You can’t say what you are, but you should try anyhow.

July 5th, 2015  |  Published in this mortal coil

I say ‘I consider myself a feminist,’ because I really do. But I always feel like I’m taking a big risk when I say ‘I AM a feminist,’ because there is always, always some other feminist out there who will show you that you’re wrong. Usually they’ll also show you that you’re awful for it.
— Someone somewhere I visit regularly

Another feminist here. That’s an understandable sentiment.

Personally, I hate calling myself anything at all, ever. I spent four years trying to reconcile what I thought I was, what I wanted to say to people I was, what I wanted people to think I was underneath, and what I wanted to be with what I was being every single day by just waking up where I was waking up and doing what I was doing.

I spent even more years after that trying to work through whether I’d ever known or could ever know what I was: Maybe I’d stopped listening to my better angels. Maybe the better angels had never been real. Gandhi had suggested that nonviolent behavior could be motivated (and tainted) by cowardice, so I wondered to myself if what I’d thought had been a nonviolent worldview hadn’t actually been a sort of cowardice, and that by enlisting maybe I’d just embraced what I’d always been.

Some understandings about myself and the world around me crystallized, some things just got more complicated:

Could I jump out of an airplane at night? Yes. And for the last year I was jumping out of airplanes, it’s fair to say I was frightened every time. By the time I got to that point, I’d healed up a lot. I wasn’t who I’d been when I walked into the recruiter’s office: If the controlled environment of the army had been a splint or a cast, it ended up setting my bones into shapes they hadn’t been before I enlisted. So I gained some understanding of what it is to be deeply afraid and yet still do the thing you set out to do. For a period, living that pattern allowed me to say to myself that I wasn’t a coward, that I had a core I could depend on. So I started looking beyond where I was, and having thoughts about what could be next, and wanting it. I didn’t want to give up and disappear into the army.

Then I was out, and rather than going back to be near the people who had cared about me and supported me while I was in, I chose somewhere else. I couldn’t just go back to where I had been, among people who might have been tempted to say, “well, that’s all over now and you’re back.”

I was loved and cared for, but not a lot of people knew me. They just had the biography, and that question of cowardice was still very real, and was suddenly unresolved again because I figured out that physical courage isn’t moral courage. So, I wanted the new people in my life to know something more about me than where I’d been, but I was still struggling with what it was I’d want them to know, and if it was possible for there to be anything more to know. After all, there was what I thought I was, what I wanted to say to people I was, what I wanted people to think I was underneath, and what I wanted to be, but there was what I had been every single day for four years by just waking up where I was waking up and doing what I was doing:

I’d been the guy who got sent to the chaplain because he wouldn’t sing the baby-killing cadences, and then invited to declare himself a conscientious objector. Didn’t do it, though, because I wasn’t. I just didn’t like baby-killing cadences.

I’d been the guy whose boss told him he should seriously consider taking a subordinate into the woods to beat him up, and briefly wondered if it would need to come to that, then learned how to make anger and its energy palpable; maybe to help avoid taking that step and maybe to make it easier if I had to.

I’d been the guy who told a barracks bully that I’d take an eye or an ear, and needed to believe it.

I’d been everything that environment demanded of me, and I chose to stay in it.

I nearly started typing, “but in the end,” because that would allow this to be narrativized and resolved. But there’s no end because I’m still sitting here typing. There’s an ever-unfolding now that I needed to learn about.

There were all the moments where I looked back on some of the things I said and did and hated them. When I’d tell stories about things I’d seen or done and I’d realize people were repelled by the mere fact that I’d been there to see them. There was the year where I needed to get help because I’d see a picture of a maimed child in an Iraqi marketplace bombing, or read about a murder-suicide on an army post from some solider who’d come back from the wars changed, and I’d think about how I’d wanted to be some part of that, and that’d be it for the day, stopped by anger and grief. I’m so glad I worked at home: I don’t know what I would have done with people around when those moments came. Maybe I would have just swallowed it whole instead of composing some polite fiction of a status message and going to sit in my room.

Then there was just more life, and a slowly growing recognition that I couldn’t ever un-be those things. When he was little, Ben thought I’d once been a knight. It was heartbreaking to explain that I hadn’t been. But it was strengthening to realize that the more truthful I could make myself be with him, the better a parent I could be to him.

I figured out that I had to start being the person I wanted to be in that ever-unfolding now. I had to accept that some people would see the biography and think things they’d be justified to think, and that I had to set that aside: There’s no erasing it, and to erase it would be to erase me. Instead, I had to learn how to be open to the things that I can hear and feel are right, and accept that they might be incongruous with what I’ve been.

Because of all that, because I once set aside everything I said I was and became something else, and because I then spent years trying to make all of that make sense, I’ve got a deep aversion to saying I’m anything at all. To the extent it’s any of my business how people talk about themselves or what they are — and it almost never is — I wish there’d be less “speaking as a …” and more “because I live my life thus.”

At the same time, self-identification helps people, right? It helps us hold each other — and ourselves — accountable.

I read bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody where she writes “the soul of our politics is the commitment to ending domination,” and I thought to myself “yes, that’s right, I want to live that and teach my son that.” I put down the book and thought “I agree with her, and other people who call themselves feminists,” and then I felt okay saying “I’m a feminist.”

Despite my aversion to saying “I’m this” or “I’m that,” I think “I’m a feminist” is a thing worth saying.

Because I’m a man, steeped in this culture and taught habits of thought that are anti-feminist, I’ll sometimes do things that aren’t feminist things to do. I’ve been lucky to have people in my life who have been gentle and patient with me when I’ve done this. Some day I’ll meet someone who won’t be as kind, or who will want to prove that I’m not a feminist at all. Depending on who that comes from, that could be upsetting or embarrassing.

The alternative, my heart tells me, is to be less supportive than I could be; to be an “ally” who can still maybe slip back and forth, maybe never having to own being wrong or hypocritical ever again because I remember how hard it was to put a sense of self together again after being something besides what I wanted to be.

All we can do is be what we are in the ever-unfolding now. We can open ourselves to hearing what’s right, and we can try to choose what’s right, or at least choose what’s less wrong. We can accept that we’ll sometimes fail at that. We can allow ourselves to be held accountable. We can try again.

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