Monday, July 16, 2012

In defence of the radicals

I am writing this note in defence of the radical feminists. They do not need my defence as they are more than capable as strong, committed, usually well-educated women, of defending themselves. But I feel compelled to write not only after a number of snide comments I have read about RadFems and their views, but also after reading an article on how a male academic at James Cook Uni resigned in protest because a radical feminist colleague of his was not disciplined following a confronting blogpost she'd written for RadFem Hub. I am also writing this to reinforce a position I stated in my very first post about where my own understandings and interpretations come from when it comes to both feminist and Indigenous politics. I daresay this will be quite the rant! It will simplify some things for the sake of keeping it rant-length, but I do plan on writing some more on specific points at a later date.

Over the years I have read a lot of feminist opinion, but mostly, it seems to be those that continually unpack social structures and examine where these oppress that have appealed to me the most. In the main these have been the Radical Feminist and the Marxist and Socialist Feminists writings. My reason for this is straightforward: I find synergies between these arguments and the arguments I find most useful when it comes to Indigenous politics. I also think, although I may be showing my own bias here, but we tend to appreciate our radicals more in the Indigenous movement because we see them continually challenging the status quo, decolonising dominant opinions, and getting others to think. Additionally, although I have read a heap and will continue to do so, a lot of my understanding comes from a practical basis: as an Arrernte woman living in hipster Melbourne I have experienced enough to know that slipping into existing power structures may change the circumstances of the individual in a couple of ways, but overall tends to change little with regards to broader society.

Take black experience in the workplace as an example. For at least 20-30 years now there have been equal opportunity policies and employment programmes in existence to encourage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in the workforce and in a number of different capacities. These in part have led to what has sometimes been referred to as a "black middle class"; a bunch of Indigenous people have moved out of poverty and are earning enough to live a reasonable lifestyle. Yet despite this, it seems that dealing with direct and structural racism is still an ongoing issue. Also, colleagues having disrespect for your work and specific knowledge continues no matter how high up the chain you are. A survey conducted last year of Indigenous union members working in Higher Education shows that a majority of Indigenous staff were still experiencing racism in the workforce, were fighting hard to get academic respect for Indigenous knowledges they brought to the academy, and were continually thought to have gotten their qualifications on a concessional basis rather than having worked damn hard for them. Indeed some expressed that they had worked twice as hard to get half as far due to lack of recognition of their knowledges and community links. They also felt they continually hit barriers when it came to academic respect and promotion. Additionally, for nearly a century in this country, many Indigenous workers were free or cheap labour (hence why there are "stolen wages" cases being mounted) and so accumulation of wealth for a lot of non-Indigenous families was done off the back of unpaid Indigenous labour, and the accumulation of any independent wealth in Indigenous families is only a recent thing. Sound familiar?

After years of having their work undervalued with pay rates significantly lower than similarly qualified people in other industries, only in May last year did community sector workers win the right to be paid fairly. Why? Because the Australian Services Union was able to prove in FairWork Australia that the work of community service workers had been continually undervalued because it is a female-dominated industry. Despite the years of study and experience that it takes to be, say, a social worker, the rates of pay are significantly lower than they are for someone of similar levels of qualification and experience in a male-dominated industry. Therefore again, we're talking about working twice as hard to get half as far, and an undervaluing of skills and experience because they don't adhere to some dominant understanding of what is valuable. Additionally, domestic labour is argued to be the unpaid labour that women were expected to partake in order to allow men to participate in the workforce, and therefore society has been reliant on it in order to develop. Due to this, women have only recently really been able to accumulate their own independent wealth. Women for years have also had policies and employment programmes in place in many areas to assist them in gaining entry into the workforce, but women still complain about having a hard time climbing corporate ladders, hitting their heads on "glass ceilings" and difficulties achieving work/life balance because women still do the majority of the child-rearing and housekeeping. Whilst it's not as straightforward as a "swap women for black" scenario, the similarities are striking.

The radical argument for both is that workplaces are set up in the image of the majority life experience for white, male workers and so through the various structures that exist in a workplace, this experience is continually preferenced therefore actively prohibiting others from participating fully. Therefore these structures need to be examined and changed so that they are inclusive. As the evidence piled up for me, both through my own experiences in the workplace, and through observing those around me, I came to agree more and more that this was the case and that things weren't as simple and straightforward as someone being able to achieve because they had the opportunity, the drive and the ability to do so.

