In describing his efforts at recognizing privilege and becoming a better (pro)feminist, Malachi at Feminist Allies writes:
A major part of the problem is that I *do* have a lot (some say an excess) of self-confidence, a forceful personality, and some take-charge instincts. Thanks, patriarchy. But disentangling what’s really me form what’s the patriarchy’s influence, what’s self-confidence and what’s self-aggrandizement, what’s inspiring leadership and what’s privileged domination is no mean feat.
What interests me about this bit is the implied distinction between the “real” self and the constructed self, which is a common one in thinking about the effects of oppression systems on individuals. The model here is that there’s some inherent pre-social and morally neutral real personality. Then patriarchy came along and added some stuff on top of that, stuff that is bad because it leads to harming others. Malachi’s task is then to strip away this fake addition to reveal the real egalitarian person underneath.
I don’t want to criticize the substantive changes Malachi is making in how he lives his life, since as far as I can tell from his few posts so far he’s on the right track. (I don’t mean to pick on him personally, he’s just the latest person to raise a common idea.) But I do want to raise some questions about the model of identity — call it “real core with fake trappings,” or RCFT — that he uses to explain himself. I think the RCFT model points us in the wrong direction (at least as far as understanding the identity of those in positions of privilege — not being oppressed in any way myself, I won’t presume to speak for what models are accurate representations of that experience).
The first problem with the RCFT is that it locates the criterion of value in the wrong place. Self-confidence is good because it benefits people, not because it’s a feature of a real underlying self. And self-aggrandizement is bad because it hurts people, not because it’s a fake accretion slapped on by social forces.
But perhaps more importantly, I don’t think you can separate a “real,” presocial core identity from a distorted or less real identity built up by social forces. Your socially constructed identity is your real identity. What exists independently of social construction is at best a set of underdetermined potentials and constraints, not a fully formed identity. If you’re a man living in a modern Western country, being patriarchal is part of who you really are.
In thinking about a better model of how to conceptualize becoming less of a patriarch, I thought of a line from one of history’s greatest sources of sexism*, St. Paul. In 2 Corinthians 5: 17, he wrote:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!
Replace “in Christ” with “a (pro)feminist,”** and you have a better way of looking at the process people like Malachi (and myself) are engaged in. Whatever you think of the moral value of the conversions that Paul achieved in building the early church, he had seen quite a few people adopt new outlooks on life by the time he wrote his letter to the Corinthians, so he had some insight into the psychology of it. Becoming a Christian was not a matter of stripping away some sinful trappings that had been added by the devil or the world in order to reveal the real godly core. It was a matter of taking someone who had a real identity as a pagan and remaking them so that their real identity became Christian. So men who want to become better (pro)feminists have to recognize that we have a real patriarchally-constructed identity, and then replace it with an equally real “new creation” — or better, “new construction” — along feminist lines. It’s a matter of remaking, not stripping away.
*Lynn Gazis-Sax has some interesting thoughts on whether Paul himself was actually that sexist, but in any case it’s undeniable that his words became fuel for generations of later sexists.
**My UU side would argue that the two are equivalent, because the Bible should be read such that to be “in Christ” has nothing to do with holding factual theological-historical beliefs about some carpenter from Nazareth — rather it means nothing more or less than adopting an attitude of love toward all persons, which is achieved (in the realm of gender) through feminism. But these theological issues are beside the point of this post, especially since I presume people not from a Christian background aren’t going to be too keen on being told “you should be ‘in Christ,’ except that that what I mean by that is totally different from what it sounds like or what most people mean by it.”