As a historian, I work in a discipline that has often been imagined as hard truths. There are names and dates and documents to back them up. Before the post-modern turn, and for some, after it, people interpreted the existence of Facts to mean that the narrative surrounding them was objective and infallible.
Post-colonial theory and then pomo changed that. It not only challenged the frameworks designed to create and maintain “Master Narratives” but provided the key tools for dismantling them. For many of us who already recognized the fallacies passing as Truths, it provided concrete research and documentation from which to mount a “legitimate” counter-narrative.
It was not however the glorious intellectual and institutional revolution we imagined. As the clear political bent of post-structuralism, critical race theory, and so-called third wave feminism gave way to an increasingly insular linguistic game known as post modernism, the chance for radical change based on mutable subjects was largely lost. Or as some black feminists put it, the race for theory meant the continued erasure of marginalized people from academe and the institutions it helps inform.
Pomo also created the sense that everything was subjective and everyone was in doubt. And while questioning and troubling narratives, identities, and Truths, is essential to critical thinking and social justice work based on a decolonized model, pomo moved us away from the critical interrogations of post-structuralism and back toward the unmarked and potentially all knowing subject. It meant that anyone claiming that subjecthood could “call bullshit” on anyone else without really having to, as other feminists of color have suggested, “walk a mile with” the other people in the discussion.
And tho I have never been a fan of Reaganomics, it seems at least with regards to theory, things really do “trickle down.” So that this pomo turn has reached into organizing, online communities, and other venues that have often seen themselves as separate, running parallel to, or criss-crossing at critical points with academe. (A clear misdirection given that many people involved in social service at the management level are academics of some sort, and many of the people writing and working on the ground are taking classes or have in the past. So that activist and academic splits hide the ways academe bleeds into organizing and to a lesser extent, organizing breathes into academic spaces.)
Where this has divided us on old faultlines, I am not surprised. Where it creates entirely new divisions or once hidden divisions however, I am always taken aback. In all cases, I am left wondering how we can organize together and learn from one another if we cannot even talk to one another across perceived or real misunderstandings and/or conflicts. Bridging ignorance has always been the burden of the people who are being ignored, it is a function of power over others and often when people talk about speaking in a conflict zone, they are really calling for the right to walk across someone’s back. And so, another pitfall of this modern moment is that pointing to conflict often triggers the feeling by one or more people that they are being asked to bend over in the muck so someone else’s feet don’t get wet. This is afterall, the standard operating procedure of progressives and conservatives alike. The fact that this is so often true, and that we are empowering ourselves as marginalized people to own our truths and refuse to let them be written over or erased, makes these moments of conflict so powerful. Yet, where post-colonialism asked us to consider our power, their power, and the meaning of Power itself in order to create something better, pomo simply rewards the person who at the end of the day exerts the most power in the most unique way.
In history, there are facts. Yesterday, I got up at 6:30 am. At roughly, 11 am I gave a talk on radicalizing service learning. I ended New Year’s Eve at a fundraiser for a queer youth center for which my partner is a member of the board. These are facts. For some of them, there are primary resource documents proving these facts and for others not. There are secondary sources for all of these events but some of those secondary sources will not always be available. In a world where both facts and source material are considered subjective and/or secondary to the perceptions of the most clever or most lauded speaker, these facts are reduced to the story that I am telling you on the internet. A story I could just as easily have made up while sitting in my pajamas all day yelling at my 5 kids to shut up and/or wondering how to convince my middle school math teacher not to tell my parents I flunked the midterm in math class. Someone invested in convincing you that I am a pimple faced 6th grade boy, so as to silence my voice or their own critical one, or to erase my existence all together, needs only play the language game better than I do; or in the case of social media, have more followers than I do.
My deepest concern for the last year in the feminist blogosphere has been the decided change from community building that has been central to the way multiple marginalized communities have used the internet over the last 5 years, to one of insularity and pomo games. If I disagree with you, I simply have to call you a liar, loud enough, long enough, and with just the right amount of indignation and it becomes true because truth is in the hands of Power. And if you disagree with me, you simply have to be louder, longer, and more clever than I to transform me into a pariah for the same reason: truth is in the hands of Power. Anyone of us can deny the long fought for right of another member of our identity group/s to self-name by claiming that name offends and we do not use it or by declaring that a person who chooses not to identify in a public forum is X and therefore has no right to speak on Y without ever knowing if they are X or Y, because truth is in the hands of Power. And we can even silence discussions about identity and naming all together by claiming the right to use offensive language born out of oppression b/c “we” have reclaimed it in our localized community while the larger community/ies have not or it is still used to oppress us in the world at large, because truth is in the hands of Power. Even the politics of outing, or demanding one out themselves has ceased to be a tool we struggle against as oppressive and is now one “we” use to make movies or scandalous blog posts without apology, because truth is in the hands of Power.
