Power Through Denial of One’s Own Agency

In the perennial arguments between Greens and Democrats, each side tends to portray its own position as immutable and give the other agency. Democrats say that their party will keep being conservative in order to win elections, and Greens have a choice to vote for it or step out and let the Republicans win; Greens say that they’re going to step out unless the Democrats take a hard left, and give Democrats the choice between moderation and their votes.

That’s what I was thinking about when I read Amanda’s post about the latest anti-feminist attempt to keep women down by saying that they’re more mature than men. Part of it goes back to some shoddy research that says women use more words than men, but the idea that men are infantile and therefore must be allowed to control women is bigger than just language.

At first, it looks counterintuitive. Power is more often than not asserted through claims that the other side lacks agency: the Indian caste system considers the members of the bottom class children who can do no wrong, Confucian autocracy as well as American capitalism is based on the idea that the best rise to the top, and European imperialism makes ample use of the concept of the civilizing mission.

However, in all of the above cases, the power asserted professes to be benevolent. The Indian caste system doesn’t give Brahmins the unlimited right to murder Shudras. The sort of power professed in modern anti-feminism as well as partisan politics is more like the one professed by the mafia: do XYZ, or we will kill you. As far as I can tell, traditional (i.e. fundamentalist) anti-feminism never gives women more agency than men; only the post-1960s brand, which is strongly coupled to pro-domestic violence men’s rights activism, does.

When your power is overtly based on violence, it makes sense for you to minimize your own responsibility. The mafia does this by reminding would-be umerta breakers that anything that happens to them or their families is entirely the result of their ratting the don out, rather than of the don ordering a hit. Political partisans as well as movement partisans do this by subtly asserting their right to be irrational. And men’s rights activists do that by making violence against women seem immutable.


One Response to Power Through Denial of One’s Own Agency

  1. KH says:

    This is also the pattern with addicts & states. Nixon & Kissinger famously entertained the “madman theory” as a negotiating tactic. Israel justifies disproportionate response to provocation by emphasizing its vulnerability & inability to escape from the logic of deterrence. It is because of its weakness that it must be allowed to control the Palestinians. Addicts sometimes make extortionate demands on others based explicitly on the difficulty of their circumstances. Cleavon Little held a gun to his own head in Blazing Saddles. Whether any of these are irrational or immoral depends on your concepts of rationality & morality.

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