What's Worth Doing?
From the Series: Teaching about Rape in Troubled Times
When thinking about teaching the course on “Culture, Gender, and Violence,” I found myself considering two related questions: first, is there a fundamental difference between anthropology and activism? And, second, how can anthropology (and teaching it) resist gendered violence? I have certain answers based on the life experience I’ve accumulated so far. My answers are also inflected by the experience of teaching this material during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, which had a sense of urgency that I haven’t otherwise felt in academia. As I will explain below, I see the modes of critique in which anthropologists are experts as anathema to activism. But I think we can leverage our critique to make space for action to grow. What this boils down to for me is imagination.
Anthropology uses participant-observation to reach for an ongoing understanding of how a particular group of people live in the world. In doing so, anthropologists develop not merely knowledge, but a different perception of possible worlds. This account of anthropology fits nicely with what has characterized my own experiences of activism: a commitment to living in a particular possibility, against some particular kind of injustice. If anthropology is a process by which one grows to see other possibilities, then it seems invaluable to living life in the possible. Yet if anthropology’s method is to live and study with, then how can we live and study with what doesn’t yet exist (which seems to be exactly the space in which activism lives)? It seems as though activism requires imagining what could be and trying to build that future, while anthropology is grounded in what is observable. In this light, the two projects seem fundamentally incompatible. If I wanted to be cynical, I might say that we as anthropologists are well-equipped to tear down, but we have no methods for building up.
What might this mean for teaching? From what I saw in the sections I led, the “Culture, Gender, and Violence” course reflected our own limitations: we could help students to see their environments in a new way and use this to articulate impassioned critiques, but we never got as far as helping them see how they could take action to change what we were teaching them to be angry about. For example, we exposed the students to critiques of bystander intervention programs—exactly the sort of intervention many had formerly regarded as a viable form of activism. The University of Virginia (UVA) has heavily promoted such programs, and so the argument that individual action is not the solution to systemic violence was an unpleasant surprise to many. This is a prime example of our tendency to block action. We were teaching our students not only that gendered violence was woven more deeply into the fabric of our society and personhood than they had suspected, but that the only ways they had been taught to resist were ineffective. While a good exercise in critique, it was anything but constructive.
That said, hardly a week went by when I didn’t push my students with the question: “So what are you gonna do about it?” There were multiple, mutually reinforcing reasons for this. The first was the increasing salience of the issues we were discussing in the context of the election. Some of the others were personal; for me, teaching about rape in the time of Donald Trump meant teaching through my own trauma, teaching about trauma in a time of trauma. If I had not already spent years processing my own experiences of gendered violence, I would not have had the wherewithal to invite students to use their own gendered experiences, traumatic or not, as data and as tools for understanding. Likewise, if I hadn’t already spent years as a genderqueer person getting dressed every morning in self-conscious drag, I would have had far less precise knowledge at my disposal with which to help them see how we all manipulate gendered features in the construction of our identities. I have been living an experiment, evaluating how the details of my gender presentation and enactment will be (mis)read and then calibrating accordingly. I can draw on that experiment in the classroom. In my judgment, it is of great benefit to anthropology that the discipline makes tools out of its practitioners. Yet that also means that our personal limits are its limits.
What my approach to teaching missed was the crucial ingredient of activism: the power of potential, without which nothing seems even worth attempting. I know this was missing because my students’ final papers included passages like: “Even if I band together with a bunch of women who pledge not to be nice or choose to have fun in different ways, it’s just going to be called some form of new radical feminism.” That this student dismissed such a vision simply because not everyone would take it seriously suggests that she ended up with an unreachably high bar for what makes change worth pursuing. The course’s teaching staff didn’t mean to set this bar, but we spent so much time critiquing what the students thought was meaningful change that they only learned to see limits.
I know this left many of our students feeling hamstrung. I wish we had been able to show them that what they already do can be powerful. As I am learning in my own graduate training, there is no such thing as inaction: everything and everyone grows and changes moment to moment. Difference is always emerging. Potential power always exists. The question is what we define as the threshold of “the difference which makes a difference,” to borrow Gregory Bateson’s (1972, 453) phrase. We might have critiqued our own definitions of inefficacy just as thoroughly as we critiqued the efficacy of interventions we saw as lacking.
