A Harassment-Free Workplace

Sexual harassment is in the news again. This week, the New York Times published an investigation revealing “previously undisclosed allegations against Mr. [Harvey] Weinstein stretching over nearly three decades.” Weinstein, an Oscar-winning movie producer and one of the most powerful people in Hollywood, apparently used his position in the entertainment industry to abuse women, overwhelmingly young women new to the movie business.

The story details abusive behavior — such as Weinstein “badgering” women into giving him naked massages or asking if they would watch him shower — that suggest a man who got off not so much on sex as on dominating women who he suspected were powerless to fight back. That he got away with it for decades, and that he is only being outed now, as his power is fading — slowly, to be sure — suggests he was right.

But there’s another thread that comes through, one of women helping other women protect themselves in a situation where the power differential between Weinstein and themselves was staggering. We read of Lauren O’Connor writing a memo denouncing her boss’s conduct. We see Ashley Judd tell the Times reporters, “Women have been talking about Harvey amongst ourselves for a long time, and it’s simply beyond time to have the conversation publicly.” We are informed that “one woman advised a peer to wear a parka when summoned for duty as a layer of protection against unwelcome advances.” And we get anonymous quotes, from women employed or formerly employed by Weinstein, confirming the allegations.

In an era when so many of us know how widespread workplace sexual harassment is, it’s important to take in the details of a rare case of a harasser being outed, publicly and with on-the-record quotes from his accusers. This is the exception to the rule, which is that powerful men like Weinstein get to harass and assault women until they die, no matter how many people in their industries know about it.

But having digested these details, we — or at least those of us concerned with fighting these injustices — arrive at a question: What do we do about it? We live in an era where “feminism … is cool,” at least according to those liberal feminists whose politics fit comfortably with feminism-as-brand, and yet sexual harassment, in the workplace and without, continues unabated.

When the article was published, lots of women took to Twitter to tell their stories of workplace sexual harassment. But the proud feminist tradition of conscious raising — albeit this time in its 2017 form, tweeting — cannot stop workplace sexual harassment. It’s a way to make those few of us unfortunate enough to use Twitter feel less alone, and to educate our male counterparts about the thorny persistence of harassment in our supposed feminist age. But when it comes to stopping that harassment, its effect is negligible at best.

So, again, what can we do to reduce workplace sexual harassment?

To begin answering that, let me start with a few snapshots of my own.

  • Age 17: during my first shift as a waitress, a customer leaves me his number instead of a tip —  I am an embarrassed kid, so I don’t tell anyone
  • Age 20: within my first week of a new job as a barista, one of the coffee shop’s regulars talks to me for the entirety of my lunch break. When I bring it up with my young female manager, she responds, “Oh, I have one of those guys too. Nothing we can do about it. By the way, if the guy who insists on talking to me comes in and asks for me, say I’m busy.”
  • Age 20: I ask a professor for a recommendation to graduate school. He responds by asking me if I have a boyfriend. I do not reply, to that email, or ever again. I do not get into a PhD program that year.
  • Age 21: during my first shift as a hostess at a restaurant, one of the bartenders propositions me multiple times. When I tell the manager, seeking advice, he responds, “Well, you were hired to be looked at.” I walk out mid-dinner rush that same day, and never go back.
  • Age 22: I am a new PhD student. One of the other students informs me to avoid X, a male professor. “He touches the female students he works with, like, a lot.” I change what I plan to focus on in the program, so as to avoid working with him.

What do these stories have in common? Beyond the obvious — they’re all cases of workplace sexual harassment — in each case, I acted alone, and the action I took worsened my life. I walked away from jobs, never to return even for the paycheck I was owed. I reneged on substantial intellectual goals to avoid harassers. I suffered, doubly.

I don’t share these stories for the purpose of consciousness-raising, although if reading them makes you feel less alone, or conveys to you how often workplace sexual harassment happens, good. I write them to show how much we stand to lose by trying to resolve sexual harassment on our own.

Rather than trying to fight back against a harasser on her own, the safest bet for a women is to find a vehicle to fight the issue collectively. Not only can this multiply the power on her side — if she can only do so much on her own, her power multiplies with each colleague who stands beside her — but it protects her. Speaking out about harassment is risky when your job is on the line, but if you speak as a “we,” there is no “I” who can be identified. Sure, if the harasser knows he only harassed me, he will know I am the one who told people. But even then, if my coworkers commit to backing me up, and taking action if I face repercussions for speaking up, it becomes much harder for that harasser to win. He can fire me — or get me fired if he isn’t the boss — but he can’t fire all of us.

The above scenario is a type of collective action, one that is closer to the informal side of the spectrum that runs from informal to formal action: workers confront a harasser, threatening to take action, be it direct action or legal action, if harassment doesn’t end. It’s a step beyond the actions we read of in the Times story, of individual women warning other women of Weinstein’s actions, although the many women quoted or interviewed anonymously about Weinstein are taking informal collective action too, albeit of a type that shields them from the risk of repercussions (I hope). It’s an important step, and I have seen it stop harassment. Workers threatening to walk off the job if one of the bosses doesn’t act on information of sexual harassment can force that boss to act, if solely to keep the shop running smoothly.

