Thursday, March 26, 2015

The deadlock of identity essentialism

I have argued before that there's no way to bypass identity.  Identities aren't necessarily politicised, and even where they are they exceed the political.  But it's almost impossible to conceive of any realistic scenario in which a militant social movement arises where identities aren't involved in a complex way.

However, there is a problem with an Americanised kind of identity politics which, in my opinion, essentialises identity.  And it seems as if the student movement is going to face this dilemma in its future organising.  To wit, the NUS Women's Conference met yesterday and a number of things that happened, as reported in the press, are a bit alarming and worth thinking through.

Before I get to alarm bells, however, I want to start with something that is more possibly symptomatic than a significant problem in itself.  That is:

"Some delegates are requesting that we move to jazz hands rather than clapping as it's triggering anxiety. Please be mindful!'"

If the term 'triggering' was being used appropriately here, it would mean that a series of delegates with PTSD triggers specifically related to clapping reported it to the organisers, who acted correctly - indeed, could perhaps have been more forceful.  In fact, the students' explanation to the BBC made it clear that this was just a well-meaning attempt to create a more convivial environment for students who were more nervous about speaking, and who might feel put off by interruptions.  And indeed, it is worth acknowledging the omnipresence of anxiety as a factor in public meetings.  We can all be made anxious by others around us - their exuberance, their laughter, their voices, can be 'too much', particularly for those who are already vulnerable in one way or another.  Yet, if I were a nervous young student, as I once was, I am not convinced that the practice of 'jazz hands' would resolve this problem.  The 'up twinkle' and 'down twinkle' of approval and disapproval would be just as off-putting, maybe even more pressurising - particularly if I wanted to say something which I knew would be controversial and thus possibly incur lots of passive-aggressive 'down twinkling'.  The reason it comes up at all, moreover, is because it relates to a specific tradition of democratic collectivism.

'Jazz hands' is the colloquial term for hand signals that originated in American Sign Language and were then popularised by the Occupy movement.  The point of the hand signals, particularly up and down 'twinkling' (pray god, call it something else), is to help the meeting get a sense of whether it is reaching consensus: because consensus is the goal.  Now, of course, that cannot be the goal in most political meetings, least of all the meetings of the NUS!  Division and contention is the rule in such meetings, and a good thing too: not something to be avoided or suppressed.  This conjunction of a misapplied medicalised jargon with a political technique for disciplining and controlling antagonism is an Americanism that is, more by osmosis than design, and often for the best reasons, working its way into the UK political landscape.  Insofar as it is part of a medicalised discourse, it mobilises the illusion that one can create a risk-free, safe bubble in which the threat of anxiety can somehow be removed.  Insofar as it is a deliberative procedure, it treats contention as a threat.  The foundations of this being so threadbare, it is powerless as a norm to resist a right-wing backlash - or worse, an appropriation, as when the student right cynically invokes 'safe space' ideas to protect itself from criticism.  So, whatever well-meaning measures are undertaken to make gatherings as inclusive as possible, we should just be careful of what we may be letting in through the back door.

To more substantial matters, the conference reached two major decisions which are on the face of it quite alarming.  The first is to work to stop white gay men from appropriating black female culture.  And the second is to stop cis men from 'cross-dressing' as a form of 'fancy dress'.

The first decision was based on the claim that white gay men 'appropriate' black female culture, often claiming to be a 'strong black woman' or have an 'inner black woman', or emulating mannerisms and speech patterns particular to groups of black people.  The motion takes as its cue a piece in Time magazine by Sierra Mannie, entitled 'Dear White Gays: Stop Stealing Black Female Culture'.  It quotes the article: "you are not a black woman, and you do not get to claim either blackness or womanhood. It is not yours. It is not for you."  

