Friday, 31 August 2018

Partisanship, Collectivism and Individuality

This blog is to be about thoughts arising for me personally from the Avital Ronell affair. The what? you may be asking. Who is Avital Ronell? This, it turns out, is a point well made for those  of us (overwhelmingly most of us) who are not academics and who, much less, are denizens of that very niche location "comparative literature studies".  Ronell is a Professor of German and Comparative Literature at NYU (New York University) who was this year accused of a campaign of sexual harassment of a male postgraduate student under her supervision. This becomes stranger when we learn that Ronell, who is 66, identifies herself as queer whilst her accuser, Nimrod Reitman, thirty years her junior, identifies as gay.  Yet it is not my point here to trawl through the accusations in detail and those who want to do that will surely find several reports detailing this by searching accordingly. Instead, my point here is to raise fairly broad questions about our society that arise from this example for in its juxtaposition of the imagined "usual" roles in cases of sexual harassment a number of rather ugly things crawl from under the rocks.

One aspect of this case that immediately strikes me is that before the case was even made public (by leak from what is meant to be a confidential process) a number of colleagues and supporters of Ronell (from across US academia) had written to her university employers pleading her case. It has subsequently been revealed that they did not have the full facts of the case  at their disposal when they did so. These supporters included Judith Butler, one of the better known feminist academics in the world, who has since had to back pedal on the content of the letter in support of Ronell, not least because the content of the letter intimated that Ronell's status and the quality of her academic work should be held in her favour and also because the letter in part attempted to discredit the male complainant.  One can only imagine  how such arguments and tactics might have played with the co-signees of this letter had the accused been a heterosexual man and the complainant a female of any description. Arguing that status should speak for an accused and attempting to discredit accusers has been excoriated loud and long by many commentators (and rightly so) when the roles are reversed.

This raises the spectre of partisanship and jumping the gun where the individuals in such matters are identified as allies or enemies of the cause. Clearly, those writing to NYU in support of Ronell did so as those supporting someone they identified very much as an ally. Their belief was that an ally should be defended even as many of them no doubt believed her incapable of the acts she was accused of. Some, I'd have no problem believing, no doubt imagined it was all part of some greater conspiracy to bring down feminists like Ronell. But what strikes me is how many on the Ronell side of the fence are those who often write about power, or the operations of power, yet in this case seem totally blind to the fact that, in this situation, Avital Ronell was the one with the power and, according to others, she had been observed to abuse it before. Yet the point here for me is not what Ronell did or didn't do, grievous as that may be in its own right, but that those studying power and its effects become totally blind to their own studies when its an ally in the firing line.  Some, such as Queer Studies scholar, Lisa Duggan, would much rather we focus on "the structural issues". This seems to me like a smoke screen. It is not structures which make people do bad things. There is and always will be bad people responsible for bad things when they are done. Obsessing with structures does not, and should not, let the guilty off the hook. Indeed, if everyone acted appropriately the ideological and idealist structures would be shown up as the excuses they often are. Personal responsibility does not stop because "the system made me do it".

But there is a further unprobed assumption of the Ronell supporters here and its evident more widely in various other debates. This is that, somehow, being gay or queer or feminist is somehow special and that being one or any of these things somehow makes you immune to doing wrong. To be gay or queer or feminist somehow is imagined to make you one of the good guys, ineluctably on the side of right and constitutionally incapable of doing wrong. This belief is casually sown across social media by any number of sympathetic accounts such that the problem in society becomes maleness or heterosexuality or, more archetypally, male heterosexuality, the combo that should not dare to speak its name. At this point Harvey Weinstein might be thrust in our faces to hammer the hackneyed point home that heterosexual men + power = the subjection of all women and the corruption of a hoped for equal society. This attitude, where it raises its ugly head, is nothing other than a crock, a simple shitty belief. But it is instructive of one flavour of feminist agenda.

