The Anarchist Township

Fight the war, fuck the norm!

A New Project for Personal Accountability

In order to better make sense of the last few years and trying to move forward with my life I’ve decided to buy the following four books:

  • South of Forgiveness: A True Story About Rape and Responsibility
  • When Things Fall Apart
  • So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
  • The Worm at the Core: On The Role of Death in Life

I shall dedicate myself to writing book reviews of each and writing some notes down for each book. I will be doing one book a month and trying to get each book review done before the month is over.

I bought the first book because although the accusations against me were partially untrue, I also know that I have not done my best with issues of consent and boundaries in these past few years or so. I want to do better and I think this book can help convince me that I can still be a good or better person even after making terrible mistakes in my life.

I bought the second book on the recommendation of Emmi Bevensee and their wonderful series on autonomy and consent over on C4SS. Specifically their most recent article on Whisper Networks. I’ve been enjoying their series, however difficult it can be to read at times.

I bought the third book to see how others have dealt with accusations and what to make of shame in my life. This book has a more cursory role to do with me bettering myself but I want to see how I can react better in the future, help others in the future and just get me to think about shame with regards to its role in social activism communities.

I bought the fourth book so I can think about the role of death in my own life. Especially as someone who deals with chronic depression, anxiety, existential crises and feels as if they can’t do any better at times, I want to re-examine how death motivates and demotivates. I also find terror management theory fascinating and want to learn more about it.

In addition to these books I’ve been discussing issues as varied as my anger problems, my past issues with consent, my problems dealing with existence itself and how I can be a better person. I’ve had similar discussions with my group of close friends to good results.

Lastly, I’ve been journaling for a few months now and recently reached entry 100 on it. In those entries I talk about what I am thankful for, what I am feeling and what solutions I can do to improve myself.

I contemplated posting a 6 month retrospective and update on what I’ve been up to but this seems shorter and hopefully speaks for itself.

Looking forward to working on myself in the coming months.

Take care and thanks for reading.

Accountability

My first attempt at accountability failed because I engaged in gaslighting and a violation of privacy in order to discount the fact that I made a mistake. It reeked of excuse-making instead of remorse. I’m sorry for that.

The second version lacked those elements but my mistakes were poorly framed as one recent issue when that is not the case, nor did I believe that to be the case.

I genuinely want to do better, so I want to try again. This time I want to explicitly name the actions I feel responsible for and the issues I have had these past years and what I’m doing to try to avoid them in the future.

Recently, I took advantage of a situation I should not have. When someone is drinking, regardless of how they seem or what they say, the responsible  thing to do is to not have sex with them. I did not do the responsible thing and I’m sorry.

When you’re in an abusive relationship and needs are not being met, the responsible thing to do would be to take a break. It would be to move out and get some much needed space before things gets worse. I didn’t and I’m sorry. I took advantage of this person multiple times before I got help and I’m sorry for that too.

When multiple people tell you online that you make them feel uncomfortable the responsible thing would be to stop the thing in question, e.g “compliments”. Instead, I blamed other people for not being direct enough (when they often were doing just that) and made “accountability” statements online that, at times, were not even pretending to be anything but purely defensive and I’m sorry.

I’m willing to elaborate on any of these issues as needed.

If there’s something more I can do within the framework of transformative, restorative, or other forms of justice, I’m interested in listening.

Concretely speaking: I’m going to avoid sexual relationships that have anything to do with alcohol, develop and maintain solid boundaries about I want in a relationship and cease most online flirting with the exception of partners, people who are flirting with me or people I have an established history with.

More abstractly: I’m going to continue to reflect on the harm I’ve caused, speak openly and honestly to my pod, talk to my new therapist and think about how I can do better and be better with regards to communication and accountability itself.

I’m sorry to those I’ve harmed.

Concerning the Allegations Against Me

Edit: I originally wrote something else out, but this was my original statement and I think it’s much less problematic than my former. I appreciate the perspectives of those who have commented and this is my attempt to take those under consideration.

Recently, I went to visit a friend.

We had been talking off and on and had met in person once. I knew them through the anarchist scene and became friends with them because of how smart, compassionate and nuanced I felt they were as a person. I thought they were this beautiful person who I really wanted to get to know and meet up with again, so I did that.

We talked about boundaries and what we wanted out of the experience a month beforehand, I used my “things I think about when it comes to cuddling list” to explicitly communicate what we would both be interested in.

We had both agreed we were not interested in sexual or romantic interaction. I stand by that I was never interested in that happening. I had not had sex with anyone in over a year. Sex is an anxiety-provoking, high-sensory and ultimately dissatisfying experience for me and I had only faint (if any) interest in having it happen with this person.

As far as romance, it became complicated because we had different notions of what it means to cuddle and how often it should happen between friends. My cuddling/affection towards friends is intended to be platonic but the line can be tricky and I recognize that I overdid it at times. When they later told me they were uncomfortable with touch in general, I stopped.

When I got to the airport, I texted them and told them that I was there. They said they’d order pizza but that they needed to concentrate on their work for a little bit before we could hang out. I said that was fine and that I’d need some time to decompress anyways.

We also had a brief discussion about whether I drank. I told them that I didn’t and when it came to touch, I prefer not to touch people when they’re under the influence of alcohol. Knowing this, they told me that they’d take it easy that weekend. This was a loose rule of mine. I have a person in my life who at one point was drunk and wanted to have sex with me and said it would be 100% fine but I felt uncomfortable because they were exercising impairing judgement.

And so much to my chagrin I’ve been in a similar situation and made a better choice than I did this time around. As you’ll soon (hopefully) see, it’s because I underestimated their similarity.

When I got to this person’s apartment a series of things happened involving food that showed the person who was hosting me had communication, anger and alcohol issues. I am not judging this person for their issues but I mention them because they contributed to our misunderstandings (emphasis on our, not just theirs) about sex and touching more generally. Later in the trip my host would agree that my visit showed them they need to work on communication, which I think speaks to these issues being apparent.

In order to cope with these frustrations and their anger issues (which I don’t remember being told about/knowing about) they decided to start drinking. At that point we had begun talking and discussing things about our lives and relating to each other heavily. The bottle they were drinking out of made me weary but it seemed like a large wine bottle at the time and that there wasn’t a lot left in it.

I looked at the bottle and it said 11% alcohol content which didn’t sound like a lot to me, but I do not know a lot about alcohol. I should have done more research but as it turns out it’s a fairly weak to normal drink. There was around ¼ of the bottle left when my host began to drink it and generally speaking they were acting relatively normal (if perhaps a bit happier/friendlier) so I presumed things were okay.

And then things began to get flirtatious between us. They were acting very gregarious and friendly towards me all of the sudden. I knew it was the alcohol to some extent but they also seemed to be genuinely feeling these emotions too so, with their verbal permission, I started reciprocating.

I asked them if they were okay with touch, at all. Then as things got more physical I would ask as time went along whether they were comfortable and aware of what was going on. As I remember it, they repeatedly stressed things were fine and that they were just tipsy. Eventually I just took them at their word and decided that they seemed cognizant and aware. I concluded that through their actions, their ability to communicate and what I said previously of the alcohol itself.

I now know I should not have taken them at their word and that the responsible thing to do would be to not have had sex with them. They have since claimed they were a) scared b) blackout drunk and I do not remember them acting like either. That said, I am not an expert on that level of drunk (or any level) or reading emotions but I know what fear looks like and I’ve seen folks that level of drunk before from people in real life and in media.

And to the best of my knowledge, they never looked, sounded or generally came off as afraid or blackout drunk. If they had and I had seen it, nothing would have happened. Instead, they seemed very confident and happy with what was going on. It’s of course possible (and this is the case according to them) I misread the situation but that was my reading at the time and it’s my memory currently.

After we had sex we talked about it for the next few days off and on. We mutually agreed it was problematic (though not morally, that was never an area of discussion) and we shouldn’t do it again. I felt bad because of my own self-esteem issues but those things had nothing to do with them and I regret that I couldn’t just let it go and move on at first.

I made a mistake in not saying, “No, let’s wait until you’re a little more sober.” but I did not rape them and I am not a serial rapist. I was irresponsible and will not be having sex with anyone who even touches a drop of alcohol in the future.

I recognize that this situation is (at best) a gray area and one that I actively had a hand in. This gray area ended up making this person feel sexually traumatized and violated and I’m sorry for that.

I deeply regret that this person now experiences what seemed to be a good time for both of us (if misguided) as rape. I don’t know what to say about that except that I did the best I could to make sure they felt comfortable and OK with what was happening. I failed in that and I am very sorry.

I’m not writing this out to refute anyone’s story or claim that anyone is lying. I just want to tell my side of the story to the best of my ability so it’s out there and known.

If there’s anything more I can do to make things right besides changing my personal behaviors surrounding alcohol, speaking about my side of events, feel free to contact me. Again, I’m very sorry for what happened and I’m doing the best I can to take personal stock of myself.

The Voltairine de Cleyre Reference Guide

Recently I got a message, because I’ve changed my last name to Cleyre, saying (roughly), “Hey, I notice you like Voltairine and so do I. What do you recommend by her and what stands out to you about her?”

I was about to answer when it struck me…how many damn times have I been asked this? Seriously, over the course of the past 7 years (since I discovered de Cleyre in 2010) I’ve gotten this question numerous times.

Not that it’s been burdensome or mysterious.

I love Voltairine de Cleyre and I’ve never been silent about that. On the contrary I’ve been heavily vocal about it over the past 7 years.

And so time after time I’ve answered that question…but never in a direct way except privately. And even in those links I’ve explained it in roundabout ways which are now somewhat dated.

I’ve also explained it by just simply republishing her work and letting it speak for itself. I’ve also helped published whole collections of her work online that previously were not available otherwise. And with those I was also trying to let the work speak for itself.

But I suppose it’s time to just answer the damn question.

First things first, story time!

Discovering de Cleyre

I can’t really talk about why de Cleyre means so much to me (second question first!) without talking about how I discovered her work to begin with. It started when I went to Colby-Sawyer College in 2010. I was looking in their library for whatever books on anarchism they had and it was a rather pitiful collection, naturally.

But they had a collection of writings by Emma Goldman, an introduction to anarchism by Colin Ward and a book called Exquisite Rebel (edited by Sharon Presley and Cirspin Sartwell) which was a collection of writings (and some introductions by Presley and Sartwell) by an anarchist named Voltairine de Cleyre. I had never heard of her before (or if I had it wasn’t very much) and was very interested in reading her work.

For the life of me, I can’t remember which book I picked first but I suspect it was the de Cleyre book. I believe I picked up Goldman’s compilation and then Ward’s introduction, but funnily enough I read way more de Cleyre before I ever did Goldman, which I’m sure is not true for many of my fellow anarchists.

And also funnily enough I hardly remember what I read of Goldman (or Ward for that matter) but de Cleyre stays with me till this day. When discussions about how great Goldman is inevitably happen amongst my anarchist friends, I’m often left mumbling something about how de Cleyre is clearly superior, at least in her style if nothing else.

Part of de Cleyre’s memorability is because de Cleyre’s writings came to me in an impressionable time. I was still forming my ideas on anarchism and what I liked and what I didn’t. I was still trying to figure out what I liked as a writer and what I didn’t and de Cleyre contributed immensely to both of these soul searching (so to speak) processes.

de Cleyre actually contributed to a brief period of my life in 2011 where I contemplated moving away from the market anarchist label entirely and sticking with anarchism without adjectives.

It’s actually an inner struggle I’m still dealing with, 6 years later.

Her writings immediately caught my eye as imaginative beyond belief. They were immaculate and beautiful, the way she would express the most poignant of humanity’s struggles with such clarity, focus and tailor made beauty, seemed incomprehensible and comparable to me.

Take, for example, this passage from The Dominant Idea:

Last summer I trained some morning-glory vines up over a second story balcony; and every day they blew and curled in the wind, their white, purple-dashed faces winking at the sun, radiant with climbing life. Higher every day the green heads crept, carrying their train of spreading fans waving before the sun-seeking blossoms.

Then all at once some mischance happened, some cut worm or some mischievous child tore one vine off below, the finest and most ambitious one, of course. In a few hours the leaves hung limp, the sappy stem wilted and began to wither; in a day it was dead, — all but the top which still clung longingly to its support, with bright head lifted. I mourned a little for the buds that could never open now, and tied that proud vine whose work in the world was lost.

But the next night there was a storm, a heavy, driving storm, with beating rain and blinding lightning. I rose to watch the flashes, and lo! the wonder of the world! In the blackness of the mid-NIGHT, in the fury of wind and rain, the dead vine had flowered. Five white, moon-faced blossoms blew gaily round the skeleton vine, shining back triumphant at the red lightning. I gazed at them in dumb wonder.

Dear, dead vine, whose will had been so strong to bloom, that in the hour of its sudden cut-off from the feeding earth, it sent the last sap to its blossoms; and, not waiting for the morning, brought them forth in storm and flash, as white night-glories, which should have been the children of the sun.

In the daylight we all came to look at the wonder, marveling much, and saying, “Surely these must be the last.” But every day for three days the dead vine bloomed; and even a week after, when every leaf was dry and brown, and so thin you could see through it, one last bud, dwarfed, weak, a very baby of a blossom, but still white and delicate, with five purple flecks, like those on the live vine beside it, opened and waved at the stars, and waited for the early sun.

Over death and decay the Dominant Idea smiled: the vine was in the world to bloom, to bear white trumpet blossoms dashed with purple; and it held its will beyond death.

This short meditation on life, death and perseverance is just one small part of this fantastic essay and an infinitesimal part of de Cleyre’s overall bibliography and her use of gorgeous imagery to prove a larger and important theoretical point.

But it wasn’t just de Cleyre’s prose but her passion. Her passion for anarchism was absolutely contagious. The way she describes anarchism is perhaps one of my favorite passages about anarchism written anywhere. It’s written like a poet and, I suppose, being a poet myself, I’m biased on this matter, but I think it’s worth highlighting as well:

Ah, once to stand unflinchingly on the brink of that dark gulf of passions and desires, once at last to send a bold, straight-driven gaze down into the volcanic Me, once, and in that once, and in that once forever, to throw off the command to cover and flee from the knowledge of that abyss, – nay, to dare it to hiss and seethe if it will, and make us writhe and shiver with its force!

