not showing up as praxis
July 19, 2016
Sara Ahmed in her recent blog post said that her style of dialoged has been called ‘authoritarian’. The motivating factor for this is that she refuses to sit at the ‘let’s treat virulent transmisogyny as another viewpoint’ feminist table. In a related way, this is the same in spirit as accusations that no-platforming radical feminists by students/activists is ‘censorship’. It’s also the same in spirit as the accusations that sjws refuse to listen and only enjoy discussing in echo chambers. The accusations that activists and students are ‘triggered’ by opposing views and simply don’t want to be challenged.
Of course, in practice, not all of these are the same. Refusing to sit at a table is a very different action than no-platforming. And while I don’t think the latter is actually censorship, I want to focus on the rather more personal decision to Not Show Up. Surely, this sort of action can be made into a collective one, whereby you convince many people to Not Show Up (this is pretty much what a boycott is). But in context of the post, we aren’t talking about an organized boycott but a personal decision to not sit at a particular table.
I want to spend a moment exploring this metaphorical table since we here about it all the time. Indeed, for some people/movements/orgs their endgoal is getting a ‘seat’ at the ‘table’. In most cases, this table appears to be the place where important decisions are made. It is where the Adults (ie, ~real people~) sit. Sitting at this table signals that you are important and people will listen, since you now have access to their ears. Much like when at a crowded restaurant, there is always lots of other people around but we tend to focus most of our attention on the people sitting with us. Every so often a commotion may intrude and snag our attention, but the focus will always return to the people sharing our table.
But of course this table isn’t in a restaurant, rather it is more like the proverbial cafeteria table at a fictionalized american high school cafeteria. Where you sit and who you sit with is based on an obscure social hierarchy. You can’t just sit at any table and with anyone, even though this is theoretically allowed within such a context. Tables and seats aren’t reserved via any formal method.
Anyway. You get what I, at least, understand as this metaphorical table and its context. Shifting tables to sit with a different group isn’t as easy as just getting up and sitting down. Sometimes you need to be invited. Sometimes people need to actively make room (get an extra chair, scooch over, whatever).
The table that Ahmed refuses is:
This is also how transphobic viewpoints are justified: as just another viewpoint to be expressed at the happy diversity feminist table. I refuse that feminist table. For this reason one feminist has recently called my model of dialogue “authoritarian.” If not permitting hate speech on my table is authoritarian, I will be authoritarian.
A sentiment with which I can only agree! I likewise refuses any table that includes transmisogyny as ‘another viewpoint’. Same with racism, sexism, etc and so on.
What interests me about all of this is way that not doing something, the way that withdrawing (thus refusing) is perceived as an articulation of authority. Because Ahmed doesn’t want to sit at this particular table, she is attempting to exert control (hegemony) over the people who are sitting at the table. This is, of course, a very strange idea. That, by her purposeful absence, Ahmed is exerting control/force on people she isn’t interacting with.
The only thing worse than this is sitting at a different table. Refusing a seat at The Table is supposed to mean that you don’t get to sit anywhere. Same with not being invited/included. The Table is the world. The world is The Table. You either sit down and blink into existence or you do not. To sit at a different table is to insist on existing outside of/beyond the ‘world’. It is a type of withdrawal, this refusal. The same applies if you do, after all, decide to sit at no table (maybe you go for a walk instead or go take a shit or whatever).
All of this is structurally related to the notion that ‘kids these days’ are ruining civil discourse. We are the Most Intolerant generation when it comes ideas that are different from our own. Unlike our predecessors, some of us aren’t even trying to pretend to listen. Some of us aren’t even trying to sit at the table. Which is Bad because attention is nourishment at The Table.
In the book I’m currently working on about the ‘logic’ of contemporary discourse, I discuss this accusation at length. The problem you see, isn’t that we are unwilling to engage in ideas that disagree with us, but rather that we refuse to allow our oppressors the ability to choose which table and with whom we sit. The ideas is that Sitting at The Table is an honour we should all aspire to receive.
And yet… this isn’t what is happening. Instead? We are choosing (actively choosing) to sit somewhere else. Choosing to sit with people we pick rather than the ones assigned to us.
Now the question is: are there dissenting opinions amongst this group? If the answer is ‘yes’ then the scapegoating of millenials, activists, etc is clearly just a calculated lie. Is the answer ‘no’? Well that is a problem and perhaps a good group/person to stay away from.
