I have a friend. We get together on an increasingly infrequent basis to girl talk over cosmos and large salads. When we get together we play a sort of a game, one that never really had a distinctive name but if we had to call it something it should probably be called 3 Ways My Life Sucks Worse Than Yours.
The rules of the game are fairly simple; an upsetting moment is recited, with particular emphasis on the residual angst and where on the hierarchy of personal pain the event falls. The listener makes no move to fly back in time to fix anything, she doesn’t become evasive or pretend to read the menu, she makes no judgments on the veracity of the speaker’s topic or indicates what actions she would have taken in the same situation, she gives no advice for the next time, in fact she rarely says anything other than to offer to buy the next round. Body language, however, is key during the game. When the speaker reaches the crescendo of crises in her horror story, the listener nods her head with understanding and empathy.
And then, that’s it. The game is over. Who won? Well, we both do, but I’ll explain how later. Meanwhile, back at the ivory towers of Academia, I am finding that they play a cut-throat variant of our little bar game. Their game is different enough to require a different title. Let’s call it, 3 Ways My Life Sucks Worse Than Yours and You’ll Never Understand My Experience So Don’t Even Try. Whole books, doctoral theses and careers have been created around this high-stakes version, then made sacrosanct by a close proximity to Knowledge.
On campus, this institutional form of the game is played by seasoned professionals who, for this semester at least, congregate in the area of Women’s Studies. Here they tell me that the oppression white females experience is a completely different animal from the oppression faced by minority women that is wholly alien to the oppression experienced by minority gay women. Okay. So it morphs into a more sinister game of My Oppression Is More Oppressive Than Your Oppression and You Still Can’t Understand It So Don’t Even Try.
It occurs to me, from my travels in the writing game, that by refusing to allow the reader/listener any access to the possibility of empathy, the speaker has burned her own bridge, not even burned it, more like, nuked it out of existence. Every character, every argument, every rant, every sentence, every tear, every wish, every love letter, every boring interoffice memo, every second wave feminist manifesto, every word waits. Waits for that silent nod of the of head, the one that says, “I understand.”
The disconcerting push-pull of “hear me” and “my experience is incomprehensible to you” destroys viable communication before it begins. Feminism is killed off by its own practice.