Once and forever to realize that one is not a bundle of well-regulated little reasons bound up in the front room of the brain to be sermonized and held in order with copy-book maxims or moved and stopped by a syllogism, but a bottomless, bottomless depth of all strange sensations, a rocking sea of feeling where ever sweep strong storms of unaccountable hate and rage, invisible contortions of disappointment, low ebbs of meanness, quakings and shudderings of love that drives to madness and will not be controlled, hungerings and meanings and sobbing that smite upon the inner ear, now first bent to listen, as if all the sadness of the sea and the wailing of the great pine forests of the North had met to weep together there in that silence audible to you alone.

To look down into that, to know the blackness, the midnight, the dead ages in oneself, to feel the jungle and the beast within, – and the swamp and the slime, and the desolate desert of the heart’s despair – to see, to know, to feel to the uttermost, – and then to look at one’s fellow, sitting across from one in the street-car, so decorous, so well got up, so nicely combed and brushed and oiled and to wonder what lies beneath that commonplace exterior, – to picture the cavern in him which somewhere far below has a narrow gallery running into your own – to imagine the pain that racks him to the finger-tips perhaps while he wears that placid ironed-shirt-front countenance – to conceive how he too shudders at himself and writhes and flees from the lava of his heart and aches in his prison-house not daring to see himself – to draw back respectfully from the Self-gate of the plainest, most unpromising creature, even from the most debased criminal, because one knows the nonentity and the criminal in oneself – to spare all condemnation (how much more trial and sentence) because one knows the stuff of which man is made and recoils at nothing since all is in himself, – this is what Anarchism may mean to you. It means that to me.

And then, to turn cloudward, starward, skyward, and let the dreams rush over one – no longer awed by outside powers of any order – recognizing nothing superior to oneself – painting, painting endless pictures, creating unheard symphonies that sing dream sounds to you alone, extending sympathies to the dumb brutes as equal brothers, kissing the flowers as one did when a child, letting oneself go free, go free beyond the bounds of what fear and custom call the “possible,” – this too Anarchism may mean to you, if you dare to apply it so.

And if you do some day, – if sitting at your work-bench, you see a vision of surpassing glory, some picture of that golden time when there shall be no prisons on the earth, nor hunger, nor houselessness, nor accusation, nor judgment, and hearts open as printed leaves, and candid as fearlessness, if then you look across at your lowbrowed neighbor, who sweats and smells and curses at his toil, – remember that as you do not know his depth neither do you know his height. He too might dream if the yoke of custom and law and dogma were broken from him.

Even now you know not what blind, bound, motionless chrysalis is working there to prepare its winged thing.

Anarchism means freedom to the soul as to the body, – in every aspiration, every growth.

It was these passages and many more that convinced me of the importance of her work. It was her passion, her cadence (so to speak) and her life that further captured my attention and adoration. The way de Cleyre lived her life, while not perfect, was saintly or priestly in a way (which is why she is sometimes called the “Priestess of Pity and Vengeance”) and admirable in how she dealt with the world around her.

Particularly how she dealt with Herman Helcher, a former student who ran up to de Cleyre and shot her point blank over a perceived slight against him that she had in fact not committed:

But as she recovered, she flatly refused to identify or accuse Herman as her attacker.

She took it a major step further by leading a fund raising campaign and hiring two lawyers to defend Herman.

Not to mention de Cleyre also took the time to write a letter to her comrades so that they might help Helcher.

de Cleyre did not leave a perfect life, of course. She was often in poverty, had a fairly miserable love life by all accounts and was periodically ignored or discounted by the larger anarchist scene. Though thankfully this has changed (and for the better) as of recently thanks to the work of folks like Presley and Sartwell.

Not to mention the work of the folks at AK Press and their VDC Reader (which this article’s title is a riff on). Also worth mentioning is Gates of Freedom by the late and great Eugenia C. DeLamotte and the (soon to be not out of print?) wonderful biography by Paul Avrich.

The recently re-published collection of de Cleyre’s Selected Works by AK is great too.

So okay, this probably more than answers the second question…and if it doesn’t, I could keep going, but that seems unnecessary for general  purposes. If you need more reasons why de Cleyre is so important to me then here’s the quick 101:

  • Voltairine (much like Karl Hess) was under-appreciated in her time and continues to be under-appreciated, thus motivating me to speak more about her than others.
  • Her work is important because it can help bridge ideological gaps between individualist anarchism and more socialist forms of anarchism (c.f. The Individualist and the Communist: A Dialogue, Anarchism, Anarchism and American Traditions).
  • The way she lived her life is admirable and in particular we could all learn from her in matters of justice. Her priestly ways (living on small means with common garb) is perhaps not for everyone but reflects her dedication to her ideas that is worth broadly emanating if nothing else.
  • Her poetry and sketches are particularly fine works of art that deserve to be highlighted. Voltairine was seemingly a natural poet (she wrote her first poem at age 6, c.f. Avrich p. 25-26) and writer at a young age and she only got better.

There’s more, there’s always more, but let’s get to the first question.

So You’re Going to Read Voltairine, eh?

Maybe you don’t give a rat’s ass (please don’t, that’s gross) about why I love de Clerye and you’ve really just clicked on the link to get to the section that’ll give you the goods on where to start.

Well seems rude, but okay.

Let’s go:

  • For a full understanding of de Cleyre’s theory and how it beautifully intersects, I recommend (ironically) one of her first works, The Economic Tendency of Freethought. I think this is a wonderful place to start if you just want to understand the bare-bones of what de Cleyre tended to believe throughout her life. It combines the best elements of her freethought, her anarchism and her feminism in one essay.
  • If you want to get the best handle on de Cleyre’s feminism I recommend Sex Slavery which is a powerful indictment of patriarchal relations in society. The Gates of Freedom is also highly underrated and Those Who Marry Do Ill is a solid choice as well.
  • For de Cleyre’s freethought The Economic Tendency  is still likely your best choice as it’s where she states most of her beliefs. Oddly, after this essay de Cleyre never focuses on it within the form of an essay, at least not at the same level of concern and depth she does there. Other than that I would recommend her poetry from Selected Works which includes The Burial of My Past Self, The Christian’s Plea and The Freethinker’s Plea.
  • Studying de Cleyre’s anarchism is slightly difficult and it’s debatable what sort of anarchist de Cleyre even was (that’s for another time) but leaving this contentious topic aside I’m most likely to recommend Anarchism which I think captured de Cleyre at her most intellectually charitable and challenging. The Making of an Anarchist may be a good second option. I recommend these as opposed to Why I am an Anarchist or Anarchism and American Traditions, both of which I find slightly too partisan (to say nothing of The Individualist and the Communist).
  • de Cleyre also dabbled in philosophy and perhaps her best work was The Dominant Idea as well as Crime and Punishment, both of which asked many tough questions about human “nature” and our desire to act in bad faith or to desire punishment of others. The Dominant Idea is also perhaps one of my favorite overall works by de Cleyre, if you were curious.
  • If you need some tactics/strategy in your life Direct Action is definitely the way to go. It’s a great historical read on what direct has been constituted by and why it’s worth considering in the anarchist toolbox. If that doesn’t do it for you, check out A Study of the General Strike in Philadelphia for de Cleyre using a case study in her advocacy of direct action.
  • Want to read some of de Cleyre’s poetry? Oh hell yeah, I got some recommendations. Ave et Vale is a wonderful poem if you’re about to ring in a New Year and it’s a really powerful piece about social change and  oppression no matter what. Life or Death (also see here for an excellent audio rendition I helped coordinate) is an excellent poem about choosing to live and it’s helped me choose to live more than once. The Hurricane is a beautiful poem about the potential of social change. There’s many poems (also check out her Selected Works) to recommend but those three are great places to start and some of my favorites.
  • Wanna get really nerdy and read some of her sketches? Hell yes I’ve got some recommendations for you! A Rocket of Iron is a beautiful but haunting sketch on oppression and the individual. The Heart of Angiolillo is a beautiful anti-romantic feminist sketch that is as poignant as it is tragic. Great for the “woke” male-feminists in your life. To Strive and Fail / Sorrows of the Body are best read in tandem about the horrors of work. Honestly, most of de Cleyre’s sketches are a bit of a downer, so make sure you’re in the right head-space for that. They’re beautiful but often in a very sad way.
  • And if you want to read some things written about de Cleyre…well gosh, we’re getting meta, aren’t we? In any case, there’s the classic done by Emma Goldman which is mostly solid (though contains a few minor errors here and there that’s been commented on by Presley and others and which Goldman herself apologized for). There’s Hippolye Havel’s introduction in de Cleyre’s Selected Works as well as Leonard Abbott’s tribute to de Cleyre. I also found a review by Abbott of Selected Works that is worth taking a look at and has some parts I found moving.
  • And heck, if you want to see de Cleyre herself (or as close as you’re going to get), as Abbott remarks, she’s buried near the Haymarket Martyrs in Waldheim Cemetery.

I think that’s about all I can (or need to) recommend and say about Voltairine, but I’m sure I could say more.

After all, there’s always more to say about Voltairine.

Well, for me.

‘Cause I’m a giant nerd.

Anarchy in the Playground! An Introduction to Youth Liberation

“The Youth Liberation Organization was founded in 1970 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA, by David Kaimowitz, Chuck Ream, and Liz Bell, and soon joined by Keith Hefner, Jon Schaller, Alice Robertson, and others.”

Introduction: Taking Youth Seriously

Youth Liberation is a framework from which we can end ageism, or the systematic and structural prejudice against youth based on their age. Ageism is personified by institutions such as compulsory schools, the structure of the family, and the state.

It should be noted that ageism can apply to the old as well as the young. And often these two distinct forms of ageism have similar overlap in how we treat both of these age groups.

But for the purposes of this essay I will be discussing how it applies to youth and be introducing the ideas of youth liberation. I will also be talking about how youth can empower themselves and ways in which adults can be allies in the struggle to end ageism.

Youth liberation can be summed by the following idea: Take youth seriously.

In this essay I’m defining “youth” as anyone under the age of 20. It’s an arbitrary age restriction and one could easily argue for the “mindset theory” of youth, in that it’s more of a frame of mind and attitude than a specific age group. And while I’m sympathetic to this idea I think it leads to a creeping in of undue adult influence in youth organizations. In addition, I believe that way of defining “youth” ends up looking too loose relative to how we usually picture youth.

I will sometimes qualify what kind of youth I am talking about when I speak about children or teenagers who I take to be different types of youth rather than apart from youth itself. There are many semantic arguments that could be had about any of these decisions but I will set them aside for the purpose of this paper.

To be clear, I’m an adult (25) and therefore only speak from my own experiences with my own previous youth and do not claim to speak for the youth of today. My recommendations for changing how we treat youth should be seen as attempting good allyship and nothing more.

All too often youths ideas are disregarded as foolish, non-serious and, at times, not even worth acknowledging. Indeed, the language of adults often sets itself apart from the world of children by using the term “childish”. As if having the imagination to be indignant at the world and the lack of social awareness to care what adults think is a bad thing.

Youths will often be subject to the cultural presumption that ideas should be weighed on the “seriousness” that they are displayed alongside of.

So adults have their black suits and ties, their graphs and charts and expensive clothing to signal they can be taken seriously. Youths and especially children often do not have the capital (material or social) to “compete” with the level of “seriousness” that many adults take as a baseline in order to discuss their ideas.

Youths are simply not living in the “real world” despite their countless comments on the state of the world and their own feelings about it. Perhaps the adults can reason that they’re too obsessed with “non-serious” pursuits like play to really change anything. But this sort of reasoning betrays the lack of trust we not only put in youths but also the idea of play itself.

When I interact with youths I always try my best to take them seriously first and foremost. If, for instance, I’m a cashier I will endeavor to treat children or teenagers as people as I might treat someone who is my age. I try not to use condescending tones and try my best to be seriously interested in their well-being. Part of that is me presuming that no one else might be or that even when adults do try to take youth’s interests seriously, they’re liable to inject their own adult biases into the conversation.

Naturally, none of us who are adults, whatever our age, are not exempt from injecting our own ideas of what children mean. I am no exception to this rule but unlike most other adults I have the privilege of recognizing my biases and making sure I keep them in check as best as possible.

Youth liberation relies on much more than just taking youth seriously, but it’s a fantastic start that many of us adults would do well to emulate. The cultural presumption that youth’s ideas are inherently less meaningful and important than adult’s needs to be questioned. And at the heart of ideas like these is that “seriousness” is only something reserved for leaders, who are (unsurprisingly) adults most of the time. Seriousness is only something to be had from people who are in higher positions of authority than us and who could be lower than youths?

But that’s exactly the problem; youths largely have these deficiencies of power and authority because of the presumption that they don’t need this access. They’re given game sets, crayon packs, pieces of paper and shuffled off while the “adults” plan their lives for them. As youths get older more and more excuses are given as to why some things are okay for them to do and why others are not. This becomes especially problematic when youths are teenagers and they are allowed to drive metallic boxes of terror (cars) but not ingest alcoholic beverages.

Youth liberation can be part of any philosophy and many youth rights organizations are likely liberal in their implementations. They want to see reforms like voting ages lowered as well as the drinking age either abolished or lowered. They may want things like the end to curfew laws entirely and make it more socially acceptable for youth to be involved in governmental politics.

All of these are worthy aspirations but they do not go far enough.

Instead, youth liberation as I conceive it is a radical philosophy that seeks to liberate youths by dismantling many of the current and prominent institutions in society. In addition, as I’ve tried to show already, youth liberation doesn’t only challenge institutions but it also challenges culture.

Specifically youth liberation seeks to challenge a system based on adult supremacy which is a system that inherently privileges some at the detriment of others. But instead of capitalism whereby those with the most capital are the most privileged, we have those who are “of age” having distinct presumptions and privileges put in their favor from the beginning.

To undermine these presumptions and privileges we must, as I shall argue, undermine the system that gives them this privilege. To do that we need to incorporate radical theories such as anarchism from which we get strategies like direct action, mutual aid, and dual power.

Youth Liberation and Anarchism

Throughout this section I’ll be drawing on the series No! Against Adult Supremacy which is currently a 20 issue zine series produced by Stinney Distro and contains many thoughtful articles.

For example, the first issue of No! has an article entitled Anarchism and Youth Liberation by Marc Silverstein. In this article Silverstein discusses the possible benefits of weaving youth liberation concerns through an anarchist framework.

Helpfully, Silverstein also gives a rough idea of what anarchism is, which is an excellent starting point to this section. Silverstein sees anarchism as “…based on the principles of individual sovereignty, non-coercion, free association and mutual aid…”

Silverstein sees these principles as countering the prevailing narratives of seeing children in a hierarchical relationship with their parents.