One of the most appealing things about radical opinion to me is that it is focussed on collective rights.The source of the oppression is the patriarchy and therefore arguments are framed accordingly with "men" being called out. This is done because the movement is committed to the breaking down of the patriarchal systems that oppress women, and building a more egalitarian society, as opposed to merely assimilating within something that is inherently corrupt. I was reading this piece by Julie Bindel the other night and I found it really useful because in it she highlights the many arguments that current mainstream feminists use against the radicals. It's striking to me that when I read those arguments, I could remove "women", insert "black", then remove "men" and insert "white" and directly reflect what a lot of our older Indigenous activists have to say about the direction of black movements nowadays. This is why the push for Sovereignty (reinvigorated through the 40th anniversary of the Tent Embassy), rather than Native Title, is so important; Sovereignty is not about mob being recognised within existing Australian laws, it's about questioning the right that Australia has to enforce these laws on a Sovereign people who have never ceded that sovereignty, and then building a more egalitarian society. 

Moreover, when my article was published by Daily Life recently, I scanned the comments. It wasn't the predictable couple of comments from people questioning my right to claim sexism and racism in the article or the "we're all Australian" comments that got my goat. No, it was the one or two comments from (allegedly) Indigenous apologists who not only undermined what I had to say, but managed to validate both sexism and racism by essentially stating that both "didn't bother them (to be called "the prettiest Aboriginal I have ever seen"), indeed I saw it as a compliment". Seriously? So it's okay, as a woman, to be reduced down to your looks? So it's okay, as an Aboriginal person, to hear someone make a disparaging comment about everyone else of your racial group? I'm sorry, but apologists bug me. What's so wrong with calling someone out a bad action? Are people's feelings of self-worth so diminished that they actually would see something like this as a compliment? I'm about building esteem through worthwhile means rather than reinforcing a false economy.

But enough about me! The crux of what I am saying is this: the radicals want to change stuff on a big scale. They believe that society, that structures, that laws etc have been built by those who have the power, to reinforce that power, and these need to be challenged and restructured so that society becomes a lot more fairer. This leads to a lot of dualistic terms: men and women; black and white, as way of explanation when discussing the issues. The issue others express with radical thought seems to often come down to this dualism, and how individuals believe that they don't fit within these terms. But this, to me, is where those arguments lose the plot because these terms are not geared around individuals, they are geared around social power struggles. And there are plenty of individuals who recognise these power structures and act against them despite being named as the dominant group. I have seen a lot of white people devote their lives to Indigenous politics, working in collaboration to achieve change. I have a lot of amazing male friends who refuse to buy into social dominance and do everything they can to assist with change. Hell, Julie Bindel mentions that men can make a commitment to not rape or not perpetuate violence, and I know that a group of proud men marched through the streets of Alice Springs a couple of years ago promoting anti-violence. I also personally know a heap of men that have signed the White Ribbon pledge and assist in visibly stating to their brothers that violence against women is wrong by wearing their ribbons. If you're a member of a dominant group, you are not being picked on by radical feminists or by the Indigenous left. You are being handed an opportunity to challenge yourself, assist equality through your actions, and build something better through the messages that you relay on to other members of the dominant group.

The third wave of feminism reckoned itself to be in response to the essentialism that the second wave was prone to. It argued that the dualism was erasive of the varied experiences of different cultural groups, sexualities etc, and also negated people's individual agency. I think this has opened up a space for feminist politics to be discussed in many different ways that did not necessarily exist before. But I also think that this has led to unnecessarily disparaging remarks with regards to the radicals that throw the baby out with the bathwater (so to speak). I think it is also no coincidence that the women whose views created in the push for greater cultural recognition within the third wave, such as Audre Lorde, were proud radical feminists who saw racism also as a tool of the patriarchy and who felt feminism could be used to fight both provided feminists addressed their own racism. The radicals may say stuff that is unpalatable to some in a post-structural, third wave, queer theory, rauch culture world, but it does not mean that they offer nothing to the debate. In fact, in a country where the government can so completely violate human rights by introducing the most paternalistic of policies on a specific cultural group so that their income, their activities and their education is completely controlled, I think the voices of the radicals are needed in the mix more than ever before.

Oh, and I also think it is rather lame that someone would resign because a workplace did not discipline a feminist colleague who wrote an opinion piece in an independent forum. If that's the opposition, then we have nothing to fear!


  1. I noticed those apologist comments and I have heard similar myself. We have our injokes and poke fun at certain aspects of our own culture at times but I get beyond annoyed when a sister or brother starts parroting racist ish they've internalised.

    I too am sick of this overly defensive defense used by individual men when men as a patriarchal whole are called out by women. It is an opportunity for men to reflect on patriarchy and the privileges it affords them. It is up to them to choose how they act in response. Being personally offended by what Dr McLellan wrote is ridiculous. Rad fems aren't femi-nazi lesbian separatists, but I guess it's easier for some people to paint them as such rather than look at how they profit themselves from male privilege.

    It's like other responses I've seen when a woman writes an article on male privilege and men respond that they would catch more flies with honey (as in sweeten your tone and maybe we'll take your argument more seriously). I think faux-offence taking is just another mechanism for silencing women's voices whilst never facing up to their own misogyny.

