Originally a comment by Salty Current* on Living in the box [guest post by Seth].
There are so many other things going on here. Survival. Solidarity. Empathy. To me those are the keys… not making sure everyone is on the same page theoretically. Imagine one person saying, “I’m just trying to breathe here” and receiving the answer, “But what does that mean for ME?”
This strikes me as a strange argument. Taking into consideration how our actions affect others who are oppressed and struggling, listening to their concerns and taking them into account, is pretty much the definition of solidarity.
There was a great interview by Chris Hayes of Brittney Cooper several months ago, at the time the hidden-camera street harassment video went viral. I think he expected Cooper to basically side with those arguing that the video contributed to racial bias, if inadvertently, and leave it at that. Instead, she recognized the validity of that argument (and expanded it: the reception of the video also tended to sideline the vulnerability of black girls and women to street harassment); but then went on to suggest that black men, rather than focusing on this exclusively, could find their solidarity with women by seeing the problem within a shared framework of wanting to occupy public space and not be harassed – in their case, by police, in women’s, by men. It wasn’t a rhetorical game, but an accurate framing of the problems that could allow people to see their struggles in common terms rather than being set against each other.
It seems to me that this shared frame for solidarity has been missing from the current discussions, but it certainly exists. I’ve been arguing for a while that we can look at these struggles in terms of freedom, specifically freedom of self-definition and self-determination. The existential freedom to craft our identity and our own path rather than being chained to a false essence. The claim to that freedom unites all struggles for liberation, and those who oppose it with essentialist arguments, be they feminists, trans activists, or those hostile to these movements, are opposing liberation.
By the way, I think Lady Mondegreen’s suggestion on the other thread about asking some trans people who want to have a real discussion to write some posts was a good one. I think there are people who for whatever reason want to divide and sow hostility between our groups and movements, but that our goals are actually the same and we can better realize that through dialogue that focuses on what unites us rather than divides us. (And, in purely selfish terms, I’m sure I could learn a lot from it.)
*Yes two in one day. What can I say? She’s on a roll.
Emily Vicendese says
“It seems to me that this shared frame for solidarity has been missing from the current discussions, but it certainly exists. I’ve been arguing for a while that we can look at these struggles in terms of freedom, specifically freedom of self-definition and self-determination. The existential freedom to craft our identity and our own path rather than being chained to a false essence. The claim to that freedom unites all struggles for liberation, and those who oppose it with essentialist arguments, be they feminists, trans activists, or those hostile to these movements, are opposing liberation.”
I think you have made the important point here that “identity” should not be understood as some kind of essence or kernel of a person. I think it should be understood as a label for a cluster of dispositions, which for whatever reason a person feels they need to emphasise. Some dispositions may be more innate and some may be more enculturated, and all are by necessity a combination of innate and enculturated. Even our most basic dispositions like bodily functions are enculturated in some way. “Identity” understood in this way therefore cannot justify behaviour, it is just a shorthand, culturally mediated way of referring to clusters of dispositions.
I was reflecting on “identity” last night and it occurred to me I don’t want to “identify” as anything. I don’t find it personally useful at all. I have narratives about myself, but I don’t think of them as an “identity”. If there’s an identity for “non-identifying” then that is me. This is not to say I think others shouldn’t “identify”, but I am saying that we should not essentialise others or ourselves, and that we should not confuse “identity” with “essence”.
AJ Milne says
Even: oh, yeah.
I keep mulling writing something in the various gender identity threads of the last few days, keep passing, thinking it somehow more self-indulgent than usual. I mean, y’know, cis, straight white guy. Like we don’t talk enough already on every other damned thing…
… and then there’s the orthogonal problem that if I get into boxes and false essences, I’m going to have even more of a problem than usual knowing where draw the boundaries, working out just what I leave in. And that’s from someone who always has a hell of a time with that (yes, honestly, I try… You have no idea, those of you complaining I type a bit long sometimes, I’m tellin’ ya, you don’t even want to know just much I’m always leaving out)…
(And yes, all of that is to say, annoyingly enough, I really can’t put much of a box around anything I do on this. Yes, apparently, I really typed that.)
