Risking the Collective
Working Together - Justice Advocacy in Difficult Times
Ruth Elizabeth Krall, MSN, PhD
In our own struggle as activists we learned that where there is silence, there is complicity.
Father Roy Bourgeoisi
This monograph begins with a fundamental assumption: if we want to change the world’s social and cultural structures of violence and injustice and their deeply embedded habits of concealment and complicity, we must realize that the world’s underlying conceptual systems or its collective ideology must be addressed and changed. Joseph Campbell’s often- repeated assertion that to change the social world you must change its underlying myth and metaphor system is a guiding beacon light in these essays.ii
For example, to change human behavior it is necessary to interrogate, understand, and then to challenge deeply engrained belief systems or foundational human assumptions. It is necessary to understand and seek to modify and moderate the body-mind’s rapid-fire stimulus-response pattern. It is necessary to change individual and cultural habits and automatic conditioned behaviors. Vis-à-vis human violence this need is urgent because our deepest belief systems and our most tightly held assumptions about life motivate much, perhaps most, human behavior.
Our underlying cultural assumptions about that which is right, proper, and good are reflected in individual (and collective) behavior and habit patterns. Culturally-inculcated belief systems and individual acts of human behavior reinforce each other on a minute-to minute basis. Changing social behavior is, therefore, not simply a matter of addressing and changing the individual human by addressing the intellect.
In addition to needed personal or individual change efforts, we humans must make collective changes in our most cherished and shared beliefs and ideology systems. We must make similar and much-needed changes in our organizational structures – those ordering systems that guide our daily lives in the collective.
6Most of us, I believe, hold deeply conflicted belief systems.iii These conflicted systems go unexamined because they are the background to our lives – not the foreground.
What we do behaviorally strengthens and reinforces some aspect of our belief systems. In addition, our individual and collective belief systems also strengthen our proclivities for choosing this behavior over that behavior. It may not be so much a question of what we think that drives our behavior but what we believe and what we assume. It may not be so much a question of our individual values as it is a situation of collective beliefs, cultural habits, shared values, and socially-acceptable practices.iv
If the sexual violence narrative of our human culture is to change, not only individual change is needed: collective change is needed as well.
The ever-shifting sea of human consciousness must change for individual consciousness to change. When individual consciousness changes, the surrounding sea of collective consciousness must adapt and, therefore, it too undergoes change. The socially-engaged reciprocity of self and other is essential to lasting social change. It is also essential to lasting personal changes in individual behavior. Individual behavior changes and cultural milieu changes go hand-in-hand. It is unlikely that there will be lasting and permanent cultural changes (particularly in shared ideologies) without lasting and permanent change in individual humans. It is equally unlikely that individuals will make permanent changes without the presence of supporting cultural (i.e., ideological) change.
In his book The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature, David Suzuki illustrates this principal in very direct and simple ways. He writes:
In the 1940’s when I was a boy, there were signs everywhere prohibiting spitting, because otherwise people would gob on the floors of streetcars and buildings. Today we would be horrified if someone were to spit on the floor and yet there are no signs or reminders not to do so. That’s because in our society it is now understood that you don’t do that: no spitting in public is a value that we all take for granted.v
Suzuki’s book is about the need for human beings to re-locate themselves in their relationships with nature and with the environment. But his words are also applicable to the short essays which follow. As a culture – whether secular or religious – we collectively and individually are not yet agreed that acts of interpersonal violence (most specifically sexual violence and domestic physical assaults) are unacceptable human behaviors. There are warning signs all around us about the damages done by sexual violence and by domestic abuse. These warning signs show up on every horizon we scan. The value of sexual respect for the rights of others (most particularly, the essential values of mutuality and freely-given consent) have not yet permeated our collective and individual consciousness. They have not yet transformed a needed mass of individuals. Thus, they have not yet transformed the collective.
These values of care, mutuality and freely given consent do not drive our individual and collective human behaviors vis-à-vis our sexual relationships with one another. In terms of our deepest personal values and beliefs, we both excuse and make space for violence (most specifically sexual violence) as culturally and personally acceptable: until, of course, we become the target of this or that form of violence.
Inside our daily lives, we make space for coercion. We make space for spanking. We make space for slapping. We make space for social discrimination against others. We make space for authoritarianism. We make space for stalking. We make space for social abandonment and shunning. We make space for bullying and for cyber-bullying. We make space for interpersonal domination. We make space for intimidation. We make space for duplicitous seduction. We make space for verbal abuse. We make space for the pornographic eye. We make space for an imbalance of sexual powers. Increasingly we make space for murder by the use of lethal weaponry.
