Complaint as a Queer Method

You might have a fight on your hands.* You might have to fight for room, room to be, room to do, room to do your work without being questioned or being put under surveillance.  You might have to fight to find a safe path through life, a way of progressing, of getting through, without having to give up yourself or your desires. A fight can be how we acquire wisdom: we know so much from trying to transform the worlds that do not accommodate us. But that fight can also be just damn hard; when you have to fight for an existence you can end up feeling fighting is your existence. And so, we need each other: we need to become each other’s resources. When I think of complaint as a queer method, I am pointing to this history of how we had to fight for room; and how by taking up that fight, we became each other’s resources.  We have queer programmes, spaces, events not just because they are nice things to have, though they are that, what a relief, but because we need them to survive institutions that are not built for us.

In my recent book Complaint! I thus describe complaint as counter-institutional work; to create spaces within institutions we so often end up working against them. I was inspired to do the research by my own experience of supporting students who made a collective complaint about sexual harassment. The students I worked with became my complaint collective.  I am grateful that they, Leila Whitley, Tiffany Page, Alice Corble, with support from Heidi Hasbrouck, Chryssa Sdrolia and others, wrote one of the two conclusions of the book about the work they began as students. In the conclusion to their conclusion, they write about how they “moved something,” how “things are no longer as they were.” To move something within institutions can be to move so much. And it can take so much.

I introduced the idea of “complaint as a queer method,” in my conclusion. So today, I want to say a little more about what I mean by this. By complaint I included not only the formal mechanisms but also complaint in its more affective and embodied senses. I was especially interested in how some of us are heard as complaining, as being negative as well as saying something as negative.  To be heard as complaining is not to be heard. This is the opening sentence of the book, deliberately strongly worded. Listen to this description by a lesbian academic,

if you have a situation and you make a complaint, then you are the woman who complains, the lesbian who complains. And then of course you get witch-hunted, you get scapegoated, you become the troublesome uppity woman; you become the woman who does not fit; you become everything the bully accuses you off, because nobody is listening to you. And you don’t like to hear yourself talking like that but you end up being in that situation, again. You can hear them saying, “oh there you go.”  

We both laughed when she said this, recognising that each other recognised the dynamic. We hear each other in the wear and the tear of the words we share, what it is like to come up against the same thing, over and over again.

Complaint seems to catch how those who challenge power become sites of negation, the complainer as container of negative affect, a leaky container, speaking out as spilling over. Negation can be quite a sensation. Think also of the word queer. We reclaim that word that has been used as an insult or as a smear not by trying to separate ourselves from the negativity, but by re-purposing it as tool. Complaint too can be a re-purposing of negativity as a tool.  

By “complaint as queer method,” I am also thinking of my own method of listening to those who complain, as well as how that listening is a way of gathering and holding data only to let it spill. My method is all about ears: not queer eye for the straight guy but queer ears for my queer peers.

Complaints as Coming Out Stories

Complaints are made confidential as soon as they are lodged.  They happen “behind closed doors,” which is why there are so many doors in these stories.

Perhaps a queer ear is an ear to the door, we listen not just through the door, but to the door. It was very early on in the research that I noticed how doors kept coming up, actual doors, doors with difficult to use handles, revolving doors, doors as figures of speech to signify what you can and cannot do, where you can and cannot go. That expression “behind closed doors” can refer to actual doors that are closed so someone can tell their story in confidence. It can also mean the process of keeping something secret from a wider public.

In the book, I am trying to open a door, to let out or express something that has been kept secret. It can take time to open the door. A student is being harassed by her supervisor. She’s a queer woman of colour: she is from a working class-background; she is the first in her family to go to university. She’s had to fight really hard to get here. She knows something is not right. Her supervisor keeps pushing the boundaries, wanting to meet off campus, then at coffee shops, then at his home. She tries to handle the situation, “I tried very hard to keep all of the meetings on campus, and to keep the door open.” She keeps the door open; an actual door at the same time as she closes other another kind of door, we might call this door the door of consciousness, “I thought I would take myself down by admitting to the kind of violence he was enacting.” Take myself down: to admit to violence can feel like becoming your own killjoy, getting in the way of your own progression.  To admit can mean to confess a truth as well as to let something in.  Note how doors can hold a contradiction, keeping the office door open is an admission of a truth that she handles by not letting it in.  Handles can stop working:

I was sitting with another colleague at another lunch another day and he started texting me these naked photos of himself and I think I just hit a critical mass of like, I just can’t handle it anymore. I said just look at this, and she was just like, you know like, completely speechless…. And then like it suddenly started to seep into me, into her, in this shared conversation about like, how horrible and violent that I am having to receive these things, right, and so that basically put a process in motion.

A handle is sometimes what we use to stop violence directed at us from seeping or leaking into us. When the handle stops working, the violence seeps not only into her but also into her colleague, into a conversation, into the space in which they are having that conversation. When complaints are about something, directed toward an object, what they are about is hard to contain. Objects shatter. Complaints can queer time as well as space, they end up all over the place, as we do.

When violence gets in, a complaint comes out. However, there is no switch, one in, one out. For a complaint to come out, she has to make the complaint, to keeping making it, “I think I started to believe that if I came out with this in a public way, that my own career would suffer.” Her use of the language of coming out, her reference to “in a public way,” teaches how when complaints travel, going further away from us, they take something of ourselves with them. To come out with a complaint is to send it out into the same world the complaint is about. Hence the title of the second part of the book “the immanence of complaint.” Judith Butler  asked back in 1991, “Is the subject who is out free of subjection and finally in the clear?” I think we know that answer is no. Butler extends, “conventionally one comes out of the closet…so we are out of the closet and into what? What new unbounded spatiality, the room, the den, the basement, the attic, the house, the bar, the university.” Butler then evokes another enclosure with a door, Kafka’s door, a door that seems to promise something, an opening, “fresh air,” the “light of illumination that never arrives.”

To come out in the form of a complaint about something that happened is also not to be in the clear, to come out with a complaint is to “come into” the same world that won’t admit so much and so many. You might admit what happened, but then when you try and share the story, as this student did, you hear more doors being shut. To come into is to come to, you bring the complaint to someone, a person, an office. She goes to the office responsible for handling complaints, “they were like, ‘you can file a complaint. But he’s really well loved by the university, he has a strong publication record, you are going to go through all of this emotional torment.’ It was even proposed that he could counter sue me for defamation of character. The line was essentially, you can do this, but why would you.”  A warning that a complaint will have dire consequences can take the form of institutional fatalism: statements about what institutions are like, what they are as what they will be, who they will love, who they will protect.

In the end she did not file a formal complaint because she knew what she was being told: that she wouldn’t get anywhere, it wouldn’t get anywhere, because he was going somewhere.

What is the relationship between institutional fatalism and what I have called queer fatalism?  Queer fatalism is the assumption that to be queer is to hurtle toward a miserable fate, that to be queer, a life treated as a lifestyle, is to put yourself in harm’s way, so that if shit happens, and let’s face it, shit happens, it is what you have brought on yourself. Being warned not to complain is to be told to straighten yourself out, to align yourself with the institution, to value what it values, to love who it loves, to protect who it protects, in order not to deprive yourself of a brightly lit path. It is not surprising, then, that a complaint can have a queer trajectory.

If you leave that path, if you complain not just about somebody who is loved and protected but that system of protection, what then?  You open the door of consciousness only to find another door is shut. That is how doors tell us about time, the time of repetition, what we keep having to do, the points we keep having to make. It can take time and also work for a complaint to come out. Queer and trans folk know coming out is not a one-time event; you have to keep coming out because of how the world presumes a certain kind of body, you might have to correct pronouns being used for your partner or for yourself; coming out as that tiring work of correction, correction is often heard as complaint, as negative, assertive, demanding.  If you have to keep coming out with it, in or out can feel more like round and about.  I think of how Ahmed Ibrahim disrupts this framing of inside/outside by revisiting the closet in a powerful reflection of queer lives and archives in Egypt. Ibrahim uses the language of seepage, how queerness seeps out, complicating any distinction between inside and outside.

There are many seepages in stories of complaint.

An early career lecturer was being sexually harassed by a senior man professor mainly through constant verbal communications – he emailed her about wanting to suck her toes. She thought she had handled this by asking her line-manager to ask him to stop not knowing that her manager sat on that request. When a complaint is not passed on, the harassment goes on

And then I was in a meeting with my line manager and her line manager and we were in this little office space, like a glass fish bowl type meeting room, and then the main office where all the staff desks were and he emailed me and I made a sound, eehhhhh, there’s no way to articulate it, someone’s just dragging your insides like a meat grinder, oh god this is not going to stop, and I made that sound out loud, and my line manager’s line manager said, what’s happened. And I turned my computer around and showed him and he said for fuck’s sake, how stupid do you have to be to put that in an email. You could see a look of panic on her face. Like, crap, this has not magically gone away.

That sound, that eehhhhh, pierces the meeting, that meeting taking place in the little glass room, a fishbowl, where they can all be seen. Something can become visible and audible sometimes even despite yourself; a complaint is what comes out because you can’t take it anymore, you just can’t take it anymore, your insides like a meat-grinder; a complaint as how you are turned inside out. Note how the problem once heard is implied to be not so much the harassment but that there was evidence of it (“for fuck’s sake how stupid do you have to be to put that in an email”).  A sound becomes a complaint because it brings to the surface a violence that is in the room but would not otherwise have to be faced.  Her line manager’s line manager, now alerted, witnessed being alerted, initiates a formal process. She uses the word imploded to describe what happened next. She attends another meeting

And this meeting dragged on and on and it was sort of, going through all the points and my boss wasn’t in it, wasn’t party to it, and it became clear at this point that something is going on beyond what I am involved in. That was the first time I realized the level of mess that is accompanying this. The professor disappeared; he was suddenly not there anymore. Whether he had been suspended or whether he quit, I never knew. But the story he had told to my colleagues was that he had been forced out by me. You’ve heard all of this a thousand times.

A story can be familiar. We have heard it before because it has happened before. Even though she did not initiate the complaint, she was described by him as having forced him out, and there was no way for her to challenge the narrative. Her colleagues begin to refer to her as the woman who forced a man out of his job because he said he wanted to suck her toes. In practice confidentiality, which is often justified as necessary to protect those who complain, means that those with more connections have more control over how the complaint is framed. The story of what happens to a complaint can be the same story complaints are about: who controls the situation, who controls the narrative.

Complaints as Stories about Institutions

I wanted to being with these two stories of how complaints come out, these rather messy, queer stories. The institutional story of complaint is rather different.  On paper, perhaps this is the institutional story, a complaint can be pictured as a flow-chart, with straight lines and pointy arrows, giving the would-be complainer a clear route.  If you would picture a complaint from a complainer’s point of view, it would be rather more like this, it’s a mess, what a tangle, once you are in it, you can’t work out how to get out of it.

And if that mess is a picture of a complaint, it can also be a picture of your life, a life can be what unravels. The early career lecturer whose complaint came out as a sound described, “It is like being trapped in some kind of weird dream where you know you jump from one section to another because you never know the narrative.” Making a complaint can feel like becoming a character in someone else’s story.  You know what is happening is not what is supposed to be happening but you still don’t know what is happening. I remember this from my own experience: you are having all these conversations, meetings after meetings, but most people you are working with don’t even know about what is going on; you have to keep going back to your other job, your day job; and that world, that is supposed to be the real world, the upright, brightly-lit world, feels increasingly unreal; topsy-turvy; upside down. A complaint can queer your relation to the institution, and I mean queer in the old sense of odd; words that are everywhere in my data are odd, weird, strange, surreal, bizarre, disorientating.

The lack of clarity becomes the world you inhabit. One academic made a complaint about bullying by her head of department did so in part as her university had developed new policies and complaint procedures. She describes them as “window dressing,” and said “they did not mean what they said.”  Policy can be the organisation appears from the front. When you complain, you begin to see through an appearance. This is why I describe complaint as a phenomenology of the institution: you bring to the front what often recedes into the background. You go back. To complain is certainly to go back in time, you have to go over what is not over, complaints have a queer temporality, which would be well described by Elizabeth Freeman’s term, temporal drag, complaints go on, meetings drag on; on and on. To complain is to go back in a spatial sense, you see what is “behind the back,” to reuse terms from my book, Queer Phenomenology.  

Another academic tried to use policies in her complaint about plagiarism and racism also to discover, “the policies are not meant.” We could call these policies non-performative. She added, “I was told it was now a formal process. I had to look at all the policies. I found there was this fog. It was constant. Every time I found clarity – isn’t it supposed to happen in accordance with policy blah blah-blah – this has been around ten years, isn’t this supposed to happen, and they would be like no.” To be told “no” is to be told that however long a policy has been around it is not going to determine what happens.

Even if the policies are not being followed, they still exist on paper.  She described policies that don’t exist on paper as “shadow policies.”  She used that term to account for her white academics in her department ended up with more research time than academics of colour, despite official commitments to equity because of these backdoor deals they made that appeared to be about securing one thing but ended up giving them another more valued thing that allowed them to do the more valued things.

A shadow is the dark area where light from a source is blocked due to an opaque object. The term “shadow policies” is telling us something about where decisions are made, the unlit areas of a room, as well as how they are made. The first part of the book, Institutional Mechanics, explores the gap between what is supposed to happen when you make a complaint and what does happen. To complain is to find a gap between the university as it appears on paper, policies that exist but are not followed, the paper university, diversity and equality as what they keep saying, and the university as it is, policies that do not exist but are followed, inequalities as what they keep doing.

You find a gap, mind a gap, fall right into it.

This gap in telling us something about complaint is telling us something about the university. This was why it was important for me to show what those who complain know. I spoke to an early lecturer about a complaint she made about the failure of her university to adjust her workload after she returned from long term sick leave. She is neuroatypical, and she needs time to return to work, to do her work. Even though she has evidence that the university has not followed its own policies and procedures, her complaint does not get anywhere. Let me share with you her description of what it feels like to do this work:

It was like a little bird scratching away at something and it wasn’t really having any effect. It was just really small, small; small, and behind closed doors.  I think people maybe feel that because of the nature of the complaint, and you are off work so they have to be polite and not talk about it and so much of their politeness is because they don’t want to say something. And maybe [it is] to do with being in an institution and the way they are built; long corridors, doors with locks on them, windows with blinds that come down, it seems to sort of imbue every part of it with a cloistered feeling, there is no air, it feels suffocating.

A complaint as something that you are doing can acquire exteriority, becoming a thing in the world; scratching away; a little bird, all your energy going into an activity that matters so much to what you can do, who you can be, but barely seems to leave a trace; the more you try, the smaller it becomes, you become, smaller; smaller still. I think of those birds scratching away, and I think back to how diversity work was described to me by a practitioner as a “banging your head against the brick wall job.” When the wall keeps its place, it is you that ends up sore. And what happens to the wall?  All you seem to have done is scratch the surface.  Scratching can give you a sense of the limits of what you can accomplish.

When I heard the little birds in her story, my queer ears pricked up.  In my book on the uses of use, What’s the Use, I used this image of queer use, how things can be used in ways that were not intended, by those who were not intended.

The birds turn the post-box into a nest. This is a rather happy hopeful image.  Usually, when we turn up in institutions not built for us, we are told, get back in your own box, go back, go home.

If a complaint is a little bird scratching a way at something, a complaint is trying to create an almost/nest in a hostile environment.  Why evoke the term “hostile environment”? Many harassment policies use the term “hostile environment,” for the creation of a work culture that is undermining and degrading to a person or persons. In the UK, the term “hostile environment” has since been used by government as the name of a policy on illegal immigration. The use of a term that was already definitional of workplace harassment for policy teaches us how harassment become a national policy. The category of “illegal immigrant” is a racializing category; you can be brown or black and born here and still be told to go back, go home, yes that was a message sent out on a van; racial harassment as a national policy, the right to interrogate those who appear not from here.

A right to interrogate those who appear not from here, the right to interrogate some because of how they appear. A trans student of colour make a complaint about sexual harassment and transphobic harassment from their supervisor who kept asking them deeply intrusive questions about their gender and genitals. Questions can be hammering; for some to be is to be in question. These questions were laced in the language of concern for the welfare of the student predicated on judgments that they would be endangered if they conducted research in their home country. Racist judgments are often about the location of danger “over there” in a brown or black elsewhere. Transphobic judgments are often about the location of danger “in here,” in the body of a trans person: as if to be trans is to incite the violence against you. When they complain, what happens? They said, “people were just trying to evaluate whether he was right to believe there would be some sort of physical danger to me because of my gender identity… as if to say he was right to be concerned.” The same intrusive questions that led you to complain are asked because you complain. Right to be concerned becomes a right to be concerned. So much harassment today is enacted as a right to be concerned. We have a right to be concerned about immigration (as “citizens”); we have a right to be concerned about sex-based rights (as “adult human females”). A right to be concerned is how violence is enacted, a violence premised on suspicion that some are not who they say they are, that some have no right to be where they are, that some have no right to be.

Complaints about hostile environments are made in hostile environments. A woman of colour talked to me about a conversation she had with her head of department. She is trying to explain to him why students of colour do not feel they can make complaints about racism,

He said he was sympathetic because of Brexit and started talking about Muslim students being attacked on the bus. I said the department is reproducing a culture that isn’t inclusive no matter how sympathetic you are. If you had an experience on the bus you are not going to come back to the department and tell them about it, are you, if it’s the same department where when you have a cup of tea, the white people go to a different part of the room. It seems a complaint about racism can be received sympathetically if racism is elsewhere, outside, on the streets, in the bus.

The Head of Department’s statement of sympathy, his performance of sympathy, is directed toward racism that is over there. But seeing racism there can be how you don’t see it here, how you enact it here (white people going to different parts of the room). Racism can be what stops a complaint about racism.

I think of how policies can be what appears, what stops us from seeing what is going on. Diversity too can be what appears, what stops us from seeing what is going on, how it goes on. The organization might appear welcoming, diversity as an open door, come in come in, minorities welcome. Just because they welcome you it does not mean they expect you to turn up. Perhaps you open the door only to end up in a hostile environment otherwise known as the diversity committee. This woman of colour academic describes, “I was on the equality and diversity group in the university. And as soon as I started mentioning things to do with race, they changed the portfolio of who could be on the committee and I was dropped.” If you are dropped from the diversity committee for mentioning things to do with race, the diversity committee is how you don’t mention things to do with race. Another time, she is writing a paper for a special issue of a journal on decolonizing her discipline. She receives feedback from a white editor , “the response of the editor was ‘needs to be toned down, not enough scholarly input to back up the claims they are making.’ Basically, get back in your box, and if you want to decolonize, we’ll do it on our terms.” Being dropped from the diversity committee for “mentioning things to do with race” is continuous with being told to tone it down on the decolonizing special issue. Whiteness can be just as occupying of spaces when they are designated decolonial, I sometimes call this decolonial whiteness.

“Get back in your own box.”  I think back to the post-box that has become a nest. There could have been another sign on that box, birds welcome!

Diversity is that sign. That sign would be non-performative, if the post-box was still in use because the birds would be dislodged by the letters, a nest destroyed before it could be created. All those questions, what are you, where are you from, instructions, tone it down, they function as letters in the box, piling up until there is no room left, no room to breathe, to nest, to be. If diversity is that sign, diversity obscures the hostility of an environment.

“An Important Man” (and other stories of reproduction)

An MA student was considering whether to complain about the conduct of a professor. She had already questioned his syllabus which was all white men until week ten. One time she has an essay tutorial with him, she tells him she wants to wrote her essay on gender and race. He says, “if you write on those fucking topics you are going to fucking fail my course, you haven’t fucking understood anything I have been talking about if you think those are the correct questions for this course.” When you ask the wrong questions, you witness the violence of correction. “But then he says, wait, you know what, your so fucking old, your grades don’t really matter, you’re not going to have a career in academia, so right whatever essay you wanted to write; you are going to fail, but it doesn’t matter right, you’re not here to get a good grade, you are not here for a career, your obviously here because you want to learn, so write whatever it is that you wanted, it doesn’t fucking matter.” She hears herself being written off. The complainer, who is questioning the syllabus, becomes the feminist who has got the questions wrong; becomes the old woman who might as well be wrong, a hag as well as a nag, because she can’t proceed, she won’t proceed.

She decides to make a formal complaint because she “wanted to prevent other students from having to go through such practice.”  Complaint can be thought of as non-reproductive labour: the work you have to do to stop the same things from happening, to stop the reproduction of an inheritance. When she tells the convenor of the MA programme that she is intending to complain, she receives a warning, “be careful he is an important man.” A warning is a judgement as well as a direction. She goes ahead with the complaint. And she “sacrificed the references.” In reference to the prospect of doing a PhD, she said, “that door is closed.”  That door is closed, references can be doors, how some are stopped from progressing. When the door is closed on her complaint, and also on her, she will not be there, bringing to the institution what she might have brought to it, the door is kept open for him so he can keep doing what he has been doing where he has been doing it, behind closed doors.

The figure of the “important man” is teaching us about how institutions work, for whom they work. A retired academic told me how her application for promotion to professor, was “put in the bin.” The university decided to award only one professorship during the promotion process, “So who did get put forward? And of course, it was a man far less qualified by any of the women who had applied…the Head of Department’s argument was that he had very important contacts, very important contacts in the community…in order to keep this guy they had to give him the promotion because they didn’t want to lose him.” They didn’t want to lose him: a door is opened to him because of who he brings with him.

Importance is often predicated on connections. To progress you might be told you need to have or to make the right connections. You might be told not to complain about an important man because you need a reference from him. Or you be might be told to refer to an important man.  The more a path is used, the more a path is used. The more he is cited, the more he is cited.  We learn not just who to cite, but how to cite.  Sarah Franklin has explored sexism in the academy by discussing Professor P’s rather extreme response to one of her essays, a feminist essay on Durkheim; his scrawling marks made mostly with red pen all over her essay turned it into a bloody document.  Franklin shows how sexism can be “a means of reproduction” that works by “prohibition or cultivation to select a path – for example by blocking a conversation or an argument when it flows in the ‘wrong’ direction, or enabling the ‘right’ kinds of thinking or critique by creating spaces for them to move into.”

Prohibition or cultivation.  Prohibition is an obvious door story, how you are stopped from doing something by being denied entry for doing it, you might end up without a career path if you don’t follow the right path, disciplinary or otherwise. A path, a line. I think of how even decolonizing special issues can require “toeing the line,” recall how a woman of colour was told to “tone it down,” maybe she was being told not just to remove herself from her text but to cite right, cite white.  Cultivation is also a door story, a less obvious door story, but a door story nevertheless; what you are told you need to do in order not to have a door closed on you. Earlier I suggested warnings not to complain can be how you are told to align yourself with the institution. Warnings not to complain are part of a cluster of speech acts we sometimes call career advice.

Career advice = straightening device.

Not complaining becomes about developing a more positive attitude to the institution and its legacies. A woman of colour academic describes,

There’s an agreement between people not to rock the boat. People would talk about the institution as a kind of legacy project and would imply that you just didn’t understand how the institution was formed. The implication was that you have to be respectful of how this place was organised and what its traditions were essentially. And if you were not abiding by that it was because you had not been there for ten years.

When a legacy become a project, it signals a relationship to what has been received from the past, think of the words she uses, “respectful,” “abiding,” also “understanding.” The implication is that to complain is to provide evidence that you have not been in an institution long enough to understand it, to respect it, how its organised, its traditions.

You become a complainer when you have not or not yet internalized the norms of the institution. I noted in my introduction that the figure of the complainer becomes a container of negative affect. Negation is also a relation to the institution. You become a complainer when you fail to reproduce an institutional legacy. Remember the woman of colour who was dropped from the diversity committee for mentioning things to do with race? All you have to do is use the word race to be heard as complaining; that word can be evidence you have not internalized the norms of the institution. She explains, “whenever you raise something, the response is that you are not one of them.” A complaint seems to amplify what makes you not fit, picking up what you are not.

The complainer becomes a stranger. You don’t have to make a complaint to become a complainer. I spoke to a lesbian academic who became the first woman to be head of her department, let alone the first lesbian. One time she is introduced by a student as a lesbian head of department, “there was some discussion of that with colleagues, like I had some banner to fly, pushing students to get involved with this.” Just being called a lesbian head of department can be heard as pushing an agenda. Some are judged as being pushy, as rocking the boat, imposing themselves just by virtue of not being or doing more of the same.  Being called a lesbian academic is akin to “raising something,” like a flag.

When you raise something, or something is raised about you, it is treated as evidence you do not belong here or you are not meant to be here. Belonging can be expressed as kin and kind. Another academic describes an incident,

It was really weird. It was in the school office, and he started talking about one of my classes, and he said, “The external examiner said something,” and I said, “I don’t actually agree with the external examiner” . . . and he said, “Well fuck you, you don’t fucking know anything, the external examiner is a major professor, fuck off, who the fuck do you think you are talking about him like that in front of other people.” . . . I later found out that the external examiner was one of his closest friends. So I went to the head of school and I said this happened, and she said, “You know, [he] is like the naughty uncle of the school. That’s just how he is, you just have to let it go.”

Friendship networks, family connections. The naughty uncle appears here as a figure, as familiar, but also as an instruction to her: to let it go, not to complain, to accept the shouting and abusing behaviour, because that is what families are like, because that’s what families do. The complainer becomes not us but also not family.  To be “one of them,” or not “not one of them,” you have to be in relation to “an important man,” to become his relative. I think of how one post-doctoral researcher was unable to get anyone to support her complaint about her mentors. One student said to her, “I have been here since I was seventeen years old. I grew up with them. I can’t do anything.” To progress as a student becomes akin to growing up, complaining becomes something you cannot do. What you cannot do is what protects them. I communicated with an academic whose work plagiarized by a colleague.  The chair told her to “keep quiet about it because they were a family.” He “kept reminding me a lesbian, that [he] has a wife and child.” She could hear what she was being told, that by complaining she would damage not just him but his family. Perhaps that reminder is being addressed to her as somebody assumed not to have a family in need of protection. The protection of a person becomes a protection of their relations.

When I think about protection, I hear silence. When I think back to my experience of complaint, I hear silence.  Silence can be a wall. I think of our efforts over three years to try and get the university to acknowledge the problem of sexual harassment. We could not even get an acknowledgement in public that these enquiries had taken place. It was like they never happened, which was, I have no doubt, the effect they were looking for.   The very first mention of them in public was in fact a post on my blog, written just after I resigned, which is probably telling you something about why I resigned. The university treated my resignation posts as a leak, making a mess, causing damage.  But it was not just the university that treated my disclosure as damaging. A feminist colleague described my action as “unprofessional,” because it caused “a fall-out which damages us all now and in the future.”  We are learning what it means to be professional. To be professional is to be willing to keep the institution’s secrets. It is important to note then that silence is not just something enforced by management or marketing departments, silence can be performed as loyalty, turned into a duty by our own colleagues, including feminist colleagues, silence to protect important people, silence to protect resources, silence to protect reputation, individual, institutional, silence as promotion, how you maximize your chances of going further or getting more from the institution.

