The Bates Student

The Voice of Bates College since 1873

Author: Carl Deakins (Page 1 of 2)

Thinking About Ableist Rhetoric in Activist Circles

“Crazy” has become a part of common parlance. Many invoke the term to indicate that something lacks an apparent explanation. This understanding is rooted in ableist discourse. Distinguishing disability and impairment can help clarify why this is the case. Impairment refers to a material trait or characteristic. Disability describes the socially constructed expectations of value sets and spaces that confer privileges onto able-bodied people. Ableism confers privileges based upon a set of assumed expectations about embodied habitation of the world. Able-bodied privilege, like white privilege, relies on the repeated recreation of characteristics made both invisible and naturalized.

“Crazy” finds deep roots in discourses of ableism that stretch far into the past. These discourses have created an ever-shifting notion of what constitutes a normative, and thus privileged, mindset. Within the United States, one does not have to investigate far to find institutionalized marginalization of people pathologized as “crazy” or “insane” through imprisonment, so-called shock therapy, and other forms of abuse. “Craziness” and “insanity” intersect sexist, homophobic, and racist ideas, albeit are not limited to them.

Unfortunately, various activists invoke “crazy” and other synonymous ableist slurs within their causes. In the context of gun death, violence, and accidents, many anti-gun control and other conservative voices invoke an abstract mental health of those who commit mass gun death, especially when they are white. Many think pieces, such as “Stop Blaming Mental Illness for Mass Shootings” on Vox, explain and source why people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. Similarly, it is fairly easy to observe that vocal pundits scapegoat American society’s poor handling of mental health as a justification for why gun control should not be enacted; a narrative never invoked when discussing extrajudicial violence aimed at black men. While many activists note this failure of institutional discourse, fewer contend with how many advocates describe the static rate of gun death and mass shootings as “insane” or “crazy.” When people use these words, they attempt to describe moments of violence they find incomprehensible. This choice of words locates people with mental illness as essentially not understandable or uncontrollable, through the ways that metaphor creates a bidirectional relationship of pseudo-equivalency. Using these words entrenches people with mental health illnesses as the Other. Doing so also obfuscates actually critiquing the forces that lead to the seeming perpetuality of mass shootings and gun death.

Even though I describe ableism in particular relationship to mental health, it oppresses a much broader set of disabled identities. Saying someone “has been blinded by their privilege” is a trope that had been foisted upon me as defining of the campus left discourse at small liberal arts colleges. Though I do not remember ever hearing this phrase specifically, I hear “blind” being used as a synonym for unawareness. There are many ways to gain knowledge about the world, and blind is not synonymous with unawareness. This phrase is not random either. The preference of visual senses over all others is known as ocular-centricity. Not all cultures and people have this inclination.

Suffice it to say, unlearning ableist discourse is thoroughly integral to any type of advocacy for an equitable future.

 

Discussing Willful Ignorance in an Era of Mass Media

Though the internet only came into being fairly recently, it is an invention with implications similar to, if not more profound, than the wheel. Humans have only just begun adapting to the anthropological effects of the internet. Many of the consequences remain to be seen.

On a personal level, the access to unfathomable amounts of information can be just as disorienting as empowering. The unassuming dimensions of a “smart” phone has led to the now familiar eye contact-less circles of craned necks. This is a cultural norm that anthropologists fifteen years ago would find unimaginable, save works of science fiction.

Yet, as new as these technological forces may be, there remains a tendency in discourse to erase traditions and movements that have existed for long periods of time. For example, though the social movement #BlackLivesMatter is certainly new, the black American diaspora community has been protesting extrajudicial violence within popular discourse since at least slave catchers became the American police force. #BlackLivesMatter is certainly revolutionary in many important respects, but there can be a dangerous erasure of histories of political resistance that gets lost in the purported complete newness of modern movements. Complacency is easy when current social change is seen as uniquely revolutionary, without any reference for progression. At the same time, denying new characteristics in contemporary social movements usually leads to a type of misinformed and apathetic cynicism. Yet, knowing what characteristics actually defines a contemporary moments can be incredibly difficult living within that period, especially with the rapid expansion of information technologies.

