Thursday, January 25, 2007

At What Point Is It Her Fault?

All my great ideas come to me during breakfast. Today I didn't so much as have an epiphany, but rather I started formulating a question that I thought would be good to ask my readership. I don't have the answer yet, but I imagine that serious reflection on the question might inspire me to write a paper on this issue.

So, here goes: Radical feminist critiques of patriarchy and its institutions, such as the traditional family structure, assert that women are concretely harmed not only by the ideology of patriarchy, but by the roles they are assigned, and the behavior of many men towards women. The men can be fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfathers, boyfriends, or husbands. Each of these men, empowered by patriarchy to see themselves as more valuable and hence deserving to be served. Women, under this arrangement, develop low self-esteem and become self-sacrificing to the point of not only harming themselves, but perhaps putting their loved ones in danger out of fear of worse consequences, i.e. not properly protecting their children from an abusive spouse.

The question is coming, I promise. Anyway, this kind of radical critique leads to a rethinking of moral responsibility. Many women, rightly, are not condemned for not leaving an abusive relationship or stopping abuse of their children. The explanation, generally, is that oppressive structures crippled the otherwise healthy self-esteem and moral agency of the woman, to the point of exonerating her from blame. Now, I don't necessarily disagree that in some cases women (or any other abused person) have been so profoundly harmed that they either cannot act, or do not know how to act. But, like most reasonable people, I wonder how far this kind of account of women's behavior can go.

The contrast to this account is the radical libertarian account that claims all and everyone is responsible for him or herself in all situations. Neither of these sweeping claims--social institutions are to blame or only individual are to blame--really carry the day. And yet, it seems that our systems of punishment only work with one or the other. In the case of the radical feminist critique, all men become suspect unless they consciously and actively denounce their male privilege. It is here that my question arises. How do we think about this in a more nuanced way? Is it really the case that we can exonerate women's ill behavior as the unfortunate scar of patriarchy? Are men who enjoy privilege without any conscious recognition that there may be something wrong with that privilege necessarily suspect?

Until we start sorting these questions out, we are left with a protectionist legal system that assumes women are victims and men are perpetrators of violence.

UPDATE: An astute commenter below pointed out how ambiguous my phrase "ill behavior" was. I didn't mean to suggest that the ill behavior was not protecting their children from abuse. What I had in mind is the everyday ill behavior that you might experience from a person who either grew up in abusive home or a home with an overbearing parent (father). Sometimes we label ill behavior a "personality disorder" like "borderline personality disorder" or "narcissistic personality disorder." When we label it we diminish moral agency as well. But, can a woman, growing up in patriarchy and enduring scars from patriarchy, nonetheless be an "asshole"? That was my question.

Moreover, SteveG helped flesh out the other part of the question that interests me. If someone is benefitting from a privilege, in this case a man, is he necessarily "guilty" if he doesn't call into question this privilege? If a man believes, for example, that women are just too emotional or better at taking care of the home, but he isn't exactly someone who is enforcing his privilege via physical punishment or controlling behaviors, is he a sexist pig who is damaging the women he comes into contact with?