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Historically, most anarchafeminists have explicitly rejected marriage as a tool of control by the state and/or church, inherently reinforcing the patriarchy. In the early 20th century, this position was known in the Anglophone West as ‘Free Love’ and didn’t necessarily imply anything about the relationship structures of the people involved, although many did engage in what we would now call polyamorous relationships. ‘Free Love’ as a term underwent a semantic shift as a result of its adoption by 1960s counterculture movements, in which incarnation it has been roundly (and rightly) critiqued by feminists. More recently, the word ‘monogamy’ has also undergone a semantic shift, which I argue is actually detrimental to our political understanding of marriage and relationships.[1]

The word ‘monogamous’, taken literally, does not mean ‘having a romantic relationship with only one other person’. It means ‘being married to only one other person’. Despite the semantic shift towards the former that has happened over the past few decades, I argue that we should return to using the word ‘monogamous’ in its literal sense – not on etymological grounds, but on political ones. That is, we should use ‘monogamous’ only to mean the state of being married to precisely one other person (or seeking or being oriented toward such a state).

Immediately, we see that this has two potentially counter-intuitive effects. First, it means we must start calling some people in exclusive, committed, dyadic relationships ‘non-monogamous’, if they are opposed to the institution of marriage or otherwise intend not to enter it. At the same time, it recasts many polyamorous relationships as ‘monogamous’. Specifically, those which have the sort of relationship structure that is centred around a married couple who are practising a sort of gender-equal concubinage with outside partners, who may or may not also be part of monogamous couples themselves.

Before proceeding, let me specify what I mean by ‘marriage’. Marriage is the socio-political institution whereby the state exerts control over relationships and family structures by certifying some as valid while denying the validity of others. It is, in its secular sense, a legal relation and a property relation. I am not critiquing marriage as a religious institution, which from a purely feminist perspective may be more or less acceptable depending on the particularities involved (i.e. can range from extremely patriarchal to not at all) – and which in any case has often been a point of contention between states and minority religions within their jurisdiction. (This is not to say that there are not criticisms of religious marriage to be made; only that they fall outside the scope of my argument here.) Rather, the problem with marriage is that it entails the allocation of legal standing and material resources based on the people involved having signed a particular kind of contract with each other and the state, and state-sanctioned monogamy is thereby blatantly discriminatory both to single people and to polyamorous people.

In the social realm, married relationships are simply taken more seriously in their communities than unmarried relationships, even in purely secular communities where there is no stigma about unmarried partners living together, and even as marriage has begun to wane in social importance overall. When things are going well, unmarried partners might see little difference between themselves and married partners in the eyes of their communities (if not the state) – but mistreatment, abuse, infidelity, and the breakdown of the relationship are all given significantly more social weight if the people involved are married than if they are not. Now, there is a very limited sense in which that is actually appropriate. Partners have the right to make whatever level of commitment they choose to one another, and communities should support that – which includes things like having more social censure for a partner who abandons a committed relationship than for someone who dumps a casual lover. (Obviously, serious mistreatment such as abuse should be taken very seriously no matter what the relationship of the people involved.) The main problem here is not that publicly committed relationships are taken more seriously by their communities than privately committed or uncommitted relationships. It is that the state-sanctioned institution of marriage is often the only way in which this distinction is made.

The word ‘monogamy’, however, even if narrowly defined to refer specifically to marriage relationships and not merely to all exclusive dyadic relationships, can still have a broader sense, because we live in a normatively monogamous society. Precisely because of all of the social pressures towards marriage, it makes sense to call a relationship ‘monogamous’ if it is taking place in a context where all participants understand that marriage is the desirable outcome for a dating couple, and they have not decided any differently between themselves. Therefore, the vast majority of  unmarried relationships in our society could indeed still be called ‘monogamous’, in that they are participating in a normatively monogamous paradigm without challenging it.

It was this relation – marriage, and its social normativity – against which the original proponents of ‘Free Love’ were arguing. While many of them did practise what we would now call non-monogamy, i.e. non-exclusive relationships or polyamory, the term itself did not initially indicate anything whatsoever about the relationship styles of the people involved. It merely meant that they were opposed to the state and the church dictating the forms of their relationships, as well as their legal and property relations associated therewith.

Moreover, when seeing ‘monogamy’ as specifically descriptive of marriage (or aspirations thereto), it becomes clear that none of the arguments that people might make against marriage can thereby be taken as arguments in favour of polyamory, however much merit that kind of relationship arrangement may have for its practitioners.

Polyamory is neither natural nor political. There is a body of thought – or perhaps it is more accurate to say, a set of inclinations – that I am opposing under the term ‘political polyamory’, but which in some forms might also be called ‘evangelical polyamory’, or in some cases even ‘normative polyamory’. Namely, it is the set of ideas that posit that polyamorous relationship arrangements are “more radical” or in some way better than non-polyamorous ones. There are a few different strands here, which I’ll be treating as different arguments rather than as representative of different groups of polyamory-proponents, as it is quite often the case that proponents of one will also be proponents of one or more of the others, despite their internal contradictions.