Along similar lines, anarchism has a longstanding history of being, at the very least, highly suspicious of hierarchies. If we want to give the proper attention to the way that children are currently dominated in hierarchical relationships, anarchism provides a useful and radical way of doing so.

Many of the relationships that children are put into such as with parents, schools, governments and others are often deeply entrenched with norms about who should have authority and should not. Often times reforms from more liberal minded youth liberationists, while well-intentioned, ultimately fail to get to the root of the issue.

Contrary to this, anarchism has been getting to the root of this issue for hundreds of years now, for example Emma Goldman was writing about these issues in her The Child and its Enemies in 1906 where she says:

Every institution of our day, the family, the State, our moral codes, sees in every strong, beautiful, uncompromising personality a deadly enemy; therefore every effort is being made to cramp human emotion and originality of thought in the individual into a straight-jacket from its earliest infancy; or to shape every human being according to one pattern; not into a well-rounded individuality, but into a patient work slave, professional automaton, tax-paying citizen, or righteous moralist.

The No! series also helpfully reminds us that there are still anarchists who are writing about these issues. Throughout the No! series we have articles such as Taking Anarchism Seriously, Unschooling and Anarchism and Playground Anarchy?. The No! series also features many anarchist writers like Ryan Calhoun, Nathan Goodman, Brian Dominick, myself and others.

And Silverstein also points out, anarchist tactics can easily be taken from the workplace to other places of oppression such as schools:

Class consciousness is essential.

Children need to recognize that they are a uniquely oppressed class vis a vis the oppressing class which dictates the conditions of their existence.

To paraphrase the Preamble to the IWW Constitution, the oppressed class and the oppressing class have nothing in common.

Disobedience can be expressed small ways (kind of like sabotage in the workplace) by refusing to pledge allegiance, to participate in prayer (in religious schools), or by choosing to write school essays on, for example, Youth Revolt Throughout History, Emma Goldman, or the case of Katie Sierra (a 15-year old anarchist suspended from school for wearing homemade anti-war shirts and for trying to start up an anarchist club) and deliver them in front of class.

I agree with Silverstein that anarchism has much to offer youth liberation with its emphasis on anti-authoritarianism and non-coercion it makes for the perfect ideological framing. It reminds us that while reform efforts such as marches against curfew laws or voting restrictions on youth may be long-term irrelevant, they can also help radicalize people, if done right.

Anarchism also gives youth liberationists the important concept of dual power, that is to say, building new institutions while tearing down the existing ones. Some examples of this may involve free schools, autonomously created networks of play, autonomous businesses run by children and so on. Without this conception of dual power, youth liberation theorists busy themselves reforming an economy and culture that is too deeply mired in authoritarianism.

What youth liberation needs is a radical toolkit to deal with the present threats to children and anarchism gives them that.

Youth Liberation in Practice

One advantage about youth liberation over other ideologies is that its specific focus on a given subset of the population makes practice slightly easier than more abstract theories.

For example, I write often about the merits of anti-work philosophy but one of the biggest downsides of focusing on this theory in particular is that “work” is a hard to define concept and it’s difficult to know where to start in making work obsolete.

This problem may exist within youth liberation, perhaps we could discuss whether institutions such as schools, the nuclear family unit or juvenile detention centers are more important than the other. But despite valid discussions such as that, we know that those questions are likely best left up to the youth who are most affected by it.

This is not so with anti-work theory.

One other advantage about youth liberation as other writers have noted is that it’s a universal experience. Everyone has been a kid or a teenager at some point and so it’s a lot easier to get people to rally around these experiences than in cases of racial or gendered injustice. Which isn’t to say those less universal forms of justice should be ignored and especially not for some pseudo-universalism at the expense of what makes individuals unique and beautiful.

But at the same time it’s worth noting that youth liberation and particularly through institutions such as the schools and family are near-universal experiences for people to go through. Many adults I know treat school with contempt or at least acknowledge it was and continues to be seriously flawed in how it’s carried out and how youth are treated.

As youth liberationists we need to seize upon this fact and highlight the reality that most people dislike school at the very least. That many of us felt like the learning we got had almost no relevance to our own interests. Many of us developed our real interests outside of school or during times where we could goof off and think about what we wanted, as individuals.

Getting youth to think similarly about themselves, as not just another cog in the machinations of school is one strategy to help youths liberate themselves. Often, giving youth the tools to liberate themselves is more than enough for them to do it on their own, without adults.

Although I’m skeptical of any sort of unifying theory about a human “nature” it occurs to me that most youth I know are deeply curious, skeptical and imaginative. And developing these traits are often as simple as leaving them to their own devices and seeing what happens next.

Staying Poly with your Friends

Relationship anarchy symbology!

Recently I had a friend whose poly unfriend me. We had a few misunderstanding this year, resolved the first and let the second linger, which is partially on me, I suppose. I guess it isn’t surprising they unfriended me, because I was thinking about unfriending them as well. And it’s sad when things like this happen, because good memories flood back to you. Of times you’ve dorikly told them that it’s cold and so maybe we should hold hands (apparently “hey, I think you’re cute and I wanna hold your hand” is too difficult to say for me).

Read More

The Case of Right-Wing Youth and Other Problems

Nick’s Notes: This was an excerpt from a Youth Liberation 101 essay I’m currently working on. I decided it’s a little 201 and tangential so I cut it for theoretical and space related reasons so I could keep the 101 a little shorter.

Enjoy!


One of the problems of youth liberation as well as anarchism is that most youths, even when presented it, may simply reject it. What do we do in that case?

Surely the easy answer of forcefully impressing our ideas on them more goes against the spirit of both anarchism and youth liberation. If in trying education we discover that the people around us, youths or not, do not want to be a youth liberationist or an anarchist what are we to do?

This is a similar quandary that Andrea Dworkin tackled in her 1971 book Right-Wing Women. In it, she discusses the phenomenon of both women and self-described feminists deciding that it’s better to be subordinate to their husbands than embrace feminism. Part of the explanation for that was the allure of mainstream society as opposed to fighting it tooth and nail. Trying to move to a different culture and way of thinking about people (whether women or youths) is a difficult thing for many individuals to face and for entirely understandable reasons.

Thankfully we don’t need to rely on condescending ideas of these women being “duped” by the patriarchy or that they have some sort of “false-consciousness” as Marxists sometimes argue. All we need to recognize is that there’s a lot to get yourself invested in with the current system. For all of its many evils, there are still some parts that people understandably want to keep. And sometimes they want to keep it for a basic sense of security but other times they may want it for what they think is a totally logical reason.

So first thing’s first, apply the basic principle of youth liberation applies here: Take youth seriously.

If an individual disagrees with your ideas then regardless of their age we should take whatever concerns of theirs seriously, but this especially applies to youth given the level of incredulity we often aim at them.

On the other hand your interlocutor may not have any concerns but may instead feel threatened by the idea that in accepting this radical change they’d have to make personal changes in their life. Changes that could range from disobeying their teachers or arguing with them about facts to outright “disrespecting” their parents when they think they are being abusive. These are all risky behaviors and in certain contexts it makes total sense for youth to distrust advice to do these things.

That’s partly because youth are not always in a good place to resist the power structures that society places above them. This is one of the many reasons why adult allies are (at times) essential to the success of youth movements. Although it should be stated that the ingenuity of youth and their ability to create networks of safe spaces for each other through should not be underestimated. Especially through the internet, smartphones and other methods of communication.

That said, there’s a certain kind of logic to the youth against youth liberation.

If you expose this logic for the faulty sort that it is, you may have a shot at convincing them of your ideas. Often the youth in question doesn’t feel like other youth could handle the amount of freedom you are giving them, but conveniently they think they’d be able to handle it just fine.

This is a similar logic that authoritarians often have when arguing for laws that affect and target society in general instead of just youth. Most people think that they would be a perfectly moral person without someone telling them what to do. But if you introduce the idea that maybe things would work better if everyone was like that and suddenly it’s an issue and other people cannot be trusted.

It should be stated as well that the youth liberation project is not the kind of ideological movement that should aim for 100% ideological adherence. Not everyone (or even a majority) of youth need to agree with youth liberation for it to have large-scale success. While education is an essential part of any good movement, it shouldn’t be seen as the holy grail of it either.

Further, no movement should have education as its only tactic and in practice almost never does. In which case youths themselves can show the benefits of youth liberation by doing instead of arguing.

Perhaps youths themselves and their own ideas that they get to see through autonomously are the best hope for youth liberation, not the adults who try to play with logic until they can just get the arguments right. Intuitively it seems to make the most sense that in the end youths are going to know better about how to address youths concerns than the ideas of adults.

In No! Issue 6 Sven Bonnichsen has an article entitled Youth Against Liberation: An Exploration which tackles many of the issues and also uses the Dworkin comparison (which I lovingly pilfered) but comes to rather lackluster conclusions about how to resolve these issues. Bonnichsen sees youth liberation as a world expanding viewpoint and while I think that holds validity we shouldn’t only rest our laurels on what we see in youth liberation.

If we want to convince right-wing women of feminism and right-wing youth of youth liberation then we need to put our thoughts into practice, not just glorify our thoughts more. And ideally we should leave the doing to youths themselves because they’ll know best how to organize themselves and other youths concerns, not adults. This is a basic insight even most American right-wing libertarians would accept via the economist Friedrich Hayek and his ideas on knowledge being at its best when it’s localized and kept to those individuals it actually concerns.

Advice for a Budding CSJW

Take all the time you need…

Sara Lynn Michener has a (mostly) solid article on Medium called SJW Behaviors that Hurt Social Justice and I have very few problems with it. CSJW means “Counter-Productive Social Justice Warrior”, for the record.

But, there’s this:

There was a short-lived thinkpiece that circulated among CSJWs surrounding the mixed criticism of the Women’s March on Washington. Its thesis was that some trans people felt excluded from the march because there was so much emphasis on genitalia (pussy hat, use of the words describing female genitalia to be empowering, etc).

Nowhere in the piece did its author even mention the literal elephant in the gynecology office; the GOP’s relentless, decades-long policing of actual vaginas, the shame, stigma, and creepy control issues associated with female genitalia by patriarchal religious groups, and that Women’s Health, including affordable cervical cancer screenings, contraception access, and abortion legality, are perpetually at risk. The presence of genitalia at the march was a clear response to all of these specific and huge issues.

Do women need to do more to be welcoming to trans women? Absolutely, but not at the expense of silencing other equally valid issues. If you felt excluded by the emphasis on genitalia at the march, spend more time reading about those issues until you are as angry at the poor treatment of women with vaginas as you are of women without them. We are here to support and amplify each other’s lived experiences. Intersectionality goes both ways.

My response was this:

First off: There’s no such thing as “female” genitalia and that way of wording only reinforces the lack of inclusion that transwomen and non-binary folks (it wasn’t just transwomen who found this march isolating FYI) felt.

Second: The GOP’s “relentless…” etc. also harms transwomen and trans people more generally. If intersectionality goes both ways then why not mention that as well? Would it take many more resources? If so, why?

Third: The march was a response to *specific* issues but those *specific* issues don’t *only* harm cis women. And acting like they do through “pussy hats” and centering cis women’s experiences is a really poor way to get your message across.

Fourth: Is opening the floor up more to transwomen and non-binary folks necessarily closing off the floor for cis women? That seems unlikely, especially given their relative population sizes. It seems like a trivial thing to me to open it up for both parties. Where’s the problem?

Fifth: Your “spend more time” remark presumes ignorance on the part of anyone criticizing the march which seems pretty uncharitable to me. While it may be the case that some folks didn’t read everything there was about the march (I certainly didn’t) some of us saw enough news, conversations and popular symbology to feel excluded from a discourse we knew we weren’t meant to be included in from the start.

Lastly: If we’re here to “support and amplify each other’s lived experiences” and it “goes both ways” then the march utterly failed at that in some basic ways.

I thought this was a fairly solid response and a few of my friends agreed (confirmation bias, yay!). It accurately tackles and counters some of the language and framing that Michener chose to use while being, on the whole, friendly.

But Michener, didn’t think so:

You said “There’s no such thing as “female” genitalia and that way of wording only reinforces the lack of inclusion that transwomen and non-binary folks felt.” but language isn’t by itself a function of judgement, but of the rational utility of describing one thing vs another. So when you come up with a term that means “woman who has a vagina” let me know and I will happily use that. I *did* specify “women with vagina” vs “woman without vagina” I did not, at any time, even imply, that a woman who doesn’t have a vagina is not a woman. Nor would I ever say that.

As to the Women’s March, yes, I followed allllll the march criticism (and then some) in the couple of months leading up to it. I have a vast collection of SJW friends, 90% of whom are the ones “doing the lord’s work” so I saw all of it. I agreed with roughly half of it and disagreed with roughly half of it. For instance, I agreed that the organizers erred originally in how they approached various intersectionality issues, however I liked that they quickly corrected this wherever possible. What I disagreed with, was the decision by some to not attend the march because of its perceived faults, even though I agreed with the presence of many of those faults.

I also disagreed with those who asked for more than an apology once that apology had been issued. However, the pussy hats, etc, are not remotely one of those faults. Happy to agree to disagree with you on that. I then flew three thousand miles to attend that march. It turned out to be the most diverse (genderwise and racialwise) I had ever attended and I agreed with every single social justice issue represented there, from Black Lives Matter and inclusive bathroom laws, to “White Feminist” issues like Equal Pay.

The reference to “White Feminist” seems unnecessary given I never said a word about equal pay or what counts as “White Feminism” or what doesn’t. But regardless while I appreciated this response, I wasn’t impressed:

And here’s my last response before things get…well, you’ll see:

“…but language isn’t by itself a function of judgement, but of the rational utility of describing one thing vs another.”

I’m not sure how you’re coming up with the taxonomy here but either way the language you use is a function of the judgments that society has formed. And the language here is particularly narrow in its conception of who has a certain kind of genital organ and who does not.

“So when you come up with a term that means “woman who has a vagina” let me know and I will happily use that.”

I mean, you can just use the classic AFAB thing, right? I don’t see why we need to talk about genitals at all. It just unnecessarily drives the conversation towards irrelevant biological aspects of bodies which also unnecessarily discriminates (intentionally or not) against transwomen and NB folks. So I don’t even see it as necessary.

And AFAB still highlights all of the things the march was trying to address via abortions, etc.

