On Anarchism, language, and power

To libcom, On Anarchism, Language and Power

If you want to look at why anarchist language is not the dominant language, looking at anarchist language and its peculiarities is of little value: you should look at dominant language and its authoritative instances. Who tells whom what is proper English, what are proper ideas. The very notion of a standardised language which would make communication/control easier is linked to the development of a centralised national state and was not entirely successful despite generous use of violence (look up linguistic change and standardization for more on this). A decentralised society will be unable to keep such standardised language. But that would be anarchy (the wrong kind)? Look at non-standard languages: dialects, slangs, community languages, technical jargons. Groups of human come together, create the language they need for the situation they are in.

So, what is dominant language? Read things like articles about Jamie Oliver’s next TV show (not anarchist ones, the rest of them). This is what frames possible views on the subject, the anarchist view is not within that frame. Writing our own things, fighting phrases and symbols like ‘benefit scroungers’ or ‘bedroom tax’ are all we can do. We are not scroungers and we are not burdened by tax, we can tell our story.

A large part of the working class actively and wholeheartedly supports capitalism and/or all kinds of oppression. If what we say was acceptable for everyone it wouldn’t be anarchist. It is quite sad, but let’s move on. No, we cannot speak like the mythical united working class, but we can speak more clearly, and listen better. And we can encourage everyone to feel confident using their own words, putting effort in understanding them, as they do to us, not to control what they are saying, but to do stuff together. This is not “building bridges” between anarchism and something else, this is anarchism, federal, decentralised.

Orwell, that text, and the unfortunately layered Crimethink pamphlet are all valuable contributions. But in the end, any guideline like this has a negative double effect: on the shy, self-reflexive people it makes them anxious about how many “mistakes” they have made; on the loudmouths, it gives them ammunition to silence people (same for “privilege checklists”). It is important to edit texts carefully, and to write clearly. As a translator, I do not like ambiguous or unclear passages. But when someone gloats about not bothering to ask what a word means, you start wondering what is the point of it all. If we don’t listen to people, why would people listen to us? If not knowing a word is something shameful, a feeling that can only be subverted by refusing to listen to and later ridiculing the person who said it, why use language at all? Let the loudest grunt win the argument.

That the person who made that silly claim wouldn’t apologise when called out, I can understand. Someone who has been taught not knowing a word is shameful has issues of their own, which probably include a lack of confidence when it comes to recognising they said something that could be called out.

But that people take their defense and basically state that anarchism is better off without the term cisgender is not acceptable. That someone says they are a gay man and therefore are the authority on the word cisgender is not acceptable. That upon being told they are not the voice of LGBT people he then attacks me with gay male stereotypes is not okay. I don’t even remember ever seeing a gay man attacking a bi woman with gay male stereotypes before. The only explanation I found for this is that:
– he had all the problems which come with being the one gay anarchist, which are very real, and all he got was this lousy “LGBT spokesperson” medal, and he intends to make the most of it;
– ageism among gay people is so rife that he would lash out like this.
Thankfully, not being a gay guy, I got more confused than hurt, despite his best intentions.

Personal attacks should not be tolerated, and given the guy’s reaction to being more polite (joking it all off), I doubt he sees anything wrong with his behaviour.

I have done all I could, I explained I didn’t know any words before I learnt them, that I have said transphobic things from ignorance and carelessness. I am neither better nor more intelligent than anyone here. He used that against me.

He used the “I have a trans friend” line, that is not acceptable. At some point, he basically turned the division between trans people on the issue into a sure argument that proved his point (the “they can’t even agree among them”/”tell my wife she needs liberated” argument). On a thread about language, it is fitting to have so many instances of domination through language.

My language, however, was under scrutiny by the PC police. I might have made a mistake. I used the term ‘to fuck’ to describe my intimate activities, the term I use with my partners. I was pointing out how ludicrous it was that a gay man say that he had “sexual relationships with” men and therefore could ban the word cisgender.

And I don’t see it as anything else, scary and pathetic as it is: a one-cis-man attempt to censor the word cisgender, by systematically insulting, ridiculing people who had the weird idea that it was just a word, that should be used where appropriate, questioned when problematic. It must be recognised that everyone claimed they wouldn’t be so harsh on me if only I was a trans person (I am cis). That is presuming that trans people would feel comfortable (are obliged to?) starting the conversation by saying they are trans in such an environment. But these people are apparently not evil, just stuck in an unhealthy medium.

You want feedback on Libcom. Well, people call it a “septic tank”, a “cesspool” (I don’t approve of metaphors which hide the power dynamics at play, I would call it a dick-measuring arena, etc.). I think editors are trying to keep the peace by flattering some loudmouths’ egos, and I understand. But ends equal means, and this calm for moderators is pushing away a lot of people. People’s stories are always the same: they were saying something, right or wrong, and then they got treated like shit by an abusive arsehole. No-one intervened. They feel like Libcom is great as a library, but shit as a forum. “Worse than reddit”, claimed one participant.

Of course, it is the internet. You ban someone, they create a new account. But someone like Serge having an account for 9 years? I am not the first person he lashes out at, surely. And you ask him to “be polite”. What a bitter understatement after two days of abuse. He mocks it and makes it look like he basically owns the joint. Here we have an anarchist on an ego trip.

Next time someone looks up ‘cisgender’ on Libcom, they will come across that thread. Way to look inclusive.

A friend has had bad experiences with some of his articles getting comments he deemed racist, this is not why our people want their stuff published. He now refuses stuff we work on together to be published there (Steven, that’s a different one: I stopped asking for consensus on putting stuff on Libcom as I never get it, and just do it myself). Anyway, he was researching autism, and what Libcom had to offer were passionate defences of the misuse of the word ‘autistic’. Apparently, ‘spastic’ is not a condition, so is offensive, but ‘autistic’ is a diagnostic, so can be used for everything we don’t like. Like, for an anarchist movement that is inadequate and does not attract people. Not offensive at all, you see… Why are people running away?

