Another day on twitter, another interminable inward-looking argument. For the sake of context: the discussion is about sexism and language on the left, with a group of feminist women disagreeing strongly with Owen Jones on a point that seems nebulous and petty. Sadly, for the sake of the “left”, and for the sake of the sanity of politically committed women everywhere, this isn’t what is going on here at all.
What is sexism?
Sexism is not a one-off occurence. It is also not best described as a label attached to a person. Someone’s beliefs and actions may be sexist, but they are not irredeemably so. If someone is described as a “sexist”, then it is in the same way that they might be described as a “rape apologist” – they have taken a political position which is irredeemably compromised, and harmful towards women, and they refuse to step away from it.
However this is a very poor way of understanding what sexism is. Sexism is better understood as something systemic. It is a set of behaviours – some of which are verbal, and some of which are not – which enforce a societal power disparity between men and women. It can be understood systemically in terms of male privilege , that is, generally hidden societal advantage given to men over women. It is enforced in a myriad of ways, from physical violence to threat to body policing to subtle nuances of speech and body language. It often harms men too, as it is a key component of a societal heirarchy of power built around constructions of masculinity and femininity, and intersects with many other oppressions.
It’s really easy to fight sexists. You make an in-group, and place all those you consider sexists in the out-group, and you make sure you’re well-positioned in the in-group, so that no-one ever successfully labels you as a sexist.
It’s really hard to fight sexism. It requires frequent self-examination, and a willingness both to have your own understanding and actions questioned by others, and to have their understanding subject to doubt, too. There are no certainties. It’s a constantly ongoing process, guided by both anger and compassion, to unpick societal certainties that have been present from decades to millennia.
It’s also one that’s absolutely crucial to understand and enact, if left unity, solidarity, mass action, full communism, or those unformed dreams of a new settlement with capital – if any of these things are ever to come into being at all.
What fighting sexism means
Privilege is like wearing blinders. It’s very hard, when in a privileged category – male, white, and so on – to perceive how many actions might affect those not in the privileged category. That’s why it’s one of the key features of intersectional feminism that language and behaviour can be challenged or examined publically. It’s not because feminists want to embarrass men, or because people of color want to make white people feel bad. It’s because it’s really hard to know whether an action or a political position, something embedded in the complexities of language and the heirarchies of privilege and the messy realities of social life, is in fact harmful, does perpetuate privilege. It’s best to involve as many people’s points of view as possible when doing so, especially a variety of those in the oppressed category – in the case of sexism, women- so that we, as a group, can figure out what’s right, what we should do from here.
It takes a lot before someone speaks up, before someone breaks peaceable silence to say that something is hurtful or harmful. Occasionally people might decide, after talking, that something isn’t harmful at all. Most things fall into that category in the middle, something that is probably harmful, nigglingly sexist or subtly racist, but not worth spending the energy on fighting right now. Its in a minority of cases where something is challenged and carried through and behaviour is changed.
Usually what happens is that the person challenged objects to the process – objects to the openness or horizontality of it, confuses it with “policing” and the implicit superior power that anything involving “policing” must have, or takes the “free speech” position that what they’re saying might be wrong or harmful, but they don’t care.
It’s sad when this happens. An opportunity to make things better has been missed, and that’s because this intersectional process of challenging isn’t about policing or exerting power, it’s about crowd-sourcing truth.
The key thing about intersectional feminism is that it’s intersectional, that is, it considers not just women as a category, but other kinds of oppression that aren’t just additive – black women are not simply oppressed as black people and as women, but differently under both categories; and not all black women have the same experience, and so on.
This is why it intersects so crucially with socialism, with communism, with anarchism, with any attempts at any left project.
What intersectional feminism does is allows us, through the mechanic of the group, through giving more attention to those who are oppressed in any particular category, the means to examine one’s subjectivity in society, in a hierarchy of power relations, as a subject under capital.
These power relations can’t be simply set aside, to be “sorted after the revolution”. We saw how that went with the poor doomed utopian project that was Soviet Russia – gay rights were rolled back, the gains made by women slipped away, and there was rather a lot of mass slaughter along the way.
If there is one thing to be learned from the Soviet project it should be that theory does not trump reality, that no matter the brilliance of Lenin’s pamphleteering it still allowed him very limited, flawed knowledge of the world, limited knowledge that categorically prevented the Soviet project from leading to world revolution. He had little way to know whether his proclamations and his thinking were correct. Perhaps if he’d had Rosa Luxemburg angrily tweeting him every day things might have went differently. Who can know.
What we can know, is that in all seriousness any attempt to change society must include the subjectivities of all people in it when change is made. If we do something in ignorance of a group of people, it will cause harm beyond our knowledge and lead to our political projects giving undesired results – one could look at New Labour here, or a million other slightly depressing things.
We have the means to stop doing things in a flawed, autocratic way. Let’s start using them.
Language and Elitism
So are these “rules on language completely elitist”?
If you’ve read this far, you’ve hopefully come to understand the crucial point, that there are no rules, there is simply a disparate bunch of intersectional feminists trying their best as part of an ongoing process to try to make things better for all those affected by sexism, for all those affected by all oppressions.
This is not “elitist”. It’s part of the same process that first led so many of us to cry out, inwards or outwardly, against a fist raised to a woman or one of those now-better-hidden blatant manifestations of societal sexism, or homophobia, or ablism, or so many other things. “That’s not fair!” or “That’s wrong!”
We all know that language is a kind of action. You can’t separate both out. If someone uses a slur, or more subtly marginalises someone, that has real and painful effects, that justifies more concrete forms of violence.
So you speak up, “that’s not fair!” Then if someone disagrees with you saying that, you talk it out with them, in a big huddle if necessary.
I really don’t think there’s anything less elitist than that.
The Utopian Urge and the Structure of Social Relations
Now here’s the part with the theory. What intersectional feminism is is an ontological project, to transform the means of knowing from some ceremonial speaking stick, given to the person with the most smoothly stated argument – or the best public school speaking voice – and genuinely democratise them, in order to harness the structure of social relations to genuinely examine and transform itself, in order to break down a societal order that relies on hidden power disparities.
Social relations – and thus Marx’s “base”, the reproduction of labour relations and capitalist society – are utterly reliant on gendered labour and the reproduction of other forms of privilege. They can only be effectively transformed when combating privilege is part and parcel of any movement to abolish the present state of things.
We can only change the present by ceasing to imagine glorious shining futures, by ceasing to write self-indulgent books in the vein of More where we imagine how things might be after the revolution, and in turning that utopian urge towards our own lives and social interactions to imagine not how things might be “after the revolution”, but how things might be better for others in five minutes time, once I’ve had a think, and decided that I might have been wrong.