First, there is the idea that polyamory (or non-exclusivity) is somehow “more natural” than other forms of relationships. Basically, the story goes, human beings probably practised non-monogamous relationships during most of our evolutionary history – and our closest living relatives, the bonobos, certainly do – therefore this is most likely the most natural form for our relationships to take. Setting aside whether or not that is true or even knowable, it quite simply does not follow from the fact that this-or-that behaviour is “more natural” than another that it is in any way better. For one thing, all human behaviour is a product of our cultures to one degree or another; there is no such thing as a human being without culture. Further, even if it were so, the argument rests on a basic fallacy, known in philosophy as the is-ought problem or naturalistic fallacy. That is: it is absurd to make claims about what ought to be the case, merely on the basis of what is. It is certainly valid to use the evidence often cited in these arguments to show that monogamy is not a natural, inherent behaviour in humans, but that negative claim is the extent of what can be shown; the same evidence cannot be used to make any positive claims about what human behaviour is or ought to be.

Next, there is the claim that polyamory is in some sense “more evolved” or “more enlightened” than traditional monogamy. This argument does not rest on dubious evopsychological claims, but instead takes as its base scenario the traditional monogamy of western Europe and its diaspora. Despite (rather curiously) often being proposed by proponents of the naturalistic polyamory arguments just described, in many ways it makes precisely the opposite sort of mistake: it takes its own base set of cultural values as universal norms, and sees polyamory as an enlightened refutation of these norms.[2] The word ‘evolved’ in this context probably isn’t meant literally, as that would not be possible, but seems instead to be metaphorically referencing a teleologically progressive view of human society, in which ideas or practices that come later are taken to be intrinsically better than those that they replace. “Enlightened”, meanwhile, seems to be deployed as a simplistic contradistinction to the assumed benightedness of the monogamous, as though the only reasons a person might not be polyamorous were because they had either never heard of it, or they are so in thrall to tradition that they would never dare to flout it. In this sense, the argument is similar to naturalistic polyamory in that it shares the assumption that everyone would be polyamorous if they had the option, and is held back only by cultural norms. In both of these cases, the so-called political content of polyamory is in challenging the norms of a monogamous society, and the error is in the assumption that normative monogamy is the only reason that someone might choose to only have exclusive, dyadic relationships.

Finally, there is the idea that polyamory is ‘more radical’ or is more ethical based on radical anarchist principles. In the first formulation, it seems to be just another repetition of what I call the ‘queerer than thou’ fallacy. That is, that because x, y, and z sorts of relationships are proscribed by heteronormative mainstream society, relationships that fall into more than one of those categories are ‘more queer’ than those that fall into only one, with the subtext that ‘queer’ = ‘cool’ and so ‘queerer’ = ‘better’. That is to say that it is making a basic category error, confusing what might be “cool” in certain subcultures with what is politically desirable.

The second – and rather more charitable – formulation also comes down to a category error, although in a much subtler way. It is a basic principle of anarchism, as well as of any other properly egalitarian political philosophy, to be opposed to hierarchy in human relations. There is a naïve sense in which this is sometimes interpreted to mean that every person should have an absolutely equal say in every decision – which, upon examination, is obviously absurd. As well as individuals not having any right to butt in on decisions that don’t affect them, most collective endeavours would not function without some delegation of decision-making powers, even if the people making those decisions are ultimately accountable to their collectives and communities. Furthermore, any society will always have hierarchies of information and therefore differing levels of expertise among individuals. The point of opposing hierarchy is not to deny the specialist knowledge of experts, nor to pretend that someone ignorant of a subject can speak on it with equal merit, but to deny that the holding of any particular expertise, skill, or position in society entitles that person to special treatment in their society as a person. For example: it’s fine for the architect to tell us how to build the building; it’s not okay for her to demand that she therefore gets to live in the very biggest and nicest flat inside of it.

Similarly, we quite naturally form hierarchies of love in our personal relationships. I love my friends more than I love my acquaintances, and I imagine that you do as well – that’s why they’re your friends, after all! I would even say that I love my parents more than I love my aunts and uncles, even though I do love my aunts and uncles very much. And, this is okay. What would not be okay is if I were to claim that my friends and my family are more important per se than other people; but that is not what we do when we acknowledge that they are more important to us. We do not make claims that our loved ones are more valuable than other people based on our love for them; we merely acknowledge that we value them more.

There is a subset of polyamorous people – not all of whom would use the word ‘polyamory’ to describe their relationships – who are explicitly opposed to the sort of traditional-marriage-plus-concubinage style of polyamory referenced up top. However, they see the problem with this not as the marriage at the centre, but as the primacy given to that relationship itself, no matter its legal status. They term this sort of relationship structure ‘hierarchical polyamory’, implying (or sometimes outright stating) that people who have a single primary relationship while maintaining other non-primary (or “secondary”) relationships are mistreating their non-primary partners simply by virtue of those relationships being non-primary. This carries with it the implication that it is impermissible to make different levels of commitment to different partners, as to do so would automatically institute a “hierarchy” among one’s relationships. The error, then, in much of explicitly non-hierarchical polyamory or “relationship anarchy” is to seem to imply that by loving or valuing one partner more than another – or, in some forms, more than hypothetical partners who do not yet actually exist, as in the case of commitments to exclusivity – a person is thereby denigrating the very humanity of the other partners (or hypothetical partners).

