A thousand rainy days since we first met… why there’s no Gal Fawkes

The obvious answer is that ‘Guy’ was his given name, but we can (and should) look more deeply at the gendered and racial nature of anonymity.  Why is Guy Fawkes — the symbol and icon — a grinning white male, and not something else?

If you spend some time trying to come to grips with Andrew Bolt’s argument (and I recommend never ever spending any time with Bolt’s arguments), you’ll see that he’s got very definite views on how people should behave.  They should prioritise unity and equality.  Unity and equality results in social harmony.  If people do not prioritise unity and equality, then there will be social discord.  People who want to express identities that are inconsistent with white male identities are prioritising disunity and inequality.  After all, if you identify as a person of colour instead of as a white Australian, you are standing apart from the mainstream and not being united.

There are a lot of flaws with the argument.  Is this really what we mean when we talk about social unity?  Do we mean conformity?  How does Bolt’s view of individuality accord with this Borg-like assimilationist view?  Do people express identities, or are identities imputed on to individuals by society (or is it a bit of both)?

But the flaw I want to focus on is the view that ‘white’ and ‘male’ are neutral concepts.  Bolt sees a problem with people expressing an ‘identity’.  Identities are things like ‘Aboriginal’, ‘Muslim’, and ‘Female’.  So he starts with the normal heterosexual white male and then sees any variation on this as a deviance.

The Guy Fawkes mask buys into this ontology of identity.  The anonymous person is stripped of identity, thus we have the image of a white man.

We might wonder if this is merely some rhetorical point, but it helps us to think through what we mean when we think about Identity Politics.  It is true that the concept gets a bad rap from some of the extremely poor quality arguments presented on Tumblr, and its adoption by people who want the benefits of IdPol without having first grappled with it critically.  Capitalism and liberalism homogenise populations: only those behaviours and identities which are economically profitable are those which are permitted to survive.  Preserving an Indigenous culture is anathema to liberalism, because why should the State use economic violence (through taxation) to protect a group based on their identity?  The answer is that when you take identities seriously — including the mutual construction between the individual and the broader society — you have to ask more difficult questions about what sort of social/political/legal constructs best allow those identities to survive.

Guy Fawkes is used as an anonymous symbol because, first, an overwhelmingly male Internet base did not want to have a female avatar (because adolescent masculinity is essential to the edgy, rebellious image), and, second, because female perspectives were considered irrelevant to the development of anonymous culture.  Either the female perspective was identical to the male perspective (and therefore irrelevant to note separately), or the female perspective was different and therefore deviated from the rational norm by virtue of the femininity of the perspective.  That is, they either come up with the same correct answer as the men, or they’re incorrect because they came up with an answer that was different to the correct male answer.

Liberalism is nobody’s friend.  The same liberal rhetoric about equality and unity used by racists like Andrew Bolt — who would identify himself as a champion of the liberal tradition — is also used by the anonymous e-libertarians.  After several hundred years, the rhetoric is soggy and tired, appropriated by every group for every purpose without critical engagement.  We should be alive to the problems of liberalism, particularly when the rhetoric is used to erase the same individuality that it purports to defend.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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