Brave Man: Rejecting ‘Allyship’.

No-one would have predicted that a Will Young video would inspire comment pieces at all, let alone in 2015. Yet Brave Man inspired two Guardian pieces in one day due to its depiction of a trans man, played by a trans male actor. As these pieces note, reaction to the video was mixed and it led to a (small) reignition of debate around the concept of ‘allies’ (the subject of Owen Jones’ column.) As a result, Paris Lees took to Twitter to praise some ‘trans allies’:

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This list was illuminating for all of the wrong reasons. Aside from overwhelmingly being made up of celebrities and ‘the commentariat’ (which I’ll come back to later), it implicitly suggested a particular definition of ‘trans’. It did not, for example, suggest that any trans people could be harmed by Islamophobia (see Cathy Newman’s lying about being ‘ushered out’ of a mosque), racism (Grace Dent’s appalling take on teenagers who join ISIS, suitably deconstructed here) or the use of AIDS and ‘tranny’ as casual punchlines. The inclusion of the managing editor of The Sun, renowned for its bigotry and extreme right-wing views, was particularly breathtaking but perhaps unsurprising as Lees writes for it. What the list seemed to represent, then, was less ‘allies of all trans people’ than ‘allies of trans people like Paris Lees and Paris Lees’. Indeed, Owen Jones was included in the list and returned the favour by liberally quoting Lees in his column defending allies:

Paris Lees is passionate about winning trans allies through the impressive awareness raising project All About Trans, and is irritated when there’s “a big backlash against anyone who tries to be an ally”. They should be given space to grow and educate themselves, she believes. But she puts the anger of many trans activists in an important context: “I don’t know of any trans people not deeply damaged by discrimination, and so there’s lots of angry people out there.” An ally will get it wrong and upset those they want to support. But the reaction surely is to listen and understand an anger that erupts from a toxic mixture of prejudice and marginalisation.

Jones is savvy enough to anticipate the pitfalls of defending the concept of ‘allyship’ in his opening paragraph, suggesting you may get accused of ‘drowning out’ minority voices or ‘making it about you’. Yet of course this is what the column does, with its lengthiest paragraph being about Jones’ previous experience of writing about trans rights. Someone who identifies as an ‘ally’ to trans people writing in defence of ‘trans allies’ can’t help but seem somewhat self-indulgent, especially when you’ve been criticised for e.g. sitting on a panel called ‘How To Be Happy And Transgender‘. Even Jack Monroe’s column is angled as a defence of the video from those criticising it.

Yet if someone trying to be an ally should, as Paris Lees suggests, ‘be given space to grow and educate themselves’, why approach criticism largely originating from other trans people as unwarranted and unhelpful? The framing of ‘ally’ here is quite a typical one: it suggests that people deserve props for ‘trying’ and for ‘speaking out’. This implies that there is some place we arrive at where we are ‘enlightened’, whether that be with regards to gender, sexuality, race, disability or whatever. There is no such place. Whomever we are, we are always engaged in an everyday battle to overcome the mental barriers of what bell hooks calls white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. We cannot escape this and, as hooks’ term underlines, we particular cannot escape the myriad of ways in which these oppressions interact and intersect

