Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Assange Case and the Great Feminist Schism of 2010

Guy Rundle sums up my own highly conflicted views on all this today on Crikey:

These moves are evidence of the situation your correspondent suggested in Crikey yesterday -- that the Assange case is proving to be the final process by which the second-wave feminist coalition formed in the late 1960s splits substantially, with feminists with differing attitude to Western state power finding themselves on different sides of the debate.

Indeed, it puts one in the unusual position of saying that commentators such as [Naomi] Wolf are being too anti-complainant in their construction of the charges as nothing other than a couple of bad dates. It's a strange world, and getting stranger.

In my own case it's not so much about 'differing attitudes to Western state power', and I'm not sure that's the main issue with other feminists either. Most feminists know that state power, Western or not, habitually militates against women and are therefore resistant to it on principle.

For me it's more that simple logic prevents one from doing the usual thing and taking warlike tribal sides for the mud-wrestling when there are so many different aspects to this case, so much nuance and so many different things at stake. But what does seem clear, as Rundle implies, is that this case is going to do untold damage to the rights of women with regard to sexual assault, if only by weakening and watering-down the views of those most likely, in other circumstances, to support those rights. Naomi Wolf, for example, in the article to which Rundle is referring, starts out funny and ends up, to me, downright offensive.

But whether or not the all-powerful state is opportunistically using the sexual assault charges against Assange is a completely different question from whether or not Assange's Wikileaks activities are a good thing. Which is again, in its turn, a completely different question from that of what the Australian government should be doing about his situation.

If there's anything good at all about this affair, it's that the thoughtful can use it as a way of sorting out what their own views really are on a number of questions: internet ethics, international diplomacy, sexual assault and state power.

UPDATE: It's occurred to me more than once since this all hit the fan how interesting it is to contemplate the whole Swedish aspect in the light of the Stieg Larssen books. Larssen himself was sufficiently an enemy of the state for there to have been real questions about the manner of his death; his novels reveal a startling view of corruption in high Swedish places; and the original Swedish title of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was Men Who Hate Women. Which is clearly what he, at least, thought the book was about.


Elsewhere007 said...

Instead it was more about a Man Who Thought Women Would Hate Themselves Enough to Want to Have Surgically Bigger Boobs, Even if They Were Lesbians? What is going on in Sweden--I thought it was supposed to be Enlightened and the Place Where All True Lefties Would Want to Live.

Anonymous said...

Larssen's book (1st in the series) was rather one-dimensional and thus unsatisfying I thought but perhaps it was fitting and needed for the times.

Mark Bahnisch said...

I think what Rundle is getting at regarding state power is partly the recourse had to the law (and particularly the criminal law) to define and specify norms of sexual interaction. There's always a real tension here between desired cultural change (some of which just has to be negotiated between individuals involved in intimate relations) and the ambiguities of categories and typifications of behaviours derived from a tradition of criminal law which certainly wasn't originated to deal with ethical sexual relations between individuals of opposite sexes.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

or both. Here's some of what Guy said at (on? in?) Crikey yesterday -- hope he won't mind me quoting at this length:

'Sweden [is a country] where feminism has achieved state power, actually won the long march through the institutions. As such it is now exposed to the full contradictions of that role, including running wars, armies and police forces.

This effectively brings to the surface contradictions inherent right at the start of second-wave feminism in the early '70s -- between the idea that existing power structures could be taken over ... and arguments that the very character of power -- and the state -- had to be transformed.

... this moment is when the contradictions of second wave feminism are played out to endgame, because feminists will have to choose which side they cleave to -- a state prosecuting possible s-x crimes (whose possibility I do not deny), laced into a global power structure, or a radical force holding states to account, and unleashing new forms of social energy and flow that challenge inherited patriarchal structures?'

Fyodor said...

In the words of Billy Balowski, doesn't he get excited?

"...feminists will have to choose which side they cleave to -- a state prosecuting possible s-x crimes (whose possibility I do not deny), laced into a global power structure, or a radical force holding states to account, and unleashing new forms of social energy and flow that challenge inherited patriarchal structures?"

OR?! Feminists can't back the rule of law AND a free press? This guy needs a lie-down.

Mitzi G Burger said...

Christian Slater's character at the end of "Pump Up the Volume" was hauled away for inciting teen revolution via his underground radio station; the final scene was voiced-over with a new generation of teen DJs speaking out the way their freedom fighter did.

Assange may have to do some time if he's convicted of assault. The timing of the allegations is operatic. Meanwhile, a new generation of rebels is inspired: how will equate the freedom to leak with the freedom to speak.

Mark Bahnisch said...

"or both."

I don't think I agree. I think both the original cultural/social project and the legal norms and reinvented traditions are binary not just in terms of reducing sexual relations to acts by distinct individuals (legal subjects accountable to law, capable of judgements formed which are reasonable, etc, etc) but also very heteronormative.

Part of the problem imo.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Agreed absolutely about the heteronormativity -- the assumptions grounded in which have caused a certain amount of confusion and cross-purposes talk on the relevant LP threads, never mind in the press.

Helen said...

