCIAAhrS1

I have been meditating on this in the context of how Jesus spoke about the last and the first – or those at the ‘bottom’ of the social heap, and those at the ‘top’ of it. In Matthew 20: 10 – 16 NRSV :

‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 

Jesus topsy turvy kingdom has always profoundly spoken to me in my own calling of standing for and with the most marginalised : how God upends human systems of power and privilege, and puts the very least (in the eyes of the world) at the very top.

In the context of the work of feminism, I wondered, what might that look like?

Feminism has, through it’s many evolutions and theories, sought to challenge and dismantle the patriarchal and kyriarchal structures which diminish and oppress women in the many and varied ways which it exerts it’s oppression and rabid authority.  Feminism, whether driven by intellectual theory or grass roots activism, is built on ‘calling out’ the harmful and violent expressions of patriarchy. It might be street harassment, rape and intimate partner violence or equal pay; it might be purity culture, victim blaming, or challenging an on line article or news story.

Whatever it is, feminism is born of the need to ‘call out’ patriarchy: to challenge it, stand up to it, and to demand it relinquish its grip on society.

There are subtle ways in which patriarchy exerts itself, and how it does so has changed over time: this was brought in to stark relief to me recently during a conversation with a friend whom I have known for some years. It came up that – for her – the word ‘queer’ has incredibly negative connotations, but not because she is homophobic, quite the opposite. Having watched a close family member have to cope with what used to be called ‘queer bashing’, having loved and supported them unconditionally, her understanding of that word is within an abusive context.

Now, for myself and many others who identify as queer, the reclaiming that has occurred of that word is positive and life giving: but not for my friend. That word brings threats of danger and abuse to the family member she loves dearly. Two or three decades ago, being LGBT and hearing that word called out would have frozen you with fear down to your very marrow. (Actually, sometimes I am not sure that has changed so very much).

When she raised this with me, my first reaction could have been even more damaging – I could have simply told her not to be silly, that the word meant something positive now: but that would have been to erase her experience and that of her much loved gay family member who endured such horrible abuse.

In one simple sense, this is what it all comes down to: recognising the experience of another human being, acknowledging their own story and their own hurt and respecting that. Had I overlaid my own experience of that word on to her, I would have hurt her tremendously – but by stepping back, by hearing her without pre-conceptions, by simply saying ‘sorry’ for using that word (whatever my intention) our conversation (which could have been hurtful to both of us) was instead encouraging and uplifting for us both.

And we knew each other much better.

Suppose for a moment, that you are cis gender and a transgender woman is trying to explain to you why she feels erased by other women – what should your first reaction be, as a human being? To listen to her – or to ask her to put her own feelings aside and prioritise your feelings?

Perhaps you are white, and a black person or person of colour is trying to explain why something you did not acknowledge as racist or appropriative, is exactly that – what should your first reaction be, as a human being?

Perhaps you are straight, and a person who is gay or bi-sexual is trying to explain something about their experience of the world which you do not understand – what should your first reaction be, as a human being?

You might be a man, wondering if women are spending too much time complaining about how they are treated – but when so many are treated with violence, verbally, physically and emotionally, should that be your first reaction as a human being?

Now suppose you are a Christian too.

Is your first reaction to prioritise your idea’s and theology – or to put the last first, and the first last?

Advertisements

Dear Fellow Cisters – It Wasn’t A Penis What Did It, It Was A Man (CN/TW)

This post is one of the most personal I have written, and yet at the same time is not really about me. Nevertheless it discusses rape so I urge you first and foremost to take care of yourselves.

I am cis-gendered. When gender and genitals, or gender and sex, are conflated, it is not I who is hurt by it. By sharing this, my small hope is that I can help and support – not hinder or speak for or over – the transgender sisters, gender queer and gender fluid folk whose identities are too often questioned . (If  I fail to get that balance right, please tell me.) There is another woman I want particularly to stand in solidarity with today too…

Although I don’t follow the writer Sarah Ditum on twitter, I saw this tweet a little while after she had sent it, and for some time now it has been on my mind – or rather, how to frame a response to it has been on my mind. Whilst I had been aware of a feminism that framed rape in such a context I had rarely seen it put so bluntly. However I wasn’t sure if I could find the language for how it troubled me, without either attacking Ditum (which would be counter productive and needless given that we had almost no previous interaction), or talking over the transgender women whose narrative is their own to frame.

Tacking rape culture – calling it out, speaking up, joining my voices with other women’s to challenge it and break it down to help work toward a society where everyone can live more safely – is something I have been doing more and more recently. There are many reasons why I have become more engaged in that conversation, not the least of them being that I was raped repeatedly by a former boyfriend during an abusive relationship. More accurately, it was less to do with the fact of being raped than it was about not being believed, and the attitudes which I (like so many other women) have faced as we struggle to process when they try and deal with what has happened to them.

I chose not to report what happened. We weren’t living together, and it was harder even than now for women raped by their partners to get justice: marital rape had only just become illegal following the 1991 R v R ruling, and the prevailing attitude within law enforcement to domestic abuse and rape not exactly encouraging. Yet whilst I knew that the chances of a conviction were remote, this was not the prevailing reason why I chose not to report.

