Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Why Choice Does Not Exist in a Vacuum

This is a guest post from Sparky, of Spark in Darkness.  Many of you are  familiar with him from Livejournal, as well as from his insightful and often hilarious commentary here. Each Tuesday, Womanist Musings will be featuring a post from Sparky.

At some point among various members of various activist movements, choice became the last word, the finishing line, the end of any argument.

And you can see why. For so many marginalised people for so much of history the very concept of agency has been alien. Choosing a way to live, choosing what you do with their lives, choosing just about anything has been constantly denied both overtly and covertly. Choice was – and in many ways, still is a luxury that too many marginalised people can’t afford. Either there are people directly controlling what marginalised people can or cannot do, severe and even violent consequences to marginalised people exercising those choices. Even without overt prohibition, there are more hurdles and road blocks – discrimination, prejudice, sometimes even legally, that denies you access to what you want to do or just makes it that much harder or simply a system that is set up to benefit people that just aren’t you

Marginalised people also come under a lot of policing as well. Shame from the privileged society that expects marginalised people to fit various roles or harsh judgement when we do not reach often impossible standards. Shame from within the community for not being the model minority and “making us look bad.” Shame from within the community for not fitting some ideal of what we should be, not liking what we should like, not fighting how we should fight. Shame from within that we fear we may be “doing it wrong”, fear that we’re being too stereotypical or fear that we’re being (horror of horrors!) “assimilationist!”

So, it’s no surprise that agency is vital, that choice is vital, that being able to live our own lives is vital to the point of becoming an untouchable icon to many.

But that doesn’t make choices the last word. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t examine the reasons behind choices, the forces that affect choices and, ultimately, what those choices mean and how much “agency” is truly represented by these choices.

To take it to one of its bluntest, harshest extremes – a gay kid brought up in a homophobic household who kills themselves because they can’t stand to live with themselves is making a choice.

No way am I taking that choice as the last word, or dismissing criticism of this choice as simple an expression of his agency. The kid has been attacked by homophobia all his life, filled with shame and self-hatred and toxic bigotry and we must look at his tragic “choice” through that lens

This is an extreme, but the same applies to so many of our choices. How often do we write post after post about how media representations hurt marginalised people, how erasure hurts marginalised people, how hate speech is toxic to marginalised people, how casual dehumanising speech hurts marginalised people and erodes their self-worth? How many studies do we have to see about the damage of casual dehumanisation and the pushing of internalised prejudice? And then we suddenly decide that all of that no longer applies to our decision making.

Of course it does! When we live in a society and culture that constantly devalues and dehumanises us, how can it not damage us? When we’re constantly told how wrong and inferior we are, how can that not affect how we view ourselves? When we’re told of all the things we can’t do, can’t be, can’t have, shouldn’t One of the things we most desperately fight to do as marginalised people is counter this endless default bombardment of inferiority – after all, for GBLT people that’s the whole POINT of Pride!

Choice does not exist in a vacuum; our choices are influenced by the same forces that seek to destroy us – that equally seek to have us destroy ourselves. For every voice telling us “I won’t let you do that”, there’s another voice implanted inside saying “I can’t do that.” For everyone telling us they’re better than us, there’s a little internal voice saying “I’m beneath them.” For everyone saying “no, you can’t have that, that’s just for me!” there’s an internal voice saying “I don’t deserve that.”

On a personal level, one of my main struggles of coming out and accepting being gay is fighting to unlearn what I have been taught – about who and what I am, about who and what I should be, what is and isn’t possible and about my own worth as a person. I know I’m not the only person fighting this battle – I suspect the majority of us, on some level, are doing the same. I know internalised hatred has affected my choices, has affected my relationships, has affected my life. Frankly, I look back and think I was a bloody fool and I rage over those lost and broken years. I know first hand what self-hatred can do your choices and your “agency.”

While we need to always remember the precious nature of choice, we also cannot allow choice to become the unquestioned, mindlessly accepted last word. We have to examine the reasons for these choices. We have to see the forces that poison our choices, our minds and our lives and call them out. We have to recognise when societal and cultural bigotry has taught us to destroy ourselves, to become agents in our own oppression.

Because if we don’t speak up about it, we won’t have agency – we will continue to have the terrible choices that the privileged have already made for us.