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Happy Elephant

This piece was published in the Summer 2013 edition of Slingshot! It also exists here. It is not about elephants.

FAT BODIES
Rejecting Procrustean Body Politics
by Kermit

For a long time, while I was growing up, being fat was something that I could not think about without getting depressed. I was encouraged to believe that fat kids were unhealthy, unattractive, and unable to accomplish things. I had a nagging fear that my weight was the most notable thing about me, that it trumped any other aspect of my identity in the eyes of my peers and severely limited the kinds of stories I could tell about myself. I resented it when other people brought up my size as a problem or encouraged me to lose weight but I also had a lot of shame about my body. I remember wishing desperately to be thin when I grew up, thinking that it would make me happier, healthier, more confident and more attractive than fat people were allowed to be.

I don’t actually spend very much time thinking about my weight these days and I do feel healthy, happy, and confident about my body most of the time. I am able to feel sexy and connect to myself and others physically in ways that would not have seemed possible to my younger self. I am still fat. Recently, some interactions with friends and family prompted me to think more explicitly about the way a fear of fat shapes many of the assumptions people make about each other and ultimately restricts everyone’s ability to comfortably and confidently be ourselves.

Health: Fat as Disease
One of the excuses that people often use to justify fat phobia is to claim that being fat isn’t healthy. Health can be measured in a whole lot of ways. Often, however, holistic assessments of heath that take the individual mind and body into account are ignored in favor of scrutinizing numbers on a scale and making broad assumptions about them.

The code for fat in medical language is BMI [Body Mass Index], the simple ratio of someone’s weight to their height. This number is often used as a key metric in assessing the health of large populations and individual people but it does not indicate anything about blood pressure, cholesterol levels, body type, the activity of one’s lifestyle, or whether or not someone has a history of chronic pain or illness. Studies linking BMI to chronic illness and increased mortality often fail to take these other factors into account. People who have low BMI’s can still suffer from ‘obesity related’ illnesses and those who have high ones may not. According to my BMI, for example, I am clinically obese but I have always tested well for blood pressure and cholesterol and am fairly active and healthy. I am not saying there is never a measurable connection between weight and chronic illness, but that healthy bodies are not uniform and statistical inferences are not particularly useful when compared to paying attention to the needs of a real, individual body in question.

Procrustes was an ancient Greek bandit who famously hacked and stretched kidnap victims so they would fit into his uniform beds. The adjective procrustean refers to the tendency to violently force people into a mold. The BMI and all of the assumptions that shape its use are procrustean tools because they convince people that health and happiness will be achieved by cramming ourselves into a pair of jeans that didn’t used to fit rather than by paying attention to our bodies and refusing to resent them.

Some of the ways modern society affects our bodies and makes them sicker are framed in the alarmist rhetoric of the “obesity epidemic”. It is true that aspects of consumer capitalism in rich countries have led to increasingly sedentary people with abundant access to crappy processed calories. Many of us, whether we are fat or not, have at times used increased screen time and so called comfort foods to numb ourselves to the poverty of everyday life. Framing the effect as an epidemic of obesity, however, encourages people to react to fat bodies as if they are diseased rather than emphasizing all the ways in which activity and nutrition are related to mental and physical health. It sends the message that the worst thing about a sedentary life and poor nutrition is that you may get (or stay) fat and shifts focus away from any larger conversation about the health effects of capitalism on our bodies.

A result of all this is that many people confuse ‘being healthier’ with ‘being thinner’ and are backed up by a medical establishment which overvalues the hazards of being fat and undervalues the hazards of feeling shitty about your body. By overestimating the relevance of weight to overall health, doctors and other well meaning medical professionals often fail to correctly diagnose ailments or recommend effective treatment. I have a friend who is fairly healthy and was told by her doctor to consider radical weight loss surgery before even being asked about her diet and lifestyle or having her blood work done. In an age of increasing healthcare costs, telling someone to lose 10 pounds and hoping the situation will resolve once they do is no substitute for actual preventative medicine.

Eating well and being active are definitely important things to do but they do not always make people smaller. Focusing on weight loss as the reason to be mindful about what we eat and how we move can turn eating and moving our bodies — two things that should feel good and be a joy — into shame filled activities; chores that we must attend to for the sake of a thinner future. My own resentment for the way that diet and exercise were pushed on me as a kid meant that it took a long time for me to realize I could think about eating and moving in healthy ways without attendant shame. I am not always the healthiest eater today, but when it comes to avoiding processed foods and eating leafy greens, I do at least as well as most of my thinner friends. I am not always as active as I want to be, but I walk and bike a lot and dance my ass off until two in the morning occasionally if I want to. I do feel better and healthier when I am eating and moving in healthier ways, but those periods do not neatly correspond to a dip in my BMI and generally have an inverse relationship to the times when I am more self conscious about being fat.