***

One of the things which I am most grateful to twitter for is how it has helped me both re-engage with my feminism, and helped to confront within myself both how white and cis-normative it had been. My relationship with feminism (not unlike many women) has been complicated, and it was my Christian faith which also played a big part in helping to re-frame it. Like many women of faith, we find no contradiction at all between the call of Christ and our feminism. And like Christ, the call of standing with and for ‘the least of these’ sharpens both our praxis and narrative as feminists.

And whilst I struggle to understand why some people want to define women in conservative ways, and deny to women who they are because of being assigned male at birth, I have to be honest and say that it was not for that reason initially that Ditum’s tweet bothered me so much. Nor was it the fact that my ex-boyfriend also used numerous objects to rape me with, although memories reared their head when I read it. It was because it was so entirely at odds with what I thought even the most ardent anti-trans feminist understood: that rape is not a crime of sex, but a crime based of the abuse of power.

My ex raped me. He could have chosen not to. He could have chosen to walk away, to sod off somewhere and find a more constructive channel for his never-ending quest for control; he chose instead to manipulate me and demonstrate power over me. He could have chosen to question why he wanted those things, he could have chosen to explore within himself why he wanted my humiliation through repeated violations, rather than my comfort and happiness.

Instead he made a choice to hurt me because that was what he wanted. His penis didn’t make that decision. He did. Reducing men’s decision to rape to the random behaviour of a set of genitalia diminishes what rape is, and makes it harder for its victims to name the problem and reclaim the agency and autonomy being raped has taken from them.

But I am not the only woman who has been raped, for whom such penis-orientated attitudes have made the ability to find comfort and community so much harder, even amongst other women. In a sense, Ditum’s comment was just the visible tip of the iceberg of dangerous and bad assumptions which make it harder for women to be believed, even by other women.

Some of you reading this may be aware of a trans*gender woman, a twitter engineer called Dana McCullum who was recently convicted of raping her wife. McCullum raped and violated her wife, not because she has a penis, but because she chose to exercise power and control in an abusive manner.

But the truly appalling aspect of this is not that McCullum is transgender. It is that that focus on this aspect (which happened because feminists forgot what rape is truly about), took away the support that should have been accorded to her wife.

So now I want you to read her story, the one she has had to tell because we helped to make it harder for her. I want you to listen to her, to her story, to the struggle she has had to find agency and identity. I stand in solidarity with her.

When we think that rape is about genitals and sex, we don’t just make stopping it harder. We make it harder for the victim, for the one person we are supposed to be there for. I know that we all want rape to stop. We all want rape culture dismantled so that the women and children on the receiving end of rape and abuse to be safer than we were. We want rapes victims to have all the support they deserve so that they can heal.

But we won’t do that if we are not honest, with ourselves and with each other. If we want to ‘name the problem’ then we actually have to understand it so that we can name it correctly: it was a man who raped me, not a penis;  and it was a woman who raped M, not a penis. The name of the problem is not ‘penis’.

It’s name is patriarchy.

The Politics This Christian Cannot Avoid


Politics and the pulpit are terms that have little agreement. – Edmund Burke

Faith and politics – they are a dangerous, and frankly unwelcome, combination.  So often the voices raised are those from those whose politics are on the right of the spectrum: the religious who want to police people’s bodies, gender identities and sexual orientation and place these things under the banner of ‘sin’; who maintain a white Colonial stance and are active or complicit in the silencing of People of Colour; whose resistance to state assistance for the poor, disabled and sick ranges from simple apathy to active objection; and whose voices are so often raised in manner which silences, ‘others’ and erases those who do not ‘fit’.

I am a Christian – it is a faith associated with a politics that is right-wing, Conservative and frequently oppressive. It would be too easy for me, in the face of right-wing Christian oppression, to say ‘not in my name’ and try to distance myself from those who deal with the consequences of such ideological representations of that faith. It has too often been my stance.

Not any more.

It is no longer good enough for me to say ‘not in my name’ – it has become the same thing now as ‘not all whites are racist’, as though (as a white woman) I am somehow not a part of the colonial, structural oppression which people of colour are still forced to confront every single day.  And the inescapable truth is that I am, and no amount of ‘not in my name’ changes that fact.

The same is true of cis-sexism, trans*-misogyny, and abelism and the rhetoric applied to those dependant (to a greater or lesser extent) on state support. It is too much like a cop out now to say that these are oppressions occur, but ‘not in my name’ – I do not believe my responsibility begins and ends with not speaking a racist/homophobic/transphobic/abelist word.

Politics and faith have been a dangerous combination because they have all too often resulted in – and continue to result in – oppression. To live my faith, therefore, means engaging with this politics of oppression. How can I ‘spend myself on behalf of the hungry’, or loosen the yolk of oppression without engaging with politics? I could give money to a charitable cause, sure – by how does that address the cause of the poverty in the first place? I can sign petitions for equality rights for the LGBTIQ community – but does that really help address the societal structures which have led to such injustices taking place?

It may not be true for every person of faith, but my faith cannot exist in a bubble, and it cannot avoid the politics of oppression.  Edmund Burke may have been right that, but I doubt in the way he likely meant.