Theresa’s passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life: what were many-volumed romances of chivalry and the social conquests of a brilliant girl to her? Her flame quickly burned up that light fuel; and, fed from within, soared after some illimitable satisfaction, some object which would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self. She found her epos in the reform of a religious order…. Many Theresas have been born who found themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes… With dim lights and tangled circumstance they tried to shape their thought and deed in noble agreement; but, after all, to common eyes their struggles seemed mere inconsistency and formlessness; for these later-born Theresas were helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul.
– George Eliot, Middlemarch
Good does not become better by being exaggerated, but worse, and a small evil becomes a big one by being disregarded.
– C.G. Jung, Psychology and Religion
If there’s one thing that might help you to understand me, in any given conversation, it’s that I was a very, very religious little girl. Catholic, to be precise, although our Catholicism took place in a time and a place that was dominated by Evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity — a lot of girls in my class, apparently, had Dads who were Promise Keepers — and borrowed a lot from it. My Mom was a convert, and participated with the enthusiasm of someone who had chosen a religion, rather than being born into it; we observed all the saints’ days, even the most minor, attended church very faithfully, prayed over everything. So, for a long time, it was impossible for me to imagine a world that was not drawn, pretty starkly, in contrasting shades of Holy and Unholy, or whose outcomes were manipulated by various magical powers; it was hard for me to organize my thought around anything other than a transcendent Goodness, which I had to achieve, or be punished for failing to achieve. And I loved that. The guilt, the judgment, the flames of hell; none of it bothered me. It was a relief, in fact. To know that there was one universally relevant form of goodness, and what that goodness was, and how to get there: I couldn’t imagine any greater thing.
First I wanted to be a saint. Then a priest. Then a nun: My expectations lowered over the years. And then puberty hit, and the whole thing went right to shit, faster than you can imagine. In a town like ours, it was inevitable; we had, I think, a bigger-than-usual explosion of The Craft-inspired teen witches and adorable wee twelve-year-old Satanists. Our lives were so defined by religion that when we rebelled, we had to do it on religious terms. Me, I read a Tori Amos interview (this one; it was by Francesca Lia Block, which was a whole other explosion of mid-90s spooky-girl chic) and The Mists of Avalon a bit too close together, and got sucked into the “women’s spirituality” vortex. Which, really, was just an excuse for me to ask annoying questions of my Confirmation teacher. If Jesus was without sin, and Mary was without sin, why was Jesus better? Why did I have to be a nun, rather than a priest? And was that the same reason why Saint Paul said “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent?” And if we really had to follow that rule, why was our Confirmation teacher allowed to be here? She was a woman; some of her students were boys. Wasn’t she sinning right now?
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment I stopped believing. Except, oh wait: It’s not. It happened when our Confirmation teacher stood up, in front of the class, holding a goddamn plastic turtle.
“Now, we can look at this turtle,” she said, “and we can ask questions about it. Why doesn’t it have six legs? Why doesn’t it have scales on its back, instead of a shell? Why can’t it fly? Why doesn’t it have fur? But if we ask these questions, the answer is always, ‘if it did, it wouldn’t be a turtle any more.’”
And at this point, she walked over to my chair, leaned over me, and aimed both of her mean little eyes directly into mine.
“And you can ask questions about being Catholic,” she said. “But if you do, you are not a Catholic any more. And you are not obeying our Lord.”
Well. She said it, not me. I wasn’t a Catholic. I didn’t know what I was, exactly. But I could start with the fact that I apparently asked a lot of questions.
* * *
I went to feminism. Of course. And, unsurprisingly, I went from Catholicism straight to the most intense, objectionable, blood-and-thunder portions of the second wave. I read a lot of Dworkin; people seemed good and scared of her, which meant that she had to be the best one. You’d think it would be hard to trace a direct line between the Virgin Mary and Andrea Dworkin; you would think that, until you realized that they both represented a standard of purity and goodness founded upon never, ever, ever wanting to bang a dude.