There is also a way in which the visibility of fat people means that when we do have health problems, we get judged for them in absurd ways. A fat person can be healthy for years, but if we ever do develop high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, joint pain, or any of the other ten thousand ailments that have been connected to obesity (it seems like most have), it will be said that we could have prevented all of it by controlling our appetites. The effect is that fat sick people are often seen as responsible for their illnesses in ways that thinner people rarely are. This is despite quite a bit of medical evidence suggesting that fat people who lose weight usually gain it back and that repeated cycles of dieting and weight gain are far more detrimental to long term health than maintaining a stable ‘obese’ weight. It has even been shown by some studies that fatter than average people who develop heart disease and some other chronic illnesses later in life actually live longer than thinner counterparts*.

Beauty: Fat is Ugly
Often when people equate being fat with being unhealthy, though, they are not actually talking about health at all, they are talking about beauty or attractiveness.

I was on an internet dating site the other day and I saw a profile that said something to the effect of: “I’m not into meeting overweight people. I have worked too hard to be hot for that.” I don’t begrudge anyone for having romantic preferences, we all have patterns and preferences in the kind of people we gravitate towards or find ourselves attracted to. What bothers me about statements like the one above, besides the rude tone, is the way that they defend individual preferences by asserting that beauty (often encoded as health) is objective and implying that we are all clearly ranked in attractiveness relative to one another. This allows people to feel justified in devaluing bodies they are not attracted to without taking any responsibility for those judgments.

These sentiments are not uncommon; many ideas of beauty rest on a bed of unexamined assumptions about attraction that make expressing repulsion for certain types of bodies, including fat bodies, socially acceptable. This is clearly obnoxious for people who have bodies that are deemed ugly, but it is also disempowering for anyone who is compelled to compare themselves to an ideal they don’t match. It robs the person making the assessment of being able to recognize that they have the power to explore, negotiate, and be surprised by their attractions; that all of us are, in fact, idiosyncratic bundles of desire that have been shaped by a combination of proclivity, circumstance, and choice.

Any hierarchy of beauty that places thin or athletic bodies at the top inherently relegates fat bodies to ugliness. The problem is not who is at the top, but that the hierarchy exists at all. Standards of beauty are not natural; they are constructed and change over time. They are not necessarily linked to what is actually healthy or what individual people may or may not find attractive. For a long time chubby people were considered more attractive because chubbiness was connected to wealth, fertility, and not having to do hard physical labor or worry about going hungry. There have also been more recent periods where ultra thin bodies have been seen as ideally beautiful even though many people would be malnourished if they tried to force their bodies to conform to that standard. It is interesting to think about how these things change and what forces shape them, but it is dangerous to assume that our own bodies should conform to a fetishized style of the moment. Beauty is a useful concept only insofar as it maps onto our actual bodies and allows us to be open about our desires; to recognize that the world is impoverished when people are not able to see themselves as beautiful.

Personality: Fat and Lazy
The perceived relevance of body size in assessing health and beauty is often mirrored in assessments of personality. Fat people as a group are commonly assumed to be less intelligent, less hard working, and less likely to control their impulses than people who are not fat. Media representations of fat people often reinforce these stories; we are all familiar with fat characters that are either stupidly cheerful or slovenly and pathetic.

The story about fat people as lazy likely stems from the reductive idea that body size is directly related to appetites that are supposed to be controlled by force of will. Appetite, then, becomes a metaphor for the way that people deal with their intellectual or emotional lives. Thinness in the context of abundant food is seen as a symbol of self-control while fatness becomes a mark of laziness and a lack of control. Since it is also assumed that no one wants to be fat, becoming fat implies discontent or apathy and a lack of commitment on the part of the fat person to either get, or stay thin.

These default assumptions are not definitive, but they do shape first impressions and can form low-level expectations in the back of people’s minds that are easily confirmed. When people gain weight it is often seen as a sign that their lives are falling apart and when people lose weight, they usually get positive attention and are perceived as having their life in order regardless of their physical health or mental state. Often this means that fat people have to prove that they are in fact intelligent, active, or reliable despite their size. As with physical health, fat people that do feel tired, run down or less energetic on any given day are liable to have those things attributed to their weight.

