There’s going to be an interesting gathering in Ottawa later this month—a Peoples’ Social Forum, a convergence of many socially progressive organizations and individuals meeting in one place (the University of Ottawa) to learn from each other and plot some kind of common course against the Harper government and, more generally, the Right.
Good luck. I mean it. Because it’s going to take luck—a truckload of it—to allow us all to break bad old habits. We aren’t going to argue our way out of them this time any more than we have in the past, because the very way we tend to argue is part of the problem.
Last evening I plunged in on Twitter, as is my wont, when someone piously explained to someone else that the racism encountered by Blacks in the US is essentially, and I use that word advisedly, different from the racism experienced by First Nations in Canada. Ferguson, Missouri, is of course on everyone’s mind at the moment: it’s a reprise of Birmingham, Alabama half a century ago, complete with murder, mass police mobilization against an entire community, barking dogs, high-powered rifles, truncheons and tear gas. Yet there are undeniable parallels with what happened to First Nations people in Elsipogtog and Sechelt and Gustafsen Lake and Burnt Church and Ipperwash and Oka and Seton Portage, not to mention various Ontario locales where mining interests and the courts have been stuck together with Krazy Glue. In all of these cases, it’s been state power exercised with violence against minorities of Others who refuse to accept their ordained “place.”
But some insist on concentrating on the differences, creating rights silos and (at least implicitly) establishing hierarchies of struggle. As was earnestly explained to me, Blacks have a history of slavery, which is different from First Nations with its history of land-theft, forced assimilation, and on-going plundering of what lands and resources remain. Gosh, I had no idea.
If we conflate these struggles, I was told, we will obscure “anti-Blackness.” Anti-Black and anti-First Nations power structures, institutionalized racism, police power to keep the subalterns in their place—these are real, present, and are or should be the targets of any progressive movement. But instead we have all these new “-nesses”—whiteness, Blackness, anti-Blackness, and so on, rising like miasmas from the deep and clinging to the very clothes we wear. These metaphysical substances infect, obscure, oppress, exploit. Blacks aren’t racialized by whites: their essential Blackness is counterposed to an essential anti-Blackness. Whites don’t oppress and kill people; “whiteness” does.
Of course I was asked if I were Black or indigenous, and had to ‘fess up.
Identity politics and its corrosive essentialism, then, still rule in 2014. On what conceivable basis can we build solidarity if this kind of thinking prevails? If our differences are unchangingly fundamental, bounded wholes, if Blacks have only one history, First Nations another and Whites yet another, none of which can conceivably converge, how can alliances be built?
The buzzwords these days are “decolonization” and “intersectionality.” Chandra Mohanty’s “Under Western Eyes” is an early must-read on both subjects, and there has been a considerable literature since that has fleshed out both concepts. They are simply pregnant with practical meaning, and need to be deeply mined. Each requires considerable thinking and reflection on the part of those who would be allies but who share, however unwittingly, in the power and privilege that colonization and racism have bestowed. These things run deep. Our societies are imbued with them, as they are with sexism. Overcoming them is impossibly complex, especially when they are an integral part of who we are, that is, an inseparable aspect of our socially-constructed selves.
So they’re difficult to talk about at the best of times. But when they are simply waved about, when they are used as forms of devastating, silencing critique instead of a pathway to mutual understanding, they become part of the problem, not the solution. Last night’s conversation ended miserably, as they tend to do on Twitter. “Why are you arguing with me?” asked my interlocutor imperiously. Quite right. Silence is a far wiser course when faced with essentialist arrogance of that kind. This morning I woke up to many “mentioned in” reTweets where folks I respect were wagging their fingers. First Nations aren’t Blacks, I was informed. Their experiences are different. We don’t want to obscure those differences. Some thick Tweep even threw “mansplaining” into the mix, that magic word used to shut down all discussion of anything, anywhere.
There’s just no point in raising the obvious in defence: that cops bent on oppressing the Other aren’t terribly interested in the etiology of the racism they are engaged in maintaining under the guise of “order.” That structural racism is enforced in similar ways upon subalterns in many societies, and for the same reasons—to confine them to their assigned spaces. That a nightstick to the head, or pepper in the eyes, or a bullet in the back feel the same, whether one is Black or First Nations.
Instead we are told to focus on the differences. Woe betide anyone who “conflates,” even if we’re doing no such thing. We aren’t universalist liberals, after all, builders of a paper-thin “solidarity” achieved by wishing those differences away and pretending that unequal power relations don’t exist. All of us need to be aware of them. We need, in other words, to get to know each other. Struggles against oppression are not all one thing. There are wide areas of convergence, however, that should allow us to build common fronts, to turn our faces toward our common enemies. Yet convergence is the last thing on some people’s minds: instead, we are angrily told that their own struggle is unique in all respects, and never to be confused with yours or mine.
The deepest and most malevolent ad hominem, in fact, is this type of essentialism. Certainly we on the “whiteness” side of things need to listen deeply when people are moved to share the experiences of their own lives with us. These experiences are different from ours, and from each other’s. On mutual understanding a powerful solidarity can be built, one based upon respect, making the effort to hear what is being said, and privilege-checking. But this is not to be confused with silencing on the basis of mere disagreement, be it ideological, tactical or strategic. Nor are what differences exist necessarily articulated by angry individuals who suggest they are speaking for collectives and communities to whom they aren’t remotely accountable.
In any case, that deeper solidarity continues to elude us on the Left. Instead, we get bogged down in process and rules, endless speeches, much handwringing, and those old stand-bys, criticism and self-criticism—not on behalf of an effective outcome, but as ends in themselves. Movements quickly wither away once the effervescence subsides. Back to square one? The truth is, we’ve never left square one.
Meanwhile the Right seems to be able to overcome any such differences. Conservatives are of many stripes, but they tend to stick together almost instinctively. Harper leads a party that arose from a sneaky merger engineered by Peter MacKay, but few fell by the wayside when it was a fait accompli. The new Conservative Party headed off for victory, ending up with a majority government. Members didn’t spend a lot of time fussing about ideological differences, of which there are some, nor did they attack each other on the social media.
What does this all come down to? The Right are lumpers. The Left are splitters. To repeat: it’s not the differences that divide us. It’s the fetishizing of those differences. It’s also the creation of new ones—a DSM-5-like proliferation of categories to which we become passionately attached. On the Right, it’s a collective will to power. On the Left, it’s intellectual free enterprise, with competing constituencies, deep schisms and irreconcilable differences. No wonder we never seem to get out of the starting gate—don’t look now, but we’re missing a horse.