Thursday, November 10, 2011

Liberal vs. Radical, and the Politics of Critique

image is from here

I begin by asking: what's problematic or privileged about categorising differences in strategies to challenge the status quo “liberal vs. radical”? I don't want that question ignored or to pretend it ought not exist.

I move on to say: my experience is that there are dominant ideologies ruling the society I live in and that white and male supremacist pro-capitalist liberalism is one of them, with white and male supremacist pro-capitalist conservatism being another. “Radical” is a term used a lot of different ways by people all along the dominant political spectrum, but it is also used by people off that spectrum too.

I am working to be one of the people off the spectrum. That means I am conscientiously trying to figure out strategies for surviving and overcoming CRAP (corporate racist atrocious patriarchy) that is responsive to the struggles of people with less social privilege and structural advantages than I have.

I see unacknowledged liberal perspectives and points of view far more than I see radical ones, as I understand those terms, anyway.

For example: I see people write about ideas as if they are exactly as powerful as systems of brutal force exercised against people in order to oppress and kill them. I consider that part of what Liberalism in my “Western” country wants us to believe, so that if someone is said to be “a Communist”, “we” will all be more afraid of them than if they say they are a “Capitalist”.

Another example: I see people treat, act out, and discuss gender as if it were more a matter of difference than of dominance (in patriarchal societies the ruling ideology and system of force, violation, and control is male supremacy: dominance of people who are not men by dominant men; especially: the subordination and gynocide of girls and women by men).

Another example: I see people treat race as a matter of difference than a matter of white supremacist violence and control of people who white supremacists do not consider to be white.

Another example: Among region-, class-, and/or education-privileged people, I see the privileging of gender over sex when discussing “oppression by gender and sex”. Part of this involves considering the core social-political problem “the gender binary” rather than experiencing or naming it as male supremacy and female subordination. Part of the this involves considering the problem as being limited to two choices (girl or boy, woman or man) rather than two gendered realities being enforced and rigidly controlled within a virulently and violently girl-hating and woman-hating male supremacist society.

“Radical Queer” or “Sex Radical” are two terms often used to describe people who consider the social practice of transgression to be politically and structurally revolutionary, or to describe people who don't consider the need for revolution at all. For example: many people see Western Civilisation as basically good but in need of being more tolerant of “deviates” (a term reclaimed by some radical queers and sex radicals as affirmative) and non-dominant people. I see the problem more as this: Western Civilisation, capitalism, white supremacy, male supremacy, heterosexism, ecocide, and anti-Indigenism.

I see transgression as more or less acceptable within the dominant society, more or less tolerated depending on region. (In parts of San Francisco, transgressive actions and behavior may be tolerated—which ought not be taken to mean that people who transgress some boundaries are always safe or free from violence from the most terroristic and controlling members of society. I see revolutionary action, for the most part, as not tolerated at all anywhere. I see transgressors calling things that are oppressive to many people “acceptable” such as sexual violence and sexual abuse. I see revolutionaries seeking to end sexual violence and sexual abuse.

A practical matter is this: given how anti-revolutionary and anti-radical society is, most of us grow up only having liberal-to-conservative forms of naming and understanding available to us. That means many of us will use liberal terms if we have experiences and responses to us that place us outside various norms. We may then consider identifying with those differences as “radical” whether or not they are. Is it “radical” to be a vegetarian or a vegan in a meat-producing society? I'd say no. But I think some v'gans would say yes. Is it “revolutionary” to be into bdsm? I'd say definitely not. But I think some people into bdsm might not agree with me.

