My Positionality: Or, Why I Write about Authoritarianism

“What we find changes who we become.” ~Peter Morville 

I was born and raised in the fundamentally democratic San Francisco Bay Area. I’m unabashedly and unapologetically a Californian: I believe in–and work to support–open cultures, diversity, equity, non-violence, transparency, and accuracy of information. I have not always understood or embraced those practices, however. I grew up in an authoritarian family culture, and the relational norms that initially shaped me were closed, homogenous, severely imbalanced, violent, and secretive.

I’m the first of six children, and my father and mother wanted a boy when I was born. As my mother supported him, my father cut my hair short and taught me how to physically fight to do the most damage to another child’s body. My father and mother taught me that everyone is either an enemy or a resource, and I learned how to be in relation with other humans within those constraints. The physical punishment paradigm reigned supreme in my family culture—as did the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” myth–and I grew up believing I deserved whatever “bad” or “good” things happened to me or my body.

I learned from my father how to be a fierce competitor: to leave it all on the field and sacrifice my body for the game. I learned how to control others: to persuade and compel them to go in my direction instead of their own. I learned how to impose a considerable intellect on others, how to argumentatively back them into a corner and get what I wanted. My parents instilled in me a killer Catholic work ethic. Growing up, I was taught to ignore most of my emotions—to just shake them off — and focus on what really mattered: being a conventionally successful boss. Under my parents’ tutelage, I grew into a female version of the straight white entitled male, and the orientation took me far.

When success and control in business no longer satisfied or interested me, I left my corporate job and headed toward the intellectual challenges of academia.

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I’m the first in my family to go to college and the only one to earn advanced degrees. I was taught growing up that “those who can, do—those who can’t, teach,” but I bucked that idea. I traded my family education—all the ideas I learned about punishment and shame, about deserving what you get, about how “beggars” can’t be choosers, about how the biggest and scariest should rule, about how each of us, no matter how little, is solely responsible for our actions–for sparkling critical theory and brilliantly democratic cultural studies ideas. Along my academic journey, I let go of my biological family and embraced–in my very limited way at the time–my new “academic family.”

My interest in authoritarianism–how it functions in everyday practices and what we can do about it–was born at the “bottom”[1] of rural cultures, then grew at the “bottom” of workplace cultures, and matured at the “bottom” of re-visited family cultures and interpersonal relationships. Specifically, since 11.8.2016, I experienced, methodically observed, and documented power relations as an outsider in white conservative rural cultures in California and Oregon, as a worker at the bottom of five different California workplace cultures, and as an estranged family member and friend at the bottom of those interpersonal hierarchies.

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The five year journey began in 2016 when I sold my East Bay home and left California for rural Southern Oregon two weeks before the Presidential election. I anticipated a different election outcome. I had close to 250k to buy a piece of property, purchase a mountain vehicle, and continue living very simply for 2 years while I participated in and researched the culture.[2]

Even though this Bay area native visited twice before buying her new home and research site, nothing could have prepared me for living in the ravages of poverty in this Oregon county. Nothing could have prepared me for the hostility and isolation I experienced as an outsider to the culture. Nothing could have prepared me for the almost total lack of familiarity in a culture that was the flipside of my “native” culture in the SF Bay area. My positionality at the bottom as an outsider–and inadvertent norm violator–provided an extraordinary view up into the culture and its power relations.

For 19 months, every experience was dense, brand new, and fundamentally life-changing. The only familiar aspects of the experience that my body and mind recognized were the culture’s severely imbalanced power relations: they were identical to the power relations I experienced in my family culture growing up.

My personal background in an authoritarian family culture was unexpectedly invaluable as I navigated the unfamiliar cultures in Oregon and, afterward, in Northern California. My formative, embodied experiences with severely imbalanced power relations were triggered into recollection by the power relations in which I was immersed, enabling me to make connections between an authoritarian family culture, the power relations in the cultures I was navigating, and broader U.S. and global trends.

Often, I also saw firsthand what had been possible for my siblings and me had my parents followed through on plans to move our family rural when I was little. I learned living rural that my city ideas about agency–of an innate ability to choose–were radically incomplete.

The people I met in Southern Oregon–many on the margins–make choices to survive in a rural world that are hard for many to understand, especially if those conditions aren’t experienced firsthand. The choices you would observe seem to demonstrate what you’d recognize as agency on their part. But “choice” is different in a place where those with vastly more power circumscribe the options.

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“Choosing” to agree with authority so you don’t get beaten is not a choice. “Choosing” to supplicate — because to dissent earns a black eye and bloody nose — is not a choice. “Choosing” to live on your knees — because to stand means to starve — is not a choice. “Choosing” to resist arrest — because to be taken into custody means an unspeakable life in a private prison — is not a choice. “Choosing” to numb your body and emotions so you don’t feel the relentless gut-churning agony of enduring a life you know won’t get any better is not a fucking choice.

In rural cultures first, I learned that power functions differently when you have little or none and that agency is moot when “choices” are brutally enforced givens by those in authority. I learned that authoritarianism manifests in everyday seemingly mundane practices and that it can be challenged in everyday practices by anyone. I learned that the following describes authoritarianism, whether it’s at the relational or regime level: power is stolen and hoarded by those few who claim authority, forcing those with less or very little power to adapt to that power scarcity and comply or face punishment in some form, the threat of which is directly expressed or implied.

Put simply, my positionality created a relational crisis in the closed cultures I studied, one that consistently marginalized me and often made me invisible. Aside from a few exceptions, it was as if I didn’t exist in these closed worlds.[3] At the same time, my positionlity forced me to face and process my traumatic experiences growing up in order to protect my mental health and keep moving forward toward home through the unhealthy relational goo.

The relational crisis also compelled a posture of standing nose-to-nose with my whiteness, toxic masculinity, privilege, and urban-centric worldview in order to reckon with them and keep moving forward. Ultimately, I used my role as a researcher to create critical distance from the trauma, pain, and grief around and in me, while also staying deeply present in those experiences to observe, document, learn, share, and change.

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[1] By “bottom” I mean the bottom of the community, workplace, and family hierarchies, where power–and the resources that fuel it–are scarce. The “bottom” is in contrast to the “top” of the hierarchy, where power and the resources that fuel it are abundant. Power scarcity conditions underlie everyday authoritarian practices.

[2] Severely burned out before resigning my academic roles in mid-2014, I spent 2 years in solitude–often in silence and in nature—before leaving California near the end of 2016. My relational orientation had radically changed during those two years, and I arrived in rural Oregon wide open, vulnerable, very present, and extremely sensitive. That orientation has changed only slightly over the 5 years and is an outstanding ethnographic instrument for original field research in a variety of different cultures.

[3] The existential crisis of rural isolation was compounded by my lack of connection to anyone in my professional discipline, my family, or people I assumed were friends. My kittens, Bello and Sparkles, were my sole relational support until Bello was killed in January 2017. Because of rural access issues, I also spent most of the first 8 months without internet access at home or on my phone. I created an “old tech” corner, with my old cassette mixed tapes, old DVDs, books, and paper maps. I learned the Illinois Valley and the natural surrounding areas in Southern Oregon with a paper map and my legs.

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Cathy B. Glenn, Ph.D. is an independent critical researcher, professor, creative, and cultural worker whose areas of expertise are power, culture, relations, and change. Formerly Private Principal Investigator for The Center for U.S. Rural Cultures Studies, she is now Educational Content Director and Developer for The Relational Democracy Project. Cathy is available to consult cglenn@hnu.edu.

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