Tighten your tweed jacket and roll up your Mustang windows, folks! These feminists have arrived, and they’re going through the notches on your bedpost and finding more rape culture than you can poke your privilege at. And look, they’re breaking some windows. God forbid, they might actually be trying to get our attention!
Seriously, has there ever been any privilege more annoying than that which calls for moderation and respect?
I was inspired to write this post by a discussion sparked by a young Liberal who posted an article about how the feminist response to rape culture goes too far and places counterproductive boundaries on the awkward moments we wall go through to express our desires among others. To be fair, on many different levels, it is completely valid to say that feminism makes life harder for guys who may have perfectly good intentions but don’t know how to go about expressing them without reinforcing patriarchal structures or even just getting in the way of feminism strategy. They may be shunned, expelled, or stripped of their privileges. But so what? In the context our individual relationships, we may call such instances unfair, or harsh, or inconsiderate of the fact that this person could have been an ally, but this does nothing to taint the movement as a whole. Especially when what it is fighting against is not a couple of vindictive misdeeds, but a system of oppression that affects vast swathes of our society.
The best way to understand such an article is as an observation of feminist movement through a patriarchal space, from a patriarchal perspective. Feminism is experienced as authoritarian because it is coming into conflict with an ideology which has even permeated the way we formulate our sexual desires, and in trying to rearrange certain norms it arrives at awkward deadlocks where it must impose itself excessively. I’ll happily acknowledge that “consent porn” and attempts to turn sweet nothings into explicit expressions of consent are on the neurotic side of the fight against rape culture. But the real denial of agency comes when you can’t even trust women to take such messages with a grain of salt and to balance the struggle against patriarchy with their own pursuit of their sexual desires. Predictably, the article falls back on trusting law enforcement and criminal proceedings to spirit the problem away. As if time and experience have not shown us that, when it comes to rape accusations, the legal system is as ideologically compromised as any other institution. There is no substitute for the hard work of setting norms at the grass roots level.
What really worries me though is that many on the left have internalised this attitude of moderation as a limitation that must be placed on all our beliefs in order for us to be realistic and negotiate the real world without alienating too many people or bringing about unintended consequence. What I wish to challenge in this post is the very idea of such a social reality as distinct from the ideals we fight for within social movements. I don’t mean to ramble in opaque philosophical terms, so I’ve cut the Derrida and distilled these thoughts as much as possible. I apologise if some of it is a little vague; I’ll be the first to admit that in critiquing liberal though, I occasionally dispense with the structure of rational argument.
Every struggle we pursue, in fact every project or meaningful action we undertake, operates in an ideological space between the world as it is and the world as it should be. And for this reason, as every activist learns very early on, neither realists nor idealists have a monopoly over social life, nor will they ever have. Nor is there ever a completely stable foundation of norms, values and understandings upon which we base our projects. Every standpoint lies somewhere within this ideological space, too bound up in its relationship with other standpoints to use itself as a reliable yardstick for what is moderate or common sense. And if we grasp how each standpoint never just asserts itself out of thin air but rather pushes against other standpoints, identities and authorities, then we can see that conflict is at the heart of social life, and not as an inherently bad thing. Much of Western civilization leading up to liberal democracy has been an attempt to curb that conflict, and this is not an inherently bad thing as long as we recognise this movement as collection of standpoints which are the product of their own ideologies.
The way we navigate this difficult ground, especially during times of change or upheaval when different ideologies find little commonality, is through negotiating norms to regulate and stabilise our behaviour. In this post I wish to focus on norms as a vehicle for social change. Norms are a cloak, as it were, for beliefs. Normative actions require a layer to separate the contingent individual act and the universal vision and influence it reaches towards, the persona and language someone adopts when they wish to speak for others or set an example. In other words, they operate as social discourses that no individual or group ever has full control over or can even completely grasp, yet we all pass through these discourses whenever we undertake normative action and leave our mark.
To add even more uncertainty, psychoanalysis teaches us that, due to their impersonal nature, our interaction with norms is always a little traumatic. There is no completely healthy or normal way to relate to them- everyone lies on a spectrum between taking them too seriously (the neurotic position), or not taking them seriously enough (the psychotic position). But neither this fact nor the presence of outlying individuals invalidates the power or authenticity of a movement. On the contrary- to deny a space for the radical left is to undermine the power of the more moderate left in its attempts to renegotiate politics on its own terms. At the minimum, one can say that norm-creation requires those who will negotiate norms and those who will enforce them. And the character of each may look quite different to an outsider.
To sum up, social reality much more closely resembles social movements than it does governmental or legal praxis. So how does all this apply to political correctness, the paradigm example for where movements attempt to enact social change by influencing norms that operate as an impersonal force? I’m certain there are instances where political correctness makes it harder to express opinions that would contribute meaningfully to debate. But given what’s at stake is not just what debate contains, but the very grounds upon which these ideas are exchanged, and in turn the material reality of structural oppression, I’m ok with political correctness going a little far sometimes. Again, the enforcement of political correctness often verges on the neurotic, but there is a significant extent to which activists maintain their distance from these norms, even joke to test the boundaries. Those who speak of infringements to their “right” of freedom of speech fail to see political correctness as anything more than a system of strict rules- they are either blind to or refuse to participate in the negotiation of norms it entails.
I would take a parallel approach to the recent debate over the Baltimore protests. If, in delineating the right to protest, one has to qualify it by calling it “peaceful” protest, then that right loses all its power. Qualifiying it as “peaceful” even implies that an unacceptable level of violence lies at the heart of it, ie you’re never going to listen to it. You can’t set the limits for protest from within the social structure which protest is fighting against. If you believe in protest (and if you believe in democracy, then so you should) then you have to be ready to accept, even embrace its consequences. As always, these consequences are just the face of a struggle that goes much deeper, and a sign that that struggle is profoundly antagonistic. For most of the violence that black people experience is structural, and covered up (often by people who believe in “peaceful” protest as much as the next guy), and thus any protest must not only engage its structural dimension but also bring violence to the surface. Or else people might pay attention, but nobody will care.
You’ll never reach a point where you’ll look around and realize that you’ve arrived and then have society bring your wishes to life. History just doesn’t work that way. Any standpoint that shouts at you “that’s far enough” or “you’re not quite there yet” is always ideologically compromised. So you push, and sometimes you push too far, and then get pushed back, and you push again. And it’s only when you look back that you realize that somewhere along the way you actually passed your goal, but what matters is that the movement keeps going.
A failure to understand this basic reality, which comes down to the fact that conflict is at the heart of social life and an inevitable consequence of any attempt at any authentic act, leads both the left and the right to erode the possibility of real social movement and real change. Yes, the left does it too, where liberals present to us the consequences to our actions that are far away and outside of our control, and present us with cheap solutions to structural problems or else make us sceptical of the promises of any transformational projects. At times it is as if we have been conditioned such that idea that our beliefs and actions have real-world, perhaps far-reaching consequences creates a sense of guilt. There’s this idea that we have to moderate everything otherwise someone will get hurt. But every authentic cause creates the conditions for its own success- that is, takes action even before the norms that will validate that action have fully been formed.