What has happened to Greer’s feminism?

By Legal Eagle

I read Tracee Hutchison’s critique of Germaine Greer, and although I often don’t agree with Hutchison, this time, I think she’s spot on in her criticisms of Greer. In Greer’s essay On Rage, she says:

In considering the desperate condition of Australian Aboriginal people after 200 years of abuse physical and mental, we should not be surprised to find towering rates of domestic violence. Children taken from their parents and treated cruelly in institutions will learn cruelty. Children who are bashed by their parents will bash their own children; children who see their fathers bash their mothers will replicate the same pattern in their own relationships.

What is obvious is that when the Aboriginal man was dispossessed by the white intruder he lost his moral authority over his family.

Understandably, elders and other indigenous people have queried and criticised Greer’s generalisations.

What kind of a feminist makes excuses for men who are violent towards their women and children? Anyone who excuses such actions is no true feminist in my view. Surely a fundamental tenet of being a feminist is that one does not support violence towards women by men, and does not make excuses for it? One may try to explain why certain social conditions have prevailed…but this reads more like an excuse in my book. It makes me recall a diagram in an article by Larissa Behrendt, an indigenous feminist, in which she drew a hierarchy whereby white men oppressed white women, white society oppressed indigenous society generally, and then within indigenous society, indigenous men oppressed indigenous women. Indigenous women came at the very bottom of the hierarchy. Greer just perpetuates this kind of a hierarchy.

Essentially, Greer’s argument is that indigenous men have been ill-treated by colonisation, and thus they suffer an uncontrollable rage which robs them of their capacity to restrain themselves from beating their wives and children. But this is not the fault of indigenous men: it is the fault of colonisation. We can’t expect indigenous men to change. I would find this deeply offensive if I were an indigenous man.

It seems to me that colonisation must explain some of the problems faced by indigenous people, as many diverse indigenous groups all around the world have suffered from societal breakdown, alcoholism and the like. But does that mean that indigenous men are entitled to lose their tempers? This seems incredibly patronising to me. It implies that indigenous people lack the capacity to take control of their lives. In fact, it harks back to racist stereotypes of the “savage”.

It has always seemed to me that the message to indigenous people must not be one of rage and despair, but one of hope. Yes, colonisation has reaped a terrible price on their communities, and there is no doubt that all indigenous communities have suffered as a result, whether as a result of disease, removal from traditional land, violence, rape, and destruction of established social and familial order. But you can either let it take control of you or take control over it. The latter is far more difficult, and requires not only inner strength, but also needs sufficient support networks and the like. However, the former choice is one which is ultimately hopeless. It denies any possibility of agency, change and adaptation, any understanding between cultures, and any forgiveness. It denies any opportunity to move forward. Ultimately, it denies indigenous people the same opportunity as anyone else to strive to have the best in life.

The thing which I find most problematic about Greer’s theory is that she seems to say that it’s okay to beat your wife if you’ve had a really bad experience and history. I wonder: would she say that same about white men who beat white women? Does it depend on whether you’ve had a hard upbringing or not? What about men of any culture or race who have suffered as a result of warfare or upheaval? It seems to me that one can’t start offering excuses for this kind of behaviour because one starts to validating all kinds of violence against women and children. Why, also, should women and children bear the brunt of aggression which is not their fault? To leave them in that situation and to make excuses just seems appalling. Understanding how something has happened is one thing, saying it can’t be changed is another.

If I was the child of a violent relationship, what I would find most empowering is if someone said, “You don’t have to continue on like this. You don’t have to replicate this just because your parents behaved like this. You can change the way in which you operate, and I will help you to do that.” This is the message which should be given to indigenous children, to allow them to live in hope that things will get better.

Update

Have a read of Kim’s post at LP, which links to an interesting article by Larissa Behrendt and Ruth McCausland outlining the limitations of the “personal responsibility” approach. It’s no good asking people to take personal responsibility if they don’t have the support networks and resources to do so. So you can force parents to send their kids to school by cutting off welfare payments, but if the teaching is substandard and the kids can’t hear what the teacher is saying because they have severe infections in their ears, ultimately you won’t achieve anything.

