What Happens Next: A Gallimaufry

Foz Meadows is a bipedal mammal with delusions of immortality. Also, she writes fantasy novels.

Joanna Russ on Sexism, Racism & Class Privilege

'Conscious, conspiratorial guilt? Hardly. Privileged groups, like everyone else, want to think well of themselves and to believe that they are acting generously and justly… Genuine ignorance? Certainly that is sometimes the case. But talk about sexism or racism must distinguish between the sins of commission of the real, active misogynist or bigot and the vague, half-conscious sins of omission of the decent, ordinary, even good-hearted people, which sins the context of institutionalized sexism and racism make all too easy.

I hesitate to mention this social dimension of sexism, racism and class since it can so easily be used as an escape hatch by those too tired, too annoyed, too harried, or too comfortable to want to change. But it is true that although people are responsible for their actions, they are not responsible for the social context in which they must act or the social resources available to them.  All of us must perforce accept large chunks of our culture ready-made; there is not enough energy and time to do otherwise. Even so, the results of such nonthought can be appalling. At the level of high culture… active bigotry is probably fairly rare. It is also hardly ever necessary, since the social context is so far from neutral. To act in a way that is both sexist and racist, to maintain one’s class privilege, it is only necessary to act in the customary, ordinary, usual, even polite manner.

Nonetheless I doubt that any of us who does so is totally without the knowledge that something is wrong. To slide into decisions without allowing oneself to realise that one’s making any, to feel dimly that one is enjoying advantages without trying to become clearly aware of what those advantages are (and who hasn’t got them), to accept mystifications because they’re customary and comfortable, cooking one’s mental books to congratulate oneself on traditional behaviour as if it were actively moral behaviour, to know that one doesn’t know, to prefer not to know, to defend one’s status as already knowing with half-sincere, half-selfish passion as “objectivity” - this great, fuzzy area of human ingenuity is what Jean Paul Satre calls bad faith. When spelled out, the techniques used to maintain bad faith look morally atrocious and appallingly silly. That is because they are morally atrocious and appallingly silly. But this only shows when one spells them out, i.e., becomes aware of them.’ 

- Joanna Russ, How to Suppress Women’s Writing, Chapter 2: Bad Faith, pg. 18-19

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