Consciousness Rising, World Fading
By Robert Jensen
Published in Common Dreams. An edited version was posted as “Not a knight in shining armor,” on MS Magazine blog. · February, 2011
Our stories of awakenings — whether moral, intellectual, religious, artistic, or sexual — are tricky. Honest self-reflection doesn’t come easy, and self-satisfied accounts are the norm; we love to be the heroes of our own epics.
That’s true of accounts of political awakening as well, especially for those of us born into unearned privilege as a result of systems of illegitimate authority. Not only do we love to tell stories in which we come out looking good, but we know how to decorate the narrative with the trappings of humility to avoid seeming arrogant. We use our failures to set up the story of our transformation; even when we speak of our limitations we are highlighting our wisdom in seeing those limitations.
So, when I got a request from a researcher to tell my story about how my political consciousness was raised, I was hesitant. I don’t like feeling like a fraud, and something always feels a bit fraudulent about my account, even when I am being as honest as I can. But, like most people, I feel driven to tell my story, mostly to try to explain myself to myself. So, here I go again:
As a teenager coming of age in the 1970s in mainstream culture in the upper Midwest, I missed the United States’ radicalizing movements by a decade and several hundred miles. I developed conventional liberal politics in reaction to the conventional conservative politics of my father and his generation. But in a more basic sense, I grew up depoliticized — like most contemporary Americans, I was never taught to analyze systems and structures of power, and so my banal liberal positions seemed like cutting edge critique to me. After college I worked as a journalist at mainstream newspapers, which further retarded my ability to think critically about power; reporters who don’t have a political consciousness coming into the field are unlikely to develop one in an industry that claims neutrality but is fanatically devoted to the conventional wisdom.
The raising of my consciousness began when I started a journalism/mass communication doctoral program in 1988, a time when U.S. universities were somewhat more intellectually and politically open than today. After years of the daily grind in newsrooms, I felt liberated by the freedom to read, think, and talk to others about all the new ideas I was encountering. My study of the First Amendment led me to the feminist critique of pornography, which at the time was an important focus for debate about the meaning of freedom of expression. My first graduate courses were taught by liberal defenders of pornography, who were the norm in the academy then and now. But I also began talking with activists in a local group that was fighting the sexual-exploitation industries (pornography, prostitution, stripping), and I realized there was a rich, complex, and exciting feminist critique, which required me to rethink what I thought I knew about freedom, choice, and liberation.
As a result of those first conversations, I started reading feminist work and taking feminist classes, and I kept talking with folks from the community group, which led me to get involved in their educational activities. I didn’t make those choices with any sense that I was constructing a radical philosophical and political framework. I was just following the ideas that seemed the most compelling intellectually and the people who seemed the most decent personally. Those ad hoc decisions changed my life, in two ways.
First, they opened up to me an alternative to the suffocating conventional wisdom, in which liberals and conservatives argue within narrow ideological boundaries. This exposure to feminist thinking, especially those people and ideas most commonly described as radical feminist, allowed me to step outside those boundaries and ask two simple questions: Where does real power lie and how does it operate, in both formal institutions and informal arrangements?
Second, they helped me realize the importance of always having a political life outside the university. Instead of putting all my energy into my teaching and research, I was anchored in a community project and connected to people who weren’t preoccupied with publishing marginally relevant research in marginally relevant academic journals. Although I had to publish scholarly articles for my first six years as an assistant professor, once I got tenure and job security I immediately returned to community organizing and ignored the pseudo-intellectual pretensions that dominate in most of the so-called scholarly world in the social sciences and humanities. I had developed respect for rigorous and relevant scholarship but had come to realize how little of it there was in my fields in the contemporary academy.
From those first inquiries into the sexual-exploitation industries and the role of a pornographic culture in men’s violence, I continued to think about how power is organized and operates around other dimensions of our identities and statuses in the world. After opening the gender door, it was inevitable that I would have to open the race door. From there, questions about the inherent economic injustice in capitalism and the violence required for U.S. imperial domination of the world became central. Finally, I began thinking more about how human domination of the living world is destroying the ecosphere’s capacity to sustain life as we know it.
