‘Amae (甘え)’ and the sweet indulgence of social justice culture

I want to start this piece with an inconvenient thought.

Over the last years, online social justice communities have been shouting down the idea of reverse sexism or racism – I’ve done it myself.

The logic that is given is that bias towards men or white people isn’t in the context of a larger system of oppression. So the harm directed at men for being men or at white people for being white is simply bias or prejudice. It hurts but it isn’t racism or sexism.

Obviously, this isn’t wrong, like any argument where the terms are being defined the party speaking.

But that doesn’t mean its whole.

The reality is that our lives aren’t just led in one large system we are all clustered under. We live in a network of nested systems that are modular and these smaller systems matter deeply as well. Basically what I’m saying is that, yes white supremacy and patriarchy obviously matter, its a big deal because they reflect our larger social context, but the smaller communities we organize into, like affinity groups or church baseball leagues, they matter too.

Social groups nest into each other like Russian dolls creating contexts within contexts.

When you think about it: if you define racism and sexism as things that absolutely eclipse the systemic power created in smaller communities, so there can be no reversal of racism or sexism, then that actually undermines a lot of social activism that is about re-centering power within smaller communities towards people with more marginalized identities.

That’s cognitive dissonance.

Following, I’ve been thinking about how we construct our thought patterns around words like patriarchy, which is almost always used to mean an oppressive system.

Does dismantling the patriarchy mean, for example, the matriarchy will necessarily redeem it?

Logically that doesn’t follow. Patriarchy being evil doesn’t make matriarchy good. But that kind of rationality isn’t how our psyche works. When we lift one aspect of ourselves, such as masculinity as X, it psychologically renders everything that masculinity is not as the opposite of X, unless otherwise articulated. This is referred to as ‘the shadow’ phenomenon in Jungian psychology.

Unowned parts of our psyche can create a shadow.

(NOTE: I am aware gender isn’t a binary, I’ve identified as non-binary before I felt that I need to reevaluate modern gender constructs themselves, so I can include ‘queer-archy’ into here but purposefully abstaining – dualism is sometimes useful to make our thoughts simpler to execute – until it’s not.)

So the reality of social justice discourse is that the exclusive use of patriarchy as a way to name oppressive systems connected to gender means that matriarchy flies under the radar – nobody uses matriarchy to mean an oppressive system where women hold most of the power. Even when there is violence that is undertaken by people who are not cis men, it is usually understood as internalized patriarchy.

The problem is that oppressive matriarchy naturally exists. I’ve seen a lot of it probably because I travel mostly female/femme/queer communities.

The style of how relational violence is enacted follows some stereotypes of how women inflict pain on each other – rumors, exile, ‘frenemy’ing, and so on. The rhetoric that justifies the violence also follows typical renderings of motherhood, such as the duty to care, nurture, and keep safe.

I’ve also seen people who are not a cis-gendered heterosexual male embrace ‘fierce’ as an abjective for their behavior, but in all practicality, it is a justification for being uncontained and unaccountable.

I’m sure these descriptions of mine silently rings a bell for a lot of people, even if there are no words for the feelings that have been brewing.

Maybe this interview with Dr. Hanna Milling and a few other women, who made a video of women apologizing to men for their violence to them, which went viral with both high praise and condemnation, may soothe the feelings that come up.

This lack of terminology has a real social impact. I’ve found that most people, when trying to describe ‘matriarchal systemic violence’, they dissociate into tangled cognition, trying to desperately name what’s happening. Not having an accessible language to contain these thoughts often causes them to participate in or enable the violence themselves, or emotionally collapse into a heap of rubble.

With all this said around female violence though, I do want to honor that I personally tend to feel safer around a group of mostly non-cis heterosexual men and can acknowledge that there are good reasons for that.

At the same time, I wonder if I’ve let down my guard too much. There are other markers than gender, such as attachment behaviors, that give a hint of the actual safety level of a space.

Here I want to introduce a concept called ‘amae (甘え), which means a kind of ‘sweet indulgence’ in Japanese. Amae indicates a kind of behavior that where someone is essentially getting their needs met by suspending/abdicating/transferring their responsibilities, creating a parent-child like dynamic, whether it is mutually agreed upon or not.

