Of a Humourless Tone Adopted Recently in Politics
Iconic anarchist Emma Goldman is reputed to have said that if she could not dance in the revolution, she wanted no part of it. In fact, she never uttered that precise phrase. Here is her explanation:
At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin of Sasha [Alexander Berkman], a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway. It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the Cause.
I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own business, I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world–prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own comrades I would live my beautiful ideal.
[Living My Life (New York: Knopf, 1934), p. 56]
Goldman’s point, I think, is that exuberance and joy cannot be postponed until after the revolution, but on the contrary are signs, even in the midst of oppression and exploitation, that life is worth living. If it is worth living, it is worth fighting for: the real motivation for revolutionary struggle is not some abstract intellectual desire to see programmatic change, but to create the social conditions in which the exuberance and joy of self-conscious presence, friendly and loving interaction and relationship, and creative activity are constant and not fleeting features of life. Like Democritus, revolutionaries should be laughing philosophers who fight because they love life and not because they hate an enemy.
I think political activists rightly anxious at the growth of right-wing populism in the United States and openly Nazi formations in Europe would do well to remember Goldman’s lesson today. We are quite possibly present for the end of the liberal-democratic era. If that is too alarmist, then we are at least in the midst of a serious crisis. This crisis will not be resolved in favour of protecting the valuable gains of the past, necessary as a social plateau from which to build higher, without revivified and unified social movements and progressive parties. To build those movements and parties, we have to be the sort of people who not only espouse good ideas, but who live life in ways that prefigure the joyful values that we think should organize a future society.
Building the movements and parties that need to be built means understanding what the real causes of the present crisis are. Those causes are structural and rooted in private and exclusive control over the resources that we all require in order to live. Progressive struggle needs to focus on reclaiming those resources: as the Sioux of Standing Rock have just demonstrated, victory means taking back the land from capital. And that means: understanding who it is we should be fighting against: the ruling class, not each other.
I understand that critical politics requires self-criticism, that many people, especially white men, who want to change the world bear the marks of having grown up privileged in the world as it is, and need to be reminded about the ways in which this privilege can shape their character, their assumptions about what is funny or sexy, in all sorts of problematic ways. I understand that everyone needs to be reflective about the language they use and the hurtful implications it sometimes has. Since speakers are sometimes ignorant of these implications, everyone needs to be open to listening to the voice of others when they try to explain why something the speaker thinks is funny is actually offensive.
At the same time, everyone also has to keep in mind that revolutionary change is about collective and individual self-transformation, not more repressive regulation by the authorities, and that individuals also have to be free to laugh and desire and relate to each other based upon their own tastes and interests, to the extent that those tastes and interests do not actively exclude, dominate, or impede others from doing the same.
There is such a thing as white male privilege, there are offensive jokes, and we do need to pay attention to what marginalized others want to be called. But regulating jokes and relationships and pronouns are not the sole and ultimate ends of progressive political struggle. While it may be true that all white men are privileged vis-a-vis historically oppressed groups, there are class differences that mean that some white men– a very small minority– rule the world, while most other white men are exploited and alienated. Punctuating any intervention a white man might make into a political argument with the reminder that he speaks from a position of privilege might be true, but in itself does nothing to help understand this class difference. It becomes a predictable refrain, and thus leaves everything as it is, including the problematic white male privilege. At the same time such mechanical repetitions can alienate a subset of white men who need to be allies in the struggle. To overcome the very real problem of white male privilege requires changing the structures of liberal-capitalist patriarchal society. That requires unified political movements and not lectures- generally delivered by the highly educated (itself a site of privilege)- about privilege.
We can say the same thing about humour. Of course jokes can be sexist and racist and homophobic. But in humour, context and intention counts. Some jokes are racist and are intended to mock and harm. Other jokes play on racial stereotypes in order to expose their absurdity. Laughter can be harmful but it can also be liberating, a means of establishing connection across racial or ethnic divides, and we need to be able to tell the difference (and to laugh at ourselves, whomever we are). If we are afraid to laugh because, as the character Richard Splett on Veep (a very funny stereotype of the sexually ambiguous male low-level Washington insider, brilliantly played by Sam Richardson) says “It’s not funny unless everyone can laugh” we are in effect abolishing humour from our lives. Work out his principle as an argument:
It is not funny unless everyone can laugh. The ability to laugh depends upon one’s sense of humour. But people have different senses of humour. Therefore, not everyone can laugh at the same jokes. Therefore, no joke is funny.
But the argument, if true, is a reductio ad absurdum of the principle.
The real issue is not whether everyone can laugh, but whether the joke at which some laugh and others groan is spoken with hateful or loving intentions. When jokes that play on stereotypes are told by people we love and trust they are funny; when structurally similar jokes are told by bigots, they are not. We need to learn to better distinguish bigotry from humour. Not only is life without laughter hardly worth living (perhaps not worth living at all), it also makes the left too easy a target for the right, who are happy to protect their bigotry by portraying us as dour prigs allergic to fun and prone to call the police every time we take offense.
The issue here is that if in our struggles against oppression we start to fear the spontaneity of desire and wit as the enemy we run the risk of seeing suffocating bureaucratic-legal regulation of every aspect of individual life and relationships as the solution to social problems. In fact, the very need for bureaucratic-legal regulation is the sign of, not the solution to, those problems. For example: rape is not caused by too few legal regulations on sexual relationships, rather, the need for legal regulation of sexual relationships is a function of patriarchy and male sexual violence. Hence the ultimate goal should not be more and more detailed regulation of sexual lives and connections, but (as radical feminists and gay and lesbian activists in the 1960’s argued) a liberation of sexuality from its deformations under patriarchal capitalist relationships so that the very idea of sexual violence becomes oxymoronic.
Of course, this point does not mean that we should not be scrupulous about consent or responsive to the names by which marginalized identities want to be called, but rather that we understand that the deeper political project is to build a world in which we all treat each other as ends-in-ourselves, whatever our identity and in all relationships, so that there is never a question of coercion or violence, physical or emotional. I know that this goal is a utopian horizon, but it is nevertheless the one towards which we need to be working.
The joyous essence of the emancipatory vision of radical politics that Goldman insists upon has animated the best of socialism, feminism, anarchism, black, and gay liberation movements (we can set aside the differences and difficult relationships between them for the time being). We are not fighting to be tokens of types but individuals who fully enjoy our brief time on this mortal coil and contribute something of value to others who will take our place. Let the light of Goldman’s defense of the “right to beautiful, radiant things” shine in the darkness of the current political moment.