Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The monster inside

I recently stumbled across this post from Melissa McEwan at Shakesville, and it got me thinking. A lot.

Sometimes it's hard to be honest with ourselves. Sometimes it's really hard. For example, I know that I am not a racist. I actively strive not to be. I try to speak up when I hear something I know is wrong. I try to challenge false assumptions and stereotypes when I encounter them. But if I am absolutely honest with myself, I have to admit that sometimes the false assumptions or stereotypes are my own. They will occasionally pop into my head unbidden, and I find myself regarding my own subconscious library of internalized (or at least retained) ideas with a feeling that lies somewhere on the spectrum between shock and disgust. Despite my open-minded upbringing, despite my own continuous attempts at examining my world and the ideas therein for validity and morality, these little seeds of racism have crept in and eased between the cracks, attempting to take root and destroy what I've created.

I was walking down the street today, thinking these thoughts, when something deeply unnerving suddenly occurred to me. If I have these unwanted thoughts (or absorbed memories of others' thoughts) about other groups of people, then it's only logical to assume that the men in my life have them about women, too. I'm not talking about the obvious misogynist assholes, the abusers, the rapists, the casual sexual harrassers...I mean the men I know and care about and in whom I have at least some amount of emotional investment. The ones I trust.

Of course when these renegade thoughts about other groups appear on my mental horizon, I stop in my tracks and challenge them, examine them, refute them, and spit them right back out. And I can hope that the men I care about do the same when they have such thoughts about women. But even if I could believe for certain that they do, it doesn't temper the sting I feel imagining those thoughts flickering, however briefly, through their minds.

It's a realization that nearly stopped me dead in the middle of the sidewalk. Of course I know society does this. Of course I know popular culture does it. Of course I know that some of my professors, my peers, my acquaintances do it. But for whatever reason, I just hadn't really thought about the fact that men that I trust, that I love, must do it, too.

And I thought back to Melissa's post, how she talks about working every day to be a trustworthy person, and I wondered what harm I've inflicted over the years with my own assumptions, my own failures to stand up when someone needed to and no one was, my own casual complacency or lack of action in the face of rhetoric that causes someone, somewhere, to feel the same acrid paralysis that I feel when I imagine men who matter to me thinking, if only momentarily, that maybe there is some truth to the idea that women are too emotional to be rational (as if the two were mutually exclusive), or that some women just deserve to be hit.

The truth is that none of us are immune to the cumulative effects of harmful cultural messages. All of us have to work continuously and vigorously to overcome the saplings of fear, prejudice, and hatred nurtured in us is spite of ourselves from birth. It's a never-ending process for me and for everyone else who cares, and I guess in the end, that's what it comes down to: whether or not you are really doing your best, every day, to move forward, to learn, to grow, to become a little closer to the person you'd like to be.

The men whom I will at least try to trust won't be perfect, but if they're actively engaged in this process, it's all I can really ask. And it's the same thing I need to be asking of myself.


GXB said...

I've had thoughts like that about men recently because of feminist reading, but they're pretty easy to dismiss. But I find that, while I can consciously challenge my own stereotypes, they go away a lot better when I have friends who are in a group about which I once held stereotypes. I think this is a difference between sexism and other -isms: men almost always have women in their lives, whereas other groups may live more separately, especially in that an actual minority may not be known so well. That is not to say that able-bodied people will never encounter a disabled person, but they *might* never get to know one. I think.