Proponents of this view seem to be making the logical leap from the idea that all people have equal worth, to the idea that all of the people they are or might be in relationships with should have equal value to them, and thereby an equal “say” in any conflicts that might arise within or among their relationships. Of course, people seldom do end up valuing all of their loved ones absolutely equally – or in the same sorts of ways – and so in practice attempts to enact this sort of relationship structure often find that established romantic partners feel alienated and devalued, especially when they have high levels of entanglement, while newer partners might feel pressured into a level of seriousness they may not feel. This is not to say that people inspired by these ideas about relationship structures cannot or do not have loving, supportive relationships. However, attempts to impose supposedly non-hierarchical relationship structures where they have not formed organically has, in my observation at least, tended to lead to the person pushing for the “non-hierarchical” structure ending up treating their partners quite badly, and this may be because they are attempting to impose a (confused) political ideal onto a situation where it is not at all warranted.

Of course, much avoidable pain has also come from normative monogamy. This, then, is the point of the matter. If polyamory is not political, it must be stated that non-monogamy – in its narrow-but-expansive definition given at the beginning, i.e. the state of being opposed to the sociopolitical institution of marriage, regardless of one’s actual relationships or the exclusivity or openness thereof – absolutely is political. If there is anything worth saving, worth valuing in marriage, it is that it is the method by which communities support partners in their relationships, helping them to support each other and to uphold their commitments to one another. The problem is that for the most part this is the only way that this happens. How much better might our society become if all relationship configurations were supported in this way? If our communities recognised, respected and supported the relationships not only of those people who were married – or intending or assumed to be married – but also those people in long-term, committed, intentionally unmarried relationships; partially or alternatively committed long-term relationships; short-term relationships of any kind; and indeed all uncommitted relationships, in the ways that those need community support as well; and treated single people as whole people and not as defective, open-ended dyadic halves? That is the politics of Free Love, and it has nothing at all to do with polyamory, except as a term – politically and morally neutral as any other – for a particular subset of the myriad options available to people in a truly romantically liberated society.
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[1]    Please note: throughout this essay I am speaking from and largely to a very specific cultural context (or set of contexts). Namely, that of radical left-wing political communities and polyamorous/non-monogamous, queer, and other “alternative” minority-sexuality subculture-communities within the Anglophone West. My experience and observation comes from participation in these communities, both in person and online, over approximately the past decade; unfortunately most of the trends and phenomena I describe are therefore not citeable in any traditional way, as they come from either direct participation or from observation of largely ephemeral forms of communication. My observations are my own, and should not be taken as definitive of any group of people.

[2]    In fairness, proponents of this view are generally aware that there are other cultures where monogamy is not the norm, or at least is not normatively enforced. However, to the extent that they engage with this information at all, their engagement tends to be tokenising. That is, there is a general tendency among (especially white) Westerners to pluck ideas and activities from the rest of the world as though they were whole and undifferentiated consumable objects, rather than culturally embedded practices which may not make sense outside of the context in which they were developed. Furthermore, consumption of these alienated tokens is often itself seen as an “enlightened” activity, presumably by the logic that it is only the ignorant and simple-minded who are aware only of their own cultures, and therefore to visibly consume the practices and artefacts of other cultures is necessarily an “enlightened” activity.
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A version of this essay was presented at the 2016 Anarchist Studies Network conference in Loughborough. It has been lightly edited.

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Hello Rapists,

“Who, me?” I hear you saying, “Why, I’m not a rapist! I never even lurk in bushes, let alone burst forth from them to attack lady passers-by!”

Ok, let me stop you right there. While stranger-attack rapes do happen, stranger-rape actually falls outside the scope of this letter. (Sorry, not sorry, stranger-rapists.) So, too, for different reasons, does the much more common occurrence of partner-rape. No, I want to talk about what’s often referred to as “date rape”. That’s when you go on a date with someone, and then rather than going through the normal routines of consensual making out and maybe sex or whatever, you just go ahead and sexually assault them.

Now, obviously, this is reprehensible. I’m sure you know this, and if you’re not sure whether or not this is something you have done or make a habit of, there are plenty of resources out there that will explain sexual consent to you. However, much as it pains me to do so, I want to just lay aside morality for a moment here. Various psych- and sociological studies have shown that there are several people among you who most certainly do make a habit of this — that you’ll even generally admit to doing it, so long as the words ‘rape’ and ‘sexual assault’ are avoided in asking you about it. So, as a purely pragmatic intervention, I want to talk to you on (what I assume are) your own terms: sex. Sexy, sexy, sex, and how to get more of it. So, let’s all acknowledge this, loud and clear:

EVEN IF YOUR ONLY GOAL IN LIFE IS TO INCREASE THE AMOUNT OF SEX YOU HAVE, RAPE IS STILL A BAD STRATEGY.

See, every time you interact with someone, that interaction happens at a particular time. That time will be succeeded by future instances of time, in which your rape victim, if you have created one, will remember what you have done (or remember the suspicious blank in their memory following other things you have done). This memory will then colour their future interactions with you. That is, people treat you differently based on how you have treated them in the past. This shit is really not that difficult.