Thinking about these things can lead one to question the whole concept of laziness as a vice and industriousness as a virtue. It reminds me of the way that the demands of industrial capitalism have shaped our ideas about which personal qualities are valuable and prepare us to be compliant workers. Hard working industriousness and periods of high productivity are seen as hallmarks of personal success worthy of admiration, while slow and deliberate minds that engage in extended periods of idle reflection — unless they exist in very specialized contexts — are seen as lazy and stupid. These are convenient values for power structures that see reflective time as time lost and frenetic time as time well spent. Learning to distrust the values we have been encouraged to embrace doesn’t mean we should simply invert them, but perhaps dismantling our assumptions about the morality of personal qualities can allow us space to be idle and productive without guilt and in ways that are less predictable to the bosses or the ad executives.

Why this matters to everyone
It’s true that fat people have to ignore strong societal messages in order to develop a healthy self image but people who are fat are not the only ones damaged by these stories; the fear of fat affects the way that many of us think about ourselves and others.

All of us have bodies and often our relationships to those bodies are not particularly empowering ones. I still go through periods where I feel less attractive and less connected to my body and I probably always will. Body size is also just one of the many axes along which we are judged and encouraged to judge. Gender, race, ethnicity, wellness, and ability are only some of the more obvious and prominent categories that have similarly rigid standards into which people find their bodies squeezed. But being fat has also made me who I am in ways that I do not regret, and coming to appreciate my body for what it is instead of resenting it for what it isn’t has had a powerful effect on my ability to connect with people and engage more fully with the world.

For all of us, learning how to be confident and comfortable with ourselves means figuring out what we need to be the people we want to be. This can include changing how we act and what we eat, but it also means revamping or abandoning concepts and stories that take power away from us and recognizing that shame, anxiety, and insecurity are not particularly useful tools for self assessment.

____
*The Fat Acceptance Movement, Health at Every Size (HAES), and Fat!So? by Marilyn Wann are good places to start looking for deeper treatments of this topic.

human pyramid
This piece was first published in the Spring 2010 edition of Slingshot! It also exists here. At the time, I was thinking a lot about relationships, sexual and otherwise, and identified as someone who was not in or looking for a single, primary partnership.

 

BEYOND EMOTIONAL EXCLUSIVITY
Resist the Monogcore!
by Kermit

Figuring out how to be in relationship with another human being is complicated, it is a process of continued engagement. Any structure that encourages us to check out of that engagement – to deny emotional truths or the extent to which possibilities for connecting to one another exist – impoverishes our lives. Material conditions and channels of power that force us to focus on our survival within a system are certainly examples of this kind of structure, but even when our needs for material safety and well-being are more or less met, the ways that we are expected to engage with people is often circumscribed by established stories about what is socially and emotionally acceptable. Monogamy is the centerpiece to a network of stories that we are told about the way that intimate human relationships are supposed to function.

When I say that I am against monogamy, I am not talking about being against people who are choosing to have sex with one partner at a time, or even people who are choosing to settle down with one person for a lifetime. Relationships are complicated and no one should feel bad about trying to engage in whatever kind of emotionally consensual relationship meets their needs. What I am against is the hegemonic system that views this form of relationship (two people being each other’s exclusive sexual partners and principal support system) as the best way to be in the world, as the only way that can bring someone a full and happy life, and as the way that all other people are ideally expected to conduct their sexual relationships and build family structures. Several of my friends use the word monogcore to describe any social experience or cultural form that reinforces the dominance of this system.

For some people, beginning to consider non-monogamous models grows out of being in monogamous relationships that do not work for them either sexually or emotionally. For me, being critical of hegemonic monogamy is informed most by not having been in sexual relationships for the bulk of my adult life. When I was younger, accepting the ubiquitous narrative about happiness and human relationships often meant painting myself into a corner where I could never be fully present or alive without telling myself that I was building to a point where I would be part of a monogamous coupling. In this mental trap, the thought that I might never find a sexual partner to be monogamous with was enough to send me spiraling into despair; to turn myself into a person I did not want to be, into someone who bored me.

At some point, I made a decision to reject the idea that my life was empty if it did not involve significant monogamous sexual relationships because I did not want to become a person who was shaped so wholly by the presence or absence of that element. As a consequence, the whole way that I thought about the possibilities of friendship and the level of intimacy that I was interested in exploring in my friendships shifted. Coming out was not only a process of acknowledging that I like to have sex with men, but also a process of letting go of the idea that I had to find a monogamous partner in order to be happy and build relationships with people that I could call family.

