Killjoy Commitments

It is another year, a new year. A new year, an old reality, being where we are, in a global pandemic, a time of immense loss and hardship for so many. When times are hard, inequalities become harsher.

This is a killjoy commitment.

I commit to keep going, to keep doing what I can to challenge inequalities where I am.

On the morning of January 1st 2021, I made another killjoy commitment. I tweeted:

I recommit myself to the task of explaining what I oppose without elevating what I oppose as a position worthy of being debated.

My task in this post is to show how these killjoy commitments are part of the same commitment.

To challenge inequalities where I am is to explain what I oppose without elevating what I oppose to a position worthy of being debated.

For me to undertake this task will be to return to complaint.

My study of complaint is an explanation of how hard it is to challenge inequalities.

Harassment is an equality issue.

What do you do if someone with institutional power harasses you? You know that if you did complain they could use that power to do what they can to stop not just the complaint but you, to stop you from getting somewhere.

Much harassment is the effort to stop people complaining about harassment.

That some have power can be what makes it hard to complain. Power works by making it hard to challenge how power works. We have systems in place to stop those who have power from retaliating against those who complain. But those systems often work to protect those who abuse their power from those who complain about abuses of power. My study is a study of what follows this but.

We learn about power from those who complain about power. Hence my project hashtag: complaint as feminist pedagogy.

In the year to come, I hope to write more posts that draw on the material I gathered for my study of complaint. Although my forthcoming book Complaint! is long, it was not possible to share all the stories that have been shared with me. There is so much left to share. I hope to write some shorter, dare I say it, snappier posts in the coming year. These are hopes, because I have yet to write the posts.

I hope to reflect more on how and why so much harassment today is justified as expressions of freedom. I also want to write specifically on how transphobic harassment is reproduced by the refusal to identify that harassment as harassment. These posts will not mention specific authors by name, even if I use direct quotes. I have quoted from work without naming authors in earlier posts (such as this one). I am well aware people can follow the quote to the source. But I will not cite authors by name insofar as a citation can be an invitation to dialogue. Remember: my killjoy commitment is to explain what I oppose without elevating what I oppose into a position worthy of being debated.

Why not debate the views you oppose? To oppose some views requires opposing debating some views. It can be the transformation of what you oppose into a viewpoint that is debatable that you oppose.

Let me explain.

There are lots of debates that, if reopened, would compromise our commitments to equality. A gay journalist published an article about homophobia he had experienced. One person wrote a comment in response: “we should be allowed to debate whether homosexuality is a mental illness.” I was really struck by this sentence. Sometimes a history can be abbreviated as a sentence. This statement did not claim that homosexuality is a mental illness. It said we should be allowed to debate whether or not that claim is true. One suspects that only a person who has such a viewpoint, that homosexuality is a mental illness, would articulate a desire to make that viewpoint debatable. Viewpoints that counter existing commitments to equality are often expressed as an effort to reopen a debate. One way of saying “homosexuality is a mental illness” is by saying “we should be allowed to debate whether homosexuality is a mental illness.”

A viewpoint can be expressed in the act of calling for a viewpoint to be made debatable.  This is especially the case when the viewpoint expressed is one that pathologises a group protected under equality legislation (treating a group as suffering from illness). Groups that are protected by equality legislation (in the UK, the language is “protected characteristics”) are groups that are discriminated against.

Debatability can thus be code. It can be saying: we should we allowed to discriminate.

Harassment is an equality issue.

There are some debates we must refuse if we are to express in a meaningful way our commitments to equality. A commitment to equality is a commitment to enabling what does not yet exist (a commitment to equality is necessary given the existence and reproduction of inequalities).

For equality to be possible, there needs to be restrictions in what people can do as well as say. We learn something about the nature of power and privilege from those who experience the restrictions necessary for equality as restrictions on their freedom. We learn something about the nature of power and privilege that some people experience equality as theft.

