Wednesday, June 4, 2008

WisCon 32 Panel 19: "Thinking Ahead"

At 8:45 that same day, I made my way to my second panel, the unwieldily-titled “Thinking Ahead: Feminist thinking about possible near and middle futures and feminist responses to them,” moderated by Rebecca Holden (photographed to the left, just as the person she was Holden had vanished) and featuring Sylvia Kelso, L. Timmel Duchamp, Moondancer Drake, and Xakara.

Holden asked the panelists to say something about who they were or why they were here–a risky approach, but one that worked well enough. XAKARA spoke of how we are at a point where even our allies aren’t terribly comfortable being labeled “feminists” and how many self-styled feminists aren’t living up to the term. She writes fiction with bi- and polyamorous situations, depicting many variations of families. MOONDANCER DRAKE spoke of being Cherokee and writing LGBT fiction; TIMMI DUCHAMP admitted that, although she always says that in her fiction she’s writing about the present, she is imagining the future, and one inhabited by people like us. SYLVIA KELSO spoke of her scholarship and of how her fiction is getting more parameter-bending. REBECCA HOLDEN styles herself an academic and a fan, and mentioned how she’d added the two new panelists [XAKARA and DRAKE] to complicate the panel description and problematize feminism, to show the necessity of multiple stories on political topics, to avoid that View from Nowhere which assumes that we’re standing outside experience and ideology when in fact we’re just universalizing our own perspective, because that View ends up being the very one in which feminists and other liberatory movements are accused of promoting “special interests” and doing “special pleading.”

HOLDEN: What are the challenges that you see feminists facing in the near future?

XAKARA: Many women of color believe the feminist movement is over and see racial struggle as separate. They don’t realize that these fractures between movements occurred recently; they feel that color is primary and that we’re still struggling in the old issues.

DRAKE: On the other side, people of color, women of color talk about race and privilege, while white feminists believe that gender trumps everything else. Today, the older second-wave white feminists who express support for Clinton by dismissing Obama leave a lot of people feeling disrespected –a lot of hurt feelings, a lot of people walking away, a sense that people need to push aside who we are. We need to address what as human beings we deserve. My kids –I’m raising my son and my daughter as feminists, and we need to pay attention to mothers and mothering, especially to raising sons, to teaching boys their responsibility, to teaching them love and respect; it’s imperative to see our sons doing something with their male privilege.

DUCHAMP: We’re starting to see the beginnings of real scarcity of resources, of energy –and heightened reproductive issues that make race and class issues emerge sharply, as well as the ways priorities differ by race and class. Ideology and technology are changing things, with no real public discourse to address that. Access to health care and education are getting worse, and the public sphere, the area for discourse that helps make decision on politics, continues to shrink. Certain feminisms facilitate skills that can enable us to deal fruitfully with these issues: we know things that other people don’t and need to exploit these.

KELSO: I’m coming from a different background. I hear our Deputy Prime Minister, who is a woman, is going to fight for equal pay for women; and I ask, is this 2008 or 1968? Can we get into the public discourse? What resources does feminism have now? Is there a feminist movement that could actually do something politically? No. And where I come from, without the academic traditions of the U.S., we see more feminism in the civil service and much less in education and in the academy.

HOLDEN: I’m interested in the ideas Timmi raised, about what resources we have, material and otherwise; and what we’re hearing from Moondancer about parenting and women of color. I read in the Washington Post about the rise of women in Rwanda’s economic revival: in the face of scarcity and the need to improvise, they’re willing to try new things, unlike most of that country’s tradition-bound men. So female agency in such places is also an “untapped resource” for feminism.

KELSO: They’re up against what we’ll be up against in 15-25 years.

DRAKE: I find it very hopeful and satisfying to see a woman who lacks theoretical grounding in feminism find her empowerment and do what she needs.

KELSO: An enormous number of communities in Australia are doing great things with ecology and sustainability –this is a place where women have the experience to be very good at the practical side.

DRAKE: I think we can expand the concept of Green Mondays.

KELSO: We have a huge reservoir of age wisdom.

DRAKE: The idea of dismissing the elderly is alien to my culture: being Dianic, our crones are sacred to us.

KELSO: But in the capitalist world, you have your sell-by date.

