Self-Empowerment Is Just Another Word for Narcissism

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It’s not that Jessa Crispin wants to disavow feminism entirely, she just doesn’t think it stands for much anymore. “The word has become so meaningless,” the editor and writer said over coffee in Fort Greene in January. “When I say, ‘I’m a feminist,’ anybody can [impose] their thoughts about what that is. The T-shirts, the slogans, Beyoncé standing in front of the word — we think that’s some sort of victory,” she continued. “But the actual work of feminism is getting neglected.” That work, and how women are leaving it behind, is the subject of Crispin’s 150-page book, Why I Am Not a Feminist. Like the reputation Crispin has cultivated over her years of editing the now-defunct literary blog Bookslut, it is occasionally messy and ruthlessly unapologetic.

One of the targets of Crispin’s critique is women’s refusal to interrogate universal feminism. “For the past five years, feminist literature has been very shallow and focused on self-empowerment,” she said. “It’s completely divorced from the real problems women experience in their lives.” To Crispin, the movement’s attempt to appeal to the masses while blindly adopting the discriminatory structures that were originally built to exclude women has come at the expense of its power to effect real change. Universal feminism has rendered feminism writ large impotent.

Presented with annotations from the Cut’s interview with the author, this chapter from her new book (out February 21) comes down hard on the primary motive of contemporary feminists: that “self-empowerment” we’re supposed to be seeking? It’s just another word for narcissism.

In order to withstand the pressure of a culture constantly telling us that women are only meat, only sex, only property, we create this idea of our specialness. We as women are naturally more compassionate, more loving, more authentic than men. This idea shores us up against the constant degradation caused simply by living in this particular time and place.

Sometimes we as women are special in our compassion. For people to be able to survive on the margins, they often must be. They must form alliances, they must look out for one another. They must develop some characteristics and attributes because they have to create networks of solidarity and mutual care to withstand the experience of marginalization. Those characteristics are developed by facing hardship and opposition. We also have to find ways of convincing our oppressors not to hurt us, not to kill us, to bother keeping us around at all. That can make us clever.

But these attributes are not innate. In fact, the idea that women are naturally more empathetic and nurturing originates with men. They used it as an excuse to keep us at home, tending to the children. They used it as an excuse to dismiss us intellectually. Don’t try to be smart, sweetheart, it’s not your strong suit. And yet we adopted this belief because it suits us to believe it about ourselves. It makes us special.

What should make us feel special instead is our method of survival. If we believe these skills are born into us we will lose them once they are no longer needed. We can still use the lie as a cover, as a way to avoid questioning or reckoning. “Oh, I’m a woman, so of course I’m going to be a better listener, more emotionally attuned, I am definitely not going to abandon these principles and work in my own self-interest given the first opportunity, just like everyone else.”

Currently, I see this as women line up behind female politicians, their support thrown behind them almost solely because they share a gender. Despite a long history of supporting military intervention, I watch women talk about these politicians’ natural diplomacy and how they’ll keep us out of war. Despite a long history of gutting social services, I watch women talk about these politicians’ understanding and attention to poor women and children. Despite a long history of money grabbing and corruption, I watch women talk about these politicians’ sense of fairness and economic justice. If the genders were reversed, that support would be withdrawn. There would be no assumption that these politicians would act more ethically and compassionately than their male counterparts unless these women had convinced themselves that these qualities are inherent in all women.

We tell ourselves this story to withstand our culture, yes. But certain stories stop being helpful. They change from being tools to being weapons. The idea that women are naturally kinder is a tool that has morphed in just this way.

Our belief in innate gender qualities comes through clearly with the language we use to discuss the situations of both men and women. We use terms like “toxic masculinity,” we refer unquestioningly to the “problems” testosterone creates in a way we would become outraged by if men referred to the “problems” estrogen creates. These are all ways of distancing ourselves from human qualities we want to deny in ourselves. No one talks about toxic femininity, but certainly if we look at certain feminine modes in contemporary culture, it exists. But we would prefer to think of toxic masculinity as innate, and any problems with women’s behavior as being socially created. It’s convenient.