All of those inquiries led me to the same conclusion: We live in a world structured by illegitimate hierarchies and based on a domination/subordination dynamic. For those of us with unearned privilege, the rewards for ignoring this conclusion are whatever status and money we can squeeze out of the system, while the cost of capitulation to power is a surrender of some essential part of our humanity. More than 20 years after embarking on this investigation, I can see that clearly. But when I first started confronting these issues, I only knew that the conventional wisdom seemed inadequate, that the platitudes uttered by people in power seemed empty, and that the rationalizations offered by the intellectuals in the service of power seemed self-serving. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew I didn’t want that kind of career or life.
All that seems clear to me now, but it wasn’t at the start. The researcher’s query that prompted this essay asked about my “earliest consciousness-raising memory.” I have no simple answer, because my awakening was such a gradual process. But there were some moments along the way, such as the day I read Andrea Dworkin’s 1983 speech entitled “I Want a Twenty-Four-Hour Truce During Which There Is No Rape,” in which she asked men for “one day in which no new bodies are piled up, one day in which no new agony is added to the old.” In that speech she pointed out that feminists don’t hate men, but instead “believe in your humanity, against all the evidence.”
I also remember the crucial role of one friend in the anti-pornography group, a white man who was older than I and was a part of not only the feminist movement but the civil-rights, anti-war, and environmental struggles. He provided me with a model for how someone with privilege could contribute to radical politics in a principled fashion. In my book on pornography, I wrote about one particularly important moment with Jim Koplin, when we talked about my motivation in volunteering with the group:
“If you want to be part of this because you want to save women, we don’t want you,” he said. At first I was confused — wasn’t the point of critiquing the sexual exploitation of women in pornography to help women? Yes, Jim explained, but too many men who get involved in such work see themselves as knights in shining armor, riding in like the hero to save women, and they usually turn out not to be trustworthy allies. They are in it for themselves, not to challenge masculinity but to play out the role of heroic man in a new, pseudo-feminist context. You have to be in it for yourself, but in a different way, he said.
“You have to be here to save your own life,” Jim told me.
I didn’t understand exactly what he meant at that moment, but something about those words resonated in my gut. This is what feminism offered men — not just a way to help those being hurt, but a way to understand that the same system of male dominance the hurt so many women also made it impossible for men to be fully human.
Jim challenged me to ask myself why I was there and what I hoped to gain, and I came to understand that my interest in feminist politics was driven in large part by my own alienation from traditional definitions of masculinity. For me to tell a simple story about doing the right thing, implying nobility on my part, wasn’t going to cut it.
More than 20 years later, I’m still wrestling with these questions about why I make the choices I make. I am a man who is part of a feminist movement and a white guy who critiques the white supremacy deeply embedded in mainstream culture. I am an American who opposes U.S. imperial foreign policy and a middle-class academic working with a local group that organizes immigrant workers. For these efforts, I get attention and praise that is disproportionate to my effort and ability, a fact I point out as often as possible. People sometimes listen to me not because I’m smarter than feminist women, but because I am a man. My writing on race is not better than the work of non-white authors, but I’m appreciated because I’m white.
This is the tricky part of my awakening story. I was lucky to learn to see the world from the point of view of those who struggle against power, and I’m rewarded in many ways when I speak, write, or act in public in these movements. But I recognize that those rewards are unfair, and so my professed humility becomes another mark of my alleged sophistication. Yet if I were to refuse to use my privilege — if I dealt with this angst by fading into the background — I would be throwing away resources that come with my position in the world and which I can offer to these movements.
I am trapped, yet I am trapped in a system that makes my life relatively easy. Even when there is some threat of punishment for my political activities, such as during the fallout from critical essays about U.S. war crimes that I wrote after 9/11, I have so much support from outside the power structure and so much privilege as an educated white guy that I never really felt threatened. Even if I had been fired from my university position after 9/11, I likely would have landed on my feet.
I realize not all who adopt a critical perspective, even those in privileged categories, fare as well as I have. But in recent decades in the United States, in which dissent by people who look like me is mostly tolerated, there has been no widespread repression of people in the privileged sectors. People in targeted groups (particularly immigrants, Muslims, Arabs) have had to be careful, and there’s no guarantee that a more widespread repression won’t return to the United States, especially as U.S. power continues to decline around the world and elites get nervous. But for now, white men with U.S. citizenship are pretty safe. We may risk losing a job, but that’s trivial compared with the fates suffered by radicals in other eras in U.S. history or in other places today.
