On post-new left vocabulary… or, “if becoming an ally isn’t about you” then why is it stated personally?

Changing words don’t change the mind, they reflect changes in the mind.  Don’t like Sapir-whorf tendencies confuse that. With that in mind, you should read a break down on vocabulary of left-wing activists.  Steve Darcy, recently wrote a very insightful essay on The Rise of the Post-New Left Political Vocabulary.  Every reactionary likes to talk about how narcissistic the “young people” are, but what does notices in an ever increasing subjectivism in the activist vocabulary from the 1980s forward.

Darcy’s warns us not to over romanticize the New Left (and the 1970s Marxist-Leninists that I wrote about earlier), but that there is a loss in the individuation and damage mitigation in the current activist vocabulary.  I have mentioned that the history of privilege pedagogy, as used by DuBois and then 1980s education activists, to privilege theory several times, so I will spare you.  That said, I don’t think Darcy is hard enough on the vocabulary shift because the assumption are more problematic. While the “new left” vocabulary had a tendency to render systems as abstractions as to be seem like no one has any agency in the area, the post-new left emphases individual agency to the point even when it is trying not to do so.

The example I always here is “becoming an ally isn’t about you” which is not true.  Allies are persons, and it is personal. It may not be about that person’s individual feelings–after all, it’s not an “ally” who decides if they are actually an “ally,” it is about personal attitudes, feelings, and listening.

Furthermore, the epistemological assumptions of the post-new left vocabulary often downplay the effects and the scale of the problem. Sure, “privilege” is systemic.  But stand-point theory assumed in most discussions of privilege theory assumes that oppression actually breeds unique insights into its own undoing.  This article, Politicising Subject Sensitive Invariantism, which is admittedly thin in Oxford analytic philosophical technical jargon, is actually helpful on this point:

One interesting consequence of this line of thought is that different strands of standpoint theory start to come apart. One claim made by standpoint theorists, as we have seen, is that socially loaded propositions are higher stakes for the socially powerless. Another is that the oppressed have privileged access to social reality – partly in virtue of the sorts of interests that they have, but also because, say, of work they do or more routine confrontations with threats of violence or coercion. A third claim is that the oppressed occupy a privileged epistemic position with respect to these socially loaded propositions. The first two thoughts are typically used to motivate the third. But for the subject sensitive invariantist, epistemic privilege will become detached from privileged access.

I want to finish by saying something about how this line of thought interacts with deeper questions about the proper methodology and ends of politically oriented philosophy. You might think that any position that unravels the claims of standpoint theory in the fashion envisaged here is  politically pernicious. It’s difficult to think that there’s nothing to this worry: the supposed ignorance and epistemic defectiveness the powerless does figure prominently in stories told by apologists for inequitable distributions of power. So whilst it should be obvious why it might be dialectically desirable to find insight, knowledge, and rationality hidden away in the situations of the oppressed; the reactionary possibilities of such a discourse should also be clear. Just think of all those insights afforded by your inferiority! The social historian Walter Johnson identifies the project of writing history in such a way as ‘to give the slaves back their agency’ as ‘therapy rather than politics’:

‘If we…seek to discharge our debt simply by ‘giving them back our agency’ as paid in the coin of a better history…we are using our work to make ourselves feel better and more righteous rather than to make the world better or more righteous.’

We might doubt that the job of politically oriented philosophy (or politically oriented intellectual activity in general) is to recover or reconstruct the virtues – moral or epistemic – of the oppressed.Theory tailored to fit certain dialectical aims doesn’t just risk being co-opted by its traditional adversaries. It can end up obscuring quite how bad things are.

In short, the vocabularies do illustrate problems in both ways of thinking.  I have said, somewhat unfairly, is that nationalistic left-liberals and Maoists had tendencies that both envisioned a mass popular front against oppression and Maoism, but ended up creating a confusing morass of activist vocabulary as the world moved on and the departments ex-judicially executing black kids got more racially diverse. It’s not just that the two vocabularies illustrate contradictions between the periodizations of left-wing world views, phrases like “becoming an ally isn’t about you” indicate profound contradictions within post-new left framework itself.


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