One of the components of having a radical perspective on social matters is that everything must be open to being interrogated including the terms we use to describe ourselves. I see it as a profoundly and problematically liberal-to-conservative posture of many social dominants, and some subordinates, that such questioning, in and of itself, is seen only as a threat, not a constructive activity. As Pearl Cleage writes, it is incumbant on social dominants, when challenged by social subordinates, to maintain a posture of listening, openness, and humility, rather than a posture of self-centered and too often aggressive defence. It is argued that the interrogations by subordinates brought to dominants ought to happen in ways that are not overtly violent and in ways that are not designed to be terrifying and shaming. But some of those guidelines are likely shaped by privilege and an unowned wish to maintain oppressive power structures, or a fear of being assertive and appearing non-accommodating and not deferential to social dominants. Those of us who have occupied positions of social subordination learn quickly to appear to appease our masters or risk being harmed either individually or as a group.

One key question I ask in critique of that point about style of critique is this: when people who are systematically harmed by a social and structural practice—a practice that is enforced and controlled by an oppressive group and by institutions—how “shaming” and “terrifying” is it to the oppressive group to hear criticism of that practice? That is, what are the politics of “feeling shamed and terrified”? I bring this into focus because many whites feel very threatened and in danger around many different people of color (regardless of what the people of color are doing) while white supremacy in practice, in society, in reality, systematically snuffs out the lives of people of color while most whites don't give a damn in visible ways—and even more rarely in well-organised ways. Men often speak about fearing being shamed by women. (While women speak or remain silent about fearing being killed by men.)

A privilege of many oppressors is to equate what happens interpersonally and subjectively with what happens externally, institutionally, to groups of people. So “feeling and being hurt, harmed, degraded, or oppressed by someone's words” is equated with “feeling and being hurt, harmed, degraded, or oppressed by individuals' verbal actions and institutional non-verbal actions”. In my liberal society, a woman calling a man a prick is the same kind of harm as a man calling a woman a “c—t”. Liberals I know believe there is a war between the sexes. I believe there is a war among the sexes: men's war on women.

In conservative society, a man being insulted or disrespected by a woman individually or anecdotally is a much greater offence, or speech crime, than a man insulting or disrespecting a woman interpersonally and systematically.

Liberals, operating out of a value for an abstract idea of “fairness” and “equality” might condemn me for writing out the word “prick” but not spelling out the word “c—t”. But I don't see the terms as equal in their capacity to do harm, and nowhere is fairness practiced systematically. In the real world, women are called c—t (or the b word, or any number of other misogynist terms) before being punched and beaten by a man. Or when scripted and videotaped by a corporate pimp's photographer to mass produce misogyny sold as “hot sex” for male consumers. I know of no men at all who were beaten by women while the women called the man a prick.

Abstraction of values is a key tool of the liberal worldview in which lived ethics are assumed to be present institutionally and meaningfully prior to coming into existence. Liberals tend to abstract or isolate social phenomena in ways that either disappear institutional and structural realities or downplay their significance and role in maintaining systems of oppressive harm and horror. Or, the institutional and structural dimensions of harm and horror are only paid lip service to but are not substantively addressed in critique or other action.

So, for example, words used to shame and harm people are thought to exist on an as yet non-existent playing field. In my world, words are one tool used by oppressors against the oppressed in many social, political, economic war zones. Playing fields are mined and dangerous. Wars don't happen between sexes: they happen by men against women. Wars also are perpetrated by adults against children; by whites against people of color; by the rich against the poor; by settler-colonist-imperialists against Indigenous Peoples; by the white-dominated Global North against the non-white American, African, and Asian Global South; by structurally dominant humans against the Earth and its living beings.

While there may well be various forms of social privilege layered into the practice of radicals naming some political strategies of resistance and challenge to oppressive controlling forces liberal and not radical (or, transgressive but not transformative, or rebellious but not revolutionary), I find meaning and value in at least preliminarily identifying such differences in perspective and approach among members of CRAP-loaded societies. I do this hopefully with sensitivity to their various locations as both privileged and marginalised people. By and large, in my experience, it is the radicals who see the problem with liberalism; self-identifying liberals, in practice, in my experience, hold little to no comprehensive critique of their own paradigmatic beliefs, terms, or agendas. And, for me, systematic critique is a fundamental, crucial tool for radical (not liberal or conservative) social change.