Manners, Community, and Justice pt 1

This is the first in a series of posts inspired by and in response to David Graeber’s essay “Manners, Deference, and Private Property: or, Elements for a General Theory of Hierarchy,” which can be found in his book Possibilities. For some reason this essay really grabbed me, and I wanted to take the ideas and run in a very different direction.

“The comments on any article about feminism justify feminism,” said journalist Helen Lewis, and indeed this is the case. But not everybody who pushes back against various aspects and iterations of feminism is acting out of malice or misogyny.

Graeber begins, as will I, “by picking up two hoary ethnographic categories called ‘joking relations’ and ‘relations of avoidance.'” To save time, I will use his explanations.

“Joking partners” are people who are expected to make fun of one another, tease, harass, even (often) make play of attacking each other. They are relations of extreme, even one might say, compulsory disrespect and informality. Relations of avoidance, on the other hand, are marked by such extreme respect and formality that one party is enjoined never to speak to or even gaze upon the other.

He explains that these two modes can be set up as extreme ends of “a broad continuum of types of interaction” and “where joking relations tend to be mutual, an equal exchange of abuse emphasizing an equality of status, avoidance is generally hierarchical, with one party clearly inferior and obliged to pay respect.” Additionally, avoidance relations often require the inferior to “steer clear of any sort of reference to or display of such bodily functions as eating, excretion, sex, or physical aggression,” while joking relations are often aggressively physical.

We see, then, a one-dimensional spectrum ranging from physical/egalitarian to nonphysical/hierarchical. Ah, but each of these ends has two variables specifying them! Couldn’t one also have nonphysical/egalitarian ways of relating to people, or physical/hierarchical ways? Yes, indeed, one could. A physical/hierarchical mode of relation might be one in which the superior has the right to do as they like to the body of the inferior. This crops up in physically abusive relationships, for instance, and would describe the way American society arguably behaves as though women’s bodies are public property. A nonphysical/egalitarian mode of relating might characterize a kind of libertarian individualism: you keep your hands off me and I’ll keep my hands off you. There: I’ve drawn you a Cartesian plane with a physicality axis and a hierarchy axis.

Back to joking and avoidance. I immediately noticed, when I read Graeber’s essay, that this kind of “joking” characterizes a lot of interactions between young American men who are friends. I can all the time see young men insulting each other, shoving each other, making crude sexual remarks, engaging in rough homoerotic play with cries of “no homo.” In other words, they have friendships characterized by playful aggression between equals.

It sometimes happens that young men who conduct their friendships in this manner, who have been raised in an America with, in many places, surprisingly progressive (though nowhere near fully egalitarian) gender relations, might also perceive their female friends as equals, and include them in the circle of people who get the playful aggression mode of friendship.

And suddenly women react: wait! Hold up, back off, get your hands and your sexual remarks off of me! I don’t feel safe!

And the men react: wtf? You know I was only joking! I can’t be myself in my own dorm with my own friends? I don’t feel safe!

Where did this come from? Remember the physicality/hierarchy plane. Many women, particularly those familiar with current feminist or social justice discourse, see the world in terms of a nonphysical/egalitarian-physical/hierarchical spectrum: men as a class have power over women as a class, and individual men might therefore feel entitled to take what they want from women sexually; the way for men to express respect and equality for women, therefore, is to refrain from presuming upon women’s bodies. This is the male privilege/rape culture narrative, and it’s important to fight back against cultural scenarios where men do feel like they are entitled to women sexually. So that’s where the women in our example are coming from: they associate the physicality and aggression of male friendship with the physicality and aggression of rapey frat parties and construction workers catcalling. Understandably, it makes them afraid.

But remember. The men in our example are seeing a completely different spectrum of behavior, the physical/egalitarian-nonphysical/hierarchical one. They are often completely unaware of the other spectrum, because their ascribed superior status in that hierarchy means that they don’t have to be aware of it, particularly if they don’t take advantage of it. Because they may not realize that women are seeing an opposed spectrum, being asked to be hands-off may feel an awful lot like they’re being asked to move from an egalitarian mode of relating to a hierarchical one – with them on the bottom of the hierarchy, since the women are setting the rules. Under which circumstances I think their anger and discomfort makes perfect sense.

I’m not defending backlash against feminist pleas for behavior that makes women feel safe. I’m also not precisely condemning it. To be clear: I think it’s possible for this kind of backlash to be completely without malice. I’m thinking specifically of an incident within a co-ed fraternal organization after which one woman was told by one of the men involved, “I would never hurt you; you’re my brother.” To me, this sums up the conflict. She only saw the parallels with the behavior of men who didn’t have any fraternal ties to her; he only saw the fraternal ties.

To change someone’s behavior, we need to understand why they behave that way. I don’t think it’s helpful to ascribe all problematic behavior to malice or to underlying problematic beliefs, because not all of it arises from those things. If the root cause is a different fundamental perception of the social world, as it clearly is in some cases, we need to understand what those differences in perception are.

Coming up next week: a more abstract and less certain exploration of a broader topic that this is part of.

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