XAKARA: Capitalism is actually helping the elderly, because suddenly we’re realized: They’ve got money! Going Green too has become a great marketing tool. I realize the greatest resource for feminism is stealth: introduce the ethical once they’ve accepted one goal.

DRAKE: It’s drive-by enlightenment!

XAKARA: Feminism only elicits passion if it’s connected to something you can get passionate about.

DRAKE: We still see the media’s idealization of youth: after a certain point, the story’s not about you anymore. We have to be the ones to tell the stories we want to see about hot fortyish and fiftyish women.

BETH’s partner DAN, from the audience: Eliminating older women from the story is a way to disempower women.

DRAKE: People are afraid of the creative power of menopause.

Audience: I don’t want to arouse political conflict here, but look at the vilification of Clinton.

DRAKE: I think she, or her campaign and some of her supporters made a mistake: supporting her should not involve making people feel sorry for her.

XAKARA: As a woman in a position of power, she’d be easy to vilify: everybody knew that from life, or from the movies. But, at least in my neighborhood, in the world in which I grew up, Yes, you were afraid of women in menopause, ‘cause they don’t care! They’ll tell you what they think! And that fear –what happens if women aren’t afraid of not being nice –has been very visible; and instead of, as you say, asking people to feel sorry for her, she should have pointed at the other people’s laundry.

Audience: There’s that distinction between being nice and being good. We respect good in a man, but not so much in a woman.

Audience: The second wave of feminism came after the civil rights movement, as the splits came in on identity politics. Consciousness-raising and demonstrations were challenging hierarchies from the bottom up and were not interested in “political” power, narrowly defined. And in the last twenty years around the world, we’ve seen activist movements, anarchists, revolutionaries, with more women in authority: anti-hierarchical second-wave policies have worked their way into activism in general.

DUCHAMP: We sometimes don’t realize how big a change that has made.

HOLDEN: Nobody is talking about scarcity: everybody is working on the principle of abstinence-education –deal with the risks by not talking about it.

DUCHAMP: We’re at a point where younger women in Women Studies classes get upset over the uncivil topic of abortion: they see it not as political but as a sleazy moral issue. The Right has had a lot of success in reshaming the issue.

Audience: Look at the global effects of our country’s sex-ed policy, our military, our chemical corporations!

HOLDEN: When I was in Kenya at a mission hospital, their Christians were much more open and active about HIV than the Christians one sees raising the issue in this country.

XAKARA: Our side doesn’t protest mediocrity: we don’t pull our kids out of the abstinence class the way the Christian Right pulls theirs out of sex ed –if we did, the schools would say, Hey, there’s nobody here, we need to do something different! And it’s because the kids don’t come to us to tell us about what’s being done to them in schools. We need to go to them –abstinence programs have made them afraid to ask questions.

Audience: I think this whole thing is about how you frame a story, ideally to challenge all the simplistic choices the dominant discourse offers us. That’s why what writers do is political work, and it’s so important.

DRAKE says that’s what her writing does and offers an example of how.

An audience member raises the issue of how Soviet SF was a great medium for underground protest.

HOLDEN: Good fiction doesn’t preach –it tells a complicated story.

KELSO talks about how much context and explanation she needs to offer before teaching an SF story in a “Women in Literature” course that doesn’t focus on SF.

Audience: What tools of activism are you talking about?

DUCHAMP: Nonhierarchical organization, consciousness-raising, listening to one another’s stories, making things complicated, collectivities, the lost idea that everyone deserves to thrive.

HOLDEN makes a comment about what each of us can do.

XAKARA: Stealth feminism can work by building on something that’s already hip, like the ecology movement –you can build up to the “everyone deserves to thrive” message with, Don’t you agree that no one should have polluted water? Sure I do, let’s do something about it! And moving on from there with other “Don’t you agree?” arguments. And each person can affect one other person and encourage them to do the same. Once women believe that, they’ll work like gangbusters.

Audience starts asking questions about motivating recalcitrant people or engaging with frustrating interlocutors.

DRAKE: Sometimes you just gotta show ‘em, and that’s all you can do.

More discussion of that issue among HOLDEN and DUCHAMP and Audience.