After the revolution, there will still be an internet. And on the internet, people are actual people. Common decency should apply. Sometimes, I try to show the frailty which often prevents real life situations from escalading into things so ugly. Maybe I wouldn’t find Libcom so hard if I had chosen a “female” screen name, whatever that means. Sometimes, I mention how bad my hands are trembling, whether or not I am crying. The answer is generally along the lines of “this is why I am doing this to you, so you get off my internet”, because our welfare is more important to us than access to any space. But why keep space at all that are not inclusive of anyone who is not ready to risk ritual abuse? Make Libcom a library, where readers can submit reviews and comments, and edit out all the ill-thought bits before publishing them.

I am not so much afraid of it as a place where I can be insulted, I avoid it because I know I could abuse someone in the same way, and no-one would bother to call me out, maybe they’d even side with me. It is pretty scary. When a comment I make gets some ‘likes’ I proof read it as much as I can, study it in the light of all I know about oppressions, and apologise if it mentioned a user specifically. Because Libcom is a space for mob rule and bullies, and I try not to be a bully.

Scrape the ups and downs system, scrape the best post and best user awards, delete people’s posts when they boast about things that sound like they are happy to throw trans liberation out of the revolutionary train of history, and ask them to rephrase/rethink their comment. Also, make it possible to block people. That would be an incentive for a lot of people who do not speak out on the forums to create an account anyway. Ban users who insult people and the more they are told to back off, the more they press on.

Maybe I wasn’t clear, maybe I “asked for it”: the last time I left Libcom, I had used the exact injunction “back off”. It had worked once, that time it was not enough. This time I only described my experience of Serge’s input as “an unstoppable wave of hatred”. Maybe that is why he thought it was totally okay to keep it going. I thought I was dealing with it reasonably well, but I got called a transphobe, who played the victim card and was ageist to older gay folks. That is probably a sign I fucked up.

What would I do in your situation? What can you do? Well, giving your hours away to save and collect this material is pretty amazing, no-one can demand more of you.

Make it so that everything is edited? That is a lot of work, and a lot of power. If someone decides that ‘cisgender’ must be edited out for the good of the proletariat, you’re in deep shit.

As it is, I would say nuke it from space (as someone suggested), because I would feel responsible for every instance of bullying, for every insult (not that I hold you responsible of anything, I do believe in individualist responsibility). After all, if you closed the forums, people might only migrate. But maybe they would join lefty forums which are not associated in any way with anarchism, and that would be one worry gone (yes, I do care about keeping anarchist spaces open to all more directly than making the whole world free from oppression, although there are problems with this view of an inside/outside).

It has been years since I have confidently directed anyone to anarchism, and I wish that I worried that they would encounter anarcho-capitalists, anarcho-nationalists or vanguadist bomb-makers. The truth is that, unless I know the group, I cannot direct anyone to it because I don’t know what kind of horribly bigoted attitude to warn them about.

Anarchism is full of people who find it hard enough to be accepted themselves by their colleagues without having to do anything about trans people. How can they be accepted by the “working-class” when people give them newspapers to give out with articles about trans people’s rights? My problem is not that far off: I cannot direct working-class people to anarchism when they might be too trans, too foreign, too feminist, too queer for the comrades.

We seem to have a consensus that we are all post-modern, both perspectives are equal, we can coexist with constant struggle for influence in every group, publication, and forum.

Some people seem to think it’s a historically necessary tide: non-inclusive organisations will die out. I don’t think so. I think, over the past few years, there has been a real counter-attack, which on the surface is about “the excesses” of “academic theory”, but materialises by the anarchist movement getting a lot less diverse, because there are among us a large number of people who simply do not believe that the working class is as diverse as we say it is. And maybe we can’t hide our position on immigration for historical reason, but are you really saying that you won’t sign up someone who has all the right ideas, but refuses to understand how they are not acting in an acceptable way towards a small oppressed group or other? That’s why the anarchist movement will never grow. And so on, signing up their mates as anarchists despite the fact they do not fight for freedom for all, because it’s “convenient”, because they might learn about feminism later…

I have been more concerned about what anarchist movement deserves growing. And, imho, it requires examining the one aspect of our theory which most resembles a Latin mass, both by its sacred character and its obscurantism: the link between class struggle and revolution.

In that endeavour, I work almost exclusively with Marxists. There is no divide between non-party Marxists and Anarchists, there is one between people who honestly want to find ways out of commodity-based society and people who want to feed their Molochs, be they their own egos, an organisation or an idea, ever more followers. Of course, I wish that as many as possible would join such an endeavour, because little is possible without them, but if people are hostile to losing their joy of dominating a forum thread, I can’t see how to invite them to question all interpersonal relations. My comrades are not the ones branded “anarchists”, but the people who live by ethics I admire, it might sound foolish, but I hope they might one day coincide.

Edit: among the bits I crossed out from this post which was originally even longer, was my insistence that Victor Klemperer was important. He was a philologist of Jewish origins who lived through the Third Reich and wrote about what nazism did to language, in both official discourses and every day conversations. His diaries have been published as well as his book LTI: The language of the Third Reich. There’s also apparently a documentary about him, titled “Language does not lie”, but I don’t know where to get it. I originally did not credit him, because my mention of his work first was perceived as a Godwin point. Sadly, his work on language is interesting for people interested in language, power and society, and I feel bad to have crossed it out, it is valuable work that should be remembered and studied.