The no-win vortex

In the last week especially, I have started to notice how often politically-charged online memes open out onto a “no-win vortex.” Take the example of the cat-calling video. On the one hand, it calls attention to street harrassment, which is a very real problem. On the other hand, it was edited in a racist way in the service of a gentrification campaign. How does one respond? It seems that no matter which direction you go, someone loses — you either wind up downplaying the destructiveness of racism and gentrification or dismissing the seriousness of the atmosphere of harrassment that women have to navigate.

The same goes for the Lena Dunham affair. On the one hand, I’m shocked that anyone on the left would buy into the framing of a right-wing smear campaign that is structurally identical to the “moral panics” that legitimate homophobia (and, even worse, that trivializes real child sexual abuse). On the other hand, though, I don’t want to dismiss black women’s very justified critique of white feminists who claim to speak for all women while ignoring black women’s very existence. They may be jumping on this because they previously disliked and distrusted Lena Dunham — but we can’t ignore that they had excellent, indisputable reasons to dislike and distrust her. And much of what they’ve said about how Dunham gets the benefit of the doubt while a black child would be painted as a monster is sadly true. Simply responding that no child should be painted as a monster seems a little too easy.

In both cases, perhaps I should have left well enough alone personally. I feel like it’s better, though, to venture my opinion and get responses so that I can learn to attend to such issues more sensitively. While many White Dude leftists observing these events may take them as a case in point for how divisive identity politics is, etc., I find it hard to believe that the lesson we should take away is that we should be less attentive to difference and to the complexities of intersectionality.

4 thoughts on “The no-win vortex

  1. I don’t think the “leftist white dude” criticism of identity politics revolves around divisiveness as much as it does the repression of economic struggle. Take for instance, Zizek’s oft-repeated spiel on progressive politics:

    the point is not simply that, because of the empirical complexity of the situation, all particular ‘progressive’ fights will never be united, that ‘wrong’ chains of equivalences will always occur—say, the enchainment of the fight for African-American ethnic identity with patriarchal and homophobic ideology—but rather that emergencies of ‘wrong’ enchainments are grounded in the very structuring principle of today’s ‘progressive’ politics of establishing ‘chains of equivalences’: the very domain of the multitude of particular struggles with their continuously shifting displacements and condensations is sustained by the ‘repression’ of the key role of economic struggle

    Or Walter Benn MIchaels’ argument that in a neoliberal economy, capital demands free movement, open borders, anti-racism, anti-sexism, etc: “today’s orthodoxy is the idea that social justice consists above all in defense of property and the attack of discrimination… American society today, both legally and politically, has a strong commitment to the idea that discrimination is the worst thing you can do, that paying somebody a pathetic salary isn’t too bad but paying somebody a pathetic salary because of his or her race or sex is unacceptable.”

    The harassment in the catcall video was gross, but it also brought to mind a question whether an urban pedestrian has an obligation to interact with the members of a community which the pedestrian is not embedded in, as he or she passes through that community. From the POV of that video, those un- or under-employed men in the sidewalk lawn chairs are literally being left behind. That too, might suggest a neoliberal conception of the self as one in-transit, expecting a frictionless passage through an economic dead-zone, on the way to the proper social context in which acts public self-making can resume.

  2. The fact that neoliberal ideology uses identity issues as a smoke screen for class doesn’t mean that it actually offers a meaningful answer on those issues. The best response would revive explicit economic struggle while showing how it connects to all the other forms of oppression — more intersectional, not less.

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