• • •

Monogamy serves as a major theme in stories about how adults seek intimacy with other, unrelated adults and what the rules and limits of that intimacy are. Non-familial relationships are fit into a framework and hierarchy in which sexually monogamous partnership occupies the apex. Other relationships are necessarily subordinated to this one relationship and are only allowed to grow in specific ways and to certain limits. Many of our most powerful words are affected. The way that we commonly talk about family, honor, fidelity, happiness, betrayal, intimacy, integrity, love and commitment are all tied up with this idea.

The story that monogamy tells about itself is one that puts an enormous amount of pressure on a single axis. It declares that each person should find one other person and that those two people should make each other responsible for meeting the bulk of their emotional and all of their sexual needs, to consider each other as the only avenue to build family and have a complete life. Living inside of this story can force you to become engaged in emotional drama and participate in conversations and dilemmas that are not your own; not necessarily connected to the stories you want to be telling, or that the people you are engaged with want to be telling about themselves. There are of course many people who do not end up in monogamous situations, but their lives are often either invisible or seen as inferior, as obviously less ideal than those bound by ‘normal’ sexual practices and ‘traditional’ families. One of the reasons I find it difficult to have much enthusiasm for gay marriage  is because of the way that the rhetoric around it relies so heavily on the power of this story.

For people involved in a monogamous relationship that does not do all of the things it has promised, staying faithful necessitates the scrupulous building of a grand lie. A lie about how the meaning of a relationship is obvious, self-evident and solid, a lie that makes it impossible to talk about the ways that the significance of their relationship to each other might be evolving, echoing as it does through the different geographies of their individual lives and experiences. One of the more heartbreaking aspects of monogamy as it is generally practiced is the way that its emotional exclusivity is so serial. The expectation that the person you are sleeping with is the one that you share the most emotional intimacy with leads to the idea that you should have very little emotional contact with former lovers and means that many people find themselves cut off from those who they have been closest to in life.

In a patriarchal and hetero-normative context, monogamy is a tool that severely limits the way that women are allowed to be in relationships with men (and men with women) who are not their lovers or family members. The fact that one’s reputation hinges on their adherence to these rules means that all sexual energy existing outside the context of monogamous coupledom or potentially monogamous coupledom is viewed as threatening. People often feel compelled, either explicitly or implicitly, to police social interactions under the presumption of defending monogamy. This dynamic has frustrated my desire to have relationships with people that are intimate and life enlarging even when there is no explicitly sexual motive. I have often felt pressure to alter my behavior, by either curbing my friendliness or making myself more visibly queer, in order to have interactions with women that are not viewed as inappropriate by someone in the room.

• • •

I resent the way in which stories about intimacy that hinge on monogamy restrict our language, limiting the words we use to describe our relationships to one another. I want words to describe what it feels like to have a platonic romance – to become best friends with someone in a matter of weeks. Words to describe my relationship to a person who I meet only once, but who changes my life forever or for the person who I see at a distance everyday for years and who knows things about me that no one else does; for trysts that I have with authors who are long dead and for rituals that commit me to people that I have no intention of marrying, or even necessarily sleeping with.

Finding ways to build our own definitions of these things as we go along which more accurately reflect our experiences with and desires for each other is certainly more complicated than accepting the definitions we have been given, but it expands the ways in which we are able to talk about living with each other in the world. Certainly there are constraints in every relationship and these constraints can be vital to the emotional health and well being of the people involved. But, wherever possible, they should be constraints that have been chosen by those involved according to their own particular emotional truth, rather than obligations wholly unconnected to the people making them.

There are, of course, people who are already doing this; people who are opting for polyamory because it makes the most sense for them, having sex with multiple partners in a variety of ways. People who are choosing to be exclusive sexual partners with each other for their own reasons, and are not threatened when other people make different choices. There are people who build families with people who are not responsible for meeting their sexual needs and people who have sex with people who are not responsible for meeting their needs for family. There are those who, for various reasons, choose not to have sexual relationships at all and people who are doing several (or all) of these things at different points in their lives.

Imagine what the world would be like if the terms of our relationships with each other were negotiated in every possible instance by the people involved and not by some abstract ideal about what people should be to one another. What grand possibilities would present themselves? How would the difficulties involved speak more directly to the problems we want to be tackling? I believe that our relationships are more meaningful when we are openly engaged in the process of negotiating them; when we open ourselves to the range of ways that it is possible to connect.

fallen apples under a tree This piece was first published in the Autumn 2009 edition of Slingshot! It also exists here. When i wrote it, i was thinking a lot about how the logic of scarcity shapes assumptions about how we are rationally able to act in the world and was interested in the way that the logic of gift economies might offer an alternate frame.

