How is this Helping?

Let’s have a quick mid-semester review. In the very first class of the semester, way back in mid-August, we began engaging with the tools of narrative theory and critical reflection. Using those tools, we started the process of deconstruction as a tool of critical resistance.

As those of you who have worked with these tools before, you know that there is nothing inherently normative about either narrative theory or critical reflection. Narrative theory reminds you, as the story constructor or listener, to attend to the narrative elements – character, events, causation, normalization, masterplot, closure – as clues about the narrative’s underlying importance and power. Critical reflection reminds you as a powerful actor in society to attend to the situated power of the various characters involved in a situation, and assess that power relative to others.

In order to operationalize these theories – make them tools that can be used rather than theories to discuss – we need a normative framework – a system that guides our set of beliefs, values, understanding of the world. Part of what we do as lawyers, law students and critical resisters is make choices not only about how to use the tools of narrative theory and critical reflection, but also about what normative framework to use. And we must make those choices intentionally, and with an understanding of what our choice of tools and frame might mean – how, in other words, it might affect the story we construct or interpret.

Choosing a normative framework can be as simple as deciding to put on your race goggles. Or your gender goggles. Or your intersectionality goggles. When you put your race goggles on, for example, you are deciding intentionally to believe that everything that happens can be seen as taking place not only against the backdrop of a socially constructed hierarchy of racial categories, but actually driven by such a hierarchy. We might call this hierarchy White Supremacy. With our race goggles on, we understand and accept Coates’ assertion that race is the child of racism, and not vice versa.

With race goggles on, we apply the tools of narrative theory to identify the characters that populate and drive the system of White Supremacy; and we isolate and describe the traits of those characters. Narrative theory reminds us that characters might be the KKK and individual racist actors, but also and more importantly, characters in our system of White Supremacy include the institutions that make that system run: the criminal justice system, the system of gun rights and gun ownership, the police, the school system, neighborhoods, the media, etc. Critical reflection reminds us to attend to the relative power of these characters, which we can do by mapping their “traits” – one of which will certainly be the institution’s use, access to and source of power.

Putting gender goggles on as we did last week and will do again this week leads us to interpret and experience everything as informed by a socially constructed hierarchy where gender is binary, and one side of the binary is more powerful than the other. We might call this hierarchy Patriarchy. Having chosen the normative frame of critical gender theory or feminist theory, we put our gender goggles on and intentionally, radically believe – maybe just for this class or the time it takes for you to read this blog – that everything happens against the backdrop of and fueled by Patriarchy. We believe that as race is the child of racism, so binary gender and the corresponding gender roles are the child of Patriarchy, and not vice versa.

With gender goggles on, for example, we accept the proposition – with determined and intentional belief – that Hillary Clinton lost the election because she is a woman. Of course, there were other reasons and we can all argue about those; just as there were other reasons that Philando Castile was killed and we can all argue about those. But choosing the normative frame of critical gender or feminist theory requires us to start with the belief and understanding that we have to rule out misogyny as the cause for her election loss before moving to the other explanations.

If we accept that proposition – which my students did, readily and without much argument – narrative theory asks that we identify the characters in that system – the institutions that make it go. I had assigned the Dean Spade’s 2013 article on marriage (“Marriage Will Never set us Free” so that seemed as good an institution to start with as any. What traits does the character of the institution of marriage have? And layering critical reflection over our narrative theory inquiry, how does the institution of marriage exemplify, perpetuate and contribute to Patriarchy?

It did not take long for us to identify the operation of Patriarchy and its oppressive power at work in the institution of marriage. From its myriad state and federal financial and other benefits to its rules about “adultery” and monogamy and – only too recently – race and gender make-up, the institution of marriage drives the engine of Patriarchy.

We considered the simple – but significant – question of name changes. Even with their gender goggles on, the four cis women in the group said that they would probably change their names if they got married. Why? Because it would be easier for the kids; because they didn’t like their last names anyway; because their parents or grandparents or partner’s family or partner wanted them to; because of societal pressure. I channeled my wonderful mentor, Ann Shalleck, as I shrieked in mock (but actually quite real) hysteria “don’t you realize you’ll disappear?!”

Gayle Rubin’s famous “Charmed Circle” (from “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in Carole Vance, ed., Pleasure and Danger (1984) describes the privileging of monogamous, heterosexual, pro-creative, age-appropriate etc. couples. Attaching social and economic benefits only to those who belong in the Charmed Circle does nothing about the Charmed Circle itself. There are still those who are accepted into the circle – and get the accompanying social and economic rewards – and those who are excluded from the circle. Thus the system of Patriarchy – driven, remember, by the Charmed Circle – remains intact.

My students described feeling hopeless and angry during and after this discussion. They are young, professional, ambitious people who want to get married – because that’s what young, professional, ambitious people do! Why does Patriarchy with its Charmed Circle engine have to ruin everything!

Unlike my students, I felt anything but hopeless during this discussion – angry, yes, but not at them. Their anger and frustration fuels my hope. While marriage is most certainly an engine and tool of Patriarchy – much as Coates’ American Dream is an engine and tool of White Supremacy, being aware of that fact is the first step in undermining both the tool and the system it animates. And you know what the second step is? Talking about it. Naming it. Making intentional choices about what to participate in and what to avoid.

So by all means, get married, reap the benefits, have a party. Yes, you will be participating in the oppressive engine of the Patriarchy, but since America is both Patriarchal and White Supremacist, it’s very hard to avoid participating in those systems. What you can do – and must, really, if you want to be a critical resister – is make intentional choices about how you are participating. Maybe, for example, make up a new name for yourself and your partner? Or maybe, talk to your kids about why you chose to change your name, and what it means to you.

Be intentional. Be vulnerable. Keep those goggles on.

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