You Can’t Debate Mutuality by Sara Frykenberg


Sara FrykenbergParticipating in the Women’s March on Jan. 21st in Los Angeles fed my soul deeply. I didn’t realize how much I needed to protest in this way, how stuck I had been in grief and despair after the election, and the way that coming together as a community would help me to mourn. There’s nothing quite like standing together with hundreds of thousands of people who also care deeply with hope, humor, and real power. Marching helped me to find the energy to fight back. It refilled a reservoir, so depleted in 2016, much as the badly needed winter rain in my home state of California has helped to abate the severe drought.

I re-membered the power of community at the March. I re-membered the power of standing with my sister, who attended the march with me, one week post-surgery, protesting from her wheel chair; the power of standing with my brother, who sent pictures from his march in Philadelphia; the power of standing with friends.

One week after the March, I also had a good reminder that ‘debating mutuality’ is a good way to waste my energy, and something I simply need to avoid. It started with anger, as so many online ‘debates’ do—a response to a friend whom had reposted strong criticism of the Women’s March, criticism from a woman (of course) that chided marching women for thinking they are oppressed, redirecting attention to international women’s issues (ignoring the international reach of Women’s Marches), and generally, suggesting that we needed to stop whining already. I called the post ignorant and noted one of unexamined privilege it reflected, while lauding the love I experienced that day.

My friend replied—but then, so did her husband—and I proceeded to debate with him for the next two days. In an effort to refrain from giving too much more energy to the actual discussion here, I will summarize: he is an evangelical complementarian who argued that patriarchy is God’s punishment of Eve (I know, I know… I should have just walked away then), that feminist ideology was “a joke,” and described feminists as “anti-man,” suggesting that they take other people’s rights away, are often violent, and seek the replacement of patriarchy with matriarchy.

This was simply too much for me. I am not his friend, online or otherwise, and did not invite this attack; and I so badly wanted to attack back. And I did at first… but frankly, I don’t like debate. I used to be good at debate, which I define as argument with an aim towards ‘winning’ (which is also to say, I do not see all argument as debate). My siblings and I debated with our father during dinners. My undergraduate academic training certainly encouraged me to debate. However, I discovered early on during my graduate training in feminist theology that I could not accomplish my ends, more love, more justice and more mutuality (an aim of so many of the feminist theologians that I admire), by winning arguments.

Perhaps ‘winning’ works in certain settings, such as courtrooms where lawyer’s carefully crafted arguments have to be measured against the external standard of the law… though positions are also weighed against the internal biases of a jury or judge, and the biases of the laws themselves, which are just a couple of reasons why the courts have failed so many people of color in the United States.

Debating with this man online, I was continually frustrated by his persistent efforts to draw me back into argumentation based on the evidence deemed admissible to his narrow and conservatively defined notion of Christian evangelical ‘truth.’ I reject this parameter for ‘winning,’ as it is closed and often based on circular logic.

On the other hand, I certainly, would have preferred my candidate, Hillary Clinton, to win the 2016 election based on my own notions of morality; and many liberals argued this case. But interpersonally, within community, and even in the national presidential debates, arguing with the intent to win often reinforces our buy-in to dualism, alienation and our desire to win by reducing the ‘other’ to nothing.

I tried to resist debate, turning my professor-self “on” during this unfortunate argument, introducing ideas with questions, trying to redirect him to his own statements, and yes, making assertions of my own; but the simple fact of the matter was that my ‘opponent’ didn’t want to dialogue—he did want to debate. Actually, as he explained when I finally withdrew from the discussion, this man saw the public argument as a way to edify other Christians who are so often attacked by feminists, atheists and the like, even warning (?) me that I would indeed hear from him again if a similar discussion occurred on his wife’s feed in the future.

I found this warning deeply ironic, given the fact that my initial post was a response to feeling attacked by someone who is supposed to be my friend (something I had explained). Did he really just tell me that he would defend his wife from me, her friend, in case of future attack? Am I the dragon to his princess? This comment, though, helped me to further examine my own white privilege—and a particular way that white women tend to use this privilege. How often are people of color told that they are “attacking people” (or white women in particular) when they are trying to assert their own viewpoints or feelings on an issue? Too often. Too often those who are oppressed experience this moral inversion: they are made into the aggressor to the dominant culture’s supposed order and individualized victimhood.

When I say that, “you can’t debate mutuality,” what I mean is that I do not believe you can debate mutuality into being. While my friend worked towards some mutuality in her initial and post-debate comments to me, the debate with her husband accomplished none of my spiritual feminist aims, because it was ultimately pinned against the stakes of “winning” instead of true dialogue, life-giving forms of argument, listening or mutual exchange. I take that back—the debate did accomplish something. Both husband and wife informed me that this discussion would help people to see the “truth.” Hence, all of my efforts were envisaged, to my horror, as apologetical education.

I use words like “mutuality,” “listening,” and “love,” here as I discuss my understanding of feminist justice-making and eschew debate. In patriarchal and kyriarchal terms, I am sure this makes me look like a “soft woman,” or “liberal snowflake.” But I want to make it abundantly clear: I see these as powerful, often forceful and even angry tools. We listen to what oppressors say so that they cannot deceive with their “alternative facts.” We love forcefully through political action, phone banking and letter writing to pressure officials and law-makers into taking action. We counter violence—we do not debate it—with anger, humor, creativity and power, in order to redirect its energies into more mutual possibilities.

