Posted on 20 April 2015.
As Hillary Clinton has announced she is running for the US Presidency, it is probably a good time to take a broader look at the potential pitfalls of politicians being presented as “feminists,” however defined.
I don’t dispute that feminism (however defined) is a good thing.
But there is nothing “innocent” about prominent political figures portrayed in glowing ethical terms (even when the presentation is only being made by their supporters).
Instead of speaking directly about Clinton, I am going to talk about another matter first, to better illustrate (I hope) the problem of complicity between misogyny and superficial appeals to purportedly “feminist” idealism.
More precisely: I am not sure that there has been enough critical analysis of the rather prominent and surprisingly timely “Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict” of 2014.
For it is as though, because rape is an appalling crime (which it certainly is), the presumed good intentions of those who present themselves as opposing rape should be deemed in itself an argument in favor of the proceedings of the summit.
I say “presumed,” because I do not think the question of sincerity or insincerity is the most important consideration here. And in any case, questions of motivation are speculative, and often rest on over-simplistic and inappropriately reductionist notions of human psychology that I consider to be untenable.
So the question of what may or may not motivate John Kerry, William Hague or others, is not necessarily the most important question, as compared to the implications of what has been formulated and pronounced at the summit.
But more crucially, in terms of implication and not motivation, there is such a thing as what I call the corporatist “politics of decency.” This is the politics of opposing misogyny, racism, homophobia, or other prejudices (held by people across the whole political spectrum) on a distorted basis.
That is: these phenomena are always opposed solely because such prejudices harm individuals (which they certainly do); but also (at least partly) because they are, in the words of a certain kind of conspicuously benevolent person in the UK, “bad form.”
Still, while there may be cases where some are opposed to war rape because the topic of rape is “unpleasant,” “uncomfortable…”
Or perhaps even because it is a topic that allows The Universal League of Socially Just Vanillamen to rally around The Right Side…
Well, all this is no substitute for explicitly emphasizing how Crimes Against Women harm individuals.
On this note, see John Kerry’s deeply problematic text on an embassy website (also published in the London Evening Standard some time ago):
No hyperlink included. If you aren’t prepared to copy and paste this, then you aren’t prepared to put the time in to think about how problematic the issues under discussion are.
That’s right son, I’m being patronizing. Because speaking of “patronizing…”
Well, the article in question says:
Sexual violence plagues every country. It is not just (sic) a domestic criminal justice issue. Acts of sexual violence demean our (sic) collective (sic) humanity (sic).
Not just? No comment.
Our? Who is “we?”
What is humanity, and precisely what is collective about it? Maybe ask old Uncle Joe or Pol Pot how that collective humanity thing is going.
They make us all (sic) less secure, less prosperous (sic) and less free. So there are few causes worthier (sic) of international (sic) co-operation (sic).
Us all? It always worries me when white, comfortably-off male politicians from influential nation-states say this. Surely it’s for others to say?
Less prosperous? At first I was tempted to ask myself whether this was an unfortunate Freudian slip from someone in Kerry’s speech-writing team; but on balance, I think it’s just a bad choice of words. Still, it does seem somewhat ugly to be talking about prosperity, (which presumably includes material prosperity), in a context like this.
Few causes? What kind of vulgar-Benthamite calculus is in play here? So there aren’t that many, but perhaps this one can be put in near the top somewhere, maybe?
International? You mean like the so-called “International Community,” or “IntCom?”
(By the way, using the term IntCom doesn’t mean you agree with everything written by Chomsky, the person who apparently coined the term in question. That should go without saying, but I think one can afford to take very little for granted here).
Co-operation? Nice idea, in general. When are you people (from both parties) going to finally get around to that one then?
Still, we must proceed.
Charge One: Abstraction
Kerry’s text, albeit unintentionally, has a trivializing effect towards rape as an infringement of individual liberty. His essay backgrounds the individual character of rape, implicitly denying the (again) individual and contextual character of each crime. So it is as though there were only “Rape in General;” the latter phrase is not found in the essay, but appears to be implicit in essay’s framing of rape.
Or at least, on a marginally more charitable reading, there are rapes against individuals, yes; but these are somehow, in some vague and indeterminate manner, subordinate to the abstract, falsely universal, implicit notion of “Rape in General.”
But how? Well, as you can see from the quote above, the essay subordinates and subsumes every individual’s experience into a certain notoriously vague, fluffy, and emotive abstraction; “our collective humanity,” which like so many other cheap rhetorical terms, is easily interchangeable with largely synonymous words.
So what other terms are implied here? While Kerry’s piece does not use the phrase, it appears that the “person” harmed in rape is none other than:
“Our Common Humanity.”
(Or ComHum, as I tend to call it).
It is as thought the text were irritably murmuring under its breath:
“Crimes against mere paltry, meagre, isolated individuals are bad enough… but crimes against ‘Humanity’ are absolutely intolerable!”
This collectivist tactic (or if you prefer a less loaded and more high-faluting term, this holistic tactic), risks distracting the more unwary reader from the only thing that counts; individual suffering. The article plays down and de-emphasises the horror of rape, by combining an apparently gestural acknowledgment of the pernicious character of this crime, with a backgrounding of the very depravity of such an abhorrent Crime Against Individuals.
Hence, unbeknownst to Kerry, the essay risks assisting the Global Justice Liberation Front in enlisting, in a most disreputable manner, those “allies” or “assistants” who might otherwise find the topic of rape too upsetting or disturbing to talk about in more blunt or crude terms…
Even though it is hard to see how such euphemistic rhetoric can be appropriately associable with a crime so raw, vicious, and ultimately barbaric.
Hence, despite the best efforts of the writers and speaker to focus on the real issue, the text risks achieving little more than inadvertently shoring up the credentials of Kerry and his party (and of the broader US or even Western political establishment)…
Presenting once again the credentials of a certain limited number of individuals as “lovers of Humanity.”
This piece will be continued tomorrow. It’s an important topic around which a lot of cant and false piety tends to circulate, so it may be worth reading further.