Friday, 6 March 2015

Power in Unity. 06.03.15

I’ve been tripping out for a while about power dynamics in groups/herds/packs. I’ve been tripping out about power dynamics in feminism for over twenty years. Last week, the two collided into an interesting quasi-theory.

I often seem to have a problem with what I regard as Modern Western Feminism. I find a need to specify this since feminism is such a broad term, encompassing all sorts of behaviours and beliefs, that it is becoming almost too broad to be useful. It’s about as explanatory as saying you’re “religious”: well, are you a Westborough Baptist or a Zen monk? However, I shall be writing just Feminism from now on because it’s easier, but I definitely solely mean “the feminism I bump into here and now”.

My problem with Feminism is, really, Feminism’s problem with me. I decided when I was thirteen that the gender role thing wasn’t at all tickety-boo, and that I was going to quite simply ignore it. Don’t get me wrong - I’m all hip with biological differences and everything they give rise to, including differences in aptitudes, emotional states, and behaviours. I’m also hip with historical contexts; I could never shake the feeling that my grandma staying at home with the kids might have had a little something to do with the lack of formula milk, and my grandpa’s obstinate refusal to grow useful breasts. However, telling me that “only boys can play with chainsaws because penis” just didn’t work. So instead of doing what nice girls were expected to do, I did largely what I wanted. As a result, I studied and worked in the fields that interested me the most, which happened to be mostly-male environments (male-dominated makes it sound like the guys kept the upper hand… and that wasn’t generally the case, thankyouverymuch). 

Needless to say, this attitude didn’t always endear me to everyone. Most of the guys were cool, as it happens, though some struggled with the transition from “ooh, we’ve got us a mascot” to “oh shit, the tiny chick is outperforming us.” Most of the time, though, it turned out that we had different talents and skills. By allocating work according to natural predispositions, everyone was better at something. Instead of competing, we all played to our strengths. 

The worst backlash usually came from women, which I found extremely weird. Some women seem to find the sight of a woman doing “men’s work” highly offensive, and they’re not shy about venting their feelings. Alas, I found myself unable to give a flying fuck about them. The bottom line is that whenever and wherever I found stupid sexism, I did my best to slay it. Verily.

Rather naively, I thought my deeds were going to gain me some Feminist brownie points. I didn’t expect parades, but rosettes or cookies might have been nice. I was wrong. Most of the self-declared feminists I meet seem to hate me. I am particularly objectionable to those I privately refer to as “coffee-shop feminists”: those radical thinkers who, having identified the patriarchal oppression intrinsic to our society, decided they’d combat it by congregating with other radical thinkers in designated areas and bitching with all their might. 

I wondered for a long time what the hell was going on. I truly thought what I was doing was Feminist outreach. I was showing people what women could do. I was kicking gender roles in the teeth on a daily basis, for god’s sake. How on earth could that make me a feminist’s anathema? Were they disappointed because instead of shattering the glass ceiling, I’d drilled a hole in the glass floor? Was it that they were afraid they might have to get off their ass and do the work, too? Was it that by demonstrating that much of the sexism in our culture can be overcome by someone like me (if I can do something, so can anyone else) I was undermining their theories? Did they just not like the smell of chainsaw oil on my clothes?

I wonder now if the problem isn’t deeper, and possibly more sinister. I wonder if it doesn’t have to do with the reason behind various types of groups, the urge that pushes people to flock together in the first place. I wonder if it’s all about the difference between herds and packs.

When people coalesce into groups, they seem to do it with two different goals. Some band together because there is strength in numbers. Two weak people together have a better chance against a strong person. Enough people together can overpower those stronger than them by sheer volume. Individually, they are not any stronger than they were before; their increased strength rests solely in the cohesion of the group.

Other people get together because they want to become stronger individuals. People with different talents and experiences can help each other grow either by formally exchanging skills or just by a kind of osmosis. Being with better people tends to make you a better person (“it is critical to spend time with the highest quality people who will tolerate your presence” – Rory Miller[i]). Individuals who want to grow and develop seek the company of those they respect, and groupings form as a consequence. The result isn’t necessarily a cohesive group, but each individual has both the opportunity and the responsibility to become as strong as possible. 

I tend to refer to the first kind of group as a “herd” and the second as a “pack”, but that’s entirely idiosyncratic as well as reflecting my personal biases. I don’t much care for herbivores and really like wolves, so I can get stupid about this kind of thing. It sort of works, though, if you’re not too picky about ethology. More importantly, it provides me with a short-hand terminology.

In a herd, an individual’s personal development isn’t a priority. The important thing, the reason behind the herd’s existence and the source of its strength, is the herd’s cohesion. The most important trait in a member is allegiance to the herd. When personal development looks as if it can threaten the herd’s cohesion, it may be punished. 

In a pack, personal development is key; that’s why the pack was created in the first place. Individuals who don’t pull their weight tend not to be tolerated. It’s not good enough to just be there: there has to be a purpose to your presence. Not everyone is capable of doing the same things, but everyone is expected to do their level best. There is often fierce loyalty between group members, but the strength of the pack is seen as laying in each of its members.

So here I go, with yet another poorly-constructed metaphor of mighty predators vs sheepish herbivores to bolster my ego and prove a point… But sounding like a wannabe carnivore worries me less than the fact that there may be some truth in it. I think it goes beyond the difference between Goal-Oriented and Longevity-Oriented groups (read your Miller!), and even beyond the crab bucket effect[ii]. In this culture, “power” seems to be increasingly regarded as a dirty word-- yet we still need it, maybe even secretly crave it.

It makes sense that if people band together for the sole purpose of gaining strength by accretion, they’ll fight against anything that disrupts the group’s cohesion, even if by doing so they are undermining other group members. It makes sense that people like me, who see individual strength as a value to uphold at almost any cost, would not fit well in that sort of setting. If, by our sheer existence, we demonstrate that the group’s usefulness is starting to wane, or that the group’s focus might need to change, that would definitely put us in the crosshairs.

So, what the hell has any of this to do with Feminism? Well, my grandmother’s Feminism had teeth. It had to. Feminism in places like India still has teeth. It has to. In many places, though, Feminism has now largely won; it is the acceptable way to be and think. Yes, I realise that there’s still plenty of work to be done, but the vast majority of people in the Western world quite simply do not think that women are inferior beings, intellectually substandard, or to be treated like chattel. There are still plenty of throwbacks who like to hold on to their misconceptions, but they are no longer in the majority, and hopefully they will soon go extinct. I wonder if, over time, it is natural for unchallenged packs to morph into herds, and change their expectations of their members.


technogypsy said...

Nope. In the sixties in the west, the civil rights movement, feminism and environmentalism all became Marxist and statist. Hence, it's no longer a movement for equality but a way to establish a Marxist state. So you can't be equal on your own merits anymore, but need the state to make you equal. The madness has progressed to the point Feminisms will side with Islam as it is anti-western.

God's Bastard said...

Strangely (or maybe not), my first title for this piece was "Power in a Union" from the Billy Bragg song about workers' unions.
I thought it may add too many issues to the blog, but maybe it needs unpacking elsewhere.

I don't know any feminists who are that extremist, btw. I also don't really personally know any non-feminists, if you look at the original definition of the word... Labels suck.