IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU: THE PROBLEM OF RUGGED INDIVIDUALIST CHOICE FEMINISM

(Originally posted on Tumblr, 4/19/2012.)

In Dionne Brand’s novel, In Another Place, Not Here, she cites Frantz Fanon from his book, The Wretched of the Earth. She wrote:

“In the struggle for liberation, “Individualism is the first to disappear.” Fanon said: “The colonialist bourgeoisie had hammered into the native’s mind the idea of a society of individuals where each person shut himself up in his own subjectivity, and whose only wealth is individual thought…. Brother, sister, friend — these are words outlawed. Because for them my brother is my purse, my friend is part of my scheme for getting on.”

I have something I need to get off my chest. I am so sick of the word “choice.”

Choices are fun. Choices are what makes us individuals! Choices are necessary in a world that limits the choices of various kinds of people. But I no longer believe individual choice is a solid foundation for a mass movement like feminism.

My philosophy is that individualist feminism only promotes solipsistic notions of what feminism is. Sure, bell hooks once said, “feminism is for everybody.” And it means different things for each and every single person; but as long as we keep this moral relativist approach to feminism– every person for their self– it means people aren’t accountable or responsible for doing generally heinous things to other people. It also makes it harder to identify instances of abuse and disparity when they happen. So when we prioritize the personal, as in the individual, we lose sight of the larger picture.

Carol Hanisch’s famous line, “the personal is political,” has gone through the worst rounds of appropriation throughout the last 30 or so years. Originally spoken in the context of 1970s consciousness-raising groups, this phrase has been thrown around to the point of banality, often to legitimize the centering of individual, white bourgeois experiences. What consciousness-raising sought to do in the 1970s, was to translate individual experiences into collective action. Nowadays, it only serves to affirm the liberal feminist’s decision to organize only with the intention of self-love and self-interest.

(If you have to keep affirming to other feminists that what you do is political, then maybe you need a break from politics? And let’s be real here– if politics is about the social, what kind of politics are yours if they only focus on “I”?)

A feminism that is contingent upon choice, means that people who DO NOT have the luxury of freedom of choice will not be addressed. People who do not have the choice to “give consent,” people who DO NOT have the choice to stay at home with the kids, people who DO NOT choose to work low-wage jobs are being left out in the cold. Many of these people haven’t had the same plethora of choices as white middle-class cis women, who have made choice rhetoric central to contemporary mainstream feminism.

I am done with choice rhetoric, because the choice to do much of anything is restricted to only one chunk of people lucky enough to have the choice of whether or not to suffer. Patriarchy is a complex system of social relationships; some of which we have no choice but to endure, and others which we cannot access or benefit from because of factors like race, class, gender, etc. Examples include being able to afford college or heath insurance, to be CEOs, to be ruling-class. Choice feminism is about picking and choosing which social relations and positions are most personally bearable for you, but at the expense of ignoring, legitimizing, or even facilitating the suffering of others.

Choice feminism makes intersectionality impossible when it’s about the individual. This is why diversity is much more popular than intersectionality; diversity rests on the notion that an individual carries enough representation for the whole. The tokens of the group are called upon to speak to a marginalization that they may not even experience the full brunt of, for the privilege of being accepted as individuals by the hegemonic group. (In this case, the hegemonic group being white cis middle-class women in feminism.)

Now, do I think people should be able to choose to get abortions? Yes, and in fact I’d rather that people didn’t have to pay for them, and would even go so far as to propose people learn how to do it themselves for the sake of autonomy. Do I think sex work should be decriminalized and taken seriously as a profession? Absolutely, as long as we understand them as workers and make the distinction between worker and trafficking victim, then sure, go right ahead.  Being against choice rhetoric as a central theme in feminism does not mean I want to restrict peoples’ choices.

“Choice” rhetoric is just dangerous in a world in which so many people have so few choices. It means we only account for those of us who have a choice. Leaving feminism up to choice is a superficial and lazy analysis of patriarchy. It fails to address larger systemic issues like institutional sexism, racism, classism, ableism, etc. as long as it’s “all about me.” Choice feminism allows for more conventionally ambitious members of the “marginalized” (i.e. women, LGBTQ folks) to abandon the rest of us in their endeavor to sit in the oppressor’s chair.

Besides. It’s getting real hot under this bus.

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