The stumbling blocks of solidarity

Winter has been posting recently about women-only spaces, and infighting amonst feminists. She has an understandable reaction: she’s keeping out of it. (Not the women-only spaces, but the infighting). Blogwars being the latest symptom in our binary-riddled, politically polarised culture to illustrate why having to pick a side isn’t always conducive to progress, and can often be draining.

What is it with identity politics and infighting? It’s not just feminists who argue over the definition of feminism, although given the loaded way feminism has been represented in mainstream culture as either a monolithic sisterhood or a ‘cat-fight’ its no surprise that debate and disagreement can be a sensitive issue for the movement. Wherever people feel passionately about a subject, there’s bound to be dissent. So a major issue for feminists is: how to encompass dissent without alienating supporters?

In part, resentment and/or dissent often spring from the tension between the concept of group and the individual. Nobody likes being discussed as just a representative of a group, yet solidarity insists they must form as such to act as representatives within society. Feminism is an interesting case because the traditional (but contested) mode of entry – being female – is not a chosen category (not usually, anyway.) Recent blogwars were centred on trans and pro/anti porn issues, which is interesting. What do those issues have in common? They are threatening to the notion of solidarity, that is, of class solidarity/traditional notions of such: trans issues; because the issue of whether gender can be chosen, undermines the idea that women are bound together through something not their choice: sex positive feminism, or pro-porn feminists, because to the radical feminists who insist on the idea of ‘class woman’, and women as the sex class, again the notion of choice threatens the solidarity there. It’s dangerous to the consistency of theory.

The very term ‘feminist blogosphere’ kind of creates a false sense of unity. Each blog is an individual, or loosely/tightly associated collection of individual voices – virtual, real. It’s hard to tie them into types. Some blogs are there as a sort of alternative news source. Some concentrate on activism. Some on theory. Some are a focal point for discussion and debate, etc. And all of this becomes infinitely more diverse if one understands that some blogs are explicitly feminist, named as feminist, with a credo explaining the blog’s particular feminism, and some aren’t.

The problem, for feminists online, is partly to do with this issue of unity. The unity of feminism, as an ideology, is partly descriptive (following Foucault) and partly productive. In the case of blogs the descriptive part works in a positive sense, to give a sense of community and interconnectedness – feminists finding other feminists to debate with, and work with. This is essential for any political movement. However, a lot of feminists (who by their political nature tend to be kinda…sensitive to/questioning of the status quo) have a problem with the productive side of this discourse. This sense of ‘toe-ing the party line’, the pressure to conform which any discourse produces raises a fair few hackles.

I don’t see this as simply a problem within feminism. It’s a tendency which has beset all political movements, particularly those which have been countercultural. When identity politics are thrown into the mix, the issues become that bit more heated and personal. I think we are living in the age of identity politics as never before.

So the tension between ‘group member’ and ‘individual with overlapping affiliations’ is one thing. There’s also, I think, a danger when we consider that feminism is both a theory and a practise. The tension then seems to manifest around issues relating to activism. The question here is all about solidarity. How far should it go? How truthful is it? And is it necessary for a movement to enact political change?

I think solidarity is needed for activism. It’s needed for compassion, and empathy too; but solidarity in feminism has been a powerful and effective force. People have a great need to feel that they are not alone in their experience. When I read about, say, Islamic dresscodes in Iran, it is solidarity that enables me to know whose side I am on. Those women may be living in a totally different society from me, they may have different beliefs, and very different lives, but solidarity not only makes me want to work against their oppression – it also enables me to draw parallels and trace patterns in the female experience. I want to help draw attention to other women’s voices who haven’t been heard. Solidarity can be a great positive force for change and growth.

However, it does have its problems. I see those problems most starkly when it comes to theory, philosophy, and the investigation into human existence. For solidarity has the effect, if we’re not careful, of flattening and decontextualising the very group that it unifies. That is, I am a woman, but I am also many other things. My truth may not be your truth. My experience may contradict your experience. And so on.

Why is this a problem? Well, because, in order for a group to make an impact politically, it often needs to simplify its message, shape its message around and against the prevailing culture. (Think of the arguments around Jessica Valenti’s recent article). The way our political (and cultural) system works does not tend to allow for complexity. I think this is what happened, partly, in the post-stonewall Gay Liberation movement, for instance. The political arguments of GLBT (in those days, perhaps just ‘G’) groups struggling for political (human) rights have to be understood in the context of the prevailing political climate – which was extremely homophobic.

