Gender politics and civic discourse
In the wake of Matthew Shepard's death, the playwright Tony Kushner wrote an essay, "Matthew's Passion," in which he talked about the hate speech that leads to hate crime. He said,
A lot of people worry these days about the death of civil discourse ... [but] I mourn Matthew Shepard's actual death, caused by the unimpeachably civil "we hate the sin, not the sinner" hypocrisy of the religious right, endorsed by the political right, much more than I mourn the lost chance to be civil with someone who does not consider me fully a citizen, nor fully human. I mourn that cruel death more than the chance to be civil with those who sit idly by while theocrats, bullies, panderers and hatemongers, and their crazed murderous children, destroy democracy and our civic life. Civic, not civil, discourse is what matters, and civic discourse mandates the assigning of blame.
I start with that for two reasons: First, because I think that the policies embodied by Sarah Palin, John McCain and other high-profile Republicans mandate an assignation of blame for all sorts of real, actual deaths of people in the United States and around the world. (For the record, I think Democrats often aid and abet these policies and in numerous cases are even the originators of them.) The breadth and depth of these implicated policies are beyond what I want to discuss here, but suffice to say I think there's plenty of blame to go around. And I agree with Kusher that — while I might personally believe that all humans are good and have the capacity for good — a functioning democracy demands that we call out people and policies that harm, oppress and kill people.
The second reason for including Kushner is that I think I have some blame to assign myself here. Kushner was talking about the vile history of hate speech inciting crimes against marginalized communities. As a white, Protestant, able-bodied, tall, male-presenting person who often passes as straight, I encompass whole boatloads of unearned, inherited privilege. I can pretend that I don't benefit from that privilege — that I don't get preferential treatment because I'm white, for instance, or that my ideas don't get taken seriously in part because I'm male — or I can do my best to counteract it. In the past few years, I've decided personally that the most important political work I can do is within those privileged communities to try to bring people to a state of active anti-oppression, not simply awareness or sympathy.
But that's not the blame I'm talking about today. In this case, I helped to propagate a use of hate speech that I didn't fully agree with — but secure in my male privilege, didn't really think too hard about, either.
On Saturday, Republican vice-presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin came to Philadelphia. ACT-UP/Philly, among many other groups, called for an organized protest. I showed up and took some pictures. I even made a video of the protest (and on Facebook) of which I'm quite proud.
In wanting to represent the breadth of the protest, however, I took some pictures of people wearing shirts that attacked Sarah Palin using language demeaning to women.
I then uploaded these images to Flickr, without comment. Apparently my images were noticed quite quickly, because they started getting blogged about and the comments on this image in particular were quite extensive (the image is no longer on that page, but I left it up for the sake of recording the comments).
I made a mistake in propagating this language.
I want to be clear that I don't think there's anything at all wrong with treating elected officials who directly and indirectly harm others with contempt. There were some great other images of Sarah Palin "lookalikes" that I would proudly display. I think the pressure from elected officials to be "courteous," "respectful," "civil" and "civilized" is simply a way to disempower ordinary people and disconnect them from the prospect of real social change. William Greider describes it in this way:
In practical terms, the most dreadful consequence is the way in which ordinary citizens are silenced and demoralized — made to feel dumb — by the content of information politics.
Jeffrey Goldfarb, as quoted by Alexandra Bradbury in her study of the approach of college students in a fair labor campaign, puts it even more directly:
[T]he commitment to civil society and civil discourse, unquestioned, without disruptions such as those of Malcolm [X], becomes a force for the continued subjugation of the marginal, in the US particularly the continued functioning of racism.
Because the criticism of the photo that I posted often focused on the "incivility" of any criticism of Sarah Palin's beliefs, I want to be clear that I'm not arguing for a more "refined" discourse as a way to solve our problems. But treating someone who supports wars of imperialism or subjugating entire swathes of the population because of their citizenship status or love interests (for instance) with justified contempt isn't quite the same as invoking misogynist language against someone you disagree with.
And that's what I need to apologize for.
In trying to do work in active anti-racism as a white person, I've tried to keep in mind from the beginning that mistakes are inevitable — it's whether I'm willing to be called out and check myself that matters. I think that's true in many sorts of anti-oppression work. I don't doubt the necessity of fighting to protect people's lives from a (new) murderous regime. But I do think that accusations framed in hate speech are a poor way to work for a better future.
I welcome your comments.