Saying or believing that women are special also, by default, dehumanizes men. If we are special because we are caring, then men must be uncaring. If we are special because we are compassionate and nurturing, then men must be emotionally dead and destructive. And if these qualities are innate, then we can dismiss the entire male gender. And in doing so, we are being merely descriptive, not judgmental.

The easiest way to feel empowered is to claim identification with some sort of group (gender, nationality, religion, etc.). It is the laudable characteristics of that group that you identify as your own characteristics, which are based on the way a gender, a nation, or a religion prefers to think about itself.

The easiest way for a group to build its sense of identity is through the rejection or the demeaning of that group’s “opposite.” In order for atheists to present themselves as rational and intelligent, they have to present the religious as superstitious and foolish. This is certainly easier and more effective than consistently being rational and intelligent. In order for America to think of itself as strong and important, it has to think of Europe as being weak and worthless. And in order for women to think of themselves as compassionate, they have to think of men as violent.

Part of this is simple projection. All the aspects of yourself that you are ashamed of or fear that you possess (weakness, anger, irrationality) can be easily forgotten if you assign those traits to someone you are not. If you strongly identify as one thing, your opposite can be not only a scapegoat, but a shit storehouse. Anything you’d like to distance yourself from can simply be stored in the identity of your opposite. “This group over here is ___________ [enter whatever disgusting thing you can’t bear to see inside of yourself]. I belong to the group that is the opposite of this, and so therefore I possess the opposite qualities.”

This is meant to convince both yourself and your audience of your value. When someone has a gap in their sense of self, or in their sense of the value of themselves, that gap can be filled with the sense of the group with which they identify. Nationalism tends to strengthen during times of struggle. Individuals fall on hard times, they find themselves suffering from unemployment or poverty or displacement, which causes self-doubt. People erase that self-doubt, or at least cover it up, by suddenly proclaiming participation in a larger project, the project of a nation. Their nation is great, their nation has a tremendous history, and so they are allowed to participate in that greatness, to possess it, to play a part in that tremendous history.

Nationalism, in and of itself, is not bad. Identifying with a larger group is not, in and of itself, bad. Particularly when a group has been degraded and dismissed. The act of coming together, of saying, “These things that you dismiss as worthless, they have value,” is a meaningful act.

And so it has been for much of feminist history: the act of reclaiming the work and characteristics of femininity that have been dismissed as worthless by the patriarchal system. From the care work of raising children and keeping homes, to the traditional crafts of quilting and knitting, to the stories of fairy tales and folk wisdom. These “feminine” things are valuable, and it is important for them to be considered valuable by both men and women. Men should be invited to participate in these traditions, but in order for that to happen we must remember not to mistake what is “feminine” with what is “female.”

Reclamation is hard work. Finding the value in your group’s characteristics means always having to confront the darkness in those characteristics. For example, it is acceptable, and productive, to think of America as a great nation. It has many great characteristics, from the freedom it grants its citizens to the cultural contributions it has fostered and rewarded. But by unearthing America’s good qualities, you will also find its destructive qualities. The way it has interfered internationally and created death and misery for countless citizens of other nations, its history of genocide and slavery, and so on. It is possible to know America’s destructive power and still think it is a great nation. But some prefer not to look at all, so as to avoid the cognitive dissonance.

It is always easier to find your sense of value by demeaning another’s value. It is easier to define yourself as “not that,” than to do an actual accounting of your own qualities.

Which is why the casual hatred of men as a gender is so disturbing. It is the same thing men have done to women for centuries. In order not to feel weak, they projected weakness onto us. In order not to feel emotional, they projected their emotions onto us. Now when women want not to feel foolish, they project foolishness onto men. When they want not to feel destructive, they project their destructiveness onto men.

Through this act of projection, we are not only refusing to see the full humanity of men, we are refusing to see the full humanity of ourselves. We are not fully human if we only accept our good bits. There is not much variety if we only use the light colors of the spectrum.

