Friday, March 27, 2015

Anita Sarkeesian: The Road from Individual to Victim

Canadian critic and social justice warrior Anita Sarkeesian is the young lady that stirred up #gamergate. So far so good. But I recently got to view remarks she made at All About Women 2015 at the Sydney Opera House (H/T Susan L. M. Goldberg). In her prepared remarks Sarkeesian described her journey from neo-liberal individualist to feminist victim.

This is fascinating to me because of my three-stage theory of social membership. Simply put, my theory imagines three types of people. There are the People of the Subordinate Self: think workers, peasants, serfs, slaves, bondsmen, underclass. Their creed is collectivism; their place is the village. Then there are People of the Responsible Self: think Jews, Christians, careers, bourgeoisie, markets, business. Their creed is responsible individualism; their place is the city. Finally there are the People of the Creative Self: think artists, writers, revolutionaries, activists. Their creed is expressive individualism; their place is the artist's colony.

Now, it is my notion that you need a religion when you move from one selfhood to another. The Axial Age religions, including Judaism and Christianity, are vehicles that help people on the road from the world of the Subordinate Self to the world of the Responsible Self. Romanticism is the vehicle if you want to graduate from the creed of responsible individualism to the belief system of expressive individualism.

What I had never thought about is what religion you need if you want to go in the opposite direction! Suppose that you were born into a family in the middle class but you don't feel like a responsible individual at all? Suppose you find that you are really a victim, a member of the tribe of the exploited and the oppressed? Perfectly simple. For you there is leftism. Here is Anita Sarkeesian describing her journey.
Like most people who grew up immersed in the neoliberal ideology of the West, I saw the world largely as a series of individuals making their own personal individual choices. And here I was, a young woman making my own personal choices about what to wear, what to buy, what to study and what I wanted to do every day. Within that narrow individualist framework feminism seemed like a relic of the distant past.
 But then she had her Road to Damascus experience.
With the help of some amazing mentors and by reading a lot of feminist writing, especially the words of women of color and queer women from around the world, I learned to see through a sociological lens and understand the world as it really exists, as a series of intersecting social systems. Once you have a systemic and institutional framework, you see how oppression manifests in many subtle ways under the systems of what bell hooks calls “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”.
Well, of course! It all dovetails! But there is a problem.
 Unfortunately many contemporary discourses in and around feminism tend to emphasize a form of hyper individualism (informed by the neoliberal worldview). More and more, I hear variations on this idea that anything that any woman personally chooses to do is a feminist act, this attitude is often referred to as “choice feminism”. Choice feminism posits that each individual woman determines what is empowering for herself, which might sound good on the surface but this concept risks obscuring the bigger picture and larger, fundamental goals of the movement by focusing on individual women and a very narrow, individual notion of “empowerment”. It erases the reality that some choices that women make have an enormous negative impact on other women’s lives.
So, you see, unless you go with Sarkeesian's approved feminism you are helping the patriarchy, and you will be shunned. You see, "Even if an individual woman can make patriarchy work for her, it’s still a losing game for the rest of the women on this planet." And that is bad.
And because of how systems of oppression intersect and compound one another, it’s women of color, indigenous women, women living in the global south, women with disabilities, queer women, and transwomen who bare the brunt of those ramifications.
 The bottom line is this:
In order to be a feminist we have a responsibility beyond ourselves, we have a responsibility to each other, and we have a responsibility to work for the collective liberation of all women.
So it's a fantasy to think of yourself as a responsible self and an individualist. Because, really, we aren't individuals at all, but victims, and what we need to do is to "work for the collective liberation of all women."

Now actually I agree with Anita Sarkeesian. We really are victims. Ever since the first families in Mesopotamia got sucked into alluvial agriculture five thousand years ago humans have found themselves "caged" by the new ways. That's the word that Michael Mann uses in The Sources of Social PowerIn other words, once you've abandoned the nomadic ways of the hunter-gatherer and joined a fixed settlement that works the land you are trapped in the new way. For one thing, agriculture supports a lot more people per square mile than nomadism. If you break up agriculture, a ton of people are going to die until the population reduces to a level that can survive on nomadism.

Another thing is that people become less war-like in settled agricultural communities. In nomadic groups all the men are enrolled to fight the border wars against the neighboring groups. In the larger agricultural societies only the warrior class does the fighting, and the borders are much further away. So the death by violence comes down from 500 per 100,000 per year to 50 per 100,000 per year, according the Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature.

In the transition from agricultural to industrial society you get another step in pacification. The nation state is bigger than the feudal barony, and the army of the feudal host is replaced by a professional bureaucratic army. Violent death rate drops from 50 per 100,000 per year to five or even one per 100,000 per year.

Don't mind me, Anita Sarkeesian, but I'd make a wild guess and say that the level of patriarchal oppression comes down with the transition from nomad to agricultural settlement, and again with the transition from agriculture to industry. These days we aren't governed by a landed warrior class, but by an educated elite class -- people like you, Anita Sarkeesian.

If you want to experience vicariously the good old patriarchy in action, read the Iliad. Those Argives and Danaans thought nothing of sacking cities, killing the men, and taking the women as concubines. Raping and pillage where what men did in those days.

But in America, in 1896, a young Norwegian immigrant woman, Helga Estby, walked across the continent to try to win a $10,000 prize. Was she raped and pillaged on the way? Wikipedia doesn't say. But I'd guess that she wasn't.

The truth is that responsible individualism is not liberation; it is a heavy yoke of responsibility: the responsibility to find work, the responsibility to make your own choices, the responsibility to find your own mate, all within the demanding environment of the market economy. It's not surprising that immediately after the rise of capitalism a succession of social and political movements started to yearn for the lost Eden of collectivism, and the liberation from the heavy burdens of life and work under capitalism from which there is no escape.

It is telling that in the university in 2015 women are demanding "safe spaces" from people and ideas that they don't want to face. If you ask me, that's a return to the patriarchy, because people in "safe places" need society to protect them from danger. And who do you think are going to be the protectors?

If life as a responsible individual is tough, the truth is that expressive individualism, the life of the artist and the creator, is even harder. All of us can find a place in the world if we give up our lives to a collective. Most of us can find a place in the world as responsible individuals. But only a few can make it as creators of original work.

So it's not surprising that there are many people like Anita Sarkeesian that long for a simpler, less creative, less responsible life. The trouble is that this liberation in collectivism is not liberating at all. Ask anyone that lived in Soviet Russia or Maoist China.

And Anita Sarkeesian is not really a victim. She is an activist, rough and tough and devilish sly, a leader and an influencer. In fact she is a member of the creative class, having hacked out a place for herself in the sun by developing a significant talent for creative publicity.

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