This book is about openness, and about honesty: so the best place to start would be to be open and honest about its purpose. It’s about women, and violence, and responsibility, and about how women might reclaim the power that is rightfully theirs. A few other themes besides, but mainly the interweavings of these.
So far, so good. There’s a great deal that’s been written about those themes already, especially by women. And you might think that since the responsibility for violence against women – men’s violence, and men’s responsibility – seems now so well understood, there’s little point in yet another book on the subject. Especially by a man.
Perhaps. But this book isn’t quite like that. It’s not about men’s violence, or men’s responsibility – those are now reasonably well understood. No: it’s about women’s violence, and women’s responsibility. And yes, it is written by a man.
If the result of those statements is that you want to throw this book down in anger and disgust, or hurl it into the flames as some tainted blasphemy, go right ahead and do so: I can do nothing to stop you. Nor would I. All I might comment is that if you do so, you will probably have failed to see the violence in that act…
Understand that this isn’t going to be an easy book to read. If you don’t find much of it challenging, or disturbing, I’ll have failed in my task. You won’t find the usual insistences that it’s everybody else’s fault, that they did it to you, oppressed you, that you’re essentially nurturing and nice: I wouldn’t insult you in that way. I’d much rather be honest, and say what I see: and much of what I see isn’t ‘nice’ at all. Yes, I do see women who are powerful, gentle, empathetic, inclusive, empowering; but I also see women – often the same women – who are violent, abusive, destructive, dishonest, startlingly selfish and self-centred, vain, hypocritical, arrogant. Just like men, in fact.
Yet I say all this for one reason, and for one reason only: that I wish you to be powerful, and for that power to be real.
If that seems a strange thing for a man to say to a woman, let it be so for now. (Throughout this book I’ll assume you’re a woman. If you’re a man, imagine yourself reading over a woman’s shoulder, at her invitation: watch her responses as well as your own.) I’m a stranger, a foreigner, an outsider. I’m nominally male, though just what that’s supposed to mean often seems – to me at least – to be in doubt: yet I would certainly consider myself human. As human as anyone else, woman or man, with the same traits, the same foibles, the same failings, the same feelings. A slightly different body, but otherwise much the same. Human: yet with different eyes. Which I invite you to share, and to use as you will.
I make no claims that what I see is ‘right’ or ‘true’: its only truth is that I see it, in the way that I see it. I’ll comment from time to time on what I see: but I make no claims that those comments define ‘how it really is’ for women, or for any woman, or perhaps even for anyone. All I will say – all I may say – is that this is what I see.
What I see is an invented ‘powerlessness’ – or rather a total confusion about power, what it is, where it comes from, where it goes. Power seems to be a problem for everyone: but it seems especially so for women in our ‘Western’ society. It would be wisest to allow power to be itself: strange, ephemeral, intangible; power is, in a very specific sense, weird. Almost everyone would say that they want to be powerful; what most mean, though, when asked more closely, is that they don’t want to feel powerless – which is not the same thing at all. To be powerful, we need to understand what power is: and to be responsible in how and where and why we use it.
Power and responsibility are deeply interwoven. And powerful people can afford to be gentle; people who feel themselves powerless will rarely take that risk. When people who are powerful believe themselves powerless, the most common result is that we use our power – our real power – to reach instead for an illusion that is mistaken for power. That illusion is what we call ‘violence’.
Few women, it seems to me, understand how powerful they really are. Even fewer realise just how violent they are. And failing to see either the power or the violence, believe themselves to be disempowered by others… That’s the illusion…
This is what I see: that no-one has taken women’s power away but themselves. That no man has ‘stolen’ any woman’s power, other than that which she has given away. You may believe otherwise; it may feel otherwise – it often will feel otherwise – and there are many structures, social, cultural, legal, which would seek to convince you otherwise: but ultimately the power is yours. Yours alone. And always has been so.
And it is up to you to use that power wisely. It is your power; and your responsibility. Not mine, nor of anyone else but you: I can be responsible about you, about your fears, your concerns, your issues, but I cannot be responsible for you. If we wish to be powerful, we must choose to be so: and be powerful in that choice. To be powerful is a choice; to be violent is a choice; to not choose is itself a choice. Choice is an expression of power; and power the expression – and the responsibility – of choice. The choices are yours: though it’s rare that those choices are ever quite what they seem.