 

BREAKING DOWN THE MARKET IN OUR HEADS
Abandoning the Logic of Capital

By Kermit

It was easier, when I was younger, to hold onto a sense of righteousness when I looked out at the world, to see very clearly those elements of society that were fucked up and to cast myself against them. One of the most difficult things about continuing to be a radical as I grow older is realizing the extent to which all of the messed up ways of thinking that I am critical of are also present within me and manifest in interpersonal dynamics in my life as much as they do anywhere else.

An insidious example of this is the way that capitalist logic sets itself up as common sense; how any notion of value becomes linked to cash value and acting pragmatically in the world comes to mean hording or selling what is marketable and treating what is inexpensive and abundant as inconsequential. Even in radical circles the effect of this is pervasive, particularly the extent to which we let ourselves become afraid of scarcity and distrustful of the good faith of our friends and neighbors.

Scarcity versus Abundance
On the one hand a critique of scarcity thinking is very simple; systems of power use the idea of material scarcity to frighten people into accepting their legitimacy. The matter is complicated, however, by the fact that scarcity is real. In climates where the ground freezes in the winter or the land dries up in the summer, there have always been seasonal scarcities. With the spread of globalization and the creation of immense wealth and poverty, those climate imposed scarcities have been joined, and in some cases replaced by economically imposed scarcities. As our mass society alters the world to the point of ecological crisis, the specters of newer and grander scarcities every day present themselves.

It is important to remember that these modern scarcities have been created by the extension of market logic into the environment itself, each new crisis is used as an excuse to expand the jurisdiction of the market system of value. People have been compelled to sever their connections to the Earth and destroy their awareness of its rhythms. The fear generated from that destruction is used to convince people that they need the system.

Whether we treat undeveloped land, forests and waterways as scarce commodities, or abundant commodities, we cheapen them. When we allow ourselves to talk about ecological forces as resources to be managed or appeal to a cost-benefit analysis of environmental destruction as a way to pass environmental laws and encourage green business practices, the very logic that led to these crises remains unquestioned and utterly shapes our thinking about how to address them. As if by seeing the whole environment as a dwindling commodity to be horded and made valuable through the market, we can somehow save it.

The most stunning success of capitalism has been the way that it has extended the sphere of the market into almost every aspect of our lives, expanding well beyond material reality and getting applied to the way that we conduct our emotional life. Friend, neighbor, and family relationships are commonly mediated by its logic of treating any good will as a scarce commodity. People are scared into thinking that what is scarce includes even our own ability to transform ourselves and each other through love. In this way gifts are turned into debts, kindnesses into credit, and interactions into transactions.

Its not that we consciously live our lives in such a callous manner but that it becomes very easy for this kind of thinking to insinuate itself as pragmatic realism and for the logic of passionately engaging with each other and ourselves to be downplayed as naïve idealism. When we are asked to operate as efficient producers and consumers in so much of our lives it becomes difficult to imagine relating to each other differently.

Nature itself hardly responds to scarcity with calculated efficiency, it often responds with wasteful abundance that is impermanent and indiscriminant. Anyone who has watched rotting fruit drop off a tree and realized that it has been feeding all manner of life for weeks knows this. It is in that kind of joyous wastefulness that beauty and love can blossom and grow. Calculated relationships wither, no matter how strategically beneficial they are, relationships born out of the joyful giving of affection and honest desire for connection thrive and produce fruit in ways that were inconceivable when the seed started sprouting.

Bad Faith versus Community
In the first part of his book, The Gift, Lewis Hyde draws a distinction between a market economy where goods are traded with anyone as commodities and a gift economy where goods and services are given and received between people, creating or signifying connection and allowing excess to flow to those in need within a community. A meal cooked, a creative work, or a market commodity can all be gifts to the extent that they are given and received rather than being bought and sold.

In a gift economy there is no strict accounting, there does not need to be because you are dealing with people that you have a relationship with and the actual material that changes hands is only a part of what is happening; social connections are also strengthened. Gift economies work when good faith is assumed on both sides and come into crisis when the relationships they depend on are strained or forced.