A girl who loves martyrs — and I did; so many were young girls, always the prettiest ones in the illustrated books of saints, stripped and raped and burned alive or stabbed to death for refusing to indulge the “sinful desires” of the wicked Romans; they could have been imagined, easily, by Dworkin herself — will love the built-in martyrdom of the feminist cause. I “liberated” myself right back onto familiar ground; I found a world drawn, pretty starkly, into contrasting shades of Justice and Injustice, whose outcomes were always manipulated by a magical force known as The Patriarchy, organized around a transcendent Goodness which I could achieve, and punish others for failing to achieve. Which was, for the record, way more fun than being punished. The guilt, the judgment, the Internet flame wars; none of it bothered me. To know that there was a universally relevant form of goodness, and to know what that goodness was, and how to get there: How could you pass that up?
* * *
The problems of belief-based “community” aren’t immediately recognizable until you’ve experienced its dark side: The ability of a community to castigate or police you, to abandon you and turn its back on you, to utilize the language of your beliefs against your being. If you’re on the inside, passing judgment, it’s all good. If not…
My mother isn’t a Catholic any more either, and she can tell you exactly why. Her second marriage didn’t work out. She’s never told me all of her reasons, but she and my stepfather just didn’t work; there wasn’t love there. She was lonely. So she went to the Church, and told them what was going on. And they told her that she could stay with him, or get out of the Faith. “Not loving your husband” was not a good enough reason to leave him; one divorce was acceptable, because there had been brutality within the marriage, and because a priest had reviewed the evidence and decided that her safety outweighed her obligation to stay married. But she had re-married, and marriage was God’s business, and God owned her marriage, and therefore God owned her. Losing the Catholic Church meant losing the thing that had sustained her through her first marriage; it meant losing the community that had supported her as a single mother; it meant losing nearly all of her friends; it meant, most crucially, that the faith around which she had designed her entire idea of goodness, and how to live, had looked at her and deemed her unworthy. It meant losing the idea that the God she had converted for loved her enough to believe she deserved to love.
Well. She got out. But plenty of other people didn’t; this was not an uncommon threat, not an uncommon choice faced by people who didn’t fit in. Queer people, parents with queer children — you can feel that way, you just can’t have sex that way, was our Church’s “tolerant” policy — women with unacceptable desires or who incited unacceptable desires in others, people who watched the wrong movies or listened to the wrong music, people who visited the wrong websites (the porn websites), people who voted for the wrong candidates or supported the wrong issues. Sometimes, a lot of times, people we just didn’t like; we started with the desire to punish them, then proceeded to look for the sins. Vanity, pride, greed, sloth, rebelliousness, lack of true Christian compassion: We managed to attribute all of these sins, some mortal, to the people we didn’t want to deal with. And, unsurprisingly, when faced with the choice between themselves and their values and friendships, a lot of people did not choose themselves. A lot of people chose self-hatred, self-punishment, secrecy and conformity over who they really were.
I ran away. But I didn’t start to realize where I’d run until I’d survived a few Internet fire fights of my own. I’m not talking about legitimate critique here; I can fuck up like anyone else when it comes to dealing with my privileges, and that’s never a good thing. I’m talking about the times I got called “anti-feminist” or a “hater of rape survivors” or “not truly supportive of women” and (most dreaded adjective of all) a “mainstream feminist,” got told I was a crappy writer and a bad person and someone who deserved to be punched in the face over, like, movies. Or other aesthetic opinions. Or, sometimes, just my personality.
I’m talking about my e-mail inbox. Which is when I heard from a woman — who is clearly very smart, and probably very charming and kind to people she likes, and not someone I intend to name here, because this is not about shaming anyone specific; I’ve had many conversations with strangers along these lines, and really disgraced myself and acted like an asshole in some of them — who was incensed over that Game of Thrones post, and was clearly under the impression that she was the first person ever to contact me to share her feelings of being incensed by the Game of Thrones post, and proceeded to call me “anti-feminist” for not liking fandoms, and tell me I was not entitled to be spoken to respectfully in personal e-mails, and that I clearly “hadn’t heard” any of the hundreds of other commenters and e-mailers and bloggers because I didn’t agree with them, and then told me that she disliked “80%” of my writing, and then called said writing “mean” and “horrible” and “dicky,” and then told me that “loving people” was what feminism was “about.” Who then responded with shock, anger, and more insults when I ended the conversation, because her precondition for saying these various insulting things to me was that I not get “offended.”