For example: if we live with a partner and have agreed on splitting house chores, but have a tough week and need them to take on our work, we would be asking if we can engage in ‘amae’ and transfer the responsibility.

Amae isn’t all bad. It creates social bonds, as it does between humans and their pets.

What I like about amae is that shifts our perception of human relationships from the territorial lens of boundaries to the ecological lens of responsibility.

I find this framing clarifying because I’ve found that many of us can draw boundaries that fence us off from fulfilling our adult responsibilities.

I had this experience with a long-term partner when we were going through a separation. She went into no contact without any clear communication of the parameters. When I talked to my parents about the lack of clarity, they said, oh she is engaging in ‘amae’ with you – acting like a child whose actions are permitted – you can kindly wait for her to work through it from a mature place.

This turned out to be bad advice because I’m not that much of an adult myself. I could not leave my former partner alone – partially due to the way in which contact was cut being highly activating to my attachment complex – but it was nonetheless an interesting commentary from my parents.

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What is intriguing to me about exploring amae in the context of talking about social oppressions is that they are really constructs made up of non-permitted amae. In oppressions such as white supremacy and misogyny, emotional wounds from cultural traumas, such as the imperialization of ancestral Europe or the shaming of human sexuality, are projected on to the body of marginalized people, making them responsible for carrying the brunt of the collective pain.

Behaviors like men sending unsolicited pictures of their penis or white nationalists boldly holding a rally on MLK day exemplify this kind of transfer of responsibility.

At the same time, amae also speaks accurately to the kind of problematic behaviors that happen within smaller communities such as activist groups where there are attempts to equalizing power. E.g. the common expectation that a woman calling out a man for misogynistic behavior should be simply believed just by testimony, or do not have to be accountable in how they go about their naming of harm, is a form of amae.

My hope for our future is that we can develop new vocabularies for how we talk about systemic oppression that integrates attachment/family-dynamic concepts like amae at its core.

This is critical because the reality is that systemic violence is not fundamentally about identity markers such as gender and race. Systemic violence is what happens when insecure attachment behaviors coming from early-life or even ancestral traumas are acted out through powers that emerge from a social context. Identity markers such as race and gender play a big role in show systemic is propagated because they powerfully shape the social contexts we operate in – but they aren’t the only factors and often don’t function straightforwardly because of how social contexts layer on top of each other.

I’m not sure what this new language, that can appropriately hold the ecological complexity of oppression described above, will look like.

For the moment, I’m just getting real with the existence of an abyss here in our cultural self-awareness and suspending the need to know.

4 thoughts on “‘Amae (甘え)’ and the sweet indulgence of social justice culture

  1. I have read several of your articles now, and so appreciate what you’re offering. I feel so often it is difficult to engage in discussion within the limitations of the English language (I only know 2 languages, so cannot speak to others). As though the only resolution for justice in society will come within the limited structures we have already created, when it has already failed to see and include the larger picture. I have to read your articles at least twice to take in what you are saying, and chew it over, and for that I appreciate it even more. You are addressing and questioning the structures and containers we create that are often seen as the only righteous way, and I’m sure that does not go without criticism. So what I want to say is thank you.

  2. Nonconsensual amae is childish, yes? Like white privilege, male privilege, class privilege? Connects to attachment and entitlement.

  3. you know i love a lot of your work so please know that i say this with a sense of patient slowness and the utmost respect, but the video you linked to above (and especially it’s source video project) is really, terribly, DEEPLY offensive to me. i wish you wouldn’t point to that as anything worthwhile. the impulse towards desiring healing for all and to seeing the humanity and wholeness of men is a good one (of course!), but that whole project is nothing more than a train wreck of a poorly thought-out mangle of internalized oppression and i believe it is harming people of every gender. ouch.

    1. Hey, I’m hearing you feel a lot of things from that video and my choice to include that. At the same time, from just what you wrote, I can’t really garner why you feel the way you do and respond from that place. Maybe you can offer a bit more on that.

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