Even though this expanse of knowledge is real, there is a manufactured paralysis of an individual’s own types of social privilege. Though social privilege is not a fixed object, there is a tendency to accept clean theories of progress along the ways a person can be privileged. This is a broad tendency that I would like to examine in a context in which I have more knowledge.

In recent years, “visibility” has become a paradigmatic word to describe themes of transgender and gender-queer representation in media and public space. This word, as a concept to describe a current moment, has a fairly flexible application. Still, from many perspectives, when understood as “increasing,” “visibility” is usually understood to be a positive sign of change. “Visibility” often becomes a rhetorical repository for all action on behalf of people who are transgender among Bates discussions with cis- students on justice for trans people. It is relatively common to hear the main part of the solution to discrimination against trans and genderqueer individuals to be answered with vague “visibility.” Frankly, I do not know what is meant by this, nor do I think it has any efficacy. Simply being allowed to exist visibly in public spaces, does not necessarily deconstruct white centric cis-hetero patriarchal societal structures. Combatting discrimination against trans-people is far more multifaceted than being visible in public spaces. This is especially the case when being visibly of queer gender presentation can become met with reactionary violence. Further, “visibility” operates under the presumption that the issue is incumbent on trans and genderqueer to solve, it obfuscates the ability for cis people to advocate on behalf of trans people in employment discrimination, reactionary violence, gender marked bathrooms, or any number of well publicized issues. This does not even touch on the basic demands to be inclusive in language, activism, and application of emotional labor. Furthermore, the discourse “visibility” decouples contemporary American trans activism from any type of historical impetus. Transgender equality cannot be extricated from European colonialism for a plethora of reasons, particularly as inculcating gender binaries were a large part of white European colonial projects. This fact becomes manifest in moments of political resistance like the heading of the Stonewall riots by black and brown drag queens.

Though this idea of “visibility” is certainly more complicated than I have space or the knowledge to exhaust, I think it demonstrates a particularly important reality that seems to have become heightened in the age of the internet. It is relatively easy to be flummoxed by massive amounts of information and impetuously accept culturally reproduced ideas about groups outside one’s own knowledge base.

 

Considering Divergences Among Different Radicalisms

Though there is an increasing awareness to the way identity intersects to inform experience, there remains a lack of attention to divergences in belief sets. Discourse surrounding “the left” would purport a homogeneity that simply does not exist. It is not just that politically left folks have different beliefs on any given topic; many often voice and practice contradictory and conflictual theories of change. To address this concern, people often problematize the left/right binary with a competing model of spectrum politics. However, this, again, fails, because it does not grapple with the individuality of a person’s politics on a particular issue. Interactions between TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) and other groups often explicate this type of dynamic.

Today there are many cis-women and men who importantly advocate for resources increased access to contraceptive resources for AFABs (Assigned Females at Birth). This type of advocacy is incredibly necessary for goals of reproductive justice. However, reproductive justice does not just encompass choosing to not have children. Reproductive justice also encompasses the ability to be actively supported in moments of reproduction. This has particular importance for Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities in America whose populations have been controlled through means such as, but not limited to, taking of children, sterilization, and threats of extrajudicial violence. And that only describes relatively recent state-enforced structures; it does not even contend with older histories such as slavery. Reproductive justice as a principle, unlike “pro-choice,” accompasses a wider panoply of experiences, particularly for people of color, whose challenges often get erased in the pro-choice versus pro-life dialectic.

Individuals are willing to accommodate different types of shifts in their ideas based on what they find important. Similar to the earlier explanation, it is important in discussions of reproduction to say “people with uteruses” rather than “women.” Doing otherwise often enforces “womanhood” as essentially cis and also ignores the experiences of many queer AFAB. Yet, two people described as “leftist” or “progressive” might be willing to consider and change different aspects of their perspective. Some people might be willing to start operating with a politics of reproductive justice while still entrenching a purported essential womanhood, some will do the inverse, some neither, and some will allow for both. Though I describe these as categories, none of these perspectives are binaries or static aspects of belief. Acting and thinking in any one of these ways is not simply an off and on switch, but requires continuous and serious introspection.

