Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Hey Kids, Progressive Clichés!

Okay, here goes.

This summer I had an exchange with another blogger who'd tweeted something along the lines of "enough already, we all agree, America is NOT post-racial... can we move on now?" I love a cranky, self-aware tweet and I told him so. (For me this is the genius of Twitter: for every meaningless kernel of trivia that floats along the data-stream there is a shiny pearl, excellent for its brevity. The 140 character limit makes good writers better by forcing them to be brief and it keeps bad writers from going on for too long. In my book this is a win-win.) His point was that the "we are not post-racial" drumbeat had become meaningless through constant use and was perhaps taking the place of more substantive discussions about race. I'd thought the same thing but hadn't known how to articulate it... Not so much a meme as a punchline, it stops conversations rather than opening them. In other words, "America is not post-racial" is a progressive cliché .

This brief conversation really made me think and I realized that there are a lot of tropes like this clogging up the discourse, making us ("us" = folks who write critically about various systems of oppression like racism, orientalism, sexism, etc. etc.) lazy. I considered writing a series of essays on these progressive clichés, but I hesitated. The self-imposed pressure to "keep it in the family " and not give the Right, who have become simultaneously more vicious and media-savvy in the last decade, more ammunition is strong. And kyriarchy--the ways in which we oppress each other--worries me. I don't want to inadvertently contribute to the systems of oppression I am trying to critique vertically or horizontally. And of course, while "America is Not Post-Racial" is a cliché, it is also true.

The problem, as I see it, isn't that such statements aren't true, but with how they are used. Like comedians who pander to the audience to get them on his side, the ultimate effect of this language is reactionary. There is no there there. But... does it make sense to criticize people for saying something that is true, especially when they/we are under constant attack from the Right? Don't people have the right to just vent--even if the ultimate effect is reactionary? It seems to make more sense to just leave it alone, grit my teeth and complain to my friends who will understand where I'm coming from.

And yet... I can't seem to let go of this idea.

I returned to Twitter and asked my feed: What do yo think? And the response was overwhelmingly positive. (What's more, suggestions for other progressive clichés started pouring in. Like "Check Your Privilege", "The 'Insert-Bad-Thing-Here' Industrial Complex", "How To Be A True Ally" etc. etc. ... special thanks to @monshiprose). Self-selecting Twitter hive-mind notwithstanding, it seems I am not the only one frustrated with these intellectual non-starters. Huh. Okay then.

So I have decided to forge ahead.

I suppose it comes down to this: I don't believe that the best way to deal with overwhelming opposition from the Right is to prevent ourselves from holding each other accountable to do better. But I do believe that if we have any chance at all to contribute (for lack of a better term) progressive ideals to a larger social conversation we can't let the Right turn us into a self-silencing monolith in the name of solidarity. Agreeing in principle doesn't mean we can't disagree--productively--about the whys and wherefores. And/or even about the hows. Right? There must be a way to critique the usefulness of certain arguments without attacking the people who articulate them, as a way of lifting the level of the discourse for all of us. Right?

So. All of that is the long way around to say that I am announcing a series of posts on "progressive clichés." I don't expect everyone to support the idea or agree with the way I present it, but I think one of the strengths of this format is its immediacy. So if you question what I propose with these posts then speak up. I'll happily hear you out. And if you have clichés of your own to propose, let me know.

More soon.

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