But on the other end of the spectrum is an even more effective strategy: formal collective action. When it comes to the workplace, the most common vehicle for this step is a union. Language about “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment is often built into union contracts, providing a clear mandate for workers to act if harassment occurs. No longer are you “a bitch who can’t keep her mouth shut”; in a union, you’re adhering to the language everyone agreed upon.

When I was part of a union organizing drive among graduate students at my university last year, this argument — that a union is our best shot at combating sexual harassment and assault — was the most effective one I had when speaking to other grad students. According to a nationwide survey by the Association of American Universities, 44 percent of female graduate students report having been sexually harassed. 22 percent of female graduate students said this harassment came from a faculty member, while 16 percent said it came from a teacher or adviser. Multiple women, particularly those who work in the hard sciences — where funding comes directly from one faculty member (a PI) who oversees a lab of grad students — confessed horror stories of sexual harassment by their PIs, the stories often prefaced with “I haven’t told anyone else about what’s happening.” Some of these women became our most effective organizers.

And when it came to speaking to their male colleagues, no argument was more persuasive. While an engineering student might not be concerned with his wages (“My stipend’s good, and I’ll be making six figures in no time!”), he almost always could be won to supporting the union when I told him that “some of your female colleagues don’t have it so good, and they need this union.”

While sexual harassment is not a “bread-and-butter” issue in traditional union parlance, the ability of a union to provide a formal collective body that can file grievances over harassment, and promise to back up those experiencing harassment, is an invaluable argument for why union rights are women’s rights (among the many, many arguments for why unions are a feminist issue). Judging by reports from other graduate union campaigns, I’m not the only one who finds this an effective argument.

That power of a supervisor to scare a worker into silence about the harassment she’s experiencing? That exists in every sector, not just academia. For example, a recent survey reveals that 40 percent of female fast food workers experience sexual harassment in the workplace. A staggering number, it is significantly lower than the 70 percent of female restaurant workers Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC) reported as experiencing workplace sexual harassment. Importantly, 42 percent of those surveyed in the fast food industry who experience harassment feel forced to accept that harassment because they can’t afford to lose their jobs. More than one-in-five of these women report that, after raising the issue, their employer took negative action, including cutting their hours, changing them to a less desirable schedule, giving them additional duties, and being denied a raise.

In other words, they were punished for speaking up. So it’s no surprise these workers are fighting in ever-greater numbers for not only a raise, but a union. Any of us who want to stamp out sexual harassment in the workplace should be fighting for those protections too, no matter what type of work we do.

Note: an abridged version of this essay ran in Jacobin this week. It originated as a paywalled post on my Patreon, but given that I’ve seen union folks, especially those in the grad union movement, sharing this piece as a means to talk about sexual harassment, I’m posting it here so the full version — which has more specifics about grad unions — is accessible to everyone. If you want to support my writing, subscribe here.

Domestic Violence and the Anti-Police Brutality Movement

Listen to a police scanner for a few hours and you’ll notice a pattern: there are a lot of calls about domestic violence. In fact, there are more calls about domestic violence than anything else.

No surprise; many of us already know domestic violence is common. Yet the subject has been largely absent from discussion in the movement against police brutality.

A significant wing of the movement wants to ultimately abolish the police, or at least render them redundant: defunded, demilitarized. But the number one reason we invite cops into our communities despite knowing the dangers we expose ourselves and our neighbors to by doing so remains outside the purview of the movement.

Domestic violence is exceedingly common, but that doesn’t make it any less terrifying when it happens. When a loved one, more often than not a man, inflicts violence on his partner or family member, more often than not a woman, victims or bystanders have very little time to take action to minimize the harm. Who can blame them for calling the police, the rapid-response force our society has in place for just such emergencies?

At this point, it’s important to acknowledge how futile calling the police can be, even if one doesn’t object to the police at an institution. In an astounding number of cases, cops respond to domestic violence calls by arresting the victim, or both the victim and perpetrator. They can insist on arresting someone even if, as Matthew Desmond points out in Evicted, it results in the eviction of the victim from her residence.

And lest we forget, many cops are perpetrators of domestic violence themselves. Studies have found police officers abuse their loved ones anywhere from two-to-four times the national rate. This heightened proclivity for violence – whether preexisting their time on the force or a product of cop culture – means cops are hardly the group we should look to for help in situations of domestic violence. Further, research finds cops commit sexual assault and violence against predominately women, predominantly vulnerable women – i.e. women of color, working class women, and sex workers – at alarming rates. These are the same women disproportionately affected by domestic violence.

All this adds up to a sense that when shit hits the fan at home, calling the police can be a recipe for disaster.