The concept of intersectionality can help think through how this type of dynamic unfolds. Intersectionality considers how various levels of identity experience coalesce and are not simply additive. The term specifically entered academic discourse from an article titled “Demarginalizing The Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Anti Racist Politics” by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, though it had been informed by centuries of ideas from scholarly and un scholarly materials. Though the particular discussion focuses on the historic erasure of race in discourse surrounding gender equity in feminist materials by white women, the term has more broad applications. Addressing intersections of identities does not just apply to identities that are marginalized but also those that are privileged. Applying a lens of intersectional analysis makes certain layers of identity ostensibly more visible. One can consider how whiteness and womanhood influence experience. At the same time, they might ignore how ability and class also play a role. It is impossible to be exhaustive in this analysis. To return to the earlier discussion, people are willing to accommodate different changes in their vernacular and actions based upon how they mentally hierarchize the political importance of a particular identity.

A homogenous view of radicalism erases inner complexities for the supposed sake of political expediency. Yet, this ignores the type of critical thinking and emotional skills necessary to form any meaningful unity, allyship, or even solidarity across layers of identity. Even more importantly, it is difficult, if not impossible, to strive towards a world of justice and equity if certain sufferings get erased. In the face of finite time and limited intelligence, requires an attitude of diligence, perseverance, and humility. Frankly, if someone repeatedly finds giving space for trans experiences too difficult, cumbersome, or unnecessary in their activism, I question the value of that activism. Though I describe it in this one instance, it is a more broadly applicable principle.

 

Investigating Online Communities of Chronic Harassment

People often describe the internet as a type of cosmopolitan virtual metropolis. At the same time, there persists some awareness that “the internet” contains a large set of internal communities. Unbeknownst to many people, insular online communities can serve as an incredibly formative part of people’s identities. I can speak from experience that this has some validity in my own life, especially when it comes to the intersections of my LGBTQIA+ identities. Yet, simultaneously, I have intimate experience with fairly homogenous cultures surrounding games, which albeit formative, have definitely been less than pleasurable.

To describe how many people interact with these communities, I will show case studies of several relatively recent incidents.

“Gamergate” is a word that likely means little to many people at Bates. However, it marks one of the few incidents of where issues of equity were raised in national media attention. Though the controversy supposedly began over “ethics in gaming journalism,” the rampant series of doxing (publicizing of personal documents), death threats, and rape threats targeted at a small select group of women reached national media outlets. It is unnecessary to go through the convoluted series of accounts to come to the conclusion that there remains violent reactionary means taken towards many women who express themselves vocally online. This tendency is not unique to so-called gaming communities but is endemic of wider cultural problems. I also do not want to suggest this issue exists equally across all gaming platforms and mediums. For many, gaming subcultures serve as uniquely accepting places. The stigmatization of “nerd culture” as homogeneously regressive, white supremacist, and cishetero-patriarchal empowers resistance to any type of meaningful criticism. This feeds into narratives of social ostracization that serve to organize many online communities of self-described nerds.

The rise of the online “skeptic” community began around the time I entered high school. The community finds its ideological and organizational roots coming to a fruition in the 2007 meeting of the New Atheists’ prominent intellectuals, known as the “Four Horsemen,” Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. I find the appropriation of Abrahamic apocalyptic vernacular particularly perplexing given the trajectory of the movement. After several years of online Youtube personalities debating, debunking, and “pwning” (a reference to the video game Defense of the Ancients or “Dota”) creationists, the movement began to run out of organizational cohesion or any driving sense of purpose. As Youtube was becoming far easier to be monetized, online personalities were increasingly devoting serious amounts of time to pursuing Youtube video production as a financial means. Yet, aside from content about online video games, most Youtube channel populations rarely breached the number necessary to have a sustainable career. At about this time, around the beginning of “Gamergate,” content creators started making videos explaining how “feminism” had “poisoned” the new atheist movement. Quickly this expanded into videos with titles such as “Why ‘feminism’ poisons EVERYTHING” and “Feminism versus FACTS (RE Damsel in Distress).” Videos like these were wildly successful. Many people who formerly made most of their videos criticizing creationists began to transition into focusing almost exclusively on, self-described, anti-feminist content.

