This morning, quite mechanically, I updated my Facebook newsfeed. Its a bit like spinning a wheel of fortune- there is a thrill in the unpredictability of what might come up. The action of holding down the page, and then releasing it, always makes me think of a child tugging at an adult’s clothes. Its meant to draw attention, usually because we want something, and our social media hunger sure demands fresh produce very often. Beware though; things here run stale alarmingly fast.
What popped up this time was a friend’s post sharing the fiction piece ‘Cat Person’ which appeared in The New Yorker. I immediately started reading it and soon found myself unable to take my eyes off the screen. That meant getting ready with only one hand to spare- packing my bag, eating breakfast, putting my shoes on. It all took that much longer as I scrolled further and deeper into this story. It was only when I was out of the house, getting into the car, that I was struck by the abrupt plot-twist of its explosive climax.
Has there been a shift in the writing world lately? I ask this because whatever I read (even journalistic writing), seems to work on plot twists and the measured economy of suspense. Its almost as if the thriller has consolidated all other genres. Contemporary writing, it would appear, is all about drip-feeding crucial information, as selectively and tantalisingly as possible, and never giving away the full plot. Keeping the reader on the hook. Like click-bait, is there such a thing as scroll-bait?
Not that theres anything wrong with that. Of course, the merits of suspense in reportage aren’t exactly clear, but we sure do enjoy our thrillers, don’t we?
I wonder if this is by design- to maintain the attention of the effervescent social-media reader, persistently on the verge of losing attention and jumping to newer updates. Or is this a kind of unintended homage to the way the oppressed are kept in their ‘place’ by their oppressors- always just enough sustenance to prevent open rebellion, but never enough for emancipation. Maybe its a bit of both? Maybe our modern-day attention-span is engineered to maintain some wider status-quo?
Coming back to the story, theres no denying that ‘Cat Person’ begs much conversation, and certainly more nuanced scrutiny than the binary extremes of love it/hate it. But my very first thoughts weren’t on the merits or problems of the story, nor on its resonance or discursive potential in the #metoo ecology. The moment I finished reading, I was instantly overwhelmed by an acute awareness of my own position- my ‘identity’, if such a singular thing exists.
Its definitely not the first time this has happened. I found myself in exactly the same spot a few weeks ago when social media plunged into an ugly turf war over Raya Sarkar’s list. The very impulse to respond or engage was preceded by this intense introspection- of my own position in the debate/discourse. Its like the question “What do I think about this?” is blocked by a much more pressing question:
“Where am I thinking from?”
Is this a bad thing? Absolutely not. Its a question that we must answer, and one we must never stop asking ourselves. In fact, its the failure to ask this question that leads to unmitigated disasters like the tone-deaf and patronising Kafila ‘statement’. As it is, Identity politics is a quicksand. It definitely doesn’t help wading into it without understanding and questioning one’s own investments in it.
Is that easy? Its not, and mostly because of two elusive variables in the equation. The first is the need for personal honesty. Very often, owning our positions of privilege is harder than accepting our victimhood. I confess that I’ve found this particularly hard, not because I didn’t want to acknowledge my privileges, but because I simply didn’t recognise so many of them. And aren’t the most substantial privileges those that masquerade as insignificant, and are easily taken for granted?
The second problem is even more complex. In the lexicon of identities, are they self-defined and self-assumed, or are they externally determined? The degree to which we internalise and co-opt them is equally hard to figure out. And to top it off, do we ever only inhabit a single identity? And are our multiple identities merely additive?
This complex quagmire is where most of the things I want to say get stuck, and often die a natural death. Thats probably for the best, for both me and you, my reader, that I didn’t give in to writing every damn thing that crossed my mind. Phew!
But this situation also presents another possibility, and one that I feel is quite in vogue, especially on social media. I am going to call it identity gerrymandering, and in the case of gender politics, gender gerrymandering. Taking from that most bafflingly still-legal American-pioneered practice of elected representatives redrawing electoral constituencies to (effectively) favour their own party’s re-election, its a leap of terminology that isn’t really hard to understand.