The anti-police brutality movement enters at this point in the story, rightfully pointing out that calling the police, particularly in communities of color, places you and your community at risk of police brutality. Prison abolitionists proclaim a need to stop allowing police into neighborhoods. One thinks back to the Black Panthers chant: “no more pigs in our community!”

If we want to make these demands more than slogans, we have to think about what an alternative system for addressing domestic violence, a problem afflicting all of our neighborhoods, would look like.

I’m not even close to the first to think about this. In 1979 in Boston, where I live, residents of Roxbury and Dorchester, predominately black neighborhoods, instituted a system of safe houses to offer an alternative to calling the police for victims of domestic violence. The safe houses – indicated by a green porch light – were open to people escaping violence at home, promising a safe haven in the home of a community member trained in handling domestic abuse victims.

This system prefigured today’s complex of non-profits, some of which offer similar, if more formalized, spaces for victims of domestic violence. Unfortunately, safe havens cannot address those few moments when violence erupts at home, nor do they enjoy the robust backing of the state, reliant instead on grants and philanthropy for sustenance.

I don’t know the answer to what changes we can or should demand of the state that might render the police unnecessary in situations of domestic violence. For the moment, many people don’t call the police in situations of domestic violence for all the reasons I’ve mentioned –cops are ineffective, cops threaten further violence, cops can be cause for eviction, etcetera – preferring to come up with whatever liveable compromise they can in a difficult situation. But to pretend this isn’t of relevance to a movement against police violence and for police abolition is to sweep the concerns of victims of domestic violence under the rug, something we, in these intersectional times, cannot possibly countenance.

Broken Record

In an interview published today in Jacobin, David Harvey, a theorist of neoliberalism and one of my favorite vulgar Marxists, asks a controversial question:

“Here’s a proposition to think over. What if every dominant mode of production, with its particular political configuration, creates a mode of opposition as a mirror image to itself?

During the era of Fordist organization of the production process, the mirror image was a large centralized trade union movement and democratically centralist political parties.

The reorganization of the production process and turn to flexible accumulation during neoliberal times has produced a Left that is also, in many ways, its mirror: networking, decentralized, non-hierarchical.”

Harvey poses this as a provocation, one based on his analysis of the neoliberal organization of production but not explored at length in the interview. But what would such an exploration look like?

Rather than critique the horizontalist mode of organizing Harvey’s referring to, I think there’s another, related, sense in which the substance of politics on the broadly defined Left today mirrors neoliberalism. While Harvey’s focus is on the material organization of the political project of neoliberalism, the ideological current that follows from the organization of what Harvey calls the “new capitalist class” – the tech capitalists of Silicon Valley – also shapes this “mirror image.” After all, if the ruling ideas of every age are those of the ruling class, we should expect these ideas to influence the Left in a powerful way.

Driven by a decentralized entrepreneurialism that fetishizes the individual and the bootstrapping do-it-yourselfism of lean-in feminism, these ideas emphasize an assumed chain of individuals, identity, and language, with the latter two elements part of the self-expressive empowerment so central to project-based start-up culture.

How does this trickle-down to progressive politics? While some call the political current that constitutes the mirror image of these ideas “identity politics,” I prefer Carl Beijer’s phrase “liberal identitarianism.” A clunky mouthful to be sure, “liberal identitarianism” is helpful in its ability to differentiate this current from a left identitarianism.

As Beijer distinguishes the two, left identitarians have  “maintained their commitment understanding power and oppression thoroughly by including class identity in their analysis, as all of the great identitarian scholars have always done – whereas liberals, by definition, neglect it.” In other words, while liberal identitarians may acknowledge class in the sense of individual wealth, they refuse the left analysis of oppressions as present to reinforce class exploitation. By taking class as one static element among many axes of oppression, rather than a relational process reinforced and perpetuated by oppression, liberal identitarians come to a fundamentally different definition of liberation. For liberal identitarians, gaining equal representation and voice within a class society is the – often unspoken – goal.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this in theory: it does make for a less hostile environment for oppressed groups, offering breathing room at the symbolic level of society. While it’s true that these aims can’t achieve liberation as understood by the Left – the end of oppression and with it, exploitation – and instead, fit snugly into neoliberal ideologies of self-expression, that’s no reason for us to pay more than passing attention to these politics. But what follows from these ideas is a focus on who you are and what you say rather than what you do combined with a claiming of the mantle of progressivism, and this is where the problem lies for Left critics.

By placing language and identity as primary determinants of political standing, liberal identitarians open the door to cynical cooptation of our movements by elites. If identity and language are the central markers of one’s legitimacy, rather than organizational ties or policy positions, a person with the ‘right’ identity – say, a person of color and/or woman – can learn the magic words needed to gain entrance into the charmed circle of progressive politics and use her elevated position to further oppression.

And that’s exactly what we see. It’s why the RNC featured black men leading the crowd in “all lives matter” chants, emphasizing their Blackness throughout their speeches despite supporting policies that further the oppression of their fellow African-Americans. Their identities serve as a shield, enabling them to go further in their racism than their white counterparts.

