Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Of Slaves "and" Women

The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. 
-- Toni Morrison 
(and/ or Morrison's griot
the wise blind woman, 
"the daughter of slaves,
[who] lives alone
in a small house
outside of town") 

Aristotle's project was systematic, a linguistic insurance policy against slippery-slope language.  Aristotle's project was to separate each natural thing from other things in Nature and to place them all into neat, differentiated, named categories.  A "natural born slave" is inherently different from its "master."  A "female" is essentially other than "the male" who chooses to marry her.  "Obedience from one's own slave" is one thing.  "Obedience from the female who is one's own wife" is another thing. 

This method of separation is what many in the West still tend to use when they try to make subjugation of a person by race different from subjugation of a person by gender or by class or even by sexual orientation.  This is even what some today do when they try to separate Roman slavery from American slavery.  And this is why Aristotle and contemporary Aristotelians are so careful to name their separate categories.  Contemporary Aristotelians, for example, will say that Aristotle or the Apostle Paul might (1) "command wives to submit to their husbands" but that this must be kept separate from the fact that Aristotle and Paul might (2) allow natural born "slavery."  Contemporary Aristotelians warn that it is not good to mix "suffrage" with "abolition" or to put "egalitarianism" in the same category as "civil rights."  "The slave analogy" -- or worse the metaphor "wife submission is slavery" -- is just illogical.  And, of course, "most feminists" must be separated from "the christian feminists."

So notice how "logical" separation tends to label one thing over the other.  The language of logic will exclude the middle and will put everything in its proper place on the map to under-stand hierarchical Nature.  Separate is only equal in the abstract ideal.  Syllogistic reasoning -- from the premise of an objective given to the next premise to the next to the invariable conclusion -- is real logic, the language of Nature's objective reality.  Hence:  "Master" is over his "slave."  "Husband" is over his "wife."  "Roman slavery" is over "the golden rule" which is over "American slavery."  "Complementary" Christian marriage in the twenty-first century understanding of the submissive wife is over the now-illegal "complementary" Christian institution of slavery with its now-outdated understanding of the obedient slave.  And, of course, "the christian feminists who try to use the Bible to support their case" are conclusively more logical than "most feminists."

Nonetheless, it may be good for us to remind ourselves that many, some Christians even, have not found Aristotle's logic method of separation so useful.   We might listen, for example, to Nancy Mairs, who is a feminist christian "and" a christian feminist too:
The fundamental structure of patriarchy is thus binary: me/not me, active/passive, culture/nature, normal/deviant, good/bad, masculine/feminine, public/private, political/personal, form/content, subjective/objective, friend/enemy, true/false. . . . It is a structure, both spatial and temporal, predicated upon separation, not relation. It demands rupture, the split into halves engendered by the abrupt erection of the phallus: those who have and those who have not. It speaks the language of opposites. 
Which is not women’s language, since women, for a variety of reasons, live in a polymorphic rather than a dimorphic world, a world in which the differentiation of self from other may never completely take place, in which multiple selves may engage multiply with the multiple desires of the creatures in it. Some theorists would claim that all subjects function thus. But as Julia Kristeva points out, female subjectivity, traditionally linked to cyclical and monumental time rather than to linear time, lies outside “language considered as the enunciation of sentences (noun + verb, topic – comment, beginning – ending).” Possessing an “irreducible identity, without equal in the opposite sex and, as such, exploded, plural, fluid,” a woman may be driven “to break the code, to shatter language, to find a specific discourse closer to the body and the emotions, to the unnamable repressed by the social contract.” (Voice Lessons: On Becoming a (Woman) Writer, page 41)
Hearing the name "Nancy," one might naturally label her a "female" and, therefore, more naturally a "feminist."

Nonetheless, it may be good for us to remind ourselves that many men, some black and enslaved and others white and always free, have not found Aristotle's logic method of separation so useful.  You may want to stay with me just a bit more for a couple of examples.  Here they are:

Frederick Douglass and John Stuart Mill saw the enslavement of the black race "and" the subjugation of women and as inextricably linked.  Therefore, they acted and spoke out as if they believed that to work "and" argue on behalf of the rights of the one group was also to work "and" argue for the other group as well.