The concept of ‘allies’ largely negates this idea of constant struggle, replacing it with the risible notion that you deserve praise for ‘trying’ not to be racist or transphobic or sexist or homophobic. For me it lessens the complex humanity of those at the sharp end of these kinds of oppression and positions them as abstract groupings. They are presented as learning tools, as chances to show how ‘good’ you are (note Lees’ ‘who’ve gone out of their way to be friends to trans people’ as if it’s a project) and at its most cynical, as marketing opportunities. It’s notable that, in the LGBT world at least, the term is most commonly applied to the kind of people Paris Lees listed: celebrities and those in positions of some power. Take this recent Gay Times tweet:
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“A straight ally in every sense.” What does this even mean? It seems to boil down to ‘he says he thinks homophobia is bad, loves his gay fans and poses in his pants with a rainbow painted on his torso’. It’s absolutely nothing to do with oppression and everything to do with boosting his profile. In the process of celebrating this drivel, we are complicit in being patronised and erasing the many differences within our communities. Attitude gives an award called ‘Honorary Gay’ to straight people (who, if recent recipient Lorraine Kelly is anything to go by, merely say nice things about gays) while many lap up the self-serving ‘charity’ of Ben ‘gays love grooming’ Cohen or the Warwick Rowers with their UKIP supporting ‘leader’. It’s a neat bait and switch: having benefited (in varying degrees) from white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, ‘allies’ then elevate themselves again by feigning to oppose aspects of it in the most weak manner imaginable. Yet we see ‘allyship’ actually serving to reinforce aspects of this by policing the kind of ‘minority’ we’re supposed to (aspire to) be – e.g. as a gay man ‘allyship’ tells me that I am supposed to fit into white supremacist capitalist patriarchy as far as possible rather than challenge it. “Look, this rich and successful white man thinks gays should be able to get married – and you complain?!

Indeed, as we see in the columns about Brave Man, anyone who responds to ‘allyship’ with strong criticism quickly finds the limits of how much their voice is truly valued. They will inevitably be accused of being ‘cynical’, ‘ungrateful’, ‘unreasonable’, ‘angry’. The responses to Bahar Mustafa and the consent lessons at Warwick are prominent examples of people feeling attacked by having forms of oppression raised because they think they’re on the right side already. Celebrating ‘allyship’ does not lend itself to self-reflection or accepting criticism but instead places individual ego at the centre of social justice. When I wrote about the absurdity of Ben Cohen appearing on Newsnight to discuss homophobia, I was attacked by Antony Cotton (no  less) who seemed to think I should be grateful for Cohen’s ‘activism’. Any criticism is accepted entirely on the terms of the ‘ally’ and supporters.

The question at the heart of all this, then, is inevitably ‘ally to whom?’ To return to Paris Lees’ tweets as an example, many trans people are clearly excluded by those she deems as ‘allies’ (particularly trans poc). When Jones writes that “trans people are basically where gay people were in the 1980s” it doesn’t seem to occur to him that many queer people are still there in many ways. The recent OUTstanding list of business ‘allies’, meanwhile, includes such luminaries as the union-busting, tax-avoiding Richard Branson and a veritable horde of execs at morally dubious firms. These people are certainly not my allies by any stretch of the imagination yet, in ally discourse, I am supposed to celebrate them because they have LGBT networks, have diversity targets or enable people to put rainbows on their Facebook celebrating ‘equal marriage’ (which was only ‘equal’ for some).

Only a robust, intersectional approach which recognises our full humanity can counter this. Of course representation matters but to suggest, as Owen Jones does, that ‘solidarity’ = ‘building coalitions’ = “allies” is wrong. We have to reject the idea that ‘trying’ is worth either our gratitude or our celebration. We try because we are human and because we care about other humans, not because it’s an ostentatiously ‘good’ thing to do. We should always be able to criticise and always open to criticism. We should not be complicit in our own reduction: do not celebrate being patronised by celebrities, do not rejoice when media companies worth hundreds of millions ‘amplify our voices’ without paying us, do not award executives who make positive noises on equality while enabling industrial scale tax avoidance and helping arm dictators. The kind of ‘allyship’ which has entered the mainstream bears little relation to anything of true value. Rather it brings a host of problems and few benefits. I am not an ally.

12 Years A Slave and racism in the UK

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I saw 12 Years A Slave a few months ago at the London Film Festival. I liked it well enough – it’s well-made, features some brilliant performances and proved engrossing. I wasn’t, however, as blown away by it as most of the American critics I’d read had been. I particularly found the claims that it was the ‘most brutal’ Hollywood film ever made to be quite odd: yes, it’s difficult to watch at times but the violence (which is rarely as extreme as much advance word would have it) is countered by a strong sentimentality. It was no surprise then that I found bell hooks’ take on it (“sentimental clap-trap”) to be compelling, if characteristically blunt.