Kim’s reading of Greer was quite different to mine, which explains why her response was different. Perhaps it would have made a difference if I’d seen Greer on Q&A. The part of Greer’s essay which raised my ire (and which I forgot to quote in this post) was the following:

How was he supposed to cope when the woman who was his designated wife was taken from him and used by the white intruder, and then as insolently abandoned with her children by him at foot? If she went voluntarily it was bad enough; if she was kidnapped and he was powerless to rescue her, his misery would hardly have been less. When he found himself with the responsibility of rearing the children of the white man who would neither acknowledge them or support them, his feelings toward them and their mother can hardly be expected to be benign.

I read that as not only an explanation, but an excuse for violence by indigenous men towards indigenous women who had already suffered rape and violence at the hands of white men. That’s what made me mad.

As a clarification to some of the criticisms made below, I’m not suggesting that the government should sit back and do nothing, and just let indigenous people take personal responsibility for their problems. There is definitely a need for adequate resources, healthcare, schooling, support networks, infrastructure and the like. People can’t take personal responsibility if they don’t have the support of their community and the government to do so. Further, it’s a complex problem which requires consultation with indigenous communities about what their needs are and what is appropriate. There is no “easy fix”, and no way that I’m suggesting that indigenous people can just shrug off 200 years of alienation and oppression: it will be a long and difficult process. It’s not just governments, or just individuals who can fix the problem. All I am saying is that it has to be a holistic exercise – government, communities and individuals all taking responsibility for those aspects they can control.

Update II

Marcia Langton has written a critique of Greer in The Australian today which indicates that she read Greer’s essay in the same way I did. Worth a read.

Update III

Kim has now read Greer’s book and posted a review – go and have a look. Sounds like it’s different in emphasis to the essay I read in the SMH. I will have to read the book at some point. For now, final judgement is withheld until I get an opportunity to read it.

25 Comments

  1. A. Atomou
    Posted August 22, 2008 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    Excellent work, Kim. Thank you indeed!
    There’s always the reflex response to observations such as those made by Greer. “What then does she propose we do about it?”
    Can one ask the mirror to correct the reflection it gives us when we look into it, particularly after a hard night’s drinking?
    Greer has done a splendid job (and splendidness is graded quality) of taking a mirror and showing us one aspect of our society. That’s all. What we see in that mirror annoys us immensely. Frustrates us and, we may add outrages us. There’s nothing pleasant to see in there. Or if there is, then it surely should be that there are people who have the strength of conviction and the rage to do the exercise of placing the mirror directly where the problem lies and to have that mirror made available to us all.
    But whatever we must do, we mustn’t attack the mirror. That is a fruitless exercise which will render us paralysed and which will keep the ugliness that mirror reflects uncorrected.

    The suggestions that come out of Greer’s book have all to do with putting the government institutions on notice: Do something about the continuous raping of blackfella’s daughters by whitefellas, in particular, punish the grogmongers, stop changing “procedures,” stop dislocating, add facilities and infrastructure, hospitals, schools, roads, transport -that are functional and well staffed, stop accusing, stop denigrating, stop building up structures that are set up to fail, begin acknowledging and owning the effects of whitefella’s callous and criminal behaviour and attitude (culturally ingrained) towards the aboriginal people, stop sleeping!
    But, alas, whitefellas came up with a derogatory term for doing all that: “black armband view of history!” So, there! We’ve got a label, now there’s no need for us to do anything. No need to ask why the aboriginal community turns its back, en masse, when our Prime Minister makes speeches to it.

    Had I not also being a damned atheist, I’d be ejaculating, “Thank God for Greer!”

  2. Patrick B
    Posted August 22, 2008 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    “Oddballs like Greer are doomed.”