It’s a reasonable assumption that, if someone finds you sexy and charming enough to want to put themselves in a sexual situation with you, they’re going to want to do that again in the future, if you treat them well in this one. If you are attentive and caring and interested in their pleasure as well as your own, then odds are (NB: not necessarily, but it’s pretty likely) that they’ll want to have sexytimes with you again. Great! Net gain of sex for you! But if you just go ahead and ignore their wants and needs and boundaries — if you pressure them, if you plead and wheedle at them, if you just ignore their hesitations or demurrals or outright refusals — then HELL NO are they going to want to have sex with you again! Not only that, they may even tell other people about what you’ve done, and then none of those people are going to want to sleep with you either. NET LOSS OF SEX FOR YOU. EPIC FAIL.

So please, for the love of sex, just stop fucking raping people. Ever. 

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I wrote in Part 1 about how I came to see myself as agender, and the theoretical frameworks by which I understand that term. This post will deal with the intersections of privilege and oppression that come with trying to navigate such an identity as a person who is perceived as unambiguously female.

I. Oppression

Once, in the midst of an emotional confrontation, someone accused me of using “male-like privilege” to shut him(!) down in our argument, reasoning that my “rational mode of speaking” was a typically masculine-identified way of communicating that is often used to try to negate or discount the input of the interlocutor as “too emotional”. I pointed out that, a) the dynamic he was describing is one wherein someone pretends that it is somehow “reasonable” or “logical” to discount feelings, which I was not doing; but moreover, b) as a woman, I am structurally incapable of accessing male (or, presumably, “male-like”) privilege anyway. “But,” he said, responding to the latter, “You’re not really a woman, though, are you?”

This was fairly early on in my process of gender-questioning, and he was one of the few people I had spoken to at length about my thoughts that I might actually be agender. To have this thrown back at me as a reason to discount my experience of structural oppression as a woman was jarring, to say the least.

*

In common with most(?) anarchists and other radical socialists, I view gender as a class structure. That is, it is a hierarchical system whereby men are privileged, as a class, and women are oppressed, as a class. This is not a definitive description — it is not the case that what it is to be a man or woman is to be part of the structurally privileged or oppressed gender in society. However, it is certainly the case that, contingently though it may be, part of what it means to be a man or woman at this particular time and place in history is to be part of the structurally privileged or oppressed gender groups, respectively.

However, this particular axis of oppression has little, if anything, to do with its object’s gender identity. Rather, it is based on how they are perceived by those around them. I am not subject to misogyny based on my identity as a woman, but because people see me as a woman, regardless of how I see myself. As such, I find it useful, as a point for organising around issues specific to the oppression of women, to continue to identify as one.

This is something I’m still thinking through. I worry that by failing to take up a more explicitly non-binary gender identity, I am contributing to the overall invisibility of gender minorities. On the other hand, I worry that by expressing a non-binary gender identity when my actual gender identity is more “IDGAF, woman-I-guess” than “definitely neither man nor woman”, I would simply be appropriating an identity that isn’t rightfully mine (a fear, I note, remarkably similar to the rather common fear among bisexual women that someone is going to come and take our queer cards away if we end up in exclusive or primary relationships with men).

II. Privilege

The thing is, though, whether or not I call myself cisgender, I have quite a lot of cis privilege.

Namely, precisely because I am agender in such a default and uncaring way, it doesn’t actually cost me anything to simply continue to identify as a woman in a default sort of way. Yes, I may have awkward and ridiculous conversations like the one recounted above (an accusation so absurd that the person later denied even having made it). But, for the most part, I am able to pontificate about gender identity mostly as an abstract exercise. All of this has very little effect on the way I present myself to the world, or on how my gender is (usually) read by other people. I may feel like I’m “in drag” if I dress up all femme as much as if I dress in very masculine-signified clothing, but (at least for me) that amounts to little more than a trifling psychological quirk. And sure, I am subject to the same oppositional-sexist policing of my gender presentation as anyone else — but no more so than many unambiguously cisgendered people, and certainly less than some.

I have heard several people express the opinion that ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ are not a spectrum, but a strict binary: that everyone who is not trans is cis, and everyone who is not cis is trans. I don’t know whether they are a ‘spectrum’ as such, but I do know this: nature abhors a strict binary system. The entirety of biological science is filled with almosts and admixtures and grey areas, and I don’t see why human gender, being either a biological construct, a social construct made by gooey biological creatures, or some mixture of the two, should be any different.

As such, I tend to identify as ‘cisgender’ or not based largely on the circumstances, and on who’s asking. That is, if someone is just wanting to catalogue the various sorts of gender identities people might have, I’ll raise my hand as genderqueer. However, when it comes to talking about trans oppression, I feel like I would be remiss not to identify myself as cis in terms of privilege.

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Every so often, you come across one of those ideas that crystallizes everything. That slots into your mind like a perfect tetris block, and suddenly everything is clear.

For me, the most recent of these was reading Julia Serano’s excellent book, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. There’s much in there that I would love to discuss at length — such as the idea, one that I share, that much of what gets called ‘homophobia’ is in fact a species of misogyny — but for the sake of tidiness, I’ll stick to just one concept. Namely, Serano’s hypothesis that there exists some sort of ingrained, inherent and potentially immutable ‘internal gender’ in every person.