An economy of market exchange operates most efficiently between strangers under the assumption of bad faith. Bad faith is the belief that all parties are involved for their own narrow material gain and, left to their own devices, would be cruelly indifferent to each other. Hyde connects this assumption of bad faith explicitly to a desire for authority and the presumption of scarcity: “Out of bad faith comes a longing for control, for the law and the police. Bad faith suspects that there is a scarcity so great in the world that it will devour whatever gifts appear.” (p. 128)

The assumption of bad faith produces more bad faith and leads to actions and attitudes that warrant continued ingratitude and mistrust. It is an inherent part of the culture of capitalism and as such, can seem impossible to change, but it is something that can be addressed and made less powerful on the scale of our actual lives by people who do not view their relationships as strategic, their emotional energy as scarce or their capacity for creativity and love as limited.

It is not, however, as simple as market logic bad, gift economy good. There are moments when it is useful to be able to interact with a person without being drawn into a relationship with them and a gift economy only works in the context of a relationship that is being created and sustained in good faith. Good faith is not something that can be brought into existence by force of will, it must be built. Trying to define all possible interactions as either gift exchange or commodity exchange quickly becomes confining. Nonetheless, getting rid of capitalism means leaving behind the logic that feeds it, it means learning to shrink the areas of our life that are governed by the market and expand the areas that are buoyed by good faith relationships and fed with gifts. When the sphere of the market shrinks to the point that it is not much more than a process used for negotiating barter with strangers, it becomes something that is no longer capitalism. When the relationship networks expressed through gift exchange grow to the point where people trust the strength of their communities, they render the state obsolete.

In the meantime, figuring out how to live in the presence of scarcity, without allowing fearful thinking to dominate our lives and learning how to exist in broken communities without retreating to an isolated place that views everybody else’s motives with bad faith are difficult emotional things to do. They require creating a culture that does not tolerate market logic; that is infused with the fermented juices of abundant emotional life. The more that we can be honest with ourselves and each other about the ways in which we are affected by ugly systems of power and control, the more likely we are to be able to forge that kind of culture in a lasting and meaningful way. The way forward cannot be found, it must be created by each person through a process of engagement.

 

picture of a compass

This piece was first published in the Spring 2009 edition of Slingshot! It also exists here. It developed out of thinking about the way in which judgment around subcultural aesthetic conventions gets confused with what we actually value, which prompted me to try to articulate my own values  in a clear way.

 

ENGAGING OUR VALUES, CHOOSING OUR FREEDOM
by Kermit

I spend a lot of time thinking about the things that I choose to value and what those values actually look like as they interact with each other in my life. Ideally, the things I believe in are not like objects that I acquire, and set on a shelf, but things that I continue to pick up, turn over in my hands and engage with in some meaningful way.

Too often it seems like shared aesthetic tastes become a kind of shorthand for shared values. Rather than getting to know the people that we interact with, we rely on superficial codes to identify allies. The world that we want to live in often becomes defined as one that looks like our vision, rather than one that feels like our truth. It is easy to understand the appeal. When we express ourselves with the same language and interact in a similar cultural mode it is easier to avoid conflict on the surface of things. This is helpful on days when it is all we can do to put one foot in front of the other. The problem is that it is also easier to avoid the passion and processing that is attached to conflict, to decide that it is not possible to find a point of connection with those whose words and actions trigger us.

When we assume that someone else’s truth should look like ours, we become grotesque — we begin to build a system of morality that separates ‘right thinking’ people from ‘wrong headed’ ones and inhibits our ability to understand people who are not like us. This is true among conservatives and reactionaries, but it is also true in radical circles. The vast majority of mass social movements, whether political or religious, have worked to deny or minimize facts that don’t conform to their Truth. The channels of power put in place to do this, no matter how well intentioned, almost always lead to abuse and the dehumanization of people defined as enemies. When we state, as radicals or anarchists, that we want to create a better world, free from domination, and begin to build an aesthetic vision of what that world looks like, we run the risk of falling into the same trap.

If everyone in the world decided to become like-minded in regard to revolution, or pacifism, or anarchy, or whatever else is held up as ‘the way’, but the quality of their relationships and the way that they interact with and use power in their daily lives remained the same, the world would only be made duller and more grey. Trying to think intentionally about the essential elements of my values while continuing to grapple with and reassess them as I grow helps me focus on my goals and build relationships and structures in my life to support those goals in ways that are not loaded with aesthetic judgment.

Freedom
One of the values that I think about a lot is freedom. So many people use this word in so many different ways that its meaning tends to fall apart when you look at it directly. One of the ways that I think about freedom is in terms of the autonomy each individual should have to construct/conduct their life as they see fit; that there is no right way to be in the world and that no person’s reality is more valid than anyone else’s. The implication of this statement is anarchy — it is what gives people the strength to cast off the bonds of received knowledge and defy power hierarchies that do not acknowledge their own humanity. It also means that I am not able to stand unreservedly behind a unified vision of a revolutionary society. If I believe that there is no one right way to be in the world, then no program or plan can be applied to all people.

