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Gender studies professor speaks on women’s roles in fight for peace

| Thursday, October 22, 2020

The Saint Mary’s Center for Women’s Intercultural Leadership (CWIL) hosted Notre Dame gender studies professor Ashley Bohrer who spoke in a presentation titled “Disturbing the Peace: A Feminist Defense of Conflict in a Time of Rebellion on Wednesday as a part of International Education Week. The talk was co-sponsored by the gender and women’s studies department, the department of social work and gerontology and the department of global studies.

The event began with interim CWIL director Alice Yang presenting a brief background of International Education Week.

The International Education Week is a joint initiative by the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Department of Education. It is an opportunity to celebrate the benefits of international education and exchange worldwide and an effort to promote programs that prepare Americans for a global environment and attract the future leaders from abroad to study, learn and exchange experiences, she said.

Yang then introduced author and activist Bohrer and discussion facilitator Frances Kominkiewicz, a part of the department of social work.

Bohrer opened her talk by discussing the implications of when people define peace as all times outside of war.

This sort of engenders the idea that when bad things happen or when violence occurs, it is a momentary phenomenon, the result of a bad person or a bad apple or a bad choice,she said. The normal state of things on this account is peace and violence or conflict is a momentary aberration under this view. Anyone who disrupts the normal order of things, including through advocating for change, is someone who is disturbing the peace.

Bohrer said that despite popular belief, conflict and peace work closely together.

Those who conceive of the world as structurally violent understand conflict, not as in opposition to peace, but crucially, as a means to achieve peace, she said.

Peace advocates engage in conflict regularly, she said, as first seen by protestors in the Civil Rights movement.

It was a crucial piece of the nonviolent direct-action strategy of the Civil Rights movement to take on actions that would invite state violence in order to demonstrate to the world the actual everyday brutality of Jim Crow, Bohrer said. If we think that peace activists are somehow conflict avoidance — that they’re trying to move away from conflict, in fact, we see them running headlong into it time and time again.

Because systems of oppression are incredibly ingrained into today’s society, Bohrer believes taking them down requires conflict.

Given the resilience of the structures of capitalism, white supremacy, coloniality and the heteropatriarchy, it actually seems quite absurd to me that we should expect to assume that the elimination of the systems of harm would occur politely, quietly or without a massive disruption, she said. In this sense, in order to achieve a real lasting powerful and substantive elimination of harm and suffering, we are going to need to engage in a lot of conflict and a lot of contestation.

Bohrer explained how society uses a definition of peace that criminalizes the voices of protestors, which she said is just as dangerous as the use of weapons.

The state’s ability to capture the discourse of space, and to coalesce support behind its violence, is through its reliance on a particular notion of peace — one that emphasizes stability, order and the denial of structural violence, she said.

After discussing how many people were arrested at protests in 2020, Bohrer said her worries lie in the way that the peace is defined in charges of breaching or disrupting peace [by] the ruling or reigning order, which we know to be one of structural racism, police brutality and extrajudicial state-sanctioned murder.

Bohrer suggested that people should look at this issue through a feminist perspective to obtain a deeper understanding.

We need to begin thinking about the ruling order as the systematic abuse of oppressed, unexploited people, she said. In feminist accounts of intimate partner abuse, the term gaslighting emerged in order to talk about the psychological and discourse effects of abuse.

Examining what it means to be feminist, Bohrer reflected on the ways the movement is impeded by gender expectations and lifted by women who defy them.

[Feminism] is a lens of analysis that highlights how the ruling order of our contemporary society is structured through violence and harmful expectations of normative gender, she said. Feminist movements around the world have often been at the forefront of utilizing disruptive tactics in order to draw attention to the violence and suffering caused not only by the state, but also by the media, social norms, the family and other institutions.

Because of the mission of feminism, Bohrer argues today’s protests fall under issues concerning feminists.

I think we also have to insist that the current racial justice uprising is a feminist movement and is a feminist concern, she said. Police violence is a feminist issue. Racial justice is a feminist issue. Rising fascism is a feminist issue.

Working to change how conflict is only associated with masculinity, Bohrer spoke about how feminism fits into social evolution caused by conflict.

There’s a long history and feminist scholarship of seeing conflict as something inherently masculine or patriarchal, she said. There is something feminist about militancy in the name of social transformation and liberation. The only possibility of building a truly feminist world is rooted in revaluing conflict and opposition to the ruling order of heteropatriarchy. And in this sense, I am arguing for conflict as a central strategy of feminist liberation and justice.

To end her lecture, Bohrer considered the meaning behind the slogan No Justice, No Peace. Some consider it an echo of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, but Bohrer discussed its second connotation that is rooted in conservative ideas about protest.

Another wave of activism tends to interpret the slogan another way — until there is justice, there will be no peace, meaning we will not let you have your sham of peace, she said. Much of the right-wing hysteria about this chant and about protests in general embraces this latter meaning interpreting the chant to be a kind of threat.

Bohrer approves of this chant being seen as a threat because she believes that disrupting social norms to obtain peace is key.

Of course, unlike the right wing, I think that this militancy is demanded to disrupt the current peace until we attain justice is the strength of social movements rather than their danger, she said. If by peace, we mean something like the elimination of avoidable harm and suffering, then disruptive conflict is an essential part of achieving peace.

Bohrer then answered questions asked by Kominkiewicz and the virtual audience.

When asked about this summer’s protests, Bohrer emphasized the distinct difference between violence against people and damaging property.

I will say that the only violence that occurred in these protests was the state using armed agents in order to be down the progression of justice and liberation, she said. I am not at all convinced by the argument that throwing a brick through a Starbucks window is violence. I think that when we start to play that game, we enter into a deeply dangerous equation of violence against human beings and property damage.

Rather than considering this violence against property, Bohrer asked the audience to focus on the violence committed against marginalized populations.

I think we are always better off hammering home or talking about uplifting the violence that the state is doing, the violence that the current system does to people of color, exploited people, women, queer and trans folks, disabled people every single day, she said.

Bohrer said not acknowledging violence against oppressed people and working with them obtain peace has severe consequences.

If we are not talking about that violence, I think we’re participating in gaslighting people who are responding to centuries of brutality by telling them that they have to be polite and nice or something in their response, she said. All that does is serve the interests of abuse of power gaslighting for sure.

Near the end of the event, Bohrer gave suggestions on how to be unified with others who come from different backgrounds when working together for peace.

It’s really important to hold on to the fact that we don’t have to have the same experience in order to work together. … I really think about leaning into the concept of solidarity and coalition, she said. So, my question isn’t necessarily how can I be united or have the same experience or use the same language as every woman around the world in different situations. But my question is much more … how can I stand in solidarity with other people’s struggles and with other women’s struggles?

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About Genevieve Coleman

Genevieve Coleman is a graduating senior at Saint Mary's majoring in English literature, creative writing and secondary education. She was an Assistant Managing Editor for the 2022-23 term.

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