It’s why Donald Trump, in his acceptance speech as the Republican Presidential nominee, claimed he’d look out for “the people of Ferguson,” even if his policy positions assure the opposite. As Beijer points out, Trump added a “Q” to his invocation of the LGBTQ community, one that wasn’t even in the draft remarks, going a step further than even Clinton in his incorporation of progressive political terminology to support reactionary policy, as in this case, where he insisted his Islamophobic policies are enacted “to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful ideology.”

If language is a key element of political practice, Trump at the moment of his enunciation of that “LGBTQ” is good. Which is patently absurd – one only needs to read the rest of the sentence to see this terminology is being mobilized to legitimize Islamophobia.

This is the basis of the left critique of a liberal identitarianism that implicitly imbues a homogeneity to identity groups. It’s a criticism of the “shut up and listen” approach to multi-racial or all-gender organizing. Left unspecified in this approach is which oppressed leadership ‘allies’ are to listen to, as the internal class division within oppressed groups is ignored in favor of a liberal essentialism that assumes everyone of X identity shares political views. In the case of black leadership in the anti-police brutality movement, should white people listen to David Clarke, the black sheriff who insists that the movement is “the enemy?” Or in my city, to the black clergy who organize pro-police rallies? If not, on what basis can we deny their standing?

The obvious answer is that what Clarke does – and what these clergy are doing – furthers the oppression of working class black people, whether or not they themselves happen to be black. This is the basis for rejecting their political legitimacy. Truthfully, only the most hardcore liberal identitarians would disagree with this, but it requires breaking with the logic of their analysis to condemn Clarke or these clergy. Similarly, a concern with what she does is our basis for rejecting Hillary Clinton as a feminist: she may be a woman, but what she does is oppress other, poorer, women, both at home and abroad. We can only reject Clarke, the clergy, or Clinton’s right to speak as members of the oppressed if we admit a primacy to what they do, not who they are or what they say.

We live in a world where, as R.L. Stephens puts it in a recent essay, “a Latino and an Asian-American crafted the Bush torture memos, which were then carried forward by the nation’s first Black president.” Diversity at the top doesn’t mean progress for us at the bottom – far from it. Trump mentioning Ferguson doesn’t make him any less of a white supremacist. Clinton claiming the mantle of feminism doesn’t make it true. When anyone claims political legitimacy, we should always respond with the question Stephens raises in his essay: What exactly is it that you do?

Always On

 

By the time Carol Hanisch’s essay “The Personal is Political” appeared in the 1970 anthology Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation, that slogan had become a feminist rallying cry. A response to the era’s view of politics as concerned with a narrowly defined set of issues differentiated from the private domestic world, it challenged this divide.

That was the context and in it, ‘the personal is political’ was revolutionary. It resituated women’s experiences – of domestic and sexual violence, of relegation to the home, etcetera – as political problems rather than personal failings. Consciousness-raising groups provided space for women to measure their experiences against those of others, with analytical rigor transforming these stories into a collective understanding of the issues facing women. This overlapped with street work – marches, demonstrations, politicking, and strikes. In short, praxis: the feminist movement, a power bloc forcing change in the country’s institutions and social relations. That era was far from perfect – its racial, class, and sexual biases are familiar territory – but it had a movement, one that came up with theories of change through collective political practice.

Conditions are different today. “The personal is political” is mainstream. Entire publications run on a hot take profit model where think pieces proliferate over the latest ‘problematic’ celebrity, the ethical qualms of cultural appropriation, and the morality of interracial dating (I wish I was kidding about that last one).

Which isn’t to say we erred – after all, who could have seen this coming? But the congruity of these politics and neoliberalism should alert us to the stakes. If we understand neoliberalism as a class project of upward redistribution, a withdrawal of the welfare state alongside an expansion of the state’s repressive functions, our turn to the personal starts to look like a means of coping with rather than reversing the damage.

Take the discourse around “self-care” as an example. It takes an existing reality – we can hardly make it through each day – and offers it back to us wrapped in a language that insists we celebrate the actions we need to undertake to survive. Responsibility for social reproduction falls on our shoulders once again. Whereas we once sought collective solutions to our personal problems, we now live the outcome of the neoliberal counter-revolution which, in Margaret Thatcher’s words, may have taken economics as the method, but its object was our souls. That self-care is more therapy than politics should then come as no surprise. Which is not to minimize the need for therapy! But so long as we conflate politics with what we do to get by, we’ll forever be keeping ourselves healthy enough to hold a shit underpaid job and calling that politics.

The stick has shifted too far in the opposite direction of where it was when feminists came up with “the personal is political.” Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that the thinking behind the slogan has been forgotten in this undoubtedly improved world. Today we need an off switch, a limit beyond which we understand ourselves to be living as individuals. What if we recognise that, to paraphrase a refrain of Freddie DeBoer’s, the culture you prefer is not your politics, that while the personal is surely political, it is not politics? A politics that emphasizes winning collective gains over manipulating symbols and language as if material progress flows from better ideas rather than the reverse. If we can’t agree on this, we doom ourselves to a navel-gazing that walls us off from those not yet part of our movements.

