Against Patriarchy: Bottom Lines

This piece was a part of a collective introduction to an “Against Patriarchy Reader” self-published for the 2007 Against Patriarchy conference in Eugene, Oregon.

This narrative is about resistance-not the activist, get-out-and-organize kind of resistance, but the simple, empowering act of saying No, of setting limits.  The anger, the righteousness, the knowledge that presses the No into being has characterized and inspired much of my motivations in activism and radical thinking.

To me, feminism and anarchism are about setting bottom lines and saying No. A bottom line indicates what we absolutely need, or what is absolutely unacceptable.  Defining the unacceptable takes power away from the perpetrator.  I’ve often heard women talking to each other about the way men mistreat them, and conclude “that’s just the way men are.”  This naturalization of power is a key agent in the continuation of sexism and male dominance that infiltrates our lives.  Bottom lines are necessary tools for navigating patriarchal, white supremacist, capitalist, complicated webs of power. I’ve been noticing the ways that several radical thinkers and writers have used bottom lines in their works, and I want to describe some of them here.

Chellis Glendinning in My Name is Chellis and I’m Recovering From Western Civilization, writes about the “primal matrix,” which she describes as “being alive that is characterized by openness, attunement, wonder and willingness in the here and now to say YES to life” (5).  She continues, “Our primal matrix is also reflected back to us in our ability to say NO. It is what makes us know in our gut, without ever being told about justice or right and wrong, the difference between caring and abuse” (7).  These yes’s and no’s are bottom lines, bottom lines we set to honor our whole selves, to bring knowledge from our cores.  These yes’s and no’s become obscured through living in a damaged world, in a civilization which, Glendinning’s suggests, is inherently traumatizing.

In Endgame: The Problem of Civilization, Derrick Jensen lays out his “premises” at the beginning of the book. These premises, which include that “Civilization is not and can never be sustainable” and “The needs of the natural world are more important than the needs of the economic system” are also bottom lines. Derrick explains that a speaker can wield power over a listener by slipping a premise under the table. He uses Hitler as his example.  It goes something like this: Hitler says to the Germans, “what are we going to do about the Jew problem?” Then the Germans say, “yes, what are we going to do about the Jew problem?”  Hitler’s premise-that there was a Jew problem-slipped under the table.  This happens all the time and through every medium of communication, from interpersonal conversations to mass media.  Derrick tells his audiences that his goal in laying out his premises at the beginning of his book was to avoid playing power games with his readers. These premises are also bottom lines.

A third example-an article I recently read about surviving sexual abuse suggested setting a list of bottom lines for what you absolutely need in intimate relationships, without justification, and without apology. Some bottom lines the author used as examples are as follows: I cannot get involved with someone who’s into S&M because it is retraumatizing for me; my relationship with my partner must be monogamous because it takes so much time and attention to create the trust to explore sexuality and I cannot allow another person into that space; my relationship with my partner must be non-monogamous because any kind of limits imposed on my life or sexuality by another person reminds me of the entrapment and control I felt during my abuse; I cannot be in a relationship with another survivor; I must be in a relationship with another survivor. Words like “must” and “cannot” help us identify our boundaries before they are unwittingly violated by another person.

When we articulate bottom lines relating to how we live in this world, how we relate to each other, what we find empowering and what we find exploitative, we begin to realize what kinds of authority and control penetrate us and how deeply, how much we are willing to compromise and what we will not. Then comes the anger and rage. Then comes the love. Then comes the resistance. Then, we move from being passive survivors of the problems of civilization to actively surviving, actively resisting.

An Indigenous panel at the Anarchist Book Fair in San Francisco (2007) this year reaffirmed for me that boundaries are not reactionary, not inherently negative, and not something to be guilty about.  A woman told a story about boundaries. It was a story about how one of four mountains that defined her community’s boundaries was being mined. The story immediately triggered memories of my own bodily violation. A tide of tears began to well up inside my chest. My skin began to ache and tremble as if trying to peel off my body. I wanted to spit. To throw up. To cough and moan and force everything out.  No.

Boundaries are not a product of abuse. No. Boundaries are not prison walls erected by the violated and debased. No. Boundaries are not obstacles to be overcome by a survivor’s loved ones. A boundary is a sacred circle of integrity. No matter where the outline of that integrity falls, the boundary conditions must be respected. Violating boundaries does not create healing. Minimizing boundaries should not be the measurement of progress in a relationship.  I have the right to choose my own boundaries without the need for justification or apology.

Anarchism and feminism have been tools in my life to identify and defend boundaries. The word No, which happens to be the first word I ever spoke, remains as primary in my vocabulary today as it ever was. Unapologetically, I am an anarchist. Unapologetically, I am a feminist. Unapologetically I am queer. Unapologetically I am a survivor. Unapologetically I am non-monogamous. Unapologetically I hate cops and I love the forest and I do not exactly understand either. Unapologetically I am angry and have dreamt about ripping books and men and prisons to shreds. Unapologetically my desires grow like weeds in the wrong time and the wrong place. No continues to be an integral word to my survival and my sense of empowerment. It is the word that I roll over my tongue every day, the word that I am still learning to say when and how I mean it.

Boundaries also exist around words. Karen Warren, an ecofeminist philosopher, wrote about the boundary conditions of ecological feminism. A definition of ecological feminism, she suggested, can be understood through a metaphor of a quilt. The boundary conditions describe the outline of the discourse, the contour, the edge of the quilt, but not the textures, colors and shapes within it. One of my goals for this conference is to create space for challenging the boundary conditions, as well as the space within, of words like patriarchy, feminism, anarchism, queer, civilization, and so on.  Part of understanding how these work in our lives is by consistently challenging and questioning their boundary conditions, what the words contain and what they do not. For example, where do feminism and anarchy overlap and where do they not? How much are patriarchy and civilization mutually constitutive? I hope the Against Patriarchy Conference 2007 inspires these kinds of conversations as well as creates space for people to be active survivors and to dialogue with each other, to set bottom lines, to make space for dialogue and empowerment, and to encourage radical, active resistance.

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