Thursday, February 23, 2006

Odds, ends, silver linings

1. Lace has some astute follow-up to my post on the "intention" conundrum and white privilege. I want to think much more about how/whether the internet is a useful forum for discussions about things like white privilege, and what role anonymity or pseudonymity (which in my case ain't worth much, since anyone who knows me IRL, even casually, would recognize the tragic particulars of my life) plays in the stakes of this all-important question.

2. I find it really interesting that Scott Eric Kaufman and others jumped so quickly to the issue of intentionality vis a vis rape or sexual encounters (and, of course, specifically heterosexual encounters). With all due respect to him (I love his blog, and find him a smart guy), it troubles me that there seems to be an underlying assumption that the male "intention" seems to boil down to "I want to have sex with any girl who doesn't aggressively resist, even if her eyes are a bit glazed and she's never seen me before, or is at a potentially sexually fraught situation like a frat party."

I have male friends who assure me that, despite their veneer of civilized sexual restraint, this is, in fact, their goal. And as with the "good intentions" claimed by so many white folks, I still think it's bullshit. My whole point, I think--and please disagree with me, but don't excoriate me, yet--I am working this out and promise to follow up with more coherent thoughts--is that the group members to whom our inherently inequitable society has granted greater power (economic, racial, social, physical) have a greater obligation to question their own "intentions," and to avoid putting those intentions above the realities claimed by those who are, for whatever reason, disadvantaged. [And I don't necessarily mean a "unversally" greater obligation; but a greater obligation if the goal is to question and dismantle that privilege, and to build a better and more equitable society]. This means, gentlemen, not that your intentions are insignificant or necessarily suspect, but that in order to dismantle some of the inequities of society, you might have to consider that your "intentions" do not get to define the experience. As a white woman, I don't get to define the ways in which my speech and actions are "read" by my black students, colleagues, friends, or neighbors. I can participate in that reading, but I don't get to define its meaning. If I am to give up my privilege, that is what I must give up. Not my intentions, but my insistence that my intentions are definitive, prescriptive, and legible to someone whose experience of the world (as a black person, as a woman) is not my own.

3. The world's most fabulous niecelet, who happens to be my niece, has placed me at the top of her "loving list." Now, I don't know exactly what such a list entails (is it like the famous Seinfeld "speed dial" episode?), but it is worth incurring potential violence from her mother (formerly number one, now demoted to number two) for getting to feel, for a little while, like I am the best-loved auntie in the universe.

Edited to add: Apparently my status as number 1 on the loving list does not involve kicking or being kicked. Apparently only my sister, mother of the niecelet extraordinaire and kick-er non pareil, is the kick-ee. The rest of us get all the glory, but none of the pain. But that seems to pretty much define motherhood, non?

8 Comments:

At 1:17 PM , Blogger Scott Eric Kaufman said...

Thanks for the kind words. I didn't mean to defend frat boy mentality so much as indicate the stakes of the intention debate don't concern the initial act--which is what it is, be it offensive speech or a rape--but with how one responds to it. In fact, what I meant to do was delimit the situation in which this is more likely to occur:

the group members to whom our inherently inequitable society has granted greater power (economic, racial, social, physical) have a greater obligation to question their own "intentions," and to avoid putting those intentions above the realities claimed by those who are, for whatever reason, disadvantaged.

In short, vilifying someone for rape when he intended to have consensual sex may be counterproductive to this process. You explain to him the power differential, that while the act was rape it matters that he didn't intend to become a rapist. Once you convince him--and I've no doubt it will take some convincing--of what he's done, then he can begin to question the advantages his subject position entails and the responsibility that goes with it.

Also, I should note that I'm making this argument pragmatically, not theoretically. I know, for example, that parties in which alcohol are consumed by irresponsible adults happen. I can't eliminate sexually fraught situations from the face of the earth...but I can, preemptively, try to teach my students how to negotiate them as best I can; if I fail, however, I'm less interested in deserved vilification than in getting the student to take responsibility for his actions and become self-conscious of the circumstances of which he took advantage.

P.S. About your note about the heteronormative aspect of the conversation. That post I deleted at 11:37 a.m. concerned West Hollywood and the clubs there. But I decided not to throw a new wrinkle in the conversation at that point, so I deleted it. (I can, however, reconstruct it, if you'd like. Or you can copy it from the initial notification email.)

 
At 1:29 PM , Blogger Yankee T said...

I have no doubt that you are the best loved auntie, ever! Such a wise niece!

 
At 1:36 PM , Blogger OTRgirl said...

Well said, Dorcasina. Your point that the privileged party's intentions don't define the experience is huge! I understand Scott's point, but I think it distracts from your central argument.

Congrats on most loved status!

 
At 10:40 AM , Blogger Dorcasina said...

Scott,
Okay, now I see more clearly. I thought it odd that you jumped on the "rape bandwagon," so to speak, but I may not have read your comments carefully enough (overwhelmed by the BPhD-generated rush of readers, I guess). I read more defensiveness than pragmatism in your tone (and in your choice of what you see as a parallel), and I guess I was interested in why in citing rape/semi-consensual sex (that's gonna piss people off, I know), you were focusing on the male's intentions at all, when, to me a focus on the need to validate the victim's experience was more analogous to the racial example I was using. And while I agree that vilification is not usually effective, I still worry that in theory, too much energy spent on intentions leads to spending more time on the transgressor than the violated--in either example. I'm not entirely sure that individual "intentions" aren't primarily an excuse in most cases, in that, again, they deflect attention from the crime/violation/offense as it is read by the victim, and insist on seeing the perpetrator's "individual" humanity at the expense of the victim's.

