Take Back the Night

Take Back the Night Keynote – 2017

Good evening.

I was honored to be invited to give tonight’s keynote address. What I’d like to do for just a few minutes is talk with you about what some feminist philosophers have said about oppression and violence, in a way that I hope will help contribute just a bit to our understanding of what it means to “take back the night.”

Sandra Bartky tells us that, “We understand what we are and where we are in the light of what we are not, yet.”

I take her to mean that, by considering what we want the world to look like we can gain insight into how the world is by comparison.

So where are we? We are not in a world where women can walk home safely at night, where women can reliably trust that they won’t be assaulted by friends or family. We are not in a world that is basically just.

Of course you know these numbers: conservatively, in the U.S. today 1 in 5 women will be a victim of sexual assault and 9 out of 10 victims of sexual assault are women.

The numbers are too high to be random; they are systematic. What we are talking about is systematic violence that Marilyn Frye tells us works to mold women’s lives, constrain their options, and undermine their autonomy. Systematic limitations that women face in the world today are what Frye calls the bars of the birdcage and the dilemma of the double bind. Whichever way you turn, the road is blocked. This is the core of oppression.

To be clear, that same systematic violence is also directed towards gay and feminized men, bisexual women, lesbians, trans people, and queer people. My point is that oppression in a patriarchal ideology is distinctively gendered and heteronormative in a way that works to the benefit of straight men and to the detriment of everyone else.

Oppression has many faces and is created, perpetuated, and sustained via different methods. One of them is via social norms that say, among other things:

- You ought to be one way;

- You ought not be some other way.

More specifically, social norms tell you:

- Who you should love;

- How you should feel;

- How you should dress, or talk, or carry yourself throughout your day.

Social norms of femininity in particular say that women should:

- Smile;

- Be polite;

- Always be agreeable and always say yes;

- Eat less;

- Take up less physical space than men

- Avoid confrontation . . . you get the idea.

Those social norms make up what we might call an ideology, the social story we tell ourselves about how the world is and how we should think about and understand our place within it.

As many philosophers have used the term, ideologies are always problematic. They generate false, illusory, or distorted pictures of the world. They do so, in part, via the social norms I just named. Now, not all social norms are bad, and some parts of any particular ideology might (at least in principle) be true.

But, a patriarchal ideology implicitly and explicitly tells us that:

- You ought to accept your condition and be glad for where you find yourself;

- You ought not resist;

- Women are weak;

- Men’s violence is “natural”;

- Victims of sexual assault should feel shame and must keep secret the violence to which they were wrongfully subjected;

- They should get over it, forgive, move on, and forget.

Iris Marion Young tells us that patriarchal systems of oppression function to control the lives of some to the benefit of others. This is about creating, sustaining, and maintaining privilege and dominance, where one group exerts power and control over another.

Claudia Card tells us this is about creating relations of pernicious dependence; it’s a protection racket where men as a group reap the benefits of being protectors after creating the circumstances in which protection is needed.

What that means is that passivity is normative.

What dominant, oppressive ideologies communicate is that oppressed groups should be happy with their circumstances and accept the unjust status quo. They should resign themselves to vulnerability, to being caged in and limited, and accept the harms that are routinely and systematically inflicted against them.

Now, in my view, any act that resists the status quo, that resists social norms and ideological prescriptions is subversive.

To quote Sandra Bartky again:

“The consciousness of victimization is a divided consciousness. To see myself as victim is to know that I have already sustained injury, that I live exposed to injury, that I have been at worst mutilated, at best diminished in my being. But at the same time, feminist consciousness is a joyous consciousness of one's own power, of the possibility of unprecedented personal growth and the release of energy long suppressed. Thus, feminist consciousness is both consciousness of weakness and consciousness of strength. But this division in the way we apprehend ourselves has a positive effect for it leads to the search both for ways of overcoming those weaknesses in ourselves which support the system and for direct forms of struggle against the system itself.”

What Bartky is telling us is that recognizing that the world is oppressive generates a second insight, and it is that as crushing and painful as it is to realize that the world is so terrifically unjust, this realization also creates the opportunity to resist.

Here’s a phrase I find very helpful: “every day sites of resistance”

What does that phrase mean?

It means that, since oppression permeates social life, since oppression is ubiquitous, often born from and perpetuated by the small interactions of otherwise well-meaning people, all of us who are committed to justice find ourselves faced with multiple opportunities, every day, to fight back, to say no to a world that limits people and yes to a world built around empowerment, growth, and flourishing.

Whenever you say:

- No, I won’t take this.

- No, I won’t accept how things are “supposed to be.”

- Whenever you say, “I do not accept my condition.”

You perform an act of resistance.

And that resistance is a big deal; it matters, often much more than you can know, there in the moment.

Resisting victimization can mean many things.

- It can mean being prepared, confident, and empowered.

- It can mean speaking out, defying the stigma that attaches to sexual assault and giving it a name and a face.

- It can mean letting go of shame born from such stigma.

- It can mean locating responsibility with those parties who properly bear it.

- It can mean surviving violence.

- It can mean recovering from violence.

All of these are subversive acts.

All of those things are a big deal, and not just for the individual – not just for the person doing the resisting. Because those acts work to undermine the unjust and oppressive structures that gave rise to them in the first place, they are a big deal for others, too.

Subversive acts work to oppose or undermine systems of oppression. They shed light on the illusory shadows cast by dominative ideologies. They challenge the story that says you are powerless, defenseless, and small.

What I’m saying is that survival and recovery are subversive political acts. Speaking out and rejecting stigma and shame are subversive political acts. Turning to look and see the violence that fills our world, and helping others to do so as well, are subversive political acts that defy the status quo. And that’s a big deal.

Here’s another set of phrases that I find helpful in thinking about justice. For everything that you do, ask yourself:

“In doing this am I acting as an agent of oppression or an agent of liberation?”

Acts that subvert oppressive ideologies and create for someone the space to move, to breath, to choose, are liberatory. So by working to undermine the ideological norms I’ve been describing you act as an agent of liberation.

Susan Brison tells us that, “One cannot recover in isolation. Just as one can be reduced to an object through torture, one can become a human subject again through telling one’s narrative to caring others who are able to listen.”

So, if recovering from trauma is a subversive and liberatory political act, then so too is listening to someone who is in the process of recovering. Extending Brison’s insight, forming safe communities where survivors of trauma are able to engage in the painful process of remaking the self is essential to recovery. And so, forming those communities is also a subversive and liberatory political act.

Putting all this together, I want to make clear the payoff of this quick discussion, and it’s that in a world shot through with systematic, gendered violence, when you resist, you work to undermine oppression: you serve as an agent of liberation.

And, resistance takes many forms:

- When you are confident and empowered;

- When you speak out;

- When you reject stigma;

- When you value yourself;

- When you fight back;

- When you survive;

- When you recover;

- And when you help others to do the same, you act as an agent of liberation.

And that’s a very big deal.

Thank you.