[Content warning: brief, vivid description of footbinding and female circumcision.]
If I could wave a magic wand and change one thing about the social justice movement, it would be to get everyone to stop fucking using group membership as an argument.
“This can’t be sexist, I’m a woman.” “This is transphobic; I know, I’m trans.” “Listen to LGB people about what homophobia is.” “Actual people of color don’t think that’s racist.” This is a terrible argument and all of you should stop.
(“All of you” includes anti-social-justice people, by the way. Don’t like this post and turn around and reblog a “twenty people of color say cultural appropriation is stupid!” picset.)
Debi Pearl is a woman who argues that women should never say ‘no’ to sex with their husbands, leave an abusive husband, work outside the home, or use birth control. Anne Lawrence is a trans woman who is one of the major researchers involved in the division of trans women into homosexual transsexuals (men who are, like, really super gay) and autogynephiliac transsexuals (straight men with a sexual fetish for being women). Courage is a Catholic organization whose members are mostly LGB people, which argues that if LGB people ever have an unrepented orgasm they will be tortured for eternity. Does “listen to trans women about transmisogyny” have an implicit “except for Anne Lawrence”? If we say “I’m a woman; I know what’s sexist and what isn’t”, how can we respond to a woman who says that what’s really sexist is denying women’s essential feminine nature which limits her to marriage and babies?
Members of marginalized groups have the same diversity of opinion that people who aren’t members of marginalized groups do. This is because members of marginalized groups are people, with people’s tendency to have their own opinions, rather than members of the Oppression Borg. In fact, the whole argument is oppressive, I think; it pedestalizes oppressed people by assuming they are always correct, and erases the differences and diversity among marginalized people, presenting them as a stereotyped group that all shares the same opinions.
Now, I don’t mean to say that the argument from opinion poll is never relevant. Some arguments are similar to the argument that you shouldn’t chew with your mouth open because it will disgust people at the dinner table; they are about some small matter, easily avoided, that predictably upsets people. You shouldn’t draw Mohammad, because Muslims will be upset; you shouldn’t say the n word unless you are black, because black people will be upset. Such common courtesies make up the stuff of civilized life. In that case, if it turned out the majority of black people or Muslims were just fine with white use of the n word or drawing Mohammad, the argument would lose its force.
(Caveats: I said ‘small’; while it is easy for me to go through my whole life without drawing Mohammad, it is not easy for a lesbian to go through her whole life without holding hands with her girlfriend in public, and the offense caused to homophobes in the latter case does not outweigh her desire to hold hands with a woman. In addition, there are good reasons to deliberately cause offense, most notably protest.)
But the majority of social justice arguments do not take this form. Women should be able to leave abusive partners because abuse causes people pain, and it is bad for people to suffer unnecessary pain. The division between autogynephile and homosexual transsexuals does not reflect reality, and it is bad to have models that do not reflect reality. LGB people should be able to have orgasms because orgasms are nice. These arguments do not depend on the input of Ms. Pearl, Ms. Lawrence, or the esteemed members of Courage. At best, an opinion poll of marginalized people provides slight evidence about what may or may not be harmful to them– but this evidence can be clearly outweighed.
It is time to take up the thorny issue of internalized -isms– when women, or LGBT people, or poor people or people of color, or disabled people believe -ist things that hurt themselves. A lot of people don’t like talking about internalized -isms. This impulse comes from a kind place. There is a long history of people using “oh, you’ve just internalized sexism” as a way to ignore other people’s arguments. This is called Bulverism and it’s rude. As my friend Keller says, treat people you’re arguing with as though they came to their opinions through a disinterested process of pure reason; psychologize those not involved in the conversation.
The other reason a lot of people dislike the concept of internalized -isms is that it has so often been used to delegitimize people’s preferences. Women who wear lipstick, do sex work, stay at home to raise their children, or enjoy kinky sex have long been accused of only doing those things because they’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy. Fat people who want to lose weight, autistic people who want a cure, and trans people who think being trans fucking sucks may frown on the idea that they’d be perfectly happy the way they are if not for the evil forces of society.
But without the concept of internalized -isms many things do not make sense.
For one thing, many people report feeling ashamed of their bodies because they were fat, or like they were worth less if they had promiscuous sex, or like they would be ugly if they did not wear lipstick, or like slowly limping along in pain is better than painless, fast use of a wheelchair– and then finding social justice and realizing that those things aren’t true. It would be very strange indeed if every person that applied to had already found social justice and realized those things aren’t true.
For another, women are fifty percent of the population. Sexism could not last long unless there was considerable buy-in from women. There was a point when the majority of American women didn’t want the vote, because it would tarnish their purity and anyway they had the real power through influencing men. This isn’t something that men imposed on women; it’s something women and men agreed on. It is not that men cruelly denied the vote from women who were thirsting for it; it’s that both men and women agreed that the women shouldn’t have the vote. Was denying women the vote unsexist until it ticked over and 50.1% of women thought they ought to have the right to vote? And, of course, if you buy that logic, how would women ever get the vote at all? How could you convince half of women that it was sexist, if you don’t think it’s sexist until half of women agree?
And if you’re willing to bite the bullet on that– Chinese women, with crippled feet, who could barely walk, and who spoke about how happy they were to be so graceful, so delicate. A woman whose clitoris was burned off and her labia sewn together, glad about how it helped her preserve her chastity. Women who iron their daughters’ breasts the way their own were ironed, who jump into the funeral pyre when their husbands die, who can count on one hand the number of times they’ve seen the sun.
Because make no mistake– those institutions did not survive over the opposition of women. As Andrea Dworkin said in a different context, “Have you ever wondered why we [women] are not just in armed combat against you? It’s not because there’s a shortage of kitchen knives in this country.” Patriarchy survived because women believed, women were taught, patriarchy was right, and just, and the way things ought to be.
I confess I don’t know how to deal with internalized sexism; I expect “oh, you don’t know what’s good for you, you poor thing” to be as ineffective and offensive directed at the footbound Chinese woman as it is directed at the modern sexual submissive. Indeed, that thought process seems oppressive in itself; the allegedly benevolent denial of autonomy, the assumption that others know better than the individual what is good for them, is at the core of much sexism (particularly that direct at white women) and ableism. But not knowing how to deal with internalized isms doesn’t mean we should pretend internalized isms don’t exist.
I say: it is possible for women to be sexist against themselves, to believe sexist things, things that cause them tremendous pain; indeed, this is the normal condition for members of oppressed groups, and correctly identifying that it is unfair when people hurt you and they should stop is the exception. Therefore, when we make arguments, we must make them based on facts about the world, and on values, not based on opinion polls or the Marginalized Group Hivemind.