If we were to reopen the debate as to whether homosexuality was a mental illness, those of us who are lesbian or gay would be hammered, all over again, prodded and poked; we would have our lives and our loves scrutinised. Homophobia would be given legitimacy; it would be given somewhere to go. To have to defend ourselves against this claim, would be to have to go back over what made it, what makes it, very hard to exist in our own terms. Some of us know that it would not take that much for that to happen, for lesbian and gay people to have to defend ourselves against homophobic terms, how we live, how we love. We know that the public commitments to equality are conditional and can easily be withdrawn.  We know that the equation between homosexuality and paedophilia is still being made in debates about sex education which is also how (and why) the legitimation of transphobia is often the re-legitimation of homophobia. We also know the gap between commitments and action: we know gay friendly organizations can be hostile environments for gay people. We also know that if homophobia is often prefaced in public as what you are not allowed to say, in private it can be expressed without any such prefacing whether in the form of jokes, slurs, insults, abuse, or in assaults.

Well then, imagine this: you say, I will not have that debate, I will not make my existence a debate, and you are told, stop being a sensitive snow-flake, too easily offended, stop censoring others. Imagine being accused of harming those who wish to have that debate because you refuse the terms of that debate.

You don’t have to imagine it: this does happen; this has happened; it is happening.

Another killjoy commitment: to document what is happening to those who refuse to debate their existence.

In my book Complaint! I explore how much verbal and physical harassment is justified as freedom. I talked to a woman postgraduate student who made a complaint against men students for sexual harassment (earlier posts that refer to her testimony are here and here). Most of that harassment took the form of sexist and misogynist language: the men students used expressions like “milking bitches” to describe women students and academics. One staff member put pressure upon her not to complain saying “he didn’t mean anything by it.” When the woman student went ahead and complained, with support from other women students, the harassment worsened, turning into threats of physical violence (statements made included “grasses get slashes”). As another student involved in the complaint described “they were talking about the women who complained as vermin who needed to be shot.” These threats were not taken seriously. She explains: “Even when threats of violence were made, it was implied it was just talk and it didn’t mean anything.” In a subsequent meeting with the students who made the complaint, their head of department said: “I don’t need to talk to you about discourse analysis and poststructuralism, and we can all do a discourse analysis on x; and we’d all come up with very different meanings.” The head of department makes reference to current theories to imply that interpreting “milking bitches” as an offensive and sexist speech act is just one interpretation amongst a universe of possible interpretations.

Just one interpretation: the implication is that the speech act can be justified. We could call this justification the theoretical justification of violence.

The head of department’s comment is the kind of justification that I have heard over and over again in my study of complaint and from my own experience of trying to challenge sexism and racism in the wider public domain. A common justification for using offensive terms is that terms have different meanings. I have heard lecturers or students justify their own use of racist terminology including terms we know by letter; I will not share the letters, a history can the violence of repeated letters, as an attempt to give those terms new meanings or even to show that they can acquire new meanings.

The justification of violence is how that violence is repeated. The justification of violence is that violence.

The transition from “he didn’t mean anything by it” to “it didn’t mean anything” to “we’d all come up with very different meanings” is teaching us something about how and why meaning matters. The implication is that to complain about what such-and-such person said is to impose your interpretation upon others. I think what is going on here is another version of stranger danger. In earlier work I have suggested that stranger danger is used to imply that violence originates with outsiders. It can also be used to imply that those who identify violence “on the inside” do so because they are outsiders. The use of words like racism and sexism become understood not only as impositions from the outside but as attempts to restrict the freedom of those who reside somewhere, the freedom to interpret what words mean and to do as they say. When you complain about offensive terms within the university you are often treated as ungrateful for the benefits you have received by the university, the freedom to make your own interpretation, the freedom to be critical; academic freedom. Replace university with nation and the argument holds: the complainer becomes the stranger, whose complaint is evidence that they do not value our freedom; they are not from here, they do not belong here.

