Personal reflections on the theme of women’s internalised oppression in response to Sonia Johnson’s brilliant and important book, “Going Out of Our Minds: The Metaphysics of Liberation.”
“I heard you’re running a sleep deprivation cult,” a leader of the US National Organisation of Women (NOW) said to Sonia Johnson when she visited their offices shortly after helping to organise a feminist retreat, where women – of their own volition – had stayed up late talking and singing.
I laughed when I read that. It reminded me of the many things that have been claimed about me – for example, being compared to Donald Trump, accused of bullying, of concealing important information that I had in fact shared appropriately, of being on an ego trip, of not speaking to survivors, of being “difficult” and “as mad as a box of frogs,” of having a personality disorder, and of using my own history of surviving incest and CSE, and my hearing disability, to “get my own way” in some unspecified way. Rumours have been spread that I did something (exactly what is never specified) that was so terrible in the past that several high-profile women (who barely know me) refused to sit in a room with me. And thus my years of quiet (unpaid) contribution to the feminist and abolitionist movement is disappeared.
Nordic Model Now! (NMN) the grassroots group I co-founded last year, has similarly been beset with endless complaints and accusations, whispering campaigns, and malicious gossip, many originating from high-profile “feminists” and most directed at myself personally. For example, we have been accused by an internationally renowned “feminist” of “causing the EU and UK abolitionist networks to be on permanent damage control” by doing something we didn’t actually do but were accused of doing by a pro-sex industry journalist.
Closer to home, two high-profile feminists accused us of “political ineptitude unparalleled in the history of the UK abolitionist movement” for suggesting that the members of the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC), which was considering whether buying sex should become a criminal offence, should declare whether they were in fact sex buyers themselves to avoid a conflict of interest. Less than two months later Keith Vaz, the chair of the committee, was in fact outed as a sex buyer and our accusers then immediately stated publicly – with poker faces – that this should disqualify him from the inquiry. As if… Well never mind. Regardless, we were still in the dog house and continued to be accused of “smearing” the poor innocent men on the committee.
High profile feminists have accused NMN of a seemingly endless list of other things that we are told have “damaged the abolitionist movement” – from “presenting Norway and Sweden as one landmass named Sweden” in our popular article about the violence inherent in prostitution (the map was in fact of the EU, of which Norway is not part and so was not shown) to quoting “non-existent” New Zealand government data in our article about a meme when we clearly provide a link to the New Zealand government’s website where the data is – er – publicly available.
Each accusation is often repeated in public or semi-public social media forums and similar, often multiple times, and, because the accusers are highly regarded, what they say is taken at face value and our reputation is trashed and our effectiveness as a campaigning force is damaged – and few are interested in the fact that the accusations are demonstrably untrue or simply evidence of reasonable difference of opinion.
Sometimes it feels like living in a war zone where the greatest danger is from people on one’s own side. The temptation to give up is immense – especially since you know beyond all doubt that if you did so, it would all stop. Just like that. The emotional energy required to carry on in the face of seemingly endless hostility from one’s own side is considerable.
And all the while we feel obliged to keep silent because we don’t want to bring the movement into disrepute – while simultaneously worrying that our silence is allowing this destructive and poisonous behaviour to proliferate and damage the movement. As indeed it is.
We frequently hear stories of other women being treated similarly, often by the same women or those close to them. What the women who are treated in this way have in common, is that they have got up off their arses and done something for women and the movement. Invariably they are unpaid, grassroots women conducting thankless labour.
The subliminal message to all the other women in the movement is: keep your head down below the parapet; follow blindly; do not question the self-appointed leaders; conform.
“The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it is conformity.” Rollo May
Sonia Johnson names this syndrome as internalized oppression, and explains it is common in all oppressed groups. On page 43 she writes:
“Slaves and prisoners, for example, are always far harder on one another than they are on their keepers and guards. Far less kind and tolerant, for obvious reasons. They also earn the favour of their keepers by betraying one another daily in large and small ways.”
Sometimes when I have told my friends about what has happened, they have asked, “But why would anyone want to do that?” As if I am imagining it or being fanciful. If only. Sonia explains:
“Once we understand that patriarchy is totally dependent upon our mistrusting and thwarting and hurting one another, and that for this reason we have been deliberately, thoroughly, and fiercely indoctrinated from birth to hate and to hurt women, surely we can forgive one another and learn to resist this most central and deadly of all patriarchal mandates.
Our internalized oppression has at its core the almost unshakable, almost entirely unconscious conviction that we deserve our condition because we are inferior in every way; we cannot rule our own lives, we must depend on men for everything, and must therefore please them, because we have no personal power and are incompetent, unattractive, stupid. Name something positive and we’re not it.” [Page 44]
She uses stories from her many years of campaigning to illustrate how it works.
“My experience with NOW’s leaders taught me that though they called themselves feminists their minds were still caught fast in the patriarchal power paradigm. One by one, as strong women arose within the organization and would not toe the official line, they were subjected to exorcism through one ritual or another. Which is all too bad and very heavy, because it is exactly how the men in power want us to behave, have trained us to behave toward one another. As long as we keep it up, we will never be able to change anything, and they know it. […]
I began to learn the outline of the psychology of the oppressed that night […]: the horizontal violence, or inappropriate striking out against powerless peers as a substitute for facing the fearsome anger inside and the fearsome and powerful masters; imitation of the oppressors’ paradigm, organizational loyalty – instilled through systematic humiliation by peers – as the highest value; confessionalism and group ritual as primary means of maintaining conformity; the absolute belief in the scarcity of power.
