Sunday, September 24, 2023

Empowerment and misery

There is a feminist by the name of Amanda Montei who has taken autonomy theory to the next level. If you recall, a key aspect of liberalism is a commitment to individual autonomy. Autonomy is thought of as a power to self-determine in whatever direction we choose, with the predetermined aspects of life, such as the sex we are born into, being looked on negatively as impediments artificially imposed upon the individual.

Amanda Montei

Feminists have long sought to apply this theory to the lives of women. It has led them to prefer women to be independent of men, to reject roles traditionally associated with womanhood, and to believe that the aim of life for women is to be empowered, meaning to be able to do as they wish, in whatever direction, without negative consequence or judgement. 

It might, at first glance, sound nice to be "empowered" in this way. It sounds strong and commanding and in control. But the logic of empowerment doesn't foster strength and well-being. As we shall see, it leads Amanda Montei to a kind of pitiable frailty and misery.

First, though, here is Amanda Montei's brain on autonomy theory (from her book Touched Out: Motherhood, Misogyny, Consent, and Control):

On those of us marked is not just toy dolls or our parents that insist on our inevitable maternity. Every aspect of the world...tells us how to be woman, largely indistinguishable from mother. As Melissa Febos writes in Girlhood, "Patriarchal coercion is a ghost", an immeasurable figure that looms, hovers, hardly seen, correcting, policing, molding. The afterimages of our gendered socialization haunt the body, telling us how to be, what to say, who to become...We are compelled toward surrender, as the whole world rambles on, telling us who and what our bodies are for.

She begins by claiming that being a girl or a woman is merely a social construct, and that girls are simply "marked" as girls as if they could be assigned some other identity. This is a good example of why feminists are in no position to criticise transsexuals for undermining female identity when they have done such a good job of it themselves.

She then harps on about an all powerful, ghost-like patriarchy, hiding behind the scenes, robbing women of their autonomy by "telling us how to be, what to say, who to become". 

Note the difficulty she is in already. First, she is at war with herself. She has taken her own womanhood to be something artificially and oppressively imposed upon her by shadowy forces she cannot control, rather than something essentially good about her own personhood that she can then seek to express and embody the higher forms of as a way of fulfilling her own being and purposes in life.

Second, she has adopted an impossibly radical world view, one in which the only things that are legitimate are the ones that are self-given. Therefore, she has already taken a negative and hostile stance toward motherhood as this is a "given" of womanhood and is therefore alien to her radical concept of personhood.

Third, wrapped up in this mindset she is already a hapless victim of the world she inhabits. She is not a strong woman in control of her own life. She inhabits a mental realm in which things are done to her that she does not like and that she cannot resist. The focus on autonomy has created a person who, if anything, is relatively low on self-determination and self-empowerment.

Despite this outlook on life, Amanda Montei did decide to marry and have children. This was not a good move for someone seeking to maximise their individual autonomy, as children inevitably make claims on us as parents. We sacrifice a part of our autonomy in order to serve other goods when we take on the role of father or mother.

Predictably Amanda Montei fell in a heap. Rather than being a strong woman, she couldn't cope with the idea of sacrificing for or serving her own children. Nor was she open to any of the joys of motherhood, as her sense of victimhood and resentment was too overwhelming.

It reached the point that she could not bear the touch of her own young children, feeling this to be a violation of her bodily autonomy. She went as far as to compare her children wanting to hug her to rape culture. 

"The book is really about motherhood after Me Too,” Montei says. “And the connections between rape culture and the institution of motherhood, the continuity between these two kinds of cultural institutions and the way that they see women’s bodies."

And this:

But over time I came to see that the basic tenets of rape culture run through our cultural expectations of American mothers. Just as we normalize sexual violence against women, we normalize the suffering of women in motherhood.

And so you get to this version of motherhood:

What I wanted, more than anything, feel as though I fully inhabited and had my body. But all the ideas about how I should act as a mother - how I should respond to my children's near-constant requests for snacks, their demands for attention, their volatile emotions, their hands down my shirt or smushing my face - felt like insects crawling on me. I found myself frequently rubbing my face, itching my scalp, trying to delouse.

She thinks of her children as being like insects requiring her to "delouse". She continues:

Other times I burst into anger, yelling at my children or my husband, demanding space or help, simply because I felt so small, like a little creature myself, shouting in the wide expanse of darkness and nothingness...I struggled with the physicality of caring for children, but even more with my growing awareness that the lack of autonomy I felt in motherhood reiterated everything I had been urged to believe about my body since I was a girl. 

Where in this passage is the power in empowerment? Her obsession with autonomy has led her to feel small, a "little creature" lost in a "wide expanse of darkness and nothingness". Nor is she in control of anything: she is lost to her negative emotions, taking things out on those who love her, believing herself to be a victim of vast impersonal forces. 

Matt Walsh made a video in response to Amanda Montei. I'm pleased to report that he began with first principles, by denying that autonomy is always and everywhere the highest good to be pursued in life:

As a woman your body does not belong entirely to you. As a man your body doesn't belong entirely to you. You are not an autonomous island floating alone out in the sea. Neither am I. I have responsibilities. I have obligations. I owe myself to others, especially my family and when I say that I include my body as I am not in this life separable from my be entirely autonomous in your body is to be entirely autonomous in your person, but no person is autonomous, we all have duties that transcend whatever claims we might want to make to autonomy...I am not a self-created being existing only for whatever purpose I decide.

The last sentence is particularly good, coming as it does from a relatively mainstream conservative with a large following. I might not have framed the other part exactly as Matt Walsh does (as I don't think it is just about obligations, though these exist, but more about higher goods in life, including caritas love and fulfilling higher aspects of our being as men and women). 

To be fair, Matt Walsh goes on to say:

The author, a feminist named Amanda Montei, has written not a revelation that she is a child of God who exists for a higher purpose, but rather a lament that everybody in the world, including her children, especially her children, are using and victimising her. This is not an expression of motherly love but a long, weird and weirdly sexualised whine.

Walsh also describes well Amanda Montei's pathetic victim mindset:

Yet another is the insistence on being a victim in all things. Notice how she describes all of her sexual encounters as horrific drudgeries that she had to cope with and endure miserably. That's not because the encounters were non-consensual, she did consent, but she is still a victim of them somehow. She's the victim of everything. She's the victim of everything that she herself does. She's the victim even of her own children's affection. She is cringing through life, waiting for every moment to be done so that she can get to the next moment and complain about that one too. 

His finishing statement is also fine. It is too long to transcribe in full, but here is an excerpt:

We all have to experience hardship. There is nothing special about that. You get credit for enduring it with some semblance of dignity and strength and courage...We all have crosses that we bear. And you can choose to carry yours with grace or you can whine and cry and milk it for every ounce of pity you can get out of it. And if you choose the latter option then it is all for nothing. Suffering is an opportunity, an opportunity to become stronger, to gain wisdom, to gain perspective, but you squander that opportunity if you whimper and moan and gripe the whole time. Now you still have to suffer, but you aren't even becoming a better person through it, you're actually becoming a worse person, it's the worst of all've only become smaller and weaker, until you become an exceptionally small and weak person.