Reader Gayle left a fabulously intelligent question on the post The personal and the political:
I have seen debates on the subjects you mention where one side mentions that what the other side has said hurts them/shames them/makes them feel inadequate. To which the other side replies, “How else would you have us say it?” What are you thoughts on that power shifting? Or is some hurt inevitable, even if it is unintended, especially in these subjects which are so emotionally charged to begin with?
I was so inspired my response comment turned into a post all its own:
I think you put your finger on it with the phrase “power shifting”. When that question is asked by a group with power (privilege) to a group without/with lesser power (privilege), I think it’s extremely problematical. I see that dynamic a whole lot more in discussions on race, sexuality, and so on: less often, I think, in parenting, where we are ALL very low on the power structure (in the eyes of kyriarchy; it’ll put us on a pedestal, sure, when it’s not trampling all over us, but let us have real power? no way!).
The reason it is problematical within certain power dynamics (say if I, as a white cis woman, were to say that to Monica Roberts, a black trans woman, should she have reason to call me on my language) is because it shifts the responsibility — the work, the onus — from the oppressors to the oppressed. It says “I don’t need to do any learning, I’m going to make you figure this out, I’m going to make you teach me, I’m going to make you justify your pain, make you be responsible for avoiding your own hurt.” It also ignores that odds are excellent there already is an abundance of answers to that very question from the oppressed group, and asking it betrays that one is unwilling to do even a cursory examination of the existing thoughts on the topic; that is, that one is ignorant of and unwilling to do the (incredibly simple!) work of finding and listening to the voices of those without power.
That, obviously, is not good. That power shifting, in fact, is one of the prime ways that kyriarchy — acting through those with privilege against those without — protects itself.
However, in the context of parenting, and the in-fighting of “the mommy wars” and discussions about parenting practices, the power dynamic is, generally, quite different. While someone who uses formula has huge, moneyed, powerful, corporate, industrial aspects of the kyriarchy backing up hir “choice”, on an individual level a formula feeder and a breastfeeder are both on the same bottom rung of the kyriarchy (all else being equal; which, granted, they rarely are). So in that context, asking “how would you have us say it?” can be an act of compassionate bridge-making; but, it requires both being willing to humble oneself and really, truly being willing to listen to and hear the answer.
To further complicate things, there is a significant corporate/kyriarchal interest in many of these topics: there is huge money in undermining breastfeeding, in selling plastic parent-substitutes, in medicalizing birth, et cetera and so on, in addition to the less financial but no less real and powerful kyriarchal forces wishing to convince us that our bodies are broken, that interdependence is wrong, that we are incapable of knowing how to raise our children without the advice of patronizing, patriarchal “experts”. So when I say “formula is inferior” — because it is, because human milk is the biological norm, the standard, and formula simply fails to measure up — I am simultaneously speaking truth to power, and potentially hurting my sister oppressed mothers who for whatever reason use(d) formula. So, if I change my language, soften it, sacrifice strength and accuracy for kindness and palatability, am I being compassionate to my beloved sisters? Or am I acceding to the pressures of the powerful, greedy, immoral formula industry?
Unfortunately, I think the answer is “yes”. We are left facing a choice; compassion for our sisters? Or effecting change by standing up to the kyriarchy? I don’t think there is any single right answer, but the best path at any given time is going to depend on the specific circumstances.
When speaking with a woman who could not or did not breastfeed, perhaps that is not the best time for using our most powerful lactivist language; instead then we might talk about how fortunate we are that formula is adequate to sustain life now, or perhaps even bemoan the lack of support women have for establishing and sustaining breastfeeding, or discuss the local milk bank or milk share program we’re working to get started. But when writing material directed at formula companies, at women who are facing the “choice” of feeding method, when we are discussing as lactivists the best way to get our message across, when we, as I try to do on this blog, are discussing the larger culture and the kyriarchal influences on our individual lives: then, I think that language is appropriate and valuable.
What about those individuals who encounter it, even in those contexts, and are still hurt? At some point, I think there is a level of individual responsibility that must be taken (remembering that we are discussing a situation among those with roughly equal power and privilege — or lack thereof); at some point, one has to be able to step back and avoid taking, as well as giving, offense unnecessarily.
Sometimes language makes us uncomfortable; sometimes critiques of kyriarchy make us squirm. My responsibility as a woman both with and without privilege is to make sure I’m keeping my side of the street clean: is my language accurate? Is it chosen wisely? Is this the right time and place to say it? Is there a way to say this that will still speak truth while hurting my sister mothers less? Am I speaking from a place grounded in justice? Am I directing my anger at institutions, not individuals? If I am sure my side is clean, as it were, I am free to offer compassion to those who are wounded by my words, without choosing to change them. I am responsible for me, including, yes, how and when I present my thoughts, but I cannot be responsible for what another does with them when she receives them.
Is hurt inevitable? Probably. We live in a society that attacks us women who parent at every turn, when it is not shoving us up on inhuman pedestals and demanding inhuman feats of perfection. We live in a society that is constantly hurting us, telling us we are wrong, telling us we are bad, telling us we are broken, and which is remarkably good at making us tell each other and ourselves that. We are highly sensitive to any perceived criticism, and not without good reason. Of course we are likely to encounter a factual statement like “formula is inferior” or “crying-it-out is not good” and internalize it as “I am a bad mother, I am hurting my child”. And of course we’re likely to lash out when we do.
But I do not believe this is a reason to give up our ideals or our goals or our activism. We can only watch our own words, take responsibility for what is ours to control, and offer compassion and understanding to those who are hurting. To avoid speaking truth to avoid ever causing any pain would be allowing the kyriarchy to control us even more. The world is better served when we can work to change the institutions belittling and constricting and attacking us — including by using words that may be challenging, no matter how carefully they are chosen.