And so, according to a brief perusal of women writer’s comments online over the past few days, men are: overly confident, predatory, helpless, psychopaths, terrified of women, fascists, the reason why the world is in this mess, literally so stupid, and the problem here.

Of course what these women really mean is that they themselves are not overly confident, not predatory, not helpless, and on down the line. It’s just easier to say that men are these things, than that you are not these things. People would rightly become suspicious if you suddenly started going on about how amazing you were. They’d start looking for proof you weren’t. But by attributing these negative behaviors and traits to your “opposite” group, it’s an easy, criticism-proof way of saying, “I would never behave like this, I would never be like this.”

And look, it’s funny, and it probably even feels like a public service, deflating the male ego. They think too much of themselves, obviously, or they wouldn’t think they and they alone could run the world for so long. This is just bringing men’s view of themselves into better alignment with who they actually are. And yet it seems to me if we really were better than them, we wouldn’t simply pick up all of their bad habits. We could find some value in ourselves without demeaning the value of men.

It is also worth examining the effect such projection has on each respective group — both the projector and the projected upon. Defining a group by their negative characteristics in order to define yourself as “at least not that” has a way of hardening that exact unwanted characteristic.

When the Serbs wanted to demonize the Bosnians, one way was to emphasize their Muslim identity. Before the war, Bosnian Muslims were mostly secular in attitude and dress. After the war, there was an increase in veiling women and religious observance. It’s an act of defiance, a way of reclaiming what has been dismissed or, in this case, demonized. Traditions that had been falling out of fashion were suddenly deemed important: After all, this is why they hated us. Best to celebrate what they hate.

As for the group doing the projecting, once you start projecting, it excuses you from examining your own ability to do harm. If they’re the bad guys, then you’re the good guys, and so anything you do against them is for the greater good. It’s why anyone who disagrees with you in political discourse is immediately Hitler. It doesn’t matter what you do or say against Hitler. Just by him or her being Hitler, you are immediately the good soul. Even if your methods to bring this person down are dirty, this person is Hitler. The ends justify the means, and the ends are justified by this projection.

Whenever we feel superior to anyone else, we take away that person’s humanity in order to bolster our own sense of self and worth. We take directly from them what we need to compensate for our own lack. We see their confidence, their certainty, as surplus. We need it, and so we find reasons to take it.

Once an oppressor’s power starts to slip, it is very easy to switch places and adopt the same behavior. In order to oppress us, they had to dehumanize us. And we dehumanized them back, while we were at their mercy. After all, only monsters could treat human beings so. This is easier than trying to understand the way a human becomes an oppressor, the process by which anyone, including our own special selves, can find ourselves in that role. When the power changes hands, as it always eventually does, it is easy to continue to think of these humans as monsters, as we dole out punishment or revenge. If they are monsters, it doesn’t matter what we say or do to them, or think about them. In our minds, they are the oppressor, we are the victims.

It is a dangerous thing to combine a victim mentality with a dehumanizing outlook. Now we become the persecutor, but backed up with our absolute certainty that we are the persecuted, we are the dehumanized, we are the victims. This victim mentality becomes a shield, so we do not have to examine what it is we are doing. It’s for our protection, obviously. Much in the same way our “monsters” took up this view of us — that we were somehow less than human — so that they would not have to think about what they were doing to us.

There is also the allure of revenge here. Any group that has been oppressed for any length of time feeds itself on revenge fantasies, which we see playing out in the mob justice of social media.

It’s a natural state that results from the conditions under which women have been placed. We may deny these feelings, but evidence of them is clear. It’s not enough to feel victorious. Someone else has to lose. Almost every fight for freedom goes to the rails in this way: the Irish began bombing civilians, protesters in Tahrir Square began abusing and raping women, Colombian guerillas attacked the impoverished farmers on whose behalf they swore to be working.

But we’ll say this time it will be different. After all, we’re women. This is a toxic masculinity problem. We don’t have to think about our rage or our capacity for violence because those are the problems of men.

