To follow up on that post about at least starting to learn about something that is painfully obvious to women: patriarchy inflicts the stress of constant bodily vigilance at best and acute terror at worse:
All the comments were amazing. So many stood out, like those that reported on strategies for increasing safety in taxis. Jesus.
One genre of comments sent me down a rabbit hole. The commenter would start with congratulations that I could be sensitive to this kind of thing, because the commenter commonly interacts with men who simply think they’re irrational, neurotic, angry or bitter.
But I could feel instantly that such a compliment was undeserved, because I know in my bones what minimizing the other feels like.
I’m an expert at minimizing, and I’ve used it with female partners in ways, often subtle, for most of my adult life, and I’ve only recently begun to listen to the call-outs on it, mainly from my partner, and also others.
My minimizing reflex is mobilized in an instant. The speed is a clue. My partner gives me feedback. Whatever the content is I instantly reframe it so I can feel like it’s either personal attack on me, or — and this is harder to see – as a problem that I am now responsible for, on behalf of someone who I instantly tell myself is overreacting. Both reframes are designed to render the incoming data dismissible. That data could be about real blindspots I have and real harm I’m causing, but I’m skilled at lumping it in with things I claim are insignificant, or flipping it into a character judgment on my partner.
It all happens automatically. Changing it can feel like changing the way I breathe. This is part of the reason why, I believe, men can be so insulted by descriptions of this stuff. We’re being asked to deconstruct something that feels essential to the way we are in the world. What would be left if those defenses were taken away?
How does that moment feel? Like I’ve been invaded and have to push out or strike back. My neck gets stiff with narcissism: I can’t let the other person have a legitimate problem without making it about me. I have to react instantly. I can’t pause, take it in, nod, reflect, try to differentiate the other’s feelings from my own. I can’t let it be, without fixing it, which really means casting it aside.
What do I do? Below the threshold of open conflict, I never do anything that I couldn’t justify according to some arbitrary spectrum of “normal emotional responses”. Maybe a little exasperated sigh, a tiny smirk that no-one but a partner would pick up on (so it’s even worse), an eye-roll. Maybe I change the subject too quickly. I might squint my eyes and shake my head. If I get going a little, my voice becomes irritated or more emphatic. This all happens within the realm of being able to pretend to be innocent. At least according to me. The net effect of all of these gestures, not to mention the verbal deflections I’m working up to, is to say that the problem my partner is bringing to me is hers alone. Past the conflict threshold, these things become more obvious.
What I’m getting at here is that the explicit minimizations I can verbalize are grounded in countless somatic reflexes that have been trained into me. I believe that before gaslighting becomes an institutional strategy, it is a nervous response. A lot of the vibrant discussion out there focuses on changing behaviors, and that’s as it should be. I’m trying to look into what drives the behavior.
I can hardly think of any men that I have these hair-trigger responses around (but more on that below); it’s a problem that comes up much more often in my relationships with partners. And if I track it to my immediately wider circle here and now, it’s of a piece with what the men at the community centre gym do when they talk about women.
The locker-room comments amongst my middle-aged cohort aren’t as sexually objectifying as they are gender-objectifying. When a woman partner is mentioned, there’s a general groan. There’s an expectation that a story of nagging or craziness is about to unfold. I get on edge when I feel this happen, because it’s hard to point to anything distinct to call out or in. If I’m feeling up for at least pretending to do ally work that day, the most I can say is “Well maybe she feels like x, because of y,” referring to some aspect of patriarchy that wouldn’t otherwise get discussed. This is always awkward, because I’m interrupting not only a discharge, but veering out of a well-worn groove.
I might feel superior about it in the sauna, but I’m no better. I know that groove from all-boys Catholic school, where it was hard-wired into me. It’s more like a drone, really, an underlying hum of misogyny, and it begins with belittling. Girls can be cute, but they’re not serious human beings. They waste their time with needlessly complex thoughts over petty concerns. They’re weak, neurotic, and will try to control you through seduction and emotional manipulation, which is all they have talent for. In other words, going to an all-boys Catholic school is like growing up in a politer, more disciplined or militarized version of a 4chan board. All these MRM losers these days are total lightweights in comparison. We made misogyny look good. Hell, we could even make it look liberal.
