This post is about exclusion and the ethics of disagreement. Not exclusion by a dominant society of marginalized populations, but rather the selective practices of alliance and exclusion in anti-oppressive political circles. The theme I want to use to think through these questions is one of maintaining family ties (chosen family, birth family, or otherwise). I wonder if the idea of “unconditional care” (not to say this is the actual experience of all or many families!) or the practice of making a distinction between thinking critically and being critical/making ethical judgments versus being judgmental might help to foster an ethics of disagreement within social justice communities prone to being divided by political differences. I’m thinking of examples from school-based groups, to civic community organizations, to online commenter communities like the ever-changing group drawn into conversation by Bitch.
In my last post, touching on males and feminism, there was a great comment conversation thread that highlighted another issue with which I am perennially concerned: getting down on people, maybe even dismissing them entirely, for not being radical enough or feminist enough or otherwise politicized in “the right way.” I’ve had a number of tremendously disheartening experiences confronting the irony of this take-down culture (thanks to Shira Tarrant’s interview with the F Word for introducing me to this term!) among the student-led queer groups at my university. You know what these experiences always made me wonder? If other students at the university—who are already privileged by a post-secondary or graduate education spent thinking and reading about queer and feminist politics in immense detail—aren’t doing their politics radically enough for the satisfaction of these young radicals, then what do these young radicals do about their families? Or old friends? Or the people for whose emancipation they are agitating, but whose oppression means that they may not have the time or resources to think in such a nuanced, high-theory, complicated way about the politics of their own situation? How do people who get furious with other feminists, activists, academics, etc. navigate their social and familial relations who aren’t even on the same page about the need for social change?
And questions like these aren’t just for the self-appointed gatekeepers of “the right politics.” When experiences and/or education radicalize us in particular ways, couldn’t any of us find ourselves struggling with how to maintain our political commitments, while still, say, having Thanksgiving dinner with our racist grandma? While still respecting our heterosexist father who is “fine with your being that way” but introduces our gay lover as a friend? While still loving our best friend who doesn’t think that sexism isn’t that big a deal in North America anymore?
On the topic of language such as “feminist ally” or “queer ally,” one commenter who goes by the handle Margarite Von Diter offered an excellent reply to my previous post: “I want to try to better inform myself as to what [terms like “ally”] might mean to others [but] it makes me a bit sad that we are at such a loss for proper language in these situations that even trying to express respect or support becomes problematic. (I can’t even begin to get into the awkwardness I have, as a White person, trying to discuss race respectfully. Every option seems as inappropriate as another.) Language is a reflection of our culture and values. When we don’t even have appropriate language for discussion it further illustrates the extent of the sexism, racism, homophobia, etc.”
It completely gets me down, too, when, as this commenter describes, even trying to express respect or support becomes problematic. I agree that simply claiming good intentions never excuses oppressive attitudes and behaviors, but I’m not really interested in the concept of “excusing,” “giving a pass for,” or being “right” in one’s politics to begin with. I’m more interested in how we can model a politics of friendship and an ethics of disagreement (to use a favorite phrase of my friend Mohamed’s), for younger generations of feminists and others with social justice agendas. Even the concepts of “inclusion” and “tolerance” currently popular in curricula dealing with the homophobic bullying of youth can often incite us fall back on simplistic centre/periphery models and binarizing notions of “us” and “them.” I’m interested in what it would mean to take our commitments to radical democracy and solidarity seriously in our personal lives and in our politically charged interactions with other activists, thinkers, and organizers. I would love to see more discussions that acknowledge the problems of, for instance, what it does to claim the term “queer ally” or “feminist ally” for oneself without anger, without writing off differing opinions, and without cutting out controversial voices from the debate.
I’m not arguing that righteous anger can’t sometimes be productive, nor am I advocating that we tolerate intolerance or give up hate speech protections. I only mean to suggest that we periodically renew our attention to practicing a kindness, a generosity of spirit toward others. Such attention works in the interest of building more expansive and effective coalitions and solidarities—coalitions and solidarities that thoroughly interweave through our families, friends, co-organizers, and others.