“I *did* specify “women with vagina” vs “woman without vagina” I did not, at any time, even imply, that a woman who doesn’t have a vagina is not a woman. Nor would I ever say that.”

The language you used in that particular instance struck me as a poor way to frame it. I’m not accusing you of seeing transwomen as not real women, nor do I think you’d say something like that.

“What I disagreed with, was the decision by some to not attend the march because of its perceived faults, even though I agreed with the presence of many of those faults.”

For me it’d depend on their reasoning. If they feel alienated (and I think they have good reason to) then I don’t think they should feel obliged to go to a space they don’t feel welcomed in. The good can become the enemy of the perfect as much as the other way around.

“However, the pussy hats, etc, are not remotely one of those faults. Happy to agree to disagree with you on that.”

I don’t see how that’s true because it’s implicitly defining womanhood with your genitals. But OK, we can agree to disagree if you want.

“I then flew three thousand miles to attend that march. It turned out to be the most diverse (genderwise and racialwise) I had ever attended…”

I mean, that’s great and should be celebrated to some extent but I also don’t think it makes the other issues go away. (emphasis mine)

Now, I want it to be clear:

I do not think that we should never bring up genitals at all

This is what Michener is about to misconstrue my argument as.

She’s about to take the specific constraints of the conversation (her particular essentialist language and the woman’s march and the way it centered cis women) to a general claim about conversations. Which, you know, is such a terrible misread of my argument, I’m not even sure where to start.

And I understand that I said “at all” explicitly but I thought it was clear I meant that from a linguistic standpoint with regards to her own wording and how the women’s march was conducted, not a critique of mentioning genitals per se’. That’s a much larger discussion and not one I was trying to have with Michener.

It’s also not one I was even thinking of. That concept never even popped into my head because it would be such a ridiculous statement that I wouldn’t ever take it seriously if that’s what I really knew someone was saying. But I’d want to make sure that this was what someone was saying before leaving the conversation…

Instead of that though, here’s what she says:

Yikes.

You said “I don’t see why we need to talk about genitals at all. It just unnecessarily drives the conversation towards irrelevant biological aspects of bodies which also unnecessarily discriminates (intentionally or not) against transwomen and NB folks. So I don’t even see it as necessary.”

Thank GOODNESS the trans women I know and love would never, ever say something like this. This is one of the most ignorant, privileged, and misogynistic things anyone has written in reply to any of my essays, ever. And the lack of reason on display so openly is as terrifying as what is coming out of the far right.

I would be very happy to live in the fantasy world you apparently live in where we don’t need to talk about vaginas. Half the population has one, yet needlessly suffer because vaginas are persecuted all over the world. Thus, vagina-havers suffer. Especially poor ones.

The GOP has been actively warring against the rights of people who happen to have vaginas for decades. I’d stay and explain that in detail, but 1. I would need to fill several books and 2. your reply has made me lose all respect and is not worthy of my time.

So, there’s Google: Read about rape victims who are not believed, and are then denied abortions, and then tell me we don’t need to talk about vaginas. Read about poor women who didn’t get cervical cancer screenings they needed because they could not afford them early on, and then tell me we don’t need to talk about vaginas.

Read about the male chiropractors who invent a glue to keep period blood inside to fester because they don’t understand periods are healthy, and then tell me we don’t need to talk about vaginas.

Read about little girls who are raised in religious patriarchies and taught their primary function is breeding, and then tell me we don’t need to talk about vaginas.

Read about the depressingly high number of men who believe all women experience orgasm from penetration and then tell me we don’t have to talk about vaginas.

Read about politicians holding all-male panels to discuss women’s health, rape, abortion, cervical cancer, and then tell me we don’t need to talk about vaginas.

But for godsake, educate yourself. If that sounds patronizing, in your case? Good. Intended this time. (emphasis mine)

Holy.

Shit.

It’s hard to even conceive of how poorly my argument was just misconstrued.

And the idea that I need to be lectured to about rape culture, patriarchy, what trans people think (hi, I am a trans person and she isn’t!) is astonishing and patronizing to say the least.

I was under the impression that this author knew that we were narrowly talking about issues of overly gendered language in their post and the women’s march and its dumb hats but apparently I grossly overestimated that awareness on their part.

The most ironic part?

Instead of asking me, “Hey, did you mean X? Because if so, that’s really fucked up and I don’t want to talk to you anymore.”

She just goes, “You mean X! I know you do! And so I’m gonna lecture you, block you from responding and insult you!”

…Doesn’t this sound a little CSJWish to you?

I understand that Michener doesn’t know me and maybe for all anyone could know in that situation, that is what I must have meant. But I don’t think so.

I think you’d have to drive a wedge pretty far between intellectual charity and lack thereof to come up with this. I think you’d have to disregard quite a few variables in the conversations which include: The specific quotes I was responding to, the particulars of the conversation, the language I’m using (which is trans-inclusive and also trying to be inclusive of cis women) and a lot more.

It also strikes me that for Michener to think this is a misogynistic statement (that we should never talk about genitals, e.g. vaginas) wouldn’t that require her to think that vaginas mean women? I’m not trying to be funny here, it really does seem like that’s what Michener would need to believe in order for that to be true.

But perhaps she could reason we’d moved to genitals more generally rather than vaginas in particular. And that sort of response would change the conversation in terms of what is or isn’t misogynist to more appropriate angles. Even if what’s “misogynist” shouldn’t be defined by genitals in general at least it’d make more sense than narrowing it to the field of vaginas…which is a phrase I just said.

I guess being the most misogynist, far-right sounding, privileged person is better than being a CSJW. Because unlike Michener, I don’t insult, block or patronize other people who disagree with me, or use the worst sort of intellectual charity.

Instead, I ask questions, explore alternatives and generally try to figure out what’s the most logical thing they are trying to say. And if it seems out of character for someone to say then I try to double back and check my premises (thanks Rand).

Michener decided to do one of the most SJW (CSJW?) things and dive right into righteous fury and indignation. No clarifying questions, no intellectual charity and nothing to speak of in the way of friendliness. Just stereotypical leftist insults, blocking me and telling me I’m a bad person for disagreeing.

If she had simply say: “Hey, do you mean A? Cause if you do, then I’m done here.” And I would’ve said, “What? Fuck no. I’m not saying that we should never talk about genitals in the general sense. I’m saying that we shouldn’t use them in the particular linguistic sense you are using and in the particular circumstantial sense that the women in the women’s march chose to.”

At this point I think I’ve made it clear what I meant and how this conversation went so terribly wrong for me. In the future I’ll try to think more about what my interlocutor could interpret my claims as if they stand out but otherwise, I think I did all I could here to try and have a nice conversation.

Damn CSJWs! Ruining our conversations!


Also, here’s a gem from my friend Mikayla:

White cis woman: I’m so down with intersectionality. I get it, I’m hip, I’m trendy.

Same white cis woman: My perspective is the most important. However I might act in a given situation is the way everyone should act. I have no idea how my comfort moving through the world affects my opinions. Stop bogging me down about privilege.

The Case Against Hahnel’s “Case Against Markets”

Robin Hahnel

Introduction

I was linked to this talk by someone who would fit within the label of anarcho-communist back in April of 2016 but didn’t get around to it until a few months ago. It was an interesting talk and not one I disagree with on all fronts, but at the same time I had many criticisms.

The following is my notes, slightly re-worded into essay form. I don’t claim that this essay will be the most in-depth response to Parecon critiques of market economies, just that it’s a response to the ones I saw in this specific talk by Robin Hahnel.

As y’all may or may not know, I come from a left-wing market anarchist perspective, generally. So my viewpoint of markets is different of that from, say, anarcho-capitalists but also different than anarcho-communists. It’s more comparable to the individualist anarchist and mutualist traditions within anarchism.

Within that framework I think my responses to these objections from Hahnel are slightly unique and worth denoting more publicly. My hope is that they will spark more discussion and interest over what markets can and cannot do and lead to both a moderating and a radicalizing of viewpoints.

Ideally, market advocates and Parecon folks  can both admit where market failure could happen while radically challenging the extent to which it currently and genuinely happens under capitalist and governmental societies.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

The Two People You Meet in Markets

According to Hahnel, there are two types of people when it comes to markets:

The best policy, saying we just need to get the politicians out of the market place, no regulations, no control of the market

It doesn’t in fact turn out well for us or environment.

I have three responses to this separation of people:

  1. Policy is a generally applied word here but what does it mean concretely? The idea that we could have one centralized way of interacting with markets doesn’t appeal to those who think that markets should be free from governmental regulations or control. And this is very different from saying there shouldn’t be any regulations or controls. After all, people within communities could still come up with consensus-based guidelines in order to better resolve problems and disputes.
  2.  The fact that current capitalist markets aren’t being regulated by governments and that this doesn’t turn out well for anyone isn’t a point against markets unless we conflate markets with capitalism. But a market is just a system whereby people are allowed to trade goods through selling, buying and haggling, etc. There’s nothing in the definition of a market that tells us what the means of production and its role in the larger economy has to be. This is why there is a historical precedent of folks who even call themselves “market socialists” (as Hahnel himself points out) for example.
  3.  The environment and the rest of the economy (and indeed individuals within that economy) are certainly hurt by regulations from time to time and often in disastrous ways. Whether regulations involve the patent process which stalls the much needed development of medicine or they involve the ways in which licenses keep poorer individuals out of the market from competing with well-established players. There are many reasons to be skeptical of regulations that don’t involve thinking the environment is an expendable factor when it comes to economic efficiency.

What’s so Great about Democracy Anyways?

Hahner doesn’t really get into what “democracy” means which is unfortunate because it has many connotations. He also doesn’t discuss what it takes to design an economy to begin with. Typically, designing an economy, or at least the one in the US, revolves around institutions and institutions that are often tied to the government in some way, especially corporations.

Hahnel and I likely agree that this is an unfortunate scenario but I also suspect we disagree on the solutions to it. Hahnel may favor something much more like democratic planning within a given locale that gives much more power to decentralized nodes than centralized ones. I’m sympathetic to this approach to an extent but I also think there’s a danger of centralizing control within localities and mostly relying on social capital, instead of material capital.

I also agree with William Gillis that anarchism is, at its core, a scale-independent proposal and that we need anarchic communities to be much more than localized efforts. Our lives should be bigger than the communities we are born in.

Within that spirit it seems limiting to me how many anarcho-communists want to focus our anarchism on communities instead of individuals. How all of the neighbors should know their other neighbors. Everything needs to be a potluck, a gathering, an ice-breaker between human beings. There’s parts of me that enjoy the anonymity of loose-communities that are sprawling and (dare I say it) cities, that have positive qualities to them that anarcho-communists (and especially anti-civ folks) are much inclined to disparage.

Some people don’t want to know their neighbors, bake them cookies or share in the common good and I think any self-respecting anarchic order should respect that. Which isn’t to say that Hahnel or people who’d describe themselves as anarcho-communists wouldn’t want to respect it as a right but I think as a cultural norm it’d be implicitly (maybe even explicitly) discouraged in subtle or not-so-subtle ways.

These points are somewhat tangential to Hahnel but I do feel like they speak to the Parecon idea of centralizing democracy within communities.

Hahnel also denotes the rise in the mainstream for “singing the praises of markets”, that
there are louder voices, more voices and while I wish this was true, it’s not.  Those voices are often conservative ones and not ones who have any serious interest in removing government regulations so we can have freed markets. They want the removal of certain governmental regulations so that their favored corporate interests can gain favor in a captured market.

The so-called “market failure” that Hahnel tries to assert are part of an inherent problem of markets themselves isn’t very convincing, as the economist David Friedman has persuasively argued. Friedman’s arguments depend on a particular interpretation of what a market failure is like, he defines it as:

…a situation where individual rationality does not lead to group rationality. If each individual makes the right decision, the group make the wrong decision. In the pure case, every individual ends up worse off than if each of them had made a different decision.

Friedman argues (and I agree) that market failure is a real issue but it’s an issue of both markets and government and even individuals and groups on a general scale. The prisoner’s dilemma is an example that Friedman cites of that last part and isn’t one that’s typically discussed by conventional economists. But then, as Friedman points out, most economists aren’t libertarians, much less anarchists.

And when it comes to governments, they have more than their fair share of “market’ failures (which is more generally a rationality problem):

A voter who takes the time and trouble to figure out who the best candidate is and vote for him is producing a benefit for everyone else in the country, at least if “best” means best for everyone.

He has no control over who gets that benefit. The rational voter is producing a public good. Rational ignorance is the underproduction of that public good.

Rent-seeking is another example Friedman uses and it’s one I’ve highlighted as well to show that government can often be inept at controlling market economies. More often than not, the people who are up at top use their power to benefit themselves as much as possible. They’re partly able to do this because the political means allow politicians to subsidize the costs of their action and making “their” citizens pay for them. One of the most obvious examples is sending out American citizens to fight wars for the people in congress and the military industrial complex.

But Hahnel wouldn’t likely be persuaded by these points because he seems to think we have markets that are ruled by non-interference. This is a common claim from liberals and even some anti-authoritarian leftists of varying stripes, but it strikes me as immediately implausible given the existence of intellectual property, licenses and corporate subsidies which are all prime examples of governmental intervention.

And even if it were true, it’s clear that the “non-intervention” aspect of markets favor those who are the richest, the ones at the top and those who the most well-connected are. That’s certainly not a free market, but, well, that’s the point.

Markets and Capitalism: Natural Allies?

Hahnel makes the point that when we look at the markets that exist now we see that they are inefficient, produce a wide-range of harmful externalities, increase inequality and substitute meaningful freedoms for trivial ones.

I don’t think Hahnel is completely off-base here. I think when we look at present day markets we can rightly perceive many of these things. We can look at things like income inequality that spurred Occupy Wall St. We can see the disparities of power and access to capital between workers and bosses, etc.

When we look at present day markets we can see a lot of environmental damage comes from corporations such as the infamous BP Oil spill years back. There’s a lot of smog in cities like Los Angeles and Salt Lake City that are the byproducts of corporations and their wasteful operations. There’s also the many pipelines that destroy people’s homes, the environment and disrupt communities.

And when it comes to trivial freedoms as opposed to meaningful ones, we can look to Voltairine de Cleyre’s arguments about thing-worship in her The Dominant Idea:

We dabble in many things; but the one great real idea of our age, not copied from any other, not pretended, not raised to life by any conjuration, is the Much Making of Things, – not the making of beautiful things, not the joy of spending living energy in creative work; rather the shameless, merciless driving and over-driving, wasting and draining of the last bit of energy, only to produce heaps and heaps of things, – things ugly, things harmful, things useless, and at the best largely unnecessary.