It was her insistence on my opinions being somehow “anti-feminist” that stuck with me; it was being presented with a choice between my core beliefs and my unrelated opinions about subcultures and Internet behavior. Being told that I could be myself and be cast out, or conform and find acceptance. Being told that there were some things I just wasn’t allowed to think, and that my identity could be stripped from me if I disobeyed. Starting with the desire to punish, and then working backward to find the sins; I clearly wasn’t “anti-feminist,” but it was the most effective thing she could think to say, to shame me. I couldn’t figure out why this was so familiar, why it pissed me off and hurt me in such an old way. And then I got there, figured out where I’d been there before, hearing “love” and “compassion” preached to me by someone who reserved the right to be hurtful and cold, hearing the language of my beliefs used against my being, all in the name of a greater good. It was youth group. It was Confirmation class. It was a woman standing over my head, getting in my face, holding a plastic turtle.
* * *
This is not an anti-feminist tract. I still love and need feminism, still believe feminism is very much needed and very much worth loving. But, as much as I love feminism, I don’t believe it’s the only concept you will ever need, to figure things out. There is one concept I’ve found nearly as useful as feminism, all told, even though it comes from a man who got some things (including women) very, very wrong. So you have to bear with me, while I transport you into my land of semi-mystical woo-woo, because here’s the part where I talk about Jung’s concept of the Shadow.
Everyone wants to be Good. Everyone wants to believe in themselves, and that means believing that they are Good, however they define that. And so, in order to face herself every morning, every person chooses not to see certain things about herself. That time you genuinely wanted to kill him, for saying that to your face: You couldn’t have thought that, couldn’t have really wanted that, you’re not a monster, you were just a little upset. That time you undermined her, chimed in to make her feel less confident about her work or her clothes or her body, right at the moment she was starting to be successful, so that she’d keep needing your approval: You’re not a controlling person, you’re not abusive, you were just trying to help. That time you wrecked a person’s career or reputation: Not your fault, nothing that could have been done, you were just being honest. And on, and on.
This much is simple. But the next part gets complicated. Because there are two rules: First, whatever you’ve decided not to see in yourself, you will see just constantly in other people. And you will hate it. Everything you hate most in the world exists somewhere inside you. You hate her because she’s judgmental; you’ve really judged her to be the most judgmental person you know. You hate him because he’s a self-absorbed whiner; he never focuses on your problems, and you have so many huge problems, you’re in such pain and he just doesn’t care. You hate her because she’s mean; she’s so goddamned mean, you have to send her an e-mail right now telling her that what she said is mean and horrible and dicky, and maybe add in that she’s a bad writer. So far, so normal. But the second rule is more dangerous, especially if you’re a self-defined activist or crusader. Because the second rule is: The brighter the light, the bigger the shadow. Which is to say, the more time you spend chasing the Good, defining the Good, being Good and righteous and pure, the more unaware you become of these “bad” parts of yourself, and the more vicious they tend to get.
This isn’t about mental illness or ableism; it’s not about saying that activists are screwed up or bad; it’s not about saying that only some people do this, or that those people are villains. This is just a part of how people are, how personality works. My personality, your personality, the personality of the guy you bumped into at the grocery store. Everyone engages in this, to a greater or lesser degree. And so does every organization. Particularly when that organization is convened in the service of what it defines as Good.
