The word, Agency refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.
I didn't hear the word agency used in any sort of sociopolitical fashion until I was dating a Social Activist and she explained that the fight for agency was that of POC and women. The idea being that the institutional racism and sexism in our society was preventative for POC and women to exercise their agency, ie. their capacity to act independently and make their own free choices. The seemingly standard methods of establishing agency trucked in two modes: A sharing of stories that focused on the victimization of the tellers, and outrage. Rarely, in my experience, was the sort of dispassionate concentration on working with legislatures or societal measures that often results in... results employed. Rather, it seemed that the two approaches (a call for sympathy/empathy and an angry polemic against the oppressors) were used to create a sense of belonging and solidarity.
A sense of belonging and solidarity feels good, for certain, but rarely does that good feeling translate into actionable goals attained. It's a start but not the actual hard work that needs to be done to unshackle the chains of both White Supremacy and the Patriarchy (which may or may not have been the title of a 1972 film starring David Carradine and Kris Kristofferson.) The sharing of stories of abuse help create the solidarity and the feeling that one is not alone but the constant sharing of these stories becomes less and less about shining light on abuse and more about claiming one's place in the Victim Status Olympiad. You know, it's a slippery slope.
Last year, after an event at Adler Planetarium, I had two planet stickers (Mars and Jupiter, I recall) on my chest. They were placed there by Adler staff and the stickers were just a fun way of personally branding people with these cartoon reminders for kids. As I approached my (female) boss, she laughed at the sticker placement. I looked down and, sure enough, I had planet nipples. I laughed and struck a pose and rubbed my planet nipples with my index fingers and we both laughed.
Except that this exchange, at the bottom of the Sexual Harassment slippery slope, has become a fireable offense for either one of us. If either my boss or I went to Human Resources and complained that the exchange felt uncomfortable or hostile, there would be a series of meetings and reprimands over what was simply a joke about the placement of cartoon planets. You know, because nipples are dirty.
"A mother leaves her son in the car while popping into a store at a strip mall. She is charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. A high school senior complains to her Facebook friends about a teacher and is suspended for “cyberbullying.” Students at Wellesley start a petition calling for the removal of a statue of a man in his underwear, claiming that the art piece caused them emotional trauma. So many residents of Santa Monica, California, claim to need emotional support animals that the local farmer’s market warns against service dog fraud.
How did American culture arrive at these moments? A new research paper by Nick Haslam, a professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne, Australia, offers as useful a framework for understanding what’s going on as any I’ve seen. In “Concept Creep: Psychology's Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology,” [Nick] Haslam argues that concepts like abuse, bullying, trauma, mental disorder, addiction, and prejudice, “now encompass a much broader range of phenomena than before,”expanded meanings that reflect “an ever-increasing sensitivity to harm.”
This is not about the concept of being politically correct. Most arguments against the notion of PC censoring of language have more to do with assholes wanting to be allowed to be assholes without being called assholes. Those arguments only crop up if the assholes really want to be seen as morally righteous in their unfettered name calling.
Some might see the cultural desires to censor uncomfortable speech as the end all, be all of the problem but the culture of victimhood—the one that provides more rewards societally in playing the aggrieved than not—is the beginning of so many slippery slopes. Most of these slopes we cascade down begin as a struggle to expand definitions. "Hate speech." "Harassment." "Rape Culture." "Privilege." The expansion of discriminated classes and marginalized groups—from women, to POC, to Obese People, to Demisexuals—is the perfect example of a well intentioned beginning that slips downward. And all of these increasingly victimized groups are invited into the Olympiad by claiming harm via trauma. These days, instead of those going through the Hell that is War, anyone who feels the sting of micro aggressions or a lack of a trigger warning claims to be suffering from PTSD.
The broad claim of PTSD has become almost a refrain to a song that is cognitively dissonant. Trauma does not create PTSD but research shows that fragility prior to trauma is the necessitating factor. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains: “Bone is anti-fragile. If you treat it gently, it will get brittle and break. Bone actually needs to get banged around to toughen up. And so do children. I’m not saying they need to be spanked or beaten, but they need to have a lot of unsupervised time, to get in over their heads and get themselves out. And that greatly decreased in the 1980s. Anxiety, fragility and psychological weakness have skyrocketed in the last 15–20 years.”
"Experiencing trauma does not mean that one will develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Trauma is common, but PTSD is rare. In a representative survey of 2,181 adults in southeastern Michigan, the epidemiologists Naomi Breslau and Ronald C. Kessler found that 89.6 percent of them had experienced trauma, such as rape, natural disasters, serious accidents, or learning of the sudden, unexpected death of a loved one. Yet only 9.2 percent of the subjects developed PTSD. These findings imply that risk and resilience factors affect whether exposure to trauma results in the disorder."
— “The Stressor Criterion in DSM-IV Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: An Empirical Investigation,” Breslau, N., & Kessler, R. C., Biological Psychiatry, 2001
To paraphrase Taylor Mac, trauma shuts down communication. If you can talk about it right away, you're merely suffering from uncomfortable feelings. Call it lower case 't' trauma but the inflation of our individual sense of self-importance and desperate need to be seen and heard in a planet filled with so many fucking people starts the downward slide to including anyone with hurt feelings as Victims of PTSD, and thus in need of special treatment and legal redress.
Being a bully—on it’s surface—is generally considered a bad thing. Combating the bullies is a righteous cause. Yet, as we continue to expand the definition of bullying, the difference between actual bullying and behaviors that make us feel left out or uncomfortable becomes indistinguishable.
“The concept of bullying has spread from its original meaning to encompass a wider range of phenomena,” Haslam writes. “It has expanded horizontally into online behavior, into adult workplaces, and into forms of social exclusion that do not directly target the victim with hurtful actions, as distinct from hurtful omissions.” (For example,being excluded from a group of friends is dubbed bullying.)