    I'm surprised he left such a great academic position because a woman dared ask why is it that men commit the majority of physical and sexual violence. It is a question that academia has the tools to seek answers to. In criminology its well known that men commit the most crimes, wouldn't finding out why that is benefit both women and men? To resign his position over this is actually pretty disgusting .. he'd rather nurture his misplaced ego than lessen some of the vileness in the world. I guess as a white male he won't be too pressed finding new job.

  2. I am not gonna just go into details to support everything you said here, but clearly state that I do.

    Instead, I just want to say that complaining about how a co-worker is impinging on your 'rights', is a tried and true strategy for getting a lump sum payment or 'package', when you don't want to work somewhere anymore. Which is a shame, cos sometimes it's true, and it has an impact on those legitimate people getting payouts they deserve because they are forced to work with people that really DO impinge on their rights in the workplace. What I want to say to this guy is that discrimination doesn't f-ing exist, fool... but you'll find that out when you try to get a job at every other uni in Australia who are all faced, under TEQSA, with requiring an academic freedom statement. It's how normal people can work at institutions that employ Windschuttle and Johns, and still get out of bed to go to work every morning. What ever happened to being a good academic and pushing your own position, instead of worrying about the writing and research direction of others. My experience of those kinds of people, is that they are usually not very rigorous (see Windschuttle) and have very little interesting or practical material that they can generate (see Johns).

    More importantly, Celeste, this fella could learn a great deal from you. Radicalism is a strategy, growing up and realising that things don't change as fast as you want them to, isn't to say that radicalism as a concept and series of actions ain't gonna work... otherwise there would never be political actions that effect change at all. That academic work is more circumspect about this and a bit more policed, is why we need to sometimes incorporate radicalism in the academy... is it sometimes exclusive and essentialist... yeah, sure, and it can even be a bit untidy... but it can also be grand fun and a way to properly move forward. And, since when does the academy have to get it completely right all of the time, can't we posit something that we don't have conclusions to? And I think that's precisely what she was doing.

    Anyway... just my two cents worth. And I know that it's okay for me to have it, as a Senior Indigenous Researcher at Batchelor Institute, cos I am protected by our academic freedom act. And that feels both liberating and like I do have a sense of responsibility to say and explore ideas and thoughts, not close them off and check their veracity.

  3. I am not an apologist and I was taken aback and saddened by that commentary in regard to your Sydney Life article.

    But I have now read both articles you reference and, while I agree that it is important to question existing power structures and to be able to discuss issues broadly, I cannot agree that it is alright for anyone in a position of power and influence (such as a lecturer) to espouse views which stereotype 50% of the population. It is as unacceptable to portray all men as violent offenders, as it is to portray all women or all minorities as victims. As a person who has suffered sexual abuse (in my case this was perpetuated by a man) and someone who has prosecuted sexual offences, I recognise that the majority offenders are male. It is quite different to class all men together and ask "what is it about men". What would we be writing if someone asked "What is it about women" or "what is it about blacks"?

  4. Teine Samoa, and others, I so need to write a response to you, but I got halfway through one and realised I was writing utter crap because I am tired! I promise though to take the time to respond to what you have written ASAP, as it definitely deserves it. Thanks for writing, and stay tuned!

  5. Sorry about the delay!

    Teine Samoa, with your very post, for me, you highlight one of the things that people have found most problematic about radical theory: it is essentialist and therefore it doesn't theorise on the individual a great deal. And I think that's where the actions of the individuals can come in as a positive force. For me, as a feminist within our current times and adding the dimension of race, I find it useful for understanding the power structures. Interacting with the individuals, not so much, as I have continually been surrounded by amazing "white" people or "men" who buck their privilege. So with these understandings, I use them as a way to interpret power, rather than to stereotype anyone, and that's why I personally find them useful. I guess the information that I also didn't have when I wrote this is that this man is a member of many masculinist forums and has previously complained about feminists. But we can blame media for that, to an extent, and their sensationalistic reporting of a "battle of the sexes".

    Sarah, agree with everything, and love your point re: his resignation. Precisely. An academic institution is the perfect place for these issues to be explored further. He could have contributed more to the understandings yet has chosen instead to perpetuate that which he feels is wrong. Although, if more like him leave, perhaps the patriarchal privilege that exists in every facet of academia will begin to be dismantled... ;)

    And Sandy, as always, thanks for your additions!

  6. There are people who don't like feminists? You don't say! I always find it hilarious when a woman proudly pronounces that she is no feminist. Yes- equality for yourself- I completely understand why you're against that!!! Thanks for the reply- I still don't think it's an appropriate stance for a lecturer to take but I take the point that radical feminism is useful for examining and challenging existing power structures.