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‘Performative’ is not just a fancy way of saying ‘performed’.

This seems to be a very common misunderstanding that I keep seeing all over the place, which is unfortunate because the confusion ends up missing pretty much everything that is important and powerful about the idea of gender performativity.

If ‘performance’ refers to the expression of some symbolic gesture, the ‘performative’ refers to what the performance does, how the performance transforms the world.

When Judith Butler says gender is performative, she is not simply saying that gender is something we perform, and especially not that gender is nothing other than performance (which would imply that everyone has a radical freedom to change gender from performance to performance, something that is obviously not true, and is I think the major misunderstanding that causes a lot of trans people to react against her). What she is saying is that gender performance does not express some interior truth that pre-exists performance, but rather that the sense of interior truth of gender is the effect of repeatedly performing expressions of gender.

That doesn’t mean that the interior sense of gender is any less real; it’s a position on where that (very much real) interior sense of gender comes from. It’s a rejection of the traditional understanding that in the beginning there is gender and then subsequently there is the expression of that gender, which was, somehow, always already there. The idea that everyone has limitless freedom to self-create from moment to moment does not follow from the theory of gender performativity. Gender congeals over time, perhaps into something that, for some, is experienced as genuinely immutable. It does, however, mean that there is always some indeterminacy within which we have a limited and constrained kind of agency: we all have some capacity to reconfigure what we are, and whatever limits exist cannot be known in advance. So, e.g. the idea that everyone is free to be whatever they want is not ‘true’, but believing and acting on the basis that it is might allow some to become something other than what they already are (it might also result in a harmful process of self-denial, but this can only be determined through experimentation with one’s own limits). Or, more to the point as regards trans people, because there is this indeterminacy, being forced over and over to repeat certain kinds of expression does not mean we automatically become what these expressions mean, as in TERF theories of ‘male socialisation’. Because we have agency, we can resist being formed a certain way by coerced expression.

The idea that gender is performed, on the other hand, simply says that whatever gender is, it is something we do. Gender could be biologically fixed from birth and we would still perform it. And if gender wasn’t something performed, there would be no way of knowing it exists in the first place, it would have no social presence at all. Of course, we can deduce things about what gender is from the kinds of performances we need to do to secure recognition from others or to feel it in ourselves. But on it’s own, the idea that gender is performed is not a theory of gender, and the claim ‘gender is performance’ is just straight-up wrong.

One common misuse of the term ‘performative’ is as a way of saying something is inauthentic. So, for example, there is a commonly used concept of ‘performative allyship’ which refers to inauthentic and exaggerated performances of feminism, anti-racism or whatever that are clearly more about being seen (by others or by oneself) as a ‘good ally’ than authentic personal commitment to the politics being performed. The idea of performativity does have something to say about this idea of authenticity, but it’s not at all what this usage would imply:

Returning to gender, what does an ‘authentic’ expression of gender look like? With essentialist understandings of gender there is, at least in principle, a clear way of judging: Deep down inside there is something that constitutes the truth of one’s gender; an authentic expression is one that conveys this truth to the world, an inauthentic one attempts to convey something else. If you’re anti-trans, this is the biological truth of sex which means that everything other than normative cisgender performance is a denial of the fixed unwavering truth of your being. There are putatively pro-trans versions too that attempt to construct some basis for adjudicating between real and fake expressions of transness: you’re authentically trans if you have a brain-sex/body-sex mismatch, or if you meet the diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria, or whatever.

From the point of view of perfomativity, this kind of valuation is not possible. ‘Really being’ whatever gender, is, for everyone, nothing other than the conformity of the desire which pushes us to become with our being, what we already are. What is authentic are the acts by which we self-create according to our desire, not any predetermined idea of what we should create or how we should engage in this process. There is no position of externality nor privileged set of facts about us that would allow for judgement from outside between authenticity and inauthenticity. Perhaps the consequence is that we should dispense with the concept of authenticity altogether, or perhaps that the only authenticity that matters is immanent to the process, rather than one to be found in, say, scanning one’s history or comparing one’s experience to others’ in the search for legitimating signs. I think these amount to much the same thing.