In other words, if the story of “an important man” is a story of who is protected and promoted, it is a story of how many get enlisted into doing that work. An early career lecturer talked about why people don’t tend to make complaints in her university because of who would receive them, “People don’t want to rock the boat with [senior academics], because they are so important and they bring in this grant money and their names really matter.” Not wanting to rock the boat can be part of an effort to maintain good relations to those who are more important because of how they bring in more resources.  So much violence is enabled and reproduced because people do not think they can “rock the boat,” which means there is so much violence in “keeping things steady” or in “steadying.” When you complain, especially in public, you are then judged as trying to make the whole thing unsteady, as damaging “us all,” and by “us all” translate those for whom the institution means more resources. Audre Lorde told us this would happen.  She said that those who are resourced by the master’s house will find those who try to dismantle it, even those who just question what he does in there, threatening.

If to complain is to hear silence, to complain is also to hear the clunk, clunk of the institutional machinery, how the system is working by stopping those who try to stop it from working. We know how institutions reproduce themselves when we try to intervene in their reproduction. When you make a complaint, you might not necessarily begin by thinking of yourself as part of a movement nor as a critic of the institution let alone as trying “to dismantle the master’s house” to evoke the title of Audre Lorde’s important essay. But that is where many who make complaints end up. There is hope in this trajectory.

Conclusion: No, and Other Queer Tales

The title of the third part of the book is, “If These Doors Could Talk.” In listening to doors, I have been learning about power, how the door that is kept open to some is the same door shut on others.   The image on the front of Complaint! is by the artist Rachel Whiteread. I love how the double doors are an assembly, telling us about time, as well as space, how they resemble funerary slabs, telling us something about who is departed. Doors have stories to tell, they can be how we tell our stories. Doors have queer uses.  Remember the birds who turned a post-box into a nest? I think of these birds as our queer kin, they turned an opening intended for letters into a door, a queer door, way of getting into and out of a box. A queer door can be how we make room for ourselves. I think back to Judith Butler’s discussion of coming out as coming into a bounded space such as a basement or university. There was a door in that story. In Undoing Gender (2004), Butler tells another door story; she talks about being in the basement of her house “having locked the door,” and in the “smoke filled” airless room, finding books that once belonged to her parents, or at last passed through their hands, philosophy books that ignited her desire. Spaces that might seem like closets, or containers, can be where queer things can happen, where we pick something up that gives us somewhere else to go.

A shut door, a room. I am listening to an indigenous academic. She told me how she could hardly manage to get to campus after a sustained campaign of bullying and harassment from white faculty, including a concerted effort by a senior manager, another important man, no doubt, to sabotage her tenure case as well as the tenure cases of other indigenous academics.  When doors are closed, nay, slammed in your face, it can be history you are up against. Her complaint goes nowhere. So she found another way of taking them on,

I took everything off my door, my posters, my activism; my pamphlets. I smudged everything all around the building. I knew I was going to war; I did a war ritual in our tradition. I pulled down the curtain. I pulled on a mask, my people we have a mask…and I never opened my door for a year. I just let it be a crack. And only my students could come in. I would not let a single person come in to my office who I had not already invited there for a whole year.

Closing the door is how she says no to the institution that demands access to her, whilst taking so much something from her. She closes the door to the institution by withdrawing herself, her commitments, from it. She still does her work; she still teaches her students. She uses the door to shut out what she can, who she can.  She takes herself off the door; she depersonalises it. She pulls down the blinds. She pulls on a mask, the mask of her people, connecting her fight to the battles that came before, because, quite frankly, for her, this is a war.

Our battles are not the same battles. But there are many battles happening behind closed doors. Behind closed doors: that is where complaints are often found, so that is where you might find us too, those of us for whom the institution is not built; and what we bring with us, who we bring us, the worlds that would not be here if some of us were not here, our bodies, our memories, the more we have to spill, the tighter the hold. The more we have to spill. Many complaints end up in containers otherwise known as filing cabinets.

That filing cabinet can be thought of as an institutional closet.  What is buried here is what the institution does not want revealed. We too can be buried here; our lives can be the details of their documents. One student said her complaint was “shoved in a box.” Another student describes how complaints end up in the “the complaint graveyard.” Perhaps filing cabinets are where complaints go to die.

If complaints end up in the institutional closet, the work of complaint includes the work of getting complaints out.  A disabled student was not getting anywhere with her complaint about the failure of the university to make reasonable accommodations. And then a file suddenly appears, “a load of documents turned up on the student’s union fax machine and we don’t know where they came from, they were historical documents about students who had to leave.”  The documents including a hand-written letter to a human rights charity by a former student who had cancer, and who was trying to get the university to let her finish her degree part-time. She speculates that a secretary was doing “their own little bit of direct action,” releasing those documents as a way of giving support to her complaint that she was not supposed to give. It is not surprising that a secretary can become a saboteur; secretary derives from secrets, the secretary is a keeper of secrets. If the student I spoke to hadn’t made her complaint, that letter would have stayed put, the file too; dusty, buried. So many are involved in pulling something out, pulling something off. A complaint made in the present can release complaints from the past.

We can meet in an action without meeting in person.  I think of all the different actions in the book, I call them complaint activisms – students and academics who performed their complaints, who turned complaints into posters, put them on leaflets or as expressed them as graffiti on books or on walls. Complaints can be sneaky as well as leaky. When it is made hard to get complaints out, complaints can be the sound of a release, eehhhhh. This is why I have placed such a strong emphasis on the sound of the work in the work, not just the clunk, clunk of the institutional machine, but the groans and moans of what we keep coming up against. The doors slam. So, we knock on the door. We knock on the door not to demand entry but to create a disturbance. I hear Audre Lorde knocking on a door, telling us something’s up.  In an interview with Adrienne Rich, Lorde describes her fascination with a poem “The Listener,” a poem about a traveller who rides a horse up to the door of an apparently empty house,

He knocks at the door and nobody answers. ‘Is there anybody there?’ he said and he has a feeling that there really is somebody in there. And then he turns his horse and he says, ‘Tell them I came,’ and nobody answered. ‘That I kept my word.’ I used to recite that poem to myself all the time. It was one of my favorites. And if you’d asked me, what is it about, I don’t think I could have told you. But this was the first cause of my own writing, my need to say things I couldn’t say otherwise, when I couldn’t find other poems to serve.

It is important to follow Lorde, to go where she goes. When we are fascinated by something we do not always know why. Lorde keep reciting the poem; she says “it imprinted on her.” I think of that imprint: the print of a poem on a person. The point is not in the answer, whether someone answers, but in the knock; the knock is the action. You might be knocking on the door of consciousness, trying to hear something, to admit what we have shut out, the violence that can make it so hard to focus or function. Or you might be knocking on the door of the master’s house because you know that house is haunted. To knock on that door, to make that sound, not “knock, knock, who is there?” but “knock, knock, we are here,” is to disturb the spirits who linger here because of the violence that has not been dealt with.

Scratching too can be not just a mark, but a sound, the sound of labour, the little bird scratching away. We hear that scratching as speech, as spillage, as testimony, different ways of getting messages out. Those scratches, that scramble of letters, eehhhhh, can be how we get our complaints on the wall.  I think of how, after I left my post, students put words from my work on the wall.

Yes, they were taken down. But they cannot stop them from having been there.

And I think of how, by resigning, saying no in public, people came to me with their complaints. I became part of a collective, a complaint collective, we are assembled before you.

Earlier I shared a picture of what a complaint looks like.

Perhaps this image is a queer map of the organization, telling us all the places we have been to try and get our complaints through. The more we don’t get through, the more we have to do. Yes, this is hard, exhausting, also shattering. But think of this: each line might be a conversation, one that you had to have, a conversation that can open a door, just a little, just enough, so that someone else can enter, can hear something. Each line might be time, the time it takes to get somewhere, time as a queer line, going round and about as how you find things out. Each line might be a path, the places you go, the unlit rooms, the shadows, the doorways, a line as a lead, who you find on your way there. Each line might take us back, how we learn there are more, how we hear of others who complained before. Each line can be thrown forward, a leak as a lead, how those who come after you can pick something up, because of what you tried to do, even though you did not get through, even though all you seemed to do was scratch the surface. What you left behind they find.  That we find each other through complaint is a finding. That complaints are made is how we come to know something happened here, what happened here: no as a trail, another queer tale.

*I have given different versions of this lecture “Complaint as a Queer Method,” over the last 2 years. This is the most recent version given as a zoom lecture (the 28th Annual Margaret Laurence Lecture Department of Gender and Social Justice, Trent University, March 10, 2022). The video is linked in the opening sentence. I have edited the spoken version only for clarification. I will be developing the framework of “complaint as a queer method” in The Complainer’s Handbook.

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After Complaint

I have been listening to stories of complaint. I have been collecting complaints.  To collect can mean to go to a place and bring somebody back or to bring things together from different times or places. To bring somebody back, to bring us together, to collect complaints is to create a complaint collective. One student said toward the end of sharing her story, “another straw to the bale.” I replied, “it’s a stuffed bale.” Complaint! is stuffed full of our stories. Those who complain about abuses of power, about inequalities and injustices, have so much to say because we have so much to do. I am now speaking “after complaint,” by which I mean after the book, not the work, the work of complaint is, of course, ongoing. The book itself came after so much, after my experience of supporting students who complained, after leaving my post, my profession, because of what happened when we complained, after listening to many of you talk about your complaints and the work you do. Despite all these afters, I still feel that I am in complaint, that complaint has remained present, that the time of complaint is now, urgent and necessary.  I have not, I will not, leave complaint behind. And yet, it is hard for me to think about complaint without thinking about leaving. What happens to us, and to our complaints, when we leave the institutions in which we made them? What happens if we cannot leave, if we cannot open a door or walk down a corridor without a sharp reminder of what happened there, of what happened then?

I am speaking to a woman about her experiences as a postgraduate student. She is no longer working in the university sector, what happened when she complained about sexual harassment by another student, led her to see that the university as it was, was not what she wished it to be, was not where she wished to work. We are getting ready to leave the conversation. And, she said to me, “I know that you get it. And I know you will do something with it.” I am still moved by her trust. I said to her “It’s a shared project.” And then I said, “Even if you leave, I left too, that kind of experience you take with you, wherever you go.” And then she said, “it never leaves you.” And then she said it again, with a different, stronger, emphasis, “It will never ever leave you.” Complaints, some of them, those that lead you to confront the institution, don’t leave you, not now, not ever, never.

Many of the stories of complaint I share in the book are in one way or another stories of leaving. A senior lecturer said, “I can’t leave and they know that. I am not employable elsewhere. I don’t have monographs. I haven’t been Head of Department.” Her story was a story of not being able to leave because the experiences that led her to complaint, being bullied by her head of department, and her experience of complaint, watching him get away with it, stopped her from being able to do the kind of work that might have given her that option. Some people only complain because they are leaving or because they know they can leave, which tells you what they know about complaint. One postgraduate student said, “I would never want to file a complaint without knowing I could leave. Retaliation is real. People can do stuff to you whether it is recorded or not.” So much of what happens when you complain, so much that is real, is hard to evidence. You could end up with nowhere to go without anyone knowing how or why that happened. Or maybe they are not going to let you leave. Another postgraduate student said, “it was a three-hour meeting that was just trying to shut us down. The line I really remember was ‘we are not going to leave until we get this sorted’ because we were treated like unruly girls who needing disciplining.” They are going to make you sort it out by treating you as the ones who need to be sorted out. Or maybe when you complain you watch them trying to make you leave. A professor said, “And that’s what they wanted: they wanted to take me out totally, so that I would leave, tail between my legs.” Taking you out can be what a complaint ends up being about A senior lecturer said, she could hear them saying something without saying anything, “oh be gone from here, ‘you problem,’ you leave, get out and then you take that with you.” They want you to leave on the assumption that the problem will go away when you do.

If we leave, and some of us leave, we take our complaints with us. But the problems don’t go away when we do. We become recorders, even when we are gone, we can tell you what is going on. In my conclusion I describe complaints as our noisy companions. We can become our complaints, and perhaps also each other’s. Today, I want to reflect back on the research with you, speaking after the book but not after the work. I will interweave stories from my own experience of complaint, with stories from the research and from sharing the research.

When?

I want to open with the question of when, the question of time, of timing. When does a complaint begin? How to begin the story of complaint?  How to tell that story?  On paper, this is the institutional story, a complaint is pictured as a flow-chart, with straight lines and pointy arrows, giving the would-be complainer a clear route through.

Things are not always as they appear.  I suggested in the book that if we were to picture a complaint it would more like this, it’s a mess, a tangle, you can get in, but you can’t work out how to get out.

Perhaps if this is a picture of complaint, it is also a picture of time and also of a life, what a life can become in the time of complaint. A complaint is like a bag that gets heavier in time, the longer it takes the more it weighs. One student who complained about harassment from a professor described, “it is my theory they have been putting in the long finger and pulling this out, dragging this out over unacceptable periods of time, to try and tire me out so that I will just give up.” Time can be used as a tool, to tire us out, so that we will retire our complaints. Or it might be the time a complaint takes is time as some of us don’t have. I think of how an international student made her complaint at the same time her visa was running out “Ten days before my visa was about to run out, I applied for a new visa. And they were like how can we give her a visa she is on probation. You have to have good standing to get a visa and they were like this complaint thing is open.” The more precarious you are, the more you risk losing your footing. A student with a chronic illness described how “the complaint hinged on them not giving me the time. I said you should have given me more time, more than a week, to do all this paper work. You can’t then get pissed off with me when I don’t do the paperwork and moreover you can’t do that for a PhD student who is registered disabled.”  The ableism that leads you to complain, not being given the additional time you need can be reencountered when you complain, not being given the additional time you need. The failure to recognise that some of us have less time, or that some of us need more time, can be how a door is shut. That is why if the book is about institutions, it is about who is missing from them.

What if the door, one of the central motifs of the book, is also telling us about time?  The image on the front of Complaint! is called Double Doors, by the artist Rachel Whiteread. Here is a description of the work, “Look carefully—this work is more complicated than it seems. These are not doors; instead, they capture the space created by doors. Whiteread made plaster casts of both sides of two doors, then assembled the casts back-to-back. The finished work combines the spaces on either side of a threshold—fusing entrance and exit into one solid form. The pale doors suggest the ambiguous emotions attached to coming and going and, in the way they resemble funerary slabs, maybe even the fleeting passage of life.” I love how her doors are an assembly, evoking time as well as space, passing, passing through, passing by, passages, comings and goings. I think it matters that the doors resemble “funerary slabs,” doors pointing to graves, doors telling us about who is departed.

It was very early on in the research that I noticed how doors kept coming up, actual doors, doors with difficult to use handles, revolving doors.  A student who made a complaint about the conduct of a professor on her MA said of the prospect of doing a PhD, “that door is closed.” That is quite an ordinary expression. I noticed the door in the expression because of how doors had already come up. We often make use of doors to explain what we cannot do, where we cannot go, a future can be shut like a door. That doors are everywhere in complaint is telling us something about complaint. We are more likely to notice doors when we can’t open them. Doors can be the master’s tools, to evoke Audre Lorde, how some get in, how other’s become trespassers.  When complaints are made confidential, they happen “behind closed doors.” That expression can refer to the actual doors that are closed so someone can tell their story in confidence. It can also mean the process of keeping something secret from a wider public. In the book then, I am opening a door, trying to let out or express something that has been kept secret.

It can take time to open the door.  A postgraduate student is being harassed by her supervisor. She’s a queer woman of colour: she is from a working class-background; she is the first person in her family to go to university. She has had to fight really hard to get here. She knows something is not right, she is feeling more and more uncomfortable: he keeps pushing boundaries, wanting to meet off campus, then in coffee shops, then at his house. She tries to handle the situation, “I tried very hard to keep all of the meetings on campus, and to keep the door open.” She keeps the door open; an actual door at the same time as she closes other another kind of door, we might call this door the door of consciousness. She describes “I thought I would take myself down by admitting to the kind of violence he was enacting.” Take myself down: to admit to violence can feel like becoming your own killjoy, getting in the way of your own progression.  To admit can mean to confess a truth as well as to let something in.  Note how doors can hold a contradiction, keeping the office door open is an admission of a truth that she handles by not letting it in.  But handles can stop working,

I was sitting with another colleague at another lunch another day and he started texting me these naked photos of himself and I think I just hit a critical mass of like, I just can’t handle it anymore. I said just look at this, and she was just like, you know like, completely speechless…. And then like it suddenly started to seep into me, into her, in this shared conversation about like, how horrible and violent that I am having to receive these things, right, and so that basically put a process in motion.

For a complaint to come out the violence has to get in. And when the violence gets in, it gets not only into her but into her colleague; into the conversation, into the room in which they are having that conversation. This is why even when complaints are directed toward something, they are hard to contain.

The time of complaint does not feel like a straight line, complaints go everywhere, they get everywhere.  Complaints can queer time as well as space, you end up all over the place. Complaints can follow you home.

You can open the door of consciousness, also your life, and then what? Opening a door is never completed by one action. You might admit what happened, but then when you try and share the story, as she did, you will hear more doors being shut. She goes to the office responsible for handling complaints, “they were like, ‘you can file a complaint. But he’s really well loved by the university, he has a strong publication record, you are going to go through all of this emotional torment.’ It was even proposed that he could counter sue me for defamation of character. The line was essentially, you can do this, but why would you.”  A warning that a complain will have dire consequences, that to complain is to hurtle toward a miserable fate, can take the form of institutional fatalism: statements about what institutions are like, what they are as what they will be, who they love, who they will protect. In the end she does not file a formal complaint, she knew what she was being told: that she wouldn’t get anywhere, it wouldn’t get anywhere, because he was going somewhere. The door shut on her complaint is kept open for him. That is how doors, tell us about time, the time of repetition, what we keep having to do, the points we keep having to make.

Doors can be shut by appearing to be open. Consider how diversity is often figured as an open door, come in, come in, minorities welcome.  Just because they welcome you, it does not mean they expect you to turn up.  One university turned the “open door” of diversity, we can call this door the diversity door, into a project of attaching photographs of Black and minority ethic students and staff to door panels across the campus. BME students and staff are pictured not even as going through the door but as on the door.  A woman of colour described her department as a revolving door, women and minorities enter only to head out again, whoosh, whoosh. We can be kept out by what we find out when we get in. Maybe diversity too is a tale about time, comings and goings, how when some of us enter, we quickly leave again.

I think back to that complaint procedure, that flow chart, flow, flow, away we go.  So often when we try and follow procedures, use policies, we encounter an obstruction. One academic made a complaint about bullying by her head of department did so in part as her university had developed new policies and complaint procedures, only to realise “they did not mean what they said.” She describes them as “window dressing.” Complaint procedures can be rather like diversity, then; window dressing, door dressing. I spoke to two students who made a complaint at an institution that had developed new complaints procedures intended to create a more positive welcoming environment for the complainer. That was not what they experienced, “The tone was horrendous. It was basically like ‘tutt’ stop it (accompanied by hand gesture), that sort of attitude; like that tutt if you could make that noise it was in there somewhere.” When you make a complaint, you hear that “tutt, tutt,” as if you are an irritating fly they are trying to brush away, a complaint as what they will away, a complaint met by a go away. What comes at you is not revealed to others.  Escalation of force is not only a consequence of a complaint; it is often used as a method to stop complaints. It is not just time that becomes heavy, you feel the weight of an institution come down on you. Escalation can also be used to discredit those who complain. An international student, described escalation as “a deliberate strategy. Because it is so extreme, people think that either the person is saying something is being extreme and therefore irrational and a drama queen, or the person has done something and they are not saying that was so extreme that elicited the extreme reaction.”  What is not revealed to others is often what is most harmful and violent about the complaint process. And then you can be the one who appears extreme, making something out of nothing.

When we complain we often experience what does not appear, and what appears is not what we experience.  We mind a gap, we find a gap, we fall right into it. An early career lecturer is returning after long term sick leave. She is neuroatypical and she is not given the time she needs to return to work, to do her work, “there are like four channels of complaint going on at the same time. But interestingly none of these people seem to be crossing over. You duplicate the complaint at different times, emails, phone calls, occupational health; the union. It is generating all this material and all this paper work but actually nothing seems to shift. It’s just a file, actually.” You have to keep telling the same story because different people are not talking to reach other, falling into the gaps can mean more and more work. Making a complaint can mean going over and over something, the same point, a sore point. All that work, all those conversations, all that time, and the complaint ends up in a file.

A file, a filing cabinet. Another student described where her complaint ended up as “the complaint graveyard.” Perhaps a filing cabinet is another door, a funerary slab, where a complaint goes to die. But even if our complaints end up in files, which means we too end up in files, bits and pieces of our lives can be the details in a document, they are not only there.  Our bodies store what institutions file away. One senior academic describes “you have a lot of strain and mental anguish which comes out in different ways, and the way that mine came out was in my back. That was when I started having this really bad back problem.” The less backing you have, the more weight you have to bear.  A back can bear the burden of the weight of a complaint. A back can tell the story of what is required to do this work. Our bodies tell the time of complaint.

The time it takes, the time we are in. I was finishing this book in the time of a pandemic. The times you are in, the work we do in the times we are in. I was interviewed recently by Adrija Dey for Wasafiri. She asked me about the pandemic, and in answering her question, I mentioned filing cabinets. Let me share what I said,

I finished Complaint! at a time of mass trauma and loss. I have no doubt that the affective reality of our times is in the book, how could it not be? To write in some situations we need to let them in. I wrote this book with a sense of urgency and responsibility. In the introduction I write that I did not want to become a filing cabinet; we have too many of them already. I did not want the stories that had been shared with me before the pandemic to sit with me, to pile up, during it. I wanted, I needed, to get them out, to give these stories of complaint, these complaints, somewhere to go. Writing this book was thus very orientating. It gave me a focus, a rather fierce focus at that. I had a sense of a point and a purpose. But it became painful and hard when I sent the book in. I felt its absence deeply.

I still do.

Where?

When I think of the where of complaint, I think first of where I worked.  Mostly when you are involved in a complaint, you are still at work; you are still doing your work. The work I did was to support a collective complaint that had already been put forward by students.  I first met with the students in our department’s meeting room. They told me what had been going on, and for how long. It was so much to take in. When I think about leaving post, why it became necessary, I think of that room.  I would keep entering it, because it was my department’s meeting room, a much-used room. I would keep going by it, because it was the first room on the corridor after the administrator’s room; I went by it to get to my office. We would have other meetings in that room, academic meetings, papers shuffling, papers and persons being rearranged. The room was occupied by a history that felt as tangible as the walls. I could not just turn up at the same old meetings, doing the same old things.

I think too of my office. Just after the meeting with the students, a feminist colleague came to my office. I told her some of what the students told me. She burst into tears. She said something like, “after all of our work this still happens.” There is so much feminist grief in this still, that the same things happen, still, despite everything, all that work, feminist work, our work, to try to change the culture of sexual harassment. We need time, also space, to express this grief, to turn it out, and, sometimes, to turn it into complaint.

In the weeks following that first meeting, more students came to talk to me. They came into my office. In an endnote in chapter 6, a little hidden, but it is there, I quote from a student “we’re all concerned that your office has become something of an emergency drop-in centre for women in various states of crisis. I hope you’re alright”. We share the work we share concern. The students did not come to me because I had any special training or skills. I didn’t and I don’t. They came to me because I was willing to listen.  They came because they had so few places to go. I became a feminist ear because of the failure of the institution to listen to their complaints, to take them seriously. To become a feminist ear is to find a way to get the complaints moving again.   I am grateful that the students I worked with became my complaint collective and that they, Leila Whitley, Tiffany Page, Alice Corble, with support from Heidi Hasbrouck, Chryssa Sdrolia and others, wrote about what they did, how the “moved something,” in one of the conclusions to the book.

We gave each other room. We give each other room. As I did the research, I was conscious of rooms, how to give a testimony is to give it from somewhere. I talked to a student when she was at work. She was in a room, a seminar room.  And she started telling me about a very difficult meeting that took place, to use her words, “in this exact room.” Being “in this exact room,” the same room, it matters. You end up telling the story of complaint in the same place you made the complaint.

Immanence, we are in it, even when we are trying to get out of it. Complaints can make us more conscious of what we are in, of the rooms we are in. Earlier I described the experiences of a neurotypical lecturer whose complaint that she needed more time took so much time, generating all this material that ended up in a file. Let me share with you her description of what it feels like to do this work,

It was like a little bird scratching away at something and it wasn’t really having any effect. It was just really small, small; small and behind closed doors.  I think people maybe feel that because of the nature of the complaint, and you are off work so they have to be polite and not talk about it and so much of their politeness is because they don’t want to say something. And maybe [it is] to do with being in an institution and the way they are built; long corridors, doors with locks on them, windows with blinds that come down, it seems to sort of imbue every part of it with a cloistered feeling, there is no air, it feels suffocating.

A complaint as something you are doing can acquire exteriority, becoming a thing in the world; scratching away; a little bird, all your energy going into an activity that matters so much to what you can do, who you can be, but barely seems to leave a trace; the more you try, the smaller it becomes, you become, smaller; smaller still. A complaint becomes a magnifying glass: so much appears, so many details are picked up by an attention; the geography of a place, the building, the long corridors, the locked doors, the windows with blinds that come down, less light, less room. To fight for room can be how you become more conscious of what little room you have.  I think of those birds scratching away and I think of diversity work, described to me by a practitioner as a “banging your head on the wall job.” When the wall keeps its place, it is you that ends up sore. And what happens to the wall? All you seem to have done is scratching the surface.  Scratching can give you a sense of the limits of what you can accomplish.

A sense of the limits of what you can accomplish is a sense of the institution. Note how a complaint becomes a magnifying glass: so much appears, so many details are picked up by an attention; the geography of a place, the building,  the long corridors,  the locked doors,  the windows with blinds that come down, less light, less room.  She also said, “I was just frightened and I just allowed myself to go through it very privately and I hit all those doors along the way, and just came out very guarded by it.” That there are so many doors in these stories is telling us something; you notice doors when you hit them rather than going through them. A door becomes part of the story, her story, as well as the story of her complaint, behind closed doors, how she goes through the process privately, hitting the doors, how she becomes guarded. Doors tell us not only about when of complaint but the where of it, the immanence of complaint, how complaints are made in the institutions they are about, how they are stopped by those same institutions.

The environment in which you make the complaint becomes part of the problem. Complaints about hostile environments are made in hostile environments. Many harassment policies use this term for the creation of a work culture that is undermining and degrading to a person or persons. In the UK, the term “hostile environment” has since been used by government as the name of a policy on illegal immigration. The use of a term that was already definitional of work place harassment for policy teaches us how harassment become a national policy.  The category of “illegal immigrant” is a racializing category; you can be brown or black and born here and still be told to go back, go home, yes that was a message sent out on a van; racial harassment as a national policy, the right to interrogate those who appear not from here.