As it stands currently, there is massively more anti-feminist content on Youtube than feminist content. The dynamic is more pernicious than it might seem. By and large, anti-feminist, often self-labelled as “skeptic,” content on Youtube is entirely reactionary. Most anti-feminist content reacts post facto to specific Youtube feminist content it finds personally unappealing. The followers of anti-feminist Youtuber’s then proceed to troll and harass popular and unpopular feminist content creators such as Kat Blaque, Contrapoints, or Marinashutup. The content creators most aggressively criticize feminist ideas that describe systems of systemic racism within the United States and European countries. One of the largest themes that arose is that anti-feminist content creators support people of marginalized communities insofar as they agree with them. Even then it is a loose allegiance. Even as the Youtuber Blaire White, a white trans woman, complains about Black Lives Matter, she still has to regularly field questions about her genitalia. Similarly, Laci Green, a cis-white woman who had long been a target of anti-feminists online, took the “red-pill,” a reference to The Matrix which has since been co-opted by online anti-feminists, and has since been embraced by those who once regularly defamed, slandered, and harassed her.

I have found this type of tension, fairly constant in my experience navigating online platforms. I can be accepted in certain online communities similar to these in so far as I closet my identity and my politics. That said, complicity with cultures of harassment is unacceptable.

Taking a Closer Look at Literary Production

Personally I find it overwhelming to enter a bookstore. Obviously the cultural productions of any given bookstore are highly variable. Bookstores, like books themselves, can be read in many different manners. Yet, even as there is a degree to which bookstores have great variation, there are some fairly constant dynamics within most western bookstores.

For example, bookstores are usually understood to contain an eclectic panoply of literature. Though this seems fairly logical, it depends how someone defines ‘eclectic’ and what standards of difference constitute a wide variety of styles. Even further, there is a divergence between what physically exists in bookstores and how a consumer interacts with the space. Yes, there may exist many different styles of literature, according to a variety of definitions, in most bookstores. This does not, however, mean that those different styles are displayed equally.

Most bookstores, particularly large chains, prioritize section labels over the titles of a book. Books are usually placed in shelves only visible by the side. In contrast, newly reprinted “classics,” best sellers, award winners, or other literature deemed of note, are usually made more visible. Though book stores might be imagined as a type of cosmopolitan, multicultural haven, a small number of forms and content dominate the space. Bookstores often highlight the commercial success of a book as a marker of popularity, and therefore quality. Most bookstore chains, such as Barnes and Noble, place “best sellers,” often on The New York Times’ list, in the main entrance of a store. The New York Times best sellers are not calculated based upon how many books are actually sold, but the number of copies retail chains purchase.

Even though many people regularly buy books for pleasure, far fewer have much understanding of how publishing or other institutional frameworks of literature operate. In general, consumers believe authors have far more control over the creation of their book than they do. Authors usually have little control over what gets written on the back cover of their book. This knowledge is fairly easily accessible and basically public record. Any description I could give would only barely scratch the surface of common practices within publishing industries.

Similarly, many people give great value to certain prizes, but far fewer know the basic operations, let alone the historical precedents, behind them. For the Pulitzer Prize, much cursory information can be garnered from a brief perusal of the website.

I am trying to give some idea of the extent to which cultural productions of spaces associated with objects described as “art” are invisible in popular consciousness. Many people go to museums, yet far fewer know the basic processes behind artistic installation selections. I know I do not.

I started thinking this through when I went from my local library to the nearest Barnes and Noble to purchase a copy of Janet Mock’s first book Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More. After meandering about aimlessly for a bit, I asked an employee to look up the book for me. The employee gave me directions. I searched high and low where they suggested and sheepishly returned five minutes after I started. They led me to the cultural studies bookcase, located in the corner of the store next to the bathroom. On the bottom shelf, of about 20 books, was the “African American and LGBT” section.