She illustrates this, she says, by asking workshop participants what amount of money it would take for them to choose to transition, to live the rest of their lives as another gender to their own. For most people, apparently, no amount of money seems worth this; or, even if they think they’d do it for some large amount of cash, simply working through the thought experiment leads them to realise that, even if they were to live as another gender, they would still feel that they were ‘really’ their own gender, all along, ‘on the inside’. But my only thought was, “Hell, I’d do it. I don’t want to have invasive surgery, or go through the hassle of re-teaching myself how to walk, move, and interact, but if you could somehow magic me into maleness, I’d do it for a pittance. I’d do it for free, even, if I had some reason to.”

Yet, at the same time, I have no particular desire to, either. This, then, was the revelation: if there is such a thing as an ‘internal gender’, I don’t think I have one. Note, please, that this is different from claiming that no such thing exists. There are children who will never develop wisdom teeth as adults; but that does not mean that these teeth are not lurking inside the jaws of most children and teenagers, waiting to emerge as they become adults.

Furthermore, the reason this felt like such a revelation to me is that I had had reason to think, for some time, that my conception of my gender is very different from most of my peers’. The inquiry began with someone’s offhand suggestion that perhaps all these TERFs, who insist on denying trans women’s experiences of their genders, are actually agender. I believe this was meant, in the context, as a (deeply problematic!) joke, but as a suggestion I thought it might have some explanatory power. That that’s why they’re so insistent on [oddly restrictively applied] social-constructivist theories of gender: because they’ve only ever understood their own gender as an arbitrary category imposed on them by society, and cannot fathom someone feeling differently — even to the point of insisting that those who say they do are somehow ‘deluded’, rather than accepting that other people may have different phenomenological experiences of their own genders.

I had never considered myself as ‘agender’ prior to these conversations, because everyone I’ve known who has identified as agender has expressed, very strongly, that they felt themselves to be neither male nor female. They’ve had a strong sense of a truth-value gap, as it were, in terms of their gender. (And can be contrasted, incidentally, with other sorts of gender-queerness, such as feeling like one is both genders, or in-between, or a third gender.) But I never felt any of those things. I just didn’t care. People told me I was a woman, and I believed them because the way they treated me was consistent with my understanding of that category. I never questioned the feeling of arbitrariness, because I naively assumed that other people experienced their own genders in the same way.

I began polling my friends about their own experiences of their genders, and found that, indeed, most of those who identified as one of the two primary binary genders felt like it had some inherent quality, which I would later be able to describe with Serano’s concept of an ‘internal gender’. Not all, though. In fact, it seems that my own feeling of simply not having an internal gender might be rather common, at least in the sense of being a trait shared by some significant minority of people, and not a special snowflake condition unique to my own psyche.

Coming up in Part 2: Why I choose, nevertheless, to identify as a woman, despite evidently falling somewhere within the category of genderqueer.

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It’s been a week of twitterstorms for me. Or, to paraphrase some dude on Twitter, a fantastic week for the aggrieved white male Leninist academic – and by extension, for those who argue for the need for intersectional critiques within leftist political movements, as these two essays make our point quite (in)admirably.

First, Mark Fisher posted this interminably long and rambling essay bemoaning the practice of leftists calling out other leftists for their bigotry on social media, via the strained and incoherent quasi-Engelian metaphor of a “vampire’s castle“, which is apparently where all the intersectionalists live and practice our evil, movement-draining bourgeois liberalism. A few days later, Ross Wolfe posted up this essay by James Heartfield as a sort of continuation/response, more explicitly addressing the concept of ‘intersectionality’ and why it is oh-so-wrong and divisive.

The thing is, both Fisher and Heartfield are committing a (deeply ironic) category error when they attack intersectionality and its expressions as being “draining” or “divisive”. Intersectionality, like the discourses of privilege that gave rise to its articulation, can actually be summarised in a few very basic principles:

1. The dominant society, while it privileges a very small group of people, oppresses the rest of us in several different ways – e.g. race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

2. People who are oppressed along one axis can still be privileged in others. I say ‘can still be’, but it seems likely that in actuality every single person has some areas of privilege in their lives, and that almost every person (barring only a subsection of the set of straight white rich cis-male able-bodied Westerners) also has some areas of oppression.

3. Even people who are active in the fight against one or more axes of oppression (including, for instance, all self-proclaimed lefties) can still have blind spots from their own areas of privilege, can still be bigots.

That last point includes even those who are within the relevant oppressed groups themselves. Internalised misogyny is A Thing. Internalised racism is A Thing. This shit is structural, y’know? You can’t grow up in a culture steeped in white supremacy, patriarchy, neoliberalism, etc., without that colouring the way you view the world. None of us can. So the point is to work with each other to root out those toxic patterns and build something better in their place.

We can’t do that, though, if every time someone calls out a comrade for their racism, their misogyny, their tranphobia, their ablism (etc.), they get told to shut up because pointing out bigotry “divides the movement”. That silencing tactic is so old, and I was really starting to think that we – the broad left – were finally starting to get over it. Probably because I live in an insular liberal vampire castle on twitter, sucking the living labour out of the righteous working class movement.