And yet women have participated in almost every fight for freedom. They were there when civilians were targeted, they were there when bombs were planted. To argue they didn’t have enough power to speak up or they had been brainwashed by their male colleagues is to try to disassociate from the darkness that resides in everyone. And to disassociate from your darkness is to lose your power over it.

There is a tendency toward using suffering as a reason to withhold compassion and care. We have suffered, we have faced oppression, and so now we deserve to be selfish. We deserve to focus on bettering our own situation, because we have been through so much.

In the industry in which I work, publishing, the majority of the workers are white women. More women work in publishing than men. They are executives, editors, publicists, interns. Women also populate literary prize committees, literary magazines, bookstores, book sections of newspapers. While the very top positions are disproportionately held by men, the mass of the industry is run by female labor.

There have been major inroads, then, over the past several years, in publishing and supporting books by women. Ratios of women authors published have increased, the number of women winning literary awards and being awarded grants and fellowships have increased. There is a serious, well-documented conversation in the literary world about sexism and access for women, and real action has been taken to address imbalances on almost every level.

By “women,” above, I of course mean “white women.” I of course mean middle- to upper-class, well-educated white women.

Less noticeable, less dominant, is the conversation about the access of writers of color to the literary power center. Below that is the access of LGBTQ, of the disabled, of the economically disadvantaged.

In other words, a certain class of women were able to access literature’s power center. There they made changes to facilitate their peers’ migration into the power center. There, women defend their power against interlopers, like writers of color or writers who come from poverty. They fight for their own self-interest or for the interest of those who very closely resemble themselves, and use the inequalities they faced as justification for their actions.

(One should notice that the women who were granted access very closely resemble the men who used to exclusively hold power: by class, by race, by educational system, by physical location. They very often share the same views and values. In a way, this is not a victory for inclusion so much as a slight redefinition of the terms of exclusion.)

With women taking up more than half of the publishing jobs, one would think they would create an open environment, one where all groups were granted equal access. And yet that has not happened. When questions have been raised about why publishing remains such an exclusive venture, weak gestures have been made in the direction of the “patriarchy” as an explanation. Yet, despite gaining power, women have kept the conversation focused on their lack of power.

It’s easier to complain about the power you don’t have than to think about how you are wielding the power you do have. Simply re-creating the exclusive systems and inequities that the industry had when it was male dominated — with the only difference being that a small subsection of women are inside rather than outside — has not made the industry fairer. And because they are able to blame the creators of the system, their own actions can go unquestioned, despite their efforts to retain that exclusivity and unfairness.

Women, because they are humans, work and operate as humans, which is to say, in a clannish mode. But with the added emphasis on identity in today’s society, with identifying yourself as a woman first and a human second, this clannishness becomes entrenched. Solidarity becomes not about all womankind, but about the women in proximity to you, the women you can see yourself in.

It is natural to want to benefit from your struggle. You suffered through scarcity and lack, discrimination and humiliation. You came through to the other side to finally create a space of your own. And now you want that to pay off. That’s why it’s easier to keep the focus on our powerlessness, to blame someone else for the unfairness of it all. That way, we can still benefit from our new positions without being asked to account for them in the way that men currently are.

We watched for decades, centuries, as men benefited from their positions. We learned how they closed off entryways, how they subtly manipulated us into believing we wouldn’t even like this stuff. It’s boring, really, you wouldn’t like it. Such a chore. And we saw how they benefited, not just financially, but emotionally, from their positions. Of course we want the same thing. And they are our model, the patriarchal way of doing things is the only way we have seen things done.

A major way men of letters kept women of letters in a subordinate position was to value men’s writing. They valued the characteristics displayed in male writing, insisted it was the best, and, for the most part, forced women to either give up on the possibility of institutional respect and acceptance or to mimic their ways. They insisted taste is objective. They did not question what their taste said about them and their politics or historical placement. And they convinced the majority of women they were right.

Now women of letters are in the process of doing the same thing. They are valuing women’s writing, and creating a dominant space for that writing. In other words, they are creating the space for their own writing to be valued, at the expense of writers who do not share their backgrounds or their values.