You might open the door only to find a hostile environment otherwise known as the diversity committee. A woman of colour describes, “I was on the equality and diversity group in the university. And as soon as I started mentioning things to do with race, they changed the portfolio of who could be on the committee and I was dropped.” You just have to say race to be heard as a complainer, dropped for being too negative, unhelpful. If you are dropped from a diversity committee for mentioning things to do with race, diversity is a way of not mentioning things to do with race. Another time, she is writing a paper for a special issue of a journal on decolonizing her discipline. She receives feedback from a white editor, “the response of the editor was ‘needs to be toned down, not enough scholarly input to back up the claims they are making.’ Basically, get back in your box, and if you want to decolonize, we’ll do it on our terms.” Being dropped from the diversity committee for “mentioning things to do with race” is continuous with being told to tone it down on the decolonizing special issue. The more we refuse the instructions, the more they are issued, don’t use that word, tone it down, remove yourself from your text; cite right, cite white.

She also told me about a conversation she had with her head of department. She is trying to explain to him why students of colour do not feel they can make complaints about racism,

He said he was sympathetic because of Brexit and started talking about Muslim students being attacked on the bus. I said the department is reproducing a culture that isn’t inclusive no matter how sympathetic you are. If you had an experience on the bus you are not going to come back to the department and tell them about it, are you, if it’s the same department where when you have a cup of tea, the white people go to a different part of the room.

It seems a complaint about racism can be received sympathetically if racism is elsewhere, outside, on the streets, in the bus. The Head of Department’s statement of sympathy, his performance of sympathy, is directed toward racism that is over there. But seeing racism there can be how you don’t see it here, how you enact it here (white people going to different parts of the room). Racism can be what stops a complaint about racism.

Complaints about hostile environments are made in hostile environments.  A trans student made an informal complaint that their department “had made it a hostile environment for [them] as a trans student.” The complaint came about after the student had questioned the department’s sponsoring of a trans-hostile group on campus. The student was asked to attend a meeting in which the complaint was treated as “a difference in opinion on this topic.” They said, “[It was] as if I was having some kind of tantrum for not getting my way rather than it being a fundamental issue about existence.” Their complaint went nowhere—it did not get uptake or initiate a formal process. A student who was part of the trans-hostile group made a countercomplaint about the trans student for harassment and bullying. Her complaint was directed against an individual who made a complaint about an environment. And her complaint got uptake; a disciplinary process was initiated and was dropped only at the very final stage. Whether or not a complaint gets uptake can depend on the extent to which the environment of the institution in which the complaint is made is made part of the problem. When you make the environment part of the problem, your complaint becomes more of a problem.

What then about the environments in which I shared this material? One time, pre-pandemic, I gave a lecture in person. Students came up to me after. They told me about the students who could not be there because just the week before there had been a town hall meeting in that same lecture theatre, a town hall meeting, which had been very difficult, very painful. The people I was trying to reach, those who had been through it, what I was trying to describe, would not be there because of where I was saying it. Now, each time I speak, I think of this, just now, I think of this, all of the people who cannot be with us because of what we are trying to address and where we are trying to address it. I think of the where of complaint and I think of who is not here.

Why?

Why complain? I didn’t ask those I spoke to this question, but many in giving me stories of the complaints they made answered this question. A Black woman professor describes:

It was something I had to do because of my politics. A wrong had been done. I had to make sure it had been put right even at my own personal expense it turned out. I’d still do that again. I’d do it for another person, not for me, if the same thing happened I would do it again.

For many complaints don’t feel like something you could do, or even as a choice you make, but what you have to do, given your politics, your commitments. She would complain again not for herself but for another person despite what happened to her; perhaps even because of what happened to her.  You do not want those who come after to go through what you went through.

To intervene in something wrong requires noticing it. You have to keep noticing it when it keeps happening. Noticing can be about recognising how universities are occupied by many histories that can leave some with no room. A woman of colour explained to why she made a complaint about bullying and harassment from senior white men. She described how the senior white men belittled the work of students and more junior colleagues, how they kept making sexist, ableist and racist comments. This is one comment “I’m from London and London is just ripe for ethnic cleansing.” She described how people laughed and how the laughter filled the room.”  She commented on these comments, “These were the sort of things being aired.” Even the air is occupied.  She decided to complain because “she wanted it recorded, “and “the culture was being reproduced for new PhD students.” You have to record what you do not want to reproduce.

This is why I think of complaint as non-reproductive labour, the work you have to do to stop the reproduction of an inheritance, to stop the same things from happening.  She gathered statements from around twenty people in her department. A complaint can be a collective. A meeting is set up in response to her complaint.   At that meeting she was described by the head of human resources as “having a chip on her shoulder,” “they treated the submission as an act of arrogance on my part.” A grievance is heard as a grudge, a “we” turned into a me.  She added, “whenever you raise something, the response is that you are not one of them.” A complaint seems to amplify what makes you not fit, picking up what you are not.  A complainer becomes a stranger, a trespasser, a foreigner, not from here, not really from here, not. A stranger can be dismissed. She explains what happens, “it was all swept under the carpet and exactly the same things continued.”  When those who try to stop a culture from being reproduced are stopped, a culture is being reproduced. The disappearance of the complaint, and the complainer (she left the department), creates the impression that reproduction is smooth and seamless. But the complainers, we know what is under the carpet; how much gets brushed away to keep things as they are.

In sharing complaints, I am making complaints. I have thus come up against the exact same mechanisms I was describing, I have heard that sweep, sweep, that whoosh whoosh.  One time, I was about to give a lecture in a university, and I was sent a direct message on twitter. It was a warning that the person who had invited me, was using the invitation as a screen and that he himself had been the object of many complaints about sexual harassment. The message came to me just before the lecture. I went ahead with it, against my killjoy judgement, because I did not want to let people down, those who were coming to listen. After the lecture, there was a dinner. The professor began speaking to me, leaning on me, telling me how teaching was erotic, how students wanted to have sex with the professors, so what could they do. I felt the hand of a feminist colleague on my arm, not a disciplining hand, but a hand that said, I know you need to get out of here. I got out of there. I felt sick at how I had let myself be used like that.

Mind you, as a scholar of colour, I am used to being used by organizations.  We are often invited to speak to institutions of whiteness about diversity, because whatever we say, however critical we are, they know we will go away again, whoosh, whoosh.

Another time I gave a lecture that included a discussion of nodding as a non-performative, nodding as appearing to agree to something, nodding as a way of not bringing something into effect. The lecture was funded centrally so there were a number of senior managers in attendance. They were seated toward the front of the lecture theatre. Afterwards some students came up to me (thank you to all the students who come up to me!). They had been seated behind the senior managers. The students observed that the senior managers had been nodding throughout my lecture including nodding during my discussion of nodding as non-performative.  The students were at the tail end of a long and difficult complaint. And they told me that the management had enacted the same tactics that I was describing in the lecture. Nodding can be about recognising a problem insofar as the problem is safely construed as being somewhere else or as coming from someone else. If you can nod at the critique of nodding, then you can appear to recognise the problem of appearing to recognise a problem.

Our critiques of non-performative gestures can be received by non-performative gestures. A woman of colour I interviewed, described how white feminists would constantly refer to my work, claiming it, even the critiques of whiteness, as if they were not implicated in it. She joked “We can ask them to put on a non-performative badge. That’s you, we are talking about you!” Even then, they would probably nod, and not get it.  I appreciated reading, Helena Lui’s critique of this white feminist gesture: “Have you heard of Sara Ahmed? You’d love her!’ This laboured pronouncement from white scholars can feel like another violence. It is as though we, as women of color, are seen as one and the same. Professing their love for Ahmed is as though they are professing love to me, all while closing the door of academia in my face.”  An empty gesture, a laboured pronouncement.

We can be invited, cited, as individuals, but remember sometimes they find it hard to tell us apart, and still have doors shut upon us. They claim our work as a way of not doing the work. Another woman of colour who wrote to me about complaints and she and her colleagues had made. She said “There’s another man on my campus who has been the subject of complaint from women who has a “feminist killjoy” sign on his door. When one of the women he had harmed told him that seeing the sign on his door after everything he had done made her uncomfortable, he filed a civility complaint against her to the chair. I don’t know how any of this is possible.” I don’t know it is possible. But we need to know that it is possible.  I think of how feminist killjoy can end up as a sign on a door. Those who abuse the power can and do use the terms we have to critique that abuse of power, our terms becoming screens, assertions of their right to occupy time and space. We can say, you are doing this, appropriating the feminist killjoy for your own ends, and he might look over his shoulder, assuming you are talking about someone else, or if he does see himself, defend himself, so that we become uncivil, the problem for pointing out the problem, all over again.

It is not just that those of us who embody diversity end up on the door. Our critiques of diversity end up on the door. My book Complaint! could end up on that damn door, that funerary slab. Or it could end up in a complaint file. A student attended one of my lectures in which I had shared our stories of complaint. She wrote to me some time after,

One of the worst parts was the tribunal at the end, where we were cross-examined by my supervisor’s lawyer, without any guidelines in place to regulate what could be asked. This turned out badly for many reasons. However, what I thought might be of interest was that me and the other complainants were asked by the lawyer, suspiciously, if we read ‘feminist theory’(!) and specifically whether we’d attended your lecture xxx on complaint. The implication was that we’d somehow all got together after the lecture and workshop to plot a complaint, although the process had in fact begun far earlier. The university team had to collect other people’s tweets about your lecture and work to demonstrate that my tweet was not unusual.

Attendance at a lecture on complaint can be used as evidence against a complainant. We know it can because it was. We are learning the different ways complainers are made into strangers, trespassers, complaints as originating with outsiders, and not with those who are having to do the work because of what happened in the institutions in which they work. A complaint is used as evidence of a feminist plot. I can be a feminist plot. A lecture can be a feminist pot. A book can be. You can be. We can be.  Feminism is often treated as infection, what causes a complaint to spread. Yet doors are used to stop complaints from shared, to stop us knowing about each other, or learning from each other. It takes a political movement to open those doors. What is represented as an organic process is often dependent on political work. We have to organise because of what we come up against, and then we are dismissed because we organize. How we are dismissed is evidence of the work we need to do and why we are doing it.

 If it takes a political movement to open the doors, it takes a political movement to survive the consequences. We are that movement. When I think about why, why I did this research, that movement that comes to mind. Why is who, who I am writing to. I am writing to you, you know who you are, those who complain for a more just world.  Audre Lorde once said that for some “survival is not an academic skill.” For some surviving the academy is not an academic skill.  I think of the writing, that helped me survive the academy, to find my way through it, work by Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Aileen Moreton Robinson, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, bell hooks, thank you bell, Gloria Anzaldua, Avtar Brah, Gail Lewis, and many others. We have so many behind us, so many to carry with us, to what we need to do.  

We need to transform institutions to survive them. But we still need to survive the institutions we are trying to transform. I am writing to those for whom survival is a project. We end up having to push hard against institutions, to organise, to form collectives, because of how our complaints are stopped from getting out or how we are stopped from getting through. And those who do most of this kind of work are often those who are most precarious, the least supported. I wanted to thank you, acknowledge you, the work you do.  I still do.

Conclusion: Complaint Collectives

Earlier I suggested that opening the door is not completed by one action. We have to keep opening it, because of how it keeps getting shut. A shut door can be a wall.  When I think back to my experience of complaint, what was hardest about it, I think of silence.  Silence can be loud, when you know what is not being said. Silence can be a wall. I think how hard we had to work to try and get an acknowledgement by the universities of what was going on, all these enquires into sexual harassment that showed how sexual harassment had become normalised, part of the institutional culture. I think of our efforts over three years to try and get the university to acknowledge the problem of sexual harassment. We could not even get an acknowledgement in public that these enquiries had taken place. It was like they never happened, which was, I have no doubt, the effect they were looking for.  The first mention in public of these enquiries was a post on my blog shared just after my resignation. That it telling you something about why I resigned. The university treated my resignation and posts as a leak, making a mess, causing damage.  But, it was not just the university that treated my disclosure as damaging. A feminist colleague described my action as “unprofessional,” because it caused “a fall-out which damages us all now and in the future.”  We are learning what it means to be professional. To be professional is to be willing to keep the institution’s secrets, to keep a lid on it,  which in this case meant to keep the enquiries secret, what they revealed secret, the harassment, secret, how it was institutionalised, secret.

Silence is not just something enforced by management or marketing departments, silence can be performed as loyalty, turned into a duty by our own colleagues, including our feminist colleagues, silence to protect professors, silence to protect resources, silence as promotion, how you maximise your chances of going further or getting more from the institution. And if complaints get out, particularly if those complaints relate to the conduct of senior members of a university, that silence is converted very quickly into discourse, letters of defence, letters upon letters, defences of colleagues, defences of procedures, of departments, of disciplines, of universities.  Some of the most difficult material in this book is about collegiality, that warm and fuzzy zone of good relation, how collegiality is used to close the door on complaints and those who make them. One student described “they have each other’s backs.”

Backs can be doors. We are up against it. The more we come up against it, the more we need more.  The more we need more. When we launched the book, we assembled as a complaint collective. It was so important to gather as a collective, to bear witness to the labour of complaint, each other’s labour, our labour. I then had a series of conversations about the work of complaint with complaint activists, which mostly happened behind closed doors. Sometimes we use doors to shut the institution out. I think of the testimony shared with me by indigenous woman academic. She told me how she could hardly manage to get to campus after a sustained campaign of bullying and harassment from white faculty, including a concerted effort by a senior manager to sabotage her tenure case as well as the tenure cases of other indigenous academics. When you are harassed and bullied, when doors are closed, nay, slammed, making it hard to get anywhere, it can be history you are up against; thrown up against. Complaints can take us back further, further still, to histories that are still,

There is a genealogy of experience, a genealogy of consciousness in my body that is now at this stage traumatised beyond the capacity to go to the university. There’s a legacy, a genealogy and I haven’t really opened that door too widely as I have been so focused on my experience in the last 7 years.

To be traumatised is to hold a history in a body; you can be easily shattered. There is only so much you can take on because there is only so much you can take in. Earlier I used the expression “the door of consciousness,” to describe how we sometimes shut violence out, perhaps because it is too difficult to deal with, perhaps to hold onto something we fear losing, perhaps to focus or function. We can inherit closed doors, a trauma can be inherited by being made inaccessible, all that happened that was too hard, too painful to reveal.  Decolonial feminist work, Black feminist work; feminist of colour work is often about opening these doors; the door to what came before; colonial as well as patriarchal legacies; harassment as the hardening of that history, a history of who gets to do what; who is deemed entitled to what; who is deemed entitled to whom. A complaint can be necessary: what you have to do to go on. But you still have to work out what you can take on. She went on by taking them on,

I took everything off my door, my posters, my activism; my pamphlets. I smudged everything all around the building. I knew I was going to war; I did a war ritual in our tradition. I pulled down the curtain. I pulled on a mask, my people we have a mask…and I never opened my door for a year. I just let it be a crack. And only my students could come in. I would not let a single person come in to my office who I had not already invited there for a whole year.

Closing the door can be a survival strategy. She closes the door to the institution by withdrawing herself, her commitments, from it. She still does her work; she still teaches her students. She uses the door to shut out what she can, who she can.  She takes herself off the door; she depersonalises it. She pulls down the blinds. She pulls on a mask, the mask of her people, connecting her fight to the battles that came before, because, quite frankly, for her, this is a war.

This is a war. Our battles are not the same battles. But there are many battles happening behind closed doors. Behind closed doors: that is where complaints are often found, so that is where you might find us too, those of us for whom the institution is not built; and what we bring with us, who we bring us, the worlds that would not be here if some of us were not here, the data we have, our bodies, our memories, perhaps the more we have to spill, the tighter the hold. A door, a funerary slab, a filing cabinet. Sometimes, to get it out, the complaints, the data of them, in them, we have to be inventive. I learnt so much from the creativity of student led complaint activism. I think of all the different actions in the book – students who performed their complaints, who turned complaints into posters, or put them on leaflets or as expressed them as graffiti on walls. I think of how complaint can be how we find out about earlier complaints, how complaint can be a way of communicating in time. One researcher who complained about harassment and bullying from her married mentors received a secret letter in her post-box from someone who had complained about them earlier. I think of how a student who complained about the failure of her university to make reasonable accommodations finds documents on a fax machine, about earlier cases about other students. She speculates that a secretary had released those documents, an act of sabotage, an act of solidarity.

We meet in an action without meeting in person. I think of the lecturer who described her complaint as a little bird scratching away at something. She resigned and turned her resignation letter into a performance, “I wrote a two-page letter and it was really important to me to put everything in there that I felt so that it was down on paper. I asked for a meeting with the Dean. I read the letter out in a performative kind of way just to have some kind of event.” She gets it down on paper. She performs it.  She still wanted to do more: “I just thought I am not the kind of person who would put my resignation letter on the wall, but I just wonder what it is that made me feel that I am not that kind of person because inside I am that kind of person, I just couldn’t quite get it out.” That is what complaints are about; how we help each other get it out, how we get our letters on the wall.  The year after I left, students put words from my work on the wall.

Yes, they were taken down. But they cannot stop them from having been there.

I think of the when of complaint, also where, also why, I think of how our complaints have many lives, after-lives, and how complaint collectives do not always assemble in the same time or place. The academic who described her complaint as a little bird scratching away at something, came to a lecture in which I shared her testimony. She wrote to me, “it was only after the lecture that I realised how undignified these complaint processes are, and how yes, my dignity was stripped. In my dealings with the union, they had advised me at the time that my dignity at work had been breached, but that word did little then for me, as it felt like another procedural piece of jargon – but when I felt a swell of pride at the lecture, indeed, when I felt a sense of dignity about it all, I realised that this must have been somewhat lost.” Words can lose meaning, doing little for us, becoming empty. In forming complaint collectives, we find that the words make sense, or change sense, in time. We reclaim them, yes, our dignity was breached, yes, that is not how it should be, not for us, not for anyone. If we lost something of ourselves in the work, we find ourselves there too, also each other, however weary, however worn, we said no, we had a go. Little bird, scratching away, what you left behind, others can find, scratches, dents in the wall, our names, our words, our work. Complaint can feel like a lot of work not to accomplish very much. Only so much can matter so much. Only so much can be more than you know. Thank you.

(1). I gave two slightly different versions of “After Complaint” as virtual public lectures in 2022. It was challenging and emotional to give this lecture and I have decided to share it now in written form rather the present it again. This is a modified version for my blog.

 

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Gender Critical = Gender Conservative

Content Warning: The following post includes a discussion of transphobia and transmisogyny.

How has gender become a map of a moment? Why do so many movements present themselves as against gender? In a recent article, Judith Butler shows how the difficulty of giving an account of the anti-gender movement tells us something about how that movement works: “Anti-gender movement mobilizes a range of rhetorical strategies from across the political spectrum to maximize the fear of infiltration and destruction that comes from a diverse set of economic and social forces. It does not strive for consistency, for its incoherence is part of its power.” Butler’s article is primarily about the uses of a range of rhetorical strategies by authoritarian regimes. They show how the term “gender” ends up being treated as a “foreign invasion” and how fields of academic inquiry including gender studies, queer theory, and critical race theory, have come to be represented as “destructive forces” that threaten the breakdown of social institutions, including marriage, the family, the nation, civilization, “even man himself.”

Many feminist scholars are writing about the mobilization of anti-gender rhetoric across the globe. Butler is thus participating in a wider feminist conversation that is urgent and necessary because the states are so high.[1] As Butler articulates, the “principal aim of the movement is to reverse progressive legislation won in the last decades by both LGBTQI and feminist movements.”  In this account of the anti-gender movement, Butler does not reference in the large part what has become known as “gender critical” feminism. In the conclusion, however, Butler suggests that “it makes no sense for ‘gender critical’ feminists’ to ally with reactionary powers in targeting trans, non-binary, and genderqueer people.” They then lodge an invitation or an appeal, “Let’s all get truly critical now, for this is no time for any of the targets of this movement to be turning against one another. The time for anti-fascist solidarity is now.” In this article, Butler does not call “gender critical feminists” fascists but invites them not to be in alliance with fascism by making trans, non-binary and genderqueer people their target.

Butler’s invitation is also, perhaps, a provocation. It is, admittedly, rather hard to read Butler’s article and not to notice how many of the rhetorical strategies used by gender critical feminists, with all their inconsistencies, are similar (and, in some instances, even the same) as those used by fascist or authoritarian regimes, again, with all their inconsistencies. Did gender critical feminist readers notice their own arguments in Butler’s picture of the anti-gender movement?  If “gender critical” feminists saw themselves in the picture being drawn, Butler’s invitation might have also functioned as a mirror. The point might be then that “gender critical feminists” in seeing themselves reflected in this piece, did not like what they saw. That, in itself, is rather promising. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, dismissals of Butler’s article followed very quickly. One “gender critical” feminist tweeted, “I just think it would help everyone if someone sat down with Judith Butler and patiently explained what gender is.” Another “gender critical” ally tweeted, “it reads as though Butler has just started looking into these issues and is mostly relying on twitter and Tumblr.” One way of not confronting what you see when you don’t like what you see, of not learning from a reflection the need for self-reflection, is to smash the mirror.

It is hard not to read these tweets and laugh. Butler has over decades given so many of us, within and beyond the academy, vital critical tools to make sense of the complexity of our gendered and social lives. Perhaps we do need to laugh. The laughter is also a groan because the voices of “gender critical” feminists have been so amplified by the mainstream media that there are now so many distortions that it would be hard for someone new to feminism to see clearly what is going on. Many “gender critical” feminists are themselves highly critical of who they call “academic feminists” including those of us who have been part of the development and consolidation of Women and Gender Studies programmes in the UK. One “gender critical feminist” made a joke at a Women’s Place Conference, that most academic feminists are not academics and not feminists. You could hear the hum of agreement in the audience. The dismissal is not surprising; Gender Studies programmes tend to be shaped by work in Queer Studies and Trans Studies although there is much more work to be done so that theorisations of sex and gender from Transgender Studies are not added on to Gender Studies but worked from. Throughout this post, I place “gender critical” in quotation marks as most of the most critical work on sex and gender within the academy is happening in the very spaces, Gender Studies, Queer Studies and Transgender Studies, many “gender critical” feminists oppose.

I am grateful to have spent so much of my career as an academic feminist (or probably to be more accurate a feminist academic) and by this I am not just referenced the years I spent as a lecturer in Women and Gender Studies, or the time I dedicated with feminist colleagues to developing new equality policies or to finding new ways to confront old problems of harassment and bullying in universities. I am referring to the fact that I have been systematically engaged in reading feminist literatures since I took my first feminist course in Women’s Writing in 1988. When you dedicate your life to feminism, you acquire many resources. Butler in appealing to us to participate in anti-fascist solidarity is making use of these resources. If we follow Butler’s lead, we can hear that there is more to the invitation. Butler is calling to feminists not to make trans, non-binary and gender queer people their target as this would amount to “targets of this movement” in effect “turning against each other.” To turn against each other would be to turn against ourselves. Butler is encouraging us to witness in the urgency of these times that the movement “against gender” is an anti-feminist movement.

In this post, my task is modest. I want to show how and why “gender critical” feminism becomes, or can be understood as, a gender conservative movement. If feminism gives us the resources to challenge anti-feminism, then feminism gives us the resources to challenge “gender critical feminism,” to hold up that mirror and to show its reflection. In my new project on common sense, I hope to show how gender conservative feminisms are part of the not-so-new conservative common sense, which has reweaponised “reality” as a “war against the woke,” that is, as an effort to restore racial as well as gendered hierarchies by demonizing those who question them.[2]   I will also show how much of the harassment enacted by “gender critical” feminists is made invisible by appearing to take the form of opening a debate.

When you enter the gender critical world as a feminist who is not used to being in that world, it is deeply disorientating. Let’s take the social media world. In this post, I am going to quote from tweets, which will appear as italicised sentences (I will later quote from academic articles and trade books).[3] You enter, and you will encounter twitter handles with purple and green, the suffragette colours. On the same handles, you will find utterances like, Sex not Gender or Sex is Real. You might see statements like, I stand with, and the name of such and such person who has been targeted apparently for saying something like, Sex is real. You will encounter words like adult human female, or natal woman, or even biological woman. You will encounter claims that you know have been central to patriarchal logics, for instance, women are oppressed because of their biology.

How to make sense of this?

It is hard to make sense of this.

We know that feminists have disagreed about how to understand sex and gender as social categories; we inherit them, we did not invent them. We know that part of the work of feminism is to contest that inheritance. Even the “sex-gender distinction” was not invented by feminists; it was introduced to feminism by the work of sexologists such as John Money. [4] If you are a reader of feminist literature, you will know that many feminists have problematised that distinction, precisely because of how it placed “sex” outside of history. Take for instance the work of Ann Oakley. Her classic, Sex, Gender and Society certainly made use of the sex-gender distinction, drawing on the work of Robert Stoller, with sex referring to biological differences, visible difference of genitalia, difference in procreative function and gender referring to “a matter of culture” and the social classification of people into “masculine” and “feminine”’ (16). However, in Oakley’s later work, she offers a strong critique of this same distinction. In “A Brief History of Gender,” Oakley writes: “the distinction between sex and gender does not call into question how society constructs the natural body itself” and “sex is no more natural than gender given that our speaking of both is mediated by our existence as social beings” (30). Or we could think of the work of historical materialist Christine Delphy who argues that “gender precedes sex.” She writes: “we have continued to think of gender in terms of sex: to see it as a social dichotomy determined by a natural dichotomy” (1993, 3). [5] Whatever we think of the feminist critique of the sex-gender distinction, most feminists will know that the categories with which we organise our lives, how we refer to our bodies and ourselves, are not neutral; the terms we use to describe ourselves, are implicated in the worlds we are questioning, which is why such descriptions are provisional as well as political.

So, why are these terms being used not only as if they are simple descriptions but as if that very usage has something to do with feminism? If the “gender critical” feminist landscape is littered with phrases like sex is real, sex not gender, we need to ask what they are doing. Let’s call them catch phrases, words or expressions that are used repeatedly and conveniently to represent or characterize a person, group, idea, or point of view. These phrases are a way of signalling an allegiance to a political movement that has its primarily velocity, it seems, in a virtual space. They are relatively new ways of using old terms. Nevertheless, despite being relatively new, to encounter these phrases is to be given a snap shot of a history. To start to try and make sense of them by starting with them, would be like turning up in the middle of a conversation, hearing a reaction, and not knowing what came before that provoked a reaction. And yet, many use these phrases as if the point of them is whether or not we can say them. They are turned into stories. Force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real?  But it (and with it, the term cisgender) can’t be forced on to women like me who regard questioning gender roles, while advocating on behalf of our sex, as the whole point of feminism. You might feel an outage, as well as disbelief that this is the case: we can’t even say sex is real! That phrase when used in the way is doing what it is designed to do, provoke outrage. And the outrage is how a story is carried forward, acquiring momentum. The statement that people have been forced out of the jobs for saying that sex is real is not only false (if you look at any specific instance, that is not why people are forced out of jobs, the sentence cannot be detached from a wider context), but by circulating, it acquires substance, an impression of being true achieved by virtue of its repetition. Sex is real has become a catch phrase in recent times (just like sex-based rights became a catch phrase in recent times – a quick search of the internet shows that it only began to be regularly used by feminists in 2018). Sex is real is an assertion within a horizon of assertions. Sex is real. Sex is material. Sex is immutable. Sex is biology. Sex is objective. Sex is science. With these assertation about what sex is, come counter-implications about what gender is not. Gender is not real. Gender is immaterial. Gender is subjective. Gender is stereotypes. Gender is ideology.

