This post comes out of a lively debate about the differences between radical activism and academia that I have been having with fellow-blogger Julian Real. The discussion started after I posted some comments on Andrea Dworkin's book, Pornography, which you can read here. To see Julian's response to my original post, please click here. And also click here, to read my answer to Julian, as well as his reply. The post below starts by attempting to answer the following question that Julian posed: What do you wish to do about rape, genocide, and poverty on Below the Belt?

Below the Belt can do a limited number of things about rape, genocide and poverty. Only about 30% of the world's population currently has access to the Internet and an even smaller percentage of Internet users speak English. Therefore, on a global scale, Below the Belt cannot directly affect the lives of the poorest people and the most oppressed - those who have to struggle on a daily basis for survival, for food, water, shelter, and freedom from bodily harm. Its immediate impact is limited to those who have access to the Internet and to those who are fluent in English. This is, on a world scale, a relatively wealthy minority. And I think all bloggers should be conscious of this - whatever they publish online is only directly accessible to a small number of people, usually those who are rich enough to have the Internet, a global "elite" of sorts. This is not to say that groups and individuals within this "elite" are not subject to systematic rape, poverty, or the risk of being killed, but that they are (relatively speaking) in a privileged position vis-a-vis the majority of humans around the world.

Does this mean that Below the Belt and other blogs can do absolutely nothing about the worst forms of oppression? I do not think so. We can influence the way that those who are relatively privileged think and act towards the most oppressed and towards issues of oppression. I cannot speak for everyone on Below the Belt (we have a variety of writers - all with different goals), but in my writing, I want to do two things: (1) to examine and critique ideas that form the foundation for oppressive practices, with the aim of getting people to think about how they think about the world; and (2) to provide an introduction to some issues in gender studies, feminism, queer theory, history, and philosophy - a sort of 'Gender Studies 101'.

You might say that this an anti-radical, anti-activist, anti-anti-oppression agenda, but I don't agree. Let's take the issue of genocide. What needs to happen in order for a genocide to occur? There needs to be an elite willing to slaughter an entire group of people, a specialized 'armed group' to carry out the majority of the killings (I'm thinking of the Einsatzgruppen during the holocaust or the Interahamwe in Rwanda), a majority of the non-target population brainwashed into staying silent or participating in the slaughter (with dissenters murdered or tortured), a sufficient military buildup, development of ways of identifying the people to be killed (I.D. cards, badges, and other symbols), an animalization/de-humanization of the target group (in Rwanda, Tutsis were referred to as Inyenzi or cockroaches), assurance that no other state or international organization will intervene to stop the bloodshed etc...

In addition to all of this, and perhaps prior to it, something has to happen at the ideational level. Both the elites organizing the slaughter and the masses co-opted into it need to be able to believe that a certain ethnic/religious/national/gender category is capable of doing things as a group - that the individuals within it are all virtually the same, with the same biological characteristics (usually biologically inferior, but sometimes also with some laudable aspects, e.g. - Hitler occasionally showed admiration for ‘the cunning' of the Jews), and that they have all signed a social contract with each other to support certain nefarious activities against "the state" or against some other entity: "the Jews" or "the Tutsis" or "the Women" or "the Indians" all have the same aims and the same goals, they are all "in league" with each other. Genocide and ethnic cleansing depend to an extent on our capacity to think about large groups in a particular way, to reduce individuals to their collective identities, to believe that ethnic/gender/national etc.. groups can actually behave in unison, all with the same purposes and with the same goals.

What I aim to do on Below the Belt is to criticize conceptions such as these and thereby challenge the ways of thinking that form the foundation for oppressive practices. I want to get people to think about how they think about the world, how they think about others, how they think about other(ed) categories of gender, nationality, race, sex, and ethnicity. This isn't as important as providing material resources (food, shelter, or arms) to people who are at risk of genocide, undermining the flow of such material to the genocidaires, exposing the existence of genocide, mobilizing international public opinion against the actions of the oppressors, or getting international organizations to develop mechanisms for stopping mass slaughter. But it is still a worthwhile endeavor. Genocide will be harder to undertake, harder to justify, and it will be harder to co-opt people into genocide, if ideas about the ontological validity of fundamental national/gender/ethnic/religious characteristics are discredited.