The Catholic church hates that dirty lustful illicit sex, but there sure are a lot of holy stories about pretty teens getting stripped naked in public to satisfy the lustful desires of the infidels. And, for that matter, more than a few Catholic priests using their own sexual desires to harm their parishioners. Dworkin hated porn, and she dealt with this by watching a hell of a lot of pornography. George W. Bush waged a crusade against his particular Them, saying that They were fundamentalists and extremists, and They were violent and cruel and barbaric, and They oppressed Their women and They hated freedom; he did this while restricting women’s rights, trying to pass a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage, being openly fundamentalist in his beliefs, waging constant war and legitimizing torture. Finding your own dark side, or the dark side of your movement, is always as easy as looking for what you hate, what you’re opposed to, which particular light is casting your shadow. If you’re against greed or the desire for power, look for the ways you and your organization are greedy, for power or for anything else. If you’re against war and violence, look for your organization’s tendencies toward violence. If you’re for love and compassion, look for your own intolerance and hatred. And if your movement is against abuse — like feminism — look for the ways your movement is abusive. Because you will find them.
It’s not about hypocrisy. It’s not even about seeing these things where they don’t exist: Odds are, once you’ve decided to hate “self-pity” or “cruelty” or “anger,” you will be able to find these things in a person who is actually a sad-sack or a jerk or a rage junkie. But it’s your job to find them in you. Because they’re there. And you can’t make them go away by clinging ever more tightly to the Good, by moving further and further into your own self-righteousness or into someone else’s rules. You’ll never become less self-pitying, mean, or angry, by doing that. You’ll just be a self-pitying, caustic, angry person who doesn’t know this about herself, and who therefore doesn’t take any action to control it. And when I say “you,” of course, I mean “me.” Because people pretty much always do.
That woman in my e-mail inbox made me angry because of what she did. But here’s the important part: She also made me angry because of how many times I had done the exact. Same. Thing.
* * *
Okay. Woo-woo time is over now. And much of what I have said here is not new; I’ve yakked on about the flaws of the feminist Internet endlessly, over the past few years. And the reason for this yakking is that I have every single one of these flaws, and they trouble me deeply.
I do believe that the feminist movement can act in ways that are troublingly similar to fundamentalism; I believe it can act as a tool for the self-aggrandizement of individual feminists; I do believe that it legitimizes a sometimes appalling, abusive amount of cruelty toward what it deems to be acceptable targets. And I believe this because I have called women “anti-feminist” for disagreeing with me, because I have fed my own ego with my superior feminism, because I have aimed an appalling amount of cruelty at acceptably sexist dudes. And I have been cheered on and rewarded for doing so. I can’t tell you how many people have said they prefer my writing from 2009, which is always a shock — you mean, the year when I was a conceited, sophist dick who never thought for herself and still thought she had all the answers? Okay then. Even now, the thing I’ll be remembered for is screaming at two men on Twitter until my voice gave out. I’m cool with that. I believe I was doing it for the right reasons that time; that it was maybe one of the few times that something like that could work.
But I don’t believe I’ve done it for the right reasons, or in the right ways, every time. I don’t believe feminists, generally, always do it in the right ways or for the right reasons. And I’m fine with admitting that, with allowing that vulnerability; if anti-feminists will get all yippee skippee because they think I’m finally admitting we’re all a bunch of irrational, stupid bitches, that’s their problem. (Because they’re irrational, stupid assholes. See how that works?) We’re not bad or worthless. We just cast a shadow. And I don’t know that I want to be a part of a feminist movement that can’t admit to it. I don’t know that such a feminist movement has any viable future.
The problem is in hammering out a coherent ethics. All of us who call ourselves feminists have made a willful step outside of the value system and behavioral rules of our society. We all do things that are “unladylike,” screwing or not-screwing or screwing in unconventional ways, growing out our body hair or ditching the makeup or heels or wearing unpretty clothes, swearing, getting visibly angry or emotional or opinionated, because we no longer believe the rules against those things are just or that following them will lead to a positive outcome. But once we’ve broken down all the rules, once we’ve stepped outside of the values, where do we go? I’m not talking about language or politics or intersectionality; all of that stuff is vital, and not to be dismissed. But I’m talking about the basics of personal behavior. How we make choices. Which values guide our actions. It’s one thing to say that you can and should be angry, that your anger should not have to present itself in a way that meets universal approval. It’s quite another thing to say that you should be able to do whatever you want because you are angry. I’ve wound up in that second place too often. I’m scared of ending up in it. I’m scared of that second place for all of us.
