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An open letter to Michael Spence regarding a friend

May 24, 2014

As you will be aware Tom Raue, campus activist and vice-president of the University of Sydney Union, has been suspended from entering campus grounds for one month. As you will also be aware, Tom’s work and source of income is located on campus. As the Sydney Morning Herald noted it’s an interesting coincidence that the period of his ban corresponds almost precisely to the length of time remaining in Tom’s term on board and as vice-president. This is especially true given that there was previously an attempt to remove Tom from board partially on the basis that he had allegedly harmed relations with the university.

I’ll keep this brief:

1. It is laughable that the university imagines that a policy of banning students from the campus for political activity on campus, without a hearing or chance for a defense, will not create uproar. Quite simply laughable.
2. It may also be illegal.

3. It is similarly risible that the university imagines it can get away with using “police investigations” as evidence of guilt without the matter having been heard and judged in court, even more so when the NSW police claim no such investigation exists.
4. Similarly, it is laughable that the university has, on other occasions used an arrest as evidence of guilt, and more comically still, used the existence of legal proceedings in which the defendant was found not guilty as evidence of guilt.
5. Remember that student you threatened with a “severe reprimand” over chalking on a wall? That was a good one to. Is the Evangelical Union next?
6. Disturbing colonialist as it may be, I never thought that the university’s motto loosely translated: “Even though the stars are different here our thinking remains the same” referred to the time dishonored British institution of the star-chamber.
7. Finally, if the intent of this punishment is to discourage similar activism in the future, and you honestly imagine it will work, you must be out of your mind. Since I’m a charitable fellow I’ll assume it’s another stroke of comic genius.

Indeed the only thing that is very unfunny about the situation is that the university has, in its arrogance, disrupted a student’s life, this is a disgrace. Stop moonlighting in political comedy, save yourself further embarrassment, and drop this matter along with all similar malfeasances of justice.

If not, we’ll see you on Wednesday the 28th, a bit after 1pm outside your office.

Cheers

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Dangerous activist Tom Raue, that’s probably a cup of pure crystal-meth.

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Queer

April 28, 2014

I. Queer-flow

I want to contrast two meanings of the word Queer. “Queer” can be an umbrella term, encompassing all diverse forms of gender and sexuality, and Queer can also the name of a political movement in opposition to fixed-form gender and sexuality. By opposition, I do not just mean sloganeering, but resistance through one’s own practices. This opposition also does not need to be conscious- what matters is the effect of one’s actions, not whether the intent is to oppose gender or sexuality. Someone might have never dreamt of opposing gender in their life, but through their practices might resist it .

My preferred gloss on this second meaning of queer is this: queerness is that movement which seeks the abolition of (mandatory) gender . I say “gender” and not “gender and sexuality” because it seems to me that sexuality is a sub-category of gender, or at least that the two form a whole which can more accurately be called gender than any other name you might give it. If you disagree you can read references to gender as references to gender and sexuality henceforth. I place mandatory in brackets because in my view, a world without any demanded gender behaviors would best be described as a world without gender. You might also disagree with this so you’re welcome to un-bracket mandatory.

So the two definitions being contrasted are:

1. Those people who are Queer are those who belong to socially proscribed gender or sexuality groups. The queer movement is the movement of these groups for their rights, whatever these might be conceived as.
2. Those people who are being queer are those currently refusing at least some of the demands of the gender society has assigned to them. By extension, the queer movement is the movement which resists gender.

The difference is subtle and crucial. We will call the first sense of “queer” the static sense; and the second sense of queer the dynamic sense. It will be clear by now which I favor. What I want to emphasize is that the conception we select has endless implications for praxis.

True, in many contexts, the term “queer” in the static sense, and “queer” in the dynamic sense may refer to the same people. However, it refers to these same people in different ways. The difference between the static and dynamic senses of queer is analogous to the difference between referring to a river as “that body of water or “that flow of water” respectively. To consider the one thing simply as it is, in a particular moment and to consider it as in motion is to understand the one thing in profoundly different terms. You can’t step into the same river twice said Heraclitus.

If we use the phrase queer in the static sense, we’ll capture a particular bloc of people. If we use it in the dynamic sense though, who is referred to, or more accurately whose activities are referred to, will change continuously. Unless indicated otherwise, we will henceforth be using queer in the dynamic sense.

