Tuesday, July 08, 2014

The Rhetoric of Harm

Someone on facebook posted a link to You Are Triggering Me! The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma. It's by Jack Haberstam, someone I don't know, but I liked a lot of the essay, and I linked to it, saying the following:
I know nothing about Jack Haberstam other than this essay. But I found the essay interesting. It addresses trends that I have found problematic. I think Haberstam is onto something: if movements are going to work, they have to be broadly based. The focus on harm to the individual is neoliberal, because the basis of neoliberalism is a focus on individuals. As Maggie Thatcher said, "There is no such thing as a society. There are only individuals and families."

What Haberstam is saying, I think, is that we talk too much about personal harm and trauma these days, rather than speaking about collective harm: global warming, for example, or world poverty or racism or war.

This is a hard topic to nail down since -- as the Second Wave of feminism said -- the personal is the political. A statement about the one can be a statement about the other. But it's also possible to use the personal to evade larger political questions. If we don't get past the individual to the collective, then we are stuck in Maggie Thatcher's world.

I have been bothered on the Internet and at Wiscon by rather too much concern with people as victims. We should never see people as victims. It turns them into objects, rather than subjects. I've been concerned by rather too much interest in feelings. We live in a difficult world, and we can't protect ourselves or one another from painful experiences. Reading the news is a painful experience. The whole damn world is triggering. We have to learn to cope, and we have to work for change. It is not a political statement to say, "You made me feel bad."

An essay in response to Halberstam can be found here: Jack Haberstam's Flying Circus: On Postmodernism and the Scapegoating of Trans Women. The author blames postmodernism for the atomization of the left.
Postmodernism enforced a ruthlessly pointillist perspective on politics. Even as we spoke of grand social structures like white supremacy, patriarchy, or capitalism, we became fixated on the individual as the prime site of resistance. The war would be fought on our bodies, with our clothes, our motility, our speech, every millimetre of social practice. All would inform the struggle. We became fixated on distinction rather than commonality, developing lightning fast reflexes to point out when someone said something that, for instance, could not be applied to all women. Distinction mattered over all else.
Postmodernism may be the villain in academia. I don't know that it is where I live in the outside world. I would guess that the villain is the collapse of the left. In spite of Occupy and the Moral Monday actions in North Carolina, both of which are impressive, I do not get the sense that the American left has much in the way of energy or direction.

Why did the left collapse? My first answer was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the transformation of China into a capitalist state. This was the end of a dream, and the left hasn't found a new dream to replace it. Something similar has happened in Europe: Neoliberalism is eroding the gains made by unions and Social Democrats after WWII. Another dream -- that of the sane and humane Nordic societies -- is gone or going.

I am not saying that people have stopped struggling and given up. There are interesting things happening all over the world. But the two big dreams, that of Communism (the Third International) and Social Democracy (the Second International) have mostly vanished.

I'm not sure this explains the US, since Americans don't pay a lot of attention to the rest of the world. Maybe the American left was simply worn down by 30 years of conservative counter revolution.

In times of setback, the left usually turns aggression inward, breaking into ever-smaller factions. Maybe the ultimate faction is one person, complaining about he or she has endured.


Blogger delagar said...

There are parts of Haberstam's essay I really didn't like. But this, I agree with: "It is not a political statement to say, "You made me feel bad."

I think you have captured the heart of what bothers me about the great triggering debate as it is playing out on Tumblr.

7:10 AM  

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