Around dusk, a murder of crows alights, then roosts, in the vicinity of Waterloo, Ontario’s two universities: easily 1,000 small black bodies darting against a deepening blue sky, the last vestiges of sunlight yet lingering on the horizon.
You will not find this event listed in the history books. Some variation of its likeness may appear on literary pages, serving as pathetic fallacy or otherwise establishing some subordinate component of character or setting, while the underlying habit manifests in a great many zoological surveys. Still, each instance of these restless aerial acrobatics stands a thing apart from human discourse; it has no direct bearing on international politics, no relevance to theories of personal identity, no resonance with the latest evaluations of mainstream television. In a world that often favours theories of perfect unity, it would be easy to suggest that the natural world “calls upon us” to recognize such contradictory evidence–but even then, the crows do no such thing.
They simply exist.
Even those three words, however, imply too much to be left alone. Is there something superior about “simply” existing? Shall we fetishize the elegance (my word, not theirs) of a murder of crows in flight as inherently better than the differently routine chatter and flux of our own experiences in groups?
We know better than that, surely. Why, the whole non-human animal world is replete with actions humans often find troubling: the frequent absence of sexual consent, up to and including animal cultures where females are chased until too exhausted to resist; the inevitability of fights to the death among males who want any security within pack communities; the consumption or spontaneous miscarrying of young when pack authority changes; the murder of one’s elders to make way for the next generation; the parasitic need to insert one’s young into another species’ nests or body cavities to survive; the pervasively carnivorous nature of species micro and macroscopic alike.
There is a tendency, though, to swing from this “natural” extreme to one where we oversell the inherent value of engaging with contemporary ideologies that negotiate most every aspect involved in “being human”–so much so that those negotiations themselves become little more than well-regulated performances of group identity. We’re still questioning the world around us, yes, but in a way grown so familiar that we stop testing our underlying assumptions and motivations at every turn. When this happens, we give over to a different form of mass identity and behaviour: one “in-group” exchanged for another.
Quite offhand, a male friend recently said that he felt I was “antifeminist” on a few issues. He declined to go into detail, though, so the only clue I had as to his point of reference was a proximate discussion in which I sympathized–often from direct personal experience–with many issues that persons who identify as Men’s Rights Activists want addressed more openly in our culture. I believe the male circumcision of infants should be banned unless medically necessary; I believe improving male outcomes without pathologizing male experience is a crucial issue for future educational reforms; I believe there remain serious, gendered problems with court procedures and verdicts around issues of domestic abuse, divorce settlements, custody agreements, and general prison sentencing; and fundamentally, I believe that a gender paradigm where one group solely uses the language of victimhood to negotiate identity will never amount to a changed society; this merely replaces one binary with another.
All of these beliefs, to my mind, are wholly in keeping with the desire to live in a society where equal opportunity, responsibility, and expectations of safety are afforded all persons, regardless of gender performance and identity, and I am partly moved in this regard by Frantz Fanon’s work in another emancipatory movement–specifically, when he writes on racial decolonization:
Those Negroes and white men will be disalienated who refuse to let themselves be sealed away in the materialized Tower of the Past. For many other Negroes, in other ways, disalienation will come into being through their refusal to accept the present as deﬁnitive. I am a man, and what I have to recapture is the whole past of the world. I am not responsible solely for the revolt in Santo Domingo. Every time a man has contributed to the victory of the dignity of the spirit, every time a man has said no to an attempt to subjugate his fellows, I have felt solidarity with his act. In no way should I derive my basic purpose from the past of the peoples of color. In no way should I dedicate myself to the revival of an unjustly unrecognized Negro civilization. I will not make myself the man of any past. I do not want to exalt the past at the expense of my present and of my future.
