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Over My Shoulder #38: Yael Tamir, “Siding with the Underdogs” in Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?

Here’s the rules:

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the quote. This is from Yael Tamir’s essay, Siding with the Underdogs, in Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?, an anthology based on the title essay by Susan Moller Okin.

Why do group rights serve best the interests of those members of society who are powerful and conservative? To begin with, the notion of group rights as it is often used in the current debate presupposes that the group is a unified agent. Rights are bestowed upon the group in order to preserve its tradition and defend its interests. Identifying the tradition and the interests of the group becomes a precondition for realizing these rights. Consequently, internal schisms and disagreements are perceived as a threat to the ability of the group to protect its rights. Group leaders are therefore motivated to foster unanimity, or at least an appearance of unanimity, even at the cost of internal oppression.

Attempts to achieve unanimity are particularly dangerous in those communities which lack formal, democratic decision-making processes. Under such circumstances it is the elderly of the tribe, members of councils of sages, who determine the groups’ norms and interests. Members of such bodies are commonly men, who endorse a rather orthodox point of view. Social norms and institutions place these individuals within a dominant position, and group rights consolidate this position even further. Granting nondemocratic communities group rights thus amounts to siding with the privileged and the powerful against those who are powerless, oppressed, and marginalized, with the traditionalists (often even the reactionary) against the nonconformists, the reformers, and the dissenters.

The conservative nature of group rights is reinforced by the justifications adduced in their defense. The group is granted rights in order to preserve its culture, language, tradition. These are described, by most defenders of group rights, in nostalgic, nonrealistic terms. They are depicted as authentic, unique, even natural. Those who attempt to consolidate the conservative way of doing things are therefore portrayed as loyal defenders of the group, those who strive for social transformation and cultural reformers are perceived as agents of assimilation who betray the group and its tradition. The former are depicted as virtuous individuals who dedicate themselves to the common good; the latter are suspected of being motivated by narrow self-interest–of giving priority to short-term preferences for personal comfort and prosperity over long-term commitments to the welfare of the community.

Agents of social and cultural change are portrayed as feeble-minded individuals who are tempted by the material affluence of the surrounding society, as those who sell their soul to an external devil in exchange for some glittering beads. It therefore seems legitimate to criticize, scorn, even persecute them. This is the fate of Reform Jews who are often portrayed by the Orthodox establishment as irresponsible, weak-minded, pleasure-seeking individuals who wish to escape the burden of Judaism in order to adopt a less demanding lifestyle. Reform Jews, Orthodox argue, are swayed by the external (and superficial) beauty of Christian architecture and ceremonies. The reforms they offer are seen as grounded in mimicry, as an attempt to be like the Gentiles rather than as a call to reevaluate Judaism and offer ways in which it can answer the needs and challenges of modernity. Reform Judaism is therefore portrayed as a threat to the survival of Judaism rather than as an attempt to save it.

The use of the term survival in the context of the debate over group rights is common, yet alarming. It misdescribes what is at stake, intensifying the cost of change and fostering the belief that any violation of social and religious norms, any reform of traditional institutions and the group’s customary ways of life, endangers its existence and must therefore be rejected.

Moreover, it intentionally obscures the distinction between two kinds of communal destruction: the first results from external pressures exhorted by nonmembers; the second, from the desire of members of the community. It is clear why we ought to protect a community and its members in cases of the first kind, but should we protect a community also against the preferences of its own members? Is it just, or desirable, to allow those who aspire to preserve the communal tradition–often members of the dominant and privileged elite–to force others who have grown indifferent or even hostile to this tradition to adhere to that tradition?

Obviously, defenders of group rights who use the term survival to denote cultural continuity tend to give priority to this end over and above individual rights. Charles Taylor’s discussion of the Canadian case demonstrates this order of priorities: It is axiomatic for the Quebec government that the survival and flourishing of French culture in Quebec is a good …. It is not just a matter of having the French language available for those who might choose it …. Policies aimed at survival actively seek to create members of the community, for instance, in their assuring that future generations continue to identify as French speakers.

It should be clear by now that in the Canadian case, as well as in the debate between Orthodox and Reform Judaism, the term survival refers not to the actual survival of the community or its members but to the survival of the traditional way of life. It is used to justify the taking of extreme measures, including disregard for individual rights and forceful suspension of internal criticism, for the sake of preventing change. But is there a reason to prevent a particular way of life from undergoing change? Should one protect a community against cultural revisions or reforms, even radical ones, if these are accepted by its members? The answer to the above question depends on the motivations one may have for protecting cultures or traditions.

An approach that is grounded in the right of individuals to pursue their lives the way they see fit must support individuals who wish to reform their tradition and change their lifestyle as much as it ought to support individuals who wish to retain their traditional way of life. It must be attentive to the kind of life plans individuals adopt and pursue, without prejuding in favor of conservative options. It should therefore defend individuals against pressures to conform and protect their choices to reform their tradition or even exit the community altogether. The opposite is true for an approach that is motivated by the desire to defend endangered cultures. Such an approach must favor conservative forces over reformist ones, even at the price of harming some individual interests. Obviously multiculturalism that is grounded in the former approach is friendly to feminism, while that which is grounded in the latter is not.

–Yael Tamir (1999), Siding with the Underdogs, in Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?

Day of Remembrance

Wear a white ribbon.