We learn about terms from what they are used to do; a story is being told in certain terms for a reason. The feminist mantra becomes sex not gender because of who is associated with gender. Judith Butler has taught us that the incoherence of the arguments of anti-gender movements are doing something. The more arguments against something are incoherent, the more what they are against becomes vague. And the vaguer the target, the more are caught up by it:  gender identity, the idea of gender, teaching gender, gender studies, trans people are not only collapsed into each other, but in being so, become all the more menacing. Another way of putting this, would be to say that the term gender has become sticky; the more gender moves around, the more are stuck to it.[5] If trans people are associated with gender, and gender is treated as immaterial, trans people or trans identities become immaterial. All you need to put on your handle is Sex is Real to indicate an attachment or an allegiance to a series of positions that do not have to be made explicit: being trans is ideology not science, feeling not fact, immaterial not material, subjective not objective.   The terms themselves can end up doing this work of de-legitimating or “de-realising” trans people.  This can be done in more or less subtle ways. When a “gender critical” feminist network was set up, it was described as being concerned with “how sexed bodies matter,” and with critiquing “constraining stereotypes of gender.” Once we have learnt what sex and gender have been routinely used to do, who they have become associated and not associated with, we can understand what is going on here. But it won’t be obvious to some what is going on here. One of our tasks is to try and make it more obvious.

It is not only that the terms “sex” and “gender” are being used to de-realise and de-legitimate trans people, but the project of trans inclusion can be framed as feminist exclusion, as if trans people are replacing us by replacing our terms with theirs. “If we replace ‘sex’ with ‘gender’ as a way of thinking about ourselves, it will be harder to tackle sex-based oppression.” So, the implicit story is that if we accept trans people, sex will be replaced, or even women will be replaced or we will lose the terms we need to talk about our history. A phrase can bring with it a history of associations. “If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased.” Firstly, the sentence implies that such and such people are saying sex is not real. I don’t know anyone who would say sex is not real although I know most feminists are aware, to borrow the title of an important book by Marilyn Frye of “the politics of reality,” and that what is real, at least when we are talking about how human beings organise and understand ourselves, is complex and mediated. We will return to this. But let’s interrogate firstly the claim that unless sex is real, we cannot talk about women globally.

There are many feminists who have challenged this very idea that we can talk about “the lived reality” of “women globally.” I want to stress here that these challenges are not new. Anyone who knows feminist history, will know that even the category of “women” has always been contested by feminists; it has rarely been what brought us together.  That the category of women has been so contested has something to do with what the category of sex brings with it (although there is more to it).

Some had to insist that they were women. We can think of Sojourner Truth, speaking as a Black woman and former slave, at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851 saying, “Ain’t I a Woman?” As Angela Davis notes, Truth in her speech referred to the strength of her own body, her labouring body, to challenge the “weaker sex” arguments made against the suffragettes (1981, 61, see also hooks 1987).

Some had to insist they were not women. We can think of Monique Wittig, speaking as a lesbian feminist to the Modern Language Association conference in New York in 1978, saying “lesbians are not women.” This audacious claim was necessary for Wittig to show how the very category of “women” has historically functioned as a heterosexual injunction, how “women” came to exist, or was required to exist, in relation to men. [6] 

The fact that a single term “sex” does not bring us all together might even have been the reason we enter in conversations with each other to work out what we have in common, however we come to define ourselves. Although there are many different viewpoints within feminism about the status of categories like sex and gender, critiques of the very idea of biological sex have been consistently made. Black feminists, for instance, have challenged not only the category of “women,” but also the naturalness of sex and gender. As Che Gossett powerfully summarises, “from the Combahee River Collective (a collective of Black feminists meeting since 1974) and its critique of biological essentialism as a “dangerous and reactionary basis upon which to build a politic” to trans genealogies of Black feminism — Black feminism as always already trans — many writers have problematized and troubled the categories of binary gender and of binary, medically assigned sex.”  Even feminist traditions assumed to be untroubled by the category of sex such as radical feminism have in fact been so. Andrea Dworkin’s Woman Hating, for instance, offers a radical feminist challenge to what she calls “the traditional biology of sexual difference” based on “two discrete biological sexes” (1972: 181, 186).

I will return to this critical feminist history of questioning the category of sex as it will help me to explain how critiquing gender but not sex leads in the direction of gender conservatism. To point to this feminist history is to get in the way of the story being told as a story of the erasure of sex. In fact, it is this critical feminist history that has to be erased in order to tell the story as a story of the erasure of sex.

The claim that sex has been erased is not only endlessly repeated and given a cause (queer theory, trans ideology, trans people, gender queer people, non binary people, people with blue hair, snowflake students; yes, the more there are, the more of a menace), but is often the basis of another even stronger claim of prohibition. The story goes something like this: we have to say sex is real, because gender (that fiction, that feeling, that ideology) has been imposed upon us, which means we are not being allowed to talk about sex or to talk about women (the slide, to make this point again, matters, the story being told is that women would disappear if sex is not material or if biological sex is not immutable). A claim to prohibition also involves a claim that somebody is being prohibited by somebody: so, the story goes, it is because such and such group has an agenda that we are not allowed to talk about what we want or need to talk about. Historically, feminists have often been positioned as those who are imposing restrictions upon others because they have an agenda or because that’s their agenda (we can’t call women darling! We have to say Ms! We can’t use men to describe everyone!). In fact, anyone involved in trying to challenge norms and conventions to enable them to be more accommodating, we will know how quickly you will be judged as imposing restrictions on the freedom of others. A norm is a restriction that can feel like freedom to those it enables. To challenge a norm is thus almost always treated as restricting other people’s freedoms.

It is not only a bitter irony that tactics so often used against feminists are being used against trans people by “gender critical” feminists. It is telling us something about “gender critical” feminists that they are willing to use these tactics. Why has sex has become a tactic, not just a position but a project? By using sex as if sex was natural, material, and gender as if it was not, some people become “not,” not natural, immaterial, not real even, unreal.  Danger can be located in the “not.” When sex is used tactically, turned into a project, trans people are treated not only as not natural, as immaterial, but as being powerful and dangerous.

In my own work, I have focused a lot on stranger danger, how some bodies become “matter out of place,” and how danger (and violence) is located in those who are deemed not to belong. Stranger danger is about how danger is located in the outsider.[7] I have focused primarily on racism. Stranger danger often works by making violence intrinsic or expressive of a group (so if someone from a Muslim background commits violence, this violence becomes expressive of Islam).  Stranger danger is a well-oiled machine: it works so well from being used so often.[8] Much transphobic harassment works through the logics of stranger danger: trans people are positioned as strangers not only as “out of place,” but as threatening those who are “in place.” Just think about the use of terms like “gender extremism,” which work to creating a menace, a vague sense of menace, borrowing perhaps from racializing discourses (extremism as a term always tends to stick to some bodies more than others).  Note the common use of terms like “the trans lobby,” or even “the trans Taliban” to imply a powerful agent that is behind this or that action. Transphobia does not mean that a necessarily person feels personal animosity towards, or fear of, trans people. They may or may not: that is not the point. Transphobia describes the process whereby trans people are constructed as dangerous, as those who are to-be-feared. If stranger danger works to locate danger in those deemed outsiders, often by inflating the power of those whose exclusion is deemed necessary, it also creates the figure of the endangered, most often a child. Contemporary transphobia works to suggest or imply that trans people are endangering children (One headline reads, Are you transphobic? Me neither, we’re just worried about our children).

Stranger danger also creates a line, a boundary, between inside and outside that is seen as necessary for protection. This is how some can be judged as imposing on others; sometime by virtue of existing in the way they do. A category too can be assumed to be closed; a door can be used to close the category “woman,” for instance. It is important to add that closures however much they are justified as natural or necessary still depend upon actions; the creation of new terms if the old ones are being drawn in a way that includes those you don’t want to include (woman becomes adult human female). This is how opening a debate in certain terms can be how some are shut out. Of course, we should not enter a debate in those terms.

Gender too can be turned into a stranger (yes, a category of thought can be treated as a stranger), framed as an imposition on nature or biological reality (women become natal women).  Part of the transformation of gender into the stranger, is the treatment of sex, often biological sex, as nature or as natal or even as native as if these categories are not themselves product of labour, as if we do not have a hand in making and shaping them [9] When the category of gender becomes a stranger, those who are assumed to rely on a category for their existence become strangers too.  A category is turned into a conspiracy. As case in point would be how the group LGB Alliance finds the use of “gender” by Stonewall, for instance, as evidence of a conspiracy to erase sex and with it same-sex attraction. So, if people talk about being attracted to people of the “same gender,” that can then be read as a conspiracy to force lesbians to have sex with trans women (who are really “biological men”). It is hard to imagine that anyone concerned with equality and social justice can take such viewpoints as evidence of anything but bigotry. But they can and do, they even publish newspaper articles based on them.

The distinction between sex and gender, remember, has only been made relatively recently. It is a line we sometimes draw for convenience. It is a line that some feminists have used and other feminists have challenged (some of these feminists are the same feminists). In the UK, in the law, sex and gender tend to be used interchangeably. If a person who has the protected characteristic of gender reassignment (to use the terms from then 2010 Equality Act), then they have changed sex.  To follow words is to learn from them. Gender is often used rather than sex in ordinary discourse. I remember when I first came out as a lesbian in 2001, a member of my wider family using that term “same gender.” He said, “so what, you fell in love with someone of the same gender.”  In fact, it is hard not to notice how gender is sometimes used rather than sex on equal opportunities forms to refer to “men” and “women.” My own suspicion that people often use “gender” as a kind of polite way of not talking about sex, which evokes bodies and desires in a way that gender does not. I think in everyday life, many use sex and gender vaguely. And they may do so because sex and gender are vague, which is why any attempt to be clear about what they are, to create a line, takes us further away from everyday use.  The idea that gender is being imposed by trans activists is not just plain wrong (a mistake that is easily evidenced by following the word across space and through time), it is strategic. It allows the figure of the “trans extremist,” to circulate as those who are imposing that restriction.  In other words, the idea that gender is being forced upon us by a trans lobby is repeated because it allows the fight for equality for trans people to be framed as the formation of an industry. It allows trans people to be positioned as holding or wielding a power they do not have.

There is no clearer evidence of transphobia than the use of terms like “trans extremist” or “trans lobby.”[10] Of course, if you even use terms such as transphobia to describe these discursive mechanisms you will be judged as trying to impose a restriction on free speech, to return to an earlier point. There is another point I want to make here. I have already noted that words like “extremism” stick to some more than others. Remember: the vaguer the target the more can be caught by it. A stick becomes a slide. The trans extremist becomes the gender identity extremist. The gender identity extremist’s do not seek trans equality, the public are onboard with equality for all. The master manipulation has been to turn it into a trans supremecy [sic]. A propaganda machine together with institutional capture has rendered it dangerous to speak of reality. And then the gender identity extremist becomes the gender extremist. The pressure is so severe in gender extremist circles that using sex-based pronouns is considered hateful and treated as a hate incident. People who announce their pronouns are pandering to this extremism. The term “gender” itself comes to carry the implication of extremism without the need to use the word extremist. Indeed, making gender itself extreme can be linked to how gender is made immaterial and even then, can be the basis of a call to stop trans people from existing at all. So, a “gender critical” feminist at the recent LGB Alliance conference objected to the use of the term “gender extremist” because she said the term implied being trans was not, in itself, an extremist position. For her, it is extremist to say that trans people exist. For her, trans people do not exist. She said this. When she this, she was applauded by the audience.  We need to hear the violence of that applause. “Gender critical” feminism, however diverse and incoherent, gives this kind of hate speech somewhere to go.

The speech acts that are represented as the most prohibited are often the most promoted; this is true of racism as well as transphobia. To say, sex is real or the stronger statement I am not allowed to sex is real, or I was targeted for saying sex is real, and you will end up being a platform; the more you say it, the more platforms you will be given. You will not only be promoted and platformed, you will be protected, with that protection usually taking the form of a defence of free speech or academic freedom. In other words the prohibited is incited. And those who understandably feel unsafe or harmed by these views, not only from how they are expressed but how they are incited, will typically have their concerns disregarded as immaterial.

This is how seemingly simple utterances like Sex is Real or Sex Not Gender can be snap shots of a longer history, a violent history, a history of how some people are made dangerous, or how some people are made to disappear.[11] To participate in this discursive regime, to use those catch phrases, to position yourself as being silenced because of that use, is to be involved in a project that is making it harder for trans people, non-binary people, gender queer and gender non-conforming people, to survive on their own terms.  It is to be involved in a project that contradicts the aspiration for trans, queer and feminist liberation from coercive sex-gender regimes. Yes, I say trans, queer and feminist liberation because our liberations point in the same direction.

I noted earlier that the terms that have been questioned by feminists can only be elevated into catchphrases, as if they embody truths, by erasing so much of a more critical feminist history.  In other words, the project of removing trans people from feminism has ended up removing feminism, too. Let’s return to Andrea Dworkin’s radical feminist critique of the biology of sexual difference. She expands further: “Hormone and chromosome research, attempts to develop new means of human reproduction (life created in, or considerably supported by, the scientist’s laboratory), work with transsexuals, and studies of formation of gender identity in children provide basic information which challenges the notion that there are two discrete biological sexes. That information threatens to transform the traditional biology of sex difference into the radical biology of sex similarity. That is not to say that there is one sex, but that there are many. The evidence which is germane here is simple. The words ‘male’ and ‘female,’ ‘man” and ‘woman,’ are used only because as yet there are no others” (175-6). Dworkin argued that a transsexual in a culture of “male-female discreteness” is in “a state of emergency,” and stated that transsexuals should have access to hormones and surgery because they have a “right to survival on his or her own terms” (176). If Dworkin did imagine that transsexuals might disappear in some projected future, this was only in the context of her view that discrete sexes would also disappear. Whatever we think of her androgynous solution, we learn from Dworkin that radical feminism, a feminism that is feminist at root, must have a radical model of sex and biology.

I think again of Dworkin’s emphasis on survival, on the right of trans people to survive on their own terms. I think of Audre Lorde’s words (1978, 31): “Some of us were never meant to survive.” Audre Lorde (1984, 112) also suggests that “those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women” know that survival “is not an academic skill.” Perhaps if those “outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women,” those who have to fight for survival, were those whose theories of sex and gender mattered, who were being heard for how they were interrogating the terms, questioning what was acceptable, we would not be here, having to do this, having to say this.

Survival within a coercive sex-gender system can be an ambitious project for some people, including trans people as well as queer people. So much of our politics  derives from what we need to do to survive a system that is not intended for us. Perhaps to survive a system we have to dismantle it, the master’s house, to borrow again from Audre Lorde, to chip away at its foundations. We can begin to understand why gender critical feminism ends up as gender conservative and indeed as socially conservative, not dismantling the master’s house, but becoming his tool. If gender creates the effect of two discrete biological sexes, to make sex into a cause would be to reproduce the system we are trying to dismantle. In other words, to critique gender but leave “sex” in place, or treat “sex” as if it was outside of a man-made history, would be to preserve the system by turning its effect into our cause. To argue that spaces should be for different “sexes” is, in other words, is to replicate a sex-gender system. When “sex” is enlisted to do things, “sex” is organising rather than originating. To use “sex” as if it is the origin of the organisation is to disguise the organisation; and that, too, is how the sex-gender system works.  And this is how as soon as sex is treated as outside of history, gender norms, somatic norms, this is how women are, men are, who they are, what they are, will be exercised and made to disappear. And this is why we are now witnessing increasingly conservative judgements about women and men in terms of what they are like or how they appear being made in the name of feminism.

These judgements are organized around the assumption that you can always tell the difference between men and women by how they appear.  Here are some quotes from trade books by “gender critical” feminists. “Human beings generally, including children, have the capacity to pick out the biological sex of others from visual appearances alone, most of the time. The capacity to correctly sex other people most of the time is grounded in a cognitive heuristic, and obviously not infallible.” This is very old-fashioned and simplistic understanding of the nature of social perception, which does not seem to be informed by any engagement with the critical or feminist literature. The author then writes, “it is disingenuous of our critics to suggest that the only means humans have of identifying other people’s sex is by the ‘checking of genitalia’, and that this is what is needed to maintain sex-separated spaces. If this were true, dating would never get off the ground (and neither would sexism).” I can’t quite believe that somebody could claim that sexism would not “get off the ground” unless you could see the difference between women and men. Feminists have shown how sexism is about the consolidation of that very distinction. The stability of perception points not to nature but to history. Ideology is history turned into nature.

Another writer describes the ability to judge the sex of another person as “exquisite,” a word that suggests not just precision but beauty. These are the author’s exact words, “Since evolution has equipped humans with the ability to recognize other people’s sex, almost instantaneously and with exquisite accuracy, very few trans people ‘pass’ as their desired sex. And so to see them as that sex, everyone else must discount what their senses are telling them.” This is like reading a bad version of evolutionary psychology (are there other versions? probably not). Feminism is a pedagogy of the senses: we learn just how our senses are trained, what are senses our telling us, from our political effort to unlearn them. Those who appear to confound the senses, to create confusion (are you a boy or a girl, who are you, what are you?) are those who fail to reproduce a history. Queer and trans feminisms find in that failure, a revolutionary potential. We learn not to make assumptions. We ask each other how to address each other –to ask not to assume is not only kind but key to our liberation. To be not at home in a word or a world is not only how we come to know that word or world, it is how we open up other possibilities for arranging ourselves and our worlds differently.[12]

When we treat sex as natural, we don’t see the norms through which we see the world, including other bodies with whom we share a world. [13] That’s how norms work, by not appearing as norms.[14] So much violence follows the norms we do not see, which also means there is so much violence we do not see. So many bodies, our bodies, will end up appearing wrong, strange, odd, out of place, because they do not line up.  Many cis women as well as trans women have been told they are out of line; told they have entered the wrong room; told they are not really women because of how they do or do not appear.  Of course, much of the violence I am describing here is a product of the sex-gender system. This is why the feminist project is to challenge that system.  Instead, some “gender critical” feminists have justified the violence against those who are gender non-conforming as necessary to protect women. They write, “Given the occasional fallibility of our capacity to sex others, arguing for same-sex spaces for females, such as bathrooms, dormitories, and changing rooms, means that sometimes, females in those spaces will be missexed; and sometimes, males in those spaces will not be perceived as such. We see the former as a regrettable cost that has to be balanced against, and is nonetheless smaller than, the greater harms to females, should women-only space effectively become unisex via a policy of self-ID.” The argument for “same-sex spaces” requires those who use facilities to be become the police. To enforce the boundary of same sex spaces is then to enforce the boundary of womanhood. Sarah Franklin has usefully described “gender critical” feminists as “feminist Brexiteers.” She writes:

Promising to protect the sanctity of the female toilet as the guarantor of gendered justice is, like the Brexiteer’s promise to save the United Kingdom from economic ruin, a symptom of reactionary panic and confusion. It is not a remotely credible promise, but an embittered form of nostalgia driven by myopic indignation. Like the Brexit leaders who promised to ‘take back control’ of the nation’s borders, feminism’s Brexiteers promising to rescue true womanhood are using gender as a proxy for a past they imagine they have lost, an identity they feel is threatened, and a battle in which they see themselves as both victims and as visionaries.

Like all nostalgia, the nostalgia of “gender critical” feminism misses the point, what they want to return to, did not exist in the way being imagined. It is nostalgia for a lost object that can give the impression that the object was real. A nostalgia for what is lost can turn quickly into a promise of protection. There is a connection, then, between that promise of returning a lost object, policing and violence. Protection is often justified as protecting women from violence. For many women, protection is violence. Violence against gender non-conforming women, cis or trans, is deemed a cost of a system of policing that is presumed to follow from biological sex. And note as well how the regrettable cost sends a message to those who bear that cost, who are stopped, questioned, and harassed. Perhaps you are also being told, that if you don’t want to be in harm’s way, you should change your ways, that if you don’t want to be questioned about your right to be in a women’s space or facility, you should try to appear more like women are meant to appear. This is an argument for gender normativity even if it is not put in those terms, a claim that it would be safer and thus better for girls to be girls (and for us to be able to tell that the girls are girls) and boys to be boys (and for us to be able to tell that the boys are boys).

One “gender critical” scholar cites in her book a blog that suggests that preferred pronouns are like a date drug. The suggestion is that if those who do not conform to a narrow idea of how women appear asked to be addressed as “she,” then this is confusing to the senses, making other women’s reactions sluggish. The writer of the blog suggests trans women intentionally use that sensory confusion to take advantage of cis women. The stereotype of the trans woman as sexual predator is a deeply disturbing and explicit form of transmisogyny. I suspect some “gender critical” feminists would not go along with it. But that association between trans women with danger to cis women can be preserved without using this stereotype – and can even be preserved by appearing to challenge it. Although the book author does not go along with blog author’s assumption that trans women are sexual predators (she even describes it as fearmongering), she still cites the blog as a credible source thus lending it credibility as source. And she still preserves the core assumption of the blog that compliance with preferred pronouns would be dangerous for women. The cognitive disadvantage for those who try and comply with pronouns will be the same. When talking about “cognitive disadvantage” she is talking about physical danger. Something that slows down the cognitive processes of women in relation to potential aggressors may turn out to have very serious ramifications for them. Note the danger here is implied to follow from compliance, by complying with preferred pronouns (pushed by “trans activism” to use the term used by this author in the same paragraph), women will be at a disadvantage, suffering very serious ramifications for their health, safety or well-being.

This association of compliance with preferred pronouns and danger suggests that safety depends upon clarity, that bodies need to line up, or be accurately sexed. Those who are not clearly men or women, who do appear how “he” or “she” should appear, are in other words, dangerous. Any demand that people clearly be men or women, let us be clear, is the patriarchal world view. But from the view that sex is material, that biological sex is immutable, comes a requirement that bodies line up, to appear as men or women. Biological sex is used to create a social line, that we have the right, even moral duty, to enforce. Any costs become regrettable. In such a world view, deviation is seen as dangerous, even deadly. This is how, by treating the idea of two distinct biological sexes not as the product of the sex-gender system, but as before it and beyond it, “gender critical” feminists tighten rather than loosen the hold of that system on our bodies. To breathe in feminism we have to loosen this hold.

References

Beauvoir, Simone de (1997). The Second Sex, trans. by H.M.Parshley. London: Vintage Books.

Butler, Judith (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Davis, Angela (1983). Women, Race and Class.  New York: Ballantine Books.

Delphy, Christine (1993). “Rethinking Sex and Gender,” Women’s Studies International Forum, 16, 1: 1-9.

Dworkin, Andrea (1972). Woman  Hating. New York: E.P.Dutton.

Franklin, Sarah. 2001. “Biologization Revisited: Kinship Theory in the Context of the new Biologies,” in Sarah Franklin and Susan McKinnon eds,  Relative Values: Reconfiguring Kinship Studies. Durham: Duke University Press.

Franklin, Sarah (forthcoming). “Gender as a Proxy: Diagnosing and Resisting Carceral Genderisms,” European Journal of Women’s Studies,

Germon, Jennifer (2009). Gender: A Genealogy of an Idea. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

hooks, bell. 1987. Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism. Pluto Press.

Lorde, Audre. 1978. Black Unicorn. New York: Norton.

Lorde, Audre. 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press.

Oakley, Ann (1972). Sex, Gender and Society. Maurice Temple Smith.

Oakley, Ann (1997).  “A Brief History of Gender,” in A. Oakley and J. Mitchell (eds) Who’s afraid of feminism?, London: Hamish Hamilton; New York, NY: The New Press.

Spade, Dean (2006). “Gender Mutilation,” in Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle (eds).  The Transgender Studies Reader. London: Routledge. pp.315-332.

Stone, Sandy (2006). “The Empire Strikes Back: A PostTransexual  Manifesto,” in Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle (eds). The Transgender Studies Reader. London: Routledge.

Young, Iris Marion (1990). Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays. Bloomington Indiana University Press.

Wilchin, Rikki (2014). Queer Theory, Gender Theory. Riverdale Avenue Books.

Wittig, Monique (1992). The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon Press.

[1] See for example the very helpful series of blog posts by LSE Gender Studies, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/gender/tag/anti-gender-politics/.

[2] A contribution to the book produced by the Conservative Common-Sense Group discusses attacks on Britain as attacks “not in a physical sense, but in a philosophical, ideological and historical sense.” In addition to how immigration has rendered people feeling like strangers in their own country, or how activists are challenging how British history is narrated, there are vague references to the gender agenda. Words that have been universally understood for millennia, such as ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are now emotionally charged and dangerous. The fictions of binary sex and racial purity exist in close proximity, which is also how policing the borders of sex can be about policing the borders of the nation. See Franklin (forthcoming) for a discussion of how anti-gender feminism can be understood as feminism’s Brexit.

[3] For an explanation of my citation policy please see my earlier post, Killjoy Commitments. I am not citing individual authors by name as I have no wish to enter into a dialogue with “gender critical” feminists. I am just offering instead a diagnostic of how the effort to exclude trans people from feminism (and with it from the many public services that trans people, especially trans women, may need to survive) has led to the contradiction of core feminist principles. I know from experience that “gender critical” feminists if they read this, will caricature and dismiss my work. That is of no concern to me.

[4] For a discussion of how the “sex-gender” distinction was imported into Gender Studies (via the work of John Money on intersex communities) see Jennifer Gorman (2007). Gorman also explores the link between Gayle Rubin’s model of the “sex-gender system” and Money’s work.

[5] This reversal was also performed by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), which drew on many other feminist theorists to show how physical and sexed bodies are shaped right from the very beginning (or even before a beginning) by social norms and values.

[6] The history of the word “woman” teaches us how the categories that secure personhood are bound up with a history of ownership: “woman” is derived from a compound of wif (wife) and man (human being); woman as wife-man also suggesting woman as female servant. The history of woman is impossible to disentangle from the history of wife: the female human as not only in relation to man but as for man (woman as there for, and therefore, being for).  Wittig argues lesbians are not women because “women” is being in relation to men. Wittig calls the lesbian an “escapee” from this system.

[7] Stranger danger can be dangerous. It can be dangerous to those deemed strangers: those who tend to be treated as dangerous are often those who are most vulnerable to violence. But it can be dangerous because of where it does not locate danger: here, at home, in the family. Women for instance are much more at risk when they are home. Stranger danger is how the violence that is close to home is often overlooked.