In a recent post, I wrote about the people immersed in the political culture I’m describing. As I put it,

“These are people who want progress but are being sucked into the morass of conflations of identity and politics. This is concerning not only because of its lack of strategic efficacy but also because it burns people out. To be always on, to have your identity, your cultural preferences, your social circle and your dating life all bound up with and signifying your politics is a recipe for exhaustion.”

I received a lot of feedback on this. People told me they knew exactly what I meant about the exhaustion. And I’m not surprised: I lived these politics too, where cultural preferences, relationships, language choice, and social circles were scrutinized for political imperfections, which then reflected back my worth or failings as a political actor. It was gutting.

But as I pulled away from this understanding of politics, I breathed easier. While identitarians, social justice activists, radicals, Woke Olympians, or whatever else you want to call them may not incorporate class analysis as often as socialists do – a relic of the what Carl Beijer calls “liberal identitarianism” – most of them are radicals. They can be won over and if some of us don’t engage them, we cede further ground to the Democrats, the neoliberals, the non-profits, to anyone but the left.

Storytelling

In a review for The Baffler, Amber A’Lee Frost takes a recent anthology on college sexual assault as a jumping off point to touch upon some concerning weaknesses in “the conversation” about sexual assault. Frost’s piece addresses a few issues I want to emphasize.

First, focusing on campus sexual assault without mentioning, as Frost puts it, the existence of “an outside world that’s even less safe” than campus is a problem. It’s one that stems from the class bias that comes with a focus on college campuses, particularly elite university campuses. Life at these institutions is far from representative of the average college student’s experience, much less the average sexual assault survivor’s. And there’s nothing wrong with that! But if we want to improve women’s conditions in society at large – and I believe we do – feminist movements on campus need to perpetually push back against this distorted focus, as the media, courts, police, etc will always privilege certain voices over others – this much we know.

I say ‘we’ because I’m part of these movements – on my campus as both a mentor to undergraduates and someone dealing with a university that’s inadequately addressing sexual harassment and assault  (boy could I tell you some horror stories). While we have the most power to force change in our own institutions, we need a more effective strategy of leveraging the spotlight on campuses to agitate for more resources in society at large for addressing sexual assault. That means increasing the options available to those who have been raped or assaulted other than going to the police (who are a source of violence against women in a number of ways), arguing for universal health care, rolling back the attack on women’s reproductive rights, and fighting for affordable housing so people can more easily leave those abusing them.

Second, the packaging and delivery of survivors’ stories deserves criticism. I don’t mean criticism of survivors but of the publications profiting off their pain. Frost writes expertly on this and its connection to the economics of the online publishing industry, and her piece made me think of this one from last year. It’s about how some women can only get published by writing about their trauma. As a young woman toying around with writing myself, it’s clear I could get published writing about being sexually assaulted. But that would entail committing myself to a future where anyone can learn intimate details of my life with a quick Google search rather than when I’m ready to tell them. I admire anyone who writes such stories but I can’t help wanting to burn down the outlets that greedily churn that shit out for clicks without concern for the women offering up their trauma.

Which brings up a related point: that the debate around sexual assault is overwhelmingly about stories from survivors can be both a) an improvement from when we ignored this problem completely as a society and b) a serious issue when it comes to my dude’s eternal question: what is to be done? As Frost writes “while these acts of public testimony are crucial, and therapeutic, for survivors, readers of We Believe You are curiously left asking much the same question that one of the victims here raises: ‘What am I supposed to do?'” She describes the anthology as leaving its reader directionless, and my years as a feminist in Boston – a college campus-centric city if there ever was one – feel similar. A lot of smart people write about why it is that a focus on the individual rises to the fore in the age of neoliberalism, which can accommodate – and sell! – individuals’ stories but not structural change, so I won’t try my hand at it. Instead, I’ll point out that this focus on the individual is pervasive when it comes to just about any feminist issue: abortion? Shout it! Sex work? Tell us whether you feel empowered!

I don’t want to disparage the people who support these strategies – fighting stigmas is good and I support them as people – but I am concerned with the strategic power of a focus on stories. I think it’s a shaky foundation for a movement. If all is predicated on what survivors want, what do we do when survivors disagree? It’s a bizarre parallel to the essentialized view of oppressed groups I wrote about the other day, where differential claims within “the black community” or “the trans community” become impossible to parse. I agree that it’s unproductive to judge the way any particular individual handles their assault; where I disagree is with the idea that this means we can’t discuss the efficacy of movements against sexual assault and the solutions they propose. It’s exactly this sort of critical analysis that Frost is doing in her review. People interpret their experiences differently, be these experiences as a woman, a person of color, a rape survivor, any combination of these identities, or anything else. What we as a movement must do is analyze the problems we’re facing and work out the best way forward.