As I left the cinema after seeing it, the sound of weeping echoed around the room. It’s certainly the most tear-inducing film I’ve ever seen in a public setting. What partly drove some of my own thoughts on it was the presence in the audience of some people whose response to the London riots had both angered and upset me. How, I wondered, did the racism portrayed in the film connect in their minds to the racism which played such a massive part in the riots and responses to them? Did it even connect at all?

I was reminded of this earlier this week while reading Hadley Freeman’s take on the film, specifically this observation:

Whenever a movie, documentary or otherwise, is made about a terrible historical atrocity – the Holocaust, genocide, slavery – the easiest approach for the filmmaker is to shock the audience while simultaneously making them feel good about themselves for being so different from those brutes from another era – validating all of their beliefs about the past (bad) and themselves (good.) But 12 Years a Slave is too brutal a film, and McQueen too clear-eyed a filmmaker, to do that.

I was completely bemused by this comment because I think it’s exactly what the film does. The ‘racists’ in the film are almost uniformly sociopaths, barely recognisable as human. The big exception is Benedict Cumberbatch as a ‘humane’ plantation owner – but viewers are pretty much invited to sympathise with him, to view him as a ‘good man’ because he treats his slaves with a modicum of dignity. In this way racism is individualised, portrayed as a consequence of how we act. This is most egregiously underlined with Brad Pitt’s cameo as (SPOILER) a carpenter whose intervention ultimately leads to Solomon Northup’s freedom. This is, of course, loyal to Northup’s autobiography but the decision to cast Pitt in the role, looking and sounding to all intents like some American Jesus Christ, is a major misstep. White viewers inevitably identify with him, we think “that’s what I would have done!”

If the film does indeed intend for us to think about racism as a deeply-embedded structure of inequality, of brutality, of human misery, it is a failure. The brilliance of the novel Alone in Berlin is that it makes us realise that most Nazis were just like us, rather than the caricatured visions of evil that we so readily imagine. To get ahead in Nazi Germany meant at the very least acquiescing to what was happening while being a ‘good’ person and opposing the Nazi regime meant almost certain misery and probably death. How many of us have that moral courage? I think it’s a very difficult and uncomfortable question to answer, if we’re honest with ourselves. 12 Years A Slave avoids this discomfort and I can’t imagine many viewers leaving the film wondering what their behaviour might have been had they been alive at that time, in those circumstances. The racism it depicts is both very obvious and very in the past.

If this offers comfort to me as a white (and liberal) viewer, it offers us nothing in terms of understanding racism as a force today. What seemed clear from the riots and was underlined yesterday by the Mark Duggan verdict (and the responses to it) is that many (most?) people in the UK have absolutely no understanding of racism as an endemic system where it’s not only the police force that is institutionally racist. The popular law tweeter Jack of Kent instantly responded to the verdict by tweeting “Hurrah for a jurisdiction where juries can come to verdicts which are unpopular” before engaging in some twisted point-scoring, portraying himself as the dispassionate and rational observer against a legion of over-emotional nitwits who had rushed to offence. This was about the law, not about race, a line taken by the police even as they lied and smeared after killing yet another black person and getting away with it. If the instinctive rush to defend the police is disturbing, meanwhile, the sense (also seen re: the riots) that many believe ‘thugs’ and ‘street criminals’ are less than human and deserve to be brutalised is downright terrifying. The police and many in the media know this – that’s why they have repeatedly tried to control the narrative and assert that Duggan was a ‘violent gang member’.