Anyway. As so often, SC, this piece is simply invaluable.
Adding a few things:
One of the most sobering and saddening things for me over the past few years has been seeing it driven home again and again that there is absolutely no guarantee that just because someone has themselves been ground under, treated like dirt by others, marginalized in whichever way by whichever existing social power that this will necessarily make them themselves sympathetic for the suffering of others. Or, more precisely: whether they do feel some sympathy somewhere, it’s no guarantee they’ll actually do anything concrete to lessen others’ suffering, as a consequence. It’s just as possible they’ll do quite the opposite, fearful of their place, quite decided this is how they keep what little they figure they’ve got, convinced this is all zero sum (we’ll make it so if we must), and if I don’t keep someone below me, I’ll just slip, fall down in between them, if not further.
And no, it’s not like I didn’t know all of this, in theory. But I think, sometimes, for all that I thought I was cynical, I still had this maybe Hollywood-spawned notion that that’s got to happen in the movie, somewhere. The human horror of a villain on the brink of their baleful triumph sees the child about to die as a consequence of their nefarious plot, flashes back to their own childhood in the orphanage, finally does the right thing, redeems themselves, partially, at least, before the closing credits. (Or, at least, even if they never anything quite so dramatic, you’ll still see it on them, fleetingly, before they finally push the button, that realization of what they’re doing; it’s still in there, somewhere, that pain, that recognition of common suffering, if you could just find a way to get to it… Well, maybe in the sequel…)
All of which is to say: getting people to ‘see their struggle in common terms’ as absolutely key as it probably is, may, annoyingly, be harder than my Hollywood imagination keeps suggesting, too. Being treated like dirt by others may just as often go to training: now this is how to do that yourself, in turn. And welcome to the essential dynamic of all hierarchies, and do enjoy the bitter ‘victory’ of achieving and holding your place therein.
I’m pretty sure I’ve felt Russell’s unbearable pity myself, however, now and then. But I’m not really sure if that came from the (I think I’d say relatively limited) suffering I’ve experienced, or if it maybe would have been there anyway. I would say, I think, it is about solidarity, as much as anything else. And I suspect it’s at least partly such experience. Crap we’ve been through, and we’d like to save others the trouble, if at all possible. If only so we don’t have to watch it all again, even from without.
But as maybe the more valuable experience: I’ve also been the guy who’s retold a few awful homophobic or sexist jokes, (sure, decades back now, for what that’s worth). Usually cringing a bit inside, and hating myself more than a little for the cowardly betrayal, knowing damned well it was as much about my own fear, tired of being called the fag or the sissy or whatever (I sometimes think we should just make high school optional; sure, we need people educated, but it may just be safer), figuring, right, this might buy me some relative peace, anyway. And, by the way, I now still kinda suspect that’s how most people tell those. Knowing damned well what they’re doing, and why, and what cowards it makes them…
And I may as much be motivated, now, by that. Could be solidarity. Could also be just the determination to not feel that again.
Also: I don’t know, but I suspect everyone bristles a bit at the ‘rules’ for their gender, and I’d be a bit amazed if every man didn’t find it all a bit ridiculous, sometimes. What, I’m supposed to be Clint Eastwood in Pale Rider, here? Right. I’ll get right on that. Sure I can pull that off… Let’s just not mention I also cry at weddings… And funerals… And plays… Even the odd musical…
And on that subject, and for what it’s worth, on that BEM test, I keep getting these very flat scores. Ran it a few times, keep getting pretty much the same thing, all three axes in the high 60s, low 70s… Got 67/67/67, the one time…
It seems almost boring, under the circumstances. Like I can’t be distinctly anything. But I guess I’m just gonna try to spin it as ‘well-rounded/lots of everything’.
Anyway. Again. Thanks for this, SC. And to you, as always, Ophelia. And I’m sorry to see the crap you’ve been taking for this stuff, over the past few days. That you’re still at it, still plugging away, still thoughtful, still trying to puzzle things out, in the teeth of it all, seems to me to speak volumes. Also as always.