I agree that in practice, we're not gonna get racists or sexists to change their tune by making them even more defensive, but it does seem to me that we need, especially in these abstract discussions, to work against the privileging of intentions. I think it comes "naturally" to us in our defensive society, but that we should dismantle that "naturalness"--or at least be very, very suspicious of the dominance of the "intentional fallacy" (I know I'm misusing the phrase).

After all, asking for one's intentions to be paramount (not that you were saying they were), insists on one's own "individual" motives and particularity, when often times the "crime" or transgression is involved precisely with failing to see the "victim" except as a token or synechdoche (a "piece of ass" or a "n*" or a "gangsta") (and is that synechdoche? bad, bad professor...)

 
At 7:16 PM , Blogger Lace said...

My thanks also Dorcasina, this conversation has me pedalling. The is your gem in my books:

"I can participate in that reading, but I don't get to define its meaning. If I am to give up my privilege, that is what I must give up. Not my intentions, but my insistence that my intentions are definitive, prescriptive, and legible..."

We are always reading and being read, yet the texts are not necessarily (usually?) in our "control" -- which leads to the next quirky conundrum: does it necessarily follow that just because one has privilege one also posesses the necessary agency to give it up?

I don't want to sound pessimistic or evasive, nor do I want to suggest that inaction is an acceptable strategy. Just wanting (hoping?) to add a systemic layer to your insights. How do/might/could the individual's intentions operate within the larger systems of oppression?

Thanks for the thoughts, you're keeping me thinking.
L:)

 
At 5:24 AM , Blogger TStockmann said...

I'm confused. The definition of the crime of rape is by its very nature primarily a legal matter. Intention is central to the degree of culpability, and, of course, perhaps beond a ceertain point, what will be permitted to constitute consent can only be socially constructed in advance. There's nothing apriori about it.

As far as the rest, it seems to me that you spend an inordinate amount of time agonizing about the racial and gender inequality when your own fundamental ethical attention should be the power difference between you and your students. Your contempt for their white bread backgrounds and eagerness to use your own position to catechize them into your own limited and cliche-ridden world view (I mean, only left academics evoke "privilege" and require the rending of garments) gives the Reed Irvines of the world all the traction they need to attack genuine academic freedom.

 
At 6:51 AM , Blogger Dorcasina said...

t stockman,
Thanks for stopping by and tossing your hat in the ring; but wow--your presumptions about me and my teaching and my "contempt" for students (who, frankly, have similar backgrounds to my own) and your hostility toward "left academics" seem to have their origins in everything other than my post...

Sorry, but I don't equate the occasional post, even a lengthy one, on racism and white privilege with donning a hair shirt or flagellating myself.

You *assume* that I have 'contempt' for my students. I don't. I am currently thinking about "them" (in the necessarily oversimplified aggregate, and something possible primarily because my blog is pseudonymous) because recent conversations with students and colleagues have shed light on some of the things that troubled me about Oprah's show. Nor do I feel the need to "catechize" them*(see note below), and I resent your assumption that I have a particular and easily-dismissed political agenda that you can identify from reading, what, one post of mine? That's the worst kind of knee-jerk thinking on your part. I want them to engage with a whole variety of issues, not to agree with whatever my view may be.

Nor do I agree that with you when you say, "your own fundamental ethical attention should be the power difference between you and your students." I agree that that is *one* of the areas that requires my attention; it's an obligation and pleasure of my position. But attention to that one area does not in any way preclude my need to attend to my own ethical interests outside of the classroom (as if such a division could be neatly made), and to model a life of engagement with important current topics--not of any particular political stripe, but practiced with candor, humor, commitment, and a willingness to question my own assumptions. Part of my ethical responsibility to my students involves using my institutional "power" over them to expose them to ideas, and to use the carrot/stick of grading in its current incarnation to get them to *consider* (not adopt or absorb) various ideas. Another part involves negating that power to the extent possible so that students can choose to accept, deny, or modify any "position" or theory they encounter. I work very hard to help them say what they want to say, *especially* when it is something I disagree with. That's my ethical responsibility: to give them new things to think about. Not to give them new things to think. And I have a well-earned reputation for encouraging students to express ideas unpopular among their peers, and for rewarding intellectual risk from any point on the political spectrum.

Not gonna get back into the "rape" thing; it wasn't my topic, and while I found Scott's questions and thoughts intriguing in relation to the issues I raised, I don't want to debate legalities.

(note: *and doesn't your assumption that I could, successfully, impose my beliefs on them--leaving alone the issue of whether I want to, try to, or have any evidence that I do so--itself indicate that you have little respect for them as autonomous thinkers? Frankly, if what I say as one professor in one class in their college career--in a life where they have friends, family, coworkers, bosses, and myriad other influences--has such a devastatingly replicative effect, then either they are naive suckers or I am some kind of demi-god. Evidence for either is lacking.)

 
At 10:07 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I came here from Byzantium Shores and will be returning. You show a different way to respond to the 'I did not mean to (offend/hurt/upset/) you. Thanks

 

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