By Gary Paramanathan
The other day I happened to be having a conversation with a colleague of mine. Much to my surprise, and a pleasant surprise at that, she said she no longer uses the term “Left Wing”, and has switched to “Progressive”. Now this is someone I look up to, someone who has a fairly strong sense of ethics and values that I ascribe to. Here I was, totally blown away that she was also contemplating abandoning the “Left”, at least semantically. I thought, when those of us who are clever with words, start abandoning certain words, it’s usually like the canary in the coal mine. A sign of changes to come.
So why are some of us abandoning the term “Left Wing”. Well here’s my story. I’m shifting away from Left, not because I am born again Right, but because I’m convinced the strongly Left identifying amongst us have become the nuevo fascists of our times. As many of the causes that we believe in gain strength, the ones who hope to rise through the ranks to control the outcomes, are the most didactic, puritanical, of all us.
It reminds me of the histories of newly liberated nations, throwing away the shackles of colonialism and imperialism, only to end up in the hands of a dictator, and left to wonder if maybe things were just a little better under the earlier masters. This pattern is no distant past either, watch The Square on Netflix to know what I mean. The world, I believe is definitely shifting to the Left, as many citizens wake up to the implications of environmental and human abuse. The hard left wing, with their hyper vigilant policing, doctrine of what is wrong and right, and a sense of intellectual superiority are sooner or later going to end up the people in power. If we want real and meaningful change, then replacing one interest group with another won’t work, we need to do this better.
Here are my suggestions on how to be a ‘better’ leftie/progressive:
- Don’t represent communities, represent yourself.
This is a conundrum I’ve experienced, who I am to represent a group or community when I am not able to ascertain what their needs and opinions are. Many of us activists, especially in POC circles are so far removed from our own communities, often living in white spaces, removed from families and neighbourhoods full of ‘our people’. We in no way represent their interests, when we barely know them. Some of us are even ashamed of their interests, so much so, that we erase them and create new ideals for an audience that knows no better. Sound confusing? Here’s an example:
I could tell you just about anything about being a Sri Lankan, and you’d believe it, because my voice is the only voice you hear on this topic in this forum. By choosing to ascribe whatever I want to my Sri Lankaness, I am defining an entire population to benefit my identity as an individual. I know way too many people who do that. This doesn’t just apply to race, but to gender, sexuality…etc.
2. Enough with the venom.
When you’re convinced the world is falling apart at the seams, I know this is a hard thing not to do. I was listening to a podcast, This American Life, and in one of the stories, an environmentalist was talking about Obama’s election. He goes something along the lines of “well we are used to an industry of pessimism, we are so used to fighting against everyone, a sense of optimism and joy is sometimes lost on us.” This lit me up, this is exactly it! I know too many leftist activists who are just so doom and gloom, and quite frankly oozing poison. They are ready to pounce on anyone stepping remotely out of line. They hold so much resentment and hate, and manifest this as anger to fuel their cause, which of course can be a great starting point, but ultimately that anger can manifest itself as a toxic, self harming pollutant that chases people away, the kind of people you need to enact the change you desire.
Unless you are planning to wage a war, and win via hard power, you are not going to win the masses with your anger and hate.
3. No more Elitism.
I am well aware that I am the only non-academic writing for this publication, and this is by no means a critique of my lovely colleagues. I am just so over cliques of academics running word play on each other, in an effort to establish their own intellectual brilliance. This sense of elitism is so mind numbing and ultimately a barrier to change. It is by relating to the common wo/man and extending your hands to understand their desires, minds and bodies will you achieve ever lasting change.
I know a part of us may always feel a little better about ourselves after abusing those less enlightened than us, to label people, and essentially write them off, but really what do we hope to achieve with all this elite talk? Alienate ourselves further into a bubble, till people just stop listening? That’s when we lose.
4. Don’t Appropriate Other People’s Struggles.
This is a tough one, I think you can learn from other people’s struggles, and those who are truly oppressed are likely to extend their hand if they feel a sense of solidarity, but if it hijacks their cause, or in anyway waters down their goals then it is definitely problematic. I’ll present an example. Sometime last year I walked into an online battle of Aboriginal activists and African Australian activists fighting over the term ‘black’. It was an ugly fight, I got whip lash, and I saw a lot of insecurities and animosity. At least from a couple of the keyboard warriers, I could see a strong appropriation of the African American struggle, and adopting it as their own to win this case of oppression Olympics. They were in essence invoking the struggles of African Americans to pad their own struggles, and putting themselves on a higher pedestal. The fight was not about absolving oppression in their own communities, but rather outdoing each other in their respective circles, because an association with an oppressed community gives them greater social currency.