*sigh*

Okay. About liberalism. I think it’s important to acknowledge a thing, which is that, well, individualist liberal identity politics is a thing. Of course it is. This is because capitalism, like the Borg, tries to assimilate every threat to itself, and make it its own. Capitalist individualist identity politics is the thing that says “Oh, forget about all these superficial biological differences! The only thing that matters is money! Equal money-making opportunities for everyone!” It is Democrats, Liberal Democrats, and “Libertarians”. It is Angela Merkel, Barack Obama, Sheryl Sandberg. Neoliberalism celebrates “diversity” as a sort of aesthetic ideal, and abhors “discrimination” in as much as to discriminate based on race, gender, etc. fails to uphold each individual as a perfect economic actor. It is, ironically enough, the only ideology besides certain strains of Marxism that tries to reduce all sociological differences to economics only – although for the opposite reasons.

Of course, they don’t say this outright. Much of so-called progressivism in the US and UK is just this same neoliberalism with the focus all on identity politics, with the economic assumptions hidden in the background, the Reagan-Thatcher “consensus” obviating the need to even talk about them. (Less so since the financial crash, but far less less so than I for one had hoped.) There’s plenty of bigoted conservatism for these folks to fight with, so they seldom realise just how right-wing they are themselves, but it’s just silly to dismiss left-wing criticisms of bigotry because some on the (economic) right make the same criticisms.

You see – and honestly, I can’t believe I even have to say this – there is a difference between pointing out bigotry and subsuming all of your politics under a neoliberal representationalism. Within the feminist movement, for instance, both neoliberal mainstream feminists and left-wing intersectional feminists are concerned with misogyny. Any of them, if shown an example of misogyny, would likely criticise it. Their politics are not therefore equivalent, and to dismiss the latter for making a similar point to the former is a bit like accusing someone of being a Stalinist for criticising capitalism. It’s a silencing tactic, used to dismiss the arguments of your would-be interlocutors so that you don’t have to actually engage with their criticisms. It is diversionary, inaccurate, and divisive.

This is the most galling thing of all: The very act of dismissing intersectional analyses as ‘divisive’ is itself divisive. Implicit in every tirade against “intersectionality” or “privilege theory” or “identity politics” as a diversion or a distraction from the “real” movement or issues is the idea that the oppression of people along any other axis than class, or exploitation in any areas than wage labour, just does not matter very much. If you happen to be in one or more oppressed social group, or fight alongside comrades who are, then hearing your straight white cis-male supposed comrades dismiss your concerns is not only deeply dispiriting, it further reifies the problems you are fighting against.

It is true that there are people who twist ideas of privilege and oppression to try to silence those who disagree with them on any given issue, based solely on the perceived privilege of their interlocutor. An ugly, crabs-in-a-barrel mentality can arise, where rather than acknowledging that we are differently advantaged in ways that  we never asked for, and should all work together to change society so that all may be similarly advantaged, those in privileged groups are castigated for the mere fact of having privilege, whether they are using it to oppress or ignore their comrades or not. As though if people in your oppressed group can’t be listened to or get adequate housing or live a life free from repressive physical violence, no one should. It’s the same bullshit mentality that tells working class kids they’re getting uppity if they go to university; or tells workers they should be happy just to have a job, no matter how shitty it is; or tells men they shouldn’t complain about rape or domestic violence because it happens more often to women. In the midst of the twittersqualls over Heartfield’s piece, I came across David Graeber plaintively tweeting a complaint about people harassing him as “privileged” for tweeting about his anger and sadness over the forced sale of his childhood home in a (supposedly) socialist housing coop – as though growing up with a stable home were not something that every person should have, even though many people don’t.

Ironically enough, given all the male Marxist whining about all of us shrill man-hating feminists,* this seems to happen most often in far-left circles on issues of class privilege: the easiest way for a leftist to dismiss an opponent without actually engaging with their arguments is to accuse them of  being “bourgeois”. This almost always seems to divert the conversation into some sort of more-working-class-than-thou status war, thus handily avoiding tackling whatever point the supposedly bourgeois comrade was trying to make. And yes, I have seen this tactic deployed in other areas as well, of totally refusing to engage with someone’s point purely because they are white, male, straight, whatever. I’ve seen that, yes. Like, maybe four or five individual times, in the decade or so since I first started engaging with the discourse of ‘privilege’ – versus uncountably many instances of the former.

The thing is, it is also true that one of the hallmarks of social privilege is that you are unable to see how you are affected by it, or how the corresponding disprivileged group or groups lack the advantages you take for granted. Very often, I have seen, for instance, a white person arguing with a person of colour, or a man arguing with a woman, where the latter tells the former that they are failing to comprehend the issue and suggests that this might be because their privilege blinds them to the problem, and then the former gets upset and accuses the latter of trying to “silence” them with their shibboleth of “privilege”. The two recent essays which sparked this piece are yet another example of this, of this silencing with accusations of silencing.