Today is the 12th day of 2007’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. It is also the anniversary of the Montreal massacre. On 6 December 1989, 18 years ago today, Marc Lepine murdered 14 women at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique. He murdered them because they were women. He stormed an engineering classroom carrying a gun, then he ordered the men to leave. He opened fire on the women, screaming I hate feminists as he shot. Then he moved through the building, still shooting, always at women, killing a total of 14 women and injuring 8 before he ended the terror by shooting himself.

6 December is a day of remembrance for the women who were killed. They were:

  • Geneviève Bergeron, aged 21
  • Hélène Colgan, 23
  • Nathalie Croteau, 23
  • Barbara Daigneault, 22
  • Anne-Marie Edward, 21
  • Maud Haviernick, 29
  • Barbara Maria Klucznik, 31
  • Maryse Leclair, 23
  • Annie St.-Arneault, 23
  • Michèle Richard, 21
  • Maryse Laganière, 25
  • Anne-Marie Lemay, 22
  • Sonia Pelletier, 28; and
  • Annie Turcotte, aged 21

GT 2004-12-06: The Montreal Massacre:

The Montreal Massacre was horrifying and shocking. But we also have to remember that it’s less unusual than we all think. Yes, it’s a terrible freak event that some madman massacred women he had never even met because of his sociopathic hatred. But every day women are raped, beaten, and killed by men–and it’s usually not by strangers, but by men they know and thought they could trust. They are attacked just because they are women–because the men who assault them believe that they have the right to control women’s lives and their sexual choices, and to hurt them or force them if they don’t agree. By conservative estimates, one out of every four women is raped or beaten by an intimate partner sometime in her life. Take a moment to think about that. How much it is. What it means for the women who are attacked. What it means for all women who live in the shadow of that threat.

Today is a day to remember fourteen innocent women who died at the hands of a self-conscious gender terrorist. Like most days of remembrance, it should also be a day of action. I mean practical action.. And I mean radical action. I mean standing up and taking concrete steps toward the end to violence against women in all of its forms. Without excuses. Without exceptions. Without limits. And without apologies.

I want to see this men’s movement make a commitment to ending rape because that is the only meaningful commitment to equality. It is astonishing that in all our worlds of feminism and antisexism we never talk seriously about ending rape. Ending it. Stopping it. No more. No more rape. In the back of our minds, are we holding on to its inevitability as the last preserve of the biological? Do we think that it is always going to exist no matter what we do? All of our political actions are lies if we don’t make a commitment to ending the practice of rape. This commitment has to be political. It has to be serious. It has to be systematic. It has to be public. It can’t be self-indulgent.

— Andrea Dworkin (1983), I Want a Twenty-Four Hour Truce During Which There Is No Rape

The same is true of every form of everyday gender terrorism: stalking, beating, confinement, forced labor, rape, murder. How could we face Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Barbara Maria Klucznik, Maryse Leclair, Annie St.-Arneault, Michèle Richard, Maryse Laganière, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, and Annie Turcotte, and tell them we did anything less?

Take some time to keep the 14 women who were killed in the Montreal massacre in your thoughts. If there is a vigil today in your community (1, 2), attend it. Speak out in memory for the women who died, and against the pervasive regime of systematic male violence against women. If you are a member of other movements (as many of my readers are members of the libertarian, anarchist, or anti-authoritarian Left movements), use today to bring a strong feminist voice to your comrades in those movements, to speak out on how any comprehensive human liberation must include the end of systematic violence against women. If you don’t know enough to speak out, make an effort today to learn more (1, 2, 3, 4). Make a contribution to your local battered women’s shelter. Find a local group that works to end domestic violence or rape or any other form of violence against women, and ask them what you can do as a volunteer or as a supporter to help them in their efforts. Don’t worry about what’s radical or reformist; think about what kind of concrete action can concretely undermine violence against women, starting today.

Feminists should remember that while we often don’t take ourselves very seriously, the men around us often do. I think that the way we can honor these women who were executed, for crimes that they may or may not have committed–which is to say, for political crimes–is to commit every crime for which they were executed, crimes against male supremacy, crimes against the right to rape, crimes against the male ownership of women, crimes against the male monopoly of public space and public discourse. We have to stop men from hurting women in everyday life, in ordinary life, in the home, in the bed, in the street, and in the engineering school. We have to take public power away from men whether they like it or not and no matter what they do. If we have to fight back with arms, then we have to fight back with arms. One way or another we have to disarm men. We have to be the women who stand between men and the women they want to hurt. We have to end the impunity of men, which is what they have, for hurting women in all the ways they systematically do hurt us.

–Andrea Dworkin (1990): Mass Murder in Montreal, Life and Death, 105–114.

As Jennifer Barrigar writes:

Every year I make a point of explaining that I’m pointing the finger at a sexist patriarchal misogynist society rather than individual men. This year I choose not to do that. The time for assigning blame is so far in the past (if indeed there ever was such a time), and that conversation takes us nowhere. This is the time for action, for change. Remember Parliament’s 1991 enactment of the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women — the glorious moment when every single womyn in the House stood together and claimed this Day of Remembrance. Remember what we can and do accomplish — all of us — when we work together. It is time to demand change, and to act on that demand. Let’s break the cycle of violence, and let’s do it now.

Remember. Mourn. Act.


Further reading:

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