But wait, now there’s no time for us to rule dominant. We’re not going to get the money, the prestige, and the satisfaction of doing all of this ourselves in the same way that men were able to. Because it’s not just us, it’s whole, huge populations who were also denied entry. And they, god damn it, have followed up our entry with demands for entry of their own. Before we even really got our hands on the controls. If only we could delay them for a while, convince them to just let us have it for a while, then it will totally be their turn . . .

The reason it’s easy to say once we have equal power we will work toward inclusiveness for all is because that will not happen in our lifetime. But if we used the power we do have for the good of all rather than just for ourselves, we will not see the rewards we want. We will not get to live the way men have lived all of this time.

It is a failure of empathy to identify yourself only with those who resemble you. That is as narcissistic as working exclusively in your own self-interest.

The desire to focus on the change of the self, the empowerment of the self, is a symptom of a sense of inability to change the world, of a feeling of powerlessness. (It’s easy to confuse the two, to think that because you are doing okay, the world must be as well.)

This sense of despair is caused by exhaustion. We tried hard to change society, to change the world, to build a space for women within the system. That did not fully work because it could not work. The system was built to keep us out. Now it’s easier to focus on ourselves and on what we don’t have rather than on what we do. It’s also easier to focus on how we’ve been thwarted than to notice that there are other routes available to us. It’s very easy to get distracted by our disappointments. To assume that the problem is our inability to get what we want, rather than that we want the wrong things. Not getting what you want is not oppression. In the same way that you, as an individual, doing well within the patriarchal system is not a political victory.

One of the reasons self-empowerment leads us to these places of dehumanization and exclusivity and narcissism is because we are still operating with patriarchal values and patriarchal definitions of what success is, what happiness is, what the meaning of life is.

Much of contemporary feminism uses the language of power. Girls need to be “empowered,” women need to fight for “self-empowerment,” “girl power,” etc. There is little conversation about what that power is to be used for, because that is supposed to be obvious: whatever the girl wants.

But growing up in a system that measures success by money, that values consumerism and competition, that devalues compassion and community, these girls and women have already been indoctrinated into what to want. Without close examination, without conversion into a different way of thinking and acting, what that girl wants is going to be money, power, and, possibly, her continued subjugation, because a feminism that does not provide an alternative to the system will still have the system’s values.

For centuries, the patriarchal system has defined happiness as having someone else subject to your will. You had someone else to hold all of your shit for you, so that you would not have to acknowledge its existence.

It’s not that we don’t have the power to create new lives and new forms of community. It’s that if we do, we will not benefit from the patriarchal reward of power, which is what we have been taught to want. We have been taught that we will be happier with more money, we will be happier if we are the center of attention, we will be happier if we have a nuclear family and a supportive spouse. Self-empowerment would only allow us to do actual good if it came along with an interrogation of our desires and our definitions of happiness. Otherwise we’ll continue to live in a world in which one group is empowered and another group is disempowered.

We have the power to do good, but that will not come to much as long as we define “what is good” as “what is good for me.” According to this kind of thinking, creating a world in which I am welcomed and free is a superior goal to creating a world in which all are welcome and free.

Finding new modes of existing means rejecting the rewards that we’ve been promised for playing along.

It is only within the patriarchal structure that women have their freedoms curtailed. Moving beyond that structure means forgoing the rewards that structure doles out for participation but it also gives you back your agency.