Unfortunately, these sorts of debates and discussions lend themselves to misinterpretation. To avoid this, let me make it clear that that there are a lot of people who are always queer, who are always resisting gender: through the way they think, dress, speak and identify themselves- for self-identification may also be a form of resistance. I have no problem with referring to these people as queers (as in a categorical noun), or referring to those who are not like this as straight, I merely think such uses of the terms are at best heuristics, and shouldn’t be overly relied upon in theory or strategy.

It is also important to acknowledge that some of us have the luxury of not always having to be queer, that is to say, of not always fighting with gender. Others of us have to grapple with gender constantly. We do not all suffer equivalently or even commensurably because of gender, the differences are tremendous. But is there anyone who is, and will always be in each moment of their lives, “straight”? If gender is a form of domination imposed on all of us might we not suspect that domination always encounters resistance?

When we talk about activity constituting queerness, we don’t mean to suggest that thinking and speaking are not activities in the relevant sense. As trite as it may sound, internal, mental struggle against gender is a form of struggle. Queerness need not be visible, and so queerness need not be out-ness.

To see queerness in this way, we must look for the ways in which queerness is immanent in everyone’s life. An obvious example is people who “experiment” with partners of a gender forbidden to them, but still regard themselves as straight. We shouldn’t rest our imagination at this obvious case though. For example, a woman or a man who refuses to provide the forms of unpaid labour required of their gender, deviates from the requirements imposed on them. Refusing to put on make-up, developing or not developing certain skills and proclivities associated with or disassociated from our gender, refusing to accept as normative hetero-patriarchal standards of beauty are all- even if only in a momentary or limited way, queer.

Consider the difference between an adjective and a verb. To be queer in the dynamic sense is not an identity; it is an activity- queer in this sense is a verb. True, it’s an activity some people may engage in all their lives, but it is an activity of a person, not some attribute they possess. Moreover, it’s a particular sort of activity, an oppositional activity. As such, queerness in the dynamic sense tends towards its own abolition via the abolition of its opposite. Queer activity is just all that activity which encounters the limit of fixed gender and sexuality categories and opposes them.

II. The dialectics of drag

My concern is that when we focus on categories of people, rather than the flow of resistance against gender, we invite a politics of gender reformism, and not abolitionism. A sharp binary between straight and not, between cis and trans or between queer and straight may recreate the same sorts of categories that oppress us, whilst adding new binaries on top. If the goal of the queer movement is human freedom through the abolition of gender, these rigid categories are positively unhelpful. The queer movement aims at its own abolition- a situation in which everyone is queer, or more exactly no-one. So how could reified categories, of which one is in or out of, assist in this? This is one of the reasons I’m skeptical of a politics focused on identity, because it may freeze in place the flow of resistance. None of this is to say that categories such as trans* have no utility- indeed we cannot understand whole forms of life and arenas of struggle without using such conceptual tools- it is just that we must not imagine they capture the totality of our lives.

Recently a debate has begun to develop about the politics of drag and it seems to me to be a wonderful case study in the divide between dynamic and static conceptions of queerness, or, to say the same thing, between queerness as a category or system of categories, and queerness as a vector towards the abolition of gender. Some types of drag, for example misogynistic drag, reinforce gender. But on the whole drag asserts something precious. Drag asserts that one does not always have to behave as one’s assigned gender. In no way is this message now accepted or mainstream. Consider assaults on drag performers if you think it is.

Drag is often not simply a profession; it is an expression of deeply held desires to resist the constraints of gender. I believe that because of the violence, physical, linguistic and cultural targeted at drag performers, drag requires courage. Thus any conceptual scheme that has no space for it simultaneously does violence to the experiences of drag performers and implicitly seeks to remove a weapon in the struggle to corrode gender norms.

Confronted with a sharp binary like Cis v Trans*, many drag artists will identify as cis. But rather than showing the limitations of drag, I think this shows the limitations of the cis/trans* binary. Drag is a clear form of resistance to gender, conscious or otherwise. It matters to people as an expression of their orientation towards gender. As I have said, in many cases drag performers suffer for their art. I am not suggesting that the cis/trans* divide never has any utility. I would merely suggest though that we must not fetishize it, nor use it as a basis of exclusion of real forms of resistance. We must recognize that like all categorical schemes based on identities it can never fully capture the flux of resistance.