In the light of Sarkar’s list, or this story about the nuances of sexual consent, where the gendered position of individuals is the very foundation of any engagement, I find myself on a very complicated spectrum. I have long known that in the politics of gender, I am doomed to straddle the unhelpful hyphenation of gender-sexuality.
No matter how the constituencies are drawn, I end up unsure of where I should/could/want to be. If there are two constituencies- the classic man and woman binary, then I am thrust into the electoral rolls of men. As a queer male, how do I feel about my fellow electorate? Do I feel any ‘natural’ kinship stemming from the commonality of possessing a cock? Adding a third transgender constituency doesn’t improve my situation either, because what camaraderie do they feel for me?
Even if a separate ‘queer men’ constituency is carved out, I would be equally uncomfortable, because how much do I really agree with that gay man who shares “UNESCO declares India’s national anthem to be the best” on Facebook?
The point is, no matter how the lines are drawn, individual positions can never be satisfactorily framed. This should, quite logically, bring to question the very exercise of drawing such gendered constituencies, and expose just how futile and counterproductive it is. But on the other hand, I recall saying earlier just how important it is to be aware of the position we speak from- the power and privilege we occupy. So am I being contradictory here?
I don’t think so. Being aware of my power-position in a discourse is not the same as putting myself in an imagined cohesive category, or even presupposing the existence of such a category. And this is that much worse when it is externally imposed- when others thrust me into groups and constituencies. After all, if this is gender gerrymandering, there are clearly those who are drawing these lines, and -unsurprisingly- for their own (discursive or otherwise) advantage.
For instance, I am quite sure that anything I said about sexual harassment would instantly be labeled as coming from a man, and therefore suspect (because non-experiential). Imagine I were to write a facebook post on it. I would then be compelled to play my I-am-queer/gay card to get a second chance for a more nuanced interpretation of my opinion. In a way, my queerness then becomes a key, unlocking a higher level of attention from my readers- a level that being a non-queer man simply wouldn’t afford. I might be wrong, but aren’t locks and keys exactly how privilege works?
In this imaginary comment-war on this imaginary Facebook post of mine, I could further enter the inner circle by bringing up (under something dreadfully similar to peer-pressure and coercion) my own experiences of sexual harassment. This would elevate the power of my words, because now I am viewed as someone who speaks-from-personal-experience. Does experiencing sexual harassment make my opinions on the matter automatically and always better? Does the experience of violence, oppression and marginalisation automatically improve my understanding of social justice? If so, how do we understand the oppression of those who are themselves oppressed? Like, for instance, how would we reconcile the Holocaust and anti-semitism with the unlawful and brutal occupation of Palestine?
Gender gerrymandering operates on a fairly simple mechanism. It begins with an instant recognition (in reaction to a discourse or event) of an core aggrieved party. If its about rape, then its women; if its Section 377, then its gay men; if its about Transgender legislation, then its transgender people, and so on. There is nothing wrong with such identification because, evidently, such discourses and/or events affect different individuals differently. What is problematic, however, is when a certain blanket economy of opinions is imposed with a marked value-difference between those who are in the core, and those outside. For instance, when it comes to Section 377, automatically, the opinion of a gay man outweighs that of a heterosexual woman.
I have encountered this countless times, often in conversation with friends. The moment our talk turns to 377, and if I happen to be the only ‘gay’ person in the room, my opinions are instantly treated with a kind of sacred deference. I am thrust into the position of authority on the matter, and all my other ‘non-gay’ friends pepper their opinions with elaborate apologetics. Its like I am an expert on the matter, when the truth couldn’t be farther. My position of privilege vis-a-vis 377 allows me the luxury to be entirely unconcerned about it if I wanted, and unlikely to ever face the wrath of it in the first place. But that is apparently inconsequential to such conversations. I am a ‘core’ constituent in this discourse, and I get a head-start in the value of my words.