Andrea Dworkin herself recognized that the ways we conceive of the world (the ideas we have about other subjects and objects) are crucial enablers of genocide. In the essay you recommended for me, "Biological Superiority: the World's Most Dangerous and Deadly Idea," Dworkin rejects matriarchal arguments about the biological superiority of women to men because she recognizes that such a theorization of an entire gendered category could lay the groundwork for genocide against it - this has already happened to women all over the world, would it really be a good thing if something similar could happen to men? I completely agree with Dworkin in this case, but I would extend her argument: it is not just ideas about the biological superiority or inferiority of particular national/ethnic/gendered groups, but sweeping generalizations about the supposed immutable “character” (whether cultural, biological, or political) of these categories that can form the basis for genocide or ethnic cleansing. In practice, the cultural and political generalizations are never really that distinct from the biological generalizations – but ultimately, they can have similar effects.

I realize that there are some serious problems with this argument, because people do do things in groups. I am just now doing some research about Iceland and I’m looking into how, in the 19th Century, wealthy landowning farmers developed a social system which guaranteed them a steady supply of cheap labor. In order to get permission to marry and own land, ordinary people had to earn a certain amount of money, and basically, the only way they could earn it in such an isolated and rural country was to become paid servants to landowning farmers. The farmers collectively kept wages low, which meant that poor Icelanders would have to work for them from at least their mid-teens until their thirties, thus providing a steady supply of cheap labor and keeping their profits high. Clearly, “the landowning farmers” created a social system that functioned to support their material interests. People can and do act collectively – but can they really do so in extremely large groups, such as nations and genders? And what are the consequences of imbuing such big collectives with sweeping generalizations? Does it set the stage for ethnic cleansing or genocide? At what point do broad statements about "group characteristics" become dangerous? I don’t really know how to solve this problem (aside from marshalling the rather primitive distinction between "small" and "big" groups or drawing on the difference between "organized interests" and "identity categories"), and I would appreciate any insights you or other readers may have, as well as any guidance about writers who have tried to wrestle with this issue.

Nevertheless, I do want to note that I have not acquired these ideas about genocide, generalizations, and collective identity through academia, but mainly through the personal experience of living in a context in which genocide and ethnic cleansing were quite close to home. I am, unfortunately, very familiar with the kinds of mindsets and theorizing that it takes to justify mass slaughter of a different nationality. Contrary to your assumptions, I am not from the United States, although I did go to university there. I bring this up because you seem to think that I am invested in the U.S. liberal academic project with my heart and soul, and that all my ideas emanate from it. I realize that my recent writing does give a very academic impression, given how full it is of citations, academic protocol, technical language, and academic authors. But it was never my intention to be a parrot of U.S. academia, and I am sorry to have made myself seem like that.

About the U.S. academic project, I do agree with you that it is, in general, about maintaining the status quo. In many cases, it also directly links into supporting U.S. global hegemony, the spread of capitalism, developing technology for the U.S. military, and a whole host of other atrocities. Nevertheless, I would argue that while academic institutions are thoroughly involved in upholding things as they are, individuals within academia are able to use the resources of their position for liberatory and subversive ends. Being an academic means being bestowed with astounding privilege – with the time to gather information, to read, to think, to write, and to speak on a variety of subjects. It is rarely the intention of the institutions, or the people and organizations that fund them, to allow this level of freedom. And while they often succeed in curtailing it, some individual academics have been able to use the time and money that they have been given as a platform from which to inform people and move them to action.

For example, Judith Butler has spoken and written eloquently about recent conflicts in the Middle East and she has also recently refused a prize at the Berlin Gay Pride Parade, after speaking with Muslim queer activists and hearing their stories of oppression within the German mainstream LGBTQ movement – thus bringing attention to the problem of Islamophobia in queer communities. Many of the people you cite on your blog are academics – bell hooks, Catherine MacKinnon, Patricia Hill Collins – which gives me some hope that there will continue to be space in academia for radical, liberatory voices. Although, as you point out, the situation is getting more difficult, with cuts to public education funding limiting academic posts, with increasing corporate sponsorship of academia, and with the internet providing more opportunities for surveillance and censorship of people’s voices - it seems that the potential for inspirational and transformative education within academia is unfortunately diminishing by the day.

And it has also diminished in the broader society, with the mainstream media cutting off radical activists’ access to the public – in this case, I also very much agree with you. But I don’t think at all that radical activists are bad at expressing themselves, or that the increasing poverty of political discourse is in any way their fault – did I say anything to suggest otherwise? And if I point out that radical critiques of society should indicate pathways for getting out of hell, how is this "seeing what activists do and don’t do as the problem"? Or blaming the victim? I am really not saying that the reason oppression still exists is because of things activists have or have not done. There are many reasons for this – very few of which have to do with the people working practically for change. The reason I like to encourage radicals to develop theories that leave open possibilities for change and to develop solutions for the problems they describe is because not doing so could lead to a resigned pessimism of the following type: "the powers that be are the powers that be, they are evil and all-powerful… but there is little that you and I can do about it, things will most likely stay the same." Noam Chomsky’s writing about U.S. hegemony does this, to an extent. I would argue that Dworkin’s Pornography also risks inspiring such an attitude. But what I am definitely not saying is that it is the fault of people like Noam Chomsky and Andrea Dworkin that things are the way the are.