When considering the “new inclusion” of underrepresented groups, it is misguided to just count best sellers and award-winning authors. The structures surrounding literary, and artistic production more generally, must be interrogated.

 

Reflecting On Tolerance and the “Cool” Marginalization

People react in a variety of ways to microaggressions. Many remain relatively silent when and after they occur. This can be for a number of reasons including, but not limited to, confusion, exhaustion, and anger. Justified responses can be ignored, rebuffed, and generally gaslit. Replying or voicing any type of dissent can be difficult, especially when it requires a large amount of emotional effort and can often have little seeming success. Most people have a shifting mental line where they decide to intervene, often distinct from what actually bothers them. A person’s response usually depends on the relative proximity of an issue to their own life and their current emotional state. All of this said, it is not a hard science of any type.

These types of reactions are not distributed evenly across any given identity group. For example, people understand and deal with being misgendered in a multitude of ways, often contextual to the relationship of the misgenderer. Though the reaction in a moment is highly situational, in general, certain people tend to be more openly lenient with mistakes and microaggressions. This can create a dynamic where one person’s perceived comfort boundaries will serve as validation for those consistently committing microaggressions or just generally remaining ignorant.

For example, the transgender women Youtubers Blaire White and Caitlyn Jenner often belittle the importance of getting pronouns right and say that transgender people should be more understanding. Similarly, Milo Yiannopoulos gains popularity after he does not get offended when Steven Crowder asks if he can call him “faggot” in front of a large crowd of people. These people speak to a broader political movement with predominant interests in anti-progress under the veil of “free speech.”

Discourse around free speech predominantly focuses on institutional interventions that mitigate the speech of certain voices. These discussions often fail to grapple with how certain voices are marginalized within white-cis male centric structures. Now, these issues are often institutionally in-adjudicable, it can be deeply unclear when an overstep might cause more backlash than solve harms, and there are certain ethical obligations that make this challenging (particularly for professors).

That said, given the relatively laissez faire politics of many higher academic institutions, their interventions probably would have been justified far before intervention was decided. “Free speech advocates” often point to any type of institutional action remotely mitigating “free speech” as unjust when they basically have little philosophical system backing their claims. They hardly voice any concern about the free speech lost to the constant microaggressions people of color face in PWI’s that relegate their free speech.

This ideology bleeds into a fairly common interpersonal dynamic, that happens to a plethora of extents. It can be easy to implicitly take the comfort of one specific person with an action and apply it to a general group of people. People rarely realize when they do this; it is often subconscious. Doing so often places the relative comfort with microaggressions of one person into a box of “the cool marginalized person.” Yet, just because someone “gives permission,” which: a lack of verbal dissent does not mean consent, does not make an action universally acceptable for people of a group. People get tired, and learning about something different from one’s own experience too often becomes the responsibility of people marginalized in particular ways to explain.

Even though these actions often go unnoticed there are best practices:

1. Avoid assumptions

2. Be conscious of how you take up space in conversation

3. Do not profusely apologize after making an error

4. Take time out of your day to learn about different ontologies

5. Accept that positive (anti-racist, anti-sexist. . . ) and negative ideologies are not static characteristics but actions

All of these actions are preventing harms. Not hurting others happens simultaneously with constructive action.

 

Cessing out Insularity: Poker and Asexuality

“Ace” carries a variety of meanings. Many of its connotations only occur within closed linguistic circles. Though not limited to these, ace can refer to a card in a deck or as a label associated with an identity somewhere on the asexual spectrum. Both of these definitions have features far more multifaceted than an outside observer might perceive.