The problem, however, is that Feminism is not one thing and the word itself has become of doubtful use, in my opinion. For what does "feminism" actually mean? Often, its suggested it means equality but I would reject such a naive equation out of hand. Whilst some feminists, and some feminist agendas, approach and pursue the quite sensible and humanist desire for equality, often trying to avoid confrontation in the process, others are much more blatantly little other than anti-menist in which, according to their anti-menism they dub "Feminism", men are always the problem and removing power and influence from men is always the solution.  Thus, in cases of sexual assault or rape where women are the victim some such people say we should simply believe the woman's account regardless of evidence or any kind of thorough legal investigation.  Check out past Guardian columns of Jessica Valenti for lots of that.  Whether you think this is right or wrong it doesn't look much like equality and you can bet that Valenti doesn't think we should ever just believe men for whom a gender they did not choose has made them constitutionally unreliable in her eyes.

This itself belies an incipient and seemingly thorough-going collectivism in much discourse today as I pondered during my daily walk. Why is it that today no one is seen as an individual anymore, a person with their own story to tell and their own life to lead, a person who makes their own decisions and is their own set of beliefs, desires, hopes and fears? Instead, in much discourse today, academic or otherwise, everybody is designated as a set of labels and descriptors, they are ciphers for a category of human beings. I, for example, become not the name on my birth certificate which designates a person who has led an individual life but am, instead, a British white male heterosexual. And you better believe that there are some people out there who have lots of things to say about British white male heterosexuals and it doesn't matter whether or how much any of these things apply to me personally because if I am a British white male heterosexual then they are both true of me regardless and good enough to pass muster in some conversations. Does this dissection of society have any credibility at all? Because I wonder. What this becomes is lots of people in ideological bubbles talking about their thoroughly rhetorical and ideological creations AS IF THEY WERE FACT which are then applied to real world people as if the rhetoric just slides out of the conversations into reality without a join, a map that naively is the territory it rhetorically claimed to map.  Having watched several George Carlin shows online recently I have found myself becoming more persuaded of his position, which he came to in the 1990s, which is that individuals are fine. How you get on with a person you meet is real world stuff. But groups of people, collectivisims, that is a crock of shit. It is easy to see in much modern discourse, where all that is talked about is ideologically conjured groups that are as idealist as they are ideological, how this has proliferated to our mutual disbenefit if not destruction.

In fact, truth be told, I hate all the partisanship. I hate the social media rhetoric of team this and team that, I hate the idea that we are all allotted our groupings and then we are set free to battle against each other to the death, a real world game of thrones that never stops. Is this the best our greatest academic minds can conjure up? Is this what billions in currency buys us from our educational establishments? Must academics and others set themselves up in fiefdoms from which they direct cultural battle operations? This last item was also evident earlier in the year in the UK when a campaign was started by some female academics who felt disrespected for their imagined achievements and so began pointing out that they had a PhD. They changed their social media accounts to reflect their titles, Dr this and Dr that. What struck me about this was that there were some female academics opposed to this move and who wanted to challenge the notion of status, societal as well as academic, that this might insidiously also communicate.  I wonder if you feel that someone with a PhD has a status which demands some form of special acknowledged respect? For myself, I think being a human being is what demands respect. Titles and social denominations much less so for if we give the first the second becomes unnecessary.

I've gone on long enough for what is just a personal blog. Yes, of course I acknowledge that there is a world out there and that the struggles are often real.  There is pain, unfairness, inequality. I agree we should lessen pain where we can, decrease unfairness and increase equality. But I don't think you have to sign on Feminism's dotted line to do it. In fact, I don't equate Feminism and equality at all. Equality is a humanist value in my understanding and the ethical goal is to respect a human being for being a human being in all their particularity. I simply don't go along with all the sectarian collectivisms that we have conjured up. That is what leads to people writing letters of support for an ally before they even know the facts. It is what leads to Nationalism. It is what leads to the notion that we, but not they, should be "great again". Collectivisms make life about those like me and those not like me and that, in blunt language, is partisan bullshit. I, like Diogenes before me, am a citizen of the world. I am not to be reduced to a British white heterosexual male. I'm another person, a human being. We all are. So you can keep your categories and collectivisms. I'm not interested. I will continue to treat people as individuals with their own integrity and regard them accordingly.  I would suggest you do the same, for all our sakes. But in the end that's up to you.