What Pav and Fyodor said. Both-and, not either-or. Rundle's piece is just one of a million MSM pieces and blog comments attempting to frame the issue a certain way (and that certain way will have women on the outer, as the joy-killing narrative, yet again, and we will be thrown under the leftwing bus, yet again.) I refuse to have this frame imposed on me.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Mark, when I said 'or both' I was actually talking about Guy's view and mine but it's always tedious to unravel misunderstandings and the line that's forming here is much more interesting than what I was saying in the first instance so I'll follow that.

What depresses me about your view regarding individual negotiations (though I agree that you are right) is that in the end individual negotiations, when they go wrong, come down to one or more of three things: (a) the total missing of each other's mental track (HER: Oh, I'm In a Relationship, isn't it lovely.' HIM 'Want. Fuck. Now'), (b) social, cultural and political hegemonies and their norms, by which most people act even when chafing against them, if you will forgive me putting it like that, and (c) physical power and who can force or pin down whom.

No prizes for guessing which protagonist (or do I mean antagonist) usually comes out of all of these the less scathed.

I certainly think Guy was right to see that it's a divisive issue for feminists and his analysis is one that needs a lot of thought, but I agree with Helen and Fyodor, though I think they are coming at it from different places, that the binary scenario about the recourse to and the force of the law does seem a bit iron-clad.

I've been boggling at a couple of comments on Facebook threads from pro-Assange feminists taking the line that, contra the law as it stands now, a degree of sexual assault causing less harm than full-on penetrative rape by unambiguous physical force is a proportionately less serious crime, complaining about which belittles and insults victims of the latter. Which is all fine and tickety-boo and indeed to some extent I agree with it ... except that at least two of these people were students in Melbourne fifteen years ago and howling for the crucifixion of Helen Garner for saying exactly the same thing.

She too was making an argument about the tension between individual private negotiation and recourse to the law. Perhaps she was just fifteen years ahead of her time. She came down firmly against recourse to the letter of the law, which was one of the things that got her into most trouble but which, in Guy's model, would put her firmly on the side of radical, as opposed to liberal, feminism. Which almost everyone would deny. The point I'm trying to make by following this to its logical conclusion is that I think Guy's radical/liberal binary is an oversimplification that can lead to false conclusions about what's actually going on.

Mark Bahnisch said...

Oh, I don't necessarily disagree that Rundle's making it a tad simple. But I think there is a real tension/scission there. What I meant to say about "individual negotiations" isn't intended to have normative force; but to suggest the inevitability that this is what occurs in a culture that individualises intimate relations. To some degree, that's heightened by the emphasis on the law. I'm not opposed, not by any means, to such legal change, but I think it is (in many other ways too) a rather blunt instrument insofar as there's some intent to bring about attitudinal change as well as criminalise (rightly) certain acts. There's always a gap between law and norms, and in its individualist liberal guise, the first doesn't necessarily have much influence on shifting the latter.

Sorry if I was ambiguous. Generally, and this is the sociologist in me, I tend to try to describe before drawing a moral.

Mark Bahnisch said...

The Garner parallel is an interesting one.

Mark Bahnisch said...

This is a good piece:

"But Assange's status as embattled warrior for free speech is taken as giving permission – by those on the left as well as right – to indulge in the basest slut-shaming and misogyny."

I've tried to raise some questions about this on FB, but sheesh, people who might know better are getting really carried away.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Yep, Mark, I think that one's gone viral. And rightly so. I saw a friend linking to it on FB and have done so myself in a new post here; went back to FB and saw how fast it was travelling.

Must have a look at your FB conversations!

Mark Bahnisch said...

Yes, just saw you posted it after I did, Pav. Hopefully it'll make some people have another think - the charitable interpretation might be that people missed how vile a lot of the rhetoric has become.

Kate H said...

It's frustrating to me that the issue of whether Assange is or isn't a rapist (and as such should be prosecuted as such), and the issue of whether or not state forces are using the rape charges to bring him down because of his actions with Wikileaks (seems very likely), aren't more separate in peoples' minds.

It seems self evident to me that these two things can be true at the same time.

If you look at it this way, there is no tension in feminism, there is only people wanting their heroes to be perfect, and failing to grasp that one thing can be true and not invalidate another thing. Some feminists who are also left-wing types, ie Naomi Klein, seem to have trouble with the nuance here.

Mark Bahnisch said...

Those two issues, I think, are not only separable, but demand to be kept separate.

Helen said...

Things that are left to "individual negotiations" usually end up decided by the person with more of (including but not limited to) privilege, popularity, financial clout and physical strength.

That's why WorkChoices was such a crock.

Mark Bahnisch said...

Helen, but that's my point.

We have not arrived at a collective sexual ethics.

So, inevitably, sexual relations are shaped by individual agency which may or may not be incommensurate with the desire of the other. There are always power relations. I'm not talking about non-consensual sexual assault, but consensual sex, mind, but the barrier between the two is also - necessarily - a matter of individual rights, which are specified precisely because a collectively agreed norm is lacking.

If we had a real ethics of sex, of course it wouldn't be utopia, or absent of power relations, but it would be a damn sight better than what we have, which is a set of gendered and increasingly dissonant protocols, governed by law.