[8] I began working on the uses of stranger danger as a frame in my second book, Strange Encounters. Most of my work has been on stranger danger as a technique of racialisation. A crucial aspect of stranger making is that the stranger, however singular as a figure comes to stand for a group. It is crucial to understand how this work in the media reporting of violence. Take anti-Muslim racism: if a Muslim person commits an act of violence, that violence becomes expressive of the violence of Muslims (which quickly then becomes an argument against immigration or for increased securitisation and so on). Much transphobic reporting works to make an instance of violence made by a trans person as expressive of the violence of a group (which quickly then becomes an argument against “gender ideology,” or allowing trans people to live in accordance with the gender identity and so on).

[9] As Sarah Franklin has noted, biology can refer to both a “body of authoritative knowledge (as in the science of reproductive biology) and a set of phenomena” (2001, 303). Biology can thus refer both to studies of living organisms and to the living organisms themselves. This confusion of different senses of biology is evident in some of the wider discourse, which has had the effect of treating “a body of authoritative knowledge” as if corresponds to a set of phenomena.

[10] If gender is a moving target, so too is transphobia.  At this present moment, “biology” and “biological sex” are the main terms in use. At other times it is not biology but “socialisation” that is used: trans women cannot be women because they were socialised as men and benefited from male privilege. Here it is the social rather than the biological that becomes what is immutable: as if socialisation goes one way, relates only to one category (sex) and is not contested and disputed in everyday life depending on how one might not embody or not embody that category. Feminism itself depends on the failure of socialisation to bring about willing gendered subjects. Another typical argument is that “transgenderism” as a set of medical practices depends on essentialist notions of gender because it corrects gender nonconforming behaviours and is shaped by a heterosexist imperative.  Of course there has been decades of scholarship by trans theorists that is critical of how gender and hetero norms become an apparatus of truth within medical institutions; that has shown how in order to gain access to surgery and hormones, trans subjects have to tell a narrative that is legible to authorities by using gender scripts: from Sandy Stone’s wonderful “The Empire Strikes Back: A Post-Transsexual Manifesto” ([1987] 2006) to more recent work by Dean Spade (2006) and Riki Wilchins (2014).  This work shows how not to be accommodated by a gender system (which requires you to “stay with” an assignment made by authorities at birth) can involve becoming more vigilant and reflexive about that system (although it is very important not to expect those who are not accommodated by a system to become pioneers or transgressors of norms, either). I think what is going on in anti-trans feminist work is the desire to exclude and police the boundaries of “women” on whatever basis can be found (hence the target is a moving target).

[11] I put it the following way in an earlier post, You are Oppressing Us! “There cannot be a dialogue when some at the table are in effect or intent arguing for the elimination of others at the table. When you have “dialogue or debate” with those who wish to eliminate you from the conversation (because they do not recognise what is necessary for your survival or because they don’t even think your existence is possible), then “dialogue and debate” becomes another technique of elimination. A refusal to have some dialogues and some debates can thus be a key tactic for survival.”

[12] Those who are not at home, come to know categories more intimately, which is why some of the most important work on gender, sex and sexuality is coming out of trans studies. Can I also add that to dismiss “identity” and “emotions” as somehow immaterial relative to “sex” is to forget so much previous feminist work. I have even heard a gender critical feminist say she doesn’t believe in gender because that’s about feelings and she is a materialist!  There is a huge and important literature that teaches how emotions, how we feel in relation to objects and others, are physical, visceral as well as being about judgment; how we come to know about ourselves as well as worlds. If your body does not feel right, if you feel wrong, it takes a huge amount of work, a difficult transition, to get to a point to where things feel right. I am myself a cis woman, but I have learning so much from trans people’s accounts of transition and of the emotional and physical nature of this process. On what it means to feel wrong, or how wrong feels, I do think of my own experience of heterosexuality. I think of the work it took, how long it took, to let my bodily feeling “this is wrong,” however powerful, palpable, to lead me to change my situation. Sometimes feelings can be traumatic, because you realise from them just how much you have to do to rearrange yourself, your life, so you can breathe, even if there is joy and hope and possibility in that rearrangement. To dismiss other people’s feelings about gender as immaterial, as I have heard people do, is deeply unethical as well as anti-feminist.

[13] Gender and sex work habitually, as a series of background assumptions. This is why phenomenology is so useful for feminism. Phenomenology also helps us to think about how bodies are shaped through habits, ways of acting that are repeated over time. Simone de Beauvoir or Iris Marion Young are feminist philosophers who have shown how we become women through in relation to our bodies. Biology matters, yes, but biology is always part of our historical situation. For Beauvoir, “woman is not a fixed reality, but a becoming.” For Beauvoir, the “body is our grasp on the world and an outline for our projects.” What this means is that yes, Beauvoir does acknowledge the body and its limits. She might even talk about women’s bodies as having such and such qualities, but as she describes “they do not carry their meaning in themselves.” Even matter is made to matter.  We can thus denaturalise the category of “biological sex” and talk about our lived experiences as gendered beings (in fact, we have more, not less, to talk about when we don’t bracket sex as if was outside the social or the cultural domain). We can talk about physical and fragile bodies, aging bodies; and yes, we can still talk about women’s bodies without presuming in advance who is and is not “women.”

[14] A project is thus to show the norm, make it appear. This has been important linguistically. Man is operating as the norm when you say a woman bus driver but not a man bus-driver.  Man is often unmarked, so we mark the man as norm, we begin to say, if we need to say anything, the man bus driver. Whiteness is often the default, which means that when race is mentioned, it is used to refer to people of colour. We mark the unmarked by making it appear. The word “cis” is another attempt to mark the unmarked, to make a norm be visible. Saying “cis” is a slur is a bit like saying “white” is a slur, or “man” or “heterosexual.” That people do respond to being positioned in that way is telling us something about how norms work.

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A book can be a thank you note

Yesterday we launched Complaint! 

I want to express my deep appreciation for all you who are doing the work of complaint, chipping away at the walls of the institution, knocking on the doors, causing disturbance; unburying, rebuilding.

My apologies for those who could not make that time. We did not record the launch because we know how hard it can be to bring histories of violence and trauma into the room.

Thank you to everyone who came along, and to Chandra Frank, Leila Whitley, Tiffany Page, Sirma Bilge and Heidi Mirza for your beautiful and wise and moving contributions.

I am sharing the words I prepared and read out.  There are more thanks to follow.

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We launch this book, Complaint! an ode to complaint collectives, as a complaint collective. Let me introduce myself as a member of this collective by giving a you a complaint bio. As a feminist killjoy, to give a full complaint bio, would be to tell too many too long stories. So, I summarise: to be a feminist killjoy, to be willing to receive this assignment, is to become a complainer, heard as negative for not wanting to reproduce the same thing, heard as destructive for the same reason. When I was a PhD student, I often complained about how critical theory was being taught around a very narrow body of work (all white men, basically), though not by using formal complaints procedures, but rather informally in what I said in seminars and out of them. I am still complaining about that! In my first job, I complained about how race was being talked about, or not being talked about. One time I sent an email to the Dean after he had said during a meeting that race was too difficult to deal with, an email that led to my name being put forward for a new race equality group that was formed to write a new race equality policy. A complaint, whether made formally or not, can lead you to become a diversity worker. I wasn’t until my second and last job as an academic that I participated in a formal complaint, and that, well that led me here.

Now that we are here, I want to say thank you. I want to thank all of you who have shaped this book. I think of this book as a thank you note. This book was only possible because of how many of you shared with me your stories of complaint, and in sharing stories, shared  so much wisdom, institutional wisdom, hard worn wisdom. I want to thank all of you who engaged with this work on complaint, becoming part of a virtual complaint collective, whether by chatting in person to me after I gave talks or by sending emails, or by tweeting to me and with me, sometimes using my project hashtag, #complaintasfeministpedagogy, by sharing with me informally anecdotes and stories, some of which are in the book, all of which are in the work. I want to thank my publisher Duke for providing yet again a home for my work although I would also like to use this moment to say to Duke that you need to recognise the Duke Workers Union. I want to thank Joje and the team in Critical Gender Studies at UC San Diego for hosting this event, for the time and the care, so we can share the work, again, creating another complaint collective. Thanks to all of you who are listening, and to all the people we bring with us when we are listening. Thank you: Chandra, Leila, Tiffany, Sirma and Heidi, for being on this panel, for being part of this complaint collective. And I want to thank my queer family, Sarah, Poppy and Bluebell, this in order of size and age, but not importance, I promise you Bluebell, for the good hap of being together, for the love and the care in living our feminist lives. Sarah, you have taught me so much about what it means to hammer away at institutions, to try and rebuild them by changing their meaning and purpose, what they are for, who they are for.

A book can be a thank you note. This book is the first I began as an independent scholar. That I had left my post made it possible for me to do this work at least in the way I did it. To receive these stories, to be a feminist ear, I needed to be somewhere else, not in the institution even if I am still on it and not fully out of it. I suspect even if I had not left the institution, I would have had to find support for this research somewhere else. A complaint collective can be that somewhere else, how we find the support to confront institutions that often work by withdrawing support from those who confront them. So many of those whose stories I share in the book were led, sometimes by making a formal complaint, sometimes not, into a direct confrontation with institutions, and by institutions I include not just senior administrators and managers but also colleagues and peers. In the research, I thus needed to guarantee the anonymity of all participants. In sharing these stories, they had to be separated from those who gave them. I think of this separation as a limitation. I say this not with regret, there are always limits, we decide what to give up when we make decisions. But I wanted to acknowledge it here.

It was important that the story of the complaint that led to the research was not told by me. I mentioned earlier that my first involvement in a formal complaint process led to this research. I supported a group of PhD students who had already made a collective complaint. I joined their group, their group became ours, ours, that promising feminist word, not a possession, but an invitation. It was important that the students themselves, some of who are now early career academics, others who are lighting feminist fires elsewhere, to tell their story in their own terms. I was just so honoured that the first conclusion of the book was written by Leila Whitley, Tiffany Page, Alice Corble with support from Heidi Hasbrouck and Chryssa Sdrolia and others.

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Thank you so much Heidi, Sirma, Leila, Tiffany, Chandra, for being here, for being part of this complaint collective, and to all of you in the audience, listening, for being here, for being part of this collective. I want to share some thoughts about how the book is itself a complaint collective. And to do that I am going to read two paragraphs from my conclusion:

I think of the first time I presented this material. I was standing on a stage, and the lights were out. I could hear an audience, the sounds, the groans, sometimes laughter, but I could not see anyone. The words: they were so heavy. I was conscious of the weight of them, of the pain in them. And as I read the words that had been shared with me, knowing the words were also behind me, lit up as text, I had a strong sense, a shivering feeling, of the person who shared those words saying them to me, of you as you said them, of you being there to say them. I felt you there, all of you, because you were there, helping me withstand the pressure I felt to do the best I could, to share the words so they could be picked up, heard by others who might have been there, in that painful place, that difficult place (complaint can be a place), so your words could do something, so your words could go somewhere. And each time I have presented this work, the feeling has been the same, of you being there with me. Maybe to keep doing it, to keep saying it, that is what I needed, for you to be there with me.  

 I am aware that if these stories have been hard to share (to share an experience that is hard is hard), this book might have been hard to read, hard on you, readers. I know some of you will have picked this book up because of experiences you have had that are hard, experiences that led you to complain, experiences of complaint. You might have had moments of recognition, painful and profound, as I did when I listened to these testimonies. It can help to share something painful, although not always, and not only. One academic said to me at the end of our dialogue, “It’s really helpful talking to you. It reminds me that I am not alone.” It was helpful for me to talk to you too. A complaint collective: how we remind ourselves we are not alone. We need reminders. My hope is that this book can be a reminder: we are not alone. We sound louder when we are heard together; we are louder.

I have chosen to read these words from my conclusion because they are about how being part of a complaint collective made it possible for me to do this work, to keep doing it, to keep sharing it. When I say this book is a complaint collective it might sound like I am talking about the collectivity as being in it. And I am not “not” talking about that. The book is a collection of stories, to collect is to create a collective. I am talking about complaint collectives as much to point to the process as to what it brings into effect. I am pointing to what it takes to get here, to get to it, this, what it takes, who it takes, the time, the labour, the listening, the learning, the meeting up, the going back, the checking in, the speaking, the hearing, the encountering, the reencountering. This is why complaint never felt like a research object. I was in it. And I was in it with you, those who shared your stories with me. And that helped me so much. I felt part of something, at a time when I might otherwise have felt very alone. I am so grateful.

In my conclusion to the book, I suggest that “complaint offers a fresh lens, which is also an old and weathered lens, on collectivity itself.” I just want to say a little more about what I mean by that. I talk in the book about the queer temporality of complaint, we are going back over something because it is not over, we are trying to deal with something because it has not been dealt with. To complain is to be willing to look afresh at something with which we are already familiar, too familiar even, something we have had to endure. You might have to keep complaining because they keep booking inaccessible rooms. You have to keep saying it because they keep doing it. But if you keep saying it, you become an institutional killjoy, getting in the way, standing out, becoming the problem, all over again. Having the eye of the institution land on you, being under scrutiny, treated as suspicious, can be very frightening. So many of the stories shared in this book are stories of institutional violence, that is the violence that comes back at you when you complain about violence. We need a collective to witness this violence, to say, yes, this is happening, this is wrong. We also need a collective to withstand the violence because so often the point of it is to make it hard to hold your ground.

The harder it is to get through, the more we have to do. The harder it is to get through, the more we need more.

To witness, to withstand. As I was listening to testimonies, bearing witness, witnessing your witnessing, I was given energy, even hope. I call it a weary hope, a hope that is close to what is wearing, to what wears us down, to what we have to withstand. I came to feel in my bones what it takes, what it will take, to lift the weight, the weight of a history, how so many of us have to do so much, risk so much, to build more just or less hostile worlds. It is so important that we honour that work, to value it, recognise it. So much of that work is happening behind closed doors. And that is where so much harassment also happens: behind closed doors. When harassment is a structure more than an event, how some are worn down or work out by what they have to do to be somewhere, or what they have to put up with to stay somewhere, a structure is how you close something, a possibility, an opening, or how you stop someone, without needing a damn door.  The more you try to bring that out, the violence of how some are stopped, the more doors are shut, nay slammed, in your face. In other words, we encounter what we complain about because we complain. Complaints, that history of harsh encounters, can end up hidden by the same structures they attempt to redress.

I think of where complaints end up, behind those doors, in those files, in that complaint graveyard. I think of all that is also there with them. So much is there. We too can be there. The places that complaints are buried, are holders of many histories, histories of profound pain and loss, of violence, yes, but also histories of struggle, or refusal, those who say no to it, who won’t go along with it, who won’t take any more of it. It is not surprising then that to complain is to find out so much, you put yourself in touch with a history, you find stuff out about yourself, what you will and won’t take, but also other people, about institutions, about power. You might find out about other complaints, earlier complaints. In the book you will read about secret letters in post-boxes, file mysteriously appearing on fax machines, graffiti on books left by one to be picked up later by another. To complain can also be how you learn to notice a burial in a story, a story you might have been told before about someone who had complained before. The more complaints are contained, the more inventive we need to become to get them out. We might turn a complaint that is treated as hostile, perhaps by being perceived as a threat to free speech or academic freedom, into a protest against hostile environments. Transphobia is a hostile environment. I express my solidarity to all students protesting hostile environments.

A complaint in the present can unsettle past complaints, if they are dusty, they are not done. Even complaints that have been buried can come out. To complain can be how we keep not just our own complaints alive but other people’s complaints. An old and weathered lens: we can be a collective without being in the same time or in the same place. An old and weathered lens: we meet in an action without meeting in a person. I think of Audre Lorde. I always think of Lorde. I think of how Lorde describes poetry, in a poem, Power, how poetry is about not letting our power “lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire.”  Perhaps complaint can be connected wire, allowing something to pass between us, like electricity, snap, snap, sizzle, a complaint as how we keep a connection alive. It might not always feel like that. You might feel like you did not get very far. You might feel disconnected. But you know what; we know what. You said no, you had a go. Who knows what you stirred up? Who knows who can pick that no up? We pick each other up. Piece by piece, a shattering can become a movement. A sharp piece, an illumination. A complaint can be clarifying; it can be how you clarify your project and your politics. It can be how you find your people. It is how I found my people. Thank you.

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I feel so moved to have brought Complaint! to the world by creating a complaint collective. Thank you to everyone who was there, who shared thoughts and feelings on the chat, stories on our shared document, as well as responses during and after the panel. I was so touched to hear and read responses from participants in the research, for the tenderness of your testimonies. I am glad of how if we hand our stories to each other, they can come back to us.

Thanks to everyone for bearing witness, for withstanding, for being the more we need.

We enact what we aim for. Nothing less will do. We share our pain, our fury, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We can do that only when we trust each other, when we promise each other to learn from each other, when we create room for each other, giving each other permission to enter and also to leave, to try and also to retreat, to express ourselves when we can or not when we cannot. We become part of each other’s survival.

I am empowered to have been on this journey with you.

A feminist life can be a thank you note.

With love

Sara xxx

 

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Complaint!

Complaint! is out!

You can now purchase the book direct from Duke University Press as well as from Combined Academic Publishers if you are in the UK/Europe. Until October 15, you can receive a 50 percent discount using the code FALL21. You can hear or read interviews with me about the book here, here and here.

There will be a virtual launch event for the book on October 20th 6-7.30 pm (BST) and 10-11.30am (PST), which I am co-organising with Leila Whitley and Tiffany Page. The launch is kindly hosted by Critical Gender Studies/Ethnic Studies, UC San Diego. The registration link is here.

In addition, during November and December, I will be available for informal conversations to talk about Complaint! (the book and the work). If you are interested, please do get in touch with me using the contact form on my website. Priority is given to student-led activist groups working on sexual harassment, sexual misconduct and gender based violence,  homophobia and transphobia, racism and racial harassment, decolonizing initiatives, ableism and accessibility.

Complaint! is out! I feel like adding some exclamation points!!!!!!!

Thank as ever to my complaint collective for keeping me going. By complaint collective I am referring first to the group I worked with before I resigned from my post and second to the many people I communicated with about their experiences of complaint, whose words, work and wisdoms I share in the book.

Complaint! has two conclusions. I am so honoured that the first conclusion is written by my complaint collective in the first sense. Let me share the introduction to the concluding part of the book to celebrate its arrival.

In killjoy solidarity,

Sara

 

**********************************************

If it can be difficult to know how to start the story of a complaint because it is difficult to know when a complaint starts, it can be difficult to know how to end that story because it is difficult to know when a complaint ends. The kinds of complaints I have discussed in this book do not have a point that, once reached, means we are post-complaint or after complaint. When a complaint is taken through a formal process, the end of that process—you might have received a letter, a decision, although sometimes you don’t even get that, you are left hanging—is not necessarily the end of the complaint. To end the story of a complaint can be to cut it off at some arbitrary point. Perhaps the story ends when we no longer have the time or energy to keep telling it.

There are so many ways of telling the story of complaint. There are so many threads to pull from the stories I have collected. The second chapter of each part of the book thus far has had a concluding section. The titles of those conclusions tell their own story: “Sensitive Information,” “Letters in the Box,” and “Distance from Complaint.” Before I turn to the conclusions of the book, let me to return to these concluding sections. Each offered an explanation of how complaints are contained or end up in containers. That complaints contain “sensitive information” or “sticky data” might be why they end up in containers (chapter 2). In other words, complaints are contained because of what they threaten to reveal. Some become complainers because of what they are trying to reveal. Complaints we express in our own way, in our own terms, can end up contained in the spaces in which they were made or which they were about (chapter 4). Or it might be that doors are closed on complaints, and on those who make them, in order to open the door for others. An open door can be predicated on keeping distance from complaint (chapter 6).  Those who complain can end up with nowhere to go. To explain how complaints are contained is thus to explain how institutions are reproduced, how the paths that can be followed are made narrower by stopping those who are trying to question how things are going or who are trying to go a different way.

Even if a complaint is contained or those who complain end up without a path to follow, a complaint might still go somewhere. Complaints might go somewhere because of how they affect those whom they come into contact with. If you leave because of a complaint, you do not just leave the problem behind. The effort you made to deal with that problem, even if you did not seem to get anywhere, becomes part of the institution, part of its history; however hidden, it happened. It might be that the story gets out, the information you gathered gets out, either accidentally or through a deliberate action. We will hear of such accidents and actions in due course. But what can be leaked as a result of complaint is more than information. What we have to do to gather that information, the work of complaint, is even harder to contain. Complaint is an outward-facing action: it involves people, many people, some of whom do not even meet. That involvement matters.

This book ends with two concluding chapters. The first was written by members of the collective I was privileged to join, Leila Whitley, Tiffany Page, and Alice Corble, with support from Heidi Hasbrouck, Chryssa Sdrolia, and others. Not everyone who was part of our collective is named as an author, but given that writing about the work of complaint is a continuation of the work, everyone who was part of the collective has shaped the writing. It is important to them, to us, and it is important for this book that they get to tell the story, in their own terms, in their own way. I learn so much from how they describe a “we” being formed, light, even tenuous, out of differences, each person having their own story of getting to a point that is shared. If we have to combine our forces in order to get anywhere, that combination has a history, that combination has a life of its own; even telling the story can be another way of combining forces.

In chapter 8, I return to the stories I have collected for this book, which include many instances of students and academics working together to get complaints through the system. I show how those who complain often end up politicized by complaint, becoming complaint activists, pressing against organizations, using their time and resources, even wasting their time and resources, to keep complaints alive. The last section of chapter 8—perhaps it is the conclusion of the conclusion—is titled “Survival and Haunting.” We can think back to, think with, the image of the complaint graveyard. Even the complaints that end up there, buried, under the ground, have gone somewhere. What has been put away can come back. To tell stories of complaint, leaky, ghostly, haunting, is to be reminded of what can be inherited from actions that did not seem to succeed. We do not always know where complaints will go.

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In Dialogue, a letter to Lauren

Dear Lauren,

I knew we were going to lose you. You told us in so many words. You have such a way with words that I had to work hard not to be distracted by their beauty from the devastation of what you were telling us. When I heard you had died, I was just so lost.

What if the person you lose is the one who could best describe that loss for you?

When we lose a person, we lose the words they might have shared in a future they will not have. I have no words for saying how it feels to say these words: that Lauren Berlant has died. That you have died. I have no words, but then I do, no words are words, edging for something, connecting us to someone. I still can’t bring myself to believe it. I want belief to lag behind, take your time coming, take your time. Your presence has been so orientating for me, a landmark, like that distinctly shaped tree, or that tower you can see, nearby or in the distance that allows you to know which way you are facing, which tells you how to get to where you need to go. I feel disorientated, without a compass, without you being here. I am not sure how to find my way around.

We muddle through. You taught me to attend to what we do to muddle through.  Your words are still guiding me. I am grateful for all of them. I could read just a few of your words and know they were yours. You have a style like no other, sentences that are crisp but with curious combinations, crisp and opaque, coming at you and escaping from you at the very same time. You have a way of capturing details, of fine tuning amidst the fuzz or the buzz or the chaos so you could hear the singularity of a note, sharp, painfully clear. You found in the materials of the everyday so much to think with, turning things around, giving a different angle on them so they glimmer or flicker, or a different angle on ourselves so we glimmer or flicker.  I have never met or read anyone so able to explain the difficulty we have giving up attachments, even when we provide evidence ourselves of how they are not working, and yet alive to the potential for rearranging things, turning slips into starting points for another story, whilst we are in a muddle, in the middle of something that does not, even will not, acquire the shape of an event.

Nor have I read or met anyone who was so interested in other people, so curious about their histories, what brought them to their work, what they brought into their work, or someone with such profound fidelity to the task of reflection, to sustaining reflection on our shared worlds, feelings, thoughts, attachments, so that what might have, at first glance, seemed solid, a norm say, becomes spongier, looser, lighter. Sometimes, as someone who is shy, unless I am in a formal setting where I know the rules, someone with strong boundaries, maybe too strong, but we do what we can to live the best we can, it made me nervous, the directness of your attention, worried about what you might see or not see in me. I was at the same time grateful for it and for the time you gave me. Gratitude can be near grief, a sense of how much someone gives as a sense of how much you could lose; could lose, will lose. You asked, “I am a love theorist, how did that happen?” I think I know how it happened. A love theorist, a loving theorist, a theorist of love and loss and relationships that end up, as we do, in unexpected places.

As we do. The first time I encountered you, saw your name, read words you had written, yes, that can be enough to encounter a person, was on a piece of paper that had been put in my pigeon hole by a colleague, who was later to become my life partner (you were around during that becoming!), Sarah Franklin. I love that: that I first saw your name, read your words, because of a piece of paper that had been put in my mail box by a friend of yours. Relationships can have priority; they can be how we find each other’s words. Sarah had photocopied your CFP for a special issue on intimacy and circulated it to all members of the department. I emailed you. I suggested I could write a paper on intimacy and autobiography. I was writing, at the time, a chapter for my book Strange Encounters that took me near intimacy but was not on it. I was a very junior lecturer at this time, I had only just finished by PhD, my first book based on the PhD had yet to come out, which meant I was still trying to bend myself to fit any opening, any opportunity. I hoped near would be near enough. You explained that what I proposed was not what you had in mind. I can’t remember the words you used, but it was something like, it is a bit obvious to approach intimacy through autobiography. Our first exchanges were a little tense, funnily enough, as I explained why I thought autobiography could provide an unexpected angle on intimacy precisely because that is where intimacy is expected to be found. I did not know then how attending to the obvious (as well as attending to expectations of where something or someone is assumed to be) would become what I did or how I would follow a thought.

I think there were some tensions between us in the years that followed. There are signs of it in some of our writing. The introduction of Cruel Optimism, for example, positioned me as interested in emotion and not affect. Although I had been critical of the uses of the distinction between emotion and affect, much of my work has been about promises, atmospheres, sticky objects, affective economies, how histories get under our skin, and has thus been in the terrain of what is sometimes called “affect theory.” I referred to your argument in my introduction to the second edition of The Cultural Politics of Emotion, as an example of how affect and emotion are given distinct trajectories (and even objects). We never spoke to each other about this; I wish we had. Much later when you were writing the paper, “Sex in the Event of Happiness,” which I think will appear in your next book (I am so glad I can say this, Lauren Berlant’ s next book!) you did ask me if we could brainstorm together because “your work is troubling me (in a good way)” which was a reference, I assume, to The Promise of Happiness. I wasn’t around when you messaged me, we did not get to brainstorm. We will not get to brainstorm.

Despite these troublings and tensions, there was so much we came to share in our work. Perhaps this despite is misplaced. Troublings and tensions can be how we are in relation. To be in relation, as you taught, is the joy (also inconvenience) of being with someone you are not.

But I have in thinking of tensions fast forwarded. Let me go back.

