Monday, March 24, 2008

Expecting more from some "others"--is it fair?

Recently I was at a conference and found myself talking to a well-known feminist scholar. She taught at Research U. in Rural Town USA but disclosed during the course of conversation that she actually lived in Big City. When someone in our group commented about the long commute, she replied that it was 15 minutes by plane. And when someone else commented that this was one way to handle a long commute, she replied, "Well what other option do I have? To live in Rural Town?"

Her tone was fairly dismissive and final. That was an end to THAT discussion.

I've never been to Rural Town USA, but I would imagine that for the people who do live there--who teach at Research U and reside in the town where it sits, they do not have the option of a 15 minute commute to Big City. And even if they did, I'm not sure that everyone would take such an option.

I was turned off. I was disappointed. My first thought when she mentioned the 15 minute commute by plane was the size of her carbon footprint and wondering if she had seen INCONVENIENT TRUTH. My second thought upon hearing her dismiss living in Rural Town out of hand (and the veiled contempt at the thought that she'd have to live there) was the outright arrogance of such an assertion--how it smacked of elitism.

And the thought I am left with--that really informs the main point of this post is: I expected more of her. Because she is a feminist scholar. But is that fair? If she was a Renaissance scholar--if she was an Economics professor--if she was a Chemist--would I be turned off? If she were an Environmental Studies researcher, I'd think she was being hypocritical or in denial, but is there anything incommensurate with what she studies and a 15 minute plane ride and dismissive attitude about Rural Town? Why was my third reaction--and the persistent nagging in the back of my head--that as a feminist scholar--someone who works on ending gender/sexual oppression--that I expect MORE of her.

Being a feminist certainly doesn't preclude one from being elitist or environmentally un-friendly. But the carbon footprint aside, it was the sheer disdain for Rural Town that rankled me--that I would have expected a famous feminist scholar to be a bit more politic and polite, perhaps? But why should my expectations of a feminist scholar be any different? It's unfair, perhaps, but it is true. It's the same sense of disquiet I have when learning that a well known post-colonial critic has her grad students pick up her dry cleaning. Or discovering that a prestigious scholar of African American literature is a notorious womanizer. I'm not trying to idealize academics--we are an all too human bunch. But I've made certain assumptions about the kinds of scholarship that people do--ones that emphasize an end to oppression--or a recognition of oppression--so seeing someone, hearing someone, witnessing someone make remarks or live in a way that seems at odds with their research, doesn't feel right to me. Even as I question whether it's fair that I ask more of these people than I do of others.

Which reminds me, of course, of the way we are talking about race in politics--directing the discourse at the Democrats while what are we expecting of Republicans--why do we hold certain others more accountable?


Cipher said...

Inasmuch as I normally agree with the sentiments expressed in your posts, I will defend the "feminist scholar" on one level. There are certain elements of an urban location that cannot in any way be reproduced in a rural setting, so there is the question of "home" ad how it is conceptualized and how important establishing "home" might be.

Yes, the environmental issue you bring up is extremely important, so I don't think I'm saying that she becomes completely exonerated, but she exercised a certain choice that may be very well connected to a spatial geography that she PERCEIVES is essential to her own orientation, her sense of placedness.

As an example, queer subcultures tend not to exist in any generative form in rural areas, even suburban ones, so if this feminist scholar was queer, perhaps she feels she has "no choice" but to live in a city.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for the perpective--and carbon footprint aside, I do understand a preference for living in Big City vs. Rural Town--and while I'm not certain as to the feminist scholar's sexuality, certainly I believe her to be queer friendly and urban as well as urbane, so it's a cosmopolitanism that I think she desires to be rooted in, which Rural Town is not known for.

What I think disturbed me was the dismissiviness--the "of course" you have to live outside Rural Town because this place is so beneath my cultural expectations. I mean, I have also heard others express that their first choice preference is not to live in Rural Town, but some of us don't have that choice and it was the attitude she expressed more than her own underlying reasons.

And, more importantly, it was my own reaction--that I had unfairly expected MORE from said feminist scholar because she is a feminist scholar. And if she was famous race sociologist or cultural critic or queer theorist, I would also have higher expectations about her espousing certain politics.

And why? I recognize it's unfair--but I guess I'm trying to puzzle out--as unfair as it may be, do we also expect more from some people because they are talking the talk and we want them to walk the walk?

In which case, we give certain others a "pass" on not having to talk about certain issues. And, again, it's my on-going frustration that we aren't holding John McCain to the same scrutiny regarding race as we are Clinton and Obama.

Tami said...

I LOVE this, Jennifer.

