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Saturday, November 10, 2012

Romulan Dogmatism, Contextual Complications and the Danger of Absolutism (1994)

Romulan Dogmatism, Contextual Complications and the Danger of Absolutism
Gifford, Dawn. Off Our Backs. 10 (Nov 1994): 15. 
I have always tried to direct my life and politics by the Prime Directive. For those of you who are Star Trek: The Next Generation fans, you will know what I mean. For those of you who aren't or who couldn't give a damn, the Prime Directive is an ethical policy used by humans exploring strange new worlds that says that each person or species, no matter how alien, is valuable and has the right to live (and die) as they wish. (As long as they're not trying to take over the galaxy or eat you or something.) Behind the Prime Directive is some pretty sound reasoning. Its basic premise is that people have the right to live their lives or construct their communities in any way they wish. Valid reasons may exist for why some people do one thing or another, reasons people who live differently may not understand. Generally, it is best not to interfere in something you don't understand. This rule not only protects new life and new civilizations, but it protects the Enterprise too. It helps us to mind our beeswax and keep our nose clean. It humbly acknowledges the shortcomings and limitations of human existence, thereby validating the basic freedom of all beings to write the pages of their destinies, for better or worse, without colonial, or even well-intentioned, influence. 

The only time one is permitted to actively affect the life of someone else is upon invitation, by contract or in the case of defending the planet from a hostile alien takeover. In other words, my freedom to live exactly how I want ends at the point at which I keep someone else from doing the same. So Ollie North can take all the pride he wants in his nice (superficially) heterosexual, conservative, religious family, but he cannot force or sanction me or anyone else into living the same way. Reciprocally, I can be as big and bodacious of a bisexual anarcha-feminists as I want as long as I don't make everyone else play by my rules. My anarcha-queer-feminist activism is justifiable as defense of the freedom to choose, or as persuasive debating, consciousness-raising and education that seeks to open choices up to others, but it is never justifiable as a political dogma I force down other peoples' throats. For me, the definition of violence begins with any form of ideological imperialism, be it religious, racist, heterosexist, separatist, anarchist, feminist, or Klingon. 

As Ani DiFranco says, "You barely have time to react in this world/let alone rehearse..." So true, Ani, which is why the most important aspect of the Prime Directive is that it affords us the freedom to make mistakes by acknowledging the various limitations on human judgment. After all, it is the human condition to err. (Of course, some more frequently than others.) Far be it for me to assume that I know the best way to live for anyone but myself. And I certainly don't want to insult a woman's ability to know what is best for her life at any given moment, or her ability to interpret her own experience. What this comes down to is that although I may think someone is making a poor choice or behaving in a way that I don't approve of, as long as that choice or behavior does not violate the right of others to make their own life-choices, my scope of intervention ends at reproaching, counseling, educating or other forms of activism, but must never extend to benignly, selfishly, offensively or maliciously acting against one's person, will, or lifestyle. 

I think ultimately people must make poor choices and shoulder the responsibility of those choices in order to learn. This is the process by which we figure out how best to live. And for all I know, I could be the one making the mistake. What is a poor choice for me might be a splendid one for someone else. And I have learned a lot from other people's choices, both good and bad. For example, time and friendship have taught me that most of my well-meant reproaching and proselytizing is really a mistaken and inappropriate attempt to get someone to live by standards that she simply cannot. This is a lesson I constantly have to relearn. (Although sometimes I am vindicated.) When it comes right down to it, the only person I can be truly responsible for is myself, so I try to uphold the Prime Directive in all things in my life, even when it sucks to do so. It's kind of a good-faith policy toward all earth's creatures -- women in particular -- tempered by the reality of my personal experience. I especially am of this opinion when it comes to debating s/m and other button-pushing feminist topics.

Maybe it is a reflection of my youth or just the group of young women and men I came out and grew up with, but s/m has always been a tolerated, even accepted, activity. In the lusty spirit of someone having "discovered" something new and wonderful, of having come into one's own, my group of friends and I sought/seek to live the co-ed queer experience to its fullest in all the facets we individually felt/feel comfortable with. We trusted one another to have respect for ourselves and our partners, so bisexually, gender-bending, cruising, sex toys, polygamous threesomes and yes, even s/m, were considered within the realm of legitimate queer self-expression. As part of this new and "radical" form of queerness, body piercings and tattoos are quite popular, even faddish, among my peers, regardless of their sexual orientations or appetites. The reason for this runs the gamut of personal context and symbolism: reclaiming one's body; rite-of-passage; the nobility of enduring pain for beauty and ornamentation instead of ugliness and scarring; sexual release; catharsis; aesthetic radicalism; "the rush"; person aesthetic preferences; non-conformity; commitment to a partner; as a phase of rape trauma therapy; cultural norms...There are so many uniquely human reasons for committing such epidermally violating acts like piercing one's nose or nipple, or tattooing one's butt, that I would feel presumptuous to judge one over the other, especially if the parties involved were happy. 

While s/m has met with controversy in all time periods for certain, in context, our college-age, newly-out, politically-active, adventurous selves considered s/m a rare, titillating taboo, but no big deal. The women and men I know who have been or are still involved in s/m relationships have made choices for themselves, like anyone, with their own best interests and preferences in mind. And when those choices haven't worked for whatever reason, they have paid the consequences and made other choices. Anyway, it's pretty audacious of me to assume to know better how to live someone else's life when I am having enough trouble living my own. 