But this overzealous production of Things, of externalities, of perpetuating inequities that are far-reaching within society are aspects of capitalism and not necessarily markets. And no, this isn’t just a semantic point.

It’s important that when we look at the historical development of marketst, they are impacted by the development of ruling classes seizing markets for themselves and also for those who tend to hold the most capital.

And as you’d imagine these two groups tend to overlap, a lot.

This makes it vitally important to me that advocates of anti-capitalist markets distinguish ourselves from market anarchists who may or may not nebulously support or at least passively dismiss the issues that Hahnel is rightly bringing up. The actual problem with Hahnel’s analysis isn’t the substance but the framing. He sees this as an issue with markets but that’s only because he conflates markets with capitalism.

Hahnel also contends that the argument about markets is that if we leave things to “market processes”that things will run smoothly in an economy. But this argument misses the fact that the “market process” isn’t some unnameable and invisible force.

Contrary to what economists suggest via the “invisible hand”, the “market processes” are actually us. We are market forces. And while it’s true that the outcome and consequences of complex market systems in societies today are hard to map out that doesn’t make them as abstract as both libertarians and leftists like to think.

And yes, I’m not going to let libertarians off of the hook here. They’re one  the reasons (along with conservatives, to be fair) why Hahnel is making this argument and using this framework to begin with. We’ve treated market processes as completely impersonal and invisible transactions. But market processes can be incredibly dynamic in how they work along social lines.

As Charles Johnson argues in his article Markets used to be Celebrations:

In classical Athens, the open market, or agora, was famous as a place for conversation, company, and positive human interaction. In medieval Europe, the market fair was a festive occasion, which drew people together from throughout the country.

Markets were seen not just as places to meet the needs of the day; they were places to meet people, places to interact with each other on a positive and mutual footing, and places that were central to the best and happiest experiences of social life, and the most distinctive local institutions, entertainment and culture.

Socrates’ life work was not speaking to people in the assembly, or the temple, or the academy, but in the marketplace.

The “invisible hand” is just the outcome of millions of tiny different day-to-day economic interactions between people. Sometimes those interactions are positive and sometimes they aren’t but either way we can study trends, pool data and do research instead of wholesale condemning markets, as Hahnel would have us do.

Around the 10:00 minute mark Hahnel starts talking about markets providing Pareto outcome and says that:

If there are no externalities, if there’s perfect competition, if there’s perfect knowledge, if all of the markets are in equilibrium.

This quote made me think about the work of Steve Horwitz who has, in turn, cited Israel Kirzner and his book Competition and Entrepreneurship :

What we mean by competition, Kirzner argues, is not the perfectly competitive market of mainstream economics, but instead the process by which people constantly engage their entrepreneurial alertness to see new and better ways of doing things that others have not seen before. Much of his book is devoted to explaining how this Austrian conception of competition as a “discovery procedure” (to use Hayek’s phrase) is more helpful than the very different conceptions of competition and monopoly used by many economists.

Which is just to say there is at least some discussion about how to best portray the markets that libertarians support. Not all of us find the discussion of “perfect knowledge” and “perfect” competition compelling.

And more to the point, I tend to see markets as heading towards but never quite achieving a Pareto outcome. I don’t think there’s any way for markets to be “perfectly” run in any meaningful way, but I do think there are ways to approximate the equality we may want out of market processes.

That being said, Hahnel does somewhat defend the use of these assumptions in the theorem he’s criticizing. He points out that we all make assumptions, assumptions never fully pan out like we want them to and they’re still needed to have assertions.

Hahnel then revises the theorem by including the key words “only if” as in, “only if there are no externalities will we achieve Pareto outcome”. But he also criticizes the theorem (at least implicitly) for saying almost everything about efficiency and nothing about fairness, which for Hahnel is an important part of a just society.

And while it’s true that the theorem doesn’t say anything about fairness does it need to? And are efficiency and fairness necessarily mutually exclusive traits? What does fairness mean? This brief aside raises more questions than answers.

Nevertheless I agree with Hahnel that “efficiency” (whatever that may mean) doesn’t and likely shouldn’t be the only trait of markets that should matter to us.

Lastly, Hahnel briefly mentions 2008 and the US housing crisis as a demarcation of  markets failing. But this reference point doesn’t make any sense given that the housing crisis was caused by governments and corporations, not markets acting in free ways.

Are Externalities a Sufficient Argument Against Markets?

One of the big topics Hahnel uses to criticize markets are externalities, which Hahnel illustrates here:

When a buyer and a seller get together and make a decision, a car producer produces a car, a car buyer buys the car, they negotiate a price, we produce the car, we consume the car  … but what if there are other people out there who are affected by the decisions they come to? If there are, we call those people external parties and we call the effects on them … external effects.

Hahnel uses this example because it’s easy to see on a macro scale what a potential externality could be: environmental damage. Individually the buyer and seller are only thinking about themselves and their own costs and benefits. And according to mainstream economics this is the rational thing to do.

But this “rational” action on the micro scale becomes a much bigger problem on the aggregate when others start copying these patterns. Then we are faced with issues of pollution and environmental damage. It reminds me of the Kantian idea of considering to ourselves, “what would happen if everyone did this?” and if it’s unworkable then you should at least reconsider.

What are defenders of markets to think about this?

Well first off, the framework presumes individuals only think for themselves but that doesn’t seem plausible given the rise of eco-friendly cars. The widespread adoption and marketing of cars like the Prius seem to point against the idea that market actors will never think outside their own individual good.

But even if they didn’t, as with market failures, people will always be externally affected by the decisions of people. And so it’s the level of which that makes the difference, not the fact that it happens that’s the issue.

For example, we can easily imagine that folks might use social media and community organizing to socially and economically punish a local car dealership which has been shown to contribute to local environmental issues on a notable level. On the other hand, I can understand arguments that it could be difficult for the entire community to be perpetually knowledgeable about these local issues.

But at the same time being knowledgeable about local and economic issues is becoming easier thanks to social media and so community organizing really only takes a handful of people these days. So just having a few people in a community passionate about a given issue can result in a multiplying effect of many more people becoming similarly passionate. Especially through modern technology such as sites like Facebook, Meetup and organizations starting their own sites.

None of which is to say that the issue of externalities within markets when it comes to environmental affair is a simple matter. Nor am I arguing that it’s handled very well right now with corporations profiting off the real concerns of environmental groups. But it at least gives us reason to doubt that externalities can’t be dealt with.

The other problem when we talk about things like green house emissions is that we  can’t very well measure out future harms to imagined people, much less develop large scale economic policies based on such unstable prediction models. We can very well say that global warming is real and certain things contribute to this phenomenon but measuring out the particular harms on a global scale and using that as a way to decide justice seems like a model fraught with potential issues.

There’s also the fact that in recent years automated and electric cars have become more and more mainstream. Now, I can’t blame Hahnel for not addressing this since he gave this talk in 2012 where Tesla wasn’t as prominent as they are today.
But either way, it seems like markets (even capitalist markets) can innovate, given enough time, around these externalities. Which bodes well for markets that are rid of the capitalist consequences that Hahnel rightly criticizes.

In addition, I think the economists in question who are using the theorem about optimum outcome and externalities are actually wrong that market processes don’t take into account externalities. It’s true on the individual level but perhaps the collective “invisible hand” level is more up for debate. In any case there are ways for markets to learn, just like people learn and use our mistakes to better operate as I’ve pointed out through eco-friendly cars, electric cars and automated cars.

The rise of automation in cars would particularly affect our gas emissions because wed need far fewer cars than we have now. If every family had an automated car (which is admittedly ways away) then it seems a less necessary to have multiple cars and it also seems likely that highways would be less congested.

A lot of that is speculation, but I don’t think it’s very unlikely that any of that could happen with the rise of automation in the car industry. Which is already happening with popular services like Uber (which I have my criticisms of).

Moving forward, Hahnel comments that perhaps we could discover that the “free market” has made 1% “too many cars” but what does “too many cars” actually mean? And how do we decide this, presumably without markets?

Obviously Hahnel supports Parecon economies but he doesn’t actually offer any compelling alternatives to markets throughout the presentation, which is perhaps the most glaring issue in his talk. I’m aware that he discussed it in other places but since he doesn’t do so here, there’s not much for me to grapple with.

Hahnel thinks that market supporters have a presumption that maybe markets do have externalities but thinks that these externalities are small and mostly unimportant. But it’s worth mentioning that this presumption is mostly floated around by people who don’t actually believe in freed markets but rather some sort of corporate configuration of what we already have. The idea that we don’t have externalities in current marketplaces or that the ones that currently exist are small ignores so much social context that I’m unsure how seriously it should be taken.

All actions have externalities to one extent or another, especially in complex economic systems, whether market run or not and people who support markets should embrace that by also embracing anti-capitalism and anarchism. This way we can embrace both the worst of markets and the best of markets and try to clear a way towards the best of them.

As is most economies aren’t actually controlled by markets, certainly not free ones..

Markets are largely owned by corporations who get large subsidies from governments and who owe their cultural and legal existence to governments in the first place. The relationship between governments and corporations is a synergistic power struggle that ends up being parasitic on society in the forms of taxes and unnecessary price increases, haphazard steps taken to overcome burdensome regulations, inventory mismanagement to keep up with state-capitalism and so on.

And while it’s true (as Hahnel points out) that the American system is a system that externalizes cost on to other that’s not because of something inherent to markets. It’s because the way that capitalism works is. As Chomsky puts it, capitalism is highly adept privatizing the profits and socializing the costs on to the public. And while I agree that this is how capitalism is and has operated that’s not necessarily what markets need to do in order to function efficiently and (dare I say) fairly.

For example, we have farmers markets where people are able to grow their own produce, bring it to the market place and sell and trade it with people who are well aware they have other alternatives still might pay more to support local farmers. Or they might do it for environmentalist reasoning because the farmers don’t use pesticides in their vegetables, etc. Whatever their reasoning may be, we have ways to get around the huge externalities through decentralized market places that rely chiefly on individuals owning their own means of production.

Not by exploiting and subjugating workers, but by being able to be self-reliant and socially productive in some sense. This is what flea markets, farmers markets, cooperatives and things like the really really free market show, that markets can come in many different forms and from many different places.

Around the 26:00 mark, Hahnel discusses a few studies that have taken externalities into calculation and lays out their premises and arguments. I didn’t go over the studies themselves so I won’t contest the claims. But I will say that the figures Hahnel gives don’t tell us much about markets as a process. They really only give us a picture of the harmful effects of current markets, at best.

And when we have multiple options for the forms markets can take, that doesn’t seem like a particularly compelling reason to give up on markets entirely.

Perhaps the most baffling part of this presentation is what Hahnel says soon after:

 You want to know why the renewable energy industry is “not competitive” ? Well there’s two reasons: The first is that, well, we don’t actually have free market economy, we actually have a considerable amount of government interference, we have a considerable amount of government welfare programs, actually a lot of corporate welfare programs. (emphasis mine)

If we don’t have actually free markets then what would it look like to have free markets? Doesn’t the fact that we don’t have free markets cut against Hahnel’s points thus far? Honestly, this admission is so baffling that I’m not even sure where to start with regards to how it undermines Hahnel’s case against markets.

Needless to say, at this point (nearly half-way through the presentation) I was beyond flummoxed at Hahnel’s arguments and so I only have a little more to say in terms of his comments on free competition, so let’s get to that and wrap things up.

Free Competition and How to (Not) Get There

A little before the 30:00 minute mark Hahnel tries to use the accurate observation that the trends of current markets are towards less and less competitive markets, not more. And while I don’t dispute this point it’s helpful to ask why is this?

The answer is obvious given what Hahnel just admitted about our lack of free markets. So we tend to get less competitive markets because of the government intervention that was mentioned by Hahnel himself.

And none of that proves that this is what markets must be. One of the biggest problems about Hahnel’s argument is that he does nothing to show that current or historical trends prove that this is all markets can be or have been.

Hahnel asks a logical question about the externalities within current markets: If they’re so large and demanding attention, isn’t there something we can do?

Unfortunately, Hahnel wants to implement policies, for example special kinds of taxes. One such tax he names is a Pigouvian Tax that is supposed to measure the negative externality and then tax it. The market will then incorporate this new data and use it to lead to a more efficient outcome.

But ideas like this raise far more questions than answers: How do we measure externalities in an efficient way? How do governments do this? Is there a history of them doing this successfully? Why would corporations allow this sort of law to be passed? What are the chances of such a policy actually being passed through government?

Hahnel admits that this policy intervention while theoretically correct would be very difficult to pull off given there are so many externalities. I agree with him and would add that the level of information and knowledge one would have to have to make this work is more or less impossible.

Besides that, Hahnel rightly points out that fixing one externality in one market could theoretically just offset another externality, or just create another one. There’s no way to tell how shifting this or that would play out in a market. And here Hahnel is proving why government interventions are generally frowned upon by folks who advocate free markets in a genuine way. At this point he’s almost making my own case for me about why government interventions are a bad idea.

Hahnel goes as far to call this idea a “logistical nightmare” and says that there’s a problem of even knowing how high to put the tax to begin with. Part of the reason why he believes this is that the market gives us no “signals” to determine how high a given tax should or shouldn’t be.

Now, I’m not an economist. Not by trade, profession or even by hobby. So I’m not going to pretend I’m an expert (or even an amateur) when it comes to questions like this. But what I can say is that I’ll presume Hahnel is right about this and treat it as a positive feature of markets. The market can’t determine how much taxes should or shouldn’t impact the economy? Good! I don’t want any taxes anyways.

Hahnel also says that any debate about policies like this would likely be won by those voices with the most amount of political sway. Which makes the idea of reform seem hopeless, luckily we have direct action.

That being said, the next idea Hahnel advocates are anti-trust movements. He wants it so that governments can help one big corporation become 300 smaller ones. This way there’s much more competition within markets.

And while I support more competition within markets, I don’t think the government is the best agency to figure that out. One of the most monopolitic organizations in the world is not likely to know much about how to create free competition among big businesses. And even if they did, what incentives would they have to put ideas like this in process? Rent-seeking and regulatory capture are powerful incentive creating phenomena that would make these decisions much harder to come by, let alone enforce in any meaningful way.