What this all amounts to is that us ~sjws~ are refusing to allow the ‘popular kids’ to set the terms of the debate/discussion/whatever. So in one sense, the accusation that we either don’t understand or outright refuse to engage in ‘civil’ discourse is actually correct. ‘Civil discourse’ isn’t a value neutral idea and is laden with a bunch of ideological and normative values. It is an idea about the way that discourse ought to be structured.
And one of the values of ‘civil discourse’ is that people with all kinds of different ‘opinions’ be allowed to participate. And, at the end of the day, anything and everything is an ‘opinion’ and this is the venue to attempt to persuade people to your way of thinking. Or to find some middle ground or compromise in order to facilitate decision making and peace.
In one way, this notion of ‘civil discourse’ is grounded in the liberal idea of pluralism. And, as people familiar with my philosophy will note, I am a believer in pluralism. But this articulation of pluralism is perhaps the broadest and least principled one possible. It is an ‘anything goes’ pluralism. Which is definitely not the type of pluralism I ascribe to.
The perennial challenge of liberalism (and pluralism) is balancing out the broadest (perhaps another way to put this is ‘most free’) articulation of a value with the very real and pragmatic reality that such a thing paradoxically reduces the overall freedom. Perhaps the easiest arena we can point to is free speech. The broadest interpretation of this is that everyone is free to say whatever they want, whenever they want. Except that this ends up defeating itself, since an absolute conceptualization of free speech ends up meaning that speech is not free.
This is where hate speech (and other kinds of speech that infringes on free speech) comes into play. Even if we don’t focus on the contentious notion of ‘hate speech’ and what counts as it, I think a lot of us will recognize that something like verbal threats of violence can and often do have a silencing affect. Threaten to hit someone if they ‘talk back’ to you, immediately has robbed that person of their freedom of speech (and, note, parents do this to children all the time).
This is actually an interesting example because the sole rationale for something like this, in the parent to child situation, is one of ‘respect’. Its an etiquette type of thing. And lots of people will defend this kind of violent suppression of free speech. Indeed, we have a lot of different rules of etiquette that are all about regulating speech and rendering it unfree. For example: you aren’t supposed to tell someone to their face that you think they are ugly. This is generally considered ‘rude’. I suddenly find it super fascinating that a lot of the people who’ll push for a strong version of free speech (essentially one in which hate speech isn’t really a thing) are generally silent when it comes to rudeness and etiquette. If you are an adherent of completely unrestricted free speech, do you spend as much time arguing against etiquette as you do hate speech? Go around telling kids to ‘talk back’ to their parents? I’m guessing not.
All of this is to say that some restrictions on freedom (and other liberal values) are generally considered not only justified but normal. Interesting that without even getting into the notion of hate speech, that sitting at a table with someone who’ll call me a man to my face is expected because doing that isn’t even considered ‘rude’, much less hate speech.
So not showing up, not sitting at that table is an act of resistance to this normalized (and normative) conception of ‘civil discourse’ and the values it encodes.
I have the kind of body that makes a great deal of people feel justified in interrogating me about my genitals. Something that is usually considered invasive and rude, but not when it comes to bodies like mine. I find it interesting that my decision to not be around people and in situations where this kind of targetted disrespect is normal and thus allowed, is considered ‘authoritarian’. Or fascist. Or being a Bad Liberal. Or an sjw. Or close-minded and unwilling to entertain dissent in my discourse. Of course, I’m not quite clear as to how being asked about my genitals actually amounts to ‘dissent’ but whatever.
Moving beyond just personal considerations, the reality also is that some ideologies are simply incompatible, rendering any kind of productive ‘dialogue’ all but impossible. If someone, say a radfem or conservative, is articulating an ideology in which I am always and forever a ‘man’ while I’m articulating the opposite, how exactly are we supposed to find common ground here? We can’t. It always boggles the mind that there are people who not only think this is a worthwhile way to spend their time, but that they insist everyone else do so as well. While I’d honestly prefer to scrub my toilet over engaging in this kind of interaction.
But I want to make it clear… The reason why not showing up and/or not sitting does is threatening and condemned isn’t because its an articulation of power but because its an articulation of agency. Articulations of agency, particularly those by vulnerable and/or marginalized people are dangerous. They destabilize the social order. And so such articulations must be condemned and deemed morally wrong.
So it goes.