When I made it to high school English and thus graduated from analysis of story structure like exposition, climax, and resolution to the exegesis properly called “literary criticism,” I found it a wondrous experience. Here were these stories I already enjoyed reading made into a whole new sort of game, going between the lines to guess at the author’s hidden meanings! It was like playing at spies with Shakespeare across the centuries, he penning his poetry with a wink, I winking back as I set to the task of decoding it.
In college I was in turn introduced to feminism, and the lens of feminist criticism. Here I encountered discussion of the patriarchy: how so many cultural mores, laws, and artistic themes were instruments of oppression, means to keep women “in their place” and men in positions of power over them. I got the idea well enough to score good grades via the approach, but the rhetoric of it always struck me as rather strange. It wasn’t like a bunch of villainous dudes sat down in a boardroom discussing how best to put one over on the wimminz, and came to the conclusion that images of underwear-clad female bodies with the heads cropped out of the picture would be an excellent stratagem. But that was the conspiratorial scenario that the instruments-of-oppression discussion seemed to convey.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized how these two things are related.
The author is dead. It is a truth of human existence, a fact of human nature that we can never truly know another person’s intentions. We can only see the effects of what they do, and if we are so inclined, guess at what thoughts led to those actions. Perhaps the person speaks up about what they meant, saying or doing what they did, but we can only take what they say as fact insofar as we trust them. Shakespeare is a beloved icon of Western culture, and I dearly wanted the sort of intellect and refinement associated with being conversant with him; so it was simple to believe that the Bard had with skill and intent buried themes in his work for generations to unravel and discuss. I can only imagine that peers of mine who thought Freshman English a waste of time likely believed the unpacking of deep textual meanings to be so much teacherly sleight of hand. I, being in a place of privilege myself, found it a stretch to ascribe malice to men simply looking to make a buck or raise a family in the same traditions as they grew up. If I were marginalized and frustrated by constant belittling of my gender, race, or orientation, I would not have the energy or inclination to give the benefit of the doubt to those perpetuating the system.
This is, I think, the deep source of many conflicts: religious, political, geek-tribal, etc. Or if not the source itself, then at least a cause of the constant talking past another we do, the bizarre and frustrating sense that the folks on the other side of whatever divide are speaking a different language. A devout Catholic believer, feeling well loved by the Church, having a rapport with its representatives, remembering many occasions of support and comfort from it, might be shocked and dismayed to hear of clerical abuses; but in the end will accept the clergy’s remorse and reassurances at face value. Someone with less deep-seated an investment in the Church’s authority, someone who perhaps feels disconnected from their fellows there, or who has had experiences of their worries and complaints falling on deaf ears within the hierarchy, or someone not a believer at all, will be much more inclined to see cover-up, hypocrisy, and emptiness in the same ostensibly reassuring words. (This is not to deny or make light of the possibility that such a startling event could break even the deepest-held trust; I’m talking about trends and tendencies here.) Whose interpretation is more correct? It’s hard if not impossible to know, because we cannot look behind the mask of the sermonizing priest’s face to lay bare his thoughts.
I’m not sure where to go with any of that, really, save to recognize it when I see it, especially in myself. There are conspiracies in the world, and there is malice, but the places we see them often say as much about us as they do about the people we perceive to bear those ill intents.