Thursday, October 23, 2014

Liberals (Mis)Theorize the Rural

A few years ago, Lisa Pruitt published an important article in the Utah Law Review entitled Toward a Feminist Theory of the Rural. The paper argued that feminists, typically situated in urban centers or university towns, had constructed women's experience in a way that generally did not encompass or encounter women who lived in rural areas. For example, "spatial isolation, lack of anonymity, and a depressed socioeconomic landscape" all are characteristic aspects of rural living that alter the efficacy of particular strategies for women's liberation. Moreover, the (sub)urban bias of dominant feminist theory generally does not engage substantively with cultural aspects of the rural that may be important to many women's identity.

Pruitt's article is in many ways a simple extension of similar criticisms and extensions other outsider-groups had leveled at feminist scholarship for decades. Early feminist constructions of women's experience resonated with a particular type of woman who shared a social strata with the authors -- generally white, middle-class suburban women. These women could relate to the barriers facing women who wished to work rather than stay at home as housewife, or who experienced the "cage" of puritanical sexual norms. But poorer women scoffed at the notion that there was anything radical about women working -- they had been doing so for years. Likewise, Black women whose bodies were considered property of White men and whose sexuality -- far from an image of pure White maidenhood -- was constructed as hyperactive and unconstrained related very differently to the movement toward sexual "liberation".

I was thinking about this when reading the reports of a rural Nebraska school district which is allowing its seniors to pose with guns in their senior yearbook photos. There is a lot of liberal snickering over this policy -- Jezebel is typical -- that I think deserves a prized spot in the dictionary for urban elitism. Jezebel's stock photo, which looks like the poster for a femme fatale action movie, fails utterly in its portrayal of how gun ownership and usage is situated within the community in question. The locals who support this policy note, accurately, that hunting and sport-shooting are important parts of the local culture, and for many of the students these activities are as central to their identities as being a soccer player or trombonist. The school board guidelines block photographic poses which are threatening or sexualize violence (more than one can say for Jezebel's photo -- though incredibly, they turn around and accuse the district of being backwards precisely because it is guarding against the toxic combination of sex and violence). And there's little evidence that the students in question have any interest in incorporating guns into their photos except as an expression of their heritage and cultural practices.

In short, the image of guns is very different where I grew up than in many rural communities. In Broken Bow, a teenager holding a gun is not culturally associated with an imminent school shooting. Citing to the threat of such atrocities suppresses the particularities of rural experience into a "general" (really, specifically urban/suburban) outlook on guns that would be quite foreign to their experience. Importing our own cultural meanings onto rural communities is no different than any sort of hegemony. I don't want folks from Broken Bow dictating how urban-dwellers in DC relate to guns, and I have no intention in doing it back to them.

I'm not personally an enthusiast of guns. I certainly didn't grow up in a gun family; I've shot a gun once in my life (at a range, and not very accurately -- I think I nicked the paper once). My dad swears that in Coast Guard Basic Training he never passed riflery. I support a variety of regulations to ensure guns are kept out of the hands of criminals and to minimize the risk they pose to the American populace. I've co-authored briefs on this score while in private practice, and I even at one point contemplated working for the Brady Center. Yet I've never considered myself "anti-gun" per se. Guns are dangerous and that justifies careful regulation and control, but they're also an important and legitimate part of many people's culture and heritage. Communities, particularly rural communities, have themselves often developed norms of healthy gun ownership and usage which are worthy of respect. Put simply, guns have a different cultural valence in Broken Bow, Nebraska than they do in San Francisco, California or Chicago, Illinois. And that's okay! There's space for pluralism in firearms culture. This doesn't mean there will never be policy disputes over guns, and I think plenty of common-sense gun regulations impose minimal burdens on reputable gun buyers and sellers. But the point is that these debates should not ignore cultural context, regardless of whether that context is Chicago or Broken Bow. This whole discourse risks of making fun of the bumpkins, and it should sit very uncomfortable.


EW said...

Thoughtful post.

Now to redirect the focus entirely, when I read "I've co-authored briefs on this score while in private practice," it suggest to me that you're no longer in private practice. Am I misconstruing this, or did I miss an announcement?

David Schraub said...

Yes, I supposed you did.

EW said...

Wow! Congrats (I guess). When did that happen? Heck, did you even get fully unpacked in DC?