The political fashion trend of the times: if someone—anyone—from an oppressed group criticizes a cis-white progressive activist, we need to apologize and move on. Because of colonialism, patriarchy, sexism and racism, we white folks on the Left have it coming.
Well, yes, in fact we do. As readers of my recent article on Yusra Khogali can attest, I for one recognize and accept the anger of oppressed people, and have no defensive criticism to make of it. But I do think that this is separable from the substance of the expression of that anger. I can defend Khogali without having to discuss, much less accept, her off-the-wall theories about melanin. I can be pro-feminist without agreeing that men were a mutation caused by the sun’s radiation. And I can be progressive without swallowing the notion of “cultural appropriation,” a notion that is highly problematic, to say the least.
Niki Ashton is running for the leadership of the New Democratic Party on a left-of-Mulcair platform. For those unaware, she Tweeted a reference to a popular song by Beyoncé, *Irreplaceable,” specifically the phrase “To the left,” as in
To the left, to the left
To the left, to the left (mmmmmm)
To the left, to the left
Everything you own in the box to the left.
The song is about showing a boyfriend to the door. Ashton was punning on the phrase.
A group called Black Lives Matter-Vancouver took exception to this, calling Ashton out for “cultural appropriation.” She deleted the Tweet and apologized.
As some have pointed out, this is pretty minor in the scheme of things. In any case, Ashton is looking for support from progressive groups, and here she took the path of least resistance. That’s understandable, even defensible, in the heat of a political campaign.
But there is a wider issue at stake here—actually, several.
The first of these is how we deal with criticism and the taking of positions in Left ranks. “Call-out culture” is still in vogue, a kind of Maoist echo. Whatever happened to the respectful dialectic of debate, the open exploration of issues from differing perspectives, and the building thereby of a deeper solidarity?
An illustration: when I first became involved in the labour movement, my union tended to avoid “social issues” because they were felt to be “divisive.” There was little recognition that those divisions were already present among the rank and file, and that papering over them in the name of “solidarity” could only have the opposite effect. But those of us who felt that we should not only recognize but even celebrate those differences, while working to achieve a solidarity based upon the recognition that racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism were serious issues that needed to be addressed, eventually prevailed, at least to a point.
That took a lot of work. The first step in an as-yet unfinished process, one that has been going on for many years now, was to get people to debate and discuss the issues: to listen and be listened to. The issue was forced by strong groupings of women and various ad hoc ginger groups representing people with disabilities, LGBT, and racialized minorities, who pushed for substantial change within the union. Allies rose to support them. Major policy shifts were made over time.
That’s how engagement works. That’s how we grew our solidarity.
Refusing to face our differences would have merely avoided issues that sooner or later would erupt anyway. And the same sort of thing is at work, I suggest, when one major player refuses to discuss the matters at hand, but simply nods meekly. That builds nothing.
What I find even more bewildering is that some on the Left are defending the criticism itself. So, very quickly: “cultural appropriation” is a meaningless concept—all culture is appropriation. Cultural (or, as I would prefer, “social”) misappropriation is a real issue—fake “Aboriginal” costumes, for example. But that isn’t an issue here. Beyoncé’s song was written by Epsen Lind, Mikkel Storleer Eriksen, Shaffer Smith, Tor Erik Hermansen, Amund Ivarsson Bjoerklund, and Beyoncé herself. Four of the six collaborators are white. One could hardly imagine a worse example to reinforce a point about misappropriation.
As noted, Ashton bowed and moved on. If this was merely pragmatism, then so be it—let it go, by all means. But if this represented an actual organizing principle—termed by one commentator “rigorous solidarity“—then we have a serious problem. Because that “rigorous solidarity” sounds a great deal like the paper solidarity I was referring to above: proceeding as though in sweet harmony while, under the surface, our critical faculties, suppressed in the name of “allyship,” are bubbling and simmering. As a strategic approach, it’s staggeringly dishonest and ultimately doomed to failure.
It’s also great fodder for assorted right-wing pundits and knuckle-dragging commenters on news threads, who lose no opportunity to mock us for trying to negotiate the intricate maze of intersectionalism. The latter project is well-founded and necessary, of course. There is no other way forward if we want to build a mass progressive movement among diverse groups. But we—and by that I mean all of us seeking social change—need to talk more, not less.