Monday, March 17, 2014

What is Holistic Feminism?

This is one in a series of blog posts in which I discuss some of the concepts and terminology that I forward in my writings, including my new book Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive.

Since my first book Whipping Girl came out, people have tended to call me a trans feminist. For those who are unfamiliar with trans feminism, it refers to transgender perspectives on feminism, or feminist perspectives on transgender issues. That definitely describes a lot of my writing and activism, especially during the time that I was writing that book. But in Excluded, I broaden the lens significantly and attempt to articulate how sexism, marginalization, and exclusion work in a more general sense. The term trans feminism seemed too narrow for this endeavor.

Furthermore, trans feminism tends to be centered on transgender perspectives—and for good reason, given that such perspectives had been overlooked or misconstrued in previous formulations of feminism. But the new approach that I forward in Excluded intentionally avoids being centered on any particular identity or perspective. So calling it “trans feminism” wouldn’t be appropriate.

The idea of calling this approach “holistic feminism” grew out of a line from a spoken word piece that I wrote in 2007 (just after I finished writing Whipping Girl) called Performance Piece—that piece has since become a chapter in Excluded. In that piece, I respond to the often-cited feminist slogans “all gender is drag” and “all gender is performance” this way:

Instead of saying that all gender is this or all gender is that, let’s recognize that the word gender has scores of meanings built into it. It’s an amalgamation of bodies, identities and life experiences, of subconscious urges, sensations and behaviors, some of which develop organically, and others which are shaped by language and culture. Instead of saying that gender is any one single thing, let’s start describing it as a holistic experience. [Excluded, p.107]

In Excluded (specifically Chapter 13, “Homogenizing Versus Holistic Views of Gender and Sexuality”), I flesh out this idea further, making the case that shared biology, biological variation, shared culture, and individual experience all come together in an unfathomably complex manner to create both the trends as well as the diversity in gender and sexuality that we see all around us. Why is this important? Well, past feminists and queer/LGBTQIA+ activists have explained why the idea that we are all biologically determined to be gendered or sexual in particular ways is both incorrect and can result in sexism and marginalization. But frankly, the same is also true of the strict nurture side of the nature-versus-nurture debate (as I address in more depth in my recent post What is gender artifactualism? I also discuss this in a radio interview I did for the Pacifica radio program Against the Grain).

So the “holistic” in Holistic Feminism refers, in part, to the way in which it transcends the traditional nature-versus-nurture debate, and recognizes that people are fundamentally heterogeneous with regard to sex, gender, sexuality, and other traits. But “holistic” also refers to other aspects of this approach:

...this approach recognizes that each of us has a rather specific (and therefore, limited) view of gender and sexuality, and sexism and marginalization—a perspective largely shaped by our own life experiences and how we are socially situated. Therefore, the only way that we can thoroughly understand these complex phenomena is through a multiplicity of different perspectives. [Excluded, p.6-7]

The notion that we all have different experiences with sexism and marginalization, and that feminism should be inclusive of our differing perspectives, comes straight out of intersectionality. But the holistic approach that I forward emphasizes several ideas that are sometimes overlooked in discussions about intersectionality.

The first is that we differ from one another not only with regards to the forms of oppression we face, but also with regards to our biology, bodies, personalities, predilections, and experiences. Thus, two people who are marginalized in the exact same way may nevertheless express very different desires and/or react very differently to their situations. I believe that this is crucial to keep in mind, as many activist movements have fallen into the trap of expecting all of its members to respond to their oppression in a uniform manner—e.g., claims that all women must avoid femininity, or all LGBTQIA+ people must come out of the closet and be visibly queer. Holistic Feminism recognizes that such approaches are futile and only lead to the exclusion of many people from the movement.

A second and related idea is that activist movements (even those that recognize intersectionality) tend to develop “fixed perspectives” that formally acknowledge certain identities, perspectives, and forms of sexism and marginalization, while overlooking or dismissing others. For instance, when feminists talk about fighting “the patriarchy,” or when trans activists talk about “shattering the gender binary,” those constructs only address a limited number of double standards. Fixed perspectives tend to portray the world in black-and-white, cut-and-dried terms, where specific expressions of gender or sexuality are deemed to be right or wrong, moral or immoral, natural or unnatural, attractive or unattractive, taken for granted or problematic. In this way, activist movements sporting fixed perspectives are just as rooted in hierarchies and double standards, and often just as invested in policing people’s genders and sexualities, as mainstream culture is.