Although much of competitive poker revolves around the televised, and ultimately fairly static, gameplay of Texas Hold ‘Em. Texas Hold ‘Em has only one mode called “high.” The hands are categorically ranked from best to worst with the proverbial “Royal Flush” being the best (“highest”) and “7,5,4,3,2” (with at least one different suit) being the worst (“lowest”). Yet, this mechanic does not exist in all card games within poker. In fact, a large portion of card games operate in a dynamic where both the “lowest” and “highest” hand split the winnings of a so-called pot. Similarly, a large part of poker is not played in person, like on televised tournaments of ESPN, but rather in online poker services. Though statistics on these pools of players are limited by the anonymity of account holders, there is a community of people who have full time careers in online poker that rival in-person players. Professional online poker players describe their experiences operating as fairly monotonous and highly technical in nature; a far cry from the gutsy interpersonal dynamics of in-person. Players will simultaneously compete in 5+ online tables, while mainly making the majority of their decisions based upon statistical calculations. This repetitive job seems particularly odd when juxtaposed with popular media portrayals of poker, like Daniel Craig’s supposedly suave James Bond in Casino Royale.

Poker has primarily become a symbol of jet-setting, attractive, wealthy, white cis-male heterosexuality, even though, in my mind, I more readily associate it with sterile mathematics for mostly cis-males in their mid-20’s to early 30’s. The largest pool of players for these games are people with self-taught mathematical skills who were never credentialed with either college degrees or entry-level job positions. This divergence between representations would only be apparent with an amount of in-group knowledge.

Similarly, even though I view my asexuality as liberatory, popular media would have audiences use asexuality as a marker for neuro-atypicality and trauma. The consistency that these identities are pigeonholed together reflects ableist attitudes and acephobia. Popular imagination of asexuality imagines ace identities as alternatively not real or, if real, a sign of mental disorder. Both of these onerous mythologies validate high rates of sexual assault against asexual folks. This is particularly pernicious, as these features are often used to signify a person’s purportedly damaged characteristics. Sympathetic white male ace-coded characters such as Sherlock, referring to the depictions in Elementary and BBC’s laughably overproduced Sherlock, only exist so far as their ace-coded features can be linked to youth, adolescence, and young adult trauma. On the reverse end, media tends to represent polyamorous allosexuality, often bisexuality, as a marker of unhealthily prodigality and general deviancy. The people at the extremes of a manufactured sexual spectrum face varying degrees of respite. All of this malignance has a bitter aspect, especially given how the toxic normative institutions of American compulsory heterosexuality have created and maintained high rates of sexual assault and domestic violence. The entrenchments of these aspects of normative cultures seem particularly egregious when when people with disabilities and asexuality navigate noticeably high levels of sexual violence.

Even still, when I hear “ace,” I imagine far more multifaceted instantiations of identity than these political realities and representations would indicate. Yet, perhaps the most tantalizing characteristic of so-called aceness is how tantalizing, foreign, and mystical it is for allosexual people.

 

On Closing the Political Loop

Though voting is not the only or most important political action, it often builds positive habits and allows for political action in the future.

It is no great secret that voter participation rates show that  “millennials” have the lowest voter turnout rate of any demographic. This statistic always has a biting irony as “millennials” both make up the largest potential voting block, as they do not actually vote much, and also usually will live the longest and thereby be the most affected by current policies. Yet, the interpretation of this fact varies significantly depending on who gets hold of the information. I am guilty of citing this as just “a historical characteristic of young voting blocks” in response to the critique of millennials as “privileged, out of touch, needy” and the like. Though I realize that people strategically levy critiques of young people as “irresponsible” or distant from “the real world” as a way to disarm serious social movements and thoughts from the “newfangled youth” that disrupt their perspectives.

As I am obviously biased in my perspective on this issue, I think part of the way of disrupting this unnecessary chasm between age groups requires serious engagement in the political system. However, this only indicates a singular type of change that would occur if millennials more actively engaged in political system, systems expressly political and not. To help achieve this end, I will discuss a few different aspects of the problem, that often go under discussed within the whole “young voters don’t vote much” narrative and it is an “ahistorical unsolvable problem.”

Supposedly one of the largest reasons why millennials do not engage with political systems is because they live “sheltered life styles.” While this criticism usually assumes a default cisheterosexual white man or woman, or just a wealthy person, it often completely disregards the types of privileges associated with being in the work force. Though having a sustained job requires a type of focus and attention and responsibility different from being a young student, it provides a powerful security distant from student life. Many students and young people avoid participating in politics because the pressures of trying to figure their life out and general uncertainty about the future often cause anxiety that hinders political action. With a tenuous future, young students possess trepidation in action that does not immediately contribute to their future economic or social capital or perceived social wellbeing.

