School's Out: Activist Quandaries and the Benefit of the Doubt
I had a jam session with a good friend of mine last night. I love these sessions. Music is what keeps me feeling like there's sense and meaning when the world threatens to prove otherwise. During a break, he started recounting the tale of some past gig that was either a hilarious failure or an epic success (you don’t remember the ones in between, he said). We were talking about song choice, and of the songs his band played, he said, “was so gay,” but it was a crowd pleaser. I raised my eyebrows, cuing him to backpedal, and the conversation abruptly took a political detour.
There are about 20 years between me and this buddy of mine. He told me that this is language that’s been around since he was a kid, and it ain’t going anywhere. Besides, it doesn’t have anything to do with the speaker actually making a connection between homosexuality and their use of the word gay in that moment. I argued that it is the resonance between that word and a history of socially sanctioned homophobia which gives the slur its painful punch (see also: ableist language). He conceded this may have been true at some point, but not anymore. But the danger, I said, is precisely in the fact that now a social hierarchy is maintained without requiring the component of individual actors who are personally hostile toward gays.
I elaborated that there are still huge debates about this kind of language, and that it’s very much an issue which is still being discussed. A lot of young folks today realize that sexist and homophobic language correlates to real differences in the material and social resources available to them due to the interplay of their sexuality with other practices and identities, whether these are real or ascribed to them by others. They’re forming GSAs, they’ve been instrumental in changing legislation, and they’re making connections between overtly phobic sexual slurs and the much, much subtler forms of construing social worth, according rights, and being folded into structures of power. At this point, in the scholarly literature, among activists, and even (mostly) in Canadian state policy, debating the significance of the word “gay” as a slur is far from the front lines of the public conversations around discrimination on the basis of sex, sexuality, and gender. While this issue hasn't lost its importance, the debate has shifted from whether discrimination against sexual and gender "minorities” happens, to much more complex ideas about and responses to the ways in which inequalities have been bureaucratized and routinized. What I wanted to say, but felt I couldn’t without giving a longer history than I had breath for, is: you’re not the first person to argue there’s no relationship between the “gay” slur and homophobia. We’re on that next shit now.
My friend took my points. He resolved, on his own initiative, to pay attention to his language and to do the same with his friends and his kids. I gave him the benefit of the doubt, choosing to believe that growth is possible, and I felt genuinely good that when we encountered a point of great tension, we talked about it in a way that advanced an appreciation of justice and came out still friends on the other side.
This felt to me like one small moment of anti-oppressive success, but I’ve also been reading through some of the latest Internet Scandals, and I’ve been embroiled in my fair share of conflicts through campus politics. What I’ve noticed about these battles is that they often seem to involve destructive infighting, which sees activists fighting with each other about not being radical enough. If we’re thinking about radicalism in the sense of getting to the root of a concept and working out a new, more liberatory way of understanding it, then I agree that we should all strive to be more radical. But I often witness this debate devolve into anger, name-calling, and ostracism of people who are way more engaged in bringing about social change than most. And so almost every other day I spin into a crisis of meaning where I’m not sure about what I’m doing in these circles. What does it mean to practice radical democracy and then malign someone’s work because it raised a new conflict even as it tried to address another? How does it build robust, democratic, pluralist community to cut people out of the debate?
The crux of my confusion lies in the way that people who agree on the basic premise that social inequality exists and needs to be addressed sometimes fracture themselves by fighting about how to accomplish this goal, while the seeming majority blithely naturalizes inequalities, perpetuates systemic prejudices, and authorizes the erasure of difference—all while throwing out phrases like "that's gay" with impunity. As an activist, I’m not really sure where I fit into all this, or what my purpose is.
Anyone else have perspectives on these tensions? I have so many more questions than answers.
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