In the weeks that followed, when I had time to reflect on the implications of what had happened […] I concluded that woman-hating among women is the most serious problem in the world.” [Pages 52-53, emphasis added]
On page 230 she briefly alludes to the internalized oppression she witnessed during her 1984 presidential campaign:
“I can’t and won’t pretend the campaign was without crushing evidence that internalized oppression is alive and flourishing in the women’s movement. Sometimes lying awake at night pondering this, I felt very close to Matilda Joslyn Gage, whom Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton so deliberately erased from history in the last century. It was happening to me. Though I cared for my own sake, I suffered mostly from what I knew it meant about the possibility of women’s changing the world. If we can’t take ourselves seriously unless the men do, we shall never take ourselves seriously, and shall never do the work before us of transforming human society. [Page 230, emphasis in original]
She makes a plea to us all to stop this habit:
“The instant enough of us break this habit among ourselves, however, patriarchy will begin to wither. We must therefore take this ugly and ubiquitous phenomenon seriously enough, each one of us, to go out of our sadomasochistic minds right now and begin studying in our own lives how to stop getting kicks from hurting one another.” [Page 58-59]
She noticed particular resistance from the so-called leaders in the movement:
“Leaders – in the patriarchal sense (and so far that’s still the only sense in which we really recognise leaders) – acquire over time a substantial stake in the status quo […] Leaders have found their place, they are well known and respected, and make much of their livelihood from the fact of their position in the movement. What if some upstart comes along and changes everything? What if the women’s movement should really take another direction? Where would that put them? Those in power in any group don’t want things to change. They stand to lose their relatively safe and prestigious niche if other “leaders” come along. They resist change passionately, and are unconscious of their motivation.” [Page 139]
She relates the difficulty that women have in working through their differences in a creative way to how girls are socialised:
“Whereas little boys argue, fight it out, and go on from there, little girls on the playground stop the game if anything goes wrong. Since the disillusioned women on the campaign couldn’t stop the game, they quit playing and went home.
We haven’t been taught that the girl’s game must go on, that we must learn to work together, that since there is no getting out of it we may as well figure out how to do it. We’ve been taught precisely the opposite – that we must not work together, and that there shouldn’t be a serious girls’ game in the first place.”
Sonia wrote “Going Out of our Minds” in the mid-1980s. I fear there have been a number of developments since then that have made the situation even worse.
We have disappeared down the rabbit hole of postmodernism and identity politics – where feelings take precedence over material reality – particularly when the feelings relate to those with more power at the expense of those with less.
At the same time neoliberalism – unrestrained capitalism, profit at any cost – has come to be the dominant paradigm. The medical-pharmaceutical industry has taken advantage of this and redefined normal human distress as pathology that requires psychoactive drugs to fix the chemical imbalance in the brain that they insist causes it – regardless that the science does not back this up.[*] Meanwhile millions of women worldwide are medicated and the profits roll in.
The belief that you have a chemical imbalance in your brain caused by forces you can’t control and that requires strong mind-altering substances to correct it is toxic. This belief, together with the changes the drugs cause to the functioning of the brain, tends to keep people stuck and makes working through difficulties and finding creative solutions harder, or even impossible.
Sonia notes (on page 204) that “discomfort always precedes change and accompanies it.” But the psychiatric paradigm works against the understanding that sometimes we need to just sit our discomfort out rather than looking for someone or something to blame.
In the mid-1980s there were no listservs and no social media, so trashing tools were limited, primitive even. Sonia had to physically go to the NOW offices to hear that she was running a sleep-deprivation cult.
Now we can broadcast our misogynistic rage at each other to thousands, millions even, quicker than the blink of an eye. And when an email from a high-profile woman comes round to the hundreds of recipients of an Australian listserv, for example, about how a UK group did something awful, how is anyone to know that it is in fact not true? But it is so delicious to hear that other women are bad, because then we can feel a teensy bit better, so we take it to heart and repeat it next time someone mentions that group.
And in this brave new, always-connected world, people can easily make accusations, but there are no due processes to check the validity of the claims or to give the accused a right of reply. And so the accusations fester and eventually come to be seen as unassailable truth. And out of the window goes the necessity to feel our anxiety and discomfort and find a way through the confusion to a creative resolution. And we become that little bit smaller and so does the movement.
And our collective hold on reality becomes that bit weaker: Sonia Johnson is not one of the most brilliant and profound feminist thinkers of her generation but some wacko who ran a sleep-deprivation cult. And the possibility of changing the world for women slips that bit further from our reach.
I leave you with this from page 292:
“In a global society based on the hatred of women, and dying of that hatred, the most redemptive act possible is to love women. The universe is therefore challenging us – all of us – either to learn to love women or to die. It is challenging us to love ourselves as women, to deeply honor and respect ourselves and all other women, to listen to and trust – and be trustworthy to – and to take women and our culture very, very seriously. If we do not do this, nothing else we do matters. If we do not do this this, all is lost.
The universe is challenging men to love that which is womanly in themselves and in all things, and to honor and respect women everywhere all the time.”[Emphasis in original]
- Download a PDF version of Sonia’s wonderful book
- TRASHING: The Dark Side of Sisterhood by Jo Freeman aka Joreen
- Power and Helplessness in the Women’s Movement by Joanna Russ
- Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying by Adrienne Rich
[*] For more on this, see:
- Toxic Psychiatry by Peter Breggin
- Cracked: Why psychiatry is doing more harm than good by James Davies
- Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill by Robert Whitaker
- Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America by Robert Whitaker