Holistic feminism counters such notions by recognizing that expressions of gender and sexuality have no inherent fixed meanings on their own. Rather, we (the perceivers) consciously or unconsciously project various meanings and connotations onto them. Therefore, rather than policing how people “do” their genders and sexualities, we should instead challenge all forms of gender entitlement—when people nonconsensually project their personally-held assumptions, expectations, stereotypes, and value judgments onto other people’s genders and sexualities. After all, that is where sexism originates—at the level of perceiving, interpreting, and judging other people’s bodies and behaviors.

[For the record, I first forwarded this idea of gender entitlement in Whipping Girl—see pages  89-93, 112-113, 165-170, 226-227, 337-338, 359-362—but I more thoroughly explain the concept in Excluded, particularly in the Chapter 18, “Challenging Gender Entitlement.”]

Holistic Feminism attempts to move beyond the fixed approaches of the past, in part, by challenging gender entitlement and acknowledging that people are fundamentally heterogeneous. But it also does this by challenging myriad double standards, rather than taking the fixed approach of focusing on one or a few specific forms of sexism or marginalization.

How can one challenge all double standards, even ones we are not currently unaware of? Well, I argue that we can do this if we work to understand how double standards operate and how they are employed in order to invalidate people. If we learn to recognize the telltale signs of double standards and invalidations, it may allow us to notice and challenge instances of marginalization even if we are unaware of the particular “ism” that is driving it. In Chapter 20, “Recognizing Invalidations,” I describe this as a “bottom-up” approach that is meant to complement the current “top-down” strategies (i.e., centered on understanding the specifics of each individual ism) that predominate in current feminist, queer activist, and social justice movements.

In the final chapter of the book, “Balancing Acts,” I make it clear that Holistic Feminism’s bottom-up approach is not intended to challenge the usefulness of traditional top-down strategies:

This approach is not meant to replace all feminist and queer theories and analyses that came before it. Rather, it is meant to serve as a corrective: it contemplates myriad double standards whereas other feminisms have focused more on specific isms or monolithic gender systems; it highlights the many commonalities that exist between how different double standards are enforced and function whereas other feminisms have focused more on the very unique histories and consequences associated with each individual ism; it stresses individual differences in how we each experience sex, gender, sexuality, sexism, and marginalization, whereas other feminisms have tended to frame these matters solely in terms of collective categories and shared experiences of oppression. [Excluded, p.281-282]

When I give presentations on this holistic approach, I often make the following analogy: One can think of myriad double standards like stars in the sky, each star representing some kind of double standard. For every star (i.e., double standard) that we can see clearly, there are countless others that we cannot perceive from our vantage point. Top-down approaches centered on specific isms are akin to trying to teach people to recognize specific constellations. It is about pattern recognition and noticing how certain double standards are related to one another (e.g., learning all the specific invalidating assumptions, stereotypes, and double-binds faced by a particular marginalized group). Important information may be conveyed, but it tends to be fairly self-contained and not obviously applicable to other marginalized groups. Just as learning how to detect The Big Dipper doesn’t provide us any insight into how to recognize Orion, learning how to recognize traditional sexism tends not to offer us any insight into how to detect instances of heterosexism, or cissexism, or monosexism, or racism, or ableism—and of course, the same holds true for each of these (and other) isms too.

In keeping with this analogy, the holistic approach that I forward is much like teaching people how to notice stars rather than to pick out individual constellations. It teaches us how to recognize double standards whenever and wherever they occur, even if we are unfamiliar with whatever specific ism(s) (or lack thereof) may be driving it. Admittedly, this view (on its own) is incomplete, as some relevant information may be missed. But in other ways, it is more thorough. As I said, I believe that using both top-down and bottom-up approaches in concert together offers us the best chance of challenging all forms of sexism and marginalization, as well as eradicating exclusion within our movements.

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1 comment:

  1. even if we are unfamiliar with whatever specific ism(s) (or lack thereof) may be driving it. Admittedly holistic