Participating 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.