For ‘Cat Person’, my face-value is that of a man, evidenced by my bearded profile picture on Facebook, and further implicated in my banal caste-embedded name. In this gerrymandering, if I try my best to express my own gender disempowerment, the gatekeeping authorities will award me the position of a ‘feminist-ally’, because thats the highest rung available if you don’t have a vagina. I suppose the martial terminology here implies that I could have done much worse, and easily become an enemy.
While I think I am a feminist, I do not claim to be one in order to occupy a position of authority or even ‘better’ understanding of the struggles of women and non-binary individuals. I readily confess my ignorance of a lot of things, and I can only hope for more education on such matters, derived undoubtedly from those who have greater understanding of such discourses. Is calling myself an ally helpful? I doubt. Am I, as an ally, incapable of stupid opinions and (even if accidental) misogyny? Absolutely not!
Who decides whose opinions matter more? The same people, I suppose, who decided that issuing a censorious statement in public was better than reaching out to Raya Sarkar and showing solidarity? The list was not unproblematic, but the discursive conflict-of-interest of those signatories, and their Facebook ‘allies’, whose friends, mentors or lovers found mention in Sarkar’s list, was not unproblematic either.
Gatekeeping and ‘Behalf-ism’ certainly aren’t new, and their amplified presence in academia is no secret. The social sciences, in many ways, have made a veritable profession out of behalf-ism, and I don’t exclude my own involvement in both the field (as ally/foot-soldier/cavalry/voyeur/etc), and in behalf-ism. Casual behalf-ism, in fact, is the very stuff of late-night conversations on politics.
Before this creates the impression that only the Ivory-tower is implicated in this gerrymandering, let me be clear- it works in more than one way. Urban and middle-class queer/gay individuals are spot-on illustrative of gender gerrymandering, sometimes in empowering but often in equally problematic ways. Our (since I cant write from South Delhi and claim to be better-than-thou) selective and highly-privileged game of peek-a-boo with the closet presents us with the luxury of both availing male-privilege and disavowing it as we please. You could, like a former Facebook-friend of mine (who pointedly unfriended me), be a vocal critic of gender stereotypes and show up at all the right protest-gatherings, yet carefully play-a-man in your hetero-men company, and then go home and flip through your Grindr profile where you mention “No fems” and “masc for masc.” Perhaps its like those on Facebook who think doing away with their surname somehow divests them of their caste-privileges? Its certainly not very different from the irony in ‘Cat Person’, when the author implies that Robert’s “high-pitched feminine whine” was a turn-off, and (alongside his belly) a deal-breaker for Margot.
Now, as I write this at the end of the day, I have chosen to desist from engaging in any social-media conversation on ‘Cat Person’, just as I chose not to say anything about Sarkar’s list (aside, of course, from my non-accidental mentions here). I don’t want to blame it on age, or make it out to be any wisdom, but I have lately found it difficult to express concrete opinions on anything. The conviction that I see in the posts and opinions of my friends (and indeed my own posts from the past) only leaves me amazed at their capacity to summon such solid convictions.
Do I really think I have some super valuable (and more valuable than someone else’s) opinion on ‘Cat Person’?
I only need to rewind my day to answer that question. Having read the story in the morning, I went to take a class for my private student. After that, I helped a friend who has recently moved to Delhi with some shopping, and eventually, spent the evening in a cafe writing this piece, before hiring an auto and coming home. Evidently, in each of these four instances, I had occupied a position of (relative) power- as the teacher who wields knowledge, as the helpful friend who wields charity, and as the paying customer who wields the cash. Do I see any of these positions to be the proverbial fruit of my own endeavours- outside the accidents of caste, class, gender, family ‘background’ and the countless other privileges I avail? Do I really want to further demonstrate my power by opining on something that I neither claim to fully understand, nor pretend to have experienced? Just because I have internet access, the ability to write in English, and the privilege of a few hundred friends on social media, do I really have to say something?
Also, if everyone is saying something, who is really listening?