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Gender is work!

April 23, 2014

You wake up in the morning and put on certain clothes. You either apply or don’t apply makeup. You check on or don’t check on the children. You either lay out or enjoy the meal. All of these things are iconic gendered actions you might perform in the first half an hour after waking up.

I’ve previously argued that, very inexactly speaking, various forms of oppression are not just associated with the class struggle, or intersecting vectors with the class struggle, but exist as components in that struggle. It seems to me that nowhere is this clearer than gender, and by extension sexuality, so I thought it could be a useful test case to lay out in broad outlines how a view which sees gender and class as an integrated whole might work. Various theorists have made the point that gender is something we constantly enact and re-enact. As these theorists have argued, to really break down what gender is, we have to stop looking at it as a state and start considering it as action. The most celebrated of such approaches is to analyze gender as performance. Whether performance is an adequate way of understanding gender is something I won’t enter into here, I have no quarrels with such an analysis in this post. However I think that another, potentially more fruitful way of considering the actions that create gender is through the concept of labor.

Let me be clear, I am not just suggesting that gender is closely associated with certain kinds of labor, or that certain kinds of labor would not exist or would be differently distributed if gender did not exist. I am saying that gender is labor. This is not a metaphor; I believe gender is strictly identical with certain types of labor we preform*. This labor includes both accumulated dead labor- the grime of centuries- and the living daily action we engage in, though not wholly of our own volition.

One way of understanding what we’re getting at here is to contrast traditional Marxist approaches to gender, traditional non-Marxist approaches to gender, and the approach that is being suggested here. Both traditional non-Marxist approaches to gender, and traditional Marxist approaches recognize that gender is associated with a tremendous quantity of labor of various sorts. Traditionalist Marxists think that gender exists in order that this labor might be extracted, whereas many (but not all) non-Marxists typically think that gender is in a sense prior to this labor, and perhaps exists for other reasons. The view I’m presenting here, which has previously been argued for by a number of Marxists in the autonomist tradition, is that gender is not merely associated with this labor- it is this labor. By extension asking whether gender struggle is prior to the class struggle, or whether the class struggle is prior to gender, or whether they are related but interacting struggles is to miss point, for they are one. To be more exact, class, understood as where and how one earns one’s living, and gender, are both sub-categories of the larger problem- the extraction of involuntary labor**.

Gender is mandatory action, laid out in certain compulsory patterns. This mandatory action (alienated labor) generates enormous value. Gender is intimately connected to the way we raise children- needed for the reproduction of capitalism. The gender norms most of us help create and enforce are used to market products to us. Further, gender creates patterns of behavior (like being nurturing or playing sports) that produce skills and attributes we deploy on the job- thus as Selma James noted gender works to specialize us into different work roles. All this is only a portion of the value gender creates for capitalism. Gender then is not merely labor, but absolutely critical labor to sustain capitalist society. What the queer movement and the forms of feminism with any real prospect*** have in common is a refusal to conform to mandatory patterns of behavior, in other words, a refusal of the assigned labor of gender. To refuse to conform to assigned gender patterns is, in a sense to strike.

The nature of gender as labor is obscured by several factors, three of which seem especially important to me.
1. It does not occur at a particular site (though of course the home is something of a focus), and nearly everyone, not just a particular sub-group, performs it.
2. Gender-labor is not managed by anyone in particular, but is rather management is distributed throughout society though not evenly.
3. Precisely because it is both unpaid and critical to the continuation of this false society, official ideology must never, or perhaps only rarely, concede analogies between gender-labor, and formal, paid labor and great pains are taken to mask this identity by presenting it as something natural, something given freely.

To suggest that the primary antagonism of gender is the antagonism between the genders is a bit like saying that the primary antagonism in a workplace is between the well paid office clerks and the manual laborers- and to ignore the bosses. Frictions between the genders are real, but to identify them as primary is to let the boss off the hook. Feminism, as we are often reminded, is for everyone. This is precisely because we’d all be better off if gender-labor did not exist. Not only would our freedom of action would be expanded, but a support beam of capitalism would topple.