‘Performative allyship’, viewed this way, means something rather different from what is intended by those using the term. Rather than being some kind of fake performance, the analysis of performativity would suggest that such performances might function as a mechanism by which individuals cement the desired form of political consciousness in themselves, by repeatedly presenting themselves to themselves as the kind of person they wish to be, a function which, however annoying or unhelpful its manifestations might be, is at the very least not monodimensionally negative. The authenticity question becomes a personal one, unanswerable by others except speculatively: “do I simply wish to seem, or to seem in order to be?” The former leads only to a narcissistic loop where the goal becomes eliciting the positive valuations of others in order to maintain one’s self-image, forever chasing superego approval no matter where it leads. It is only through the latter that a useful kind of political consciousness can be constructed, where external valuations can be brought into relation with goals and values that are one’s own first. So the issue is not performativity (which is inescapable anyway), but what that performativity is performative of.

I came across this post on the excellent Consider the Tea Cosy blog, which touches on a few issues I’ve been thinking about recently regarding the rules of engagement within what I’m going to call ‘oppression-conscious spaces’ (i.e. the various ultra-PC ‘social justice’ countercultures, particularly online) and how they can work in ways that are counterproductive and self-marginalising.

The piece refers to two other pieces – The Unicorn Ally and Liberal Bullying: Privilege-checking and semantics-scolding as internet sport – which talk about different aspects of the issue. There’s a lot to unpack so I’m just going to pull out the main points of both and then get straight to what I want to add to the discussion.

The first talks about how allies are sometimes subject to contradictory demands which can make it impossible to know how to intervene helpfully in a way that will be welcome:

So, here are the contradictions as I see them. As an ally, my job is to not impose my own beliefs of what’s ‘right’, but instead amplify the voices of the oppressed people that I’m trying to be an ally for. Except that I shouldn’t bug them about educating me, because that’s not what they’re there for. And it’s my duty to talk about the issue of oppression in question, because it’s the job of all of us, rather than the oppressed people, to fix it. Except that when I talk, I shouldn’t be using my privilege to drown out the voices of the oppressed people. Also, I should get everything right, 100% of the time. Including the terminology that the oppressed people in question themselves disagree on.

The second talks about how ‘calling people out’ on problematic behaviour can sometimes turn into a kind of semantic bloodsport performed for an audience rather than a useful form of political intervention:

[it’s a] new form of online performance art, where internet commenters make public sport of flagging potentially problematic language as insensitive, and gleefully flag authors as needing to check their privilege

So first off, where do these apparent contradictions come from and how do we deal with them?

I think the first thing to recognise is that the Rules For Allies have come largely from specific complaints and insights from activists in specific contexts in meatspace1 (the ‘real’ physical world) and don’t necessarily transfer well across contexts, particularly from the meatspace world of physical action to the cyberspace world of linguistic interaction. They are tools for understanding why certain behaviours are problematic in certain contexts, but unfortunately seem to have been codified as general rules for all times and places.

1. The use of the term ‘meatspace’ here is to avoid the implication that interactions in the physical world are more ‘real’ or more important than those in cyberspace.

For example, the idea of refusing to educate is a response to a specific problem: that of privileged people working alongside groups of marginalised people preventing things from being done because they keep asking the group to educate them on why certain things are oppressive or problematic. So it makes sense within the context of, say, a feminist organisation that men who want to help are expected to educate themselves, or to ask to be educated somewhere else at some other time, and if they don’t understand the discussion that’s their problem rather than the problem of the group. That helps make sure things get done. But, for example when you engage someone in discussion because they’ve done or said something oppressive and then refuse to explain to them what they’ve done on the basis that it’s not your job to educate, well that’s still your right, but it doesn’t really accomplish much. In online spaces particularly, education is about the only thing you can do that will make a difference, short of DDoSing servers or whatever.

