Wednesday, February 27, 2013

On Feminism: The Rehumanization of a Soldier and the Reconstruction of a Man


I'm participating in feminism fest this week, a synchroblog hosted by Preston, Danielle, and JR. I missed yesterday (which was "feminism and me"), so I'm incorporating a little bit of that into today's post (I hope you'll allow me that little indulgence), which focuses on the question, "Why does feminism matter?" 

[A couple of disclaimers: First off, a trigger warning. This post deals with sexual assault and violent sexuality in a way that may be disturbing for some. Those paragraphs that touch on these issues will be marked with TW. Second, I am offering a fairly pointed critique of military culture in the US based on my own experience, and the experiences of others I've walked with along the way. It is important to point out that this is a critique of the culture that is created in the context of the US military, and not necessarily the military members themselves. If you are or you have family or friends that are in the military, this is not a personal attack on them. Think of it as an opportunity to ask important questions about how our acquiescence or ambivalence toward particular cultural norms affects culture creation and cultivation over time.]

I was kind of a shy kid when I joined the Army, 22 and directionless with nothing but some abstract sense of needing to connect to something bigger than myself. I had tried the church, and it had left me damaged in more ways than I care to remember, so in the middle of my first semester of community college, I made what was probably the most mature decision of my life and decided I wasn't mature enough for college.

The Army recruiter's office was the next stop.  I was a boy, and I needed the Army to make me a man. In hindsight, I'm not sure the kind of man that I was to become was what my young self had in mind during that particular existential crisis, but that was a lesson I would have to learn in the hardest of ways.

[TW] Things were great except that one fateful night, not long after I arrived at my first duty station. I was about 49% sure I was going to be sexually assaulted that night by a bunch of rowdy drunk soldiers in the shower, and all of the sudden my views on sex, power, masculinity and what it means to be a man were turned upside down. They said they were just joking, and I laughed it off that night out of a desperate need to not appear weak, but this didn't feel like a joke. When a couple of dudes are restricting your movement while another threatens you with sexual violence, that doesn't feel like a joke. It feels like a message, a not-so-subtle one about power and domination.

See, the military is kind of a perfect storm, where all of the worst perversions of our notions of masculinity converge to create an environment where power and domination are the ultimate ends, and the means tend to be a disturbing blend of sexuality and violence. The military has a very specific idea of what it means to be a man. This man is a reflection of those values that we as a society embrace, taken to their logical extremes. He is dichotomized in familiar fashion, where he is tough at the expense of being sensitive, where he provides for and protects his family at the expense of actually being with his family, where he is physically strong at the expense of being emotionally crippled, and where he learns to dehumanize others at the expense of his own humanity. The problem is, once you learn to dehumanize "the enemy," it becomes just that much easier to dehumanize just about anyone.

So physically and emotionally we're trained to be hard, to be tough, to be impenetrable. Psychologically, we're trained to compartmentalize, to objectify, and to dehumanize. [Is it really a surprise that sexual harassment and sexual assault run rampant in the military?] This ends up manifesting itself in a complex social dynamic where soldiers (regardless of gender) compete for the role of alpha male, and do so in the context of a culture saturated with violence, where the language of power and domination is the native tongue.

This was the world I was emerging from 5 years ago. I had a wife who I had not lived with alone save for 9 months out of our first 5 years of marriage. I had a shell that was pristine and hard as steel, but inside, I was completely broken. I had sacrificed far too much, it would seem, on the altar of this false hyper-masculinity.

But what does any of this have to do with feminism? Today's question is why does feminism matter? What's really at stake when we talk about feminism?

For me, everything was at stake. My entire identity was invested in this caricature of masculinity that had been cultivated in me my entire life, and refined to perfection in the crucible of Army culture. Certainly, there were a number of factors that contributed to the disintegration of that identity, but feminism played a crucial role in giving me the words to articulate much of what I knew all along was so very wrong with this culture I was immersed in, and in turn, probably saved my marriage, and ultimately brought me back and far deeper into my faith than I had ever been before. It's funny, I've always seen the Holy Spirit as the mother in the little nuclear family of Trinitarian theology, so there's a kind of synchronicity in the fact that feminism was that thing that She used to woo me back.

Feminism was what allowed me to begin reclaiming my own humanity by seeing that exact same humanity in others. Starting at that fundamental precept, the "radical notion that women are people," I was confronted with my own privilege and my propensity for dehumanizing others. It started right here at home, with the way I saw my wife and the way I saw our relationship. (In fact, if you go back to the first post I ever published on this blog, you can actually see the metamorphosis taking place.) I stopped seeing her as a means to validate my own masculinity, and started seeing her for the incredible human being that she was in her own right, regardless of (perhaps in many ways in spite of) her relationship with me. It was feminism that gave me the tools to critically deconstruct the false idol of masculinity that I had fashioned over the first 25 years of my life. When there was nothing left, it was feminism that allowed me to reconstruct a healthy view of maleness that respects the humanity, the Imago Dei, within us all.

But that's the funny thing about feminism. Once you grab a hold of it, wrestle with it and really seek to understand the nature of it, you realize that feminism is much bigger than the box we try to force it into.

Feminism, in its simplest construction, is yet another dialect in the mother tongue of justice.

Once you recognize the simple fact that women are people too, the idea starts to spread, and you start seeing humanity everywhere. You start to see it in people of color, in Muslims and Jews and Buddhists and Sikhs and Hindus and atheists, in Democrats and Republicans, in Europeans and Africans and Arabs, in capitalists and communists, in the able-bodied and the disabled, the rich and the poor. Once you set aside the damaging assumption that someone, somewhere is somehow less human than you, it's exceedingly difficult to speak of the world around you in any language besides that of justice.

Or at least, that's the way it worked for me. Feminism was the first dialect I learned in the language of justice, though it wouldn't be the last. It was the first step of many in reversing the dehumanization I suffered in the army, by affirming my own humanity by recognizing it in others. It was a key tool in reshaping my notions of what it meant to be a man who did justice, who loved mercy, and who walked humbly.

But perhaps most importantly, it was a beginning, not an end.

What about you? Do you think feminism has anything to offer you? Why or why not? Why do you think feminism matters? What do you think is at stake in this particular conversation? Are you passionate about feminism? Why or why not? Chime in in the comments. I'd love to hear from you.
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