We as a country are in denial about race. We are so in denial that we actively shout-down those who dare to suggest that we might have a problem, at best portraying them as bitter and over-sensitive cranks and at worse hurling abuse at them. As a white man with a lot to learn I’ve still had plenty of the former when discussing racism – the latter seems largely reserved for the black commentators, who are perceived as ‘angry’ and ‘difficult’ from the off. Even amongst ‘liberal’ people, responses such as these (re: the last Lily Allen video) seem common:

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“I guess it’s just me who sees a person as a person, not as their skin colour first.” This is how I feel. Racism continues because it’s consistently brought up.” You get that? Racism is your fault, losers! Stop bringing it up! People are just people! It would be hysterical in its stupidity if it wasn’t so damaging and widespread. 

I noted in the Lily blog that I was seeing a lot of white gay men shouting down black women who were asserting that the video was racist. This sprung to mind again yesterday with the announcement by former footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger that he is gay. While this may be a positive move with regards to football, the hysteria it elicited was completely (but inevitably) overblown. So far, so standard, Where things became dumbfounding was when the Sun posted its morning front page online:

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The UK’s biggest newspaper apparently didn’t think the verdict on the police killing which sparked England’s biggest riots in generations, a verdict which had instantly aroused anger and fear of further riots, was front page news. More than that, they went with a front page contrasting the ‘brave’ white gay man with the ‘loser’ black one. The people behind The Sun knew exactly what they were doing here: they understood the racial tensions triggered by the Duggan verdict and they knew what message their front page sent in this context. Knowing that The Sun is a racist rag, we might not be surprised at this. Where things got incredible was when people started congratulating them on this move:

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The Guardian’s James Ball led the charge, joined by Charlie Brooker, Stuart McGurk and many others. It was like they were living in some alternate world where nothing much of note had happened that evening. Perversely, Ball and others then followed up with a chorus of sneers at anyone who thought Hitzlsperger’s coming out wasn’t ‘news’. Of course it was, they insisted – gay people are oppressed! And so by writing some patronising words about a gay man (after decades of poisonous, destructive homophobia) The Sun managed to push its vile racist message, that they don’t care about black people, without criticism. It’s a move which is testament to how far the UK has come with regards to homosexuality – what was once hated is now wheeled out as a diversion tactic. This is no surprise given the neutered self-obsession of the gay movement and its firm embedding within the neoliberal mainstream. Gay liberation and gay politics poses absolutely no threat to the wealthy interests The Sun acts as a front for – interests which are served well by our racist structures. Nonetheless, as night follows day you’ll find a white gay man drawing a comparison between gay people and black people. There are volumes of books that could be written about this facile and offensive comparison, which does a disservice both to the fight against homophobia and to anti-racism. Suffice to say that we’re not in danger of being stopped and searched because we’re gay and we’re certainly not about to be shot dead by the police any time soon.

In applauding The Sun people get to feel good about themselves. The whole Duggan affair offers no such balm and even threatens widely-held images not only of our country but of ourselves. And so it’s easier ignored. 12 Years A Slave might offer a visceral depiction of racism but ultimately it offers the same soothing balm and makes it easy to affirm our self-image as ‘good’ and ‘not racist’ people. As long as we keep buying into this and avoiding the reality of racism, the Mark Duggans of this world will keep paying the price.

Reactions to Lily

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God knows I don’t need to write anything further in terms of parsing the Lily Allen video, so I’ll largely refrain. Instead I want to note a few things about the reaction to it.

The response of the white ‘faux-feminists’ of the broadsheets has largely been a textbook example of the issues discussed here. They have been perfectly willing to throw questions of race and class under the bus because this privileged private school woman has poked fun at ‘misogyny’ in pop/hip-hop music. It’s interesting that Russell Brand’s recent foray into politics was met with many furious blogs and tweets about his sexism and how this discounted his opinions while these same people are defending Allen against accusations of sexism/racism/classism on the basis that ‘her heart was in the right place’. If this doesn’t underline the self-interest at play here, what does?

