I read Jim Wright’s latest entry on his blog Stonekettle Station this morning. Long story short, he’d had the temerity to make a positive statement about identity in the post before that and inadvertently kicked off a shitstorm of people accusing him of sexism and racism.
The offending statement?
There is only one truly inalienable right that can’t be taken away by gods nor governments nor men, and that is the right to define yourself.
There’s nothing wrong with that statement. In fact, I think it’s one of the truest things that he’s ever written, and Wright’s got a knack for writing Truth. But apparently he’s sexist and racist for saying it, because there are some people who were offended that a self-identified straight white cis-male would weigh in on the issue.
A white man daring to comment on identity politics? Let the feeding frenzy begin.
I know how that feels. I’m coming from a comparatively privileged place myself, being white and male (although not straight.) I understand that there are people — women, people of colour, the differently-abled, the alternately-gendered and so on — who might not have the confidence to make sweeping statements about the realities of rights and identity in public. That’s unfortunate, because I think everyone has the right to make those statements and not be attacked or even dismissed for it. And, let’s be fair, I’ve not always been the most enlightened person myself in the past: I still have my asshole moments; I still stand on my privilege sometimes. Even the most liberal male in the world is going to make that mistake occasionally.
But I don’t think that Jim Wright was making that mistake when he spoke about the right to define yourself. Yes, people — and historically that means white straight males — have tried to take that right from others in the past: Whites made slaves of blacks; men made chattel of women; straights criminalized gays; cis-gendered people forced identities onto trans-people; the list goes on and on and on… and sadly that list isn’t all written in the past-tense, either. But for every minority enduring oppression, the moment when endurance becomes resistance is the moment when they say “You don’t define me, I define myself.” The slave in chains, the women in an abusive relationship, the gay man who chooses to come out of the closet, the trans-person who claims their own gender identity, their liberation begins — always — by claiming their own identity.
The strength and glory of our society, here in the 21st century West, is that we make it easier for people to do that. Not easy, of course, but easier. You can claim your identity and know that you won’t be facing criminal penalties, at least (emotional fallout, yes, legal fallout, no.) We stumble, we backslide, we make mistakes, but overall the trend has been for increased liberty and acceptance. There’s resistance, of course, from what Hunter Thompson defined as the Forces of Old and Evil but by and large we drift ever-further into a culture of acceptance and diversity.
Of course, the Forces of Old and Evil aren’t the only things we have to face. You expect resistance from the enemy, but it’s the knife in the back from your erstwhile allies that hurts. The reason that Wright’s post resonated with me so much is that I’ve been exactly where he’s standing: It’s not the Old and Evil who dismissed and condemned him, it’s the people on the Left, the people who he’s trying to work with, the people in his own community (however tenuous and ethereal the internet community is.)
The great irony to Jim Wright’s situation is the response to his statement that nobody can define our identity but themselves was an attempt to use his identity to delegitimize him. I don’t blame him for being angry about it. I’ve been there.
Back when I first went to college, I identified as gay. I was in a relationship which turned abusive fast, broke up, got outed, got ostracized, got gay-bashed, and graduated. That’s a short sentence to sum up two years of absolute misery, but there it is. I followed up my college trade-school experience by going to University, and came to the realization that I wasn’t gay, I was bisexual. So I had to come out of the closet again. (The “closet with two doors” is a pretty common experience among bisexuals of my generation, but thankfully it seems to be fading into oblivion as attitudes change among younger people.)
Coming out of the closet the first time — being outed against my will — in a small rural college full of rednecks, was painful and traumatic… including one late-night beating in a campus mens’ room. That was nothing compared with the shit I got from the gay community at a small liberal-arts university for voluntarily coming out at a bisexual man. Rumours, lies, backstabbing, deliberate attempts to ruin my life, to discredit me as a community leader, harassment of every variety, I got to experience it all. That part that outraged me, however, is the way people did their best to sabotage the campus LGBT organization that I was running as an attempt to discredit me. That’s right: people in our own community were doing their best to fuck over that community just to make the bisexual guy look bad.
To quote Hunter Thompson again: “I have gone down with more ships than Captain Ahab — and usually for honourable reasons — but I am getting tired of it, and I am getting especially tired of going out on those seas with dumb bastards who punch holes in the bottom of the boat and call it smart.”
That was my first experience with people who would cheerfully wield a drill on their own boat just to score some kind of point. (I have no fucking idea who they thought was keeping score.) Sadly, it wouldn’t be the last. It’s one of the primary reasons you get burnout in the activist community… or any community, really. Backstabbing little pricks shitting in the nest seem to be a universal constant in human interaction.
So, like I said: when Wright posted this weekend, I knew exactly what was happening and exactly how it felt. His comment has insightful, intelligent, and artfully written. And he was dismissed and degraded because of his gender and orientation by someone who should know better.
And before somebody makes the expected and asinine statement: If I hear the words “but a white guy deserves it” or “now the white guy knows how it feels” or anything like that, I’m going to go fucking ballistic. Yes, I’m aware that women/people of colour/the differently-abled/etc. frequently experience such dismissals based on their gender/orientation/etc. It’s wrong when that happens to them. It’s also wrong when they do it to others. If you feel a smug sense of accomplishment that the victim this time happens to be a white male, then guess what: You are not working towards a solution, you are part of the problem.
And I have no time or emotional energy to waste on people who are happy to be part of the problem.
Maybe it’s a human failing, that tendency to turn on our own. It could be social, it could be biological, but hard-wired or not we need to consciously override that instinct. I’ve been in a lot of communities and there’s always some dumb shit trying to stir up drama for the sheer cruel joy of it. Some are subtle, some are blatant, some want to play the victim and some just want to be mean for the sake of being mean, but there’s always at least one. This doesn’t even have anything to do with sexism or racism or even perceived sexism or racism: This is just someone being an asshole to score a point and other people piling on like jackals because it makes them feel important. It makes them feel righteous.
Well guess what: If that’s how you’re going to treat other people, then you’re not important or righteous. You’re just another bully. You can’t make yourself bigger by making someone else feel smaller. And if you’re a minority claiming oppression of your identity and then you turn around and do this, then you’re not much better than the people you say are oppressing you. And until we figure that out, we’re going to have a hell of a time making anything better.
Compared with years of unhappiness, harassment and fallout, a dismissive tweet and ensuing internet shit-storm might seem to be small potatoes, but it’s not. This is a real thing happening to a real person, and it’s not a unique experience. Whether it’s a white guy being accused of racism and sexism , or my experience of being a bi man being accused of “selling out”, or a woman being dismissed because of her gender, or a person of colour being treated poorly because of their skin tone, it’s just one of the millions of ways that people make other people feel smaller just so that they can feel bigger for a moment.
And using the victim’s gender, orientation or racial identity as the tool to do that is just the shit gravy on that particular dick move.