Perhaps at this point I need to say something about my own choices – the choices that bring me here. My conceptual and political perspectives, if they could be called such, would best be described as that of a ‘confusionist’ – a kind of anarchist, but more of the mind and heart and soul than anything else. Anarchy is the most difficult of all political forms: it only works when everyone has every right, but also every responsibility… I watch confusion, assess confusion, learn to understand confusion: it’s my trade, as well as a way of life. I watch my own struggles, and those of everyone else I meet, to bring the threads of our lives together, to fuse them into a workable whole. So I watch, I listen; I see, I hear.
And as a man, and hence as an outsider, I’ve watched over the past few decades the development of those structures of belief that describe themselves as ‘feminism’. I’ve watched as so many issues have been played out, and argued out, in an arena that has always been described as female. With a future that is only female. Yet I don’t quite see it that way.
There’s a lot that I don’t quite see that way. I’m told, often, that I must see things from a gender perspective, from a feminist analysis, of women’s true and just struggle against the patriarchy: but I don’t. It’s not that I won’t: I can’t. Years ago I used to be told that I must see things from a perspective of class, or race, or nation, or whatever: but I don’t. I can’t. All I see is people, all of us human, in our bewildering variety. Gender is just another kind of class, putting labels on people to make life seem simpler: but trying to force things to fit only one view always shuts out the rest of reality and its weavings. When I look at anyone, yes, I see the surface, I too see the labels, just like everyone else: but I also see everyone. In everyone. I see the differences; and I see no differences. I see the differences between women and men; but I also see that there are no differences. And I can’t help seeing that both – the differences, and the absence of differences – both are true. A ‘feminist analysis’ which describes only one way of seeing: I can’t see that. I’ve tried to do so, so often: but I can’t make my eyes stop seeing what they see…
What I see is that the so-called ‘feminist analysis’ has become a new way to not see. In particular, it’s become a new way to not-see something which, for anyone else, is painfully obvious: the fact that women, being human, are in no sense any less violent than men. The ways in which women are violent may differ from men: but even those differences are far less than the ‘feminist analysis’ would suppose.
That analysis teaches women that their violence does not exist, that a woman is never responsible for her actions. I can see the appeal of that analysis: a life free from guilt, a life free from blame. But it is also a life that is lived as a lie; and a life that exists in the constant shadow of powerlessness. The felt sense of powerlessness of which the ‘feminist analysis’ complains is not the result of some male conspiracy, some malicious ‘patriarchy’, but more a product of that very analysis. Far from solving the problem, the analysis itself creates it, by denying the reality of that violence, and by denying any responsibility for it – or almost anything else. Power comes from facing responsibility, not from denying it…
For most people, and especially for women who’ve been brought up to believe in ‘feminist analysis’ as fact, this will not be easy to see: and even less palatable to acknowledge. But I suggest that it is there; it has always been there; it changes, and yet it never changes. It changes only when we choose to change it: and as we change it, we change ourselves. We discover our power: and discover that we have always been powerful – yet only if we allow ourselves to see it.
But first we have to see: and we have to see, and acknowledge, the whole of who we are – not just the aspects of ourselves that conform to some convenient, self-congratulatory stereotype, of “sugar and spice / and all things nice”. Or, for that matter, the sub-human, self-blaming stereotype, to which men are supposed to conform, of ‘snips and snails / and puppy-dog’s tails”: we’re each of us human, with everything which that implies.
To be human – to experience being fully human, as was the declared aim of so many of the earlier feminists – requires us to claim each aspect of humanity as part of ourselves. And there’s a simple, stark choice: we accept all of it, or slowly lose all of it. Yet current feminism refuses to face the reality of women’s violence, or indeed almost any form of women’s responsibility: and I watch in horror as all the old sexist stereotypes against which so many feminists fought are now returning – but this time it’s feminists who are calling them back into being…
And I see no ‘patriarchy’ in our culture: I see men every bit as confused as women – barely in control of their own lives, let alone anyone else’s. What I do see is what I’d call a ‘paediarchy’ – rule by, for and on behalf of the childish – which has been allowed to run rampant, and in which the so-called ‘male-dominated patriarchy’ is by far the smaller part. No-one would doubt the extent to which cultural definitions of ‘masculinity’ causes problems for everyone, but the harsh reality which current feminism will not face is that much of the driving force behind the chaos of ‘the patriarchy’ comes from women themselves. And the harsh reality is that this time it’s women’s turn to face their responsibility for violence: if women refuse to face it now, as so often in the past, ‘the patriarchy’ may indeed continue indefinitely… Most men will offer to help you, to stand beside you – as most have done, despite the violence, throughout these ‘patriarchal’ years – but they cannot do it for you. It’s your power alone, and your choice alone.