“The [most common] online feminist response to being disagreed with or ‘attacked’ is, ‘We don’t have to do any work on ourselves, we are amazing, we’re perfect as is. Because of the patriarchy, we get to do whatever we want.’” “The support of Hillary Clinton — the way all of the feminist commentators fell in line behind her — was baffling. She’s terrible for women, not just American women, but women all over the world.” “I voted for Sanders in the primaries, but obviously there were problems with Sanders, too. I feel like Democrats and liberals have sort of checked out in a lot of ways, so there’s no leadership. Everyone is like, ‘Oh, you know, I’ll just vote. I don’t need to participate in my communities.’ It’s very passive political activity.” “Most of these ideas are taken from even hundreds of years ago, so they’re not anything new. But it seems like the conversation on feminism right now is divorced from the history. A lot of feminist commentators bragging that they haven’t read second-wave writers, like ‘Oh, I never read Andrea Dworkin. You don’t have to read Andrea Dworkin to be a feminist.’ And I’m like, ‘You fucking have to read Andrea Dworkin. And everybody else.’” “I used to be very angry about men. [Pause] I guess I’m still very angry about men, but I try to be better about it.” “You know, it’s not that men are bad, it’s that there is confusion between the patriarchy and men. And that confusion means that we don’t get anything done. We are all participants of the patriarchy: women, men, children, birds, whatever. Men are as affected by the patriarchy as women are.” “I think men are becoming increasingly irrelevant, and that’s going to be their problem to deal with. You can kind of live your life without needing to think very much about men.” “How do men think of and respond to women? How do they deal with their history and their unconsciousness? There is very, very little male writing that understands gender, that understands femininity and masculinity. Nobody’s doing that work. What is it going to take for men to notice that feminism happened?” “I am the least likely literary-success story. I don’t have a regular gig and don’t make any money. I didn’t go to college. I come from a very small town in Kansas, I didn’t know anybody in the industry. But people talk about my privilege — and I’m coming from working-class Kansas. Whatever issues they have with me have nothing to do with me. It’s with themselves. They’re just using me as a convenient way to avoid thinking about it.” “You know, women are in jail right now for self-administering abortions. We need to take care of them. We need to raise money for their needs, we need to send them cigarettes. We need to do whatever it is we can to make sure they’re not abandoned.” “I’m in the same floundering position as everyone else. I don’t know what to do. But it seems like wrapping yourself in a blanket and drinking wine for the next four years, or moving to Canada — that’s the impulse that got us into this problem in the first place. People need to run for local office. They need to do things that are not on Twitter. They need to get out more and talk to people.” “In publishing, when we talk about postwar literature, we’re talking about male writers who responded to feminism by taking their dicks out. Like Philip Roth, John Updike, you know? These are still the people who have influence on the literary culture. The literary culture is where people are supposed to be sophisticated and thoughtful. And they’re fucking assholes.” “William James calls it the ‘unbribed soul.’ When you’re comfortable, you’re terrified of losing that sense of comfort. If you accept discomfort, you have the freedom to do whatever the fuck it is you want. In this society, you get money for ignoring injustice. You get money for saying very regressive things. You get the cover of the Atlantic when you say that single women are sad. And so if you can accept not having the physical comforts of, you know, a six-figure salary or whatever the fuck, then you’re free to say and do whatever it is that you want.” “Self-care is bullshit. It is such absolute bullshit. A mud bath and a scented candle? It’s very consumer-oriented. A bottle of wine instead of actually thinking about what to do? That is very different from, ‘How do I take care of my health needs? Or help somebody else with similar health needs?’” “By the time we meet our neighbors, we’re packing to move somewhere else, so we don’t feel that sense of connection, of community. But I think that is vitally important: to come in contact with people who are different than you and figure out what they need and figure out what the community needs. How we organize our city and our society is very much a feminist issue.” “I think male validation feels nice. It’s kind of the same thing as, why do people vote for Trump? Because they maybe can see that the system is evil, but they think that this system may eventually work out for them. You know, why do women still indulge in the beauty industry? We have decades of literature about the male gaze and the way beauty is used to control women. But they do it anyway because they think it’s going to work out for them in the end.” “The next step is to feel free to do whatever the fuck we want to do. And not in a, ‘I’m going to go get a facial,’ way, but to change our lives. To live — I keep saying this, but — to live in alignment with your values. With feminism, the things that we say that we value are not how we live our lives or how we express things. There’s some sort of disengagement between what we value and how those values are expressed. And that connection needs to be rebuilt.”
Self-Empowerment Is Just Another Word for Narcissism