May 17, 2004
More deadly than the male

I mentioned recently that, despite the claim that our society finds gender difference to be a passe concept, almost everybody has a theory of it. One common idea among feminists, in fact, is that these differences make women better than men. So it was interesting to read Barbara Ehrenreich lament how the Abu Ghraib story exploded her illusions:

A certain kind of feminism, or perhaps I should say a certain kind of feminist naiveté, died in Abu Ghraib. It was a feminism that saw men as the perpetual perpetrators, women as the perpetual victims and male sexual violence against women as the root of all injustice. Rape has repeatedly been an instrument of war and, to some feminists, it was beginning to look as if war was an extension of rape. There seemed to be at least some evidence that male sexual sadism was connected to our species' tragic propensity for violence. That was before we had seen female sexual sadism in action.

But it's not just the theory of this naive feminism that was wrong. So was its strategy and vision for change. That strategy and vision rested on the assumption, implicit or stated outright, that women were morally superior to men. We had a lot of debates over whether it was biology or conditioning that gave women the moral edge — or simply the experience of being a woman in a sexist culture. But the assumption of superiority, or at least a lesser inclination toward cruelty and violence, was more or less beyond debate. After all, women do most of the caring work in our culture, and in polls are consistently less inclined toward war than men. ...

You can't even argue, in the case of Abu Ghraib, that the problem was that there just weren't enough women in the military hierarchy to stop the abuses. The prison was directed by a woman, Gen. Janis Karpinski. The top U.S. intelligence officer in Iraq, who also was responsible for reviewing the status of detainees before their release, was Major Gen. Barbara Fast. And the U.S. official ultimately responsible for managing the occupation of Iraq since October was Condoleezza Rice.

I get the impression a lot of feminists have been disappointed with the sort of women who've attained positions of leadership. They didn't expect the first female prime minister of Britain to be Margaret Thatcher, or the top female CEO to be Martha Stewart. But I suspect that many of what they identified as male problems are really power problems. It takes certain types of behavior to get to those top positions in our society, and a lot of them aren't very nice. It takes a certain type of person to be put in charge of a prison, and to work in one. And once that power is in your hands, the temptations will be the same.

Posted by Camassia at May 17, 2004 02:04 PM | TrackBack

Dear Camassia,

The Anglican priest Sarah Coakley, whom I have mentioned before, has written critically of much Christian feminist thought that, with its not unjustifiable focus on male sexual sadism and cruelty, has tended towards seeing women as merely the victims of more aggressive males and avoided thinking about the need for any sort of "self-emptying" in women's own lives. This is perhaps similar to the "naive feminism" that Barbara Ehrenreich talks about: "It was a feminism that saw men as the perpetual perpetrators, women as the perpetual victims and male sexual violence against women as the root of all injustice."

Now, Ehrenreich suggests that Abu Ghraib's retort to this "naive feminism" means that feminism has to be more ambitious, and women should "aim not just to assimilate into the institutions that men have created over the centuries, but to infiltrate and subvert them," because merely assimilating into institutions when "the men are acting like beasts" leaves us with Lynddie England holding a leash.

Rev Coakley, from a theological perspective, would argue that Ehrenreich is not nearly ambitious enough - that women are empowered to seek peace and social justice, when, before assimilating into or changing institutions, they transform their very selves through ascetic practice towards the "self-emptying" that lets them "avoid emulating the very forms of 'worldly' power we criticize in 'masculinism.'" She writes:

"What I have elsewhere called the 'paradox of power and vulnerability' is uniquely focused in the act of silent waiting on the divine in prayer. This is because we can only be properly 'empowered' here if we cease to set the agenda, if we 'make space' for God to be God. Prayer which makes this 'space' may take a variety of forms, and should not be conceived in an elitist way; indeed, the debarring of 'ordinary' Christians from 'contemplation' has been one of the most sophisticated--and spiritually mischievous--ways of keeping lay women (and men) from exercising religious influence in the Western church. Such prayer may use a repeated phrase to ward off distractions, or be wholly silent; it may be a simple Quaker attentiveness, or take a charismatic expression (such as the use of quiet rhythmic 'tongues'). What is sure, however, is that engaging in any such regular and repeated 'waiting on the divine' will involve great personal commitment and (apparently) great personal risk; to put it in psychological terms, the dangers of a too-sudden uprush of material from the unconscious, too immediate a contact of the thus disarmed self with God, are not inconsiderable. But whilst risky, this practice is profoundly transformative, 'empowering' in a mysterious 'Christic' sense; for it is a feature of the special 'self-effacement' of this gentle space-making--this yielding to divine power which is no worldly power in that it marks one's willed engagement in the pattern of cross and resurrection, one's deeper rooting and grafting into the 'body of Christ.'

"If these traditions of Christian 'contemplation' are to be trusted, this rather special form of 'vulnerability' is not an invitation to be battered; nor is its silence a silencing. (If anything, it builds one in the courage to give prophetic voice.) By choosing to 'make space' in this way, one 'practices' the 'presence of God'--the subtle but enabling presence of a God who neither shouts nor forces, let alone 'obliterates.' No one can make one 'contemplate' (though the grace of God invites it); but it is the simplest thing in the world not to 'contemplate,' to turn away from that grace. Thus the 'vulnerability' that is its human condition is not about asking for unnecessary and unjust suffering, nor is it a 'self-abnegation.' On the contrary, this special 'self-emptying' is the place of the self's transformation and expansion into God.

"This form of waiting often brings bewilderment and pain as the new 'self' struggles to birth. It is also transformative and empowering. It is what finally keeps me a Christian as well as a feminist."

It presumably is also what keeps one away from violating the Geneva Conventions.

Hope the back is better.


Posted by: Neil Dhingra on May 17, 2004 04:35 PM

Hollywood, oddly enough, has been out in front on this issue. There have been any number of teen movies wherein vicious alpha females rule the people around them through fear and humiliation, stretching at least as far back as "Heathers" and as recently as "Mean Girls." And what is high school, with its compulsory attendance rules and its cliques and its often-arbitrary authority, but a form of prison?

As for Rev. Coakley, I'm not qualified to evaluate her theology, but it sounds like the phenomenon she describes should be equally attainable for women and men.

Posted by: Tom T. on May 17, 2004 09:17 PM

Hadn't Ehrenreich ever heard of Lucretia Borgia?

Sadism isn't limited to men (Sacher-Masoch, who gave his name to masochism, was tortured, in his fantasies, by a woman), and never was.

Posted by: Bill on May 17, 2004 11:24 PM
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