So the legacy confers an underlying, subconscious reflex to equate a woman’s (insert “gay man’s” or ‘transperson’s”) voice or ideas with irrationality, anxiousness, or lack of understanding the real issues of life. This is the baseline emotional reality of heteronormative men that the #metoo movement is charging at on the open field.
It’s a vicious feedback loop. Dehumanization escalates to outright rape, and minimization – the most socially-acceptable dehumanization tool – neutralizes the call-out of injustice. At the microlevel, when my partner suggests I take a cab at 3:30am, my ingrained response is to feel she’s infringing on my space. There are elements of personal and familial psychology at play for me here – some of them reasonable. But misogyny has hardwired me to belittle her concern, so that I can own more space.
In an instant, my response provides cover for rape culture: With a simple eye-roll, it says: “It really can’t be that bad. You’re exaggerating. I don’t believe you.”
I don’t have to assault women to participate in the normalization of assault. My learned, default responses are participation enough. Without that participation, could assault really be so prevalent?
(Likewise, I don’t have to commit overtly racist acts to participate in the structures of racism. Have you heard about those studies that show white doctors consistently underestimate the levels of pain that POC are in, and therefore undermedicate them? Same type of minimization.)
Where does it all come from? I don’t know, but I chant this famous bell hooks quote like a mantra (not saying I know much at all about her work):
“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.”
Why do I feel hooks is about 1000% right here? Because there’s only one other person in the world I know I have the reflex to belittle, who is not or has not been a female partner.
It’s my son, who turns five tomorrow.
When he gets the big emotions, something in my body wants him to stop, wants him to get over it, ignore it, shake it off, stop crying. It’s an ancient response. It goes back to Abraham and Isaac. I learned it from movie heroes, priests, music teachers, sports coaches, yoga teachers.
Then, it’s amazing how quickly needing my boy to stuff it down slides into offering strategies for sublimating it. Barely consciously, I think: “You could learn to use those feelings to express power, instead of vulnerability.”
Some days it’s like climbing a mountain to stop this reflex, to even begin to hold whatever he’s feeling, without trying to minimize or dismiss it. Or tell him he should use it for something else.
If I wasn’t climbing that mountain, I could easily wreck my relationship with him by the time he was ten. In place of listening, and counterbalancing his mother’s gifts, I might give him the armour and belligerence that I learned to carry and wield as defences against my own feelings, until I got lucky in this relationship, that therapy, this work.
I have to climb a mountain, forty years high, to look a little boy in the eye and tell him it’s okay to feel his pain and sorrow. To tell him it’s a good thing, actually. That it will help him learn to listen, and listening will help him let other people have their feelings as well.” — Matthew Remski
“I don’t have to assault [people] to participate in the normalization of assault. My learned, default responses are participation enough. Without that participation, could assault really be so prevalent?”
I was reminded of a recent conversation I had with a woman while reading this, wherein the person immediately responded to a third-party abuse allegation by minimizing the accuser. It was textbook minimization, to the core, complete with gaslighting by claiming that it wasn’t that, a classic “I don’t wanna sound like I’m victim blaming….” . I observed myself immediately fall in line — I observed myself not calling it out, not saying anything about how uncomfortable I was with their response, and even agreeing and coming up with my own versions of character minimization to chime in with. I became part of the problem I didn’t have the spoons to name.
I did it to get through to the other side of the conversation, to preserve the existing relationship, and to preserve my own energy. I did this because oftentimes, even when I recognize it happening to me in the moment, gaslighting WORKS to reduce the likelihood that blatant victim blaming will be called out, in part by making what already requires bravery require even more explanation, confrontation, and emotional labor to name — there is a reason why it is such an incredibly common (and often automatic) defense mechanism. I did it because I felt awkward, out of place, and had opened a pandoras box I wasn’t prepared for. I did it for lots of reasons.