The strong macho male, in our entertainment media, wins or more frequently simply claims and takes the weaker female as his own to use as he wishes. And the audience cheers. As our entertainment media and advertising violence escalates, so too do our personal acts of violence.
This monograph looks at sexual violation, anti-violence activism, and victim advocacy movements. It also looks contextually at American feminisms as containing a needed critique of male dominance (i.e., patriarchal dominance), and the prevalence of male-initiated physical and sexual violence towards women and their children. It looks (often slant) at what women have learned about cultural discrimination, violence against women and their children in the context of American feminisms. Thus, it looks back, into the twentieth-century to harvest and mine the wisdom that women gained in their work as advocates for women and their children.
Describing women’s lives inside patriarchal societies (as seen through the microscopic reflective lens of her personal and professional life), German feminist theologian Dorothee Solle observed: I often felt like a bird on the ground. A woman walks about on this man’s land as clumsy as a duck and just as awkward.vi
The particular microscopic lens with which we begin is focused on the organized activism that began with SNAP – the Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests -- in 1988. While not explicitly a feminist organization, SNAP’s history is rooted within a longer cultural history of feminist advocacy and self-help organizations. This cultural history began a century earlier.vii In addition, SNAP has deep roots in Catholic social justice movements such as PAX Christi and the Catholic Worker Movement.viii
In addition, this monograph will also look at the first and second wave of American feminisms and various forms of advocacy against sexual and domestic violence; at the feminist campaign for reproductive rights, and at the feminist campaign against economic discrimination. Along the way, we will discover some of the issues that surround social activism in general.
These mini-essays look at a process of ongoing cultural change regarding our American society’s views about women and their children. These changes began with the protests of American suffragettes in the nineteenth century. They continue today in the twenty-first century inside the co- terminus second, third, and fourth waves of American feminisms.
While the Dalai Lama is often quoted as saying that Western women will save the world, it remains unclear about the specific methodologies of change that are needed for this cultural salvation to happen.ix When the
Dalai Lama proclaims himself to be a feminist, exactly what does he include in feminist analysis?x What he is quoted as saying is this: I call myself a feminist. Isn’t that what you call someone who fights for women’s rights?xi Inside a patriarchal world view, what are we to make of his words?
I personally believe that women’s voices and women’s work on behalf of the safety of other women and their children are both essential to the needed culture-wide metaphor change that Joseph Campbell talked about before his death. Until we can culturally agree that men’s sexualized physical violence against women and their children is as unacceptable as spitting on the sidewalk or on an airplane floor, the contemporary pandemic of sexual and physical violence against women and their children will continue. For change to happen, our most basic assumptions about maleness, femaleness, human sexuality and the social organization of our lives as individuals must all undergo a thorough-going critique and process of change. Our most cherished beliefs must be examined through the microscopic and telescopic lenses of needed change.
The role of the world’s most sacred and cherished scriptures must also be critically examined. This is so because the world views embedded within these ancient texts (all of them written and constructed inside the patriarchal epoch of human life and history) contribute to the world view that both accepts and proclaims male domination of the earth and male violation of the female as acceptable, necessary and redemptive.xii
The idea, for example, that God created Eve for the sole purpose of caring for Adam and bearing his children, is pernicious. The idea that Eve is the secondary and lesser half of the human creation is preposterous. The idea that a male god placed the dominant male Adam in charge of nature and his subordinate female human companion is both preposterous and pernicious.xiii
The patriarchal and authoritarian principles of male primacy and male supremacy are structural pilings in today’s cultures of violence towards women and their children. Until these ideological pilings are uprooted and permanently destroyed, pandemic forms of male violence will continue unchallenged and unabated.
The public health danger of gobs of old spit on surfaces used by the public is known and this scientific knowledge was one factor in changing the public acceptability (or non-acceptability in this case) of individuals spitting hockers in public places.
Today, we also know the public health dangers of physical and sexual violence against women and their children.xiv We have not yet made the cultural shift that is needed for this abusive and violent behavior to become socially unacceptable. Elements of that cultural shift are perhaps in place but the underlying global metaphor system of male supremacy and male dominance remain solidly anchored in place.
When we can all agree that sexual violence is culturally unacceptable (just as hocking gobs of spit on the living room carpet or the theater mezzanine steps is an unacceptable physical and social reality) then we will begin the slow process of dismantling a sick culture that actively promotes sexual violence in its advertising and in its entertainment media.xv