The contradiction around disagreement usually isn’t about it being bad to disagree per se with someone less privileged than you, it’s a question of how you disagree. There is no universal set of ideas or political positions that will prevail thoughout any specific oppressed class, so if you do anything at all you’re going to end up disagreeing with someone. But there are different ways of disagreeing and it’s important to disagree respectfully. Sometimes that means shutting the fuck up if the other person doesn’t want to listen. At all times, it means listening at least as much as you talk and being conscious of how you might have the ability to silence other and engaging on the basis that you’re working together to discuss political differences in a way that benefits the struggle, rather than trying to prove yourself right.

Turning to the issue around ‘call out culture’ as a form of bullying, it’s important to recognise that since marginalised people are still just people rather than Heroic Victims some of them are going to be assholes. They are granted a limited degree of power within a very limited sphere, that is, the right to define their oppression and to expect others to listen and adjust their behaviour accordingly within oppression-conscious spaces. For the most part, this is really beneficial, as it creates a countercultural space where the experiences of the oppressed count for something and, in my experience, this limited form of power is usually used in a reasonable way. Inevitably, someone is going to abuse this in order to bully and control people, or because they enjoy watching people squirm as they try to adhere to mutually contradictory demands, but nobody is under any obligation to allow themselves to be bullied. If you are unable to engage with someone in a way that is constructive and which furthers the political struggle against oppressions, then the most useful thing you can do is probably to disengage.

I think ‘call out culture’ can be useful and it can be problematic – again, it’s context dependent. Sometimes, having the politically correct brigade jump down someone’s throat can be useful in imposing negative consequences for hateful speech or oppressive actions; sometimes, it means bullying someone who’s genuinely doing their best, and it’s important that we learn to differentiate.

In general, I think it’s useful to see these things as political tools (or weapons) to be employed when needed in the pursuit of specific political goals rather than moral imperatives.

So yesterday I whipped up a storm of self-righteous indignation over on the ‘I’m not gay but I don’t care if you are’ Facebook page. Apparently happy-clappy liberal sentiment can quite quickly turn to anger if you puncture their self-congratulatory bubble of bland platitudes with some actual analysis and experience of how oppression manifests itself.

In the end, me and several of my friends were blocked from the page and all our comments deleted. I’m not entirely sure what I expected to happen – I guess “I see where you’re coming from and will rethink my approach to this” wasn’t realistic. Oh well. The whole drama did raise an important question, though:

Are members of an oppressed class entitled to make demands regarding what kind of support they receive from members of the oppressor class?

Yes.

Moving on, here’s a selection of some of the really dumb shit people said to me, with snarky commentary:

Obviously this fellow doesn’t understand the position of a person who is not homosexual but is not all up in arms and offended by the fact that others are, so maybe he shouldn’t judge those of us in a different position than him just as we don’t judge homosexuals, eh?

I’m sure it’s a tough position. In many ways tougher than actually facing discrimination…

This article shows the same level of maturity as the child learning to ride his bike, who pushes away the hands of the parent attempting to support and protect them with the insistence that they can “Do it themselves”. I do not understand the determination to reject an ally.

Thank God we have straight people to patronise protect us, otherwise we might actually fight our own struggle on our own terms scrape a knee.

If the ally didn’t announce their hetero orientation at the outset, wouldn’t that be to invite a comment like, “Honey, you can’t speak for me! You don’t have the first clue about what it means to be gay in a predudiced society.”

“Honey”

I am an allie. I DON’T have to be an allie the way you say I do. I CAN be an allie on my own terms. If you don’t like it, no one is forcing you to be here.
I put a lot of thought into this name and my intentions behind the name were calculated.

We get tons of hatemail from homophobes and occasionally attacked by those that we fight for.
Some of us are just way to picky…

The phrasing and “Tone” of this page name is intended to provoke thought in homophobic people, or people that are otherwise indifferent to the suffering of others.
I have no (inherent) desire to please gay people with this page…that was just a pleasant by-product. The name inspires other people that aren’t gay to look within themselves and ask, “Do I care if he(or she) is gay? and if I do, then ‘why’.”
It works wonders…you should see the response I get from the sticker on my car. It provokes thought…which, I might add, is easy to see in people’s faces.
If it pisses off a few people in the process, then so be it…at least they’re thinking.

