“It is only by acknowledging all [our] differences that we have any chance of imagining and building a better world that includes us all.”
I entirely agree with the above statement from the #coponcomrades (COC) letter. Undoubtedly, you would be hard-pressed to find any left-wing man or woman in Ireland who would not likewise agree. However, only a few paragraphs later, I believe this statement is subtly contradicted.
The letter discusses “straight white men” in a particular “version of events” who are “too afraid to say what they think for fear of online retribution”. The advice given to these men is as follows: “Men who claim to be silenced in this way might try a week or even a day as a vocal woman or person of colour online and see how they deal with the rape threats and threats of racist violence that follow.”
I don’t deny the fact that either of these people would experience worse violent threats than a “straight white man”. But effectively what this argument says to working class men (Frankie Gaffney in this case in particular) is don’t talk about the obstacles/prejudice you face – what we have to deal with is worse. This is both a dangerous and unhealthy position to adopt. There will always be someone in life who faces greater difficulties than ourselves. However this does not mean individuals should deny their individual experiences on the grounds that others have things comparatively worse. Nowhere in his original article did Frankie Gaffney state he thinks “straight white men” are the most oppressed group in society. In fact, he has since gone on to clarify this is not what he believes.
My interpretation of the original article is that Gaffney believes he has experienced more oppression/obstacles in his life as a working class man who grew up in “an environment where poverty, violence and addiction were normal”, compared to some middle class women who have greeted him with “open hostility” based upon his SWM status.
As a middle class woman myself, I fully agree with Gaffney that he has faced more oppression and has had to overcome more odds to “get to where [he] is today”. I do recognise my privilege; more on that later.
Of course, the #coponcomrades letter also appears to fully agree with this belief, stating “working class straight white men in Ireland don’t have it easy these days. They never did”. Given that we are all in agreement with this fact, I am genuinely confused why the signatories were “seriously disappointed” with left-wing men who shared an article expressing this belief. I don’t believe it is “reductive and damaging” to express a desire not to have your identity constricted to “straight white male”. I think it is fair comment. Comment that neither negates nor denies the oppression or prejudice faced by others.
The #coponcomrades letter concludes that “patriarchy forces men into roles that damage them as well as us”. Subsequently, “we should all be fighting patriarchy together”. Again, I entirely agree with this viewpoint.
However, often that is not what I see represented in mainstream discussions around feminism and sexism. These largely seem to focus on issues such as how more women can be represented in boardrooms, break the glass ceiling and so forth; a phenomenon described by COC as “lean-in feminism”. And actually, I would like to see more women represented in both boardrooms and government. However this type of discussion rarely if ever, specifically looks at the challenges faced by working class women – or working class men for that matter. The experiences of working class women, traveller women and men are largely glossed over in this type of dialogue. Sexism receives a greater billing than class prejudice.
I believe “a truly radical feminist politics that has class struggle at its very core” does exist, but I just don’t see this being represented within a great deal of mainstream discourse. I believe this is what Frankie Gaffney was criticising rather than the left-wing women he works with within various strands of activism.
Listening is vital on all sides. We are all individuals and we will never all go through the same experiences in life. What we can all show – all people from all walks of life – is empathy for others. This is the single most important factor we can utilise in bringing about unity on the left – and if you want to be a complete idealist – the entire political spectrum. After all, surely the ‘left’ can only grow by attracting others previously not aligned to its standpoint. Jeremy Corbyn did not record a monumental increase in Labour votes in the UK because he concentrated on politics that divided the middle and working classes. Instead, he did so precisely because he focused on a politics ‘for the many, not for the few’ – the 99.9% instead of the 0.1% (and no, I don’t need to ‘research’ any of the signatories’ backgrounds – albeit with an incredibly suspect level of ‘fact-checking’ –mainstream media has its uses after all!) to know the #coponcomrades signatories are all included in that.
Of course, I do not deny that, yes, we do all have different levels of privilege. As mentioned, here are my (brief, I promise!) thoughts on ‘privilege discourse’. Recognising your privilege can be useful. If, for example, a middle class person realises they have benefited from certain advantages in life that others have not, then that person can work towards implementing equality through political and practical means, such as volunteering or donating to charity and supporting policies that seek to bring about greater equality.