Our first communications were, from memory, in 1996. And then we invited you to be a keynote speaker at the Transformations: Thinking Through Feminism conference in July 1997. This was the first major international conference for the Centre for Women’s Studies at Lancaster University; it was such an important event in the life of that Centre. You spoke in the first plenary session, and the first time I saw you, you were already on a podium. You were wearing a leather mini skirt, if I recall correctly, and I just remember thinking wow, you were so stylish and cool. I was totally intimidated when we had our first in person conversations if the truth be known, and you said something about it, I can’t quite remember the words, but perhaps that we had those tense exchanges led you to think I might be a little fiercer than I tend to present (my feminist killjoy self, however, is furious as well as fierce, it is just only some occasions when she comes out). Later, I was to learn, you got that, you got it, you got me, how I could take on the assignment of a feminist killjoy not despite being shy, anxious and sensitive, but because of it; the armour we use, has its story, which is our story, hardness comes to matter for those who experience themselves as too easily hurt.

Later, I was to learn what a good reader you were not just of texts but of people.

And you held the room with a lecture on “The Subject of True Feeling: Pain, Privacy and Politics,” from which I still learn so much. That was the first time I heard you lecture. I have since heard many more. I loved how you stood (some call it the tree pose), how you laughed, how you filled the room, yet also seemed to create room for others. The questions you asked in that lecture, which we published as a paper in our edited book, remain so important: “What happens to questions of managing difference or alterity or resources in collective life when feeling bad becomes evidence for a structural condition of injustice? What does it mean for the theory and practice of social transformation, when feeling good becomes evidence of justice’s triumphs?” After that you came to Lancaster again for a conference on Testimonial Cultures and Feminist Agendas in 1999, organised by myself and Jackie Stacey, and you gave another extraordinary lecture, “Trauma and Ineloquence,” which we published in the journal Cultural Values.  One sentence I remember, “Symptoms that condense history are like dead metaphors, challenging their readers to make them live.” You helped me to question how trauma becomes an expectation of delivery for the negated, the subordinated, but also in that questioning, to imagine another way of receiving somebody’s trauma, of making a dead metaphor live.

A new millennium brought with it plans to bring you back to Lancaster. Sarah Franklin took the lead in a proposal for a Leverhulme Visiting Professorship. And then in the summers of 2001 and 2002 you came for extended periods of time, participating in a series of more and less formal events loosely organised under the rubric, “Feelings in Public.” Between 1997 and 2002, then, you were around so much, around at a time I was working on The Cultural Politics of Emotion, around at the time I decided to write about happiness – a decision which I am sure was inspired by our conversations as well as my experience of doing empirical research on diversity and racism. Writing about happiness led me to the feminist killjoy, led me to do the work of changing my work so that it would less bound by the university, less caught up in the dynamics that keeps our work in the university, which is also how I ended up on it, working on the university, on institutions with their manifold histories.

Thinking back, to the good hap of that, you being around there, then, I can see how much my own work on emotion and affect was enabled by being in dialogue with you, and the mark you left on all of us working in Gender Studies and Cultural Studies in the UK. In an endnote to The Cultural Politics of Emotion I wrote, “I am very indebted to Lauren Berlant, whose insightful questions, ‘when do norms become forms,’ has provided the inspiration for my work.”

To inspire, can mean not only to uplift or encourage, but to enable to breathe, to give air. The life you breathed into my work is all over my work. In Queer Phenomenology, I cited your co-authored piece, “Sex in Public,” with the wonderful description of queer worlds, the “queer world is a space of entrances, exits, unsystematized lines of acquaintance, projecting horizons, typifying examples, alternate routes, blockages, incommensurate geographies” (2005: 198).  In The Promise of Happiness, I borrowed your delightfully crisp expression “the foggy fantasy of happiness,” and also your idea of objects as “clusters of promises.” In Willful Subjects, I drew upon your essay “Slow Death,” in accounting for snap, suggesting that we “cannot see the slower times of bearing or making do” and also draw on your description of the problem of how will becomes the problem.  As you wrote in Queen of America goes to Washington City, which is still my favourite of your books: “In the new good life imagined by the contracting state, the capitalist requirement that there be a population of poorly remunerated laborers-in-waiting or those who cobble together temporary work is not deemed part of a structural problem but rather a problem of will and ingenuity” (2004: 4). I came back to your work in Living a Feminist Life, a number of times, thinking with your idea of cruel optimism, wondering who gets to diagnose when a life is working or not working, and also your explanation of a situation, “a state of things in which something that will perhaps matter is unfolding amidst the usual activity of life.”

Yes, you teach me how to describe what is happening, the usual activity of life, how to notice what will perhaps matter as it unfolds, to notice an unfolding as a way of holding something, lightly.

What we create is fragile because we need it to survive.

We did meet up over the years. You came to London. I remember cooking you and our partners some vegetable curries. And then I came to Chicago a few times, one time to give a lecture for your programme, another to give a lecture at another university. I think that first time was in 2013. You were such a generous host. The other time was in 2015 – the last time we met in person. We met at your hairdressers then hang out for a bit. I was in the middle of supporting students who had made a collective complaint about sexual harassment that led me to leave not just my post but our profession – I told you about that. We have in our work and in our different ways, tried to account for the toxicity and violence of institutions, to think about how to handle it. Handles can turn thoughts into care. When I left my post, I also left Facebook, which is where we usually communicated, so there was a time, almost two years in fact, when we were not in touch. I regret that. When we got back in touch, you told me you hoped I felt freer. I said I was getting there. It can be hard to put it behind you; the institution can find you. But researching complaint was helping me, I said.

Which brings me to complaint. I always expected in my work on complaint to engage directly with The Female Complaint, your middle book in your wondrous trilogy. I learned so much from that book about complaint as a genre with a loose hold. But I didn’t because Complaint! ended up being led by those I spoke to, my complaint collective. They became my theorists. So, I didn’t do what I usually do, follow complaint around, follow the word around, a following that would have led me to your work, to a proper engagement with it.

I emailed you about it. I wanted you to know that I missed the encounter we might have had; the dialogue we were both, I suspect, waiting for. You understood what I was telling you. You wrote, “I’m gathering you’re telling me that you barely think with the female complaint.  It’s a shame for me because we have for so long been interlocutors. We should interview each other like old times when it comes out. Would you like to? I can totes arrange it.” I was sad for that “shame for me,” but I understood it. I said yes, yes to that dialogue. Then you got more and more ill. You still sent me Lauren messages (Lauren messages are not only messages Lauren sent but messages that were so expressive of Lauren). The last message you sent me was on June 11th the same month you died. You wrote that you were writing me from “pain hell.” You wrote that you had seen my book, Complaint! in the Duke University Press catalogue. You made a Lauren quip about how Duke had used an author photo for me (and why they hadn’t for you), and then said, “so excited to get a copy. Meanwhile thank you for thinking with me as I do with you.  It means a lot.”

It means a lot. I think you were telling me that there are many ways to be in dialogue and that we hadn’t missed it. A dialogue can be what we are in, a space, a zone, an intimacy.

“I didn’t think it would turn out this way” (Lauren on intimacy’s secret epitaph).

We can be in a dialogue without having one.

We are in dialogue. This is how it is turning out.

I emailed you back and said I would send you one of my first copies, my author copies, with an inscription.  I will still send it to you, of course.

This is an endnote in the book: “My emphasis on the affective nature of complaint connects with Lauren Berlant’s (2008) consideration of female complaint. Berlant describes complaint as “a way of archiving experience, turning experience into evidence and evidence into argument and argument into convention and convention into cliché, clichés so powerful they can hold a person her entire life” (227). My discussion is more about feminist than female complaint. Feminist complaint can also “hold a person her entire life,” although perhaps less through convention and cliché. With thanks to Lauren Berlant for the inspiration of her work.” I wrote this note without realising you had changed your pronouns. If there is a second printing, I will ask to change her to their, to honour your preferences and your work.

I know we are in dialogue. I know that you were writing fiercely from and through “pain hell” with your Lauren dedication, and that there are more books on their way because of that. But I wish I could have more dialogues with you in person, to hear your laughter, the sound of your voice, to feel you there with me.

I am writing this letter to you. I know it is important to say to each other what we mean to each other. We cannot always do that. Sometimes, we know the importance of something when it is no longer possible. I am sharing this letter on my blog, Lauren because you taught me that if you write through a feeling, with it, you share it. We create an assembly, grief-stricken, yes, but all the better, all the sharper, lovelier, even, for having known each other, found each other, in words, in persons. In the shattering, queer losses, queer lives, creating new shapes; glimmering, flickering.

I wrote to you once last time after you died.

“I can’t believe you are not here anymore. I came back to Facebook as I remembered we messaged just so I could hear you. I can always hear you in your writing, no one else sounds like you. I’ll miss you so much but I will keep learning from you Lauren. I promise xxx”.

Lauren, I promise. I promise to keep learning from you. To think with you, to stay in touch, to be in dialogue.

With love, as ever

Sara xxx

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Complaint as Feminist Pedagogy

In the last months, I have been presenting my research on complaint in the form of three different (but connected) lectures: “Knocking on the Door: Complaints and Other Stories about Institutions,”Complaint, Diversity and Other Hostile Environments” (also here and here) and “Complaint as Feminist Pedagogy.” I am taking a break from giving public lectures until 2022. Complaint! comes out in September of this year (you can now read the introduction on line). Later this year, I hope to do some informal launch events for the book focusing primarily on discussions with students and academics involved in activist projects at universities. I am including below the text of my lecture, “Complaint as Feminist Pedagogy,” which was the last lecture I gave this year.  This is the unedited version (without references), written as spoken.

In killjoy solidarity to those complaining for a more just world

Sara xx

“Complaint as Feminist Pedagogy,” Lecture presented by Sara Ahmed, May 31st, 2021,  Permanent Ordinary Seminar, Bilbao.

I have been listening to stories of making complaints at universities. Let me start with a story.

I am talking to a postgraduate student about her experience of trying to make a complaint about gender-based based harassment and bullying. She had started the process by communicating her intent to complain to the chair of her department.  From him, she received a warning articulated obliquely as an expression of concern for her career: “his response was essentially, ‘well we are just thinking about your career, how will this affect you in the future.” She begins to feel a shift, the withdrawal of support: just by saying I want to file a complaint, I sense that I am being treated differently.”  She wasn’t sure whether to go through with the complaint because of what she was being told: that to complain would be to compromise her position, her career. Complaints are often treated as sticky data: if they stick to you, you fear, you are taught to fear, you will end up stuck.

Toward the end of her story, she told me about another student who had made a complaint before her: “There was a woman who had filed a complaint and she was outcast; no one goes near her.” She added: “people told me the story. It is so difficult to get my head around because at the time I was so willing to go along with it. And now there I am, recognising that if I were to move forward, I would likely be experiencing some of the same things she did.” She recognizes that to go forward with a complaint would be to go through what the woman before her went through (to go forward as to go back). “And now there I am,” and so, she came to see through it, a story she had been willing to go along with about a woman who had complained before.  If a story can be inherited as distance (“no one goes near her”), a complaint gives you proximity, an unwilled proximity, to those who have been cast out. To make a complaint can be how we acquire scepticism towards stories told about complainers, stories that are rarely told from the complainer’s point of view. Today, I will be sharing stories of complaint told from the point of view of those who have made them.  Since June 2017, I have been talking to academics and students who have made complaints at universities. I need you to know before I share their stories that many are painful and traumatic. These stories are difficult to share and I am aware they may be difficult to hear.

My project on complaints at the university is also on the university. And by “on the university” I do not just mean the university is my research site, I mean that my project is about the effort to transform universities. I was inspired by my experience of supporting a collective complaint about sexual misconduct and sexual harassment that was lodged by PhD students. Leila Whitley, Tiffany Page, Alice Corble with support from Heidi Hasbrouck, Chryssa Sdrolia and others, wrote one of the conclusions of my book about the work they began whilst they were students. To write about the work is to continue the work, and I indebted to each of them, all of them, for that work. In this project I am also indebted to critiques of diversity and the university offered by Black feminists and feminists of colour such as M. Jacqui Alexander, Sirma Bilge, Heidi Mirza, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Malinda Smith, Shirley Anne Tate, and Gloria Wekker.  I think of their combined work as counterinstitutional, they teach us how universities work, for whom they work. Counterinstitutional work in feminist hands is often housework, with all the drudgery and repetition that that word implies, painstaking work, administrative work, also care work, because if we need to transform institutions to survive them, we still need to survive the institutions we are trying to transform.

Complaint as feminist pedagogy: to make a complaint within an institution is to learn about how institutions work, what I call institutional mechanics. To tell the story of a complaint made within an institution can be to tell another story about an institution. The story of complaint often counters the institution’s story of itself.  On paper, a complaint can be pictured as a flow-chart, with straight lines and pointy arrows, giving the would-be complainer a clear route through.

Things are not always as they appear. I look at this complaints procedure and I see diversity, diversity as papering over the cracks, diversity as smoothing out an appearance. The problem with procedures is not simply that they don’t determine what happens. Procedures can also be techniques, used to stop complaints. One academic describes: “I had to push them because according to their procedure there were so many days you had after submitting the complaint for it to be investigated.” She has to keep pushing them to follow the procedure because otherwise her complaints would be dropped in accordance with their procedures. Many complaints are dropped on procedural grounds because those who complain do not submit the right forms, in the right way, at the right time. The narrowing of the complaint as a genre is how many struggles are not recorded.

Even complaints that assume at some point the form of a formal complaint begin long before the use of a procedure.

Another story. A lecturer is returning after long term sick leave. She is neuroatypical, she needs time, she needs space, to return to her work, to do her work. If she has to complain to get more time, her complaint takes up more time. She describes: “there are like four channels of complaint going on at the same time. But interestingly none of these people seem to be crossing over. You duplicate the complaint at different times, emails, phone calls, occupational health; the union. It is generating all this material and all this paper work but actually nothing seems to shift. It’s just a file, actually.” I will return to how complaints end up as files or in files later. She has to keep making the same complaint to different people because they are not speaking to each other.  If we were to picture a complaint from the complainer’s point of view, it would be less of a flow, flow, away we go and rather more like this:

It is a mess, a tangle, if you get in, you can’t work out how to get out; you end up with so many dead ends, so many crossed wires. And despite all of that, all that work, nothing seems to shift.

It is worth noting here that a complaint can be an expression of grief, pain, or dissatisfaction; something that is a cause of a protest or outcry, a bodily ailment, or a formal allegation. This latter sense of complaint as formal allegation brings up these other more affective and embodied senses.  In making a formal complaint, you have to become expressive. The word express comes from press; to express as to press out. Each time the early career lecturer tries to express her complaint, she encounters a wall.  She speaks to a physician from occupational health. She has to complain to him about how he tries to express her complain: “he was shocked I think that I complained to him in the room face-to-face. He was dictating the letter to the computer, which was automatically typing it and I think he was astonished that I said I am not going to sign it.” I think of her refusal to sign that letter, to agree with how he expressed her complaint back to her: the words he reads out loud, his words, the computer automatically typing those words, his words; the different ways you can be made to disappear from your own story.

To go through a formal complaint process is to be channelled in a certain direction. You end up having to complain about how your complaint is handled, having to say “no” to how the institution records your “no.” It can be hard to keep saying no if you don’t feel you have a right to keep saying it. She describes: “There is something else which is something to do with being a young female academic from a working-class background: part of me felt that I wasn’t entitled to make the complaint – that this is how hard it is for everybody, and this is how hard it should be.” To question one’s entitlement to complain can be to question whether one has the right to expect anything other than more of the same (how hard it is, as how hard it should be). If part of her felt she was not entitled to complain, she has to fight all the more, she has to fight against that part of herself, that inheritance of a classed as well as gendered history; just as she has to fight to express her complaint in her own terms, and to fight for what she needs to do her work. She describes that work:

It was like a little bird scratching away at something and it wasn’t really having any effect. It was just really small, small; small and behind closed doors.  I think people maybe feel that because of the nature of the complaint, and you are off work so they have to be polite and not talk about it and so much of their politeness is because they don’t want to say something. And maybe [it is] to do with being in an institution and the way they are built; long corridors, doors with locks on them, windows with blinds that come down, it seems to sort of imbue every part of it with a cloistered feeling, there is no air, it feels suffocating.

It was like: note this it. A complaint as something you are doing can acquire exteriority, becoming a thing in the world; scratching away; a little bird, all your energy going into an activity that matters so much to what you can do, who you can be, but barely seems to leave a trace; the more you try, the smaller it becomes, you become, smaller; smaller still. I think of those birds scratching away and, I think of diversity work, described to me by a practitioner as a “banging your head on the wall job.” When the wall keeps its place, it is you that ends up sore. And what happens to the wall?  All you seem to have done is scratch the surface.

Scratching can give you a sense of the limits of what you can accomplish.

A complaint becomes a magnifying glass: so many details are picked up by an attention; the geography of a place, the building, the long corridors, the locked doors, the windows with blinds that come down, less light, less room.

When you have to fight for room you can become more conscious of what little room you have. I was struck by often doors came up in her testimony as well as in the testimony of others. She describes: “I was just frightened and I just allowed myself to go through it very privately and I hit all those doors along the way, and just came out very guarded by it.” You are more likely to notice doors when you hit them rather than enter them. Doors are not just physical things that swing on hinges, though they are that, they are also mechanisms that enable an opening or a closing. When a path is no longer available to us, a door becomes a figure of speech: we say, that door is closed.  Doors can be, to borrow from Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools,” teaching us how the same house is being built; how only some can enter; how others become trespassers.

From complaint we learn how the house is built.   In my book What’s the Use? I use this image as an image of queer use, how things can be used in ways that were not intended or by those for whom they were not intended.

I think of these birds rather affectionately as our queer kin; they turned a small opening intended for letters into a door, a queer door perhaps, a way of getting in and out of the box. Of course, the post box can only become a nest if it stops being used as a post-box; hence the sign “please don’t use” addressed to would-be posters. I am aware that this is a rather happy hopeful image. It is rare that we can just turn up and turn a box into a nest or a room into a shelter. For some to take up space that is not built for them often requires a world-dismantling effort. A complaint describes some of that effort.

A complaint can be the effort to be accommodated. An academic describes how she has to keep pointing out that rooms are inaccessible because they keep booking rooms that are inaccessible: “I worry about drawing attention to myself. But this is what happens when you hire a person in a wheelchair. There have been major access issues at the university.”  She spoke of “the drain, the exhaustion, the sense of why should I have to be the one who speaks out.” You have to speak out because others do not; and because you speak out others can justify their own silence; they hear you, so it becomes about you, “major access issues” become your issues.

Structures are treated as issues, made personal. Those of us who have “issues,” often end up on the diversity committee. The more issues we have, the more committees we are on. These committees can end up occupied in old ways. A woman of colour academic describes: “I was on the equality and diversity group in the university. And as soon as I started mentioning things to do with race, they changed the portfolio of who could be on the committee and I was dropped.” Yes, you just have to say the word race and you’ll be heard as complaining. Another time she is writing a paper for a special issue of a journal on decolonizing her discipline. She receives feedback from a white editor: “the response of the editor was ‘needs to be toned down, not enough scholarly input to back up the claims they are making.’ Basically, get back in your box, and if you want to decolonize, we’ll do it on our terms.” Being dropped from the diversity committee for “mentioning things to do with race” is continuous with being told to tone it down on the decolonizing special issue. Whiteness can be just as occupying of issues when they are designated decolonial. What happens if you raise issues? She describes: “whenever you raise something, the response is that you are not one of them.” A complaint seems to amplify what makes you not fit, picking up what you are not.  A complainer becomes a stranger, a foreigner, a trespasser.

A complaint can be used as evidence that you are not from here or do not belong here. A PhD student objects to how a lecturer is communicating with her – he is overly intimate. He had sent her an email from a private Hotmail account and suggested they “meet up during this or the next weekend in the evening.” She communicates to him that she found his style of communication to be inappropriate. This is his response, written in an email: “As for meeting in the evening and its combination with [personal email], this is how we do it here at the department (ask our MA students). Perhaps your department has some other norm which I do not understand. Also, your religion might be a problem.” Note the assertion of “how we do things here” as an answer to a questioning of how he is doing things there. Note the interpellation of other students into that assertion. And note how her religion – she is from a Muslim background – is used to explain her objection.

If you complain you end up confirming a judgment that has already been made, you are not from here, you do not belong here. A lesbian academic describes: “if you have a situation and you make a complaint, then you are the woman who complains, the lesbian who complains.  And then of course you get witch-hunted, you get scapegoated, you become the troublesome uppity woman; you become the woman who does not fit; you become everything the bully accuses you off, because nobody is listening to you. And you don’t like to hear yourself talking like that but you end up being in that situation, again. You can hear them saying, ‘oh there you go.” We both laughed when she said this. The feminist killjoy comes up here; she comes up in what we can hear. We hear each other in the wear and the tear of the words we share; we hear what it is like to come up against the same thing over and over again.  We imagine the eyes rolling as if to say: well, she would say that. It was from experiences like this that I developed my equation: rolling eyes = feminist pedagogy.

We might laugh, we do laugh, but we also groan with recognition. If you are followed by rolling eyes, you are followed by eyes, you stand out; you end up under scrutiny. One time she is introduced by a student as a lesbian head of department, “there was some discussion of that with colleagues, like I had some banner to fly, pushing students to get involved with this.” Just being called a lesbian head of department can be heard as pushing an agenda. Some are judged as being pushy, imposing themselves just by virtue of not being or doing more of the same. It should not surprise us that a “pushy minority” can morph into a bully.  And, members of her department submitted an informal complaint to human resources identifying her as a bully. You can be called a bully just by being called or calling yourself a minority.

Complaints as tools to redress bullying and harassment can be turned into tools to bully and to harass. This will not be surprising to feminist audiences. We are familiar with how the tools introduced to redress power relations can be used by those who benefit from power relations. I noted earlier how formal complaints can bring with them other more affective and embodied senses of complaint. Formal complaints can end up separated or detached from those who have a complaint to make because of what they experience.  This is why it is so important not to tell the story of complaint as a story of what happens to formal complaints; formal complaints can be redirected toward those who try to challenge abuses of power, those who desire or require a modification of an existing arrangement. The complainer becomes a complaint magnet, to become a complainer is to attract complaints, to receive them as well as make them, to receive them because you make them. If you use the word race for instance you might be heard as complaining but you also more likely to be complained about. The magnetism of the figure of the complainer has much to teach us about the direction of violence. Violence is redirected toward those who identify violence and that redirection can be achieved through the very techniques we introduce to challenge the direction of violence.

The violence you complain about can be redirected toward you because you complain. A trans student of colour make a complaint about sexual harassment and transphobic harassment from their supervisor who kept asking them deeply intrusive questions about their gender and genitals. Questions can be hammering; for some to be is to be in question. These questions were laced in the language of concern for the welfare of the student predicated on judgements that they would be endangered if they conducted research in their home country. Racist judgements are often about the location of danger “over there” in a brown or black elsewhere. Transphobic judgements are often about the location of danger “in here,” in the body of the trans person: as if to be trans is to incite the violence against you. When they complain, what happens? They said: “people were just trying to evaluate whether he was right to believe there would be some sort of physical danger to me because of my gender identity… as if to say he was right to be concerned.” The same intrusive questions that led you to complain are asked when you complain or because you complain. So much harassment today is enacted as a right to be concerned. We have a right to be concerned about immigration (as “citizens”); we have a right to be concerned about sex-based rights (as “adult human females”). A right to be concerned is how violence is enacted, a violence premised on suspicion that some are not who they say they are, that some have no right to be where they are, that some have no right to be.

There are many ways we can be shut out – from institutions, from categories of personhood, from ourselves, even.  One woman of colour describes her department as a revolving door: women and minorities enter only to head right out again: whoosh, whoosh.

You can be kept out by what you find out when you get in. And yet consider how diversity is often figured as an open door, turned into a tagline; tag on, tag along; minorities welcome, come in, come in! Just because they welcome you, it does not mean they expect you to turn up.  Remember the post-box that became a nest?  There could be another sign on the post-box: “birds welcome.”

Diversity is that sign. That sign would be a non-performative if the post-box was still in use because the birds would be dislodged by the letters, a nest destroyed before it could be created. Those comments, tone it down, different ways you are told this is not your box, “get back into your own box”, judgements, “he is right to be concerned,” they function as the letters in the box; they pile up until there is no room left, no room to breathe, to nest, to be. It is not enough to open a door, to appear welcoming.  For some to be in that room requires stopping what usually happens in that room, otherwise they would be, as it were, displaced by the letters in the box. If diversity is that sign, diversity covers over the materiality of dispossession.

And so, we learn: occupation and dispossession are achieved by the same materials. Another story, more materials.  A Masters student begins her new programme with high hopes and expectations. And then “it started.”

It started I would say in the second or third lesson I had with Prof X. There were certain signs that rang alarm bells for me and my first reaction is stop being paranoid, stop being a feminazi where everything is gendered, you know, you are probably reading too much into this, you need to take a step back.

The sound of an alarm bell announces a danger in the external world even if you hear the sound inside your own head. We don’t always take heed of what we hear. She starts questioning herself rather than his behaviour.  She tells herself off; she gives herself a talking to. In questioning herself, she also exercises violent stereotypes of feminists as feminazis even though she identifies as a feminist. External judgements can be given voice as internal doubt. But she keeps noticing it, that the syllabus is occupied; how it is occupied: “he left any thinker who wasn’t a white man essentially until the end of the course.” He introduces a woman thinker as “not a very sophisticated thinker.” She comes to realise that her first impression that something was wrong was right: “and then I was like, no, no, no, no, things are wrong not just in terms of gender, things are desperately wrong with the way he is teaching full-stop.” When she realises, she was right to hear that something was wrong; those no’s come out. I think of all of those no’s, no, no, no, no, the sound of an increasing confidence in her own judgement.

The work you have to do to express “no,” is part of the story of complaint. A story of complaint can also be about how you are received because of that “no.” In Living a Feminist Life, I described sexism as received wisdom, and by that term I was referring not only to content but form; you are supposed to take it in, take the professor in, the canon, the curriculum, to ingest it, what he says, whatever he says. So, when she tells him, she wants to write her essay on gender and race, he says if you write on those fucking topics you are going to fucking fail my course, you haven’t fucking understood anything I have been talking about if you think those are the correct questions for this course.” If you ask the wrong questions, you hear the violence of correction. And then she hears how he writes her off: “But then he says, wait, you know what, you’re so fucking old, your grades don’t really matter, you’re not going to have a career in academia, so write whatever essay you wanted to write. You are going to fail, but it doesn’t matter.” The complainer becomes not only a nag but a hag, the feminist who gets the questions wrong, the old woman who might as well be wrong, who is too old for it to matter whether she got it wrong, because she can’t proceed, she won’t proceed.

In the end, she decides to make a formal complaint because she “wanted to prevent other students from having to go through such practice.”   A complaint can be understood as non-reproductive labour: the work you have to stop the reproduction of an inheritance. You have to stop the system from working, you have to throw a wrench in the works or to become, to borrow Sarah Franklin’s (2015) terms, a “wench in the works.” She goes to her course convenor who says, saying “I hear a lot of these complaints every year,” in an intonation that almost implied a yawn, as if to say: heard that before, been there, done that. She replies: “if you hear them every year why is it continuing?” To complain is often to find out about other complaints, earlier complaints. She then receives a warning, “be careful he is an important man.” A warning can be a statement about who is important. Importance is not just a judgement; it is a direction. She went ahead with a complaint. In making it she “sacrificed the references.”  In reference to the prospect of doing a PhD she said, “the door is closed.”  