But the main one I am chewing on the most still, days out, is that I did this ultimately because I am practiced in doing this. Doing this is my default. I am practiced at minimizing abuse, my own and that of others. I am practiced at reducing emotional responses, wishing them away, and prioritizing dissipating immediate uncomfortable feelings over long-term harm reduction; and when challenged on this particular day, I chose the flow that was the path of least resistance. I chose the flow that I know to work to get the result I wanted: out of that conversation, and on with our day.
My soul deeply dislikes this, and I am working it out. Part of that process is acknowledging the idea that I can simply flip a switch and be perfectly on, all the time, and the fallacy that simple awareness of a learned behavior while remaining in the same environment is enough to change that response permanently, come into play regularly when examining and correcting this shit. I am so tired of holding myself and the people around me to this ridiculous standard, of being so afraid of fucking up I burn up half my fuel before I’ve even taxi’d the runway. I fucked up. I lived. I will continue to do and be better.
I don’t think we talk enough about the fact that unlearning oppressive behaviors and internalized oppression, particularly while remaining steeped in the culture that imparted them, is a life long commitment that never really ends.
I don’t think we talk enough about what accountability looks like in those terms, what to do when we stumble and fail in our work and say or do something shitty. I don’t think we talk enough about the distinction between integration and divorce. There will be times for all of us when we witness things that we don’t respond correctly to in the moment, and can only internalize after we’ve made that mistake.
Thankfully, this happened with a friend that I can return to about our conversation and clean at least some of it up, let her know what we said wasn’t cool and work to repair the harm that I perpetuated in how I chose to manuever our conversation — and I think that this is a good lesson to take away, a lesson I learned in another conversation a while back about race, gentrification, and social responsibility — sometimes that white hot urgent feeling moment is not the right moment to push back.
Sometimes it’s important to trust in our relationships and friendships, to utilize what seems like cowardice to sit with overwhelm and return to the subject with them another day. We do this consistently in other areas of our interpersonal lives, but in terms of social justice, I notice an intense pressure to be immediate, reactive, relentless. I notice an intense burden of being perfectly reflexive. That pressure is mainly what has driven me into the social evolutionary ground over the past few years, contributing to my exhaustion, inefficiency, and frankly, loneliness. None of us can take it all on, all the time.
But let’s also get really clear here — we do this to one another, my ladypeople. This subversive, dismantling shit. And sometimes when we do this to each other, our histories and collective understanding of the harm we’ve been subjected to serves as a scapegoat for holding ourselves accountable for reanimating our abuse. We adopted these mindsets as a means of gaining a semblance of control in this atmosphere, and when we pretend as though we are immune to the toxic teachings of patriarchy, when we pretend we aren’t conditioned to mimic them amongst ourselves, when we pretend we are not vulnerable to taking a lead down these deeply entrenched roads, we do a massive disservice to ourselves, and the people we are becoming.
We are and have been complicit in abuse culture, in rape culture, in racism, in ableism, and though the work looks different for us, the work, too, is ours to do.
Every time I go to bat against the curve balls of patriarchy under the lifetime conditioning of binary, cis-centric language and thinking, the tiny, quiet actuality of me shrivels and cries. I notice that when I address y’all from the position of my oppression as a woman, a small fetal me shudders from my peripheral vision, waiting for big me to care enough to stop the yelling and help them get warm.
Perhaps it is time to spend more of my efforts building up my Self — a solidly nonbinary person who has been socialized and perceived as a woman and thusly has experienced the impacts of that oppression — rather than continue stepping into the role of of a cis feminist woman because it seems ‘easier’, because it’s the way I’m perceived, because it seems strategic like it will make a bigger ‘difference’ for ‘society’ to ride the waves of cisfeminist groupthink and fall in line.
Perhaps it is time to address rather than simply continue to acknowledge my deep fear of further alienation; that I am not queer enough, not weird enough, not oppressed enough, not kind enough, not enough, to find a home for the person I truly am in any community.
