Ben Summerskill steps down as Stonewall boss

Farewell, then, Ben Summerskill. We barely knew you. Can it be a coincidence that his departure came only a week after I blogged about the “self-serving and ultimately pointless” Stonewall Workplace Equality Index? Who can say? What I can say is that he name searches and as a result tweeted me to accuse me of ‘bullying’ as a result of my repeated criticisms of the organisation, which is a bit silly.

Some of my other blogs about Stonewall and its brand of politics:

Whatever good it may once have done I think Stonewall has become a largely useless organisation (I mean, its latest campaign needs no comment from me) which lends its services to the murky practice of pinkwashing dubious companies and organisations. There is much worth reading out there about its terrible record on transgender equality, while some have already noted its terrible boldness in claiming marriage equality as its own given that it was a very late convert to the cause.

This great piece touches on many of the current problems with ‘gay politics’. Ostensibly a look at a book which claims to ‘de-mythologise’ Matthew Shepard, it manages to be wide-ranging in its critique. The lede (“Many of us have a habit of being overly credulous to stories that flatter our biases”) is a succinct skewering of the banal clicktivism which passes for much current gay politics, with its endless e-petitions and inaccurate memes. Its questioning of why so many need Matthew Shepard to have been an ‘innocent’ in every possible sense (rather than a rounded human being who was the victim of an awful crime) is also highly relevant. I think this mentality in part feeds into why gay politics is so terrible when it comes to, for example, issues of immigration or why there is tunnel vision on Russia’s treatment of its LGBT citizens and not other marginalised groups.’Gay identity’ must be essentialised and presented as ‘pre-politics’ so that any perceived attack on it can be portrayed as an attack on ‘innocents’. Issues of immigration, sex work, drug use or even foundational questions of social justice are seen as post-politics: they are messy, complicated and open to debate because the ‘victims’ are not innocent but rather viewed as partly complicit. This also offers much to our understanding of why groups like Stonewall have had almost nothing to say about Chelsea Manning, who is seen to be targeted for her actions in leaking information rather than for being LGBT and so unworthy of attention. This piece interestingly presents this as a pathology of the wider left:

However well intentioned, the urge to treat Matthew Shepard as a blameless angel demonstrates so many of the pathologies in contemporary social liberalism. First is the left’s attraction to heroes and martyrs — a drive to personalize and individualize every issue, in a way that seems to directly cut against the theoretical commitment to identifying structural causes for social problems…

This seems very compelling to me and I’d extend it to include an attraction to villains and victims. Witness the endless Daily Mail-bating and the trend in current feminism to take endless photos of sexist products on supermarket shelves. These are big, complex structural issues reduced to us and them, and the ‘goodies’ tend to be the victims. Rather than argue for systemic change or a social justice which encompasses everyone we increasingly seem to focus on the ways in which we as good, deserving individuals are targeted by the bad guys – a mentality which surely ultimately leads to a cul de sac?

I’m not so lacking in self-awareness that I ignore the piece’s references to a :

proud, self-aggrandizing radicalism…the superior virtue of a radicalism that…had little personal investment, little risk. 

It is of course always important to acknowledge the value of incremental, practical gains. It’s also important to recognise, acknowledge and interrogate your own privilege, one which in my case allows me the luxury of exploring these issues in a blog without facing persecution or violence for it. In terms of LGBT politics this is particularly the case in the US, which clearly lags behind much of Europe in terms of LGBT rights. For all my issues with Macklemore and Same Love (and indeed with the gay marriage movement) for example, I can still acknowledge that it was quite a major deal for an American staple like the Grammys to prominently feature same-sex marriage. Crucially, however, this does not mean that any of this should be beyond critique. Many of the criticisms of Stonewall and wider gay politics could be met with ‘but they’re doing something good!’, an assertion which has the ring of a truism about it yet contains multitudes in terms of unchallenged ideologies and assumptions. We cannot allow critical thought to (further) be eroded by the oppressively banal ‘cult of positivity’ which, in guises such as twee/cupcake fascism, seeks to drain the politics (the conflict) from daily life and replace it with a reactionary detachment and ‘niceness’.

This takes me back to Stonewall and how criticism of its work is framed as ‘bullying’. This riposte hinges on the ‘fact’ that it’s doing ‘nice things’ and so should be beyond reproach (an argument which was also made to me re: Ben Cohen). But this presents politics as a zero sum game where people and actions can only ever be ‘good’ or bad’ and where the politics of the ‘goodies’ is all that can be seen to exist. This is not the case. Interrogating these assumptions can help us understand the ideology behind them; they can help us understand our world in a deeper, more critical sense. In this way we can begin to see that our activism is not inherently good and we are not heroes for engaging in it. Indeed, sometimes our well-intentioned activism can be harmful and sometimes it can rest on mistaken assumptions about people which come from the blindness of our own privileges. Rather than seeking to further mystify this by presenting critics as ‘baddies’ who need to be shut up, we should be open to it and the insights it can offer. We should celebrate it, even. Critique is not the enemy of action:  our politics can encompass both and it’s necessary that they complement each other.

Ben Summerskill steps down as Stonewall boss

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