Tweets, bleats and competing atrocities

Vying for top place in the victimhood stakes is setting activists against each other and undermining the struggle against racism and other forms of oppression, says Julia Bard

“It is not true that suffering ennobles the character; happiness does that sometimes, but suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive.” So wrote Somerset Maugham in 1919 in The Moon and Sixpence. Nearly 100 years on, some elements on the left have taken an unexpected turn in a “suffering ennobles” direction, and it’s not helping the struggle.

I recently reviewed an American book about antisemitism, which, like most collections of chapters by people from different backgrounds, was a mixture of good and bad analysis and politics. But the thread that ran through a lot of the contributions was about “white privilege”, and this crystallised my growing concerns about the direction some activism is taking. Some of the writers seemed to struggle with the idea that a Jewish person could be, or pass as white, and also be a target or racism and discrimination. Others railed against the white (Ashkenazi) Jews for their privilege in relation to black (Misrahi or Sephardi) Jews. All kinds of biological characteristics and communal affiliations were there, positioned relative to each other on a ladder of suffering and oppression, and those with fewer credentials were urged – or urged themselves, in a mea culpa kind of way – to “check their privilege” as a prerequisite for taking political action.

So far, so American, some people might think. But this individualisation of responsibility for other people’s oppressionis much more all pervading than that, and the result is that we are asked to see the task we face as more like a charitable act than political activism. As if each “privileged” individual giving up a little of what they have to someone less fortunate will redress the cruel, violent legacy of centuries of injustice and oppression.

In this world, victimhood becomes a credential, and the main demand is to turn the status quo on its head. Social media are awash with well-intentioned activists who do little more than demand answers to supposedly rhetorical questions. “How come white people are never called terrorists?” “Why haven’t we heard about the atrocity in X?” “Where were the media when Y happened?”

Actually, despite the complexity of the issues, we have a pretty good understanding of why the media, and the political and economic institutions they represent, will put a lone gunman in Las Vegas higher up the agenda than the Spanish state violently attacking its own citizens, and the Catalan crisis above the hundreds and thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees fleeing Burma.

What has gone missing in these rhetorical questions is any understanding of power. The demand to call every atrocity – especially those carried out by white people – a terrorist attack is a case in point, because it ignores the power invested in the very definition and use of the word “terrorism”. This is a term used by states to describe military actions by dissident, anti-state groups. It embodies the power differential between states, and the individuals or groups carrying out the attacks – usually emanating from groups that are suffering from racism or some other form of discrimination. This is not to justify those acts, simply to say that sticking the label “terrorist” on a white bloke will not do anything to challenge that state power.

Instead of doing the difficult intellectual task of understanding the structures and resources that create and perpetuate inequality and injustice, complex issues about the media and political power are reduced to epithets, assumptions and rhetorical questions. These are shouted into the echo chamber of social media, to bounce back reassuringly in the form of “likes”, “loves”, “laughs” and hashtags, with no need to get tangled up in the multilayered reality in which people can be both oppressors and oppressed, victims and victimisers, powerless and powerful, in different circumstances.

It is true of course that women are not equal to men, Muslims are not equal to non-Muslims, Black people are not equal to white people, working class people are not equal to middle class people, Jews are not equal to Christians. But although that inequality is a starting point for our activism, injustice does not necessarily confer insight and understanding – or even clean hands. The enemy of my enemy is often not my friend. There are inequalities within and between groups. Those inequalities go deep, are subtle, layered, historic and intertwined. But instead of facing the difficult reality that we can and must defend people against injustice while at the same time challenging them for oppressing others, we seem to be sliding into a great stew of oppression, which we give a fancy name – like “intersectionality” – and compete to be on the top rung of the ladder of suffering, out of range of criticism. All ingredients in this stew seem to be equal. There is no way of suggesting or acting on the fact that one overarching element – such as class, which cuts across society, is based on a set of economic and social relations, and is manifested in institutions invested with greater or lesser power – may have more political significance than another. This is not to suggest that its impact on a particular individual might be more or less, but that in order to challenge oppression of all kinds, we need to understand their relationships with each other and their meaning and role in the systemic network of injustices.

Political activism is about change. If you think it’s biologically determined or even predicated on personal experience or family history, then obviously there’s no point in trying to change anyone. If they’re white and male, they’re obviously a lost cause. Black? Up one rung. Jewish? Hmmm… That needs some supplementary questions. Zionist? No. OK, up one rung. Child of Holocaust survivors. Up a rung. Muslim? Up a rung. Woman? Another one needing refinement. White? Stay where you are. Working class? Up a step…

This reminds me of meetings in the 1980s, where some people started every intervention with a string of “qualifications”. “Speaking as a working class, Jewish, disabled, lesbian single mother…”. Having bought themselves comprehensive insurance against criticism or disagreement, they could then go on to say any half-baked or wrong-headed thing they liked. And they often did.

We on the left need to have the intellectual capacity to hold two different, even conflicting ideas in our heads at once, and not to read off people’s politics from their biological characteristics, their family history or the community they were born into. We all need to know and understand our history as a dynamic, conflicted narrative, which we reinterpret in the light of our own actions and interactions, as a resource for the huge and unpredictable political struggles on the horizon – not as a certificate of merit.

Political campaigning is is predicated on the conviction that people can change. If we believe that an individual’s stance is tied to their biology or their community, why waste our energy on trying to convince them that they can make the world a better place? We can and must extract ourselves from the atmosphere in which victimhood is used to stifle disagreement and impose orthodoxies. We all have a responsibility to analyse the political forces that are driving and sustaining the racism, inequality, discrimination and injustice we are enmeshed in. We need to challenge them in the streets, in our workplaces and in our communities, and reject the Oppression Olympics that will only create new rarefied elites, set allies against each other, and undermine all of our struggles.

Posted: 15 October 2017