I wasted energy this month trying to debate mutuality into being. It was a good lesson; and I am now choosing to use my energy, the energy so preciously and abundantly found when in-community, to argue, to resist, and to love in more meaningful ways.

Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Sara is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles, CA. She earned her Ph.D. in Religion from Claremont Graduate University in 2011, emphasizing Women’s Studies in Religion, and Theology, Ethics and Culture. Her research interests include the formation of counter-abusive community, relational and feminist theo/alogy, feminism and gaming, and embodiment issues in technology. In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.

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Categories: Activism, Community, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General, Herstory, power, White Privilege

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10 replies

  1. Interestingly enough just before reading your post I was revising the presentation Judith Plaskow and I made at the AAR on our new book Goddess and God in the World. I had just added these words to the essay: “Reflecting on our journey together, we concluded that two shared assumptions made our dialogue across difference possible. The first is that the purpose of theology is to promote the flourishing of this world. The second is the hermeneutical principle that every text, tradition, and revelation, whether personal or communal, must be reflected upon by individuals and communities who must decide how to interpret them.”

    I suspect you don’t share either of those principles with your friend’s husband. This is why the ground keeps slipping under you, because you understand the principle of interpretation and he keeps reverting to authoritative truth. (I had this problem years ago when I argued with my Mormon brother about women’s equality.)

    I agree with you that it is very difficult to dialogue with someone when you don’t share the same “ground rules” and I rarely bother with it any more. This causes me to reflect on words I have been reading on opinion pages and on FAR that we have to talk with those with whom we disagree. Can we? How? I tend to share your feeling that it is a lost cause if the disagreement is fundamental. Such as perhaps, not accepting science or not accepting that the New York Times or LA Times are relatively more reliable souces than Fox News and Briebart.

    What to do???

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  2. As feminists, I think we need to stay out of competition with each other. Every human being is unique and is going to have their own special way of seeing things. We don’t have to convince other feminists to agree with how we translate feminism, we can simply enjoy the diversity and delightful range of all that feminist possibility out there. That’s why FAR is so very interesting always, at least for me — I love it.

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  3. If the debate with the husband took place on, like, your FB page or a page that you “own,” you could have just deleted him. He sounds trollish, and we don’t need to put up with trolls. Especially the Troll-in-Chief. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we lived in a diverse world free from trolls? Filled with kindness?

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  4. Holy cow — under what rock do these people live? I’m sorry you were sucked into a wasteful pursuit. Obviously you struck a nerve with the wife and the husband jumped in to “save” her (and also to put you in your place). There is no debate, no discussion, no argument, no communication with men like this. He is not listening to you, he is formulating his next comment, one which will prove an epiphany to you and cause you to say, omigosh you are brilliant, let me change my thinking immediately. In the past few weeks, I’ve seen more and more situations like this on Facebook. In fact, one day after the election I was trolled by a woman who had been my friend for more than 20 years. She was gloating and told me to stop whining. I un-followed her. The trolls now have a Troll-In-Chief. The rules of civil discourse do not apply.

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  5. I also found the Women’s March to be energizing and hope filled, Sara. So many people of all shapes and sizes and ages and genders and faith traditions and Countries coming together to show support for equal rights, inclusion, and compassion just filled me with joy. And now it continues with ongoing actions, some public, some quiet but powerful.

    I’m learning I can’t respond to everything (especially on Facebook) and that ongoing arguments are often “games” being played or people demanding “obedience” to their viewpoint. Someone calling his or her opinion, “fact” doesn’t make it so, as in “Here are the FACTS” followed by a page of their opinion without a fact in sight. Who needs to spend energy going in circles with people I don’t know and can’t see to read expressions or hear voice tones.

    But that husband is another story that seems to me to border on abuse. Taking over his wife’s account, speaking for her, using you to “teach others”. :-P

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  6. Debate vs dialog…with practice, one can discern early on in a conversation whether the other person is indulging in debate (as sport or warfare), or interested in learning and sharing for the purpose of seeking truth. If you enjoy debate, first learn the rhetorical devices used by opponents and be prepared to call them out (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_Illustrated_Book_of_Bad_Arguments). We do need brave, well-prepared and energetic responders/debaters to take on the online trolls flooding liberal media sites and to venture onto conservative sites to enlighten their readership on how they are being tricked and lied to.

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  7. I like that Barbara Cooper brought up the Women’s March: truly, our celebration of mutuality, not just in gender but also in terms of our feminist ideologies.

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  8. Reblogged this on Mused by Magdalene and commented:
    This is a lovely thoughtful reminder about how easy it is to spend emotional energy unwisely. By “debate mutuality” the author actually means it is impossible to talk someone into believing in the value of mutuality, by which she defines the mutual respect required to approach each and any “other” as a peer.

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  9. This did my heart & head good. You go, girl! Thank you. (I’m forwarding it on.)

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  1. Hidden Figures – A Different Approach to Promoting Mutuality | Mused by Magdalene

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