Another definition of freedom that I find compelling is the existentialist view of freedom as an internal process connected to choice, responsibility and passionate engagement. Choice, here, is not the choice between products or political leaders, but choosing how we react emotionally to the world. We exercise our freedom when we choose how we are going to react to and be a part of the situations that occur in our lives, most of which lie outside our ability to control. This allows one to claim their freedom and embody it as they negotiate and create systems of meaning in the world, rather than to view freedom as a state that is to be achieved only in some distant future, after irksome struggles. Taking responsibility for these choices makes one aware of their own power. It is not something that can be done for the sake of others, or for all time, but that must be claimed and maintained by each person as they make their way through the world.

The ramifications of radical autonomy are not safe or easy, they are at the heart of what people fear about anarchy. Without rules and powerful hierarchies looking out for society, what prevents everything from just falling apart? What compels people to recognize any responsibility to themselves and others? For me, the answer is obvious, and grows out of the way that I think about the nature of my relationships.

Relationships
At the heart of feeling alive and engaged with the world is feeling connected to oneself and to others. When I decided to become a radical and build my life in an unconventional way in order to escape the quiet desperation that I associated with a conventional life, I thought, on some unconscious level, that changing what my life physically looked like was equivalent to changing the way that I emotionally engaged with the world. What I discovered was that even though I had found people whose lives more or less matched the broad strokes in my mind, I was still aching for a life I was not living. What I ached for was easy intimacy and shared trust, the ability for two people to expose a bit of their vulnerability to each other and come away stronger from the experience.

Don’t get me wrong, I love living in a community with other wingnuts and radicals, and sometimes a similar aesthetic can lubricate the process of building intimacy, it’s just that the emotional work of building sustainable intimate relationships is hard, even with people who dress and act and talk like me, and it is possible, even with people who don’t.

Often, political identities encourage people to ignore the health of their relationships. By shifting our focus to things very large and removed from our reality, political discourse runs the risk of allowing us an excuse to neglect the responsibility we have to be present in our own lives. If we are constantly aware of the abuse of governmental power but are unable to approach or confront the way that power operates in our relationships with the people we love, how are we ever going to be able to create beautiful realities in the lives we have been given? If people you know and are connected to began to heal themselves and learned how to talk to each other — about power and pain, passion and death — and became confident and aware of the ways in which their words, actions, and relationships shape the world they end up living in, how much more vibrant and less despairing would your existence be?

The charm of authoritarian systems is often in their ability to act as a surrogate for real connectedness. They pacify people by giving them simple answers and something they can easily hold on to. The ugliness of these systems is that they require shutting down our ability to recognize the humanity of people whose truth differs from the one we have connected ourselves to. Building substantial relationships in our lives that are based on trust and maintained through a mutual understanding of each other’s particular truth gives people a sense of security that is certainly more appealing to me than anything authoritarianism has to offer.

Conclusion
Having a sense of yourself and your own power, as well as the ways that you depend, in so many ways, on your connections to others is not about the music you listen to, the food you eat, how you dress, or how you dress your children. I believe that people best relate to one another when they can see their own humanity reflected in the other person. This is not saying that everybody is really the same, but that no one is wholly ‘other’. A direct implication of this is that I put much more stock into trying to understand how another person sees their world than I do in categorizing people. I deeply question whether the model of identity is the best way for people to talk about their differences and similarities; it can often obscure more than it clarifies. Only by placing ourselves firmly in our bodies right now and taking responsibility for our power and our freedom, even when that process is painful, or seems impossible, are we ever going to create engaged communities of strong and beautiful people who are connected to each other in healthy ways. The trick, for me, is figuring out how to be in deeply intimate networks of relationships with people while still maintaining an individual sense of freedom, finding a way to hold autonomy and mutual aid in my hands at the same time without reeling from the cognitive dissonance.

two very different soap dishes This was first published in the Winter 2008 edition of Slingshot! It also exists here. When I wrote it, I was trying to integrate what I felt was important about the identity based discourse around social justice that had surrounded me at college with the critique of identity politics I had encountered in anarchist communities.

 

ACKNOWLEDGING DIFFERENCE, REJECTING DIVISION
A Critique of Identity Politics
by Kermit

Race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, class and ability: some of the loaded breaking points that shape identity and experience. These categories have always loomed large in my political life and are rarely navigated comfortably, even within radical communities.