References can be doors: how some are given a route through, how others are stopped from progressing. When the door is closed on her complaint, and also on her, she will not be there, bringing to the institution what she might have brought to it, the door is kept open for him. When the door is open for him, he can keep doing because what he has been doing where he has been doing it: behind closed doors.

 Complaint as feminist pedagogy: the system is working by stopping those who are trying to stop the system from working.

“That door is closed:” it would be hard to point to a single action that closed that door on her or for her. Did the closing of the door begin with her indicating she wanted to write her essays on gender and race what he calls “the wrong topics”? Did it begin by her questioning who was missing from the syllabus? Did it begin by sharing with the course leader that she had a problem with his teaching? These questions would locate the cause of the closed door in her action. And that is how so many closed doors are explained. We need to explain the closed door differently.  Doors are teaching us about how power, even when it is not simply held, is acquired. It is not only that the professor is holding the door which he can then close on the student as penalty for complaint (although that is indeed an important part of this story). Consider the lecturer who delivered the warning to the student.  She is relatively new and junior member of her department; far junior to the professor. For the door to be open to the lecturer, for her to promoted at some future point, she would need his support. In other words, the door that she closes on the student’s complaint could be understood as the same door that she, as a junior lecturer, will need to get through.  The warning she gives could thus be a warning she has received about what she needs to avoid doing in order not to compromise her trajectory. She might shut the door on the student’s complaint because otherwise she would shut the door on her own career. A door can be a deal: there is much you cannot say or do, or at least that is what you are told, in order to have a path through and up an organization.   

Complaint as feminist pedagogy: what you are told you need to do to progress further and faster in the system is what reproduces the system.

A door can be a deal. I communicated informally with a woman of colour academic. She told me how she had given her support to a white feminist colleague who had made an informal complaint about plagiarism by a senior white man: “she decided that she cannot speak publicly about the theft of her work by him. Her openness about it previously has apparently hurt his career. She fears it is hurting hers as she still needs him to be a reference for future jobs. So, a complaint made public now becomes detached from one person —literally let go, and now it is still attached to a few others but mainly me.” Her white woman colleague lets the complaint go in order to keep the door open for her own career; she needs that reference. Yes, references can be doors. But the complaint does not go away, or disappear from the public realm; it gets stuck to her, a woman of colour.  I suggested in my introduction that complaints are treated as sticky data. Not everyone who makes a complaint will be stuck by them or with them. If some people can free themselves of their own complaints, unbecoming complainers, others will remain stuck with them.

And by stuck we are talking about a door being shut. The door that is opened for some is same door that is shut on others; the same door. We could tell the story of white liberal feminism as a story of the same door. We could tell the story of the white progressive institution as a story of that door too; the same door, the diversity door. People of colour are assumed to enter the diversity door however we enter the institution. And that door can be shut at any point. The door can be shut to stop us getting in. The door can be shut because we get in. A black woman academic was racially harassed and bullied by a white woman who was her head of department. .

 I think what she wanted to do was to maintain her position as the director, and I was supposed to be some pleb; you know what I mean, she had to be the boss, and I had to be the servant type of thing, that was how her particular version of white supremacy worked, so not just belittling my academic credentials and academic capabilities but also belittling me in front of the students; belittling me in front of administrators.

How do you know it’s about race? That’s a question we often get asked. Racism is how we know it’s about race; that wall, whiteness, or let’s call it what it is, as she has, white supremacy, we come to know intimately as it is what keeps coming up. To have got there, a black woman in a white institution, a lecturer, a senior lecturer, on her way to becoming a professor, she is now a professor; is to be understood as getting above your station, above yourself; ahead of yourself. To belittle someone, to make them little, can function as a command: be little! And that command is being sent not only to her, but to those who are deemed to share the status of being subordinate: students; administrators.  She said: “I had put down that I would like to work towards becoming a professor and she just laughed in my face.” That laughter can be the sound of a door being slammed.  Some of us in becoming professors become trespassers; you are being told you need permission to enter by being told you do not have permission.

Harassment does not just behind doors, it takes place around doors, those doors we sometimes call promotion. I am listening to an indigenous woman academic. She tries to make a complaint after a senior manager sabotages her tenure case as well as the tenure cases of other indigenous academics.  When you are harassed and bullied, when doors are closed, nay, slammed, making it hard to get anywhere, it can be history you are up against; thrown up against

There is a genealogy of experience, a genealogy of consciousness in my body that is now at this stage traumatised beyond the capacity to go to the university. There’s a legacy, a genealogy and I haven’t really opened that door too widely as I have been so focused on my experience in the last 7 years.

To be traumatised is to hold a history in a body; you can be easily shattered. There is only so much you can take on because there is only so much you can take in. We can inherit closed doors, a trauma can be inherited by being made inaccessible, all that happened that was too hard, too painful to reveal.  Decolonial feminist work, black feminist work; feminist of colour work is often about opening these doors; the door to what came before; colonial as well as patriarchal legacies; harassment as the hardening of that history, a history of who gets to do what; who is deemed entitled to what; who is deemed entitled to whom. A complaint can be necessary: what you have to do to go on. But you still have to work out what you can take on. She went on by taking them on:

I took everything off my door, my posters, my activism; my pamphlets. I smudged everything all around the building. I knew I was going to war; I did a war ritual in our tradition. I pulled down the curtain. I pulled on a mask, my people we have a mask…and I never opened my door for a year. I just let it be a crack. And only my students could come in. I would not let a single person come in to my office who I had not already invited there for a whole year.

Closing a door can sometimes be a survival strategy; she closes the door to the institution by withdrawing herself, her commitments, from it. She still does her work; she still teaches her students. She uses the door to shut out what she can, who she can.  She takes herself off the door; she depersonalises it. And she pulls down the blinds and she pulls on a mask, the mask of her people, connecting her fight to the battles that came before, because, quite frankly, for her, this is a war.

Our battles are not the same battles. But there are many battles happening behind closed doors. Behind closed doors: that is where complaints are often found, so that is where you might find us too, those of us for whom the institution is not built; and what we bring with us, who we bring us, the worlds that would not be here if some of us were not here; the data we hold, our bodies, our memories; perhaps the more we have to spill, the tighter their hold.   The more we have to spill. Many complaints end up in filing cabinets; filing as filing away.  One student said of her complaint: “it just gets shoved in the box.” Another student describes: “I feel like my complaint has gone into the complaint graveyard.” When a complaint is filed away or binned or buried those who complain can end up feeling filed away or binned or buried.  Sometimes to get the materials out, we get out. When I make the reasons for my resignation public, I shared information, not very much, but enough; that there had been these enquiries.  I became a leak: drip; drip.

The university responded in the mode of damage limitation, treating information as a mess. There is hope here: they cannot mop up all of our mess.   A leak can be a lead. By becoming a leak, I became easier to find; people came to me with their complaints.  That we find each other through complaint is a finding. Posting that letter was how I became part of a collective, a complaint collective; we are assembled before you.

One lecturer who left the academy after her complaint did not get anywhere, it was she who likened complaint to a little bird scratching away at something, turned her resignation letter into a performance: “I wrote a two-page letter and it was really important to me to put everything in there that I felt so that it was down on paper. And then I asked for a meeting with the Dean. I kind of read the letter out in a performative kind of way just to have some kind of event.” We find ways to make our letters matter. She wanted to do more, to put her letter on the wall: “I just thought I am not the kind of person who would put my resignation letter on the wall, but I just wonder what it is that made me feel that I am not that kind of person because inside I am that kind of person, I just couldn’t quite get it out.” Perhaps that is what complaints are about; how we help each other to get it out.    I think of the scratches on the wall. They seemed at first to show the limits of what we could accomplish. They can also be testimony, how we get our letters on the wall.

It might take a collective effort to get the letters out. A disabled student was not getting anywhere with her complaint about the failure of the university to make reasonable accommodations. And then a file suddenly appears: “a load of documents turned up on the student’s union fax machine and we don’t know where they came from, they were historical documents about students who had to leave.”  The documents including a hand written letter to a human rights charity by a former student who had cancer, and who was trying to get the university to let her finish her degree part-time. She speculates that a secretary was doing “their own little bit of direct action,” releasing those documents as a way of giving support to her complaint that she was not supposed to give. It is not surprising that a secretary can become a saboteur; secretary derives from secrets, the secretary is a keeper of secrets, she knows that there are secret files, where they are, she knows how to release them. I thank about the student who wrote that letter. We can’t know, we won’t know what happened to her. But we can make her letter matter. If the student I spoke to hadn’t made her complaint, that letter would have stayed put; dusty, buried. We can meet in an action without meeting in person.

If direct action is required to get the complaint out, complaints can be direct action. We can become “complaint activists” making use of complaints within institutions to press against them. This student applied what she learnt from complaining at the university, to make complaints against other organizations for the failure to make reasonable adjustments. If we learn about institutions from complaint, we can apply what we learn. I have learned so much from the creativity of student-led complaint activism. A queer feminist student described to me their work to make violence more visible as the work of complaint: “We complained through posters that there is gendered discrimination. We performed complaint through spoken word poem recital.” A complaint can be a poster, a performance, a recital. They took on a role as student representative on an internal committee that dealt with complaints. The complaints committee can be one place where you do the work of complaint. The classroom is another place. A professor makes deeply offensive statements in the class. When they challenged the professor, they were asked to leave the class but stood their ground: “Before I could complain, he complained. The complaint was addressed behind closed doors with other professors.” We have learned to listen to the doors. They have something to tell us. The door is used to shut the violence in – the student is made to apologize. But they kept complaining. The more you complain about the more you are complained about.  They become, in their words, “a nuisance for the admin,” an institutional killjoy, perhaps. To let complaints out—all that negativity, what a nuisance—is to become a complaint magnet, making complaints knowing that they will come right back at you. In the final year of their studies, they “did not have the energy to continue to be complained about.” And so, they turned their complaints into a dissertation project.

So many turnings, so many complaints. Complaint activism is not simply about using formal complaints procedures to press against institutions although it is that. It is about finding different ways to express our complaints: on the walls, in the committees, the classrooms, the dissertations, on the streets.  Complaints can be expressed all over the place; they can be sneaky as well as leaky. The work of getting complaints out is also non-reproductive labour, complaints are records, they teach us something, the truth even, the truth about violence, institutional violence, the violence directed towards who identify violence, who say no to violence.

There is so much violence in the containment of violence. We have to shatter that container.

And when I think of that shattering, I hear the words of Audre Lorde.  As this is the last time, I am presenting this material before the book comes out, I want to use this time to acknowledge my profound debt to Lorde. Lorde describes how she was driving her car when she heard the news of a white policeman being acquitted for the murder of a black child. She stopped the car to express how she felt. She stopped the car and a poem came out. From Lorde I learn that sometimes to register the impact of violence we have to stop what we are doing. And to express ourselves then is not only to let violence in but to get it out. In the poem that she got out, “Power,” published in The Black Unicorn, Lorde uses an image of what poetry is not, how poetry is about not letting our power “lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire.”  To get it out, the violence out, her refusal to accept it, her words become electric, snap, snap, sizzle, making a connection to others, keeping that connection alive.

The more complaints are contained, the more we need to express them, to get them out, keep them alive; the more we need to sneak, to leak, to leave trails behind us so that others can find us. After all, as we have learnt, a complaint in the present can lead to an unburial of past complaints. I think of the complaint graveyard. I shared this image with one person that had been shared with me by another:

You have to think about the impact of doing this. Because having yet another complaint, it means that you give more credibility to the one who comes after you. When you talk about haunting you are talking about the size of the graveyard. And I think this is important. Because when you have one tombstone, one lonely little ghost, it doesn’t actually have any effect; you can have a nice cute little cemetery outside your window, but when you start having a massive one, common graveyards and so on, it becomes something else; it becomes much harder to manage.

We can and do form complaint collectives. We can and do become harder to manage. But we do not always assemble at the same time or in the same place. You might feel like a lonely little ghost, right now. Your complaint might seem to have evaporated like steam, puff; puff.  Your complaint can still be picked up or amplified by others. You might not be able to hear it now; it might not have happened yet. But those who come after can receive something from you because of what you tried to do, even though you did not get through, even though all you seemed to do was scratch the surface.  There you are, little ghosts, little birds, “scratching away,” at something, trying to create room from what has been scattered; shattered. It can just take a small opening, a tiny crack, for more to come out, no, no, no, no, an army of no’s; we are that army. A complaint can open the door to those who came before.  Thank you.

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Complaint Activism

I have just sent the proofs off for Complaint! The book, which is rather like a complaint, long, drawn out, somewhat messy, hard to hold, hard to contain, full of emotion and shared reflections, full of pain and also possibility, a collection of stories, a collective, an assembly, is on its way to you, co-complainers.

To mark the moment, I am sharing some paragraphs from my conclusion on “complaint activism.”

With killjoy solidarity

Sara xxx

 

Complaint Activism

Many of the stories I have collected in this book seem to be stories of working very hard not to get very far. We learn from what we fail to achieve. The complainer knows how much work goes into things staying the same. Being involved in a complaint can thus be a politicizing process in a similar way to participating in a protest or demonstration. It can be violence that brings you to the protest, the violence of the police, for instance. But in protesting against violence, you witness that violence all the more—the violence of the police, the violence of the media which misrepresents the violence of the police as caused by the protestors—you learn how violence is directed, against whom violence is directed. You come to learn how violence against those who challenge violence is how structures are maintained. You come to realize that some are more readily targeted. A formal complaint can lead you in a direction similar to a protest: you come to witness the violence of the status quo when you challenge the violence of the status quo; you come to realize the politics of who gets identified as the origin of the complaint. When you make a complaint, you might not necessarily begin by thinking of yourself as part of a movement nor as a critic of the institution, let alone as trying “to dismantle the master’s house,” to evoke the title of Audre Lorde’s important essay. But that is where many who make complaints end up. There is hope in this trajectory.

Making complaints can lead some to become complaint activists. I first thought of the term complaint activism when I was talking to a disabled woman about the complaints she had made as a student. She needed to make a formal complaint in order to be able to study part time, to have the time she needed to be able to do the work. I drew on her testimony especially in chapter 4; she taught us how you can be heard as complaining if you do not display the right attitude as a disabled person, how you have to show “grovelling gratefulness” in order not to be “a pain in the ass.” She told me not only about her experiences of making a complaint at her former university but how she took what she learned out, onto the streets. Becoming a complainer at her university led to her becoming a complainer wherever she went: “I have started doing this activism using the law and in particular the part of the Equality Act (2010) that only applies to disability regarding reasonable adjustments.” She made use of the law, however limited, as a tool to try to press organizations to become accessible, to become compliant with existing legislation. If complaints can lead you to learn how institutions work, how policies work, what they do and do not do, you can take that knowledge with you. I noted in chapter 6 how a complaint can leave a blank space in a cv, but really it could be claimed as a transferable skill. Even if you can’t claim those skills, you can still make use of them.

Her activism was probably well described by what she said her former university perceived her to be: “a complete pain in the ass.” She was indeed described in local media as trying to ruin small businesses because of demanding they be accessible to her as a wheelchair user, a demand she should not have to make. From her I learned how complaints about institutions can be used to press against them. You are making noise; you are making demands on their time; you are requiring them to do work (even the work of covering over a problem is work) and to use up their resources. A complaint can be a way of occupying their time. You complain again and again about inaccessible rooms and buildings; yes, you are saying it because they are doing it, but it does not mean it is not worth saying it; we just need more to say it as well as to say it more. Perhaps they hope you will stop saying it. You keep saying it even if you don’t have much hope that they will stop doing it; you don’t want their hope you will stop to stop you. If the complainer is irritating, complaint activism might involve being willing to be an irritant, an institutional killjoy.

To be an institutional killjoy, a killjoy at work, you need to work with others. Complaint activism can lead to forming new kinds of collectives. She began working with a group of disabled activists, to use compliance with the law as a method for putting organizations under pressure to be as accessible as they claim to be. Complaint activists can thus also be understood as complaint supporters; you not only work with each other, but in working together, in pooling your resources, you are also more able to give advice and practical support to those who are making complaints.

This kind of complaint activism has a long history. Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie, and Suzanne Scafe ([1985] 2008) in the Black British feminist classic text The Heart of the Race quote from a Black woman talking about the work of her activist group in the 1970s. She refers to how they gave support to a Black mother “in making a complaint against the police” (158). She expands: “We picketed the local Police Station and called in the local press. Then we got involved in a People’s Enquiry, gathering information and evidence on the courts, the police, our housing situation, employment and education practices—everything which affected the Black community in our area. A lot of Black people came along to give evidence on how they had been dealt with by the local police and we helped to compile a report” (159). Supporting a complaint can be about how you make a complaint more public and visible, using pickets and the press, as well as how you collect the evidence needed to compile reports. To make a complaint against an institution is how you gather more evidence of its violence.

We can turn our own experience of institutional violence into a shared resource for others.

Complaint activism might describe a stance or a style, a willingness to fight back, to fight for more, whatever the costs, whether or not you get through. Not getting through does not mean not getting somewhere. This also means that getting somewhere is not always about getting through. Complaint activism is a way of thinking about what we get from complaint even when we do not get through. To complain is also to create a record. Remember: you have to record what you do not want to reproduce. If you record what you do not want to reproduce, that record exists even if what is reproduced is still reproduced. Yes, a record can end up in a file. But the record is also what you retain: you can take it with you wherever you go. A complaint becomes a companion, a noisy companion. One lecturer who made a complaint about bullying at her former institution told me,

I definitely believe in complaining, even when it’s a bad outcome, just creating that record of what happened. I am glad that it exists for me, and that if any questions are raised I have it and also that I had a go, I did try. And for the record: that matters to me. It matters to me not that I tried to seek justice, because I don’t really believe the process can deliver that, but just to have some accountability and explanation in the hope of institutional change, which was I think all I was asking for in the end.

A record can be what matters to the one who assembles it; a record can be a reminder that you made an effort, that you had a go, even if that effort did not lead to institutional change.

To be a complaint activist is not necessarily to enter a process believing it can deliver an end such as justice. Complaint activism does not come from an optimism in the law or in complaints procedures; if anything, complaint activism comes out of the knowledge of institutional violence that comes from making complaints. I noted earlier that there is hope in the trajectory of becoming a complaint activist. The hope of this trajectory is not tied to success. Complaint activism comes from an experience of institutional failures of many kinds. One student said, “You know the process is broken, but still, you know you must do it, because if you don’t, more falls to the wayside. So, it’s like a painful repetitive cycle where you do what you know is right, knowing it may not make a difference at that time, but you always hope, you always have that hope, that maybe because I did this, it paves the way for something else.” Complaint activism involves the willingness to make use of complaints procedures even though you know “the process is broken” and you are likely to enter “a painful repetitive cycle,” which you can recognize because you have already been through it. You have hope because even if a complaint does not make a difference at the time you make it, it could still “pave the way for something else.” I think of how paving can become pavement, how possibility can be preparing the ground. The hope of complaint could be thought of as a weary hope, not agentic, bright, forward, and thrusting, but a hope that is close to the ground, even below the ground, slow, low, below; a hope born from what is worn.

Even going through an exhausting of processes can have creative potential. Yes, we can be in a state of exhaustion because of that process. But complaints, even formal ones, slow and tedious ones, long and drawn out, can be creative. Consider how feminist artists have made use of complaint, or how feminist art can be complaint. The Guerrilla Girls, for instance, had an exhibition called Complaints Department, in which individuals and organizations were invited to post “about art, culture, politics, the environment, or any other issue they care about.” They also ran office hours where you could share your complaints “face to face.” You can turn what might be assumed to be a mundane administrative practice into an art project. The direction of travel goes both ways. Those who make complaints, who enter that department, the Complaint Department (though of course making formal complaints often means entering many departments), can turn what they do—it might seem tedious, it might seem dull, all those papers—into art. Or perhaps there is no turning involved; perhaps there is an art in the mundane, to the mundane.

Complaint activism is not simply about using formal complaints procedures to press against institutions, although it involves that. It is also about taking complaints out, making complaints across different sites: the walls, the committees, the classrooms, the dissertations. Complaints can be expressed queerly, coming out all over the place. Complaints can be sneaky as well as leaky.

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Melancholic Migrants

Not that long ago I received a message. It was a relatively mild message compared to some I have received. As a lesbian feminist of colour from a Muslim background who writes on racism as well as other forms of power and oppression, albeit keeping my work as far away as I can from mainstream media, I know what I will receive is what I work on. But this message caught my attention. Before a long hate-filled preamble, it said “just because someone called you a P— in the 1980s.” Here a racist insult is repeated by saying that it was or had been said. The insult is firmly located in the past (that distant decade) and attributed to another (that someone) whilst being said, put into a message, put to a person, in the present.

Note the implication of the wording “just because” as if what you are doing now, the work you are doing now, perhaps the critiques you are offering now, are because “or just because” you did not get over what someone once said to you in the past. Note as well how what was said is not only located in the past but is made singular, as if what was said was said once.

So often when we talk about racism we are heard as talking about something slight.

Because, just because.

So much harm, so much history, can be turned into a slight.  There is a history to this making light of history.

Racism: a word we use because we refuse to make light of this history.

When Black or Brown people refuse to make light of racism, we find ourselves turned into a ghostly figure, the melancholic migrant.  The migrant is already a racialised figure: you can be Brown or Black and born here and told to go back to where you came from or to go home.  To be a melancholic migrant is to say what I just said, or do what I just did, to use the languages of race, racialization or racism to make sense of who gets to reside here; who decides who resides here. The melancholic migrant, like any other killjoy, is a useful figure, locating soreness at a certain point. That melancholic migrant is exercised regularly, turning up whenever we bring racism up, as if to say, we talk about racism “just because” we have a chip on our shoulder, racism as how we instrumentalise, even weaponise, our individual or collective trauma.

Because? Just because.

Speaking of singularity, you just have to say the word racism and you are heard as always saying the word racism, as if you are a broken record, stuck on the same point, as if you can’t pause for breath, as if you can’t even punctuate your sentences with any other points.

Racismracismracismracismracismracismracismracismracismracismracismracismracismra

We might keep saying it because they keep doing it (though we are the ones who will be heard as repeating ourselves). But, actually, we have many different points to make. You can make many different points and be heard as making the same point.

One woman of colour I interviewed for my project on diversity said, “they say you make everything about racism.”

About. What’s that, about?

Everything?

Maybe its because when you say it, that is all they can hear. Or maybe its until you bring it up, they don’t have to hear it.

Then if we bring it up, they say you made it up, as if to bring it up is to bring it into existence.

And then: it is assumed it would go away if you just stopped going on about it.

No wonder we are heard as repeating ourselves.

I suspect mostly most of us want to get on with things. And most of the time, we put what makes it hard to do our work into the background, which does not mean it no longer exists. Sometimes you are busy, doing what you do. But then you are hit by it. I remember one meeting, an informal meeting at the house of a white feminist colleague. Another white feminist, a colleague of a colleague, well known for her work on cultural difference, suddenly peered over the table at me, as if to examine me more closely.

“Sara, I didn’t realise you were Oriental.”

Even when you are used to it, it can catch you. Casual comments, draped all over you.

Realisations cutting the atmosphere like a knife.

I wince, but don’t say anything.

Maybe when we wince, we are heard as sore, as shouting, because of what we are not receiving, the message, kindly meant, dear, how curious, dear, look at you, dear.

You can be deemed to be holding onto racism just by noticing what is going on.

Noticing can be a killjoy hammer.

I first reflected on the figure of the melancholic migrant by working through and working out what I found so problematic about the film Bend it Like Beckham that feel-good film that presented a happy view of British multiculturalism. The film tells the story of Jess, who wants to make her family happy, but also wants to play football because that is what makes her happy. Happiness is a crisis if what makes you happy does not make those you want to make happy, happy.

Racism comes up because Jess’s father brings it up as an explanation of why he does not want Jess to play football. He says: “I was a teenager in Nairobi, I was the best fast bowler in our school. Our team even won the East African cup. But when I came to this country, nothing. And these bloody gora in the club house made fun of my turban and sent me off packing.” The father says he does not want Jess to play because he does not want her to suffer like him. A memory of racism, it is implied, stopped him from playing, and could stop her from playing.

The father makes a second speech in which he announces a different decision: he wants her to play. He says, “When those bloody English cricket players threw me out of their club like a dog, I never complained. On the contrary, I vowed that I would never play again. Who suffered? Me. But I don’t want Jess to suffer. I don’t want her to make the same mistakes her father made, accepting life, accepting situations. I want her to fight. And I want her to win.”  The second speech implies that the refusal to play the national game is the “truth” being the migrant’s suffering: you suffer because you do not play the game, where not playing is framed as a kind of self-exclusion (“I vowed I would never play again”). For Jess to be happy he lets her be included, narrated as a form of letting go. By implication, not only is he letting her go, he is also letting go of his own suffering, the unhappiness caused by accepting racism, as the “point” of his exclusion.  

In these two contrasting speeches, we can hear an old diagnosis that is not invented but inherited. Racism is treated as a kind of false consciousness, as how some hold onto what is no longer relevant or real.  Racism as an explanation of migrant suffering (“they made fun of my turban and sent me off packing”) is deemed to function to preserve an attachment to the very scene of suffering. The melancholic migrant holds on not simply to difference (such as the turban), nations can enjoy some differences, but to the unhappiness of difference as an historical itinerary (they “made fun of my turban”).  In other words, racism is framed as what the melancholic migrant is attached to, as an attachment to injury that allows them to justify their refusal to participate in the national game (“the gora in their club house”). By implication, it is the story of injury which causes injury: the migrants exclude themselves if they insist on reading their exclusion as a sign of the ongoing nature of racism. The narrative implicit in the resolution of the father’s trauma is not that migrants invented racism to explain their loss, but that they preserve its power to govern social life by not getting over it.

The moral task is thus “to get over it,” as if when you are over it, it is gone.

Killjoy maxim: Don’t get over what is not over.

The task is not only to let go of the pain of racism but to let go of racism as a way of understanding that pain. Implicit to the task is also a warning: if you don’t stop talking about racism, then you will be stopped (from playing the game, from doing something, from getting somewhere). Perhaps we are required to tell that story happily, as if the only thing stopping us from playing the game is ourselves.

Why bring up the figure of the melancholic migrant now? Because the figure has come up again.

This figure appears in the Report recently published by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities set up by Government (March 31, 2021). The report reads like a reference for the Government. It reads like that because it is that. The report acknowledged (it “has to acknowledge”) that the  “original trigger” for the setting up of the Commission was the Black Lives Matter protests that “engulfed the world.” Language is a lead. If the protests are treated as what could spread and engulf and enflame, the Commission (and the Report) is the effort to put the lid on it.  It did what it was set up to do: deny the ongoing existence of institutional and structural racism. We know it was set up to do that because those who chose and were chosen to lead the Commission had already denied the existence of institutional and structural racism.