Perhaps it is time to get real with myself about what actions accompany my realization that I do not belong where I have continued to orient myself. That perhaps I might be more effective, more secure, and stronger in my base while I push and resist and attempt to influence from the stances I take, if I were to make that effort, for myself.
Perhaps it is time to go to bat for the me that I am rather than atoning for the me that I’ve been told I was; to embrace the actuality of the causes that effect the deepest soul of me, rather than continue to animate the dynamics of patriarchy, sexism and abuse culture that I’ve come to see as significant in the bulk of the interpersonal and relational hardships I’ve endured in my weird little life.
Perhaps it is time to consider what might have been had I been raised to own my gender for myself, now that I’ve spent such a notable amount of time considering, embodying, and fighting againt what being socialized in the binary has done to me.
Maybe it’s time to really walk my talk, and say, fuck society, fuck the way y’all are doing this, fuck the scaffolding I’ve been handed, fuck the place I’ve been told by others I belong, and once again forge into the unknown, and figure out how to do it my way.
Maybe it’s time I stand up for myself, rather than standing for the damage and inflated sense of responsibility I carry for the consequences of being told by others what that was.
I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the main obstacles I face in dismantling my harmful binary thinking is the attachment I have to how I own my oppression as a woman under patriarchy.
I’ve come to the conclusion that this is one of the key factors in how massively I am triggered by accounts of abuse, and how difficult it is to maneuver the constant, relentless reminders of the disrespect, the entitlement, the dangers I face and the abuse I’ve experienced because of how the world perceives me.
I’ve come to the conclusion that this methodology stunts my growth, diminishes my spirit, and prevents me from the further dismantling of my unearned privilege.
I’ve also come to the conclusion that the damage to me from the bullshit I’ve put up with from men pales in comparison to the quiet corrosion I do to myself when I present as a cis woman in response to it.
The damage to me from patriarchy pales in comparison to what I choose to put myself though every day that I abandon myself to the identity that I think you’ll best respond to in order to convince you to address your position of power in your own fucking violence.
Fuck this ‘well, I’ve suffered like a woman, you see me as a woman, so a woman is what I must be’ horse shit, and fuck focusing on y’alls actions, y’alls motivations, y’alls work. Fuck your shitty dynamics and fuck me blaming them while simultaneously molding to their demands of what I am supposed to be.
I will remind myself of this again, and again, probably forever: I am through existing for the purpose of evolving men. I am as through as I know how to be with centering you, centering your impacts on my past, centering your improvement in response to the fucking shit y’all have put me through, and I will continue to learn how to more effectively be through with it. Fuck y’all. Fuck your mistakes, fuck your selfishness, fuck your willful ignorance, fuck your recovery, and fuck making you better. If you wanna be better men, if you wanna heal your toxic masculinity, if you wanna shed your internalized misogyny, you can learn a tip or two by fucking watching me do it for myself — if you’re lucky enough to be privy to my examples.
When I’ve been in therapy (I’m not, again, btw, for those following along — psyche wasn’t hip to placing me on meds and social worker was a low level sounding board/not particularly effective for my talk therapy needs. That’s why hotlines for now, and still stumbling along as an under-overdiagnosed self medicating pothead wierdo.) I have historically been irritated with the direction my therapists would generally go with things — my mother.
“I am having trouble with my boyfriend”
‘Hmm, I wonder about the commonalities here with your mother’
“I got cut off on the freeway today” ‘mmm, reminds me of your mother’
“I took a really awesome shit yesterday”
The relentless nature of the mother track in therapy is often the butt of jokes regarding the field, and for many years (and still sometimes even) it really fucking annoyed me. But it’s inarguable how deeply family of origin experiences shape the way we view the world, and shape our social tides as well. Everyone talks about how we need to teach the babies differently, and yet we resist challenging the identities we still manuever around conclusions we came to as them.
Imperfect and in some ways evoking of my new-cage skepticism, this is still one of the important poop-on-patriarchy links I keep handy for reshares and link drops. It focuses not on the masculine work at hand, but repairing our feminized relationships as daughters, which of course stem from… mother.