FDL Book Salon — On Becoming Fearless, Week 1
Arianna Huffington’s book On Becoming Fearless arrives at an interesting time. Even as people are beginning to question the maelstrom of fear-mongering that has dominated the national agenda since 9/11, so to have the authentic voices of women been making their way into the political discourse (and by authentic I mean to differentiate them from those of the putative X-chromosome bearing Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkins, whose shrill reinforcement of male-dominated narratives represent little more than a quartet of dirty little paws grubbing for their next wingnut welfare check). Arianna’s lifetime journey of self-discovery and personal evolution, as well as her acute senses of expression and observation, give her a unique vantage point from which to comment on the subject of overcoming one’s personal fears as a woman heavily engaged in the realm of politics and social change.
Arianna’s previous works have explored the lives of Maria Callas and Pablo Picasso among others, but she’s not afraid to quote Marlo Thomas:
"A man has to be Joe McCarthy to be called ruthless. All a woman has to do is put you on hold."
Anyone who does not recognize the truth in that statement need read no further, because I promise what follows will be lost on you. But as someone who shares with Arianna both the joys and frustrations of speaking from a feminine perspective in a realm that is essentially dominated by men (albeit many of whom have well-developed feminine sides), it’s always a struggle and you find yourself being judged with a completely different yardstick than your male counterparts. Pach at one point referred to the "subtle forms of misogyny" that frequently find their way into those who don’t like the things that Christy, or Taylor, or Arianna or I might say. It’s easy to see that those same critiques do not get leveled when men say the same thing. And though we might rebel against the impulse, it inevitably causes you to question yourself and your voice.
As Arianna says:
The most common response to this crisis of self is conformity: "The individual," Erich Fromm writes in Escape from Freedom, "ceases to be himself; he adopts entirely the kind of personality offered to him by cultural patterns; and he therefore becomes exactly as all others are and as they expect to be….This mechanism can be compared with the protective coloring some animals assume."
So, ironically, the woman who appears well adapted may be the one who has simply become most comfortable being governed by her fears, while the "neurotic" one is still gamely struggling to reach fearlessness.
She goes on to note:
The concept of femininity also interferes with a woman’s ability to be assertive and aggressive. We so want to be liked that we worry about alienating people, so we often try to get what we want behind the scenes while still being careful to avoid seeming manipulative and disengenuous. It’s nice to be nice, but it can be extremely draining and self-destructive when it mutes our voice, holds us back and undermines our authenticity.
It’s critical that women take on the challenge of finding their voices today more than ever, because the values that are identified with women — family, healthcare, education, communty and the like — have been sorely undermined by those who have manipulated the country with fear into a delusional and unreasonable bellicosity. The country needs to refocus on these things and seriously reprioritize, and without women who have the courage to stand up and demand attention to these matters (and men to stand with them unafraid of being called insufficiently "tuff on terror" or however they want to dismiss something as essentially feminine at the moment) the chances of having any movement on these fronts is very small.
(I’ll also say as a sidenote that the blogosphere has offered a unique place to face these fears. Writing all day every day develops your own sense of who you are and what your perspective is, it thickens your skin and lets you know whose opinion to value and whose to mistrust.)
The kind of fearlessness demanded in this modern social environment depends on establishing a sense of one’s own worth that does not rely on external approbation for its existence, and a commitment to expressing your convictions despite the fact that you know you’re just inevitably going to take heat for it. Arianna talks about a letter she got when she was running for Governor of California:
I didn’t want to intrude, but I wanted to thank you for your statements during the September 24th debate. You helped make it clear why women in particular should not vote for Schwarzenegger. While some have complained that your behavior was inappropriate, I realize that well-behaved women rarely make history. Thanks for taking on the fight.
While you might not be able to say that Arianna has never been afraid to blaze new trails and take on important challenges, this book makes clear that she has never let her own fear intimidate her out of doing so. And she has accepted these challenges with remarkable grace. One of the reasons she decided to write this book was her experience watching the pressures brought to bear on her own teenage daughters, and she wanted to inspire them to work their way through the influences that would silence them and cause them to consume themselves with self-doubt as they sought to be seen as "well-behaved."
How lucky they are to have a mother who would rather make history