20 April 2008

What's in a name?

Unreal Nature says, under the post title "Men Who Explain Things":

"...I don’t think of myself as a feminist. I am opposed to any kind of self-righteousness wherever it may be found (even or especially in myself)."

As someone whose political consciousness was shaped by, amongst other things, feminism, my first instinctive reaction to the words "I don't think of myself as feminist" is grief. My second is to defend against the idea that feminism is in any way characterised by self righteousness. But, I need to overcome knee-jerk responses. A fundamental tenet of my life has always been that "different thoughts are good for me"[1] ... though it can be hard to live by.

Alongside feminists, peace and civil rights activists shaped me. But, I have to confess, there were always some feminists, peace and civil rights activists, who seemed to be mirror images of those they opposed. In this, they were not so different from any other part of life. A sad lesson which I have learnt over the years is that when a tyrant is overthrown it will too often be by those willing to use the tyrant's methods we were supposed to deplore. A second tenet I hold to be true is that we must separate those who uphold an ideal from those who pay lip service to it; but that one, too, is easier to say and believe than to always live up to.

Another tenet, hard learned, is that no "ism" can ever hold the whole truth; it can only be a pole star for righting of a wrong, not a destination in itself. But the human heart does so yearn for destinations - and the more so as it ages.

Looking both outward and backward, I try to reconcile loyalties to both the wisdom of those who struggled beside me in difficult times and the wisdom of recently discovered voices. And I find the fog just as dense now as it ever was.

The real answer turns out to be the same as it was in a recent discussion about "what art is". Feminism, like any other ism, can't be pinned down to one meaning: it is an arbitrary signifier to which each of us attaches our own unique domain of signification. Or, to take the academic plum out of my mouth and speak plainly, for each of us feminism is what we think it is.

For me, "feminist" means Helen, and Jude, and Caro, and Vidia, and Raz, and those many like them, who held (always with humour and compassion) steadfastly true to the determination that all human beings are equal and that feminism meant eroding female subjugation but never, ever, replacing it with subjugation of anyone else. Women like ... well, never mind names ... who hated men and wanted to rule over them in matriarchal reversal were not, to me, "real" feminists. But they would probably say they were the only "real" feminists - and many who fear feminism perhaps fear that meaning of the word, or some other signification which is equally different from "mine".

Coming to the more immediate point, self righteousness was never a defining feature (in general - we are all guilty to some extent) of those whom I include within "my" meaning. But I don't have any exclusive right to establish definitions.

So ... if someone whose opinion I now value sees self righteousness as part of feminism, and those whose opinions I continue to value describe themselves as feminist without being self righteous, what do I do? The answer has to be, I conclude, as with any other label, not to try and carry it across frontiers. With Raz, Vidia, Caro, Jude, Helen and the many others, my meaning is still valid. With other people I have to learn how to leave it behind at the border.

What did I mean by the word? Well, stripping away the millions of associations, I meant that part of the general assertion that all human beings are equal, have equal rights and aspirations, should be given equal respect, which addresses the fact that women were (and still are) not. The name doesn't matter; the idea and the ideal do.

So ... it's legitimate (I think) to feel regret if someone feels no need to claim that equality; but it is not legitimate when s/he rejects a particular label for it. Time for me to change ... it's always time to change ... life is continual revolution or it is nothing.

"Life is continual revolution or it is nothing". Hmmm ... Thinking through my fingers recently commented that "it is unbelievably arrogant to say that the unexamined life is not worth living". In some senses, I agree ... but in others, not. It is one of those absolute sayings in which we encapsulate a truth, but which we could never defend at every time or in every circumstance despite the truth remaining eternal and absolute. (I suppose I could also suggest that thinking about "my job, my relations with my family, and a multitude of other worries" is ... what else, if not examining my life? But let that go for another time.) So, I don't think it was arrogant of Socrates, in the time and circumstances when he said it, to say that an unexamined life is not worth living. Nor do I think it arrogant to say it of myself. I do concede that it is arrogant to apply it as a judgement on how others live their lives.

So, retrace my steps and try again: for me, attempting to live with myself, inside my head and skin: "My inner life has to be in continual revolution if it is to be honest and therefore worth living for me." There. That's (a bit) better. Now to revise it...

  1. Tanita Tikaram, Ancient Heart, "Twist in My Sobriety". 1988, London: WEA.

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