What does it mean to say that “truth is in the hands of Power”, capital P?
- accountability to each other is replaced by the self – ie the push to decolonize one’s mind and reject the master’s tools – has been removed because everything is true and nothing is true & each of us become the sole measure
- self-reflexion and community decon/recon/struction are replaced by silencing and authoritarianism or dogma - because as the sole arbiters of Truth there is no room for multiple and competing truths or for mistakes and accountability
- marginalized voices are silenced for fear of losing credibility or having to fight the same old fights leaving only those people who were always centered or who have some centrality within any given margin to speak while the quietest among us continue to lose their right to a voice we all have fought so hard for
- communities traditionally built around and across difference give way to infighting and increasing specialization that loses the potential to highlight oppression – ie marginalized organizers walk on eggshells with one another b/c there is no trust across the places where they are different or worse b/c they fear the spectre of difference as much as dominant people used to b/c their constructive criticism is so easily recast as offense because of point one
- conflict becomes a place of recrimination instead of potential creativity – where marginalized organizers often took stock of their intellectual differences (ie not identity conflicts but conflicts of thought or idea) and tried to work through them toward new thoughts or synthesis, etc., they are now reduced to discussions of power that claim moral high ground based on nothing more than she said-he said. Example: where we once called white women oppressive for refusing to address their racial/class/cis/etc privilege, we now call each other oppressive for saying getting up at 6 am is an indisputable fact whenever someone else we like better has claimed that 6 am doesn’t exist.
Ultimately all of this serves the old adage of divide and conquer. Truth and honesty have no meaning because they are determined by the person who wields the most power in the interaction and not by the few “facts” available and the failure to be accountable to anyone or to question oneself so often degenerates into dogma and oppression olympics. Where this differs from other conflicts is that rather than being caused by privilege and power the root causes of the conflict hide behind or are amplified by power and privilege; even the most minute differences become exploitable so as to prevent entry points into similarity and productivity let alone actual facts. Worse people who want to keep talking in this environment either use or are implicated in the Master’s Tools so that their critique of them is rendered useless by the so-called “Masters” themselves, who simply point and say “see everyone lies, everyone oppresses, you just want power over me.” So that we, the marginalized reaching for a brighter future, turn on each other in ways that neither challenge the real differences and oppressions amongst us nor the systems that put them in place. We make liars out of ourselves and our movements even as we call “bullshit” on the people who have put us in this position. Where post-colonialism gave us the bright potential of
- decolonizing our own minds
- holding each other accountable for our privilege, privilege-evasiveness, and the ways we exert power even in the margins
- creating new frameworks and organizing principles, ie resisting the Master’s Tools, in order to imagine and enact a better world
- and center hope over disappointment all the while being clear about the oppressions behind and in front of us
Postmodernism has given us only the cult of me. Ultimately, that means that by adopting the tools and ideologies of pomo we all work in the service of Power, Power over our own communities. And we truth is in the hands of Power, we mistakenly work toward our own continued marginalization or the marginalization of others all the while believing we are speaking Truth and disavowing dishonesty.
Recognizing this trend, I withdrew from much of the internet in 2009; I had forgotten another key lesson from woc feminism “your silence will not protect you.” I promised myself in 2010 that I would engage from a place of radical love, rather than anger (at being lied about or to, or the same old isms) or fear (of losing the power to speak my truth through the denial of its truth value). I also promised, that when that love fails, instead of digging in and defending myself (which is so easily manipulated thru pomo) I would simply send love to those places and hope that seeds planted today grow tomorrow or that words spoken resonate when someone else’s seeds grow there.
Elaine Brown once said that radical love was the hardest road to walk but the most revolutionary. Radical love makes it impossible for you not to hold the mirror up to yourself and work to decolonize your own mind and your practices in order to be worthy of those you love. It makes you take risks to talk about the hard things with people who may not yet want to hear them or who you know will lash out at you even as they stare into the mirror you raise up, because you do it not to shame but to help others grow and to grow with them. Most of all, radical love requires you to let go of your ego and to occasionally lose control over “truth” for the good of the larger goal of social justice for everyone not just yourself. I’m walking that path in this decade. I invite you to walk with me, but if you can’t, I send you love.
- “Labels Are Forver” QWOCMAP 2007
- “Radical Love Mosaic”. p susurro 2010 (see larger or indivual images here)