Be more problematic

The United States of America has elected a demagogue whose cabinet contains religious fundamentalists who are attempting to enact policies attacking women’s reproductive rights. Russia is a barely-democratic state ruled by a gay-bashing strongman whose legislature recently decriminalised ‘first-offence’ instances of domestic abuse. Various religious fundamentalist regimes—some of whom our Western governments are friendly towards/sell weapons to, and others a segment of our left want to be friendlier towards— are continuing to heighten their attack on all forms of freedom; each year they are performing  hundreds of executions for such ‘crimes’ as homosexuality, blasphemy, adultery, alcohol consumption and apostasy. Saudi Arabia executes someone every two days, often for these offences.  Amnesty International estimates that in Iran alone, 5,000 people have been executed for their sexual orientation since 1979; I give the figure here because it seems appropriate to remember these people. The situation regarding aggression between nations is becoming tenser and further military conflict is likely.

And this has just been reported by Lee Williscroft-Ferris in the Independent:

This week, reports emerged from Chechnya of a systematic campaign of violence directed specifically at gay men (and, presumably, also bisexual men). Russian media and Amnesty International warn that those deemed “undesirable” by the authorities are being subjected to “preventive mopping up”, followed by arbitrary detention, torture and, in some cases, death at the hands of the police.

On the home front, the UK government has enacted a series of cuts to welfare that have led to a spate of suicides among the disabled. 14% of doctors have patients who have self-harmed as a result of the fitness to work test. Benefit sanctions have caused hundreds of thousands to resort to charity—913,000 people used food banks in 2014. London and the provincial cities are experiencing a homelessness crisis. In 2015, 64,000 households were declared homeless and more than 93,000 children were homeless. The prison system is affected by austerity to such an extent that stories of disturbances, of the like unseen for twenty-five years, steadily trickle into the news. The state of the NHS was declared a humanitarian crisis by the Red Cross last winter.

You know all this, right? Some of you might be doing something about some of it. You might have signed a few online petitions. You might have joined the shambles that is the current Labour Party. You might even (and this makes you better than I am in some ways) volunteered at a shelter, or for some other charity. How are you feeling, though? I’m guessing, if you care—probably scared. You perhaps feel the need to switch off with your chosen distraction: that’s fine and understandable. I would like to invite other concerned members of my age group (and beyond) to aim higher than fear, slacktivism and volunteering. Doing this will require:

  1. intellectual courage and honesty (they are pretty much the same thing),
  2. dropping of bad political habits, and
  3. willingness to have a bit of subversive fun.

The blocked-toilet state of the world cannot be addressed unless a suitable attitude and stance is adopted. To put it bluntly, progressives and intellectuals need to abandon identity politics and political correctness, and prioritise an attack on the most oppressive power structures. The level of distrust of the working class displayed by some educated people is unwarranted. ‘Commoners’ deserve to hear arguments that matter. I know this because I’ve lived nearly all my life as a prole among proles.  They are, in part, committing self-destructive political acts because they are being ignored. The most egregious social trend in the UK for the past two decades has been a tendency to punch down.

You may ask: can we not keep the PC and the identity politics and fight the good fight? No, not really. There are now some topics that now feel controversial even to consider. To those who say that political correctness is merely about good manners and inclusivity: good manners and inclusivity are about good manners and inclusivity; political correctness has become a form of censorship.

Racist, sexist and homophobic language can create a hostile and repressive atmosphere, but the correct solution is to challenge those views openly. Remember the drubbing Nick Griffin received when he went on Question Time? By policing discourse, the processes of political correctness lead to the same repressive climate it hopes to avoid.  The rise of the Internet troll is simply the other side of the ‘SJW’ coin. When debate becomes passionate among younger people, it feels like being trapped between two monsters.

Identity politics has stifled discussion of Islamism and ultraconservative Islam (especially its presence in the UK or Western Europe) and gender identity. This alerted me to the way progressive politics has swerved in the wrong direction. I saw several upsetting events; one that recurred was hearing about friends being coerced into marriages. I’ve seen people pressured to adopt religious practices and dress codes they wouldn’t otherwise have chosen. Among many liberals, these issues are banished from discussion. I became disgusted, to be frank—these topics should be prioritised (yes, prioritised) by the feminist and gay rights movement; they are blatant oppression of women and non-straight people.

Feminists who are critical of the theory of gender identity have to constantly guard against abuse. Many Marxist and radical feminist blogs have to be kept private for safety reasons. As a socialist feminist, I’m interested in class-based analysis of women’s oppression. It goes like this: women, as a class, are oppressed on the basis of sex and not gender. Sex is a reproductive function, and is dimorphic in humans—male and female. It can’t be any more a social construct than blood type. Gender is a social construct and a hierarchy—masculinity over femininity.  A few more concepts follow from this, but it’s risky to type them for public eyes.