But even assuming we could do this, Hahnel himself points out that these efforts within the scheme of general regulations and new regulatory agencies often fall prey to regulatory capture as I just said. And sometimes regulations end up being crafted by (as Hahnel points out) the folks with the most political connections and thus it disproportionately benefits them.

That’s where the corporate subsidies that Hahnel recognizes come from to begin with!

Counterintuitive as it may seem, sometimes corporations want regulations to be strengthened because it helps people on top who have the economic ability to easily go around them, while the smaller businesses can’t. So it’s often the case that regulations and policy interventions make the economy less competitive, not more.

From 30:00 to 40:00 is 10 minutes of Hahnel undercutting his own proposals at almost every turn. Whether it’s taxes, anti-trust movements or new regulatory agencies or even using public distrust of corporations. The last point is undermined by the fact that corporations tend to have much more time and resources on their side when it comes to fighting regulations than the public has time to actively pay attention to them and to make sure they’re effectively enforced by the government, instead of regulatory capture, etc. getting in the way.

Hahnel says all of this and then immediately undercuts it to lead us to the notion that something “drastic” must happen to improve society. Well, I’m not necessarily against proposals that may be considered “drastic” by some. Let’s hear it.

…He wants to nationalize industries.

Hahnel doesn’t explain why such a move wouldn’t fall prey to any of the previous issues or what effects this would even have on an economy. But I guess at this point, it doesn’t really matter. The Parecon alternative(s) seem to be nothing but progressive hopes and despair with their most “radical” options being hopelessly economically conservative and protectionist.

He does explain that he’d trust “stupid government bureaucrats” over corporate officials due to the perverse incentives that those in the financial industry faces. But he doesn’t explain why those incentives would somehow go away if we nationalized them. Because politicians would be held accountable to their constituents?

How’s that working out for the US right now?

Concluding Remarks

At this point I lost most of my interest in Hahnel’s talk. He starts discussing ideas about “macroeconomic stabilization” and bases it on government intervention during the Great Depression as well as Keynes. But he gives us no compelling reasons why any of these things could pragmatically happen.

I also don’t think we should just assume those things helped the economy. Again, I’m not an economist, but the picture of the Great Depression seems a lot more complicated than the government swooping in and saving the day for the economy.

The rest of the talk focuses around criticizing austerity which I don’t have much to say about and taking ideas like unions, a minimum wage and progressive taxation as checks against the market system. But there’s no substance alongside mentioning any of these tactics, just a claim that “markets hate them!” which sounds more clickbait article than compelling argument.

In addition, Hahnel makes points about income inequality that I don’t have huge issues with, just that he’s doing his usual conflation about the effects of capitalism with the nature of markets. Also, there’s this moment which is easily the highlight.

One point I’ll rest this essay on is Hahnel’s criticisms of “market democracy” which he’s using to shed light on the lack of freedoms we have in market systems. But I’m not so sure that the alternative that he wants, the political market (as I’ll call it), is much better. To argue against this point I return to David Friedman, whose compared the two in his book The Machinery of Freedom:

When a consumer buys a product on the market, he can compare alternative brands. In the case of protection, he can compare how good a job different agencies do and their prices. His information is imperfect, as it is in making most decisions; he may make a mistake. But at least alternatives exist; they are there to be looked at. He can talk with neighbors who patronize different protection agencies, examine the contracts and rates they offer, study figures on the crime rates among their customers.

When you elect a politician, you buy nothing but promises. You may know how one politician ran the country for the past four years, but not how his competitor might have run it.

You can compare 1968 Fords, Chryslers, and Volkswagens, but nobody will ever be able to compare the Nixon administration of 1968 with the Humphrey and Wallace administrations of the same year. It is as if we had only Fords from 1920 to 1928, Chryslers from 1928 to 1936, and then had to decide what firm would make a better car for the next four years. Perhaps an expert automotive engineer could make an educated guess as to whether Ford had used the technology of 1920 to satisfy the demands of 1920 better than Chrysler had used the technology of 1928 to satisfy the demands of 1928. The rest of us might just as well flip a coin. If you throw in Volkswagen or American Motors, which had not made any cars in America but wanted to, the situation becomes still worse. Each of us would have to know every firm intimately in order to have any reasonable basis for deciding which we preferred.

In the same way, in order to judge a politician who has held office, one must consider not only how his administration turned out but the influence of a multitude of relevant factors over which he had no control, ranging from the makeup of Congress to the weather at harvest time. Judging politicians who have not yet held office is still more difficult.

Not only does a consumer have better information than a voter, it is of more use to him.

If I investigate alternative brands of cars or protection, decide which is best for me, and buy it, I get it. If I investigate alternative politicians and vote accordingly, I get what the majority votes for. The chance that my vote will be the deciding factor is negligible.

Imagine buying cars the way we buy governments.

Ten thousand people would get together and agree to vote, each for the car he preferred. Whichever car won, each of the ten thousand would have to buy it. It would not pay any of us to make any serious effort to find out which car was best; whatever I decide, my car is being picked for me by the other members of the group. Under such institutions, the quality of cars would quickly decline.

That is how I must buy products on the political marketplace. I not only cannot compare the alternative products, it would not be worth my while to do so even if I could. This may have something to do with the quality of the goods sold on that market. (p.69)

Hahnel argues against market democracy by citing the lack of access to doctors with indigenous communities in Oklahoma as opposed to the rich in Hollywood. But there’s many many reasons for the current state of affairs that have nothing to do with markets. Imperialism, white supremacy, cultural assimilation aren’t all uniformly products of historical markets but also of historical governments.

And it’s arguable to me that this legacy of interference in the natives way of life accounts for their current lack of access better than the abstract institution of the marketplace. That isn’t to say markets had nothing to do with any of the horrible things I’ve just mentioned, but they also hardly seem central.

I’m also not sure (as Hahnel argues) that markets actually do accurately respond to people’s intensity or desire or even what that would look like or has looked like in practice. What would it mean for a system to so closely operate in relation to people’s wants? I presume Hahnel thinks Parecon is the answer here, but he gives us no reason to consider it as a useful follow up.

It’s true that the folks in Hollywood are richer and therefore have better access in a market, but it’s capitalist markets that specifically privilege these sorts of individuals. Markets aren’t inherently a mechanism whereby those with the most material capital gain the most advantage. It’s played out like that because markets are a particular tool that anyone can grab a hold of and it’s been grabbed by governments who then and privilege capitalists over laborers, the rich over the poor, the feudal lords over the peasants, etc. etc.

But this historical process doesn’t inherently prove markets are always going to lead us to capitalism. And in fact there are many arguments against that proposition. In any case, we can’t say that it’s the case from such weak evidence, given there’s a litany of alternative factors we could just as easily point to.

In the end, what Hahnel advocates as a way towards a better world is state-socialism, whereas I want a form of anarchic socialism to lead the charge against governments, corporations, bureaucracy, hierarchy, centralization, etc.

I’m more inclined to describe myself as an individualist anarchist than an anti-authoritarian socialist or anarchist socialist, but I’m certainly against capitalism and favor much of the analysis Hahnel uses here. I just think it goes to waste on big ideas about government that won’t happen.


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This Post Might Make You Uncomfortable – But is that a Good Thing?

Introduction

The above is a popular image macro amongst my friends and more generally a popular image for social justice orientated people to post. The character in this macro is Garnet from the animated television show Steven Universe and is well known for her rather blunt and forceful ways of making her point. Given that Garnet also has black and pink (which is known as the anarcha-feminist colors in some circles), they seem even more appropriate in this context.

Being the naturally skeptical person that I am, I tend to question how much we should make “discomfort” the center of our options when trying to making folks unlearn oppressive behaviors. It’s true that expanding our comfort zones is a good way for us to grow, but growth is sometimes a painful and complicated process.

As such, it may not be wise to rush it, much less try to fit the necessary amount of growth that you think the other person needs to go within (for example) the span of a single conversation. This may not even be the explicit expectation that folks have about others but sometimes people treat these complex situations as if they can be boiled down to their own personal project. Whether for the admiration of their peers (“Look, I helped dismantle oppression!”), for social capital (“Look how great I am!”) or simply for the pleasure of proving themselves right (“Look, I was right!”).

Which isn’t to say that these are always the motivations that are involved when discussing these issues, but sometimes they are. Sometimes the motivations of discussing your ideals is less pure than you might like to think it is. For all it matters, you could be right that systematic racism is born out of X social phenomenon but trying to convince someone of that with the expectation that you’ll get some sort of reward isn’t the best way to keep the well free of poison.

Generally, people are either coming into The Discourse, with way too many expectations (“I can change the world!”) or way too few expectations (“This shitlord is gonna get his racist ass handed to him!”).

Tangent on Aesthetics and The Discourse

In either case the principle of charity would probably call upon us to resist these temptations and try to go something like, “Well, I probably won’t change their mind, but hopefully we can both walk away learning something.” Which isn’t so coincidentally my train of thinking when I engage in The Discourse about social justice issues or anything else. The only matters I tend to over-extend myself rather habitually is aesthetics where I like to pretend I’m an objectivist and have a Supreme Knowledge of what is Good and Proper about “art”.

It’s actually a somewhat interesting dynamic to create because it makes me take intellectual discussions of art a bit more seriously than I might otherwise. I mean, sure, there’s the people who hate The Force Awakens who I just can’t take seriously (the worst you can say is that it’s too similar to an amazing movie from 20 years ago or so, really?). But generally, I like conversations about aesthetic concerns because the matters often seem less loaded with expectations.

This is partially because the stakes are inherently lower, for better or worse. Art is inherently a “subjective” thing and a matter of “taste” so people bickering over it just seems preemptively silly to anyone around the bickering. But to me, this means that the stakes can be upped so as to make it seem like so much more is on the line.

On the other hand, I do also feel like people underestimate how important these “subjective” conversations can be, simply because they are subjective. Just because there is no One True Way doesn’t mean the discussion can’t be lively or interesting in some way, there are plenty of ways to make subjective discussions appreciable.

Tangent over, back to social justice.

We can Rebuild the Discourse, Make it Better

This essay was promoted by besides the aforementioned image macro) April Daniel’s Social Justice Discourse Fallacies (SJDF), which is just brilliant. Read it before you keep reading this post and make sure to read the geek version that she drew inspiration from, it’s got some good points as well, particularly the first part.

In particular a mixture of  SDJF1 (“Tone Arguments Are Bullshit, Therefore I Can Treat You Like Something I Found In A Sewer.”) and SDJF2 (“Intent Isn’t Magic, Therefore It Is Irrelevant.”) can be, as April explains:

…explosive, and for the person who stepped on the landmine, bewildering. Nobody comes away from one of these incidents a better person, aware of their shortcomings but committed to change. They come away from it with the idea that people who use the word “privilege” are dangerous drama bombs who must be avoided.

I’ve seen this happen, as I’m sure many of us have at this point.

Person A is a well-meaning white person who thinks that Black Lives Matters might not want to use X tactic because it seems to be doing more harm than good.

Person B feels like the first person must be some sort of racist who is simply using this sort of language so they can safely criticize people of color.

In this scenario, I wouldn’t say that B is unreasonable for thinking about this as a possibility but actually acting on that possibility without finding out more can lead them to Nowhere, very fast. It’s especially bad with a mix of dismissing intentions to the extent that you see them as irrelevant and thinking that “tone policing” is such a monstrosity that it must be snuffed out in (ironically) through the most vile tones possible.

But again, I don’t blame B for thinking this because we’ve probably all also seen the white person who  is just using their idea of respectability politics so they can more safely criticize activist movements  they strongly disagree with. The problem is that because this is such a heated issue, they try to cloak it up in these tactics that’ll make their dissent seem less hostile, which is disingenuous at best.

In any case, whether I blame B or not, I think that SJ activists are sometimes too quick to jump on the train of presuming the worst in others. I think there is a lot to be said for the appeal of pessimism and fatalism regarding people, but I don’t think that in the end these are approaches that are conducive to helping folks unlearn oppressive, behaviors, if that’s what you’re looking to accomplish.

On the other hand, some folks might not feel like some people are worth educating. Perhaps they think they’re only worth derision, mockery and general bullying at a certain point because the ideas of the other person are in fact so ludicrous that they can’t see any other viable option than to engage in bullying.

Ironically I recently had this experience not with a “Social Justice Warrior” but with a libertarian. He decided that because one of my friends is fairly vocal about conspiracy theories, anti-vaccine ideology and so on, that the only way to get them out of the movement is to simply bully them out of the movement.

Now, I think anti-vaccine theories are ludicrous and conspiracy theories are often a waste of time. But neither of these things gives me the time, energy or drive to harass my friends (let alone total strangers). I don’t really understand how a movement could be said to be successful if it relies on truth-telling via bullying.

The point of this anecdote is to illustrate that anyone can engage in these SJ fallacies, even if SJ folks are more likely to engage in them. In this case, my friends intentions of protecting children (even if in a very wrong-headed way via anti-vaccine ideas) was thought irrelevant because its lack of scientific credibility.

I don’t have any argument against pushing these sorts of parts out of the libertarian movement, but that “push” should revolve around folks discussing ideas freely with each other, not constant and vigorous harassment.

When I asked how effective this had been on my friend, they said,

“Not very.”

Best Practices for the Uncomfortable

But the effectiveness doesn’t matter for the bully, the bullying itself is what matters. This feeling that you’ve got something sacred and by gum, you’re gonna protect it from them, the out-group!

Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex actually had an interesting concept of the “fargroup” which makes use of the near/far distinction that I think is relevant here. The people who are strangers might be in the “fargroup” (AKA less of a threat because they’re more alien to you) but people you know (and especially within your own movement) are a threat that you can much more visibly recognize as a threat and so your response to this is likely to be much more hostile.

One particularly good example of (historical) “farness” is the Boston Tea Party vs. Basically Any Modern Riot, Ever. You can see the hypocrisy when a woman is interviewed during the documentary If a Tree Falls and asked what she thinks about the people during the Seattle protest. She says (paraphrasing) that it’s horrible but when asked about the Boston Tea Party (a protest that caused over 1 million dollars in property damage) she smiles and says, “Well, I think it’s lovely!”

And of course we can just dismiss this woman as some sort of nationalistic stooge but as I’ve hopefully made clear, it’s a little more complicated than that. Not only is it more complicated but it’s also a pretty relatable scenario. For example, most people would have a knee-jerk reaction that The Boston Tea Party was nowhere near as destructive as the recent flooding in Louisiana.

