It was feminist thinker, Gloria Steinem, who put a name to a condition I had laboured under all my life, without my knowing quite what it was. I had tried to describe it by describing the actions of others, or reactions in myself, or by dramatizing incidents which appeared to contain the dynamics of the condition. And it was quite by accident that I happened on an interview with Gloria Steinem, which I can’t source, where she described her upbringing as having been a relentless struggle for self-definition.
And there it is. Encapsulated.
Because it seems to me that one of the walls I keep walking into in Ireland, even to this day, is this tendency of authority figures to decide who you are and what your status is and the corresponding limits to your freedoms as discerned by them, and then they treat you accordingly.
They often get angry, and think you unreasonable if you refuse the status they afford you. They report you as being “difficult”, not a “team player” and so on, when all you have done really is reject the liberty they have taken in defining you. Because when someone defines you, they always do so in relation to their sense of their own power and their own property rights. The definitions they impose are always low status, and they always, and I mean always, as in the schools that so diminished so many of us, they always withhold the right to ask questions, to assert yourself, to be yourself. They always withhold the right to define yourself.
Once I saw that, I saw it everywhere. And then I realized that in a country like Ireland, that often seems so hopelessly, unconsciously authoritarian; that you cannot help but make people angry and suspicious and resentful, simply by taking the liberty of deciding who you might be. It is as if exercising the right to self-definition acts as a lightening rod for all the negatives simmering away in the subtext of Irish life, drawing out the grinning demons of old oppressive Irelands past, to put you back in your place.