Basing political activism on identity?

Kafer and Wilchins hold that basing political activism on identity doesn’t work for disabilities or gender, respectively. What reasons do they give? What sort of movements do they envision instead? Be sure to cite evidence from the texts to support your answer.

 

Contrary to some activists and thinkers who believe that gender or disabilities might be the only good identity basis for gender and/or cripped politics, both Alison Kafer and Riki Wilchins maintain that this strategy would lead to a defeat. Even if the criticisms are strong, both authors do not say—of course—that they are rejecting gender and cripped politics. They rather sustain an other strategy which would be more intersectional and more inclusive.

“It’s not enough to say, ‘It’s all gender, honey.’ Because it isn’t all gender,”1 Wilchins says to zir2 readers. If we want to built a movement that would be progressive, we have to consider all the possible forms of oppressions. People might also be oppressed because of their race, class, sex, sexual orientation and—following Kafer—disability. There might be other types of oppressions that exist and could exist. As we don’t want to create a world where some people would become the new margin, we therefore have to fight against every oppressions, oppressors and oppressing situations with every oppressed individuals. That collective, intersectional strategy might be difficult as far as it requires to constantly “be aware”1, but it is the only solution we have in order to emancipate everyone for the weigh of the Norm. Past and actual gender or disability organizations show that it is not enough to fight against our own oppression. Kafer’s Chapter 43 examples of the Foundation for a Better Life’s ads are eloquent. Some may say that those ads are good, but they actually are not. Quite the contrary: they are based on ableist assumptions, and do not challenge or intersect with others forms of oppressions. The risk, therefore, is to be counter-productive by depoliticizing (that is partly de-intersectionalizing) activism. These ads, Kafer says, do not challenge the Norm but reinforce it as long as the goal is to be part of the Norm. Yet, the mere problem is not the exclusion of the Norm but the existence of that Norm. In other words, correcting the negative effects of the Norm is of course important however not sufficient. By the way, it would be as carrying water in the Danaïds’ sieve: there would be temporarily less oppression but the roots of oppressions won’t be cut. Kafer and Wilchins are therefore inviting us to take one step beyond. A world where the oppressed would lose their chains at the expense of others would not be the world in which we want to live. In this regard, Lee Edelman reminds us that the “figure of the queer”4 might change as long as there could be someone seen as queer. We always have to remind that being queer is primarily being abnormal, that that identity is primarily a negation by the Other(s) of what we may be and literally embody. As far as we affirm our queerness, we do not do it in order to cancel our difference(s) relating to the Norm. We positively affirm our queerness to blur, trouble and cancel the Norm. We hold a mirror up to the Norm and debunk its authority. We show how that Norm is contingent, unjust, wrong and ridiculous. Reading Wilchins and Kafer, the purpose of activism does not seem to queer the Norm but to destroy it. As far as we are not “aware of the effects of our own discourse”1 we won’t be able to create an inclusive world. Since power is also a matter of discourse, we should try to “bring[ the] margins [implied in our discourses] back into the center.”1 It does not mean, however, that Wilchins or Kafer want to create a safe space placed under the label of the Same. Wilchins clearly says that we ought to “encourage what is different and unique”1. Kafer also argue for a world where disability does not rhyme with lack of ability but with difference. Her idea is not to create a space where disability is the new Norm but to built a world where being disabled is not synonym with being excluded from the world. As she says in Chapter 6,3 the goal is to “cripping th[e] terrain” in order to include people with disabilities to hike. The final goal is therefore to create an “accessible future,” that is a future where someone might be disabled and recognized as disabled without being discriminated for one’s disability. In other words, political activism has to crip the world but not to make a world only made for crips. Political activism has to aim at shaping a world where every difference is possible, considered and respected. Our political activism has not to reverse the norm but to kill normalcy.

“So work to bring people together,”1 Wilchins says. Create coalitions, Kafer adds.  As in Chapter 1 of Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia,5 collectivity is a key word for Kafer and Wilchins as far as it opposes the concept of “community” which suggests closure on itself and imposition of the sameness on its members. Consequently, the movements Kafer and Wilchins envision could not be based on a concept that rejuvenates an oppressive and uniformizating Norm. They prefer instead to create a coalition where its members might not to be agreed on everything but are basically willing the same thing. This coalition, therefore, would have an accurate long-term goal and a lot of short-term actions that would create hic et nunc potential safe spaces that would allow a possible inclusive future. In Chapter 7, Kafer argue that one of the pivotal point of the mouvements is “coalescing around bodies in space.” Restrooms, she says, are spaces where the Norm can be challenged. The same applies “from classrooms to boardrooms, from reservations to the city streets,” Wilchins adds. The movements that Kafer and Wilchins want are therefore dealing with spaces. But who will deal with that space? Not only queers and crips. Wilchins says:

We live in a time of balkanization, not a melting pot but a checkerboard. . . . We work for women’s rights, gay rights, Latina/o rights, Jewish rights, transgender rights, youth rights—whoever is “us.“

Even in this age of political cynicism, we believe things can be better, that we each deserve the right to be fully and openly all that we are. We don’t work for anyone else’s cause, because what would be the point? It’s a black thing, a gay thing, a transgender thing, or a woman thing: You wouldn’t understand. And we wouldn’t be welcome anyway. Better stick to your own.