I appreciate that, when one is in the midst of some argument or another, it can be difficult to see the difference between someone telling you that you that you are failing to see their point because of your privilege, and someone telling you that you are not a valuable person, or generally not worth listening to at all, because of your privilege. But there IS a difference, and dismissing the entire concept of privilege because you’re fearful you might be dismissed on crabs-in-a-barrel terms (or, especially, if you understand the difference and are simply resentful) is deeply divisive, because – since to speak from a place of privilege is to speak from a place of power – to do so is to thereby dismiss the perspectives of those challenging your viewpoints. THAT is divisive, THAT is what is destroying solidarity, and THAT needs to stop RIGHT FUCKING NOW.

* Presumably there are similar experiences from white comrades about POC issues, etc., but I’m speaking from my own perspective here.

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Or: (Incomplete) List of Words and Phrases that Piss Me the Fuck Off

1. “In her own right”

Originally a term denoting an aristocratic woman’s titles as inherited through her parents rather than her husband, this is a phrase you’ll see again and again in biographies and obituaries. Often it will appear as an aside in the biographies of famous men, announcing that their wives (or mothers, sisters, etc.) had also engaged in the activity that made them famous — and this is bad enough. But it also appears with an alarming frequency in the biographies or (especially) obituaries of women who’ve done important things.

That last qualifier is of course a bit redundant, since the only women who usually get biographies or lengthy obituaries written of them in the first place are the ones who’ve done important things, or are famous (or infamous). But this is precisely the point. Many such women were associated in some way, such as marriage, with men who were also famous and/or did important things. Many, because of sexism, were totally overshadowed by said men, or are less well-remembered, and so their biographers and obituarists feel they must assert the importance of the remembered woman’s works.

The problem is that “in her own right”, by its very assertiveness, calls into question the ability (or, indeed, even the right) of the discussed woman to do the things or fill the role that she did. This is surely the opposite of what most biographers mean to be denoting with it, but it shouldn’t be surprising. Consider the origins of the phrase: aristocratic women in Europe usually did not inherit titles, except where they inconveniently lacked brothers or close-enough male cousins to take them instead. For a woman to hold a title in her own right was exceptional, remarkable, very much not the norm. To use this phrase of a woman is therefore to define her in terms of her husband (or potential husband), and not — as is supposedly the point — in her own right.

2. “Vagina”

My objections to this word are remarkably similar to the above. Latin for ‘sheath’, it inherently defines itself in terms of the penis (or, at the very least, phallus). A sheath is, after all, only even meaningful as a thing in its property of covering or being made or intended to cover or surround some other thing.

3. “Cunt”

CUNT. Not for its own sake — ‘cunt’ is a wonderful word — but because of all the bullshit around it. Etymologically, cunt is actually very much the best word for female genitalia, since (as far as I know) it is the only word that originally and always meant just that, with its other senses derived from its sense as ‘genitalia’, rather than the other way around. It is also, as recently pointed out to me by Lucy, one of the only words whose referent both actually is and is commonly understood to be the whole thing, rather than just the vulva, the vagina, or pubic hair. (‘Vagina’, of course, is popularly used, and understood, as a synecdoche for the whole of the female genital system, but that is wrong. Properly speaking, it only refers to the sheathy bit.)

Why, then, are so many people offended by this perfectly cromulent word? My theory is that it is in fact because of its above-mentioned original and continuous referent of ‘female genitalia’. Long before anyone started raising “feminist” objections to its use in reference to ‘a woman’, delicate 18th- and 19th-Century writers and even lexicographers were replacing it with “the monosyllable”, and the long lists of often quite circuitous slang terms for it speak very strongly of our collective cultural discomfort with cunts-qua-body-parts, as much or more than of ‘cunt’-qua-word-for-one.

I do understand the feminist objections to using this word as an insult. I do. Spears’ Dictionary of American Slang reportedly defines ‘cunt’, in its insulting sense, as “women considered as nothing more than a receptacle for the penis”, which is indeed enormously offensive (see: ‘vagina’). But I’m not sure that most or even many people who use ‘cunt’ as an insult mean it in that precise a sense. ‘Cunt’ when one simply means ‘of or like female genitalia’ (or even ‘of or like a woman’), and thus deployed with intent to wound, is also kind of offensive, sure — but it is no more offensive than ‘pussy’ used in the same way. ‘Cunt’ is also an all-purpose insult along the same lines as ‘dick’ or ‘cock’, and while I do wish that our society were not so configured that words for genitalia were considered appropriate swear words, I fully defend our right to use them, and I’m not going to get angry about ‘cunt’ used as a generalized swear word until ‘dick’ and ‘cock’ have also fallen out of use.

In any case, what really frosts my cunt about all the supposedly feminist hoo-ha over ‘cunt’ is that the same people who get so offended on behalf of women’s poor little lady-feelings about our lady-bits seem perfectly okay with the use of words like

4. “Hysterical”

Not in the sense of ‘very, very funny’* but as in ‘mad’, ‘crazy’, ‘characterized by hysteria‘, this is the most offensive word in the English language — or at least the most offensive that isn’t regularly labelled in dictionaries as a ‘slur’.