You may be wondering what the practicalities of this argument are. What does it matter what the exact ontological relation between labor and gender is? There are endless replies one might give, but the best I think has to do with the continuity of struggle. By understanding work- that is labor we have to engage in- as the foundation of countless different forms of domination and power, we see the outlines of a unity of interests among all those who struggle in some way against this world- that is to say almost all of us. This is not conceptual play, but an attempt to show how the liberation of any is connected to that of all, and thus showing the material basis of solidarity.

Image

When we think of labor, we all too often imagine a factory. Do not imagine though that without care labor, like that embodied in each cup of tea, the world would keep spinning. Tea makes the world spin.

* Slightly more technical footnote: Considered as a vast social institution, gender is a reservoir of capital. Like all capital, it is dead labor- the congealed work of people like us and. Like all capital, it comes to dominate us, even though it is our creation. Gender-capital dominates us so comprehensively that its domination seems natural to us. We neglect to question how many of our desires have been thwarted by gender before we could even develop them.

**See the preface of Midnight Oil by Midnight notes for a beautiful discussion of this point.

***When we understand Gender as labor, and a refusal to conform to one’s gender as a bit like a strike, the position of the TERF or trans*exclusive feminist is revealed as laughable. The TERF is like that annoying co-worker who decries the inequity and absurdity of their job, but who would sell out in a heartbeat anyone who might take industrial action against the conditions in their workplace. The sort of person who’s always saying “life isn’t fair”- but uses this to argue against- not for- changing it.

Gender is work!

April 23, 2014

You wake up in the morning and put on certain clothes. You either apply or don’t apply makeup. You check on or don’t check on the children. You either lay out or enjoy the meal. All of these things are iconic gendered actions you might perform in the first half an hour after waking up.

I’ve previously argued that, very inexactly speaking, various forms of oppression are not just associated with the class struggle, or intersecting vectors with the class struggle, but exist as components in that struggle. It seems to me that nowhere is this clearer than gender, and by extension sexuality, so I thought it could be a useful test case to lay out in broad outlines how a view which sees gender and class as an integrated whole might work. Various theorists have made the point that gender is something we constantly enact and re-enact. As these theorists have argued, to really break down what gender is, we have to stop looking at it as a state and start considering it as action. The most celebrated of such approaches is to analyze gender as performance. Whether performance is an adequate way of understanding gender is something I won’t enter into here, I have no quarrels with such an analysis in this post. However I think that another, potentially more fruitful way of considering the actions that create gender is through the concept of labor.

Let me be clear, I am not just suggesting that gender is closely associated with certain kinds of labor, or that certain kinds of labor would not exist or would be differently distributed if gender did not exist. I am saying that gender is labor. This is not a metaphor; I believe gender is strictly identical with certain types of labor we preform*. This labor includes both accumulated dead labor- the grime of centuries- and the living daily action we engage in, though not wholly of our own volition.

One way of understanding what we’re getting at here is to contrast traditional Marxist approaches to gender, traditional non-Marxist approaches to gender, and the approach that is being suggested here. Both traditional non-Marxist approaches to gender, and traditional Marxist approaches recognize that gender is associated with a tremendous quantity of labor of various sorts. Traditionalist Marxists think that gender exists in order that this labor might be extracted, whereas many (but not all) non-Marxists typically think that gender is in a sense prior to this labor, and perhaps exists for other reasons. The view I’m presenting here, which has previously been argued for by a number of Marxists in the autonomist tradition, is that gender is not merely associated with this labor- it is this labor. By extension asking whether gender struggle is prior to the class struggle, or whether the class struggle is prior to gender, or whether they are related but interacting struggles is to miss point, for they are one. To be more exact, class, understood as where and how one earns one’s living, and gender, are both sub-categories of the larger problem- the extraction of involuntary labor**.