    Let’s hope you don’t take the ad hominem attacks into the court room. What make Greer an oddball, that she is widley published, that she writes expressively, that her agrument are cogent and expressed exactly in the written word? SK needs to come up with something a litle more substantial if she’s to get into the big tent.

  3. Posted August 22, 2008 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    I strongly suspect that Heidegger was being – at the very least – disingenuous after the act. He was the one who started every lecture with a Nazi salute, while Schmitt recommended that there should be a separate ‘Judaica’ section in every German library into which all Jews (not just German ones) should be corralled. What’s interesting is how modern theorists who are otherwise quite lefty mine his Constitutional Theory for insights, largely because they don’t have a very good account of authority.

    Thanks for these nugget Skeptic. I find the subject matter arising from the moral judgements of Nazi and Marxist ideology quite interesting and would like to delve in a bit deeper at some point. I’ve had the good fortune to be taught about Marx by people who were neither fervently pro nor anti Marxist. The first such teacher also taught me very well why the command system is ‘fubar’. The phrase: “They would love that school uniform, to them that would be stylish.” says it all. 🙂

    RE: Heidegger and Schmitt. I tend to agree about Heidegger. Seeing as how he was a Nietszchean scholar he should’ve known better. I’m not certain if he had access to Nietzsche’s letters to his sister which roundly condemned anti-Semitism but if you’ve read The Geneology of Morals you know what he means by ‘slave’ and that the Nazis were the very worst example of the slave mentality. The word resentiment describes the Nazis attitude to the Jews.

    Schmitt’s suggestion is typically bureaucratic and fails to observe what the Nazis were really doing. They were not interested in preserving Jewish literature at all. Such a library as he envisaged would demonstrate the disproportionate cleverness of the Azchanazem hence feeding the resentiment and disproving the master race notion.

    Scmitt was one of those cold blooded types that signs papers. He’s the reason thugs take power.

  4. Posted August 22, 2008 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    DEM – Viz fact checker – chuckle 🙂

  5. Posted August 22, 2008 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    Patrick B, for someone who spends a great deal of time following me around and needling, you obviously haven’t noticed that for me, ‘oddball’ is an entirely praiseworthy term.

    And may I also suggest that your next exercise in needling will be your last.

  6. John Hasenkam
    Posted August 22, 2008 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    Good point re Patrick B. SL. It does seem that “oddballs” are doomed. For example, a recent study found that how one dresses can be a very significant variable in promotion and employment prospects. Hmmm, so much for merit and productivity. Studies like this are legion and what worries me about the current trend of society is that oddballs are being increasingly marginalised because society is becoming increasingly conformist.

    We need oddballs, these individuals are more likely than conformists to drive change and innovation in our society.

  7. John Hasenkam
    Posted August 23, 2008 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    Hey LE,

    Yes, I think there is even a study showing the British are more tolerant of eccentrics. I used to joke with people: what is the mad rush to ascend to the apex of The Bell Curve, everyone desperately clamouring up that slope will make for a very boring world of clones.

  8. A. Atomou
    Posted August 23, 2008 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    LE, I’ve got where “you’re coming from.”
    I don’t quite understand the phrase “intrinsically practical person”, though, I suspect you mean that you can’t help being a “fixer.” None of us can, really. We all want to “fix things” (one way or another, some “thing” or another); but there, Plato would be very austere with you: “You said that as a lawyer you like to “fix relationships/transactions that are broken.” He would say to you, “fine, be a lawyer and fix the things that are within the spectrum of that job -and nothing more. Leave the other experts, (those trained by the State) to do their own work.”
    Greer, in this case, is -if we were to give her a job title- an investigative reporter, a journalist. She does assiduous research and she publishes that research. What’s more, her writing skills are “to die for” and so, reading her work is, at least to my mind, close to a sublime experience.
    To put it even more bluntly, she could be a police reporter, reporting on individual crime scenes… she simply chose to report on bigger, wider crimes.