As you probably gathered from my discussion above, I don’t subscribe to a sharp distinction between "thinking" and "acting." Thinking, reading, and speaking are, in a literal sense, actions. And in order to inspire people to act, you first have to get them to think. The Andrea Dworkin books that I have read are all about showing people a different way of perceiving the world and thinking about it than what is presented to them in the mainstream. It is about exposing the systematized violence and harm that societal discourses generally keep out of view. This inspires people to act – but before they act, they have to think. Otherwise, they would be automatons, robots, flinching instinctively at every juncture. Perhaps this should be the natural response to violence and oppression, perhaps it should not be necessary to think about it, perhaps it should just instinctively feel wrong and inspire a reflex action (akin to burning oneself on a stove). But unfortunately, this does not happen often enough, and in order to realize the reality of racism, patriarchy, genocide, and rape, people have to "un-think" years of socialization. Getting people to think more, to think about how they think, and to think differently is part-and-parcel of inspiring them to act – the two projects cannot be separated.

A similar logic can also be used to deal with this very important question, that you posed:

"I'll bet you that there are far more books on 'how to critique the idea of gender' in Academia right now than there are on "how to end male supremacy". Why? I'd be interested to know why you think that is the case, and what the function of such anti-activist 'gender discourse' is, politically/socially?"

I do agree that, right now, books and articles on "critiquing the idea of gender" are much more prominent in academia than work on ‘how to end male supremacy’. There are a variety of reasons for this. Firstly, I think that a number of feminist theorists have adopted the view that male supremacy and female subordination may be embedded in the way we conceive of gender itself. The way that the binary gender system sets up males and females as inevitable "polar opposites" and embeds oppressive distinctions between the sexes such as strong/weak, big/small, powerful/powerless, basically assures a priori that females will be oppressed. Since females are portrayed – by definition – as the opposite of males, the discourse will ensure that they remain "the second sex." I have dealt with this issue in some of my previous posts (see "Gender As Discourse," and "Strong Man, Weak Woman"). I don’t think that activists and academics who have moved towards critiquing the idea of gender do not care about ending the subordination of women – they are looking for the root causes of it. Undermining modern discourses about gender, and encouraging the creation of a gendered world that transcends the current binary is, in my view, not a separate project from combating male domination.

Secondly, the popularity of "critiquing the idea of gender" also has to do with increased concern for ending violence against people who do not identify within the binary gender system and those who do not meet expectations of masculinity and femininity. Transgender people and others who fall outside the current gender structure cannot even claim an existence for themselves under the current rules, and feminine men and masculine women live in constant terror of the threat of violence. However, it is important to note that the violence is aimed disproportionately at feminine men, transfeminine people and at femininity in general, which suggests that homophobia and sissyphobia are basically misogyny, enacted on male-bodied people. This is not to say that masculine women and transmasculine people do not face their own struggle against violence, but that the attacks on femininity are often much more intense, savage, and systematic. Some feminists, by focusing on the category of "woman" as the sole subject of feminism, ended up not paying enough attention to those who do not identify as either men or women or who are identified by others as somehow not in line with these categories.

Nevertheless – I do see how post-structuralist critiques of the idea of gender can be almost completely irrelevant in the context of, for example, a rape crisis center, female genital mutilation, or the fostering of gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia. For the raped and battered woman, gender is unfortunately all too real and dithering on about its social construction may not be helpful (although, admittedly, understanding gender as a product of oppressive social forces, rather than natural instincts, may help to deal with the trauma). Ultimately, while the “here-and-now” work of ending gendered violence – and violence in general – may draw on some academic ideas, it is not at all dependent on them. And the dominance of the "critiquing the idea of gender" view in academia has served to divert attention away from practical efforts to combat the continuing structural violence against women and feminine persons, from the struggles for liberation waged by feminists around the world, and from the connections between movements for environmental sustainability, racial justice, and women’s survival. Academia has betrayed activism – there is no doubt about this. Academics are, as such, unwittingly complicit with those who wish to continue the violence, the oppression, the hatred, and the murder.