Brown and Black people who deny structural racism are far more likely to have a door opened to them by those who benefit from structural racism. In fact, my own research on complaint has taught me how denial can lead to promotion (or how promotion can be a reward for denial).

The more you deny the existence of structures, the more you are promoted by those same structures.

The Commission is another door slammed shut, evidence of what it says does not exist. It teaches us how some others are allowed in because of what they are willing to do or not do. You give them what they want: a happy story about diversity, a refusal to acknowledge racism, colonialism, that recent history, that present, occupying so many institutions.

Doors are opened to some of us on condition we show we are willing to shut the door on others. If you police the border, you get in. And then, the shut door is treated as a melancholic object, not in the world but in the minds of those who don’t get in.  To evoke as the report does that old-worn-tired figure of the melancholic migrant is to shut the door whilst denying the door even exists. So, racism appears only by being located in the minds of those who are haunted by history: “For some groups historic experience of racism still haunts the present and there was a reluctance to acknowledge that the UK had become open and fairer.”

Racism is not only deposited in the past it is deemed to be what stops us from seeing the present.

If we are haunted it is because racism has not gone. If we are haunted it is because racism goes on.

What has not gone, goes on.

As killjoy critics, we have learnt to read the distribution of positives and negatives. In the report, being positive is treated as being objective and neutral and forward-thinking; being negative, as subjective and biased and stuck in the past. Indeed, the report uses positive and negative not only as attitudes that alone determine outcome for individuals, but as judgements made against different ethnic groups: “Those groups, particularly Indian and Chinese ethnic groups, who have the most success in British society tend to see fewer obstacles and less prejudice. And those groups that do less well, Black people and Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims, tend to see and experience more of both, though Black African people are considerably more positive than Black Caribbean people.” The implication here that when you see an obstacle, you are you are own obstacle. When I think of the grossly simplistic and frankly outrageous moral economy, I think of Audre Lorde, who taught us how “being positive” as an outlook is used to obscure so much.  Lorde writes, “looking on the bright side of things is a euphemism used for obscuring certain realities of life, the open consideration of which might prove threatening to the status quo” (1997: 76).

What is threatening is what you are supposed to overlook to do well.

The report even “see the positives” in slavery, “here is a new story about the Caribbean experience which speaks to the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain.”  Yes: even slavery, which caused the death and dispossession of millions of African people, can be, has been, is being, turned into a positive story of cultural and self-empowerment.

Being positive is also turned into a teaching resource, which they contrast to “the negative calls for ‘decolonising’ the curriculum:” “Neither the banning of White authors or token expressions of Black achievement will help to broaden young minds. We have argued against bringing down statues, instead, we want all children to reclaim their British heritage. We want to create a teaching resource that looks at the influence of the UK, particularly during the Empire period. We want to see how Britishness influenced the Commonwealth and local communities, and how the Commonwealth and local communities influenced what we now know as modern Britain. One great example would be a dictionary or lexicon of well-known British words which are Indian in origin.” Here happy diversity, becomes happy hybridity, a story of mixing and mingling.

Just in case we need a reminder: the dominant way of telling the story of the British empire in Britain has been as a happy story, which was the same story that justified empire, of course, as a moral or civilizing project in the first place; empire as gift, empire as bringing railways and Shakespeare, empire as drinking tea with smiling natives, as bringing light to dark shores; the British imperialists as rather well-meaning gentlemen and even gentler women. That dominant happy view of empire is enforced through citizenship, by which I mean, to become a citizen is to learn that positive view and to be required to repeat it. The Home Office guide for citizenship tests Life in the United Kingdom: A Journey to Citizenship first published in 2005, mentions empire a few times and always in positive or glowing terms, for example, empire as what brought “regular, acceptable and impartial systems of law and order” to “Indigenous peoples in Africa, the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere.”

Gone the violence; the dispossession of people from land, from language, from culture, the dispossession of people from people.

Gone the violence: how the violence has not gone.

This happy story of empire is endlessly reproduced everywhere. The former head of the former Commission for Racial Equality once said, “And we can look at our own history to show that the British people are not by nature bigots. We created something called the empire where we mixed and mingled with people very different from those of these islands.” Invasion, enslavement, and servitude are rewritten as a party, as diversity, mixing and mingling with different people and even as a confirmation of not being bigoted. A former prime minister made a list of things make England great, and included in that list that we “took slavery off the high seas.”

Great Britain is remembered as the liberator of the slaves not as one of the main perpetrators and beneficiaries of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Since the Black Lives Matter movement has travelled into the UK, following the paths of other anti-racist global movements, there has been more of a concerted effort not to keep telling the idealised story of empire. There has been more of an effort to remove statues of slave owners and to take the names of eugenicists off from buildings.  This is not about censoring history but refusing the censoring of history, refusing not to deal with the violence that has not been dealt with.

Because that is what we are dealing with: what has not been dealt with. My research into complaint has taught me the racism experienced by many Black and Brown students and academics in universities in the UK is almost always met with by denial (see here, for a recent lecture on Complaint, Diversity and Hostile Environments). Universities can announce their commitments to Black Lives Matter whilst remaining hostile environments for Black people. We know can from do.  Universities are not a special case: they are public institutions amongst other public institutions. Much racist speech is routinely justified as free speech or turned into an error message, as being inexpressive of what persons or institutions are really like (they didn’t mean it; it didn’t mean anything). I have learnt that even acts of physical violence are justified as forms of self-expression or as inexpressive and if not justifiable in this way are explained as caused by how others appear.

So much violence is dealt with by not being faced.

Denial is how institutions handle racism.

Denial of racism is how racism is reproduced.

Denial is how institutional racism works.

In denying the existence of institutional racism, the Report produced by the Commission is evidence of institutional racism. It is teaching us how institutional racism works.

Sadly, we don’t need to learn that lesson; the point of that lesson is we have already learned it.

The reassertion of positivity-as-duty is a concerted and deliberate attempt to close the door, to dampen the mood, to loosen the will, and to deny the truths, of those protesting the violence of racism, especially anti-Black racism, the violence of more violence, the violence that leaves so many people so much more vulnerable to violence, police violence, state violence, economic violence, inter-personal violence.

It will not work. We will keep doing the work.

References

Lorde, Audre (1997). The Cancer Journals. Aunt Lute Books: San Francisco.

 

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Apologies for Harm, Apologies as Harm

What would you do if you opened your complaint file and found an apology from the person you complained about?

This is not a hypothetical question.

We ask some questions because of what has happened.

A student is being harassed and bullied by the professor who teaches the core course of her MA. In a one-to-one tutorial, he shouts and swears at her, tells her that her questions about “gender and race,” were “the fucking wrong questions.” He tells her that her grades don’t matter, that she doesn’t matter, because she’s too “fucking old,” she is “not going to have a career in academia.” She is “insulted, undermined, threatened.” She felt afraid not only because someone with power was acting toward her in such a manner but because his actions left no physical trace.

She said: “I felt afraid. He hadn’t touched me. He hadn’t physically abused me.”

If other people can’t see it, that it happened, did it happen? Some forms of violence, however hard they hit you, do not appear to others. Fear can be magnified by not being able to evidence what you encounter.

She said: “So, then I started getting afraid, I started questioning and doubting myself.”

Fear can be not only directed toward something, but can be the experience of not being able to communicate what it is directed toward to others.

We can feel the absence of evidence as fear.

What then, what to do then?

She did make a complaint after her MA about what happened during it. And she complained in part because the professor used the power he had as professor to close the door. He was not supposed to mark her dissertation, but he does; she gets a much lower mark than she did for her other course work. On the prospect of doing a PhD, she said “that door is closed.” He closed the door on her complaint, he closed the door on her career; he closed the door on her. She knows that the low mark was a form of retaliation, for asking the wrong questions, for not receiving passively what the professor taught as wisdom (in Living a Feminist Life, I call sexism “received wisdom”). Believe me, when someone retaliates, you know it. But it can still be hard to convince others that the retaliation is retaliation. Many people do not want to be convinced because of the investments they have in persons (he wouldn’t do that; he couldn’t do that).

So many complaints are blocked because of people’s investments in persons, in programmes, in projects.

To complain is to encounter a wall of investment.

She felt she had a duty to complain: she wanted to stop what happened to her from happening to others. But her complaint did not get anywhere. He was protected by the organisation and by his colleagues. She is left feeling there was little point to having complained:

I think lots of students would have complained but a lot of people are a lot better at self-care than I am and realised that this process is damaging, is traumatic and to be perfectly frank it is not very helpful for me as a student all I am doing is being fobbed off by the university, where they are making excuses for their behaviour. As far as I can tell, no real change is going to happen. I might get some money at the end of it to shut me up. In terms of change for future students, institutional change, or any real genuine apology or sense of worry from the university that they had let a student have the kind of experience I had, none of that so ultimately the complaints process has not helped me in any way. Maybe you could make an argument that somehow it is therapeutic to air one’s woes but to be perfectly frank I haven’t found it therapeutic at all. And, it continues and I am finding it difficult to move on with my life.

Like many of the stories of complaint I have collected for this project, her complaint did not end well. She was not even able to narrate the experience as therapeutic. Rather she witnessed what I think of as the “clunk, clunk” of institutional machinery. She encountered the same thing she complained about because she complained: the protection of an esteemed professor by an institution and by his colleagues.

How he gets away with it is how he keeps doing it.

Unlike most of the stories of complaint I have collected in this story there is an apology, or at least an apparent apology made by the professor even though, as she describes, there is no “real genuine apology” or even a “sense of worry” expressed by the university. In her complaint file she finds a letter addressed from him to her. She had not asked for an apology. She was quite clear about what the apology was doing and not doing by turning up in her file. She said:

I think it’s a box ticking exercise, oh at least we apologised, but look at the words, think about what an apology really means then tell me you’ve apologised or whether you have got a lawyer and wrote a letter that you wanted to show.

To describe an apology as a “box ticking exercise,” is to suggest that the apology is fulfilling a bureaucratic function. Some apologies are made so those who make them can show they have been made (“a letter that you wanted to show”). If a “real genuine apology,” would be a recognition of harm, a bureaucratic apology would be a way of appearing to recognise harm without really doing so. An apology can be offered rather like that non-performative nod, a way of appearing to hear somebody’s complaint, a way of placating somebody. An apology can be used to resolve the complaint, to complete an action, when it acquires the status of evidence that the harm identified by the complaint has been heard and handled. An apology for harm can be a mode of recovery, a recovering of harm, covering over harm.

Although in this case the apology took the form of a letter from another person, by describing it as “box ticking exercise,” she is pointing to the usefulness of the apology to the institution.  The apology is teaching something about how the institution is working (2). Even an apology that takes the form of a letter addressed from a professor to a student can be an institutional speech act. It can follow a format, or a template; it can be signed by an individual but written by lawyers with words carefully chosen to ensure that the apology does not do too much, say too much, reveal too much (“look at the words”). By attending to how the words fall short of what “an apology really means,” she is showing that an apology does not always apologise; it does not mean what it says. A person can apologise for wrong doing in such a way a person frees himself from implication in that wrongdoing.

It is not always clear who is freeing what from what. This lack of clarity can be doing something. Perhaps the apology can be made vague in what the apology is for or in who it is from. She shows the vaguely institutional nature of the apology by switching between “you” and “we”: she says that the apology is written for you or by your lawyers so that “at least we apologised.” That an apology can be vaguely institutional means that an apology can be used by the institution to create an impression that it handled and heard the complaint in such a way that the institution is not implicated, or is cleared, of wrong doing. If the institution can be vaguely cleared perhaps the professor is cleared too. Perhaps the vaguer the apology, the more can be cleared.

Apologies can, of course, be made by institutions such as universities to nation-states. In such instances, apologies are official to the extent they are made by a person or persons who have already been given the authority to speak on behalf of the institution. Even when institutional apologies can be used to cover over wrongs, apologies can still be received as recognition of wrong doing. This is why many governments today still refuse to apologise for colonialism and slavery, preferring weaker words like regret. To apologise can be to say too much, do too much, because of how apologies can be received as an admission of something, or as taking responsibility for wrongs, historic or not, whether intended as such. Some apologies are not made because of where they could lead; apologies as a path toward reparation, for instance. However, we know from history, that it is possible to apologise for crimes against humanity without starting on a path toward reparation.

If apologies are paths, where else do they lead? Perhaps we need to ask about who, who apologises, before we can think about the direction of an apology. Apologies are more often made without the need for authorisation; the person who is apologising is doing so on their own behalf. What such interpersonal apologies do depends on how they are made, when they are made, by whom they are made and to whom they are made.

Some apologies can be habitual; some people can keep saying sorry as a way of prefacing their own existence as if they are apologising for existing. Apology in this form is very gendered; femininity as apology for taking up space.

Apologies can be made without referring to a person’s own conduct. The person who apologises does not have to say what they are apologising for. Or a person can apologise for what they have done in such a way that they make what they are apologising for seem small or minor. Or someone might apologise for causing offence rather than for being offensive. An apology is then made a matter of how someone is affected rather than what the person who made the apology caused: If you apologise for hurting someone’s feelings, hurt feelings become the problem that is being resolved by the apology.

Of course, so much harm can be minimized as a matter of hurt feelings without an apology being made.

Let me return to complaint. In my complaint testimonies, I found different kinds of apologies.

What are they doing?

An academic made multiple complaints relating to plagiarism as well as racism. Her complaints could be well described as “feminist of colour pedagogy,” she came to know the institution intimately, profoundly, as a white patriarchal institution, from the work of complaining. She came to know how it worked, how white men academics ended up with more research time, how people of colour, especially women of colour, ended up with less research time; all those backdoor deals and shadow policies. I share her learning in Complaint! and explain her use of the term “shadow policies.” She is sure that she will never receive an apology for the harm caused to her. She stated, “x will never apologise or acknowledge they made a mistake. They are afraid of lawsuits.” Some apologies can be not made, more than not, will never be made, because they recognise too much, because of where they could lead, to lawsuits.

Apologies can be refused because they recognise harm.

A senior researcher made a complaint about bullying and harassment. Her complaint ends up with an ombudsman. They require that the organization apologies. She describes “The organisation ‘had to apologise formally.’ The state of that apology. It is ridiculous: it is 10 percent of what happened.” She describes the apology, which took the form of a written letter as “not really an apology.” She added, “They are sorry for the suffering…but is not their fault, and things have changed now so it is fine.” Sometimes it is clear: an apology when required can be made in such a way that it clears an organisation of wrong doing. When you are sorry for someone’s suffering, you are not saying sorry for what you have caused. You do not have to admit responsibility for causing suffering when you are sorry for suffering (3). She added: “there is no recognition of the harm they did and that it’s their fault and responsibility and it’s not fair.”

She experienced this apology that did not recognize harm as harmful.

Apologies can be made because they don’t recognise harm.

Take these bold sentences together:

Apologies can recognise harm and not recognise harm. Apologies can be not made because of what they do or made because of what they do not do.

Apologies can hold histories because they hold contradictions.

I am understanding so much more about what apologies do and do not do from listening to those who complain.

More instances.

Apologies that do not recognise harm (or do not really do anything) can be experienced as empty or meaningless by those who receive them. I spoke to a student who made a complaint about disability discrimination. Her complaint also ended up with an ombudsman who found that the institution had failed to handle her complaint fairly. She described, “x was required to write an apology, which they did on the last day.” The university also gave her a small monetary compensation. She passed over the gesture because she recognised what the gesture allowed the organization to pass over: “as a gesture of good will you can just go away.”

An apology can be another way you are told to go away.

If an apology from one party to another party is made into a requirement by a third party, the person who receives the apology does not always experience the apology as empty or pointless. In another example, an academic experienced abuse from another academic. She describes: “There was one moment I had to complain where a female member of staff was completely drunk and verbally abusive and aggressive to me, and on that particular occasion I managed to get the institution to force her to write a letter of apology, because I think that is really important to have it on record and on file that in any given circumstances you are not ethically in the wrong position.” She was not concerned about whether the person who made the apology was being sincere or not, or whether the apology in its wording offered a recognition of the harm that had been caused or not. For her that an apology was made was what mattered. An apology here, however solicited, however required, or perhaps even because it was solicited, because it was required, becomes a record of a wrong.

An unsolicited and unrequired apology can also matter in part because it is unsolicited or unrequired. A postdoctoral researcher made a complaint about racism that led her to experience more racism. She attends meetings that end up as interrogations. But in the middle of the process, a person from human resources apologies to her. She describes, “She was like: wow I am really sorry you had to go through this. And the union official said they and never heard someone apologise.” If you are an administrator of a complaint process you might be encouraged not to apologise because of an institutional concern that an apology can be used by the recipient as evidence or as acknowledgment of wrong doing. If someone apologies in the middle of a complaint process about the process, in part as that’s the right or decent thing to do, it stands out. An apology becomes a gesture filled with meaning because in being offered it does not follow the path laid down by the institution.

It can help sometimes to have someone recognise how hard a process is, which can be about how hard a process is on you. If so, then: apologies for how someone is being affected by something can do something for someone.

In writing about apologies and what they do, and do not do, I am not writing apologies off. I am not claiming that in doing this or doing that they only do this or only do that. Perhaps apologies are another queer map of the organization, also of a complaint, also of a life: messy.

And yet: we still need to write about what some apologies write off.

The following is the some of that story.

Let me return to the testimony from the MA student with which I opened this post. She said:

And the other thing they did is send me that letter by x. I didn’t ask for any contact from that man. He is a bully. He already lives in my nightmares.

If the letter was an apology, it was also a form of communication. Making an apology allowed the professor to enter the complaint she had made about him in his own terms; it allows him to enter her mind as well as her file, to take up space in the way he had already taken up space (“he already lives in my nightmares”).

The insertion of an apology into a complaint can be a continuation of the kind of communication she complained about. The apology becomes another instance of unwanted communication. Even his apology is a form of self-assertion. To accept his apology would be to accept how he inserts himself, into her complaint, her file, into her mind; her world. She needed not to accept that apology because she needed him not to be there.

She added, “I think they thought I would accept it as a real apology.” The action she is identifying as problematic is not only the apology, but the expectation of what would follow the apology, that she would accept it. Finding that letter in the file is to be put under pressure to accept it, to move on with it, to get on with it.

The use of an apology teaches us how reconciliation can be a form of governance (4). When reconciliation becomes a mode of governance, abuses of power are treated as minor squabbles or as the product of poor communication that can be resolved by better communication.

Another student was considering making a complaint about sexual misconduct by her former tutor.  She was told her options would either be a formal complaint, which she didn’t “think would lead anywhere without tangible proof of physical assault” or “writing him a letter directly.” She did not want to write such a letter. As she describes: “I have no wish to reopen channels of communication with X as I have successfully cut myself off and I do not want to start a conversation with him or give him a chance to explain himself.” To be asked to communicate whether in writing or in person with the person who has harassed you, is to be asked to reopen channels of communication that you closed to protect yourself. The person who abused you is given more chances to express himself.

Reconciliation can be experienced as the enforcement of communication.

Stories of apology are also about who is given the task of reconciliation.  A white academic, when she became head of her department, told a black academic to reconcile with the former head of department: “I want you to reconcile with her because after all she is my friend and colleague and all she ever did was write you some long emails.”  The black woman she is addressing (although not addressing as a colleague) had in fact been racially harassed by the former head of department, another white woman, for many years. This white woman by expressing her desire for reconciliation (“I want you to reconcile with her”) is also offering an interpretation of events (“all she ever did is to write you some long emails”). A key tactic for minimising harassment is to present harassment as a style of communication: long emails might be annoying, but the implication is that they are not harmful or serious.

If reconciliation can be the enforcement of communication, violence is shut out by being presented as a style of communication.

The work of reconciliation often falls upon those who have been harassed: it is the Black woman who is given the task of reconciling “with her,” the white woman who harassed her whilst she was her head of department.  The expectation she will smooth things over or keep smoothing things over is how she is required to maintain a relationship that is damaging.   An expression of desire for reconciliation might appear to be a friendly gesture. There is nothing friendly about this gesture. If she does not return the desire for reconciliation, if she is not willing to smooth things other, moving on, getting along, getting on, she becomes the one who has not only broken a connection but refused to repair it.

This story is not a story of an apology. And yet I learnt from her testimony something about timing that allows me to return to apology in a different way. Being required to accept an apology can be how you are required to accept a situation. Perhaps some apologies are made not after harm but before harm; apologies for harm, apologies as harm. An expectation of reconciliation can be enforced right from the beginning; the violence that follows must be forgiven in advance for someone to advance.

In fact, then, the requirement to accept an apology can be the requirement to overlook violence: it didn’t mean anything, they didn’t mean anything, don’t be mean!

Abusive relationships are often treated like fragile, breakable things. And repair is often narrated as achievable through giving time and attention; patching it up, patching things up. Sometimes, however, in order to end abuse, we need to end relationships with those who are abusive. Keeping those relationships going in the hope they can improve is to keep going with something that is harmful.  If an apology is made to keep a relationship going that is harmful, an apology is harmful.

Institutions too can be treated as fragile things that can be patched up or as persons whose problems can be resolved by learning to communicate better. In my book, On Being Included I noted that when racism is recognized as institutional, institutions are quickly psychologized. Consider this definition of institutional racism: “processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping.” In a way, the institution becomes recognised as racist only through being posited as like an individual, as someone who suffers from prejudice, but who could be treated, or made better (perhaps through diversity, that reconciliation story).  The recognition of institutional racism can easily be translated into a form of institutional therapy culture: where the institution becomes the sick person, who can be helped by being given the appropriate treatment.  An apology can be expressed as treatment.

When institutions apologise, those apologies often assume a magical form: as if to say it is to be over it. An apology can be offered as a way of “being over it.” If it is not over, it is not the time to be over it. If apologies are to have a point as well as purpose, they need to be offered in recognition that what an apology is an apology for is not over. Being sorry is not being over it. We apologise for what we are in not what we are over.

Perhaps an apologetic institution is also one that demands we preserve our attachment to it despite everything the institution has done not to deserve that attachment.

Apologetic institutions: the violence perpetuated by an apology for institutional violence as if apologising for institutional violence is no longer being violent in the same way.

Apologetic racism: the racism perpetuated by an apology for racism as if apologising for racism means no longer being racist in the same way.

Apologetic sexism: the sexism that is perpetuated by an apology for sexism as if apologising for sexism means no longer being sexist in the same way.

And so on. And so, it goes on (5).

The problem is not only that apologies can be used as if they create the conditions for transcending what apologies are for. An apology can enact what the apology is for. For instance, someone can take up more time and space by apologising for taking up more time and space.

I want to return for the final time to the story of an apology found in a complaint file that inspired this post. This former MA student also said:

Reading it, it is not an apology. He did exactly the same thing he used to do in seminars. Of course, of course, you’re right, but not actually to enter into any discourse, so in fact telling you, I am not even going to grant you the respect of a conversation. I am just going to capitulate in such a tone that tells you that I don’t believe a word you are saying, therefore not giving you the respect of recognising that you might have a valid point. It sounds bizarre but by saying a person’s right you can somehow devalue or invalidate the point you are making but x is an expert at doing that.

What you are told to receive as apology you do not have to receive as an apology. You have to be assertive not to do as you are told, not only not to accept the apology but to insist that an apology is not what it is (“reading it, it is not an apology”). You might refuse to recognise the apology as apology because of what you recognise. She recognises the letter, the tone of it, what it is doing, what he is an expert in doing, because it is what he did before (“exactly the same thing he used to do in seminars”). An apology for conduct can be that conduct: it is familiar to her, he is addressing her in the same way he used to address her, the disbelief, disdain; how a right, you’re right can be a way of not engaging, not recognising someone, not entering into discourse. You can be telling someone how little you think they are worth by appearing to concede in such a way that intonates their point, their complaint, is not “a valid point.”

Summary: an apology for bullying can be an extension of bullying.

Remember: violence is often enacted in a way that makes that violence intangible to others.

Also: we can feel the absence of evidence as fear.

An apology can add to the fear: how the violence is made to disappear.

An apology inserted into her complaint file can be a way of countering the evidence of complaint, countering an absence with its presence. His apology could be showing: she has nothing to show.

What would happen if you opened a complaint file and found an apology from the person you complained about?

I don’t know what would happen in every instance. But I know what could happen from what did happen.

When you open the complaint file and find an apology, you can find the enactment of what you complained about. An apology can be that enactment.

 

 

  1. In my book, Complaint! I have only one paragraph on apology. I could have written much more than I did but there was only so much room and I had so much material. In the year to come, I hope to share posts drawing on data I missed out from the book.
  2. I have wondered about the work of the apology before. In the chapter, “Shame Before Others,” from The Cultural Politics of Emotion, I examined the role of apologies, as well as expression of sorrow, remorse and shame, in the Sorry Books written by settler Australians about the stolen generations of Aboriginal peoples in Australia. Many of these speech acts were requests for an apology by the government for the violent theft of Aboriginal children from their homes and communities. I was struck then by how often the request for an apology by government took the form of a desire for national pride, in other words, an apology was deemed a necessary condition to be able to return to being proud to be Australian. An apology was assumed to be necessary to bring an end to this shameful period of colonial history. Colonial violence and subjugation can be treated as inexpressive, as not being evidence of what we are really like. So much structural violence is deemed to be inexpressive in this way (we are not that, we need to do this to show we are not that.
  3. As I was writing this post on January 26 2021, the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was widely reported by the press as having apologised for the suffering caused by coronavirus. This was a day to be sorry, a day to be outraged, very angry and very sad: it was the day that over 100,000 deaths from coronavirus were officially recorded in the UK. Johnson’s speech was an expression of condolence to all those who had lost loves ones. But it was not an apology in the sense of offering a recognition of wrong doing and harm caused by government policies. Or perhaps it was more of an apology in the original sense of the word; an apology as speech given as defence. Despite saying he was responsible as Prime Minister, Johnson also attempted to clear his government (and thus himself) of responsibility by saying they had done “everything [they] could” to minimise death and suffering.
  4. The uses of reconciliation as a governing strategy by organizations is not unrelated to the uses of reconciliation by settler colonial nation states. Reconciliation can be the demand that indigenous peoples reconcile themselves to the situation of occupation as well as with the colonizer (see Nicoll, 1998). The use of reconciliation in the settler colonial context can imply, as Glen Sean Coulthard has astutely noted, that the task for native peoples is to overcome “negative feelings” in the promotion of harmony. He writes, “it is frequently inferred by proponents of political reconciliation that restoring those relationships requires that individuals and groups work to overcome debilitating pain, anger and resentment that frequently persist in being injured or harmed by a real or perceived injustice” (2014, 107).
  5. The structure I am describing here is similar to the uses of criticality: critical racism as the claim to have transcended racism (as racism is uncritical) and so on.

 

References

Coulthard, Glen Sean. 2014. Red Skins, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Nicoll, Fiona. (1998) “B(l)acklash: Reconciliation after Wik,” Meanjin, 57, 1: 167-183.

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