And while this is true (in case you were curious), it’s something that people wouldn’t even consider because of the near/far distinction. And it’s that lack of consideration that I think is worth highlighting and criticizing. The fact that the Boston Tea Party happened more than a few hundred years ago and its intentions were supposedly “noble” doesn’t erase the fact that anyone who did that today would be vilified as a “hooligan” and some sort of destructive element in society.

So what to do when your in the Nationalist Lady’s spot? What are some good ideas when you’re experiencing your share of cognitive dissonance?

It’s a hard question in part because those experiencing cognitive dissonance often don’t realize they are, which is part of the problem to begin with. But keeping these biases and concepts in mind beforehand can help us recognize when we’re acting on irrational biases instead of legitimate concerns. It’s not perfect by any means but identifying our biases and what helps us be more rational can get us better at practicing our social justice concepts during discussions.

On a somewhat related note, some people tend to think that “rationality” is just a concept made up by The West and The Enlightenment and there’s some truth to that. But the concepts of reason, logic and so forth aren’t uniformly informed by those historical currents and to posit that would be reductionist. There are many forms of logic  to get from point A to point B and chalking the ones you don’t like up to some sort of abstract concept like “The West” can often just lead to dismissing folks instead of actively engaging in conversations with them.

Granted, there are plenty of “logical” things  that predominantly came out of Western (by this I mean North America and Europe) styles of thought and came along with the notions of imperialism, Manifest Destiny, Trial of Tears, etc. The logic of othering people and putting them in places of subjection and exploitation didn’t exactly originate in Europe, much less North America, but they certainly weren’t helped by these continents either.

Which brings us back to discomfort and unlearning oppressive behaviors because recognizing this history, is obviously an uncomfortable fact. Look at all of the white people who start getting nervous once you discuss things like reparations for people of color or Native Americans for instance. But is the discomfort part the important thing or is the recognition by itself the important thing?

If I feel uncomfortable about the fact that most of the ground I walk along was once owned by Native Americans who were slaughtered by people possibly related to me, what does this accomplish? This sort of exercise in discomfort reminds me of the stereotypical feminist meeting where everyone goes in a circle (it’s always a circle) discussing their various privileges that they have and how they’ve used those privileges (consciously or not) to harm others.

While I think recognizing our various social privileges is important, even vital, to having better communication, it’s not the only part that matters. Recognizing our privilege doesn’t stop us from exercising it in really harmful ways. A friend who commits various emotional harms and soon after apologized isn’t much better of simply because they recognize they’re being an asshole, that’s not enough.

Consider the show BoJack Horseman (better yet, go watch all three of the seasons and then come back to this essay) where the main character, BoJack, constantly messes up in very big ways and constantly recognizes that, lambasts himself for it…and then just does it all over again. How much does this really do for those people around them that BoJack happens to be in tune with his mistakes?

None of this is to say that recognizing your privilege is unimportant or makes you similar to an emotionally abusive talking horse but recognition of your privilege is necessary but insufficient to actually challenging oppression in society. Recognizing that the land I walked on was largely a product of colonization and expropriation from the indigenous people is vital to getting a historical context of my surroundings…but what does it do besides that?

It might inform my disposition towards native folks, it might inspire my to do certain actions of advocating for some sort of reparations program for natives, etc. These are all (potentially) great things and come from the root recognition I keep discussing but that’s because that recognition is treated as a jumping off point and not just the beginning and end of the conversation.

When I come into a feminist meeting, I’m not sure I want to discuss all of the privileges I have. There are plenty of things about me that are privileged (I’m white, for one thing) but it doesn’t seem especially productive to belabor all of our privileges in some sort of collective cleansing process. It doesn’t get us, as SJ activists, much further within dialogue and action to keep rehashing our obvious historical contexts just to simply say, “Hi.”

There’s a constant refrain from other people that SJ communities and conservative Christian ones seem to share the idea of “original sin” which I always thought (and still somewhat do) is a bit of a forced metaphor. The notion of us all being privileged and born with it isn’t the same thing as it being inherent to people. If SJ activists really felt the same as Christians do about original sin, then there would likely be no point to be an activist to begin with.

On the other hand the way that privilege is sometimes treated…yeah, I can get the metaphor more than I used to be able to when it mostly came from outside SJ circles. Now that this idea has had some time to be shared around a lot (even if often in a wrong-headed manner) it’s been recounted by SJ folks in much more convincing ways.

And by all means, if your privilege is relevant, bring it up! I wrote a poem about police brutality about a month ago and presented it at a poetry slam. It was entitled I love you like the police loving beating the shit out of [insert marginalized group here] which, in retrospect was a shitty and inconsiderate title that comes off as trivializing the experiencing of marginalized folks. I was trying to put some humor on the situation and obviously came up flat (in my mind and others).

But even so, I recognized before I even started doing the poem that the fact I am white means my experiences with police are going to be much different. And the poem reflect this preface. It’s a very abstract poem and in many ways it really was a love poem that I wrote about someone who had recently broken up with me. I had just decided to give it a political edge because of very recent political events that I had heard about and decided I was tired of being silent on the matter.

Even in this case though, my poem wasn’t seen as “appropriate” even though I prefaced it because, as one (white) trans woman said, “You just sound like you’re rubbing your privilege in other people’s faces who aren’t white.” Which, yeah, it may have some off like that, I’m not sure. But then it’s a no-win situation where even if I recognize my privilege and use this recognition as a way to challenge oppression in some sort of abstract artistic way (that doesn’t claim I share the experiences of PoC) that I’ve still said too much.

To me, this is absurd. It’s basically telling white people to stop recognizing their privilege, or else we’re throwing it in PoCs face. Which means, ostensibly, that we should remain silent and let PoC handle everything. And given the fact that we’re the assholes who put them in that spot to begin with, that hardly seems reasonable to me.

Not that I want white folks to dominate PoC spaces or movements (as if we need another space to dominate…) but it seems to me that if white people had even minorly reflected on their privilege that maybe racism for the past few hundred years wouldn’t have been as horrid?

Is that so awful to think about?

Gendered Discomfort and Uncomfortable Genders

In other news: I’m trans.

So, in case you didn’t know, now you do.

I was going to write a whole Thing about it (exploring gender as a maze, etc.) before I wrote this essay but I’m skipping around and now I’m combining another idea I had (separate from the maze one), so whatever.

My everyday is filled with discomfort, anxiety and whatever else my mind can throw at me in response to a world that sees me as what they’ve been told to see (male) instead of how I wish I was seen (a non-binary femme person). So that’s super fun and so is being called “sir” a million times at work (I work at a convenience store).

The point being is that I go through discomfort rather daily and it hasn’t exactly helped me unlearn my oppressive habits in the most conducive way. Notice I didn’t say that it hasn’t done that at all because that’s probably untrue. I used to (weakly) argue that preemptively saying “they” for people was harder for me because I already have so many communication issues, but really, it’s fine and it goes a long way for the few people who it means a lot to, so why not?

Years ago there was someone at the Boston (A) Book Fair who I was referencing and I presumed they were “he” and they (in a large group setting during a talk) corrected me on their gender (I don’t remember what it was but I’m going to say it was “they” for right now) and I immediately went, “Oh! I’m so sorry! Well anyways, as they were saying…” and just moved on with my response.

After the talk though they came up to me and thanked me for respecting their pronouns and I was simply baffled. Why wouldn’t someone respect their pronouns? Especially in an (A) space why wouldn’t someone respect the simple request of someone not identifying with the way they were (forcibly) categorized when they were younger? Isn’t (A) all about encourage self-expression and individual freedom? Given all of these presumptions in my mind it simply seemed like the decent thing to do and I shrugged it off and said you’re welcome.

I then proceeded to walk off while talking to a friend and make a somewhat ableist joke (not relating to the aforementioned trans person) and then feeling like a dick more acutely than I had before. But it hadn’t come from any sort of discomfort (well except the usual social anxiety that comes with People, but I don’t think that counts) but rather a simple acknowledgement of an action I did.

Now, years later,  as a trans person myself I can see why it meant so much to this person. That I would simply recognize their agency as they saw it without question or hesitation may have been something they never really got in their day to day lives. Who knows, maybe that was the first time they really asserted their identity to someone and felt really grateful to me that I helped it go so well? I can’t say for sure  but I can say now, as a trans person, that I get it a lot more.

The constant discomfort in my life and the sort of cognitive dissonance that SJ activists want folks to feel aren’t the same thing. But they’re both types of discomfort and they’re both ways that we can unlearn ways of oppression.

On the other hand, discomfort is a paradigm that (like many SJ conceptual frameworks) can work against the most marginalized. I brought up my identity as trans and this larger discussion to address this frustrating article written in November of 2015 about rape survivors and trans folks in bathroom.

When I first read it, I was irate. It was using the paradigms of feminist rhetoric such as rape culture as a way to keep transgender folks out of the bathrooms that they feel like they belong in. Why? Because predators might misuse these policies to their own advantage and rape women or, worse still, little girls.

And as we all know as feminists, rapists are almost never “properly” (a misnomer, but I digress) punished for their crimes against women. And as well all know as feminists, women’s liberation means they must not live in fear and so we can’t just simply give a free pass to predators in the name of “progress”!

On and on this article continues to use feminist rhetoric or concepts to justify the exclusion of transgender people based on the authors discomfort. Discomfort has therefore in this case gone from a tool for oppressors to unlearn their behaviors to actually reinforce them and make them think they are even more correct.

How does this happen?

For starters, the emotions involved with discomfort are tricky and manifest differently among different folks. This is especially the case with different preconceived biases and certain experiences in our lives that may have made a large impact. In this case the author has many feminist biases (by that I only mean a predisposition towards feminist notions) and has had a common experience for women (being violated by men) but then uses the consequence of the second thing to justify certain conclusions. In essence, the author decides it is justified to punish transgender individuals for the crimes of other people.

She is using her own discomfort as a way to write off the discomfort of others, it becomes a “discomfort Olympics game” made up of saying that the feelings of the “minority” (transgender folks) isn’t as important as the majority. Never mind that this same logic has been the driving force behind many repressive laws such as the Jim Crow laws in the 60s where people of color were often barred from entering the bathrooms with everyone else because of the possibility for “predators”.

But then if the author was as familiar with feminist rhetoric with regards to rape culture she’d also likely know the fact that most rapists are not strangers. Most rapists and people who engage in sexual assault are going to people you are intimately connected with in some way.

And the people she tells us about in the article to explain why we should all feel uncomfortable about trans folks using the bathroom?

I’ll let blogger Libby Anne handle this one:

I googled Jason Pomares, Norwood Smith Burnes, and Taylor Buehler, just as Triller suggests, and do you know what I found?

Not a single one of them pretended to be transgender or claimed to be transgender.

In actual fact, all three were cisgender men who donned women’s clothing and went into women’s restrooms pretending to be cisgender women. While there they engaged in illegal activity—in one case, public exposure, in another, voyeurism, and in the third, videotaping.

In fact, it turns out that there is a long history of cisgender men dressing as women and going into women’s bathrooms to ogle women—and worse.

Anne’s whole post is great and makes many good counter-points to the common conservative claims about letting transgender folks simply using the bathrooms we’d prefer to. On a sidenote, I’ve also made points about this at C4SS here, here and here if you’re interested in my own thoughts on the matter.

There’s plenty of studies (also see here and here) showing that transgender folks are the ones who are going to suffer under a lack of non-discrimination laws. There’s plenty of data that shows that when men pretend to women they’re already either violating business rules, violating the law in the ways Anne mentioned or they had nothing to do with the anti-discrimination laws existing or not existing, people just did it anyways because laws aren’t magic.

But because people feel like they aren’t safe, they feel they can dismiss the experiences of transgender folks. Take this article for instance on whether the level of sensation transgender people feel is “bathroom discomfort or oppression?”:

Oppression is a word that has been used to great effect in America’s history. Slavery, Jim Crow laws, socially-ingrained homophobia, all of these include some aspect of real oppression. People were beaten, abused, and forced into subpar and unequal conditions because of bigotry and hate.

These instances stand in stark contrast to the most recent epoch of oppressive behavior in our history, the Age of the Gendered Restroom. Those little signs on the bathroom door in malls and gas stations are now, somehow, oppressive.

This is a classic example of the fallacy of relative privation, take it away Wikipedia:

Fallacy of relative privation (“not as bad as”) – dismissing an argument or complaint due to the existence of more important problems in the world, regardless of whether those problems bear relevance to the initial argument. For example First World problem.

So, in this example, because oppression has historically been used for things like people being beaten, enslaved and homophobia that means that these complaints about gender-segregated bathrooms isn’t actually oppressive. But hold on, if “socially ingrained homophobia” was something we can call oppressive and the past (and presumably now) then why not this display of socially ingrained transphobia? Because it’s inherently a transphobic statement to say (much less institutionalize) that that there are (somehow) only two genders.

And why wouldn’t it be? It’s inherently an invalidating statement about our existence and shows a foundational lack of respect for their identities. It tells us, as trans people, that we don’t actually exist and are just figments of our imagination.

Not only that but it reinforces to other people that that there are only two genders and significantly lowers the costs of giving trans folks shit for going in the “wrong” bathroom. Which, by the way, is a big part of why this practice is probably oppressive because it does lead to the beatings of many trans people.

Ya know, because they’re in the “wrong” bathroom.

I’m trying to wade carefully here between the “Offending My Deeply Held Convictions is Indistinguishable from Material Harm” fallacy April Daniels mentions in her previously referenced article on SJ discourse fallacies. But at the same time it’s obvious to me that denying folks their personhood is a great way to have them inflict violence on themselves if nothing else.

But again, our own feelings of discomfort and more generally “discomfort” itself is taken and used as a weapon against marginalized people. Hell, in this case the author isn’t even arguing against trans folks in the bathrooms. They just don’t think referring to it as “oppression” is correct because it’s obviously much more about our feelings than the fact that we’re getting beaten and sexually assaulted.

Even their definition doesn’t really strengthen their argument at all:

Oppression, as defined by Merriam-Webster, means an “unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power” or “something that oppresses especially in being an unjust or excessive exercise of power.”

I can’t see what could be more cruel or unjust then institutionally burying our heads in the sand and furthering the ignorance of trans folks in popular culture. It seems excessive to me to see bathrooms that are so tightly regulated around lines of gender instead of letting everyone enter as they please.

And in case you think my claim about relative privation is a bit too tenuous for the first example, I provide Exhibit B from the same article:

We can have this discussion on the basis of discomfort all day long, but as soon as we equate discomfort with oppression, we’re hurting people. People who are actually oppressed need that word to remain powerful and unsullied by “first world” contrivances.