But this does not mean that we should completely discard intellectual responses to oppression! As I outlined in my discussion of genocide above, there is a place for both the practical work of ensuring that mass slaughter does not happen (providing resources to populations likely to be affected, giving out humanitarian aid, developing international institutional mechanisms to prevent genocide) and the intellectual work of critiquing the ideas and world-views that make large-scale killing conceivable and possible in the first place. Ideally, the two should not be separated and they should work in tandem, although I do see how, in a condition of primary emergency, the “here-and-now” work of ensuring the killing is prevented and helping the (potential) victims is more important. I believe that, in academia and in the broader society, there should be a place for practical activist work on ending oppression and for the more theoretical endeavor of thinking about the ideas and conditions that make structural violence possible. It is unacceptable that the former is currently marginalized and this situation needs to be changed.

On the subject of post-structuralism, I don’t think that ideas about the normative foundations for (and functions of) empirical claims are entirely useless for activists. The way that I was laying out my position on this issue was far too depoliticized, and I see how you could have perceived my point of view as fundamentally impractical and nihilistic. When I said that different empirical claims about how the world "is" are tied to normative ideas about how the world "should be," I should have added that empirical world-views are index-linked to specific power-political interests, often buttressing oppressive social structures. Thus, supposedly "empirical" claims about women’s physical and intellectual capacities have served to ensure that women remain physically weaker than men and that they are excluded from academic, scientific and political positions. Activists could therefore use post-structuralist ideas about the connection between ideas about how the world "is" and nefarious political goals in order to undermine the worldviews that form some of the foundations of structural inequality. I certainly don’t think that oppression originates in the improper "exchange" of ideas, nor do I believe that ideas are "freely exchanged." Rather, I would argue that one of the primary ways that structural inequalities of power are maintained is through the propagation of ideas about reality that have the function of upholding them, that make them seem invisible, and that make them appear natural.

In my work, I aim to evaluate claims about "reality" not only on the extent to which are truthful but also on the basis of whose interests and which normative goals they will uphold. I therefore support any depictions of reality which uphold the interests of women, queer folks, indigenous peoples, and non-whites. This does not mean that I view things like whether patriarchy exists or whether American Indians are under assault as "debatable" – and this is a charge that is often thrown at people engaging in post-structuralist analysis: "you doubt whether the sky is really blue and you might even believe that pigs can fly." This is not at all the case, and I think it is a profound misreading of post-structural theory (caused in some cases by the obscurity of the kind of writing this theory inspires). But while there is no need to debate the existence of patriarchy or the oppression of non-whites, there are questions about these phenomena that are definitely worth much consideration, the answers to which will directly impact how they are dealt with: what causes patriarchy? Through which mechanisms does it work? Does it exist in all societies, and if not, under what conditions has it not existed? Why is it currently in place? What are the causes of racism? Why does it exist and how does it work? Getting to the vital issue – "what is to be done?" – first requires thinking about and responding to some of the questions such as the ones I enumerated above.

I am also by no means requesting that Andrea Dworkin and others put forward their positions solely in “this-is-how-I-see-it” terms. I do not see worldviews and theories as being a "personal" thing, with each individual having their own unique way of seeing things. This would be to deny the social nature of knowledge and to make all claims about the world contingent purely on individual experience. Rather, what I noticed in Dworkin’s approach is a long-standing tradition in Western (especially liberal and capitalist) thought of conceptualizing individuals as rational actors, seeking to minimize costs and maximize benefits. I also noticed that, in line with social contract theory, Dworkin imbued very large collectives with the capacity to form informal pacts, think rationally, and operate for their own survival. I am sorry if I gave this impression – but I was not critiquing the views laid out in Pornography because they were Dworkin’s personal views, or because they were the views of a white woman, but rather because those views were based on certain ontological assumptions about human nature and society which have a long and distinguished history in Western philosophy and with which I have disagreements – this is as much a critique of Dworkin as it is a critique of, for example, Adam Smith or Jean-Jacques Rousseau or John Rawls. I was also not criticizing Dworkin’s views so that I, as a "white man" (for the record, I don’t identify as a "man"), can claim objectivity and ownership of the way the world really "is." My post was written in the style of a philosophy-student-cum-wannabe-academic: you might think that this is an oppressive identity to take on, or that this is the identity that "white men" who want to author reality adopt. There is truth to this, but as I described above, there is also a positive side to academic intellectual thought and this is what I want to be a part of on Below the Belt.

Creative Commons License