Humanities & Social Thought Non-Fiction

Postmodern Cynicism and the Oppressive Idea.

In a speech about gun control this year, President Obama referred to the body politic. He asserted that far from being inappropriate, a national tragedy is a good time to politicize experience. We may wonder what it means to “politicize” something and why that might be disrespectful. There are certain kinds of relationships that might suffer from being politicized. For example, LGBTQ+ relationships are both personal — peoples’ love lives — and political. It is possible to trespass into the personal by politicizing a particular relationship, as opposed to a category of relationships. This is an important distinction. The body politic deals with experience at the categorical level, it cannot speak to the personal experience and when it tries to do so, this is inappropriate politicizing. However, certain specific events can lead to appropriate discussions of categories. Obama argued that mass shootings in the United States have become a category, they can now be discussed as such without trespassing into the personal experiences of particular individuals. It is only through such politicization that we can begin to administrate at the categorical level — that is, for example, pass gun legislation. The common argument made against politicization is the use of people’s real experiences towards some agenda, which may result in a lack of recognition of the people themselves as one’s purposes may be self serving, after all. But the real opposition to the body politic is not the personal experience; it’s cynicism.

There are — on the Left, anyway — many well known factors that contribute to the ability to effectively create better conditions for oneself. To the extent that these factors are unequally distributed, they make up what we call privilege. We argue that because underprivileged individuals do not have equal power in representing themselves, those people who have privilege must use it as leverage on behalf of those who don’t. During her DNC speech, Michelle Obama observed that the fact that her girls lived in the White House was an indicator of stunning progress, because the White House was built by slaves. This progress, then, could not have happened without people who were willing to use their privileged positions to take a stand against slavery, and discrimination, and segregation.  For much of American history, on the Left, this kind of change was seen as profitable for everyone, not only the disempowered folks. The notion was that today it is you, but tomorrow it could be me. When we fight for better conditions for any group of people, we fight for the right for better conditions for all people.

Today, we have a new notion, we refer to people who use their privilege to better the conditions of people who are underprivileged as allies. Inherent in the idea of the ally is a lack of shared experience, it differs from the earlier notion in that it does not assume that tomorrow, it could be me. Rather, there are distinct islands of populations, whose islandic natures actually mutually constitute each other through experience. That is to say, because we cannot speak to the experience of populations we are not part of, the existence of the experience of each particular population is what ensures its separation from other populations. The mutually enforced ocean around each island of experience is called freedom. Compelled to respect this space, we must also accept that there is a “way things are.” We cannot reconstitute or reimagine this map, we certainly can’t bring these islands together under the banner of a common category — the notion of the ally hinges on the idea that the ally himself is not in the same category as the population(s) he defends. There is, has been, and may always be the category of the oppressed, or actual victims. But there was once also a category into which both the privileged and the underprivileged fell — the category of potential victims. It no longer exists, and so mutual interest cannot be used to justify collective action. The lack of mutuality expresses itself among the “woke” privileged as cynicism, and this cynicism becomes the justification for a lack of action altogether.

Cynicism simultaneously claims a consciousness and disclaims a conscientiousness. To be cynical, one must be aware of a poor condition; it is necessary to perceive its existence in order to believe that it cannot be changed. At the heart of the change of any condition is the expectation of the change, and a feeling of entitlement to the change. But maintaining this expectation is cooperative in nature — it requires developing a resistant norm shared and mutually constituted by those who seek the change.  This is a particular form of conscientiousness that cynicism invalidates.  A cynical person does not feel entitled to any change, rather he feels as though the right change is never going to happen.

It is therefore my assertion that cynicism among the privileged is, itself, a form of oppression. It actively tears apart the norms which guide collective resistance, those norms which are local to the particular type of community that embodies resistance. Moreover, the ally is an expression of this same cynicism because it assumes an inherent lack of collective, and provides a kludgy alternative — a federation of islands insisting that their genuinely different experiences means there can be no more general category to which they all belong.  This insistence that we must be aliens unto each other is the same as the insistence that the right change is never going to happen. We can only achieve better conditions for underprivileged folks by acknowledging the thin, carefully constructed line which divides the privileged from the oppressed. This line has moved so often throughout the course of history, it behooves us to realize that there are no allies. There is only the universal human right to be free from oppression and discrimination on the basis of those things which are inherent to us. The belief that there is a power structure which is static and untouchable in nature, whose objectives do not shift across populations, is a weird postmodern cynicism. It is weird because it insists that particular power constructs are immutable on the basis of deconstructionist ideologies. But the definitions promoted by these constructs change over time and are thus deeply mutable. It is this postmodern cynicism that wrenches the resisting collective apart by transforming it into “allies.” It is this postmodern cynicism that injures the body politic by preventing it from any movement. It is this postmodern cynicism that is, itself, oppressive.

By jtp

Joanna Tova Price has a lot of heart.

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