A good friend of mine, one of the hardest working feminist organizers I know, has lately taken to saying that it’s wrong to say there is a feminist movement today, because there isn’t. I think she’s referring to the absence of collective feminist struggle – we have feminists, but not a feminist movement. I don’t think she’s entirely wrong. I don’t know what we do about that – I’m thinking out loud here – but we need to take her provocation, and Frost’s, seriously.

Left-Wing Language for Your Right-Wing Needs!

Because I hate myself, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately watching language created by the left get taken up by the right. Conservatives are wielding the language masterfully, leaving many well meaning progressives disoriented and asserting the righteousness of any cause that comes packaged in the correct words, forgetting that language is meant to advance our goals, to serve us, not the other way around.

I’m not the first to note that a lot of activists today are fixated on language and that with this comes a fear of saying the wrong thing and getting iced out of a movement. The flip side of this is that when someone speaks the right words, we assume it means they’re one of us. But there’s a problem: language can be learned by anyone, it can be taught in business seminars and in online forums. If we don’t subordinate language to the material changes we’re fighting for, we lose the ability to draw clear lines between us and them.

Who’s Doing This?

Zionists are the cutting edge when it comes to hitching progressive language to reactionary ends. For the past few years, the attention of the American Zionist movement has been focused on college campuses. Campuses are bellwethers of broader political trends, making what happens on campus important for those concerned with future societal developments. For Zionists, it’s the growth of pro-Palestine groups and the BDS (Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions) movement that’s the most worrying. Their response is a case study in the use of left-wing language by right-wing assholes.

Take the first #StopBDS Conference hosted by the Israeli mission to the UN and World Jewish Congress at the UN headquarters in New York this week (that’s right: a UN conference with a hashtag in the name – welcome to 2016). As Rania Khalek reported from this gathering of the trolls, the speakers struck a repetitive message: “Speak left,” said Frank Luntz. “Speak the language of the left,” reiterated Yosef Tarshish, chairperson of the World Union of Jewish Students.

What does a Zionist “speaking left” look like? On campus, it means yoking one’s Jewish identity to support for Israel and then claiming to feel “unsafe” in response to pro-Palestine organizing. The impulse to make this claim comes from the rise of progressive students demanding ‘safe spaces’ for members of oppressed identities. While I’m not opposed to this, as it comes from the long and ugly history of violence against the oppressed by those with privilege, as I’ve said before, this demand is becoming one of the prefered tactics of campus Zionists.

A letter sent out by the university chancellor to UC Santa Cruz students offers a great example. Here’s an excerpt:

“On our campus, which has a long and proud history of student engagement in critical issues of equity and social justice, I want to be sure we acknowledge differences of opinion and work to maintain civility in the midst of turmoil.

In student government, as is their right, the Student Union Assembly this week voted to reinstate a resolution urging the University of California to divest from Israel. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement has generated passionate opinions on both sides.

I’m concerned this resolution will have a chilling effect on individuals within our campus community. However unintentional, its passage may create an environment in which some of our Jewish students feel alienated and less welcome on our campus.”

The chancellor invokes the campus history of social justice, positioning himself as a progressive. From there, he brings up the student union’s resolution in favor of BDS and insists this may make Jewish students feel “alienated” and “less welcome.”

More accurate would be to say the resolution could make Zionists feel unwelcome. But the chancellor’s conflation of Jewish identity with support for Israel allows him to invoke a discourse of safety for oppressed identities as the bludgeon that it often becomes; a human shield, as it were, against criticism. That this conflation inflames anti-Semitism is curiously not a concern of these douchebags, who are happy to pretend all Jews support Israel. Much better to take what power you can from the discourse of oppressed groups and use it to cover for support for an apartheid state. And that’s what makes black Zionists like Chloe Valdary doubly valuable for Israel, as they can make additional claims to the need for safety, cynically counterposing black and Palestinian struggles – a particularly coveted trait when these movements are forging stronger ties.

To take another egregious example, let’s look at Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

A while back, Clinton’s team produced a chart of “intersections.” Indecipherable, it invoked the necessary know-how of the language of intersectionality as a signal to voters: “Clinton’s with it,” it shouted. No matter that the chart was absurd and that Clinton’s policies have and will continue to reinforce, not undo, oppression. No matter that Clinton doesn’t even pay her interns, who more likely than not are overwhelmingly women.

As she asked at a campaign rally in February, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow…would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community? Would that make immigrants feel more welcome?”

“No!” her audience responded, but this cheeky remark was to a strawman – no one, not Bernie Sanders, not even weirdos on the internet, claims it will. But it’s enough to know the language for Clinton, to “speak left” as Luntz put it.

Fortunately, most working people aren’t fooled by this insincerity. We want redistribution. We want real feminist and antiracist gains: abortion on demand, universal health care, union protections and a $15 minimum wage for home care and fast food workers, defunding the police and an end to mass incarceration. Clinton won’t offer these but her cynical deployment of the language of the left is a feignt to pretend otherwise, and a quick look at the unbearable Clinton supporters penning articles about her radicalism is evidence that this is convincing a fair number of voters.

