Monday, October 18, 2010

Personal experience, playback, and talking to men about feminism

I read this post on Feministe called Unreality and the Politics of Experience (go read it!) and it was interesting timing, considering some other things that have been bouncing around in my head for the past couple of days.

In the post, Chally talks about having her personal experiences questioned, and how she thinks this practice helps to reinforce oppression. And I agree. In the comment section, a disagreement began over whether Chally is advocating for validation, and against "rational thought."

What's interesting to me is that the "rational thought/debate" model is the type of discussion that is more closely associated with males, and the "emotional support" model is the type of discussion that is more closely associated with females. Is this a coincidence? Nope, it's patriarchy.

The best explanation of the concept of patriarchy that I've ever encountered (and I forget where, so I can't give anyone credit for this) is "that which is associated with maleness is valued over that which is associated with femaleness." Note that it's not necessarily saying "men are valued over women," it's more complicated than that.

Recently I was trying to explain to a man who is very dear to me how I personally feel about feminism. I ended up getting emotional about it because it's an emotionally loaded topic for me, and because our discussion was frustrating for me because I felt that his focus on bringing up his points of disagreement with feminism was causing him to not really listen to me. He seemed genuinely surprised that I was upset, because he thought we were having "an intellectual discussion." And we were, but for me, it was also a discussion about my personal experiences, and talking about my personal experiences can make me emotional.

Many men I've encountered are far more comfortable with conversation that could be described as "intellectual," "rational," or a "debate." My dad is a prime example of this. He loves to argue about anything and everything. If you agree with him, he'll change to the opposite view, to try to steer the conversation back to debate. But my dad, and many other men, are far less comfortable talking about anything involving feelings. Whether this has something to do with biology, or is purely based on cultural messages about what it means to be a man, it definitely seems to be a strong pattern.

My issue (and this is where patriarchy comes in) is that emotionless, intellectual debate is often presented as the correct way to talk about issues, and personal experience and emotions are portrayed as inferior and less important. And from this comes the tendency to argue with someone's interpretation of something that happened to them.

I'm not saying we should never question someone's interpretation of their personal experience. But I think that questioning should only happen after listening and trying to understand where that person is coming from.

Most of us are taught how to debate more than we're taught to relate. I'm not sure about you, but my high school didn't have an Empathy Team. I think if there were such a thing as an Empathy Team, though, it would look a lot like a Playback Theater troupe.

In Playback Theater, we "play back" stories and experiences offered by audience members. When you're a player, you stand silently on the stage (in "neutral" position...always a challenge for me) and listen while the audience member (called "the teller") tells their story. You have to pay attention, or you'll be screwed when you try to play it back. You also can't talk at this point, so you can't argue with them. I admit, I have stood there listening to black tellers talking about an experience with racism, and felt an impulse to say something along the lines of "maybe your boss didn't mean it that way...I'm sure she wasn't trying to be racist...are you sure that's what she said?" That impulse came from a place of being uncomfortable with what I was hearing and wishing it could somehow be explained away. But, because of the nature of the form, I was not able to voice any of this (thank God), and instead I just had to listen. And then I had to validate the teller's experience by playing back their story. And you know what? I've learned a hell of a lot through this process.

I believe that learning to listen and empathize is just as important as learning to debate and justify one's position. It frustrates me that the latter is often thought of as more valuable. Trying to change that is one of the reasons I am a feminist. It's also one of the reasons I am an artist.

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