WeeklyWorker

13.02.2014
Almost Maoist

IS Network: Self-flagellation and the ‘kinky split’

Charlie Winstanley was recently commissioned by the Anti-Capitalist Initiative to write this article. However, the piece split the editorial group and it was deemed too sensitive to publish

“I wish there were hot BDSM pics in the daily fail every day, and that vile racist incidents were not their occasion. I looooooooove using people as furniture! Also, Mrs Abramovich looks so comfortable there. I wonder if she is a domme?”

Many of us have looked on with a mixture of horror and fascination, as the recently formed International Socialist Network ripped itself apart over an argument stemming from the now infamous ‘racist chair’. Professional dominatrix and ISN steering committee (SC) member ‘Magpie Corvid’ sparked the debate with the remarks heading this article, and it was not long before her post attracted scrutiny from ISN members, questioning her impulse in finding the picture attractive.

The debate began in relatively benign (if emotionally charged) terms. But by the end of the thread, seven members of the ISN SC had resigned under a hail of accusations from within their organisation … an official statement from what remained of the committee claimed that their attitudes towards racial and gender politics were “deeply problematic” in relation to gender and racial politics. Most importantly, it was claimed that “their tone and method of handling criticism was not in keeping with the spirit of allowing people to challenge their own oppression”. By all accounts, many more ISN members have quietly dropped out of activity within the organisation and the ISN is now in crisis.

The ‘kinky split’ has been heralded as one of the most bizarre and unnecessary parting of the ways in British left history. The question of how it got to that point - the discursive processes involved - raises serious questions about the functionality of recent left forms of discourse, and their impact upon sane debate.

An argument of tone …

Not long into the thread, ISN commentator and SC member Richard Seymour waded into the discussion, arguing on two major points: firstly, that the kink scene both reflected and subverted existing social tendencies; and, secondly, that a definition of ‘racism’ which was confined to a neutral description of an activity or process (which did not demand action to remedy it) was not essentially useful.

Somewhere, about halfway through the thread, one of Seymour’s opponents indirectly raised the issue that Seymour is white and male, in contrast to herself (a gay, black woman). From this point onwards, several voices in the conversation insisted that the discussion was essentially over. Calls were made for the thread to be taken down, and Seymour’s argument evolved from attempting to unpick the original issues around the picture to a defence of his conduct. As a white man, was it OK for him to take up discussion against a gay black woman in the first place?

The racial backgrounds of all participants became the primary focus of discussion. It was claimed that Magpie Corvid, a “white comrade”, had “just not seen the racial component of the picture”. Seymour and Corvid were both then accused of not “taking the lead from black comrades who [tried] to explain”. The second to last post ominously noted that the SC of the IS Network was “very worried about the tone, conduct and content of some of this [thread], especially to BME [black and minority ethnic] and women comrades”.

The real bust-up, however, came in a parallel thread started by the ISN’s secretary, Tim Nelson: “When I’m in a discussion and every black person involved says what I’m saying is racist, I try to shut up and listen rather than tell them they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Here, Seymour was quickly accused of racism directly, as well as abusing ‘common decency’. Privilege theory was raised to explain his inability to appreciate the experiences of BME individuals in the discussion. In his defence, Seymour in turn presented an inverted privilege argument: that Magpie herself was the female sex-worker victim in the situation, unfairly patronised and slandered without respect to her oppression. Needless to say, this defence did not wash:

Stop attempting to paint any of you fucking crackers as victims. You - are - not - the victims

“Richard, I heard you’re needed elsewhere - apparently on another thread there are more black women who need intersectionality mansplained to them. Better get a jog on.”

The broad opinion appeared to be that Seymour - as a white man - should not engage a black woman on ascertaining the racist nature of the offending photo. The position of the ISN SC was most clearly and soberly expressed by ‘Toni Mayonnaise’: “I consider this issue an issue of kink, but more so of race. I therefore take no shame in saying that, on this issue, I will defer to my black women comrades.”