However privilege discourse becomes problematic when it is implicitly used to exclude those not from a working class background/gender/race etc or foster a belief that class struggle is not something they should be involved in because it is somehow not a part of their identity. No aspect of a person’s background should be used as grounds to discourage them – or make them apologetic about – getting involved in the fight for equality. Hence, the idea that it is wrong to “appropriate” the language of another culture or group is problematic. How can we fight against problems without permission to use the language that describes them? How can we demonstrate empathy, if we are not allowed to interact in ‘conversations’ that allegedly don’t concern us? As Frankie Gaffney stated, “language has users; not owners”.
I think there are subconscious reasons why people are reluctant to mention class and confront this issue. Firstly, gender is easy to denote. However, as we have seen so clearly in recent days, a person’s class background is not discernable from their job title or salary. ‘Class’ is a fluid concept (although gender can be fluid too) and people self-define what class they belong to. Some people don’t see the need to focus on class at all because they don’t view it as a defining factor within their identity. And yet, Ireland is a deeply class-divided society. This needs to be recognised before it can be remedied.
I believe many people have deeply ingrained prejudices in this regard – so ingrained in fact that they often don’t consciously question them. I hear this continually in everyday conversations through descriptions such as skanger, knacker, scumbag, gouger – and perhaps the most pernicious of all – the accusation that so-and-so is “a bit rough”. What all of this serves to do in its totality is to fuse class with a sense of morality; a concept of upstanding rectitude if you will. There are many, many examples of this unconscious bias operating in both the UK and Ireland, but an obvious one that springs to mind is the attitude which led to the Grenfell residents’ concerns over health and safety being ignored in London.
When this type of bias is used subconsciously to benchmark your position in society (‘I’m better than that sort of person’ – see descriptions above) it can become difficult for people to confront such prejudices – or even admit them to themselves. Hence, it’s easier to just brush them under the carpet.
Frankie Gaffney was having none of that. He is determined to bring class prejudice to the surface and talk about it explicitly. I have since seen his stance reduced to arguments online that we should focus on ‘no gender or identity distinctions; only class’. However, he has clarified this is not his belief, instead stating: “I don’t want the left to focus on class again to exclusion of gender, race etc. I’d be more than content to see it just get equal billing.” Of course, all these factors are interwoven – but that does not mean if we discuss the challenges faced by ONE demographic AT ONE TIME, we are negating the challenges faced by every other group – or the interwoven challenges faced by a working class black woman for example. When I say I’ve experienced sexism in my life I’m not saying racism doesn’t exist; and I believe this argument also applies to Frankie Gaffney’s original article.
I’m pretty sure the left-wing men who shared his article would agree with that. So instead, of being “seriously disappointed” with them – maybe we should engage with and discuss the points raised in said article that they obviously felt were valid enough to share. Namely the fact “men are statistically more at risk of homelessness, addiction and suicide”. After all, these are precisely the topics that “radical feminism” can provide the solution to. Feminism is needed to destroy the notion men expressing their feelings and showing emotion is inherently “female” and hence not a fitting way for a masculine man to behave. We are all human beings. I, for one, fully believe in the cathartic benefits of having a good cry: Men and women of Ireland I urge you to let your tear ducts loose! Feminism can deliver the solution to these devastating statistics.
But… we all have to listen. It shouldn’t be the case that one side is wrong and the other right. Unity and true engagement requires us all to realise we are all in this together. According to Frankie Gaffney (God, how many times must I name-check the man, it’s nearly enough to give me “the rage of Caliban”!): “If the CIA or MI5 wanted to encourage a style of “activism” that could consume an infinite amount of energy, yet was utterly ineffective at anything other than dividing people, it would be the prominence of this very type of politics.”
So I will judge the #coponcomrades letter thus: How effective has it been at either uniting or dividing us? On the one hand, it has been very effective at uniting all the signatories (and many other people who may not have signed but agreed with its contents). On this point, I would also like to note that I personally know several of the signatories who signed the letter and I have nothing but respect for them – in fact I understand – albeit don’t agree – with why they signed it. But what about the people who don’t agree, including the many, many people who are not Twitter users. The so-called ‘Broletariat’ and – as I saw one Twitter handle describe us women (mostly fellow feminists) who don’t toe the line with the majority verdict – their “wives”. (Yes, because that’s not sexist AT ALL!)
Cinammon Girl @for29years summed up the (relative Twitter) fallout well, when she pointed out: “If #coponcomrades was instrumental in opening and allowing debate, why is reference to and resurrection of it considered stirring etc etc.”
Why indeed? Comrades, if anyone wants to talk, I’m all ears. You don’t even need to cop on. Just bring your lovely selves.