Power and responsibility: that’s what this book is about. But it’s not about blame. Quite the opposite: the habit of blaming is one of the key sources of the problem. It will help no-one if we simply repeat the same mistake here – and especially so if men, in turn, try to blame women alone for all the world’s ills, as so many feminists have done to men. That would not only be pointless, but would escalate the problem still further. Instead, we all need a more realistic approach to the problem of violence: one that acknowledges the human confusions and human fears that express themselves in violence. An approach which at last acknowledges that ‘punishment’ is just another form of violence, one which does nothing whatsoever to end it. And an approach in which it is understood that there are no ‘perpetrators’, no ‘victims’, no ‘rescuers’, but human people struggling with the realities of learning to be human.
It seems to me, though, that most women have not so much a fear as a terror of acknowledging their own violence, or that of any other women. That fear is not particularly surprising: if women are always portrayed in our society as ‘angels of purity and goodness’, to admit instead to being violent – especially at the scale to which so many women are violent – suggests the opposite extreme, something demonic, inhuman, vile. Yet violent women are no ‘fallen angels’, but women being human: we just wish that they, like violent men, would learn to find better ways to be so… As many feminists have argued, to be violent is a choice; and, it is, quite simply, not an empowering choice, nor is it a powerful one. But that fact only becomes clear, and the choice to learn more powerful alternatives only becomes possible, when we face the fact of the violence itself. Violence is power disguised as powerlessness disguised as power; violence is power wasted on nothing but illusions, and itself no more than an illusion. Facing up to violence releases us from the illusions, and returns to us the power we give away – the power that is always rightfully ours. And in your case, is always, and has always been, rightfully yours. But it’s up to you to choose to take it – and take responsibility for it, and with it.
But I do understand, and I hope you understand, that you’re likely to doubt, to fear that you’re being blamed for your own violence, or another woman’s violence. That’s natural; but I’d emphasise once more that blame is not the aim of this book. Its purpose is to show you that power is no illusion: I wish you to be powerful, and for that power to be real, not founded in illusions. So whilst you may not find this book particularly comforting at times, I hope that you will find it empowering. That is its aim – its only aim: and I ask you to remind yourself of it, often, as you read on.
A note on method
Violence – especially women’s violence – is not an easy subject to face. Most people’s reflex response is to hide from the issues, either in anger or in intellectualisation. So unless we do something practical, to keep the issues grounded in experience, you’re likely to argue about trivial details of the content, or even dismiss the book as the outpourings of ‘just another whining male’. Neither of those responses would help you: and it’s your power that’s at issue here. And you’re the only one, ultimately, who knows what’s true for you. So the problem is this: how do we keep away from the ‘detail trap’, yet still have enough detail to make sense of the issues? How can we be ‘practical’ about violence, without invoking violence?
|How would you be practical about facing violence – especially the reality of your own violence? How can you protect yourself from the fears behind that violence, without resorting to violence, and without hiding from violence? None of these are easy questions… from where, within yourself, do you find the courage – the power – to face them?|
This book emphasises the practical by asking you to keep the focus on yourself, and on your own knowing. So quite often in this book you’ll come across brief sections laid out like the one above. They’ll always include a series of questions – to which the only valid answers are your own, from your own experience, your own truth. Use these sections to explore and, where appropriate, to challenge your own assumptions and preconceptions: observe your own responses carefully, and be scrupulously honest with yourself about what you see. In particular, watch the difference between your first, immediate, responses, and the ‘final’ responses after those responses have been filtered through your worldview.
If you do work through these practical sections, the main text will make a lot more sense – because you’ll know, from your own experience, the feelings and the fears that underly all violence. In that sense, I believe that you’ll find these ‘exercises’ deeply empowering. If you don’t, they won’t be so – they can’t – and the text will probably remain no more than someone else’s opinion, rather than a means to better understand your own. The choice is yours… and the choice to be powerful, or not, is yours alone.