These are all from the page founder “Mike Thought”, who apparently gets to decide what it means to be an “allie” and doesn’t have to listen to what actual queer people think. Although I guess if you make up your own word you do get to define it…

Saying I don’t care if you are gay means just that. I choose people who I want to be friends with based on their charater and morals. Everything else doesn’t matter to me..age, gender, race or sexual orintation.

Yup. It’s totally possible to just declare yourself blind to age, gender, race and sexuality and no longer be responsible for your privilege.

The fact that this guy uses ‘queer’ all throughout the article invalidates his argument. Queer usually implies some kind of departure from normalcy, I couldn’t finish reading, because he used it so often.

How about you not use the term queer when complaining about semantics lmfao!!!!

This would be hilarious if one of the page admins hadn’t taken it upon himself to censor all comments explaining why some of us choose to identify as ‘queer’. Apparently heteros also get to decide how other people describe their sexuality.

Whomever wrote this is a very sad person. I can see the hurt and mistreatment by the way they argue and nitpick the semantics of this Facebook site, especially a site that has dedicated their time to support the who I am assuming is a gay person writing this article. Time to accept your probably sad and scary past and move forward with your life to one that is more welcoming today than it was yesterday.

People like this are probably not worth the time and stress. Just ignore them, it takes someone really unhappy with themselves to attack someone who is trying to spread peace and do good.

I might say I hate being otherised, but what I really mean is I hate myself…

This post: “You can be straight, just don’t assert it or use it for acceptance, because that might offend some people”

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell: “You can be gay, just don’t assert it or use it for acceptance, because that might offend some people”

“You’re oppressing straight people!”

Stop hating and nitpicking. Leave that for the straight homophobes. You’re not doing the gay community any favors by spewing hatred and judgement. Isn’t that exactly what you ask the heterosexual community NOT to do? I think that’s a little bit hypocritical there aren’t you?

I don’t even.

Thanks for that.

(Or ‘How not to be an ally’)

So the I’m not gay but I don’t care if you are Facebook group popped up in my feed again to remind me just how much I hate their faux-progressive posturing.

Recently I posted an angry Facebook thread (where I believe I called it “heteronormative bullshit”) about it, where the general consensus among both queer and straight friends was that I was “being too harsh” and “at least they’re trying” and I should “stop nitpicking” etc. etc.

I’m still pretty sure I was right, and here’s why:

Firstly, and this is far from the main problem, within a heteronormative society it’s just not enough to “not care” if someone is gay. You have a duty to actively think about being inclusive, in the language you use, the way you behave, and the kinds of speech and behaviour you put up with from friends.1 Not caring is a cop out that avoids dealing with the specific needs and sensitivities that queer people have as a result of living under an oppressive system.

1. This, by the way, means challenging homophobic speech even when there’s no queer people around.

But the worst part is, “I’m not gay but” is a pretty clear attempt to retain access to a privileged identity while defending an oppressed group. It’s wanting to appear pro-gay while avoiding all the negative consequences of being associated with queers; some of us don’t have that luxury. It’s “I think being gay is ok, and I’m straight so you should take me seriously”.  It’s “I’m normal, but if you’re not that’s cool with me”. And it’s pretty offensive.

I’ve had this move used on me in person on occasion, and it’s a pretty uncomfortable experience: When arguing with some outright homophobe about something, some hetero white-knight will come over and pull the “I’m not gay but I agree with you” move.2Immediately, the dynamic of the conversation shifts from me arguing with a dickhead, to two straight people arguing about me in my presence, and I don’t like it. When someone pulls the “I’m not gay but” move, I don’t think “oh great, an ally” – all I see is someone who wants to reassure a homophobe that he’s not one of the queers.

2. And often expect me to be grateful for their “tolerance”. As a rule, I don’t appreciate being tolerated (as opposed to included/accepted) and you won’t get a good reaction if you try it.

If you want to actually be an ally (as opposed to posing as one) it’s not going to be consequence-free – siding with an oppressed class rarely is – and one of those consequences is people will associate you with a group of people whose sexuality is stigmatised and shamed. If being mistakenly thought of as gay is such a big deal for you that you need to assert your heterosexuality at the beginning of a discussion then you’re not an ally, and you’re probably at some level a homophobe.