What comes before consent?

If I could reduce the complexity of violence down to a linear continuum, it might look something like: assault → murder → genocide → ecocide.

I’ve been wondering about what the spectrum of violence looks like further to the left, before assault, before harassment, before intimidation. What are some small acts of violence that we can detect well before there is physical contact between bodies? Maybe by noticing and changing these small injustices, I’ll be better-positioned to address the big ones.

In many radical communities, “consent” is a focal point for governing the interaction of bodies, especially sexual interactions. Before you touch my body, check what I’m up for and respect my answer. Consent is the antidote to assault.

What happens if we pay attention to consent in situations that have nothing to do with people touching? Could you seek consent before your sound system fills my airspace?

Can we push consent beyond the bounds of human interactions? What would a cow say if I asked for consent to barbecue her?

There are many cases where even the request for consent is harassment. An unwanted sexual advance can severely limit my freedom to participate in a group, especially if the advancing party has more physical or social power than me.

If consent governs physical interactions, what mechanisms can regulate other less intense interactions? When I speak: how can I express myself in a way that respects your subjectivity? What is my posture saying? How can I listen? What can I read from your body language?

How can I own my subjectivity and celebrate yours?

Are there little micro-behaviours, expressions we can practice?

“You should.” → “You could.”

“You’re attractive.” → “I’m attracted to you.”

“Life is like…” → “My experience is like…”

What happens if we extend consent to include many people simultaneously? What can we all agree on? How might we grow that island of agreement to fit more people? Can we make a map of the islands? Can we build bridges between them?

When I was a good patriarchal young man, I always tried to inflict my subjectivity on others. You might have seen the feminist placard, “Objectivity Is Male Subjectivity”.

The collective decision-making process I participated in during the Occupy Movement was a training ground where I learned how to be much more careful about owning my experience without invalidating others. Rather than saying, “People are like…” I learned to say, “My experience is like…”

In many political spaces, we attempt to argue on objective terms: here are the facts, these are the definitions, let me persuade you of their rightness. This is an excellent method for wasting hours of talk with no tangible outcome. But what happens when we stop trying to float above our messy subjectivity and embrace it?

What gets me so excited about collective decision-making is when the process shifts the participants from a purely objective/analytic mode into an affective/relational mode. Instead of competing with facts, we inquire with feelings. Of course facts are important, but it’s much easier for me to hear them when you pay attention to my feelings. When each of us owns our subjectivity without trying to collapse others’, then I can see my place in the spectrum of perspectives. My understanding has grown, without you having had to persuade me of anything.

p.s. if this little article has whet your appetite, I highly recommend this essay by Emmi Bevensee which examines consent and power in much greater detail.

p.p.s. if you want to support my writing, you can throw me a few bucks on Patreon 😍

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