5. Don’t hate white people.
I am so very, totally over, “white people this, white people that”. I feel this way primarily for two reasons. One, this feels like an appropriation of African American politics (see above). Two, if we can say “not all Indian, not all Arabs…etc” then “not all white people” is a valid argument to me. I totally recognise white privilege, I’ve faced a hell of a lot of it, but it’s really class privilege that’s the issue, white people are just…people. Those rich, white private school kids have very little in common with a working class white kid. In fact the working class white kids are convienenlty pitted against the working class POC kids. Divide and conquer they say. We all know that if I went to a private school I would have a much better chance at having this published in a mainstream publication, or maybe even my English would be better. Yes, they’d be some bias based on my colour but I’d still be better off than a working class white kid.
Also we seem to forget the practicality of enacting change, no one ever won any rights by demonising the majority, it is by winning their hearts and minds did we achieve long lasting change. In my experience, enough white people I come across recognize privilege and are open to change. It’s up to us to work with them, and negotiate the terms of that change as we see fit.
6. Move Out of the Inner West/North Shore/Eastern Suburbs (Apply to your respective cities).
So many of my activist friends who hate ‘white people’, seem to love surrounding themselves with the same people they hate. So you’re angry at hispters for cultural appropriation and all their facial hair flaws, or you don’t like rich white people, yet you choose to situate yourself right in the middle of them. Now if I am not a fan of flies, I am not going to situate myself near a garbage bin. Not to insinuate that the Inner West or the North Shore is in any way rubbish, but you get my point. Let me spell it out…MOVE TO THE WEST! Embrace the hyper migrant culture, where white people are an exotic sighting, where the working class fuse with the aspirational middle class, where McMansions and concrete gardens (with no edible produce) are stock standard. Come and live amongst the communities you so strongly defend amongst your white friends, then be confronted by the general disappointing jist of humanity. It is not just ‘white people’, it is class and wealth that is problematic, and that applies to everyone. By rejecting The West you are playing into the hands of this class and wealth game.
7. Don’t be a hypocrite.
I was once having a conversation with a self proclaimed Black activist, and she said, and I quote verbatim here “I just can’t date black guys, they are just too hard”. I totally went cross eyed and thought what the chocolate brownie fudge is she talking about? So I asked her, could you possibly date someone from your own specific African community, she looked at me and gave me a gag face. She was disgusted by the idea. This is the same activist who constantly laments the treatment of Blacks by Whites and other POCs. This was a wake up moment for me, I mean, if you can’t love the person whose rights you’re fighting for, then what exactly are you fighting for?
8. No more Oppression Olympics.
There are certain things I can say as a queer man, even if they are so damn offensive. There are certain things you can say as a woman of colour, or transgender person or any other identity you assume, no matter how outlandish. Based on these identities, you’re placed on a scale of oppression, and no matter the vigour of your statements, they are accepted based on your identity politics. In practice, way too many times I’ve had conversations where people have tried to shut me down based on my so called ‘privileges’ and give me way too much credit based on my ‘disadvantages’. I recognise that some people deserve all the support, listening and protection, considering the histories of their communities. But categorising them all as one, and oppressed, and hating those supposedly at the top, cis white men, is just so very pointless. Many women of colour I know are fiercely, either publicly or privately anti cis straight men, including men of colour. There is no doubt that misogyny is a problem in our communities. But the misogynists are not among you, by association, the cis males in your surroundings are empathetic to your fight. So don’t bash them, because you are now just a victim of the misogyny, perpetuating a cycle of gender based lateral violence.
9. Find your thing.
So where am I placed in all this? I started a film festival a few years ago, focusing on migrant and diaspora storytelling, I got some funding and began touring it, I was fiercely opposed to everything ‘mainstream’. I kept finding audiences, but it was very much preaching to the converted. I got bored. So I hatched a plan to get the films to a mainstream audience, not the converted, who’d so faithfully followed the festival. Now, with partnerships with local and state organisations, government and otherwise, I hold more than 30 film screenings across Australia, all showcasing non-white migrant and diaspora stories. I put in a lot of positive stories, and I insert a couple of painful and confronting ones in there. I don’t dictate, lecture or assume a role of superiority. I reach out to the humanity in people, and I hope in this little way, I am challenging stereotypes and the invisibility of POCs. I found my thing. Something that will hopefully have a meaningful effect on us, as a society.
10. So tell me, once you’re done loving, hating and commenting on this article, what do you intend to do?