To illustrate this: there is an argument that desire is somehow ‘hard-wired’ into our brains. That we cannot change what we find attractive. It’s an argument which has been very important, politically, to many, especially the gay rights movement. It was needed, because while desire was described (after Freud) as something which one had been conditioned into, it was too easy for homophobic discourses to describe homosexuality as a disease which could be cured. (The history of the work of Anna Freud, for instance, who believed that homosexual desires were a result of incorrect socialisation, were bad for society, and could be treated in psychoanalysis.)

Understandably, many gay rights activists argued that sexuality was in fact an orientation, one was ‘born’ gay, and thus any attempt to ‘treat’ gays was not only wrong ethically, but cruel and impossible. This argument was not only crucial to fighting homophobia but also the way many people actually experienced their desire.

While I would not want to deny anyone their identity, I think that the fact that the arguments over the origins of (queer, but by extension, all) desire became politicised has muddied the waters. In political discourses like this one, the arguments become streamlined, forced into a makeshift dichotomy, and robbed of their original complexity.

What I am saying is not that desire is or is not ‘inborn’ but that, for a long time, and to a large extent still, consideration of this topic was/ is very affected both by the participants’ knowledge of the antecedents of this argument, and by consideration of the potential consequences. Thus, there is a pressure to believe one way or the other, depending on what political motivations you have, and the authenticity of one’s own experience (let alone that of others) gets further and further out of reach.

This – the expediency of activism, and the elision of experiences under solidarity – is very dangerous for theory. Not only because it leaves theory open to criticism, and allows later, the tearing down of it’s arguments, but simply because too many people are affected by theory (or rather, the effects of theory upon culture) in a way which is not truthful, and is restrictive.

Theory itself may also be oppressive, even within a liberatory framework. I’m thinking here of the arguments over transsexuality that have occurred within feminism (academic and activist). On one level, feminism should not be prevented from discussing the way transsexuality affects/enacts gender, and how this is to be viewed by gender theorists working from an explicitly radical agenda. ‘ Is transsexuality a subversive or repressive act?’ is not a question people should be afraid to ask. Indeed, transsexual theorists (feminist or non-feminist) themselves have long been investigating this and many other questions. However, what happened, or seemed to happen, with some feminists was perceived by others as an enactment of hierarchy, a creation of insider/outsider status groups relating to trans-friendly and trans-hostile camps. How did this happen? Was it simply a result of bigotry? Was it a legitimate standpoint?

The discussion that resulted from the issues over transwomen (a discussion that has been going on, in one form or another, for a long time, but in recent years was symbolised by the exclusion of pre-op transwomen from Michigan Womyn’s Festival) can be seen as useful to feminism in many ways. Feminism needed (and still needs, often and repeatedly) to have a conversation about womanhood, because of the ways certain groups of women have been positioned to ‘speak’ for all women – and the ways this has resulted in marginalisation and silencing for non-white, non-able bodied, third world and trans-women, as well as other groups.

So what’s the answer? Tracey has some good ideas at Unapologetically Female (as well as further links). I like the way she points out that diversity can and should be a strength, and also this:

“Ever hear that old saying that we learn in spirals instead of straight lines? We all have something to learn from each other, no matter where on the scale we happen to fall.”

The history of feminism, as written by the world, has been one of spirals, if you think about it. Women’s voices buried and elided by history, forgotten and remembered; the rights of women moving forward, and often back. But one of the most hopeful things about it is the solidarity that kept the voices and ideals alive, resurgent through times of struggle.



3 responses to “The stumbling blocks of solidarity

  1. Interesting post B. The aspect of learning through spirals instead of straight lines in particular, although mentally I pictured it as a spiral moving upwards, we return to ideas in the past with the power of hindsight compelling us upwards and onwards.

  2. Blob.

    Is all ok? Haven’t updated for a while. Hope you’re good; Love Sara x

  3. I can’t believe I’m only just getting around to reading this great post. You totally speak the truth about identity politics and expediency, and I love how well you explained without condemning.

    I love how you acknowledge the “false sense of unity” in the ‘feminist blogosphere’. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently as I have seen more and more examples of tensions over our differences. It makes me wonder if the idea of “sisterhood” isn’t also too misleading, since it implies that the bond among us all is automatic, based on our biology rather than our ideas and goals. (There is apparently a bell hooks article about this, but I haven’t been able to find it anywhere. In which she and another theorist advocate for a model of cooperation and friendship rather than sisterhood.)

    Anyway, your post is a great reminder to take a step back from a dichotomies and realize the complexity of the issues. Thanks for making me think!

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