[…]

As we splinter into finer and finer groups, it may be that even if I am wrong, the centrifugal forces of identity politics may have flung us far enough out into our own orbits that it’s time to start looking for common issues that bring us together. Gender is one of those issues. Gender rights are too fundamental to belong to any one group, and too important to leave anyone behind. Gender rights are human rights, and they are for all of us.

In other words, we have to create a collective group that wouldn’t exclude someone because that one couldn’t understand what it is to be oppressed this way. All oppressions are certainly different but it does not imply that we have to create different movement that would “balkaniz[ed]” the situation. We ought to work together, Wilchins says, because each one of “us” is not enough powerful to challenge the Norm. Yet, “our” civil and social rights are too important. We therefore need to find a common—not to say collective—ground on which we could struggle together not only for us, but also for the other. That being said, it does not mean that we steal something to the others but that we try to help them. It is not a movement for particular right where there would be some allies but it would be a movement for everyone’s rights. As Muñoz says, the movements have to be adopt the concept of Jean-Luc Nancy’s “being-singular-plural.”

In other words, a movement that would be based only on one identity and one type of rights would fail and rejuvenate a certain kind of Norm. We have to create a collective movement that would include every oppressed, and that would reflect on every oppressions that our discourses may convey. Working collectively would not be a piece of cake, since everyone has not an immediate and obvious interest in helping the others. We should try, though, to make these movements happen. Certain spaces and actions can presently challenge normativity in a intersectional way. “Identities empower us, but they also separate us from one another,” Wilchins says, so make a movement that respect all differences and where each identity works with the others. For that reasons, we ought to do something like GenderPAC, an organization that tries to work intersectionally on gender. The same can and ought to be made from the point of view of race, disability, class or sexual orientation. Consequently, Kafer and Wilchins want us to take one step beyond our individual identity towards our collective identity.

Notes:

  1. From Chapter “GenderPAC and Gender Rights”, Section “Can Butler Work?”
  2. I think that Riki Wilchins is referring to zirself with a neutral pronoun. If ze does not, I want to apology in advance for my mistakes. For my defense, I am not used to use gender neutral pronoun. But I work hard for it.
  3. See: Kafer, Alison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013
  4. See: Edelman Lee, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.
  5. Muñoz, José E. Cruising Utopia: the Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: NYU press. 2009
  6. From Chapter “GenderPAC and Gender Rights”, Section “GenderPAC”

See:

  • Wilchins, Riki. Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer. Los Angeles: Alyson, 2004.
  • Kafer, Alison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.

I won’t change this paper. I am still pretty agreed with my analysis of Wilchins’s and Kafer’s critiques of queer political activism only based on identity. I think that both authors are right. We should not divide the movement of the oppressed by emphasizing too much on differences. We should take them all as important particularities because they obviously have to be respected and taken in account. However, we shouldn’t create a new hierarchy between the oppressed simply because we have to work together. That’s my understanding of intersectionality. It is maybe a naive conceptualization of it, but I am deeply convinced of its relevance. Our goal is, I think, to create a world where each life, each culture, each taste and preference would be respected and accepted. Our goal is to create a collective world whose beauty would be found in its pluriversity. Our goal is to create a world where each life inhabits that world.Our goal, I think, is not to destroy the conditions of possibility of collective, political life. If we want to embody the sinthomosexuality that defines the-queer-the-abnormal, we not only have to become a “trash” as Lacan’s psychoanalyst, we have to change that world and the people living in it by becoming the Saints whose role is to “allow the subject—the unconscious subject—to take [the Saints] as cause of his/her desire” (Lacan, 1974). In other words, the oppressed have to change their oppressors. Our goal is not to destroy heterosexuality, but heteronormativity, heteropatriarchy… Our goal is not to destroy the Norm in order to establish a new oppressive Norm. Our goal is to establish the absence of an oppressive Norm as the Norm. That new, non-oppressive Norm, then, has to reflect on politics, that is on what ground can we found a common life that would not exclude or exploit its members and non-members; that would not negate each particularities; that would create a real equality.

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