I have no wish to be the victim of the Fraud of a black world. My life should not be devoted to drawing up the balance sheet of Negro values. There is no white world, there is no white ethic, any more than there is a white intelligence. There are in every part of the world men who search. I am not a prisoner of history. I should not seek there for the meaning of my destiny. I should constantly remind myself that the real leap consists in introducing invention into existence. In the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself.
p. 177-9, Black Skin, White Masks
However, I do not mention my position on such matters as an act of passive-aggressive defence (indeed, I wholly allow that this friend may have been referring to something else–something that currently escapes my notice but would nonetheless legitimize his claim). Rather, I am fascinated by my knee-jerk dismay at the very label, “antifeminist”, and how readily I pushed to have it struck down. What power such words can have over us!
Last week, I read an article titled “Why do some feminist spaces tolerate male abusers?”, which highlighted (from a third wave, feminist pluralities perspective) how male persons who have harmed female persons in the past can and do use the language of feminist discourse to reestablish themselves in positions of power… which are then used (intentionally? unintentionally?) to do further, exploitative harm. It’s a striking situation, inasmuch as that past harm to female persons has played a vital role in male advancement within such spaces–but it is also far from unique. In the socially conscious novels of British writer/philosopher Iris Murdoch, for instance, anarchist movements are routinely observed to reinforce strict gender hierarchies (the calling card of a purportedly radical ideology being applied to socially normative ends), and this rings true to real-world accounts I’ve read about one and the same.
In feminist discourse the reaffirmation of normative values can emerge any time a person with social advantage in other spheres claims a de facto universalism to their statements about the lived experience of sex-females and gender-females everywhere. But it also emerges more simply than that: any time anyone establishes a reactive binary to the perceived social “othering” of a given group, chances are pretty damn good they are only perpetuating old notions of the “Other” in new forms. (So swings the ceaseless pendulum.)
The former statement is well understood among most feminist discourse communities. The latter? Not so much. And I hardly mean to pick on feminism either; it is simply a discourse with which I am deeply familiar, particularly since feminist epistemology is a dominant force in contemporary literary criticism. Again, anarchy movements also have a troubled history of upholding old hierarchies while striving for new, and I might as well add that queer and atheist communities are often no less susceptible to forgetting how very many different ways there are to express queer or atheistic identities, respectively.
Labels are easy. They also tend to inculcate a measure of self-satisfaction that is not always deserved–particularly over time. At the very least, most female persons existent today have benefitted from past feminist practice, whether or not we all agree with every aspect of those past practices, and it would be the strange female person, say, who attends an institution of higher learning, votes in every election, and travels without accompaniment most any time of day or night, yet denies that she supports “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.”
But the term “feminist” is itself a difficult power word — wielded, in some cases, by people who can speak its specialized tongue well enough to gain in-group status and start excluding or harming others; in general, susceptible to being worn more as an ornamental badge than lived as a rigorous, day-to-day practice. A conversation ender, too — when if anything it should just be the beginning of a whole, messy host of related social negotiations.
Nor do I say any of this from a high horse; growing up with a considerable self-hatred that is now only marginally more manageable day by day, I have had to shake off a lot of negative reinforcement to arrive at my contemporary beliefs and practices, and I would not be at all surprised if there were more work to do.
However, magicians Penn and Teller have a trick where they burn the American flag to uphold the Bill of Rights for which it stands, and I’d like to think the same is generally true for me: That I could forsake a word to uphold its best meaning set. That I could escape the cultural groupthink that maintains binaries like “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.” That I am above the desire to fit into feel-good notions of effective social reform, especially when these curtail opportunities for nuanced discussion about real human beings.
Yet a word like “antifeminist” gets thrown my way, and I can’t protest it fast enough? So goes the conceit of the human animal, I suppose–to be able to look upon a flight of birds at dusk with a sense of relative accomplishment that, while not entirely unearned, rather needs to be earned unceasingly if it’s to make a damn bit of difference–and in my case, at least, often isn’t. Discourse, Maggie: truly thoughtful discourse ever demands more calm, more complexity, and more readiness not to fit in for mere inclusion’s sake.