Older, more financially stable, folks do similarly, yet the relative costs of minor political acts like voting represents a far more minor sacrifice (especially as most have already developed job stability for much of the future) so more of them do it. This reflects but one of the structural barriers that often disincentivize young people from voting, outside of the procedures and impacts of voting.

Beyond structural barriers, people regularly perpetuate the myth that young people are not affected by many economic and socio political systems that they would vote on. For example, young students who do not yet have a primary job, are asked how they could vote on policies that increase taxes or other laws that supposedly do not directly impact them. Yet, this mythos implies in the first place that all voters vote on policies that have immediate influences on them.

I roll my eyes when I hear this argument from cishet people who are older than me, forgetting that in the ’80s in a California referendum queer people were voted to be rounded up into concentration camps. In the context of local elections, like Lewiston, students are often portrayed as foreign or distant from the needs and ideas of a town.

Though this is true to some extent, this idea reifies the alienation and division that it supposedly  points out. These categories undermine and substantiate the divisive and unproductive rhetoric of locals and students that disregards any connection, shared experience, or common goal between townsperson and student.

Separations like these often cause great pains, and often times they leave metaphorical scars on our subconscious. Though often daunting gaps to close, simple, attainable actions like voting often lead to positive future participation in communal spaces.

With that said, I encourage anyone eligible to vote to consider doing so in the run-off election between Ben Chin and Shane Bouchard.

Toxic Appropriation of Identity Politics

People usually discuss versions of politics in fairly binaristic terms. People describe themselves as ascribing to a particular politic as though it were a static state. Yet, a person acts with different politics at any given moment. As Professor Ibram X. Kendi explained in his talk at Bates entitled “How to Be an Antiracist,” antiracist actions happen from instant to instant. Though it may appear unlikely according to conventional wisdom, one person can take an antiracist action in one second and then only moments later commit a racist one. This phenomenon with antiracism, a particular ideology (although hopefully not a controversial one), represents the fluidity of ideologies in general. People hardly act with a singular ideology uniformly.

Broadly, politics describe the way in which people distribute, maintain, and gain power, an admittedly vague term. Different versions of politics explain varieties of theories of how to effectively access power and for what purpose. A rather common political distinction would be between leftist and conservative politics. Yet, this characterization often seems overly simplistic. Black nationalist and white feminist politics, though both “left,” have largely oppositional belief sets. Yet, the greater points of tension are often between groups of people with less visibly divergent politics. Though people regularly envision the LGBTQIA+ as a big family that all gets along, queer politics often serves as a corrective for the failings of gay politics. And still, even radical queer politics historically and to this day center on white queerness.

This framing may be a tad disingenuous. Differing politics often behaves in an imperceptibly small way completely distinct from broad categories. I only use these broad categories to demonstrate a point. Many of the politics I have described have a clear connection to identity politics.

Identity politics is an incredibly loaded term. The word does not have a common agreed meaning. When I use the word I refer to the unique knowledge of living with a particular salient identity and how linked and connected identities informs accessing, maintaining, and theorizing power. In my view, confusion surrounds identity politics because it describes a theory that comes to fruition within many other specific forms of politics.

Most political organizing relies upon forging coalitions based upon similar belief sets. People do this by developing sympathy or empathy along the lines of shared experience. Since many people of particular identity groups possess some level of shared experience, identity politics often readily bridges this gap.

Many critique this theory of value as inviting of essentialism. Essentialism is a term that means describing certain features as essential for belonging. “Gay people are promiscuous” is an example of essentialism. Similarly, this theory has been historically critiqued as not intersectional as it often gets applied to one or two salient identity groups at a time. Intersectionality, a term first explicitly invoked by Black feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, describes multiple layers of identity as not additive but complicating. Historically, white women activists have described the experiences of Black women as the problem of women added with the problems of Black people. This conception paternalistically disregards how these identities interact with one another. Another criticism levied against identity politics is it reifies socially constructed identity groups. To this point, it tokenizes people as if they are exclusively defined by these identities.