Bullying has expanded vertically, too.
“Behavior that is less extreme than prototypical bullying now falls within its bounds,” Haslam observes, adding, “in some circumstances bullying behavior need not be repeated or intentional, and it need not occur in the context of a power imbalance as traditionally conceived.”
Citizens United was a natural descension of one of these slopes. It began a century ago when the Robber Barons convinced the Supreme Court to grant corporations the same status as individuals. It was only a matter of time before these corporations would clamor for a bit more of that ridiculous line of thinking. Roberts' court granted additional legal protections and the Tea Party became a powerful political lobby because the Koch Bros could legally fund the shit out of it. The slope kept sliding and the Tea Party started the decline of Congressional responsibility to compromise and legislate, and now Ted Cruz and a billionaire shyster are both viable candidates for a post previously held by Lincoln, FDR, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Obama.
The laws enacted in the sixties to assure affordable housing and integrated schools in Chicago were a great start to solve so many inequities between the triad of ethnicities (33 percent white, 33 percent black, 33 percent Latino) inhabiting the country's third largest city. But landowners and racist legislators ignored enforcement of these laws and the downward decline started sliding. Arguably, because of this slow and systematic dismantling of laws designed to make things better in our city, the issues of unequal finances in schools, unfair housing practices, and increased corporate gentrification of neighborhoods is far worse than it was nearly 60 years ago.
As far as I can tell, most of these slippery slopes begin well intentioned. It is a good thing to pay attention to the feelings of others—it's called empathy, for Crissakes. But as each truly Traumatized (noticed the capitalization) person asks for compassion and recognition, more traumatized people demand their piece of it as well until there is no line to discern someone actually harmed by language or laws or marginalization and someone who is just looking for someone to pay attention to them in a world of loneliness.
When I taught public school, every year there was a subset of the girls in class who knew that by claiming they were having their period that no male teacher would deny them permission to roam the hallways and ditch class.
"Mr. Hall? I need a hall pass to go to the washroom."
"Hmmmm. Didn't you just have the chance 15 minutes ago when we switched classes?"
"It's my time of the month, Mr. Hall. Pleeeaaase?"
Later, more often than not, I'd find out that this girl would go get her friends out of class and play hooky for as long as they could. So I bought an extra large box of maxi-pads and an extra large box of tampons and put them in my office. If a girl pulled that on me, I'd give them my office key, discretely tell them where they could find the pads or tampons, and ask them to leave the used wrapper on my desk with their initials so I knew they were serious. Once the word got out that they wouldn't get a hall pass and that I wasn't afraid of their menses, the girls looking to ditch stopped asking. The side effect was that girls genuinely in need would get hall passes to come to my class to get maxi-pads throughout the day. Finally, I convinced our principal to install machines in the girl's washroom.
Don't think, however, that I didn't have parents who came to school, highly offended by my trick. They wanted their daughters to get special treatment because they complained about how awkward it was, how it showed a lack of trust and respect. I was a bully. I was a white man in charge. I was disrespecting them.
Each remedy for victimization holds within it the guarantee of abuse. In the film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar, there is the moment that Jesus heals a sick man. This is a good thing, the healing of the sick. The slope slides down as soon as everyone else who is sick rushes him, trying to get him to heal them until he is overwhelmed and heals no one.
This is the effect that almost any legal protection creates.
Domestic violence is a brutal and pervasive problem. No one with a functioning brain cell disputes this (unless you're Kirk Cameron which, of course, proves my point). As limited and insufficient protections are created for women being battered, the definition of domestic violence starts to fray. Verbal abuse is now lumped in with battery and as the slope slips, eventually any form of uncomfortable or awkward marital difficulty becomes labeled domestic violence. Sure, having a husband make you feel shitty about yourself or scream at you a lot is rough but try telling that to a woman repeatedly hit in the face with a cast iron skillet.
Which brings us back to agency. A woman in a verbally abusive relationship has all the power in the world to split. The woman who lives with the constant threat of physical violence does not.
There are plenty of issues that make agency difficult but what is often used as an example of lacking agency resembles the demand for free speech sans consequence. We all have the Constitutional right to free speech but we do not have the right to consequence-free free speech. The cake baker who decides to refuse services to a gay couple have every right to say so but discrimination is against the law and people deciding to blast them on Yelp is also legit. The 19-year old gangbanger has every right to wear his gang colors wherever he wants to but complaining he can't get hired because he dresses like a thug misses the point.
Agency is the ability to make choices—not have access to all of the choices. Just because your choices may suck doesn't mean you have no agency.
There’s no question that it is easier to be white and male in our American society but try telling that to the white man who lives in a trailer on the foot of the Ozarks and, because he has no education and no definable job skills, he is as poor as anyone in the country. The result of telling him how privileged he is merely puts him in the camp of a Trump supporter rather than get him to become woke. And yet, even he has agency—the ability to leave the Ozarks, clean himself up, learn a job skill and do something to better his life. Are his choices as easily made as the same guy with education, money, connections to nepotism, and all of his teeth? Not a chance. Is that fair? Nope. But we live on a planet that consistently creates things and events designed to destroy us (disease, natural disaster, animals with fangs and claws) so fucking fair isn’t in the cards, gang.
Socialism, Communism, Capitalism, Buddhism, and all of the myriad Isms and societal structures there are, each has some solid guiding principle that when taken in a vacuum, makes sense. People, on the other hand, pervert everything because we are a selfish, self-involved bunch of assholes for the most part. Don’t believe me? Just watch how people react when they are told they get a free beer at an event and then run out of beer before everyone has been served.