Why Does This Matter?

As usual, Adolph Reed Jr said it best: “[identity] politics is a class politics, the politics of the left-wing of neoliberalism.” What he means by it is that rather than countering a strawmanned ‘class-first’ politics – the ‘break up the banks and stop there’ fantasy evoked by Clinton -the language of identity politics is elastic enough to incorporate the bourgeoisie along with the working class, particularly when it uncritically links identities to political ideologies.

It’s how we get the “black misleadership class” in Reed’s terms, bourgeois African Americans purportedly speaking on behalf of “the black community.” By pretending this community isn’t internally riven by class divides, this essentialized view of a definitionally progressive blackness lets the black bourgeoisie fill the symbolic role of a black voice, immune from criticism by their allies, who are told to shut up and listen, not question the political credentials of the speaker. This doesn’t just cause chaos at the level of institutional politics, though it does that too. It also opens up space for incoherence and misleadership in movements.

As Douglas Williams put it, “we have gotten to a point where any critique of tactics used by oppressed communities can result in being deemed “sexist/racist/insert oppression here-ist” and cast out of the Social Justice Magic Circle.” While Williams is writing of the need to build a broader, more effective movement, the phenomena he’s referring to – the belief that the oppressed shouldn’t be criticised – is not only linked to a condescending belief that oppressed groups can’t argue their views, it hands a cover to conservative projects as long as they’re led by members of an oppressed group.

Teach for America is one of the most prominent organizations to take advantage of this opening. As Drew Franklin detailed at Orchestrated Pulse, Teach for America faced a “race problem” in the wake of the devastation of the New Orleans public school system. In Franklin’s words, this led it to “re-brand itself as a Civil Rights organization. Selling such an image necessitated a new class of political operatives, one that was “majority-led by the oppressed group.”” Yet again switching out the substantive and often socialist demands of the civil rights movement for symbols, TFA could claim membership under the umbrella of social justice just as long as it had enough people of color on its payroll and knew the right words to use.

I can’t help but think that was the purpose of a recent event hosted by TFA Massachusetts. Titled “#StayWoke: Social Justice through Hashtag Activism,” the event promised to help attendees struggle for racial justice, even as the organization hosting it eviscerates black communities across the country. Want to know someone who looks like he attended one of these trainings? Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, pictured here wearing a shirt that reads #StayWoke while speaking with TFA alum and black misleader-par-excellence Deray McKesson despite the fact that Twitter has a severe diversity problem.

And that gets to the heart of the issue. Neoliberalism, capital, or university administrations have no problem accommodating symbols. New language can be learned by hiring a social justice consultant, new faces can coexist with old in high places, granted the majority remain shut out. It’s calls for redistribution that don’t jive with the status quo but these are ignored in favor of those demanding the easily assimilable.

Aviva Chomsky skillfully addresses this in the context of the university in a recent piece. “While schools have downplayed or ignored student demands for changes in admissions, tuition, union rights, pay scales, and management prerogatives,” she writes, they’ve incorporated the more symbolic and individualized demands “into increasingly depoliticized cultural studies programs and business-friendly, market-oriented academic ways of thinking.” Those demanding changes of language – apologies, inclusive rhetoric, an end to microaggressions – are recognized while those advocating for prison divestment  or an increase in material support for students from oppressed groups are shut out.

The critical stance I and the writers I’m quoting adhere to isn’t a condemnation of anti-racism or feminism as such – I support both the symbolic and redistributive demands of college students. Rather, as Ben Norton wrote in a post on Reed and identity politics, it’s “a condemnation of a politics that is centered on social constructs, like race or gender, rather than on material conditions.” If we focus our politics around achieving material changes, this necessarily entails fighting oppression wherever it appears. But to hitch this struggle to redistribution prevents those opposed to this project from claiming the mantle of social justice.

Where Does This Leave Us?

First and foremost, we shouldn’t blame those confused by this rhetoric – indeed, I was one of them until very recently. These are people who want progress but are being sucked into the morass of conflations of identity and politics. This is concerning not only because of its lack of strategic efficacy but also because it burns people out. To be always on, to have your identity, your cultural preferences, your social circle and your dating life all bound up with and signifying your politics is a recipe for exhaustion. And I’ve seen it happen: either these activists enter into non-profits and lose sight of radical movement work altogether, or they give up completely, shifting into a consumption or lifestyle politics. If we want stronger movements, we need to argue against these politics.

But for those in positions of power – people like Luntz or Clinton, groups like TFA – cynically emptying out the force of these anti-capitalist words, we should be merciless in denying them access to this cover. Where those in power seek to insulate themselves from criticism by invoking the language of the left, we need to insist on placing these words back in the context from which they came: the struggle against capital and for the oppressed. By refusing to bestow any magic on words, we can render them useless to the powerful and in doing so, make the sides in this fight unmistakably clear.

