On the Right to Criticize

In a time where right wing critiques of our social movements rule the day, it is understandable that many are wary of and even hostile to critiques from among our ranks, yet I think they are both necessary and important. We must not sacrifice honesty for fear of making waves. I want to argue in favor of the right of anyone to speak on anything, at any time. Often criticism is discouraged under the premise that it is not the right time, that the moment is urgent and we must only act. But the moment is nearly always urgent, and there is never a perfect time or place for criticism. Nevertheless, it must be made.

The logic of experience dictates social movements in the U.S. today. A common refrain is that we should “shut up and listen” if we are not part of the identity group in question, or that we must only follow the lead of the most oppressed. Before discussing the problems inherent in equating experience with specific knowledge, I should first note that the way experience is often understood is highly limited. It takes as given that people are only able to understand their strict lived experience (itself a broader category than we give credit), discounting the sociality and complexity of identity formation. The Invisible Committee asks the question: 

 ‘What am I, then?’ Since childhood, I’ve been involved with flows of milk, smells, stories, sounds, emotions, nursery rhymes, substances, gestures, ideas, impressions, gazes, songs, and foods. What am I? Tied in every way to places, sufferings, ancestors, friends, loves, events, languages, memories, to all kinds of things that obviously are not me. Everything that attaches me to the world, all the links that constitute me, all the forces that compose me don’t form an identity, a thing displayable on cue, but a singular, shared living existence, from which emerges–at certain times and places–that being which says ‘I.’

It seems somewhat contradictory to me that people who would be the first to argue that humans are not inherently selfish or greedy have no problem with the idea that we cannot see beyond the bounds of our “identities,” especially as we see that identity itself, if we entertain such a category, is in constant flux. 

Back to the issue at hand, the commonplace insistence on the need for “allies” – people who do not belong to the oppressed group in question, for those not acquainted with the current activist-speak – to simply follow the lead- demonstrates two problems. First, it discourages critical thinking and excludes the input of those who may have something important to add. To point to one example, I am grateful that Sartre decided to write “Anti-Semite and Jew,” despite being a gentile.  Without having the direct experience of being Jewish, he took the risk of speaking on the “Jewish Question” and wrote a flawed but valuable text that gave me – a Jew – insights into not only the history and philosophy of anti-Semitism, but also myself and my Jewishness. I think many people today silence themselves despite having something of value to say, for fear of being torn apart for speaking beyond what would be considered their experience.

Sartre did not need to share an identical experience in order to contribute something useful, which brings me to my next point: even among those who supposedly share an “identity,” there exists a vast array of experience and thought. Saying, “listen to Black people about racism” is meaningless. Those who insist on the utmost importance of identity as a marker for good politics have apparently never spoken to a Black conservative. But more to the point, among those whom we would consider to be broadly on our side, there exist disagreements on everything from the nature of the problem to how to go about solving it. To take one opinion from a diverse group and use it to represent the group serves to ignore and even silence those who disagree. It also lets the “ally” off the hook. Instead of making their own critical analysis and being held accountable to it, the “ally” can simply claim that they were “listening to those more marginalized.” Instead, I suggest we all commit to critical thinking and claim our views as our own, of course acknowledging how deeply informed they are by others.

The logic of experience also argues for uncritical support of all movements resisting oppression, regardless of their ideological and/or tactical shortcomings. Ross Wolfe has written in detail about this phenomenon, pointing to instances of leftist support for Hamas and Hezbollah, despite their openly anti-Semitic rhetoric. The logic of such uncritical support is befuddling. Theoretically, pledging support to a movement is to root for its success and therefore the success of its principles. However, most supporters of such movements would likely add that they do not support those problematic parts, but nonetheless, the fact of oppression overshadows such minor concerns and it is not their place to criticize.

Unfortunately, the belief that movements will shed their unfortunate parts when they come to power is not well supported by history, which if anything, leans the other way. Another common justification for such support stems from a (usually hidden) belief that the movement in question will not actually succeed, and thus the nasty bits of its politics will never see the light of day. However, this view is short sighted and U.S.-centric, as numerous revolutions have seen the oppressed become a new oppressor. But perhaps most importantly, deferring criticism may actually harm the movements we wish to see succeed. Free flowing criticism and debate is the sign of any healthy movement, essential to forming effective tactics and vision, as well as ensuring problematic events and tendencies do not get swept under the rug.

Though it may appear at first counter-intuitive, unconditional support for movements resisting oppression holds the possibility of fostering a dehumanizing and fetishizing attitude toward the oppressed. It treats oppressed people as delicate, incapable of critical thought and engagement that may lead to a change in their views.

Here I would like to make a side note. It is important to understand the causes of reactionary responses to oppression. The pain and suffering brought on by capitalism, racism, sexism and all forms of exploitation is of course deep. Oppression often makes people do things that those who do not occupy a similar position cannot easily conceive. However, to treat reactionary responses to oppression as inevitable is to deny the full intelligence and capability of oppressed people, many of whom do not take a reactionary route.

One of the most troubling consequences of the logic of experience is the fetishization of oppressed people and eventual desire to become oppressed. If we are told we have nothing to contribute unless we share an identical experience, we begin to wish that we too were oppressed. We assign moral value to suffering, an uncomfortably religious sentiment. The aim must be to end oppression, not make sacred the oppressed.

The point of writing this is not to say that all voices are equal, or should be respected, or anything like that. It is only that no one actively working for justice should feel that their voice is worthless, or censor themselves for fear of consequence.

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