[a note to readers: if you know me from school in real life, then please do not read my Tumblr apart from the posts I’ve linked to directly. It’s a part of my life that I want to keep separate from real life.]
I’ve been reading through Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, and reached the essay I’ve titled my post after. I think that the eponymous catchphrase- “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” -captures something I’ve been trying to get at for a while.
There is an obvious way in which it is untrue, which is that just because a tool originates from a system that creates oppression doesn’t mean it won’t be useful. Hitler designed an excellent autobahn system, after all.
But Lorde isn’t making a simple association or genesis fallacy. It’s something rather more profound- that oppressive systems and dynamics don’t magically become non-oppressive when you substitute in different groups.
In this case she’s speaking about the non-holistic way that kyriarchy teaches women to interact with each other (underlines mine):
As women, we have been taught either to ignore our differences, or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change. Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression. But community must not mean shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.
Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.
She writes also in “Scratching the Surface” of the dysfunctional way Black people have been taught by white supremacy to regard each other:
The distortion of relationship which says “I disagree with you, so I must destroy you” leaves us as Black people with basically uncreative victories, defeated in any common struggle. This jugular vein psychology is based on the fallacy that your assertion or affirmation of self is an attack upon my self — or that defining myself with somehow prevent or retard your self-definition…
This kind of action is a prevalent error among oppressed peoples. It is based upon the false notion that there is only a limited and particular amount of freedom that must be divided between us, with the largest and juiciest pieces of liberty going as spoils to the victor or the stronger. So instead of joining together to fight for more, we quarrel between ourselves for a larger slice of the one pie. Black women fight between ourselves over men, instead of pursuing and using who we are and our strengths for lasting change; Black women and men fight between ourselves over who has more of a right to freedom, instead of seeing each other’s struggles as part of our own and vital to our common goals; Black and white women fight between ourselves who is the more oppressed, instead of seeing those areas in which our causes are the same.
Further, Lorde connects the two divisonary tactics:
The tactic of encouraging horizontal hostility to becloud more pressing issues of oppression is by no means new, nor limited to relations between women. The same tactic is used to encourage separation between Black women and Black men… energy is being wasted on fighting each other over the pitifully few crumbs allowed us rather than being used, in a joining of forces, to fight for a more realistic ratio of Black faculty. The latter would be a vertical battle against racist policies of the academic structure itself, one which could result in real power and change. It is the structure at the top which desires changelessness and which profits from these apparently endless kitchen wars.
The specific oppressive dynamic that Lorde addresses ought to be familiar to rationalists. It’s the type of coordination failure that results from individual actors reacting to rational incentives corrupt and oppressive structures which promote disunity and non-solidarity, eventually creating disadvantage to each actor, popularly known as Moloch. One of kyriarchy’s main weapons is Moloch.
The development of the color line, for example, separated black and white workers who might otherwise have developed solidarity against the planters. White workers are separated from immigrant workers due to nations and ethnicity. The oppressive structures of schools place students at odds with each other, most famously in the case of “not like the other girls” misogyny and in the bullying of queer and disabled children. Trans-exclusionary radical feminists fail to include trans women as allies. Bisexual and lesbian women compete for who is most oppressed and whether the other is subversive enough. Hundreds of all examples of this exist.
The solution to this is not a metaphorical colorblindedness. The solution is accommodation, as it is with neurodivergence.
The divisions and particularities created between individuals are not grounds for separation and fear, nor are they necessary to destroy or to disregard as insignificant. Instead, they should be recognized and accommodated so as to be incorporated into a greater whole which addresses and represents both.
Things like stereotypes, like the hierarchical binary of white and nonwhite, treating difference of ideology as insurmountable, the discounting of certain types of harms, the delegitimization of different perspectives, and McCarthyism are oppressive dynamics which emanate from Moloch. The reasons they are oppressive remain constant, even if they are directed against different groups. These dynamics must be recognized in their various different forms; whenever there is a conflict it must be asked whether it is horizontal or vertical, Molochian or anti-Molochian. Regardless of targets, the dynamics – the tools of the master – remain evil; they are indeed a set of myriad double standards.
The difference between male and female ought to be be recognized as one of the differences people ought to neither erase nor base separatism out of; and which they should rather endeavor to draw strength and solidarity from.
For one of the first divisions of kyriarchy was between female and male, which often manifests as segregation between genders and otherization of different genders- i.e. oppositional sexism. A feminism that insists that men support it without supporting men is a feminism which sees difference as something to ignore; and a feminism which separates itself from men completely is a feminism which sees difference as cause for separation and suspicion. The two must be dialectically combined such that differences become ground for strength, solidarity, and accommodation, rather than separation or erasure.
The particularities of class (meaning, male/female, trans/cis, and so on) must not be erased, nor must they cause separation from the general greater society or from the individual. Instead they are united with the individual – who is inseparable from them – and with each other.
The individual is united with the particular while also remaining separate, possessing their own unique positionality; and the general moves ever closer to accommodating the individual. The greater society progresses towards unification with the particularities and therefore between individuals, but it is not one with them, for the particularities remain distinct as classes and the individuals’ needs are distinguished both from their needs as classes and as aspects of the general.
As each particularity becomes simultaneously more recognized and less divisionary, the general becomes closer and closer to becoming united as one whole, and the needs of each individual are accommodated and respected, as the ever-expanding union of the marginalized approaches victory in the battle of democracy.
Thus arises a Hegelian unity of the unity and the difference– a unity of the unity (the individual) and the difference (created by the various particularities) through the general (the society). Through solidarity, class-consciousness, and progression towards general acceptance, greater welfare is created. And thus the coordination failure is averted.