Neoliberal Feminism

My “articles to read on feminism this morning” happened to include an interesting pair of explanations as to why so much feminist energy has turned away from collective struggles:

From Sarah Jaffe in the New Republic:
“Zeisler cites Marjorie Ferguson’s 1990 argument about the “feminist fallacy”—the idea that images of powerful women in the media translate into power for women out in the world. In this moment we too often fall under the spell of this and of another kind of “feminist fallacy”: that the success of powerful women will trickle down to the rest of us. In fact, as Zeisler notes, famous and powerful women often mistake what is best for them for what is good for all women; when we put too much weight on the feelings of celebrities, we end up cringing when their uninformed opinions, divorced from solidarity with anyone who might be affected, end up making headlines and even policy, as when Meryl Streep and Lena Dunham put their own feelings ahead of actual research and organizing on the subject of the decriminalization of sex work.

In addition to the feminist fallacy, Zeisler introduces us to what she calls “feminism’s uncanny valley,” the space in which ideas, objects, and narratives offer a superficial similarity to feminism but upon a closer look, turn out to be “deeply unsettling.” Instead of liberation, they wind up being about “personal identity and consumption.”

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is of course the peak example of such an uncanny valley, but even more insidious than a self-help book for the upwardly mobile are corporate initiatives that purport to “empower” women. Take Walmart’s Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative, launched just months after the Supreme Court ruled against the women in what would have been the largest-ever class action sex discrimination lawsuit, Dukes v. Walmart. The company undertook a massive PR operation to appear woman-friendly, when the most important thing Walmart could do to empower women economically would be to raise its bare-minimum wages. It took further collective action from Walmart’s workers to push the company, finally, into a small wage hike after a series of strikes and protests rippled across the country, led by workers like Venanzi Luna, Tyfani Faulkner, and Janet Sparks.”

And from Abi Wikinson in Current Affairs (a great new publication worth reading):
“Feminist discourse on social media also focuses disproportionately on a relatively narrow range of issues. Sex work legislation notwithstanding, the conversation topics with most traction are concerned with either language, pop culture, or identity. Conspicuously underrepresented is consideration of issues concerning material reality. It’s not that the stuff that is discussed is always unimportant, but it’s a very limited version of feminism that doesn’t position women’s living conditions, their ability to care for themselves and their children, their financial independence and their ability to extract themselves from abusive situations as central concerns.

Partly, this is a reflection of wider trends rather than something specific to social media—U.S. culture has a strong influence on all aspects of the English language internet, including conversations about feminism. From a U.K. perspective, there has always been a weird class blindness to political discourse in the U.S., which lacks the labor tradition of European countries. (Admittedly, the sudden rise of Bernie Sanders may challenge these preconceptions.)

Regardless of wider influences, the very fact that discussions are happening online encourages a disconnect from material reality. Identity and language are the topics most relevant to gender as it’s experienced actually on the internet, so it’s logical—in some ways—that these might be the things that internet feminism focuses on. This would be less of a problem if “internet feminism” was a distinct subsection of the movement, but there are good reasons to believe that online discourse is influencing the priorities of feminism as a whole.”


Now, whether feminism is distinct from other identity-based political movements in being particularly prone to neoliberal cooptation has yet to be convincingly argued, at least from what I’ve seen. That said, whether due to the optics of media coverage or the unique amount of time and energy (and publications seeking the sort of confessional pieces Wilkinson refers to in her piece), feminism may be the richest site to study neoliberal identitarianism in the way these writers (and Andi Ziegler, the author of the book Jaffe is reviewing) do.

As for Wilkinson’s argument that the internet is itself an explanatory factor for neoliberal feminism’s idealist tendencies, it’s unclear how the fact that these discussions take place on the internet causes such a disconnect (in contrast to the wider political and economic influences Wilkinson brackets). However, there is an argument to made that our ability to engage online as feminists, influencing real life feminist organizing – a controversial assertion from Wilkinson but one that I think is undeniably true- will exacerbate feminism’s most individualistic and self-destructive tendencies in the same way it would any identity-based movement.

After all, it’s much easier to dismiss someone’s argument by attacking their character if you aren’t in the same room with them. I’ve seen arguments that tore organizations apart when they took place online play out as productive debates in person due to the basic fact that there is a threshold of commitment to material progress that must be reached for someone to show up to a meeting, and once you and your supposed adversary meet face-to-face in some godforsaken church or library, you realize how much you hold in common.

That said, I remain open to being convinced that there is something distinct in online communication that shapes our political strategies and thinking as well as our social behavior. But for the moment, I wonder if so much attention to the online elements of social movements isn’t one more product of the very media economies and attraction to discontinuities rather than constants that are being identified in these pieces. Both these authors acknowledge and seem open to that possibility, and I can only hope that the next few years see a return to the type of materialist feminist analysis they’re offering.