A culture of confession

There are key features of the argumentative style in this dispute which mark out intersectionalist discourse. Firstly, the intersectionalist assertion is that all intellectual disagreements sit within a broader system of oppressions, directly manifested by the ethnicity, sexuality, race or gender of the individual involved. In essence, within the context of any discussion in any environment, it is impossible for an individual to remove themselves from these characteristics. It is thus presumed that in conversation the underlying manifestations of ‘privilege’ impact a subconscious effect upon the interpersonal dynamics of those engaged. As no free discussion may occur whilst participants are being subjected to what amounts to racism, it is clearly a priority to remove this prejudice from the equation.

The subconscious factors mentioned above are perceived to operate through an array of nuanced and indirect forms - a person’s stated opinion cannot be taken at face value, and we should not approach a conversation based upon an attempt to understand their consciously intended meaning. Rather, involved in any discussion is an investigative process, designed to weed out latent prejudice, focused on sleights of language use, exclusively complicated arrays of accepted terms and a vague sense of an individual’s ‘manner’. Distrust prevails, alongside the presumption of worst intentions, and periodic displays of overt humility and self-deprecation are expected of the ‘non-oppressed’ to circumvent these accusations.

In practice, there is more to winning an argument than a mere superiority of ideas. Conversations occur within a space, and the battle for control of that space determines both which ideas will be heard and also how such ideas are taken up. Intersectionality presents itself as an apolitical process in this - an etiquette whose precepts are assumed and whose rules remain only to be enforced. The process of questioning this etiquette is usually treated, in itself, as being too upsetting or ‘triggering’ to be tolerated.

As such, oppressed groups sit at the centre of every discussion, backed by the unquestionable moral weight of their subjective life experience, reinforced by an unaccountable structure of etiquette, which they can use to totally control the flow of discourse. A conversation can be ended with the use of a few choice phrases or the invocation of one’s ethnic/ gender/racial origin. In addition, the presumption of latent guilt which prevails throughout intersectionalist theory actively encourages such conversation-stoppers to be employed. All legitimacy, in effect, becomes centred on possessing the most pertinent social disadvantage to any given discourse.

The total effect is to create an environment in which free discussion of ideas is impossible. Oppressed groups and individuals operate as a form of unassailable priesthood, basing their legitimacy on the doctrine of original sin. To extend the analogy, discussions become confessionals in which participants are encouraged to self-flagellate and prostrate themselves before the holy writ of self-awareness. Shame and self-deprecation are encouraged to keep non-oppressed groups in their place, and subvert the social pyramid of oppression, with oppressed groups at the top.

But the question begs, to what ends? Whom does it benefit to have oppressed groups sitting atop a conversation increasingly restricted to a tiny and declining far left, becoming ever more exclusive and alienated from social discussion with its hostile and complicated etiquettes and procedures? What individual in their right mind would seek liberation in this movement, riddled with its own internal inquisition?

End of the road

Political criticisms aside, Richard Seymour and Magpie Corvid should be able to engage in a conversation about BDSM and ‘race play’ without being slandered as racists - this conversation should not have exploded in the way that it did. The kinky split is a case in point as to the inapplicability of new intersectional norms to open discussion - one symbolic benchmark amidst a sea of other examples. Barely a day after, intersectional flag-bearer Laurie Penny also fell foul of her own Twitter followers, after her article on women with short hair failed to address the hair experiences of black women. No-one is safe from accusation, and no subject is too innocuous to stir the most severe accusations of intolerance, ignorance and bigotry.

As opposed to this culture, if we are to stand any chance whatsoever of reaching out beyond the tiny bubble we currently inhabit, our discursive practices have to become more open, not less. The recent experience of the ISN should be an important lesson in the painful process which has been the rise of intersectional politics within our movement. However valid an individual’s anger at their oppression, however unjust their treatment in society, it is not a practically workable model to formalise those experiences at the centre of every discussion or debate we have. Suffering is not the be all and end all of validity, and cannot simply be afforded the final say on merit of its own existence.