Thursday, April 3, 2014

Inequalities in Feminist Culture

For groups that embrace cooperative leadership—where there is reliance on the wisdom of the whole, instead of that of a single person or council of elders—the ideal is feminist culture, by which I mean a commitment to gender equality and a basic belief that all humans have the same inherent worth regardless of productivity, skills, or sagacity, and that everyone should have a voice in decisions affecting them.

That said, it is demonstrably not true that everyone has the same talent or proficiency at accomplishing what the group needs to maintain its health or to pursue its mission. In short, there is a sense in which everyone is equal… and a sense in which everyone isn't. It gets confusing.

While it's all well an good to strive for a level playing field, not everyone's interested in doing the work to close the gaps between where they are and those ahead of them, and there are some delicate questions around how much of the group's resources should go toward eliminating inequalities—not the least of which is because you'll never get there. 

Please don't misunderstand me. I think investing in capacity building and personal growth are excellent ideas. I'm only saying that there are too many ways in which people are different and no amount of ideological purity or tour de force training will result in a membership comprised of interchangeable parts. While that observation is not very profound, my experience has been that cooperative groups rarely act as if they fully understand that.

Sure, groups get it that all members are not competent auto mechanics, crackerjack facilitators, or gourmet chefs. (For that matter not everyone is that wonderful at scrubbing floors or balancing a checkbook, either.) And there are some distinctions between members that are relatively easy to acknowledge and discus openly:
o  Size
o  Strength
o  Discretionary Time
o  Education & Training
o  Credentials

Other distinctions, however, are a bit trickier. All the following topics could be: a) straight forward to acknowledge; b) somewhat obscure; or c) controversial to interpret:
Physical Health
o  Wealth
o  Experience
o  Skill
o  Privilege

Last, there is there are subjects that members rarely discuss openly, and can even feel offended that you asked about:
o  Mental Health
o  Power 
o  Counseling History
o  Family Challenges
o  Financial Challenges
o  Addictions
o  Personal History with Abuse

Notice that there is no particular correlation between the tenderness of the topic and the likelihood that it will be a factor in group dynamics. My main point in this essay is that there are a number of important ways in which people are reliably different, yet most cooperative groups do not have a clear sense of how to explore these differences, or even an agreement that they should be discussed at all. They just hold their breath and hope for the best.

It's crippling to be actively working toward a goal of equality among members when there are significant differences that are off limits. If you can't discuss them, how will you determine how large they are (or even how large the range of opinions is about the size of the gap), what those differences mean, or what you want to do about them (if anything)?

To be sure, these taboo topics are subjects we've been conditioned to consider private—things we share only with intimate friends and partners. Yet they still impact the group, and if you're serious about working sensitively with differences, then you need to be able to develop a sense of what constitutes healthy inequalities and what are differences that erode the group's cohesion and effectiveness. 

The challenge is whether you have the awareness, courage, and maturity to be able to explore assessments of inequalities wherever they occur relative to group function. I'm not saying that there is a "right" way to handle differences; I'm saying that whistling in the dark and pretending that they don't exist doesn't work.

1 comment:

Laird Schaub said...

Charles wrote: I totally enjoy your enumeration of differences and how these may or may not be dealt with in community AND I don't get how they nexus with "feminist culture." Also, the concept of a "feminist culture" is subsumed under your more general value that "all humans have the same inherent worth." So why bother with the "feminist culture" headline? As a feminist man, i.e one which supports equality of opportunity in ALL aspects of life for women, I am more fundamentally, as in your primal value, a humanist, an earthist, and a cosmicist.

Laird's response: I was trying (perhaps poorly) to point out that:

a) Communities that make decisions collectively overwhelmingly embrace feminist culture.

b) You can't reasonably work toward the equality of members without being able to discuss differences openly.

c) Almost all feminist groups do an incomplete job of talking openly about differences among residents.

d) Lacking a culture that supports the examination of all differences, the group is wide open to members being outraged at what is or is not happening in the name of equality, even though that particular interpretation of equality has never been discussed (or people's reactions to it examined).