So, here’s my consciousness raising story summarized: I wandered through the first 30 years of my life mostly oblivious to the workings of power, protected by my privilege. For the past 20 years I’ve been struggling to contribute to a variety of movements for social justice and ecological sustainability, getting my consciousness raised on a regular basis whenever I seek out new experiences that push me beyond what I have come to take for granted (lately for me that has been happening at 5604 Manor, our progressive community center in Austin, TX, http://5604manor.org/). Although I love teaching and put considerable energy into my job as a professor, my community and political activities are just as important to me — and a greater source of intellectual vitality. If consciousness-raising is an ongoing project, it’s not likely to happen in moribund institutions such as universities but will come through engagement with people taking real risks in political work.
That’s as accurate an account as I can offer about how I became, and continue becoming, the political person I am. But telling this story always makes me a bit queasy; I have yet to find a way to describe my political development that doesn’t sound self-aggrandizing, as if I am casting myself as an epic hero.
That longstanding discomfort in telling my story is further complicated by new concerns in the past few years. More than ever I’m aware that no matter how high anyone’s consciousness in the United States is raised, there may be very little we can do to reverse the consequences of modern industrial society’s assault on the living world. I don’t mean that there is nothing we can or should do to promote ecological sustainability, but only that the processes set in motion during the industrial era may be beyond the point of no return, that the health of the ecosphere that makes our own lives possible may be compromised beyond recovery.
In contemporary left/progressive organizing, we typically focus on those small victories we achieve in the moment and on a vision for social change that sustains us over the long haul. With no revolution on the horizon, we pursue reforms within existing systems but hold onto radical ideals that inform those activities. We are willing to work without guarantees, bolstered by a faith that, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That’s supposed to get us through; even if our movements don’t prevail in our own lifetime, we contribute to a better future.
But what if we are no longer bending toward justice? What if the arc of the moral universe has bent back and the cascading ecological crises will eventually overwhelm our collective moral capacities? Put bluntly: What if homo sapiens are an evolutionary dead-end?
That’s the central problem with my consciousness-raising story. When I was politicized 20 years ago, I made a commitment to facing the truth to the best of my ability, even when that truth is unpleasant and painful. My ideals haven’t changed and my commitment to organizing hasn’t waned, but the weight of the evidence suggests to me that our species is moving into a period of permanent decline during which much of what we have learned will be swamped by rapidly worsening ecological conditions. I think we’re in more trouble than most are willing to acknowledge.
This is not an argument for giving up on or dropping out of radical politics. It’s simply a description of what seems true to me, and I can’t see how our movements can afford to avoid these issues. I’m not sure I’m right about everything, though I am sure this analysis is plausible and should be on our agenda. Yet it’s my experience that most people want to push it out of view.
In trying to make sense of my political consciousness-raising, I try to avoid the temptation to cast myself as an epic hero who overcomes adversity to see the truth. That’s a struggle but is possible when one is part of a vibrant political community in which people hold each other accountable, and for all my fretting in this essay, I think I’ve done a reasonably good job of keeping on track. We can overcome our individual arrogance.
More difficult is facing the possibility that the human species has been cast as a tragic hero. Tragic heroes aren’t characters who have just run into a bit of bad luck but are protagonists brought down by an error in judgment that results from inherent flaws in their character. The arrogance with which we modern humans have treated the living world — the hubris of the high-energy/high-technology era — may well turn out to be that tragic flaw. Surrounded by the big majestic buildings and tiny sophisticated electronic gadgets created through human cleverness, it’s easy for us to believe we are smart enough to run a complex world. But cleverness is not wisdom, and the ability to create does not guarantee the ability to control the destruction we have unleashed.
Not every human society has gone down this road, but we live in a world dominated by those who not only exhibit that arrogance but embrace it, refusing to accept the reality of decline. That means our individual awakenings may be taking place within a much larger dying. To face that is to live in a profound state of grief. To stay true to a radical political consciousness is to face that grief.
Andrea Dworkin, Letters from a War Zone: Writings 1976-1987 (London: Secker & Warburg, 1988/Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books 1993), pp. 170-171.
Ibid., pp. 169-170.
Robert Jensen, Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (Boston: South End Press, 2007), p. 9.
 “Where Do We Go From Here?” (annual report to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference), August 16, 1967. http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/publications/speeches/Where_do_we_go_from_here.html