Many terms are treated as attempts to restrict freedom not only as impositions from the outside but as made by outsiders. This is true for the terms sexism as well as harassment: consider how many people mourn a world where you can say and do certain things because feminists have called such behaviours harassment or designated them as sexist. I document these acts of mourning in The Feminist Killjoy Handbook, which I am currently compiling. This is true for the term racism: consider how many people suggest that you are not allowed to argue for restrictions to immigration because you would be called racist, or how work in  the new eugenics, which is not that different from the old eugenics, implies that racism is used to stop us having certain kinds of conversations about why white people might prefer being with white people and have the right (even duty) to defend their spaces accordingly.

We call these words and actions racist and sexist. Those who use these words or act in these ways don’t call themselves racist or sexist. They claim to be censored by the words, racism and sexism, stopped from saying certain things, stopped from doing certain things, stopped from being certain things.

This is also true for the word transphobia. I have come across countless instances where  the term transphobia is identified as an attempt to restrict the freedom of some people to say what they wish to say, do what they wish to do, be what they wish to be. Misgendering, for example, is often justified as freedom of speech. The requirement to use the correct pronouns is often positioned as a restriction on that freedom. When some academics say “out of politeness” they respect pronouns of their students they are implying they are free to do so or not to do so. They are not in fact free not to do so; they are required to do so under existing equality law. The guidance  by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) thus includes deliberate misgendering as an example of harassment of persons (using the terms of the 2010 Equality Act) with the “protected characteristic” of gender reassignment.

Those who are members of groups with a “protected characteristic” are those who decide what counts as harassment, which includes “creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.” So, if a woman student says that the repeated use of terms like “milking bitches” made the environment hostile, that is harassment. Disputing the terms is how the harassment is enabled. So, if a person of colour says the repeated use of a racist slur makes the environment hostile, that is harassment. Disputing the terms is how the harassment is enabled.  So, if a trans person says that deliberate and repeated misgendering makes the environment hostile, that is harassment. Disputing the terms is how the harassment is enabled. Some might say (some do say) misgendering is not like a slur or an insult; they might try to minimize the harm of misgendering, to make light of it. Well, those who harass almost always try to minimise or deny harm, to make light of it. It is not up to them to decide what counts as a hostile environment. Many transphobic utterances are given what I call theoretical justification. Using theories to justify misgendering (I can call you he because my theories mean I don’t recognise you as she) is no less harassment than it would be without that theoretical justification.

My book Complaint! explores how theories can be used as techniques to shut out the violence of actions. Theories can also be used as if they are exemptions, as if they exempt someone from the requirement not to act in a hostile way toward a group that is protected because they are discriminated against.

Killjoy truth: Your theories do not exempt you.

Killjoy commitment: They do not. So it must stop.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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5 Responses to Killjoy Commitments

  1. Kate Barry says:

    Thank you! Incredible insight.

  2. Hiba Zafran says:

    Energizing morning read over coffee before walking into an equity meeting whose aim is to create real space for minority student voices in decision making….

  3. Jennifer Lawlor says:

    Given the events of Jan 6 at the US Capitol, it struck me that my upcoming spring 2021 course, with the general title of “Doing Feminist Theory,” must be a course on anger. I had not planned for this topic — it just seemed “right”. Reading again through your Living a Feminist Life and through this blog has been perfect for reassuring me that I can pull this off with last-minute planning. I thought about the idea of an “anger audit” for my students–not sure what that would look like yet–and I love the idea of “mapping” or visualizing complaint: you could create a map of “what-should-happen” — and then what does….even a complaint/argument with a family member, much less an institution or national politics, will quickly reveal fault lines.

    Many thanks for all your work–looking forward to Complaint! (when?)

  4. Nisa says:

    Hi, I’m Nisa from University of Ankara. At our university, there is a support unit for people who are victims of sexual harassment and/or assault. And i’m working as a volunteer in there. This unit (shortened as CTS) works with the principle of zero tolerance within the university to prevent violence.
    On behalf of CTS, I want to translate your text to Turkish. If you would not mind we would like to share that text on our social media accounts.(Instagram/Twitter: ctsankara)

Leave a Reply to Nisa Cancel reply