Gender is mandatory action, laid out in certain compulsory patterns. This mandatory action (alienated labor) generates enormous value. Gender is intimately connected to the way we raise children- needed for the reproduction of capitalism. The gender norms most of us help create and enforce are used to market products to us. Further, gender creates patterns of behavior (like being nurturing or playing sports) that produce skills and attributes we deploy on the job- thus as Selma James noted gender works to specialize us into different work roles. All this is only a portion of the value gender creates for capitalism. Gender then is not merely labor, but absolutely critical labor to sustain capitalist society. What the queer movement and the forms of feminism with any real prospect*** have in common is a refusal to conform to mandatory patterns of behavior, in other words, a refusal of the assigned labor of gender. To refuse to conform to assigned gender patterns is, in a sense to strike.

The nature of gender as labor is obscured by several factors, three of which seem especially important to me.

1. It does not occur at a particular site (though of course the home is something of a focus), and nearly everyone, not just a particular sub-group, performs it.
2. Gender-labor is not managed by anyone in particular, but is rather management is distributed throughout society though not evenly.
3. Precisely because it is both unpaid and critical to the continuation of this false society, official ideology must never, or perhaps only rarely, concede analogies between gender-labor, and formal, paid labor and great pains are taken to mask this identity by presenting it as something natural, something given freely.

To suggest that the primary antagonism of gender is the antagonism between the genders is a bit like saying that the primary antagonism in a workplace is between the well paid office clerks and the manual laborers- and to ignore the bosses. Frictions between the genders are real, but to identify them as primary is to let the boss off the hook. Feminism, as we are often reminded, is for everyone. This is precisely because we’d all be better off if gender-labor did not exist. Not only would our freedom of action would be expanded, but a support beam of capitalism would topple.

You may be wondering what the practicalities of this argument are. What does it matter what the exact ontological relation between labor and gender is? There are endless replies one might give, but the best I think has to do with the continuity of struggle. By understanding work- that is labor we have to engage in- as the foundation of countless different forms of domination and power, we see the outlines of a unity of interests among all those who struggle in some way against this world- that is to say almost all of us. This is not conceptual play, but an attempt to show how the liberation of any is connected to that of all, and thus showing the material basis of solidarity.

* Slightly more technical footnote: Considered as a vast social institution, gender is a reservoir of capital. Like all capital, it is dead labor- the congealed work of people like us and. Like all capital, it comes to dominate us, even though it is our creation. Gender-capital dominates us so comprehensively that its domination seems natural to us. We neglect to question how many of our desires have been thwarted by gender before we could even develop them.

**See the preface of Midnight Oil by Midnight notes for a beautiful discussion of this point.

***When we understand Gender as labor, and a refusal to conform to one’s gender as a bit like a strike, the position of the TERF or trans*exclusive feminist is revealed as laughable. The TERF is like that annoying co-worker who decries the inequity and absurdity of their job, but who would sell out in a heartbeat anyone who might take industrial action against the conditions in their workplace. The sort of person who’s always saying “life isn’t fair”- but uses this to argue against- not for- changing it.

The Politics of Clarity, Some Thoughts

March 30, 2014

The politics of clarity and being an academic

The academic left, both in its Marxist and Poststructuralist forms, has a reputation for writing unclearly. I don’t think this reputation is undeserved. I also don’t find anything especially praiseworthy about a lack of clarity- I don’t think it enriches thought or strengthens political movements, nor do I think it is capable of showing truths clearer writing can’t.

The two problems of unclear political writing are that:

1. Its audience is diminished.

2. It insulates itself both against criticism and use.

Why then is it so prevalent among leftist academics? Awful as it is to admit, academics that have leftist politics, and talk about political questions in their work often seem to be less clear in their writing than more centrist authors and ‘apolitical’ authors.

There has been much excellent work on the dangers and prevalence of impenetrable prose (and speech) among leftists, for example this superb essay. Rather than providing further documentation of the problem, or moral exhortation against it, I’m interested in inquiring why leftist prose, especially by academics, is so clotted.

Explanations spring up easily, from the right wing view that leftism is wooly headed by nature, to the historical reality that most leftist thought can trace a lineage to that most turgid and pompous of philosophers, Hegel.

My preferred explanation traces the problem to the lives of academics. We all too often forget that academics are employees. Their bread and rent money does not simply apparate to them as they scrabble at dusty tomes. They are paid by universities. If they are leftist academics then the institutions they work for- controlled by private or state capital- are ultimately hostile to their ideas.