The discussions around misogyny in pop tend to be absolutely woeful, going no deeper than ‘women take their clothes off, waaah!’ Certainly sexism is a thing in pop but it’s far more complex that this and, indeed, exists in responses which condemn women for showing flesh while having absolutely nothing to say about the litany of boy bands and Biebers who are permanently semi-naked. Pop music itself is sexualised – any discussion of women in pop has to start from this point. It also has to note that the genre is particularly dominated by female singers while ‘rock’ is dominated by men. Questioning why this may be and even understanding that someone like Allen is in a position of huge power (not least over her dancers) leads to difficult, but far more illuminating, discussions.

Another aspect of the response which has been interesting has been the wailing from the kind of POP FAN who endlessly bemoans ‘snobbery’. They’re known as Poptimists and you’ll find them on most pop forums or reviewing albums in The Guardian. I’ve long noted the very peculiar brand of self-loathing exhibited by this type, who will follow Lady Gaga in insisting that ‘pop will never be low brow’ and insist that it deserves to be taken seriously while adopting a corrosive irony about the thing they ostensibly love. So they will celebrate the insincere mocking tone of The Big Reunion or self-consciously rejoice at dancing to Eternal b-sides. It’s all surface, all a posture – any earnest appreciation for pop as an art form is absent, any serious analysis of it is off-limits. We recently saw this with Lady Gaga’s appalling Aura song which made ‘Burqa Swag’ a thing. You can read a great commentary on the problems behind the track here but such serious reasoning seemed to be almost entirely absent from the outlets which routinely celebrate and discuss pop music. Instead, the only acknowledgement of these issues was a loud chorus of snide mocking that anyone would possibly think that it could be racist. Racist?! It’s a POP SONG! It’s fun! It’s POSITIVE! We see this exact response with Lily Allen’s video, where anyone advancing a critical opinion of its problematic content is dismissed as ‘reading too much into it’, ‘taking it too seriously’ or ‘not getting it’. This reveals the curious contempt for pop-as-art which seems to lie beneath the surface of so much Poptimism, which is shown to mean banal and ostentatious applause for pop and not sincere appreciation. Pop isn’t to be taken seriously, the deployment of ‘fun’ an assertion that it simply lacks the weight to carry serious socio-political impact. It’s a joke. Rather than acknowledge this, of course, the issue is projected onto the critic: it is Sara Ahmed’s ‘Bad Feeling’ writ large.

This blaming of ‘the dissenting voice’ for interrupting the bland, ‘happy’ consensus has been particularly notable with white, gay, male pop fans shouting down black females who have advanced an opinion that Allen’s video is racist. Clearly there is a lot going on here in terms of the overlaps between sexism, racism and the gay community and it’s interesting that a lot of gay men have adopted the ‘faux-feminism’ of the twee commentariat. In their eyes, then, it’s a great thing that Allen has ‘raised the issue’ and those who find problems in the video are bitter try-hards who are ruining the liberal love-in. Of course, as I noted in the ‘Dig Deep’ piece, modern Gay Politics has much in common with ‘faux-feminism’, more concerned with a self-serving victimisation than with intersectional solidarity. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that the voice of the privileged white pop singer instantly wins out. Allen’s video flatters the ego of these viewers, assuring them of their moral superiority without asking them to consider more complex interactions of power or, indeed, their own position with regards to race, class and gender. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Sandberg’s definition of feminism begins and ends with the notion that it’s all about gender equality within the existing social system. From this perspective, the structures of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy need not be challenged…Sandberg effectively uses her race and class power and privilege to promote a narrow definition of feminism that obscures and undermines visionary feminist concerns

Her failure to confront the issue of women acquiring wealth allows her to ignore concrete systemic obstacles most women face inside the workforce. And by not confronting the issue of women and wealth, she need not confront the issue of women and poverty. She need not address the ways extreme class differences make it difficult for there to be a common sisterhood based on shared struggle and solidarity.