And while trying to do just that, the one thing I have learned painfully again and again is that context is everything. The social, political, temporal, cultural and personal lenses that color our understanding of the world shape not only the choices we make, but the way in which we perceive and treat others. One of the most slippery of definitions that epitomizes the power of context is the meaning of the word violence. Since determining whether s/m is violent or consensual is an interminable, insoluble and utterly hackneyed task, perhaps it is more productive to take a wider look at the fragile balance of power inherent in all relationships and the attendant potential for even the best-intentioned use of power to shift into non-consensual and destructive behavior. 

As much as my anarchist self hates to admit it, it seems there is a power dynamic inherent in almost everything -- even this planet has two magnetic poles. (Though interestingly, no one really lives at either one; they are cold, bitter, unforgiving places.) Here are some benign and ordinary examples of what I mean: When two people speak, one person, at least for a short time, will dominate the conversation. When women marched in the Dyke March in New York this summer, they were exercising physical, political, economic and numerical strength. When I tell my lover I don't want to have sex because I am angry at her or him, I am exerting sexually charged power. Even the oob collective, as much as we try to be truly egalitarian, is not free of power struggles, political dynamics and compromises among our members. Unfortunately, it has to be this way sometimes just to get anything done. Power exists -- so what! The secret is to watch for the particular nuances of context, meaning and intent attached to its usage. 

There is something sexy to me about a woman wielding power, controlling a situation, her life or her environment in order to create something positive for herself. However, there is nothing sexy about a woman using her power to hurt someone or destroy. Where do we draw the line between the two intentions, and who can presume the right to draw that line in any one place? Or at all? Some forms of direct action and activism may fall into this gray area. As may s/m, lesbian erotica/pornography or any other controversial, polarized issue. As I see it, the price of drawing arbitrary divisions of acceptability is to become unwittingly caught within our own boundaries -- a price I am not willing to pay. 

There is also a certain power in giving totally of oneself; of becoming completely vulnerable and open to someone you love passionately and can trust explicitly with your body and soul. There is also a noble, quiet power in giving of oneself even when reciprocation is not expected. There is strength in acting powerfully, even aggressively, in the context of freedom, love or trust, and in being willing to bear the responsibility for those actions. Is that not what "romance" and "character" are made of? Is one possible definition of love the exchange of (intellectual, laughter, economic, political, personal, sexual) power toward the growth, betterment or fulfillment of all parties? 

I believe that s/m, like all human relationships, is, for better or worse, fraught with contextual complications and semiotic conflicts far more intricate than simple domination and submission, aggression and passivity, butch/femme, masculine/feminine, or any other polarity. It might be the paradox and the frustration of humanity to be simultaneously highly reasonable and animalistically wary and territorial. This plays itself out in our need to mete out taxonomic dichotomies and other categorical pejoratives like sociological handcuffs just to begin to feel safe. It is both fascinating and sad how we can flatten a person's entire life experience with one label. Yet in spite of our (largely American) fetish with taxonomy, somehow we continually confound our every attempt to explain (and rule) the world with evidence from our very own life experiences! Perhaps the truth we seek is outside of the realm of science, outside of the realm of order and control. Maybe the truth about who we are and how we are powerful lies somewhere vague and shifting, both difficult and dangerous to find. Maybe it is impossible to ever be totally safe. 

But questioning and telling the truth about who we are and who is powerful is and has been the task of feminists and all freedom workers. However, the truth we tell is incomplete and misleading unless we permit the good and bad uses of our own power to be exposed, and take responsibility for what that means. 

Maybe s/m, like all human relationships sexual or otherwise, is, for better or worse, a delicately balanced, dizzyingly gray tangle of power plays, trade-offs and compromises that are essentially political in nature. These power-plays can be flirtatious, parodied or fun (like rousing my partner out of bed on Saturday morning); mundane or routine (like dragging my pattern out of bed on Monday morning); or suspicious, manipulative or abusive (like my mother's well-intentioned-but-totally-self-concerned guilt trips about us waking up together at all.) Again, where do we draw the line, and who can presume the right to draw it in any one place? Especially if all parties involved willingly consent? 

Even talking about power is a pretty charged thing to do, as we feminists and other activists know well. Yet it seems we humans -- women especially -- riskily expend, waste, recycle and exchange an enormous amount of energy and personal power for the sake of connection and communion with Person Right (or Right-Now). And, ironically, the best we can hope for, all things considered, is a rare and short-lived opportunity to do our best at providing the people we care about (ourselves included) with what they want and need. Hopefully therein we might find the reciprocating energy, trust, commitment and acceptance that gives one a sense of belonging or purpose. It is precisely because these feelings of reciprocation, trust, acceptance and purpose are so rare and precious that I will not condemn someone who believes to have found them, even if she has done so in a way I would not choose for myself. 

Nor am I remotely prepared for the responsibility of deciding who lives or does not live "correctly." As long as your choices do not benignly, selfishly, offensively or maliciously restrict someone else's freedom to choose, I will afford you wide latitude. We'll never get to Freedom unless everyone gets the time they need to mentally and emotionally prepare to do what it takes to get there. Besides, people move a lot slower when you stand in their way. It is generally more rewarding and successful to raise consciousness and make it worth someone's while to take another path. In other words, if you don't play goddess in my life, I promise I won't play goddess in yours -- but my arms are open wide if you change your mind; let me show you how things might be different, and then you will be even better prepared to make your own decisions. After all, we are all on this journey together -- so won't you meet me somewhere in the Great Contextual Nebula for tea? I promise to leave my dogma (and the Romulans) at home. It is very important that you come, you see, because the freedom to be exactly who I am depends completely on my ability to give the same freedom to you.
Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Nov 1994

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