Despite this hostility, universities wish to possess leftist intellectuals. It backs their claim to be intellectually open, thus it helps them fulfill their role in bourgeois ideology. Even if the university did not desire to have leftists on its payroll, struggles by students and staff mean the complete repression of the academic left is impossible.

So an uneasy deal must be reached. Academics may say what they like, but soft power is employed to prevent them from saying it too clearly. They must also confine themselves to analysis and interpretation of the world, they may only contribute marginally or indirectly to changing it.

The deal is analogous to many other ceasefires capitalism makes with its opposition. Similar, but on a vastly larger scale, consider the union official. Help me out through creating labour discipline says the boss to the union official and I’ll help you out with higher wages. In other words, let me use your struggle as part of my enterprise, and things will work out better for the both of us. Union struggles thus become a series of play battles which actually increase the productivity of the firm. What would have been spontaneous unmanaged struggle becomes part of the process. Raise the citation rate of the university and increase our brand in intellectual diversity, and don’t offend sensibilities by being too open about these things and I’ll give you a job talking about how much you hate capitalism says the vice-chancellor. Our resistance becomes a nice fly wheel in the turnings and whirrings of academic capital once the sharper edges are blunted.

In my philosophy department common room there is a shelf of old copies of Thesis Eleven, covering numberless topics. I am fortunate to be able to read it, most of my friends, even my politically minded friends, cannot. The title of the journal refers to the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, in Theses on Feuerbach by Marx. Often given in English as:

Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world, the point however is to change it.

I won’t drag you along by listing the ironies here.

Lest I be misinterpreted, let me be clear on what I mean by this essay. I’m not calling for a moralistic struggle against difficult writing. None of us are blameless and, mea culpa, I’ve written obscurely because I want to look smart or because I can’t be bothered writing more clearly. If something is written on a difficult subject, it will never be wholly easy.

I’m not proposing the end of jargon, because jargon often serves a purpose. It’s not just the self-indulgent creature it’s slandered as. Without jargon, writing on many topics would be overly long and patronizing. Nor do I think we should shrink down our working vocabulary as small as possible- rare words are a joy of reading.

I do not thinking that thumping the table with a copy of Orwell’s rules for writers is the solution either. It is true that clear writing should not be verbose, but Orwell’s Spartan style is not the only route to clarity.

I also don’t think we should ignore the way in which demands for clarity can be used as a nasty rhetorical trick. I’ve been the victim of this myself. Leftists will demand of each other explanations of the simplest terms in rival traditions, but freely use their own preferred jargon. Sometimes writing is difficult because it has to be, and even if something should be better written, this is no excuse for dismissing it.

The solution isn’t theorizing about clarity. We all know how to write and speak clearly. We can all balance it against other concerns- such as being poetic, intriguing and not too lengthy. Some of us may be more skilled in clarity. Some may have fallen out of practice. But we are all at capable of it. The problem is political and practical, not intellectual.

In the academy, clarity among the left can only come from a political choice to struggle and face disapproval- not merely write obscurely for an obscure audience. We must dishonor the comfortable agreement that leaves us unmolested, but requires we write in chic code. A strange kind of workplace struggle, but a workplace struggle nonetheless.

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Libertarianism- between what is and what should be (the brief refutation of most right libertarians)

January 16, 2014

If it is to fit with the actual political beliefs of most libertarians, (right) libertarianism as a political philosophy needs to do two things:

1.Show that property ownership isn’t simply an arbitrary legal or culturally recognized claim, but represents a real moral entitlement that must be respected.

2. Show that actual, existing claims to property ownership are, at least largely, legitimate property claims. (In other words, that most apparent property claims really do reflect property ownership.)

It’s obvious though that 1 & 2 are in tension. Because if stolen goods should be considered as property, and theft is legitimate, effectively anything goes, but by the libertarian’s own standards, almost everything is stolen. Consider, for example, the vast amounts of corporate property which, on a libertarian account, are basically stolen goods since they would be impossible without subsidies. Consider also the vast quantities of land which are stolen, especially and most obviously in colonized nations like Australia, North America etc.- but even in Europe there is probably not a stretch of land that has not been stolen at some point. Worse, the illegitimacy of this property ripples out through the economy. If own a widget maker which is, effectively, stolen goods, and I make widgets with it, those widgets are not mine and I don’t have the right to sell them, they are effectively stolen goods. If I do sell them the new owner is an owner in name only. Thus like an infection, illegitimacy spreads through the economy, and everything is effectively stolen goods.