But all of these criticisms disregard the fact political theories never happen in a vacuum. People make decisions not exclusively rooted in identity politics or any other specific form of politic. Right-wing news organizations will often deploy theories of identity politics by bringing a Black commentator to espouse ideas rooted in anti-Blackness.

More readily, at Bates College, many arguments about racial equity in institutional spaces hypocritically level identity politics. Many will not respect the knowledge associated when mass amounts of people of color coalesce to protest a policy that preserves white-centricity. Yet these same people will delegitmize the broad coalition on the basis of the opinions of a singular person of color who disagrees.

Though it is often hard to recognize when it is done, it remains incredibly important to not use political theories in a way of cyclic confirmation bias and of oppressive consequences.

 

Language, Intersectional Feminism, and “Higher” Education

Certainly, questions regarding intersectional feminist theory can often be tantalizing and difficult to unravel. However, I am usually far more concerned about implementation of feminisms (and other ideological isms that may reject historical issues of white- and cis- centricity in feminist studies) on a social and personal level. With that said, I spend a lot of energy thinking about the implications of written and unwritten institutional policies within Bates.

“Assuming best intentions but acknowledging impact” is a fairly common practice within many feminist spaces at Bates. This essentially means that communities should be critical of potentially harmful statements in these spaces while still assuming damaging comments do not come from a place of malice.

This practice connects three integral parts of many feminisms: people are socialized as a consequence of societal pressures (and it’s not one person’s responsibility), that attention to language matters as words shape the way the world is understood, and that being a feminist requires serious and continual self reflection. To be a feminist requires a type of admission of imperfection and a willingness to be challenged emotionally and intellectually. Though I used the passive voice, this is an active process, part of which entails an active deconstruction of language.

Despite believing all of these principles, I think this disregards barriers of language that play into accessing feminist ideologies and the use of language as a means of ivory tower gatekeeping. As an intellectually rigorous field, feminist studies and related fields have an extensive amount of terminology. Yet, language primarily matters as a means of changing and critically grappling with common and harmful linguistic practices. Being intentional and critical of linguistic practices helps reach a society of complete social equity, but it is not the end goal. At times, feminist spaces seem to forget this, and there are noticeable anti-feminist consequences.

This has three principal damaging consequences. Firstly, this often elevates the status of people who have systematic advantages in accessing educational resources and who have the social, emotional, and temporal capital needed to change their language at a rapid clip. At a challenging academic institution, many people do not have the time to consistently read copious amounts of internet articles about terminology. This holds particularly true for people who experience class-related institutional pressures. In so doing, feminist spaces can often maintain structures and privileges that are supposed to be critiqued.

Secondly, simply using, or not, positive language does not necessarily indicate much. For example, people often preference lip service to deconstructing white supremacy and fighting transphobia, but few do much tangibly. Recognizing privilege is a first step that primarily matters so long as people leverage their privilege in a way that supports marginalized groups and deconstructs privilege. But a verbal statement is not the only way to recognize privilege, even if that maybe a common practice within “higher” educational spaces.

Finally, preferencing of language usually preferences people who fit into linguistic “normalities” in often times Eurocentric and white supremacist. This often occurs along cultural, linguistic, and racial lines.

In 2017, African writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was lambasted for her remarks that hierarchized trans-womanhood as lesser than cis-womanhood. “It’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman, and who has not been accorded those privileges that men have.” Yet, when this statement was actually enforced, many feminists criticized Adichie with a rancor more virulent than against many a second wave white feminist from the eighties to today.

Though I certainly find her statements harmful personally, I think a constructivist approach is usually preferable. Her statement has already happened, and it matters more that we hold ourselves to deconstructing our own types of oppressive outlooks that martyring a singular woman for her singular instance of trans oppressive rhetoric. I recognize this can be difficult, and not everyone has nearly enough emotional, political, and economic capital to not martyrize, but some level of this ascetic endeavor will ultimately be necessary.

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