I first became politicized in a radical way in college having conversations about privilege and oppression that seemed to quantify human suffering into categories of identity and analyze how the actions of dominant groups and systems prevented any sort of broad based social justice. I gained a lot of knowledge about how privilege and oppression manifest in the world and in my own life but I really didn’t know what to do with that knowledge.

As a result I tried to be constantly vigilant, agonizing over every social interaction in my life and berating myself for not accepting the burden of my privilege fully enough. The result was that it was harder for me to relax enough to have genuine connections with people and I had no way of gaining social self-confidence without feeling like I was being an oppressive white man. On the flip side any sort of existential crisis I was having was legitimate only if it could be understood as coming from my experience being queer or fat or left-handed.

I am not talking here about being uncomfortable acknowledging how the current allocation of wealth, power, and privilege has been built on a history of domination and abuse. I am talking about the way that people in radical and activist communities often take in this information without having a model for how to live with it sustainably. One of the worst things about this society is the way that it divides and alienates people from themselves and each other. To adhere to a type of identity politics that denies the validity of experience outside the frame of identity serves, in a weird way, to reinforce the profundity of this alienation; training people to respect and maintain the very boundaries that divide and dehumanize them when they could be trying to transcend those boundaries.

After I left school, and moved to the West Coast, I was exposed to radical people who were critical of ‘identity politics’ for many reasons that seemed valid. At some point I remember stepping back from worrying incessantly about how my actions either subverted privilege or reinforced oppression. I tried instead to connect myself to my own desire and use that as the basis for building affinity with others.

It is easy to find fault with the way that many conversations about identity and power play out. It is much more difficult to acknowledge that the issues addressed by those flawed conversations remain. Learning to say ‘the framing of this debate is flawed and I choose not to engage with it’ is one thing, but if that stops one from ever framing any debate, then heavy and important things remain uncommunicated and the process of engaging with life honestly is stifled. Being constantly aware of the way that you are affected by privilege and oppression can get in the way of having organic relationships with people. On the other hand, trying to connect with people across lines of difference without having a way to address the elephant of identity also limits the potential for real intimacy and understanding.

So here I am; I know that many of the issues raised by identity politics are important but many of the conversations that happen around them no longer lead me to a place that is useful. Despite this I also know that I live in and am supported by a society built on the exploitation and destruction, past and present, of people, cultures, and ecosystems. It is along the lines of this exploitation that the need to cling to identity was born.

I guess for me the important thing is about what I choose to do with the knowledge that I have. Am I compelled to see people primarily as a collection of identities or do I strive to connect with people as complete entities with all of their experiences intact? It is the difference between declaring myself anti-sexist, going around self-consciously seeking out women to have ‘anti-sexist relationships’ with, versus allowing myself to connect with and support strong and beautiful people in my life, no matter what gender because, on some level, I love them. The first instance often inhibits intimacy, while the second uses organic relationships as a lens through which to understand how the experiences and opportunities of people in our lives are shaped by identity.
Sourcing my politics from my own desires and experiences is a much stronger model for me than setting the greater good of social revolution against my desires. It is not that we can’t change the world at all; it is just that the model of how we do it needs to be different if it is to be sustainable. It means that meeting my own needs is something I should be able to do without guilt. I do not believe that we live in a zero sum world where my happiness always comes at the expense of somebody else’s. I have a desire for my life to amplify connectedness and well-being through my own well-being, rather than to contribute, through my own isolation, to the isolation of the world. Sacrificing my own happiness will not, in itself, change anything about the institutions and power dynamics that perpetuate oppression. If I choose to believe that we live in a world where everyone is either hurting, angry or complacent, then letting go of pain and anger dooms me to complacency – I prefer to believe that there is a whole spectrum of emotions accessible to people that continue to engage reality and that the question of selling out is not so easily answered.

This does not mean there is no concern for people who are outside of ones own life and experience. I may read an article on the genocide of people I don’t know halfway around the world and be moved to tears and trembling – but that response for me stems from my own lived experience, from the understanding that the people suffering are as real as the people in my life, that their desires are no less valid and their pain no less felt.

I don’t claim to have it all figured out. Living a life I can feel satisfied with is still about discomfort. I think that if issues around identity, oppression and privilege ever seem simple or easily navigated, it will be because I have disengaged. For me, right now, staying engaged means maintaining a tension between knowing and feeling the unvarnished reality of suffering and remembering the capacity people have to build networks of mutual love, respect and support without letting the power of one of these thoughts erase the truth of the other.