Douglass was a black boy, a slave.  In 1830, when it was illegal for him to be taught to read because he was a black slave, a white woman, Sophia Auld, broke the law and taught Douglass how to read before he was a teenager.  And by age sixteen, he was breaking the law by teaching other slaves to read parts of the Bible and other works that he considered abolitionist.  Some years later, he married a freed slave Anna Murray -- who gained her freedom as a black person before he could; they worked together side by side.  In 1846, he was the publisher of several abolitionist newspapers, including the North Star, which had as it's motto:  “Right is of no sex--Truth is of no color--God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren."  Note the inclusivity of persons with respect to both gender "and" race.  In 1848, Douglass participated in the first women's conference in the United States of America in Seneca Falls, New York, where he signed the Declaration of Sentiments.  By 1863, Douglass had been engaging President Abraham Lincoln in conversation about abolitionism and, that year, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.  In 1870, the fifteenth amendment was passed, giving blacks but not women the right to vote.   In 1872, Douglass ran as the U.S. Vice President candidate of a woman, Victoria Clafin Woodhull, a candidate for President.  Woodhull could not vote although Douglass could.  In 1882, Douglass's wife Anna passed away and, a couple of years later, Douglass remarried and wed Helen Pitts, who caused controversy because they were a mixed-race couple.  Douglass, of mixed race himself, said:  "This proves I am impartial. My first wife was the color of my mother and the second, the color of my father."  Douglass worked side by side with Helen, for eleven years as husband and wife, until the day he took his last breath (February 20, 1890 when he died of a heart attack in the evening at home); it was a day when Douglass, still fighting against the subjugation of women, had taken the platform at the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C.  (Just to complete some of the timeline here:  it was not until 1920, some thirty years after Douglass passed away, that women in the USA were granted the right to vote.)  Douglass saw the subjugation of people because of race as the same sort of problem as the subjugation of people because of gender. 

I won't take as long here to sketch out the contributions of John Stuart Mill.  I do want to show that a free, white male in high power can still sound like Toni Morrison's wise black slave women, blind but seeing the blurring of Aristotle's convenient categories as important for freeing blacks from slavery and women from bondage in marriage, religion, politics, and civil society.

Mill wrote a work, "The Subjection of Women," in 1869 in England where for some time he was an influential Member of Parliament.  (He had worked side by side with Harriet Taylor, as husband and wife of seven years, before she passed away in 1858.)  By the title and content of Mill's essay, you can gather that he's advocating for women's rights.  But I want you to see how Mill deconstructs Aristotle's notion of separate categories.  I want you to know that Mill was an early expert on Aristotle.  This post will end now rather abruptly with Mill's words as he sees no difference between the awful subjection of women to the powers of men "and" the awful subjection of blacks to the powers of whites:
Some will object, that a comparison cannot fairly be made between the government of the male sex and the forms of unjust power which I have adduced in illustration of it, since these are arbitrary, and the effect of mere usurpation, while it on the contrary is natural. But was there ever any domination which did not appear natural to those who possessed it? There was a time when the division of mankind into two classes, a small one of masters and a numerous one of slaves, appeared, even to the most cultivated minds, to be natural, and the only natural, condition of the human race. No less an intellect, and one which contributed no less to the progress of human thought, than Aristotle, held this opinion without doubt or misgiving; and rested it on the same premises on which the same assertion in regard to the dominion of men over women is usually based, namely that there are different natures among mankind, free natures, and slave natures; that the Greeks were of a free nature, the barbarian races of Thracians and Asiatics of a slave nature. But why need I go back to Aristotle? Did not the slave-owners of the Southern United States maintain the same doctrine, with all the fanaticism with which men cling to the theories that justify their passions and legitimate their personal interests? Did they not call heaven and earth to witness that the dominion of the white man over the black is natural, that the black race is by nature incapable of freedom, and marked out for slavery? some even going so far as to say that the freedom of manual labourers is an unnatural order of things anywhere.

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