Some Libertarians respond with the suggestion that before we could enter into a Libertarian Utopia, a phase of redistribution is necessary. Effectively they drop (2). Cut it all up, and give everyone an equal or other non-arbitrary amount they suggest. But while they may argue this from the armchair, in the daily conduct of political debate they always seem to accept and defend existing property claims as legitimate.

Libertarians must either A) Join the left in calls for the existing situation of property division to be abolished. B) Admit that their view simply amounts to the acceptance of the status quo, whatever that may be.

Trigger warnings and run away safety culture

November 27, 2013

[Draft in progress]

 

Safety is an interesting concept. What do you think you need in order to feel completely safe? What would make you feel safer? Here’s another question, would thinking about what would make you feel safer all the time make you feel safer, or would it trap you in a spiral of ever increasing anxieties?

The left has become obsessed with safety in a way we find counterproductive. This includes institutions like trigger warnings, and other ways of relentlessly trying to avoid triggers. Our critique will focus on institutions created around preventing triggering, particular the trigger warning, but could be extended to some other forms of concern about safety on the left. This is not to say that we consider safety to be unimportant or uninteresting, but we feel the left has gone out of balance on these issues.

 

The kind of focus on safety in interpersonal contexts that we are worried about has no limit. There will never be a point where people stop saying triggering things to each other without trigger warnings. Instead we are left with a permanent war for safety, as futile as a puritan war on sin or the American war on drugs and just as counterproductive.

 

We say counterproductive because for us and many of the people we’ve talked to about this, nothing serves to reinforce our ongoing experience of trauma quite as well as endless fussing about safety. Every trigger warning, every discussion about whether or not something might be triggering, brings to the edge of our consciousness the experience of trauma, but doesn’t even give us the opportunity to face it head on. As we scroll through the Facebook pages and read:

Trigger warning- Rape

Trigger warning- Depression

Trigger warning- Suicide

Trigger warning- Violence

 

Over and over and over and over again we are constructed, over and over, as the vulnerable subjects of trauma. We are reminded of trauma by endless efforts to exclude it. Not only do the memories still come, but we are increasingly encouraged to see them as triggering. Past experiences that we may not have previously thought were traumatic begin to be experienced as trauma.

 

All we can say is that in our experience, trigger warnings have not been helpful. We suspect that this experience is quite common. We also suspect that many trauma survivors have been encouraged to think that trigger warnings are helping them cope with their trauma, where in reality trigger warnings have been counterproductive.

 

We recognize that there is a diversity of experiences, but tentatively propose the abolition of trigger warnings, and similar institutions which aim to exclude triggering experiences.

 

To put the case in point form:

1      Trigger warnings make us less safe by encouraging us to obsess over our safety. The more time we spend thinking about it, the more we begin to identify as unsafe. Things that were previously just at the margins can become quite threatening. Constant debate and discussion about safety won’t let it out of our minds, and so thinking about the concept begins to overwhelm us.

2.       Trigger warnings make trauma, and our recollection of trauma, eternally salient. Thus we encounter not just the word “rape”, for example, but a reminder that rape may remind us of our trauma, the association between our memories, and the traumatic experience of those memories, is strengthened. At the same time we never directly confront our memories full on, so we have the worst of both worlds, trauma is at the edge of consciousness, but not quite there. Trigger warnings seem to be helping, because they enable us to avoid full blown recollection of trauma in contexts where they are used consistently, but in the long run the practice strengthens the traumatic aspects of our memories.

3.       Trigger warnings enable us to avoid recollecting trauma. You may respond that this gives us the choice of whether to confront our trauma or not, but things are not so simple. When we are given the option of avoiding recollections of trauma, it can be hard not to take it. Trigger warnings can enable the self-destructive behavior of avoidance. We may not wish to engage in such avoidance, but the temptation is strong, and trigger warnings have the potential to enable that.

 

Written by a group of trauma survivors.