I don’t know how to fix this. Wouldn’t it be fun if I did? We could all go home and stop blogging about it forever, because I would have figured it all out. There are a few things I do think, though.
One is that nothing should “perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul.” Although George Eliot gets pretty much everything else right, as far as I’m concerned. Me, I’ve led the life of mistakes, I’ve done the inconsistency and the formlessness, I have tried to shape thought and deed in noble agreement even when circumstances were just unbelievably tangled, and I’ve fucked up and contradicted myself and changed my mind about 9 million times, on this blog alone. But the idea of a “coherent social faith and order” giving me all my directions, and substituting for knowledge, is just way more terrifying, whether or not it would make me look better or make my life less complicated. If you keep asking questions about the turtle, it’s not a turtle any more (um, somehow, if you are a turtle-changing wizard), but who said I wanted a turtle? Why is “turtle” so unbelievably awesome? Feminism cannot, and should not, pretend that it can provide all the answers. It should not even pretend that all the answers can be provided. It should never condemn the questions, just because they’re inconvenient.
And this is the second part: If nothing performs the function of knowledge, nothing provides the function of virtue, either. I am deeply, deeply suspicious of the idea that being a feminist makes you a better person. It doesn’t. It makes you a person who opposes a specific political and social structure. That’s not “morality,” it’s not “love,” it’s not “compassion” or “empathy” or “decency” or anything else that we so frequently call it; all it means is that you have looked at one of the world’s more obviously fucked up power structures and somehow, genius that you are, saw that it was fucked up.
The moment you think that being feminist means being good, or start conflating your feminism with your goodness, you add more and more light to the room — I am feminist/brave/strong/loving/compassionate/smart/fair/progressive/superior — and you start casting a bigger and bigger shadow. You stop being able to see where you’re scared/vulnerable/hateful/cold/ignorant/unfair/regressive/flawed. And you need to keep an eye on that. You just do. Some of that stuff isn’t even bad: “Scared” and “vulnerable” are nothing to be ashamed of. And, as for the rest of it, well: Knowing that you can be that way is uncomfortable, but it’s a big favor to everyone else.
In Psychology and Religion, Jung talks about the shift from religious to secular thinking — what happened when we stopped projecting our own dark sides into the supernatural, stopped seeing it as a Devil or demons, tempting us into sin. Not believing in these demons didn’t make them go away, he says; instead, “you can find them spread out in the newspapers, in books, rumours, and ordinary social gossip.” When we took the demons out of Hell, we put them in Paris Hilton. Or Keith Olbermann. Or me, or your evil ex, or anyone else you’ve decided that you hate because they are just plain Bad.
“We are still so sure we know what other people think or what their true character is. We are convinced that certain people have all the bad qualities we do not know in ourselves, or that they practice all those vices which could, of course, never be our own,” he writes. And: “If you can imagine someone who is brave enough to withdraw all these projections, then you get an individual who is conscious of a considerable shadow. Such a man has saddled himself with new problems and conflicts. He has become a serious problem to himself, as he is now unable to say that they do this or that, they are wrong, and they must be fought against… Such a man knows that whatever is wrong in the world is in himself, and if he only learns to deal with his own shadow, he has done something real for the world.”
Well. It doesn’t have to be a man, Carl. But, like the man says, all this makes you a “serious problem to yourself,” if you’re out to fix Them, or the world. If you don’t think you have God or the Good on your side in every battle, you fight fewer battles, and you have fewer tools in your toolbox when it comes to “winning” them. I’ve run this blog for three years now, and every year, I become a little less enchanted by myself, and give myself fewer options when it comes to what I do next. But who says “winning” is the point of writing a blog, anyway? These are important battles, the ones about gender equality and social justice, and it’s important to fight them. But maybe, sometimes, it’s also important to just write out the truth from where you stand, moment to moment. Maybe having a lot of questions is enough.