I’ve seen a number of good movies recently. They were good because I enjoyed them and I engaged with the themes and ideas that they offered. When somebody says that they enjoy a movie, we tend not to require that the person defend their view with any kind of sophisticated aesthetic theory. As fun as it would be, very few discussions about the movies that we like end up in heated arguments about the finer points of Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics.
A number of political issues, on the other hand, appear to require participants in the debate to have mastered complex (and contentious) theory. The marriage equality debate, for example, forced the LGB community to become educators about the nature of sexual attraction. For whatever reason, it wasn’t enough merely for two consenting adults to be attracted to each other in order to have their relationship considered valid. There had to be a theory.
We see it also with the trans community. It is not enough that they feel more comfortable expressing a particular gender identity, there is an expectation that they will also be sophisticated gender theorists.
And also with race and Indigeneity. If you’re born with the ‘wrong’ skin colour, you better have been born with a copy of Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks in your hand because white people will quiz you about colonialism whenever you complain about structural racism.
I want to argue two things: first, because we don’t make the same expectations of straight, white men, we normalise the expectation that Others must validate their identities; second, it encourages performative politics.
Why don’t we make the same demands of straight, white men? The obvious answer is that we don’t make those demands because the ‘normality’ of the straight, white male is assumed. But perhaps we should. Whenever white supremacists get interviewed by hapless journos, I am consistently frustrated that they never get asked: ‘What the fuck do you even mean?’ The racist slogan ‘It’s okay to be white’ came from a resentment of other cultures (that they were celebrated more than ‘white’ culture) and from an intuition that ‘white’ culture was an actual thing. As well as being oafishly racist, it’s also historically ignorant: ‘white’ was a category of exclusion rather than inclusion, and erases the cultural histories that have distinguished various groups of Europeans and settler colonialists.
‘Heterosexuality’ is a similar kind of lie. I really hate the term ‘heterosexual’ as it has an undeserved air of scientific reality to it, like it’s a medical classification with sharply drawn edges. The modes of ‘heterosexuality’ have been extremely vague over human history, to the extent that I mostly suspect that people are heterosexual due to social pressure and homophobic norms rather than anything inherent in their sexual desire. ‘Straight’ is another awful term, suggesting that it is unbent and in a perfect state.
And then there’s the term ‘male’. As a non-trans person, I am never expected to have a theory of gender that I can articulate to somebody else. I can dress as a male, speak as a male, and be fairly confident of being identified as a male without ever having to question the framework which gives rise to gender.
That said, I definitely do have views on the above issues, but that’s not really the point. More importantly, I have views on the above issues and keep them to myself unless I’m in a conversation specifically designed to discuss those views. Fundamentally, contemporary political issues are about making several groups of marginalised people feel safe and comfortable in society. The political issues are not the ontology and nature of gender or race. Indeed, the discussions about the ontology and nature of gender and race will markedly improve when people are not feeling oppressed or threatened.
But that’s not the way contemporary debates turn. What we do instead is prioritise the normality of straight, white men by demanding that everybody else justify themselves and open up their identities to debates. Louis C.K.’s comments were stupid and insensitive not because of deep theoretical reasons but because he attacked a minority who are struggling to gain acceptance. The brute who thumps a guy in the pub due to gay panic might have a really sophisticated understanding of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble but who gives a shit? We don’t need any kind of theory to inform our view that people should not feel attacked for the way that they express an identity.
This lays the ground for my second argument: when we force people to justify themselves with theory, we encourage performative politics. There is no necessary correlation between being oppressed and being intelligent and informed. Caitlyn Jenner and Catherine McGregor were really good examples of this: just because they were trans did not make them particularly well-informed of gender theory and oppression, leading to some fairly ordinary views being expressed.
It’s usually easier to see this argument in the reverse. The really awful homophobes and transphobes are homophobic and transphobic because they have visceral disgust about things they find ‘weird’. The marriage equality debate in Australia forced them to try to find rhetoric to give their bellyfeel views the veneer of rationality. The rhetoric they used was flimsy and, all too frequently, fell apart when they tried to engage with serious debate.
As much as that is true for your garden variety homophobe and transphobe, it’s true for your ordinary non-homophobe and non-transphobe. The vast majority of people who voted Yes probably spent no more than about five minutes thinking about their vote, and definitely didn’t engage with any serious theory about the nature of sexuality. Why? Because they were motivated by a fundamental aspect of their identity: ‘Don’t be a complete dickhead.’
Pushing the debate into the space of theory excludes the vast majority of people who have neither the time, aptitude, or desire to become well informed about something that complex, yet we consistently insist that people (especially celebrities) express sophisticated opinions about these topics. The debate must reduce, inevitably, to performances of opinions that can neither be justified nor defended.
Can we make discussions better? I think that we can, especially if we prioritise the issues that matter — safety and acceptance — over esoteric and abstract theory. We can disagree about whether gender is something inherent to an individual or created through performance and reception; we can disagree about whether sexuality is hardwired into a person at birth or nurtured through socio-political frameworks; we can even disagree about the categories of race… what we can’t disagree about is whether or not people should feel like they are at risk if parts of their identity are revealed. Perhaps we can get some fringe issues related to what is and is not part of an identity but, for the most part, we don’t need to engage in that discussion if we’re not being complete dickheads.