There's no I in politics
“Looking at who we mourn is one way of understanding who we are… In war, we never mourn the countless deaths of our enemies. We mourn our own.” — Hamed Sinno, “on Pride and Mourning in the Middle East”
“Right now, I’m on the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Tompkins. It’s that specific. Where are you today, where will you be tomorrow, what are your human connections, what people do you talk to on a regular basis, who are you in conversation with, who’s your community.” — Simone White, “Poet, Scholar, Philosopher”
“Anyway, national liberation isn’t extraneous to grief; it’s supposed to be a geography of relief for the aggrieved.” — Steve Salaita, “The Unlocked Turnstile of Palestine Solidarity”
“What I’m doing right now—and where I want my work to go—is researching the parameters within which I function. What am I angry at? How does that manifest?” — Juliana Huxtable, “on the new politics of trans visibility in the social media age”
Hey hi hello,
Right to it.
I had a conversation recently with a friend of mine who I consider a strategic and principled communist. We were talking about the value of forgiveness as a way of bringing people into a movement who been previously working outside or even against it. I found the concept repugnant. She recognized why, but argued that, even if forgiveness is perhaps an inappropriate term, acceptance and support provides the necessary foundation upon which to build a relationship of real solidarity, exchange, and unity. For her, forgiveness operates an act of both personal kindness and collective utility, and shouldn’t be dismissed.
I saw her point. But what, I wondered, for accountability? Shouldn’t people be held accountable? And then came another, better question: what the fuck does it even mean to hold someone accountable?
Accountability occupies a kind of fetish position in our contemporary cultural vocabulary. In this figuration, accountability is understood less as something done for its own sake, or for the sake of some collective good, but rather, for the purpose of facilitating forgiveness.
Legal language and practices have cultivated an image of injury as something fixable. There is a grievance, and it can be addressed through the proper processes. This is called accountability. At the end of this process, we arrive at a moment of redress. Some damages are awarded, flowing from one person to the other. The individualization of the parties here is essential — there is always, of course, a plaintiff and a defendant. After the damages are awarded, the grievance is over. Accountability has been achieved. Forgiveness, whether real or merely procedural, permits the parties to move on. Legal dramas often include a scene of the parties weeping, wishing that the process could “just be over.” Accountability is exhausting.
I’m going around in circles. I don’t think there are easy answers to questions of forgiveness or accountability. But what I mean to say, really, is that I think that problems inevitably come up when a person or group is meant to seek forgiveness for something which, no matter their intention, is largely beyond their capacity to meaningful address. So when people act and think in this way, as though all their acts can or should be forgiven, it feels rightly ridiculous — hollow, inauthentic, immaterial, too little, too late.
Nothing exists in a vacuum; the self-contained, dualist nature of accountability epitomized by the legal system doesn’t actually line up congruently with the world we live in. Trying to broker individual solutions to social problems, they are always biting off more than they can chew, and the outcomes feel similarly unsatisfying and outsized. If you are the more privileged person in this scenario, you can accept that this arrangement will often lead to people finding you inauthentic and paltry, and strive to do better anyway, or you can get mad about it and dismiss it as “radical liberalism” and “idpol.” Most people choose the latter.
There is the problem of the Internet. We live, famously, in a society; or, more to the point, we live in a superstructure. Whatever we say and do online, and in proximity to online consumption, becomes a profitable piece of information; it spreads because there is commercial incentive to spread it, and then, to meme it, merchandise it, brand it, and invest the proceeds in overseas palm oil plantations. No event is just an event; it’s a node in a vast network, digital and commercial, that feeds back into itself. So what we do does something. This, I think, is what people mean when they call something performative: these gestures of guilt, apology, and accountability are both performed (ie, displayed for an audience), and they also perform, by creating and recreating notions of what “accountability” or “allyship” means, is, or appears to be. And as a simple function of how the capitalist Internet works, the end product of this viralizing process is going to be the least radical, and most available for consumption.
This whole behind-the-scenes drama of symbolic activism is what I think hits harder than simple inauthenticity. Speaking personally, I don’t care if someone’s apology is real or fake. My forgiveness makes no impact on their lives, nor, really, on mine. But liberalism has such a fetish for the real that everything gets reduced to a mere question of authenticity, of true emotion, good intention, etc. That is the problem, and it’s a big problem: when this sort of confessional, cringey, Catholic reading of what it means to “do the work” becomes accepted as activism in and of itself, as marking the shift to The Good Side, instead of an ongoing process requiring both community and criticism.
As frustrating as it sometimes is to be on the receiving end of this characterization, especially if it feels misapplied, it pays us to be very critical in locating ourselves in relation to the new and profitable micro-economy of white guilt and righteous electoralism. People have built storied and successful careers out of essentially pointing vaguely at moments of unspeakable violence, promising to “do something,” and then taking a pic with a politician while other people get shot; if this isn’t you, great. But it’s not coming from nowhere. Whether or not it’s good politics to say so, there is something absolutely fucking maddening about seeing the grimiest, least qualified people in your “community” collecting capital, liquid and social, off of doing the bare fucking minimum, too little and too late. Walk softly.
This is not a case in favour of the feel-good gestures of social media identity politics. Rather, I am trying to make a case for realizing that none of this exists in a vacuum. The problem goes deeper. We must recognize what liberalism is and how it works— especially online and particularly on social media. The problem is not rad-libs gone wild, or ideological purists, or even annoying TikTok communist influencers, but simply good ol’ fashioned liberal capitalism applying itself to new and fun problems; we are invisibilizing the invisible hand of the market.
A takeaway: Activism, allyship, accountability, and even apology are not events. They are processes. Capitalism fetishizes forgiveness because it is profitable to imagine social harm as individual injuries requiring individual forms of redress, to map a moral arc of redemption onto our personal entanglements with imperialism and oppression, and understand “doing the work” as something that gets done. When people brag about their recent switches from conservatism, the disgust they encounter is not “political purity” or “gatekeeping,” but a recognition of the violence contained in politics as distilled into an event. If you participated in or cheered on state violence, that doesn’t just disappear; no display of authentic remorse will do a damn thing for anyone, except maybe, possibly, make Jack and Mark some money.
It’s ugly to say this, and probably uglier to hear. But get over yourselves. What we need to accomplish, and how we need to get there, far exceeds the vocabulary of the system at hand; anything approaching real accountability, or real forgiveness, cannot be realized through the tools we’ve been given, at the pace and standards presented to us. You never just become “good enough,” because it’s not about you. And this is true for everyone: Who gave you the right to ask for forgiveness? Who gave you the right to accept or deny it?
There is strategic value in becoming bigger than oneself. It is a risky act of kindness. Move quietly, and continue.