DRAKE: There is nothing more satisfying than watching the children who are growing up at WisCon, and seeing how different they are from some others [less thuggish, more generous? My foggy memory can't do her point justice . . . ]

Audience member asks DRAKE about persuading some particularly challenging friends of feminism’s possibilities. She passes the question to XAKARA, who asks, “Have you tried minor deception?” and demonstrates the diplomatic tack of feigning a very tentative and innocent attitude when you bring up a challenge to someone’s prejudices.

As you see, my note-taking hand got tired toward the end of the panel; but it was still an invigorating discussion. I could completely relate to KELSO’s struggle to introduce SF in a lit course, as I’d spent ninety minutes doing that this past semester. But listening to XAKARA, I could not help thinking about Martha Nussbaum. Now, XAKARA is thirty-four years old, African-American, and middle-sized, with a dynamic speaking style that could invigorate any audience: I’m not suggesting that she has the same blind spots that a tall, thin, low-key WASP aristocrat of sixty-one would. But there seemed to be to be a big distinction in framing: DRAKE was talking about what we deserve and seeing women empower themselves, and XAKARA was talking pedagogically; and it seemed to me to be a pedagogy not unlike that of Cultivating Humanity and indeed to overlook the issues of subjectivity that John McGowan says Nussbaum overlooks.

See, in Cultivating Humanity, Nussbaum says “we” need to expand our circles of compassion, and she appeals to the virtues that Cicero recognized, or that Marcus Aurelius recognized, and talks about what “we” can learn from reading about Bigger Thomas or Invisible Man. And XAKARA’s language too framed the selling-points of feminism as connected to the altruism, if I’m not mistaken, of an audience with a strong sense of agency. It seemed to me that she was all about persuading people to endorse or want change. And I think that awareness that alternatives exist and belief that change is possible precedes that stage, and is a harder sell to make. Again, it’s so easy to fall into the dichotomy of the “us” who have the cultural options and the “them” we have to learn compassion for; and that doesn’t really take one beyond the “missionary” view. DRAKE's "You just gotta show 'em" has a lot of possibilities, though: Models, Context, Peers (words Timmi keeps repeating) are things you can "show."

The theme of what tactics we take in proselytizing for The Cause, or facilitating empowerment, continued when I met BETH in the hallway after the panel and she was still thinking about her exchange with HAIRSTON: BETH opined, "You know, there's certain people out there that, if you listen to them, you can engage them." The issue of whether women have the option to be good was raised, movingly, in DUCHAMP's reading the following morning, as she cited an essay by Alice Sheldon:
As Tiptree, I had an unspoken classificatory bond to the world of male action; Tiptree's existence opened to unknown possibilities of power. And, let us pry deeper--to the potential of evil. Evil is the voltage of good; the urge to goodness, without the potential of evil, is trivial. A man impelled to good is significant; a woman pleading for the good is trivial. A great bore. Part of the appeal of Tiptree was that he ranged himself on the side of good by choice.

Alli Sheldon has no such choice.

What evil can a woman do? Except pettily, to other, weaker, women or children? Cruel Stepmothers; male fantasies of the Wicked Witch, who can always be assaulted or burnt if she goes too far. Men certainly see women as doing many evil things--but always nuisancy, trivial, personal, and, easily-to-be-punished-for. Not for us the great evils; the jolly maraudings, burnings, rapings, and hacking-up; the Big Nasties, the genocidal world-destroyers, who must be reckoned with on equal terms.
In addition to citing Sheldon's "insight about women's lack of moral credibility" in her reading, DUCHAMP did a good deal of "Thinking Ahead" in the Q&A that followed that reading, saying "I believe it's possible to have a nonhierarchical society" but also, in the course of a discussion of the utility or harmfulness of using the term "evil," noting "I don't think there's some intrinsic Evil in us; I think we're always going to be hurting one another . . . " Which I take as a generous rather than a pessimistic view of humanity.


Moondancer said...

Thank you for that thoughtful summary of the panel. I was so tired that night. I'm glad to know someone remembered what I said better than I do. :)

Josh said...

Moondancer, I don't remember a thing (in this case): I just put my note-taking hand on autopilot.

I'm a little displeased with what I came up with, because it seems to celebrate your style and criticize X's, whereas I actually think both approaches are necessary, depending upon whom you're trying to mobilize.

But I'm very glad you're happy that I wrote about the panel's content.