Even when I disagree with her, bell hooks is an inspiration: a fiercely intelligent thinker and cultural critic who forces you to critically examine aspects of society, and of yourself, which you may not even have consciously thought about before. This piece on Sheryl Sandberg and ‘faux-feminism’ really hit home. brilliantly articulating some inchoate thoughts I’ve had about feminism, yes, but also (and more prominently for me personally) about the ‘gay rights’ movement, which so many of its critiques could be applied to. I’ve been inching my way forward in that regard over the past year or so, much of it inspired by the responses of the ‘gay movement’ to the issues of gay marriage and of Chelsea Manning.

The central theme here has to be the failure of imagination of these movements, the conservatism which sees them as vehicles for people to take their place at the table with ‘successful’ members of the prevailing power structure. The primary role of class in causing and perpetuating inequalities and injustices is almost always elided (and, as hooks notes, race is usually absent too – this is certainly true of gay politics). If these concerns are present, they are hand-wringing liberal concerns where those firmly ensconced at the table fret over how to best improve the opportunities for ‘the disadvantaged’ to join them. The myth of meritocracy underlies everything, the sense that if we can just sort out certain kinds of sexism, racism, homophobia, then the most able will always be able to work their way to the ‘top’. As for questioning the stratifications which even mean there is a ‘top’, or asking what it means for society to do the things involved in being part of it – don’t even go there. Why we fight is not for a truly transformational human emancipation but rather to make it easier for talented, intelligent folk from ‘minorities’ to achieve success. The fact that these folk are overwhelmingly of a particular class – well, it may be unfortunate but it’s never going to be the point.

This failure to, as hooks puts it, dig deep means that as high-profile movements both feminism and gay ‘liberation’ can seem horribly one-dimensional and even harmful. Writing as a gay man I’ve addressed what I see as the horror of thinking that being directly marketed to is in any way liberatory. More widely I’ve seen how the gay movement has been commandeered by people of privileged backgrounds who, being unable or unwilling to address substantive issues of class and social justice, instead fixate on facile notions of inequality which affect the lives only of people like themselves (if that, at times). Seeking out the ways in which being gay might put you at even the slightest disadvantage of reaching the neoliberal top and being blinkered to all other concerns results in a truly counter-productive fixation on ‘gay’ as an all-encompassing, immutable identity; an identity which must, no matter how privileged you may be, be inextricably linked to victimhood. This is something which I’ve noticed with a certain strand of feminism also – a strand which bell hooks tackles here and which unfortunately is enormously popular at the moment. At its most egregious this trend, in both movements, finds men and women in positions of great power and/or wealth actively exploiting their perceived victimhood in order to further their own positions – whether that be writing endlessly about their exploitation without ever venturing beyond the most superficial analysis or actively using their ‘disadvantage’ to conflate legitimate criticism with sexist/homophobic abuse.

On a macro level, meanwhile, hooks notes how feminist rhetoric has been instrumentalised and used by, for example, Western governments to provide cover for their imperialism. Anyone who has paid the slightest attention in the past year will easily see that the same use is being made of gay rights. Indeed, less than 2 weeks ago I wrote about the instrumentalisation of homosexuality as a tool for marketing and for leveraging profit” while the ongoing saga of Russia’s anti-gay laws has revealed the arrogant cultural superiority of many in the gay movement.

hooks ends by observing that the ambition of feminism must be to “change the world so that freedom and justice, the opportunity to have optimal well-being, can be equally shared by everyone”; this must surely be the goal of any emancipatory movement, including those seeking ‘gay liberation’. Such liberation surely can’t mean the ‘freedom’ to enjoy your privilege and even become one of the 1% while deploying your one-dimensional minority status to combat criticism when it suits; it can’t mean ignoring the immiseration of millions in favour of being ‘represented’ at the higher levels of amoral corporations; it can’t mean not only disregarding the myriad barriers which hold countless people back but refusing to understand that their removal does not necessarily challenge the wider oppressive system. Dig deep, then, is an important message far beyond feminism and it’s one we should all heed.

Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In