BY ALEXIS SHOTWELL
Associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and the Department of Philosophy at Carleton University
A politics of imperfection, a politics of responsibility.
Lately it seems like every day brings a new bad thing for anyone not invested in white supremacy and capitalism. As the tweet went: “First they came for the Latinos, Muslims, women, gays, poor people, intellectuals, and scientists and then it was Wednesday.” And every day, I become more convinced that a politics based on purity will let us down. Let me explain.
Saturday, January 28, 2017, was early in the litany of bad. That weekend thousands of people converged on airports around the United States to protest the effects of an executive order imposing a ban on travel from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia. Trump signed that order on Friday and by Saturday there were refugees as well as people with green cards from these countries arriving at US airports. They were then held in custody and denied access to lawyers. I was at the manifestation at the San Francisco airport. I have been at many protests, encampments, and manifestations over the last twenty years, and this one stands out; it was tremendously moving and powerful.
On the Facebook event page for the protest, someone posted: “So where was this when Obama signed a ban in 2011 against Iraqi’s and again in 2015 when he put a ban on Muslims?? Hypocrisy at its finest!!” Later he clarified that he didn’t actually care about the travel ban (he thought it was a good move for the US to protect its borders and not let anyone in). He was just pointing out the hypocrisy of protesting Trump’s policies without having had an equally explosive and massive resistance to Obama’s policies.
Conservatives, particularly the subspecies whose main political work is trolling people on the Internet, are fond of this line of critique. It can take the form that it did here, calling hypocrisy on people who now are saying something when they did not raise a protest in the past. It also takes the form of pointing out inconsistencies, as when trolls tweeted to a friend that she could not both oppose human-fueled global warming and drive her car. Or it could be arguing that if someone benefits from something they cannot protest it (as when people say that it is impossible to criticize the US military and enjoy the supposed peace that it is supposedly protecting). Conservatives also use this approach in response to people opposing bigots speaking on university campus—if we care about free speech, surely we mean free speech for everyone, and “everyone” definitely includes people who think that (as the T-shirts put it) “Feminism Is Cancer.” Each of these criticisms deploys what we can call “purity politics”: because the person expressing the desire for another world is complicit or compromised, they are supposed to give up. Conservatives use purity politics to try to close down critique and action.
Recognizing our involvement in and complicity with things we think are wrong, fully understanding the weight of wrongdoing in the history we inherit, or understanding the harms that have come from our failure to act can feel quite awful. The right uses purity politics against the left because we’re the ones who respond to being implicated in doing harm. They’re correct that we are involved in the very things that we want to stop, but they’re wrong to think that being compromised means we should stop protesting. If we stop working against them, terrible things simply continue. If we are to be effective, we who want to have a world in which many beings and ecosystems can flourish, we should reject purity for purely tactical reasons—it demobilizes us.
But we should resist purity politics for deeper reasons, too. Purity has long been the domain of the racist, nativist, and eugenicist right. It has been the technology through which laws about miscegenation were formulated, and it’s still the emotional hinge on which today’s alt-right argues that the white race is dying. Purity of the nation has been the rallying cry for tightening borders against the free movement of people; it is the engine that drives vigilante border patrols and murderous refugee policies. Purity of the species has been the scalpel that forcibly sterilizes disabled people, and that continues to support policy based on the idea that disabled lives are not worth living.
We do better to aim for a politics of imperfection. If we do not fit the mold of perfection—if we’re disabled, sick, young, old, not working, not productive—we are definitely beings who offer care, help, solidarity, and presence to the world. If we’ve failed to help in the past, if things we do are implicated in harm, if we benefit from something that harms others, or if we accord only some people access to a podium, we can still be of benefit to this world. Even people who have harmed others or the world, whose ancestors owned slaves, whose current government is actively pursuing genocidal colonial policies, who regularly make mistakes—even we can be useful.
But how to unfurl a politics that holds our imperfections? I suggest taking up a “politics of responsibility,” a concept from social movement scholar Gary Kinsman. He defines this as involving “those of us in oppressing positions recognizing our own implication within and responsibility to actively challenge relations of oppression.” A politics of responsibility recognizes our relative, shifting, and contingent position in social relations of harm and benefit; it enjoins us to look at how we are shaped by our place in history. We can take responsibility for creating futures that radically diverge from that history, seriously engaging that work based on where we are located, listening well to the people, beings, and ecosystems most vulnerable to devastation.
Listening well, taking responsibility, and acting even though we recognize that we can’t be pure is going to be much harder than disengaging would be. Two poems have helped me think about this. Johnetta Elzie co-founded an organization working to end police violence. Her poem “Where were you” addresses itself to people—largely white women—who participated in the enormous protests march the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. It asks a lot of questions, and on the surface many of those questions sound like our Facebook troll friend—the last line of the poem ends “We’ve been marching for years — where the hell have all of you been?” But Elzie’s questions are the opposite of trolling. She is calling her listeners in to responsibility for not having been there, asking us to reflect on how we are placed in history, and then inviting us to step up now. She asks,“What happens tomorrow? Will you march with us when we need you most?” Danny Bryck’s poem “If You Could Go Back” likewise calls us in to a politics of responsibility. Drawing on the fact that many of us in the present believe, looking back, that we would resist fascism, racism, and oppression with every fiber of our being, it points to things that are happening now:
“That’s King. And this is Selma. And Berlin. And Jerusalem. And now is when they need you to be brave.”
Let us be imperfect, for we are, but let us be brave too.
Alexis Shotwell is author of Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times and Knowing Otherwise: Race, Gender, and Implicit Understanding. She is associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and the Department of Philosophy at Carleton University.