    And so, we should expect Plato to give her a lovely big tick of approbation for her work as a reporter. Had she ventured into trying to be a sleuth, or a lawyer, even an advocate of those she’s reporting on, Plato would put a dirty big cross all over her work. “That would never do!” He’d say, shaking a belligerent finger and kneading his eyebrows. “Each man and woman to their job!”

    Of course, things are not quite as firmly cut and separated in modern-day, “real life” but the admonition still stands to quite a good degree.
    Personally, I worry when people announce “solutions” for things they don’t know how to solve. To protract my metaphor, let me think of a General Practitioner who refers a patient to a specialist for further evaluation and perhaps surgical intervention. I’d hate for the GP himself to be doing the surgery required on my body -unless, of course the situation was extremely urgent.
    Similarly, I love the little book “On Rage” because, that’s what it’s about: Rage. She uses the Oz aborigine, as well as aborigines from other colonies as paradigms. What went on and still goes on in Canada is mind-blowing.

    Empowering to the aborigines? Why should she bother doing specifically that? Why should she bother changing facts and realities? Why lie? Why give gratuitous compliments? Would not that require a different expert, another specialist? Would she not be condemned for being patronising, or for not knowing what she was talking about? She didn’t set out to “help” or “empower” anyone; just to report a phenomenon and that, I daresay, she did excellently.
    A clear view of a problem is already quite empowering. It might also be conducive to rage but, let’s hope the rage of knowledge can be translated into some positive action by the experts and by those with the sincere will to apply that expertise.

    I saw more rage exhibited by the euthanasing of a distressed whale than by the abominable treatment we meted out to the indigenous people; but that’s another story!

  9. Posted August 23, 2008 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    So one student said, “I can’t go into the library, they’ll just think I’m in the wrong place.”

    Awww man – that’s just so sad.

    RE: Oddballs.

    You’re right John. Let’s praise the oddballs. In facts let’s pay them. I’ll get a PO BOx and you can send your cheques there. 🙂

    I’m a bona fide weirdo. The word ‘individuality’ was mentioned three times in my high school reference – In Qld that’s not a good thing. 🙂

  10. paul walter
    Posted August 23, 2008 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Those are interesting comment, Legal Eagle. Please forgive my harsh words. like you I don’t feel these sorts of issues should be politicised in a cheap way.

  11. paul walter
    Posted August 25, 2008 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    You mean, “stew” on it ?
    You aren’t starting to get older are you?
    If I could, I’d have a box of chocolates sitting on your lounge room coffee table right now.

  12. paul walter
    Posted August 27, 2008 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

    my mum reckoned when she was carrying me, she actually got a taste at one stage for soap powder?

  13. paul walter
    Posted September 5, 2008 at 2:54 am | Permalink

    What a terrible thing- not being able to enjoy asparagus!

  14. John Hasenkam
    Posted September 5, 2008 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Asparagus is the richest dietary source of alpha lipoic acid, a remarkable endogenous antioxidant that a wide variety of benefits.

  15. Posted December 23, 2008 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    Hey SL

    You promised us a piece on La Greer’s Rage. Now, might be the time. She has given her recent swipe for Our Nic appearing in Orstraya. And now our darkmissus lady Professor Marcia Langton has bitchslapped the crazy old aunt locked up in the cellar. I adore La Langton. But boy, she looks like she can [email protected] ?

  16. Posted December 24, 2008 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Asparagus is the richest dietary source of alpha lipoic acid, a remarkable endogenous antioxidant that a wide variety of benefits.

    Dude one of my New Year’s Resolutions will be to read your blog more often.

  17. Posted March 4, 2009 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    just wondering why there is no articles on the profound violation of human rights in australia atgainst people who are deemed as psychiatrists as ‘mentally ill’ bc they say so..

  18. John Greenfield
    Posted March 5, 2009 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    Merilyn

    Ah, and where exactly are these “human rights”?

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