To some extent, we did help students achieve a new sense of power and efficacy. Many students mentioned the value of open discussion in their final papers. This is no surprise; for one, the only real advice I could give students after the election, when many were asking the desperate “how” and “why” questions of the moment, was to go have difficult conversations. Then, too, open discussion resonates with the anthropological tradition of seeking understanding by being with whoever is the other. And, just as importantly for the students, conversations can be had politely and therefore are not necessarily uncomfortable—especially salient on a campus like ours, where students are groomed in Southern politeness.
Yet students found themselves in a double bind because of this environment; they experienced firsthand how much of a difference open discussion could make. Still, most limited the power of discussion by positioning it as a preliminary step, not as a kind of intervention in its own right. As one student wrote, “change will be disruptive and ugly and make people angry,” but at UVA, where students “are told to have fun, to be nice and polite and ‘Jeffersonian’ and never to break or question the cultural roles we act out,” even “questioning why political civility is equated with racist rapist Thomas Jefferson is deemed too disruptive to the status quo.”1 These statements capture both the power of discussion (it can be “disruptive”) and its delegitimization (“ugly” change is contrasted with mere “questioning,” which already goes too far).
Another student articulated the ambivalence produced by thinking and talking dangerously in such an environment:
I want to be able to have these conversations about sexual assault and rape and gender with others. I want to be able to get angry and hear anger and have it be OK, but at the same time I want to be able to live in my world happily. . . . My culture has conditioned me into a state of contentment; if I just accept how I’m meant to move through the world it will be much easier for me . . . but then I realize that I’ve just been taught to think that it’s easier this way, because my perceptions of what is easy and what I perceive as being difficult in life have been coded into me by my culture.
This statement, perhaps unwittingly, comes closest to the critique of ineffectiveness that I wish we had taught in the course. It includes the realization that the very idea of what is easy or difficult is culturally contingent. Troubling the idea of “easy” is, in a way, what our course attempted to do (in the sense that maintaining the status quo would seem easy). But we also intended to show the immense work we humans put into maintaining our ideas about gender, individualism, violence, and other ingredients of rape culture. Troubling the idea of “difficult,” however, is more akin to my interest in troubling students’ ideas of “ineffective” or “not worth it,” or whatever else keeps them feeling incapable of making change. If we can recognize that the quality of difficulty itself is not inherent, what can’t we achieve?
Other students did recognize some potential power in themselves, but limited it to abstaining from institutions altogether. One pledged: “I’ve decided that I don’t want to be a part of hookup culture because I think it makes a lot of people overly vulnerable and puts them at risk of sexual violence.” Another wrote: “I have fed into this systematic sexism and allowed myself to be objectified in the sense that I continually attend these parties, scantily clad and out to have a ‘good time’ through the normal means. . . . What disturbs me most about this whole thing is [that] I’m not completely sure attending, thus passively perpetuating [it], is something I’ll stop.” The value that these students placed on abstention or refusal reflects the limits of anthropology. If we are excellent at deconstruction but poor at construction, then it is not surprising that the only actions our students can imagine are subtractive rather than constitutive. In teaching this course, we really just managed to facilitate one kind of constructive action: open discussion. I find this ironic, as our promotion of this individually focused activity—aimed at educating people one by one, as Peng observed—is intertwined with the argument that solutions aimed at individuals can’t fix systemic ills.
So yes, in the end, I would say that there is a fundamental difference between activism and anthropology. But they can be close allies. We can teach how radically otherwise life is in other places, which can inspire us and our students to imagine how radically otherwise life could be where we are. We can teach the social construction of the most fundamental aspects of our lives and selves, and that can reveal the power we have as social actors—as creators. We can critique in such a way as to lift limits and make imagination flourish.
1. Thomas Jefferson, who founded UVA, is often positioned as the guiding light for values to which the university commits itself. By “racist,” this student is referring to the fact that Jefferson owned slaves, and by “rapist,” to Jefferson having fathered children by one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. Passages from student papers appear here with the permission of the student authors.
Bateson, Gregory. 1972. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.