What We Broke the First Time


Pressing the Restart Button on Liberatory Movements

By Christian Matheis


Recently, I posted the following question on a social media site:


If feminism hit the reset button and we got to fix what we broke the first time, what would the do-over look like?


Responses in the discussion thread reflected a variety of sentiments, some sincere and some sarcastic, some humorous and some morose. Few responded with anything resembling hope or enthusiasm. Like those who replied, I initially took the question at face-value. In doing so I pondered the changes to feminism that have occurred and probably still need to occur in the ongoing work to dismantle sexist patriarchies — Changes such as dismantling racism, colonialism, classism, heterosexism, cisgenderism, and various forms of cultural and institutional oppression.


I felt some chagrin when I later noticed that the question bears at least one troubled premise: in posing it I assumed that feminism somehow contains the problem to correct. Instead, I should have imagined feminism as one imperfect resource struggling in response to a daunting array of systematic paradoxes.


We did not break feminism and make it racist. We did not break anti-racism and make it misogynist.


In other words, rather than presume feminism contains serious flaws it may make better sense to presume that feminism refers to liberatory inclinations heavily burdened with vastly forceful problems. Feminism operates as a field of incomplete solutions to complex and often paradoxical problems.


We have not yet figured out the relationships of liberatory solidarity needed to dismantle the ways that sexist patriarchies colluded with racism, and the seemingly paradoxical forces of oppression.


Certainly, feminism has many varied forms, perhaps making “feminisms” a more appropriate term. I will toggle among various uses.


“What we broke the first time” does not refer to feminism but to sexist patriarchies, ethnocentrism, heterosexism, and other forms of oppression feminisms aim to redress. In this way the “broken” parts have far more to do with the corrupting forces of sexism than with feminism and womanism in their varied forms. Indeed, the numerous forms of feminism probably express attempts at adapting to the complexities of oppression in its variations as a resource for cultivating liberatory movements.


Revised: If accessibility movements hit the reset button and we got to fix what we broke the first time, what would the do-over look like?


Consider the benefits of this strategy. By burdening hegemony as the source of hegemony a generous analysis of feminism aims not just to free various liberatory notion(s) of the baggage of complex forms of oppression but to develop feminist resources in a way that can empower feminist movements to take on multiple forms of oppression. For instance, the so-called “reset button” on feminism would not merely or hastily place a demand on feminists in anti-sexist, anti-patriarchal movements to come to account for their collusion in racism. Of course, that must also happen in some ways. But not in simplistic ways that deteriorate liberatory solidarity.


Rather, a better strategy would empower feminist movements to address diverse forms of patterned cultural hegemony and institutionalized oppression — racism, heterosexism, transphobia and cisgenderism, poverty, ableism, and so forth. I also include the forms of oppression as yet unknown, and those yet to gain widespread attention in progressive movements, such as crazyphobia and the systematic derogation of persons with neuro-atypical mental conditions (for lack of a better term available to me at this time).


A liberatory, anarchist critique prompts the need to give one another the benefit of the doubt even when quite difficult to do so; it alerts us to sustain relationships among progressives despite countervailing influences.

Revised: If indigenous movements hit the reset button and we got to fix what we broke the first time, what would the do-over look like?


The pattern of attributing the sins of oppression to the agents of anti-oppression movements deteriorates the relationships necessary for liberatory solidarity.[1] Such a pattern erodes solidarity among people involved in various movements, each somewhat misguided in focusing too narrowly on one aspect of derogation and indignity — and at the same time also focused on bolstering dignity, even if in limited and incomplete ways.


Revised: If prison abolitionism hit the reset button and we got to fix what we broke the first time, what would the do-over look like?


To fall prey to a lack of generosity, to over-simplify the relationship-deteriorating forces of oppression, we can too easily cultivate habits the prompt us to egoize in the interests of oppression, not liberation. I borrow the term “egoize” from Le Guin who, in my understanding, uses it critique hoarding behaviors that disrupt an individual’s relationships in a social, communal context.[2] One who egoizes postures for individualistic recognition, status, and aggrandizement in a way that subordinates and perhaps even derogates sharing among one another.


To cultivate habits of social sharing more attuned to anarchist liberation, it seems better to assume that the sexism and heterosexism sometimes prevalent in anti-racist movements derive from the flaws of racism and not the inherent flaws of anti-racists.



Revised: If anti-racism hit the reset button and we got to fix what we broke the first time, what would the do-over look like?


Through what sort of logic can progressives with liberatory hopes simplistically blame feminism for racism, blame anti-racist movements for heterosexism, blame queer movements for classism… on and on in the hunt to evangelize oppression among one another but without solidarity needed to dismantle oppressions once and for all? What differs by rephrasing it in personalized terms: blaming feminists for racism, blaming anti-racists for heterosexism, blaming queer folk for classism, and so forth? Individuals and groups involved in liberatory movements can more likely come to account for and change their collusion with forms of oppression by showing patterned cultural and institutional harms as the primary problem to address even when individuals and groups sometimes express those problems.[3] I suspect that contemporary models of anarchism, transitional justice, restorative justice, and liberatory politics derive their power and feasibility in part through human abilities to forgive and demonstrate compassion, even if laborious.[4]


Revised: If labor movements hit the reset button and we got to fix what we broke the first time, what would the do-over look like?


At present, we must come to account for, and labor to resolve our misconceptions and misdeeds amid the shell-game of inter-movement criticism. I think it matters to consider how the harms endemic to one form of oppression falsely, deceptively appear as the inherent flaws of those working on some other form of oppression. A familiar question returns: who benefits from these misconceptions?


Historically, liberationists did not break liberation and make it derogation. We coped incompletely and today we face the same need for patterned relations of solidarity that afford the power to dismantle derogation in liberatory ways.


In conclusion, I ask you to consider what happens if we pose a similar range of questions with regard to anarchism?


If anarchism hit the reset button and we got to fix what we broke the first time, what would the do-over look like?


Does it work to presume that anarchism contains the derogatory flaws anarchists seek to redress?


Or, does it work better to presume that anarchisms in many varied forms refers to attempts to adaptively redress institutionalized oppressions and cultural hegemonies — as well as whatever sort of as-yet-unknown cruelty dismantles dignity and, thus, mutually dignifying relationships?


[1] Similar to Pharr’s notion of “horizontal hostility.” Pharr, Suzanne. In the Time of the Right : Reflections on Liberation. Berkeley, CA; Little Rock, AR: Chardon Press ; Distributed by the Women’s Project, 1996. 35-36.

[2] Le Guin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed: an ambiguous utopia. New York: Eos, 2001. 29.

[3] Lorde, Audre. “There Is No Hierarchy of Oppression.” Homophobia and Education. New York: New York Council on Interracial Books for Children, 1983.

[4] Inazu, John D. “No Future without (Personal) Forgiveness: Reexamining the Role of Forgiveness in Transitional Justice.” Human rights review (Piscataway, N.J.) 10.3 (2009): 309-326.

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