They don’t need to fight against our conception of oppression as a bathroom sign when trying to relate their real, everyday struggles against dictators, military regimes, social paradigms, laws, or whatever power is actively unjust or cruel to them in their world.

Here, they literally use the textbook example that Wikipedia uses in its example that I cited before. Our struggles of identity and personhood are boiled down to mere signs and compared to literal dictators and military regimes.

And against that, I mean, who could say we are truly oppressed?

Lastly, with regards to this article I wanted to highlight this horrifying passage:

I would submit the following: If you have a single minute of a single day to consider the discomfort a bathroom sign causes you, you are not oppressed.

Imagine the sort of life you must live to fulfill this kind of special condition.

If you have a minute to think about the pain, suffering and harm that so many trans folks have gone through because of those “little” signs then you probably have any number of things going on your life.

The fact that this author would make this sort of prescription about oppression is more likely harmful than simply conflating oppression and discomfort. Because they are telling us that if we even have 60 seconds to consider the effects of gendered segregation in society we must not have to deal with crippling debt, or issues of sexual assault, no we must just have a lot of goddamned time on our hands or something.

I can’t think of a more privileged statement then telling people that the amount of time they can spend thinking on something directly correlates to how much privilege they do or don’t have. This is such a 1:1 correlation that needs some real hammering out and defending before being accepted, but the author gives us no such thing, instead they just say it matter of fact, as if it’s obvious.

All of this is to say that the issues of “discomfort” are real and that they shouldn’t be used carelessly. Especially because we’ve seen folks use it carelessly for their own harmful ends, whether intentional or not.

Discomfort and Mindfulness

I’m not uncritical of mindfulness (for example this video is a good criticism of it) but there does seem to be benefits behind meditation and trying to live in the present moment, etc.  Generally then, there might be some benefits to mesh the SJ concept of “education through discomfort” and encouraging mindfulness.

Before we continue, let’s review a definition of mindfulness:

Mindfulness is about being here, fully present with all our activities and thoughts, with body and mind united, and not in a state of dispersion (Chödrön, 1997; Thich Nhat Hanh, 2000).

It means paying attention in a particular way: in the present moment and non-judgementally .

The definition there is provided by Yuk-Lin Renita Wong who was an assistant professor at York University in Toronto, Canada.

Wong integrated these ideas of mindfulness with a course they were teaching entitled Identity and Diversity in the Summer of 2000. They decided that it might be worth incorporating these ideas because of the various feedback they got from students (many white) about how she was teaching the class previously and how it constituted “white bashing” despite her focus on gender and class as well.

Here is how Wong described their experience:

In the first class, I prepared the students for the discomfort the course might bring up for them. I told the students that this course would probably be very uncomfortable for many of them because it would unsettle many of their old beliefs and conceptions about themselves and the world.

Integrating the practice of mindfulness, I asked the students to stay in touch with and embrace their feeling of discomfort, not to judge it wrong and push it away. To encourage the students to relax into and befriend their discomfort, I invited them to take their feeling of discomfort as a teacher and a friend – as a precious opportunity for learning and growth – by greeting their discomfort with a gentle smile and a friendly hello.

I encouraged students to “stop” and “rest” when they felt uncomfortable, to listen to what their feeling of discomfort may tell them, instead of busying themselves with reacting, defending or hiding: “What is my feeling of discomfort trying to tell me, about myself, about my social locations in the society?” I also suggested the students to see the place of discomfort as a place where change begins.

Only when we feel uncomfortable would we begin to feel the need for change.

That last part feeds back into the opening image macro: When we feel a sense of discomfort with the world around us, do we really feel as if the world needs to be changed. But even if this is necessarily true that doesn’t mean we have to experience discomfort purely in a negative way. There are many ways for us to deal with our emotions in positive and healthy ways.

For example, there was a thread where a few women got together and put on some sort of facial mask that resembled black face. None of them intended any harm or thought that it would be perceived as anything but makeup. But instead of simply accepting that it could have been taken the wrong way (and for good reason) one of them decided to lose their cool at everyone else.

They exclaimed they should be trusted to not do something so racist even though many people in the group didn’t really know them. They also seemed to be saying that other people were wrong for feeling discomforted and commenting, instead of simply moving on. But people were being very respectful during their call-ins and there was no real reason to lash out, besides the fact that they felt uncomfortable.

This doesn’t mean that the call-in folks (including myself) were wrong but that, in this case anyways, the individual in question had no real coping skills to deal with this call-in through. So teaching these sorts of coping mechanisms seems like a beneficial thing for social justice people to do, if discomfort is such a vital tool to affecting change.

As I’ve hopefully made clear by now, I’m a bit ambiguous about using discomfort as a tool to cause change in folks dispositions. I think, coupled with mindfulness and other ways of thinking about discomfort, it could be more effective. And even without those things I think it can still have beneficial side-effects, but those effects are less likely to be totally received and effectively interpreted by the person.

It’s also worth returning to my earlier point that the way SJ folks use the “discomfort teaches anti-oppression narratives effectively” is to basically treat people like utter shit because they’re “privileged’ and therefore have the mental capacities of an Elder God or something.

I think these sorts of attitudes can stem from lack of intersectionality in folks analysis, i.e. thinking that just because you’re white you can deal better with stress even when you work 40 hours a week, are poor and don’t get to see loved ones much.

I’m not saying this excuses white people (including myself) for being ignorant of racism (white privilege doesn’t either) but it makes sense why white folks wouldn’t have as high of a threshold for stress if you’re just seeing their racial identity and not thinking about issues of gender, class and so forth.

Anyways, back to the classroom and the methodology:

Throughout the course, I introduced simple breathing exercises to facilitate students to pause and go back to their body after some intense class discussions or disturbing videos about systemic oppressions, to allow room for their feelings and for insights to unfold in the moment of “listening silence.”

Asking student s (sic) to stay fully in touch with their thoughts and feelings as they arise in a gentle and non-judgmental way, and to look deeply into what the feelings reveal to them is in fact mindfulness practice. Mindfulness, as Pema Chödrön (1996) puts it succinctly, is about “diving into your real issues and fearlessly befriending the difficult and blocked areas and deep-seated habitual patterns that keep us stuck in ignorance and confusion” (p.301).

Just to be honest about my biases, I’ve done meditation before. Never for long periods of my life (I think the longest I’ve ever gone is about a week straight or a few weeks straight), but enough to certainly think there’s something to it.

I do deep breathing at times when I am very stressed (lately especially) and it seems to marginally help. It doesn’t clear my stress away but it makes it more understandable so I can figure out what I might want to do next, instead of, you know, just continuing to cry and breakdown.

So all I’m really claiming here is that these methods have done some things for me and I could see them aiding other folks as well. I don’t think it’s some sort of cure all and the popularization of meditation and mindfulness more generally hasn’t been a clear cut victory for the movement.

But at the same time, I think it’s been good to get people to see that they don’t always have to act with judgement towards themselves. I know that I struggle with these things myself and know many other folks who do the same.

Here were the results from the classroom, if you were curious:

In this course, a number of students expressed in their reflective journals how they engaged with their discomfort and noticed their emotional and mental reactivity to the course materials, lectures, and discussions.

A student talked about her growing awareness of how she had always tried to run away from her discomfort, rather than facing the challenge of looking into what made her reacted in certain ways.

Another student recounted her “uncomfortable” feeling and even “resentment” at “having to rethink her notions” after watching a video which intensely deconstructed the stereotypes of Muslim women in North America. Learning to befriend and engage with her feelings, this student was gradually able to appreciate the experience as “an excellent learning opportunity.”

Another student took her uncomfortable feeling as “a good thing” when she was confronted with the relations of oppression between the aboriginal people and the dominant (white) Canadians. One student began to recognise how her failing to critically examine the policies and institutions of the society had allowed her “to find comfort in ignorance.” For this student, the teachings in the course “have removed the security of ignorance and have illustrated that ignorance is not bliss.”

Another student recognised how her saying to herself that she had no culture when she felt uncomfortable with class discussions and activities related to culture and race was “just an easy way to escape feeling uneasy with racism.”

Instead of pushing away her feeling of discomfort, she took it up as “a good place to be in” and opened herself to the questions about her social locations. Her discomfort thus became a “learning opportunity” for her to move out of her “protective cocoon” towards “taking personal responsibility” for her growth as a person and a social worker by inviting her to examine the power and privilege which she “pretend[ed]” she did not have.

Obviously this isn’t a proper study and I’m not claiming this is some sort of “end” to any discussion, ever. But it’s an interesting experiment with promising results (granted it was done back in 2000) that I hope will spark more experimentation in how SJ folks decide to cultivate their anti-oppressive messages.

Utilitarianism, Oppression and Discomfort

I used to have a friend who got me thinking about a lot of these topics. They would explain that, from their perspective as a utilitarian, it seemed like it was fool hardy to reduce people’s pleasure of the world in order for them to enjoy it more.

Granted, this was a while ago and I’m not sure if I’m completely and accurately reconstructing this person’s opinion. But regardless they were a utilitarian who seemed to be of the opinion that focusing on displeasure within SJ discourse could have negative effects on the people we’re trying to talk to.

At first, I was slightly defensive about this but over time I began to see that they at least had some sort of point. How much of a case can you really make if people can’t feel comfortable in their own skin every five minutes?

And especially if you’re talking to people with mental health issues within the depression, anxiety and low self-esteem ballpark, it seems counter-productive to edge around these feelings they may already generally feel in their lives.

I’ve discussed utilitarianism before as well as my preferred theory of virtue ethics through the philosophy of anarchic egoism. I have done so in a rather lopsided way admittedly because my bias is heavily against utilitarianism for both philosophical and personal reasons that likely color the amount of focus I give towards it as opposed to deontological theories of ethics or other theories.

Which isn’t to say I don’t think those theories are worth discussing in similar fashion but I see a lot more of my friends getting sucked into the appeal (and it has real appeal) of utilitarianism and the larger consequentialist family of theories.

But to me, doing otherwise would be like if I focused on the anti-work movement’s tendencies to focus on post-scarcity instead of focusing on its ability to get locked into the reformist notions of Universal Basic Income (UBI).

Sure, both ideas have their issues and their prominence within the anti-work community but (at least in my own experiences) I see many more anti-work folks getting sucked into UBI ideas and it seems potentially much worse to me given its very real and obvious appeal.

Despite my large amounts of personal experience with utilitarianism the sample size therein is rather small and it’s heavily tinged with personal biases and other things that weight my opinion in my mind. Even so, while I think this particular interpretation of the utilitarian philosophy makes some sense (as I often think of various things utilitarians are wont to say) I don’t think it goes very far.

Most of our lives are made of various pleasures and displeasure and situating ourselves within this vortex of different feelings can be a tricky process. It’s certainly worth our time to be careful with how we approach making people feel uncomfortable in the pursuit of some larger goal, but at the same time there’s no actual wrong-doing in using displeasure as a way to further conversation.

Especially if you already have social anxiety or any of the other mental health issues I previously mentioned conversations are already likely a minefield for you. And yeah, making that more difficult probably wouldn’t help things but it’s also possible for you to have devised various coping mechanisms (like mindfulness or various CBT and DBT theories of mental health) to deal with this inherent discomfort.

For example, I go to a poetry slam on Thursday nights and it’s a great time. I know a handful of people there and often I actually have a group of friends who I go with and hang out. But it’s also unbearably uncomfortable because my social anxiety gets triggered really badly when the center state is on someone and it’s not a formal (read: routine orientated) presentation.

If someone’s doing a prepared speech and has been approved by their peers to do so and there’s some sort of process to all of it, I’m usually fine. And even when I’m not I can using various coping mechanisms like looking at my smartphone, thinking to myself about what I want to do or simply listening and trying to keep myself calm.

Sometimes, when I know I’ll get more displeasure than anything else, I decline going. If I am already in a bad mood due to anxiety, depression or something else then I can tell that going there is going to be more trouble than it’s worth.

So it’s totally valid to make decisions based on levels of pleasure but there’s also considerations of character. What kind of audience would you prefer? An audience that is there because they feels some sort of misinformed obligation to show up because their friends do or one that is there because they want to be there?

There’s a form of utilitarianism called negative utilitarianism which argues that instead of maximizing happiness we should think about minimizing suffering and that seems to be at least part of an argument against the SJ tactic of using discomfort as a main strategy (at the very least) to affect social change.

It’s a relevant question of whether there’s too much or not enough discomfort in the world as it is. We’re always being shown new experiences that are largely out of our control to one extent or another and furthering those processes may or may not be a good idea given on what framework you are using.

If you are a utilitarian it might be easier than others to say that causing people significant amounts of displeasure just for the chance of influencing their opinions is wrong. On the other hand I could also easily see the counter-argument from other utilitarians that the oppression that these people may be inflicting on others could be far worse than the discomfort you are making them feel.

But again, this can be taken to bad and dehumanizing places where we take folks individual privileges and substitute that with their general identity. We presume, based solely on their oppressor identity, that they can simply take whatever we dish out and goddammit they deserve every bit they’re going to get anyhow!

This might not be a very good idea for many reasons as I’ve argued at length by now. But the discomfort question particularly around levels of discomfort and what sorts we should see as good or bad reminds me of a tangential question of whether “the system” (that is to say the current political system) is “fixed” or “broken”.

Some people think the political system is “broken” because it doesn’t work for “the people” (whatever that means) and some people think it’s supposed to be that way so it’s “fixed” to be like that. It seems to be a matter of perspective how things balance out and one of the issues I find with utilitarianism (and I by no means am original in this critique) is its ability to properly calculate these levels out to just proportions.

Because while I (now) somewhat sympathize with that friend, I don’t think there’s any useful way in which we can think about this through consequentialist or utilitarian reasoning. At least not without involving some levels of deontology too and thinking about the sort of individuals we want to be.

Do we want to be people who stand up to injustice even if it’s difficult and makes other people’s lives slightly more difficult? Or do we want to resign ourselves to incalculable processes whereby we enter a sort of epistemic paralysis?

Conclusion

I try to go as long as I can with these posts because I want to get out as many thoughts as I can on a given subject. But at this point I feel like I’m rambling and I think I’ve said all I can say on this part of social justice rhetoric for now.

If you enjoyed this essay you can donate monthly to my Patreon and you can find my much more compact and (at times) structured essays on Abolish Work.com.

I also have a book coming out next month about anti-work, so look for that!

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