I am working on a wrap-up post as the Women's History Month blog carnival comes to an end. And the one of the submissions that struck me the most was yours, when you talked about your disappointing first meeting with bell hooks (not, I imagine, the same person you speak of here). It was your essay that first made me begin thinking about how we expect a lot from the leading lights of feminism, civil rights, etc.

IMHO, as a liberal, I expect a lot of other progressives and I have come to find over the last few months that that is naive. I think this has something to do with the "big tent" language of many progressive movements. We talk so much of ideas like acceptance and tolerance that we often overlook the reality that ALL of us have prejudices and biases--race-based, gender-based, and, yes, geography based.

I cringe a little when folks denigrate small towns. Even though I have spent my life mostly in suburban settings, big cities, mid-sized cities and college towns, I AM a Midwesterner. And folks who look down their noses at rural areas often reserve the same disregard for the "flyover states." I understand what Cipher said about looking for a queer-friendly city. As a black woman, I definitely look for places where I will be accepted. Thing is--rural folks aren't necessarily bigoted and city types aren't always as open-minded as they think.

Anonymous said...

Interesting (as always) post, Jennifer. I live in a very rural town -- far too rural to have anything remotely close to even a community college, let alone a university; we don't even have a big grocery store here -- and I commute 1-1/2 to 2 hours each way to the Big City to work every day. By bus. I do it for many reasons, among them that I am a feminist. Even if I enjoyed driving (which I do not), I wouldn't drive to work. It's way too hard on the environment, it is way too self-indulgent. It's beyond me to consider commuting by plane. I think it's completely correct to expect that feminist scholars behave in ways which are socially, environmentally, feministly responsible. That's what credibility is all about, I think. The other thing is, and one of these days I'm going to write a bunch of posts about it, there is tremendous prejudice in the United States against rural people. There are all sorts of reasons scholars and "queer" people, lesbians, at least, live in the country. Some pioneering and cutting edge lesbian women's lands/women's communities are located in rural areas, same with all sorts of artist colonies, people involved in sustainable agriculture, wilderness preservation, etc. I go to the Big City every day from my rural location and can avail myself of what the city offers then. To me, given the hardships women are suffering throughout the world, so many horrific hardships because they are women, it seems hard to defend a feminist scholar living in the way you describe. There is no way someone who is living this way is going to be able to deeply relate with by far most of the world's women, and deeply relating with the world's women is central to feminism, seems to me.

Jennifer said...

I know I've said it before (or I hope I've said it to you) but I really love the Women's History Month blog carnival that you and Heart (Womensspace) are doing--it's been great reading the various posts and I often find something that really moves me (either to tears or anger many times).

And I appreciate what you have to say about my own submission for the carnival--the bell hooks encounter stuck with me for quite a while--what I didn't write about was the real pain it caused me. And the sense of shame and anger I felt. But looking back on this experience in hindsight, I'm much more forgiving of ms. hooks and of myself--because I think that at heart, we really did want the same thing--an end to white supremacy and an acknowledgement of the deep anger that many have over this history. And what it taught me is that good intentions (on my part) are not enough and that I cannot expect that bell hooks will fold me into her cause--I have to find my own purchase on issues of race and racism and if I need her help, to call on her and to call her out when I feel like she's not hearing me. And, you know, from what I've read and seen about her, I think she'd respect this position and I think she'd be open to having as many allies as she can.

But you are so right in talking about the difficulties of our own expectations in WANTING SOMETHING MORE AND BIGGER from some of our icons.

Heart/Womensspace, I appreciate your take on the rural issue and getting at the root of what has been rankling me: Famous feminist scholar (who is NOT bell hooks, btw) espoused an attitude that I find incomensurate with being a feminist. And while there is not a single way of being a feminist (and we must be careful to choose among our feminisms) I definitely agree, with you, that my own brand and take on feminism is that it includes a desire to understand women globally--relating to them where they are at rather than where I want to be. And you are SO RIGHT that where a majority of women are at in the world are in rural communities.

But really, what just rankled was the disdain and elitism--and I don't want my brand of feminism to be elitist.

Anyway, thanks to you both for such thoughtful comments!

Anonymous said...

Heart said: "There is no way someone who is living this way is going to be able to deeply relate with by far most of the world's women, and deeply relating with the world's women is central to feminism, seems to me."

I agree 100%. I find it very difficult to understand feminists who don't think that a commitment to our Mother Earth is essential to a feminist revolution. And yes, women who don't have a connection to the Earth are unlikely to have a connection to the world's women.

By the way, love this blog, Jennifer.

Jennifer said...

Allecto--thanks so much for leaving a comment and for affirming part of my deep disquiet over this person's comment (and suspicion about her commitment to feminist issues).

And thanks for the compliment about the blog! I hope you will leave more comments in the future.