Friday, September 4, 2009

Palliative vs. transformative: An example.

There are different ways for movements (for example, feminism) to have impacts on society. Two types of impacts are:

  • Palliative impact--A movement has palliative impact when it improves things for a few people but the long term effect is minimal or even backfires.

  • Transformative impact--A movement has transformative impact when it shakes society to its foundation, causing the new society to barely resemble the old one.

Both types of impacts have their places, but it's only the truly transformative ones that can break us out of the rut we are in and give us a chance to truly become great--or horrible (not all transformative movements are positive).

Two separate feminist movements can clue us into the difference.

The first example is the feminism of the early 20th century, often called "first-wave" feminism. This was clearly transformative. The most obvious transformation is universal suffrage. But, also, the fact that women have legal and social identity apart from their fathers and husbands--that is gigantic. There are other less ground-shaking things--the value of women's higher education, the idea that a woman can be a boss, etc. For women, the world of 1909 is fundamentally different from the world of 2009. That's transformation, baby.

Then there is the "Baby Boomer" feminism, often called "second wave". The members of this movement often set out to be transformative, but it turns out that it was a palliative movement. Some women were empowered to really unleash their feminine power, some women were better protected from abuse by men, some women found improved sexual liberation. But was it transformative? Not really. Things might be different in some ways for women in 2009 vs. 1979, but, eh, in many ways things have gotten worse for women. Second-wave feminism is clearly palliative (among other things).

About the only transformative effect it could possibly have is if same-sex marriage becomes more generally accepted, or even "normalized." But even if that happens, it has to share credit with what we could call, for lack of a better term, the "queer rights" movement. That movement, by the way, is definitely transformative. The world for queer people in 2009 is substantially different than it was in 1969.

What I see right now is a lot of palliative movements--or worse, retrograde, reactionary movements that diminish us as humans rather than making us better. The new resurgence of somewhat progressive politics in this country? Palliative at best, and reactionaries are trying as hard as they can to minimize the palliative impact. But even if the progressives win, will things really change? Hardly.

It's time for transformation. Transformation could really make things a lot better. Or it could do us in entirely. What I don't want to see is something that simply makes our misery more tolerable. That is stupid bullshit that I've seen my entire life and am sick of. Let's tear it apart and rebuild it. It's the only way. We may fail, and we may all die as a result. But are we really living now? No, not really.

Unfortunately, I have no idea where to begin. I guess maybe we begin by making people agree with my thought model--that this world sucks and we might be able to change it by transforming it in some way, hopefully making it better.


lizw said...

I agree that transformation is needed, but I'm not convinced that first-wave feminism was transformative. It made it easier for women to participate in the existing social structures, but those structures themselves remained hierarchical and unjust. To be truly transformative, I believe our thinking needs to be more intersectional. It needs to address issues of class, racism, ableism and cisgender privilege at the same time as issues of sexism.

April said...

Margaret and I discussed feminism and the "waves" the other day. We decided that the first wave gave women the right to vote. That was absolutely transformative. It didn't happen overnight of course.

The second wave gave women rights over their bodies-reproductive rights. That was also absolutely transformative.

The third wave? Still in the making but with all the discussions and insistence on the intersectionality of oppressions, I believe the transformation will finally come for the marginalized, and non-white. Finally?

Charles said...

@LizW--Well, first-wave feminism was transformative in its domain, but other things were afoot at the same time that transformed the world in other ways--not at all good ways, either.

These things are difficult to classify, and that makes them difficult (for me, at least) to think about. One thing I would like is a way to think about things without having to classify them. But I don't really like what I have to work with along those lines.

@April--The problem with "wave" theory is that it's hard to separate the first wave from the second wave. I consider both movements you mention as part of the first wave. The struggle for reproductive rights began at the same time as the struggle for suffrage, but you are right, it's difficult to decide where to draw the line.

In my opinion, the Second Wave begins with Betty Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique. It overlaps with the First Wave at that point, which itself ends rather abruptly with the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 70s.

The Second Wave continues until the end of the Riot Grrrl movement, which marks the transition into the Third Wave--something that is difficult to describe at all.

But, as you say, these things can be fiercely debated. Feminism was merely an example, though. You can think of other things that show palliative vs. transformative impacts. And those are not the only two types of impacts, either. You can have dystopic ones, like, say, Marxism-Leninism, consumerism, globalism, and genetic engineering.