A note about this article.  I think it's problematic in various ways, but it should be noted that it was originally written as a polemic for a school newspaper.  And I have absolutely zero doubt that it was prompted by truly infuriating experiences of some people 'performing blackness' in a way that is totally racist.  However, Time's decision to publish it with that title, which appears to implicate 'white gays' in toto, has to be analysed distinctly.  It appears to be an exercise in clickbait, with the intended result of a flaming people and producing a series of back and forth articles along the lines of 'Dear black people, leave gays alone', 'Dear white gays, no you', and so on.  It may appear from the slight hyperbole that I think this is funny: I actually find it depressing.  It means that the debate has already been formed by a capitalist media strategy to mobilise a divisive, oppression Olympics politics that has nothing to do with advancing the interests of the oppressed, for the sake of eyeball attention.  Nevertheless, there was plainly a sufficient basis for this motion in the lived experience of some delegates that they agreed that white gay men were using white male privilege to effect a raid on black female culture, and should stop.  Conference agreed that NUS would work to stop this appropriation.

The second decision was to "issue a statement condemning the use of 'cross-dressing' as a mode of fancy dress", and to "encourage unions to ban clubs and societies from holding events which permit or encourage (cisgender) members to use cross-dressing as a mode of fancy dress".  Here, I'm less aware of the context, but from various articles I gather that what is being referred to is cases where aggressive rugby club types have 'cross-dressed' in ways that are clearly about mocking and degrading women.

In each case, the discussions seem to have been prompted by something that is genuinely troublesome.  And this isn't surprising.  The experiences of class, race, gender, sexuality are complex and unstable and there will always be dilemmas about when something tips over from being potentially annoying into being outright racist or homophobic or misogynistic.  For example, many of the responses to this debate on Twitter referred delegates to the documentary Paris is Burning, making the point that many of the tropes that are deemed offensive acts of racial appropriation originate from an underground drag multiculture.  That, of itself, doesn't settle the vexed question of when these tropes end up being racist.  Likewise, Helen Lewis's article for the New Statesman is a pretty good demonstration of just how arbitrary the notion of 'cross-dressing' is, and how gender is something that is performed, but that in itself still leaves us trying to work out where a form of 'cross-dressing' goes from being humdrum or a bit of fun, to being a kind of misogyny.

The thing that bothers me about the decisions of the NUS, however, is that in both cases there is an attempt to resolve these complexities through a kind of identity absolutism.  The premise appears to be that there is an authentic identification rooted in a real, collective lived experience which is being purloined inauthentically by groups who, lacking that experience, do not have a legitimate claim to that identity.  This actually goes against the grain of the current, growing common sense that race and gender are social constructs (whatever social construction is taken to mean) rather than being fixed essences; that balkanised cultures are impossible to sustain, and that hybridisation and fusion are the norm; that identities are not absolute, and are always exceeded by forms of difference - something that those fighting Islamophobia have been compelled to emphasise over and over.  And I would say that this is the better side of the emergent common sense, the side that we should fight to keep.

More importantly, perhaps, I would observe that when people 'perform blackness' or 'perform womanhood' in a way that is racist or sexist, I think what they are doing is taking mannerisms, often exaggerated, caricatured and simplified into crude stereotypes, that might be particular to some black people, or some women, and make these characteristics stand in for blackness and womanhood.  In short, they are performing a kind of essentialisation.  This makes it all the more important not to concede this ground.

Finally, if the attempt is to create norms of anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-homophobic civility that are fought for on campuses, my concern is that going about it in this way will leave such norms unable to withstand a right-wing assault.  I am not so much concerned about the far right provocations, which would involve racists mounting spurious claims that 'white culture' was being 'appropriated' in order to shit-stir, although that is something to look out for.  Nor do I think there is much chance that the David Starkey line that 'the whites are becoming black' is going to get a foothold on campuses, although again one can never be too complacent.  It is more that this style of politics can too easily be used to set off a carnival of recrimination and divisions: given that most identities are hybrids, there is potentially no end of accusations of 'appropriation'.  The left's matchless capacity for fratricide would potentially be multiplied many times.

As is so often the case, I am pointing out problems, but I have no solutions.