Although the wikipedia entry on ‘Female Hysteria‘ contains a carefully placed disclaimer that it should not be confused with the undifferentiated ‘Hysteria’, its own section on the history of the term gives the lie to that disclaimer. ‘Hysteria’, from the Greek term of the same usage meaning literally ‘suffering in the womb’, is an inherently gendered word. For most of its history, the term ‘female hysteria’ would have been a redundancy, because ‘hysteria’ was a disease of women. Women and their strange, dangerous, uncontrollable emotions. Even when applied to men, it was (and, let’s be honest, still basically is) a feminizing term; to accuse a man of being hysterical is to accuse him of being ‘like a woman’ — just as to accuse a woman of being hysterical is to accuse her of being ‘like a woman’. The very, very worst thing of all.

* The ‘very, very funny’ sense is of course related — it means ‘so funny as to make a person laugh as though hysterical’, only so truncated that the adjective becomes attached to the object of the emotion rather than its subject, thus making it so tangential that to be offended by its etymology would be a bit much, even for me.

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Having listened to Maddy Prior & June Tabor’s album ‘Silly Sisters’ several times at work the other day, I found myself with their version of Geordie stuck in my head — only, annoyingly, I couldn’t remember all the words, so had just snippets. Thinking to exorcise it through fuller knowledge, I opened up a songbook, Rise Up Singing, that I knew to have a version of it, to scan the lyrics.

Now, I am no stranger to folk music; I’m well aware that there are about a bajillion versions of every song, especially older ones, and that they vary considerably in both words and music. This, however, was a broader divergence than I ever would have expected. The very story changes dramatically! The basic story of a man called Geordie being condemned, and then his wife coming to beg for his life is the same, but they diverge in almost evey other aspect. And I know they are supposedly the same song, as well, since the songbook lists the ‘Silly Sisters’ album as an example recording!

In Prior & Tabor’s (which turned out to be this version, originally transcribed by Robert Burns), Geordie was a nobleman framed for the murder of another. His lady rides to court and is told his life will be spared if she collects a ginormous ransom, which she does, and so buys his freedom. In the Rise Up Singing version — as in most other, especially English versions, it turns out — Geordie is a poacher, and when his wife comes to beg for his freedom, she is turned away, and he dies. Talk about alternate endings!

A musician, identified only as ‘Ian’ in this Mudcat thread describes his own recording of the song as “an English song about a disproportionate punishment for a crime which evolved from a Scottish song about a frame-up”. The Scottish versions do seem to generally pre-date the English ones (though they also seem to have become less common), and I guess changing the condemned man to reflect a common-ish crime in your area, for which the punishment is widely seen as vastly unjust, does make a sort of sense. As, given the former, does having him actually die rather than get ransomed at the last minute. But at this point, is it even still the same song? Could there have been some other English song (or several) that got morphed into this one because the tune was catchy and the story was distilled and familiar?

Oddly, this recording by Ewan MacColl seems to combine elements of several versions, but seems mostly drawn from this one, known as Gight’s Ladye. Geordie’s wife is still a noblewoman of some sort, but Geordie’s crime is poaching. She isn’t turned away out of hand, though, and goes through with the begging for ransom money as in the other Scottish versions. However, it seems to me that her success in this is left ambiguous while the narrator is distracted by telling the tale of her verbal harrassment by a bawdy lord. Though, granted, my impression of ambiguity could merely be from an inferior understanding of Scots; it’s certainly not ambiguous in the ‘Gight’s Ladye’ version given on Mudcat. But why this “Bog o’ Gight” stuff? Well, a little googling proved illuminating: ‘Bog-Of-Gight’ is an old name for Gordon Castle, and the earliest historical event to be associated with this song/set of songs was the story of a George Gordon, who would have been lord of said castle at the time — although the actual events of his life, at least as given on Wikipedia, don’t quite line up with the song, and they CERTAINLY don’t line up with the ‘Gight’s Ladye’ version, though at a stretch they could be described by Burns’ ‘Geordie’.

So what is going on here? It seems unlikely that an earl — who’d have his own hunting preserves, after all — would be brought up for poaching. Yet the ‘Gight’s Ladye’ version preserves an awful lot of specific names and places, far more than Burns’ ‘Geordie’. Could the crime have been changed to make the song more populist in one area, while in another the events were recorded more faithfully even as the names all dropped away? It’s nearly impossible to tell. Though for those who feel like making minute comparisons between versions (woefully void of any information about where or when or how they were collected), it turns out Wiki has transcriptions of all of Child’s collections.

Meanwhile, a few thoughts on the Burns/Child A version. In it, Geordie is framed (or blamed for the death, anyway, regardless of guilt), and his lady, upon receiving the news of his captivity, rushes to Edinburgh with all of her men. Later on, after she’s made her tearful case to the king, but before the aged lord suggests a fine instead of death, we get this verse, which on first listen seems to break the pattern of the story considerably:

The Gordons cam and the Gordons ran,
And they were stark and steady;
And ay the word amang them a’
Was, Gordons keep you ready.

Then we see the king’s advisor suggesting that a fine might be the wiser course of action. Because this lady brought a freaking army with her to “beg” for her dearie’s life. Conclusion: the ‘fairest flower o’ woman-kind’ is a lot more badass than you might expect.

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