There’s an interesting discussion among underground feminists, which compares the language of gender identity with the language used by religious groups. There have also been comparisons to Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Even if you don’t agree with them, the analysis is fascinating. I was tempted to throw some Foucault at the concept by comparing gender to a Panopticon prison— ideas were zipping around my head, and then I felt a sense of guilt smothering me like a frozen bath towel. It was similar to how I felt in childhood when I had thoughts about God’s non-existence.

During my student days, I once found myself sitting on the floor of a squat in an abandoned warehouse. There were dogs on strings, Tuvan throat singing (picked up during the performer’s gap year) and hip-hop poetry about smashing televisions and wealth redistribution. A banner on the wall read, ‘Destroy Gender,’ which puzzled me at the time. I now understand. You definitely wouldn’t see a banner like that on a squat nowadays—not at all, absolutely not, no way, nope.

I doubt what I’ve written here will receive much of an audience, but if it does, the three paragraphs above this one will put me in some trouble. Am I scared? Yes, I am. What does that fear tell you about the state of discourse? The reason I’ve written it is not to make a gender critical argument, but to highlight how difficult it is to make one.  I’d prefer a world where it was less terrifying to discuss these issues.

When talking about the habits of my generation with older people, they either agree with me that they’re especially uptight and politically timorous, or they disagree and commend them for their level-headedness and sense of responsibility. One comment to ponder was, ‘After the riots in 2011, you saw the various groups of looters…but more young people were cleaning up the next day. The media won’t focus on them, though.’ My immediate reaction was to think that was just typical of some sections of my generation to be all goody-goody like that, commendable and public-spirited as such behaviour is. Then I reflected on how immature my first response was.

Later on, I remembered one of my best experiences at university; it’s barely an exaggeration to say it changed my life. A friend of mine (a great activist, I wonder what he’s doing now) managed to score a talk by Peter Tatchell at the students’ union. I was an initially uncertain and thought, ‘Oh, the gay rights guy. I’m not sure that applies to me all that much.’ But the passion for all human rights reverberating through his speech seemed to burst a dismal bubble that had inflated around me. The world seemed more real after hearing Tatchell’s words, like a solipsistic smear had been wiped from its surface. The responsibility we have to defend one another’s freedoms became clearer. I still smile at how he recommended we treat those who would oppress us: ‘Tell them to fuck off!’ The next few lines contained the same sentiments and a few more fucks. Of course, he meant they should fuck off politically, as well as literally. Some members of the audience found this attitude immature, especially coming from someone of Tatchell’s vintage.  I disagree with them now more than I did then; on some issues, being prissy is immature conduct.

This brings me to fun and its liberating potential. I’ve been thinking about how twenty-one year olds are bopping around with Fitbits (although twenty-one is barely my generation now)—they’re being monitored in a wide array of ways, but they then self-monitor; every step they take and every heartbeat is recorded. Would it be surprising if they found a way to surveil levels of satisfaction—pleasure chemicals in the brain, happy thoughts? Will they track discontented ruminations? Isn’t that what CBT is about?

In his documentary film HyperNormalisation, Adam Curtis argues that in the ideological vacuum created by the collapse of the Soviet Union, a focus on health and fitness was promoted in the West to give people a sense that they could control something—their own body, if not the world. He linked this to how the social climate of the Soviet Union was such that people were always denying a fundamentally failing system existed by pretending that everything was under control.  It’s a thought that often occurs to many people who observe cultural trends, but he puts it succinctly. Ah, but—I’ve heard it argued—those who embark on these structured self-improvement schemes enjoy doing so. It’s also their choice, and quite a wise one. I won’t debate the wisdom of taking some responsibility for one’s own health, although my desire for late nights, chilli-spattered chips and glasses of wine will debate it fiercely. What I question is the role of choice. Between what are we choosing? McDonald’s or NutriBullet? Fixed-gear bicycle or a season ticket? Going to the dentist or getting new glasses? Heat or eat?

It’s like we’re presented with a list of decisions, and the outcome of each one is tinged with defeat. You tick the flavour of defeat you’d prefer. What I propose is that we draw our own boxes and write what we want next to them. The authorities might hand your form back because they’re unable to process it, but that’s good; it starts a conversation. The world can become something closer to whatever we argue for. You might want a Fitbit, a latte and a pay freeze, after all—but if you want other things, options that aren’t on offer (like universal human rights) get noisy and have fun doing it.

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