Saturday, July 12, 2014

Rob Ford, Homophobia, Austerity, and the Social Organization of Attention and Affect

I am ashamed to admit it, but I am about to subject any readers who dare to a post that contains the words "Rob" and "Ford" in close proximity. My apologies. I am doing this less out of interest in talking about him, though, than because I think the shape of the reaction to his most recent antics provides a window into some larger issues that are quite disturbing.

I'm not going to rehearse all of his backstory, as that would be tedious both for me and for you, but the key element of his behaviour that I'm concerned with here is his longstanding tendency to say and do very blatantly oppressive things -- racist things, homophobic things, misogynist things, and so on. Earlier this week, Desmond Cole published a very sharp piece talking about Ford's bigotry, including some well-deserved derision of the mayor's ridiculous attempts to excuse all of his past oppressive behaviour by blaming it on his addictions, as in this CBC interview.

The ever-obliging Ford decided this week -- post rehab -- to add to his impressive anti-queer credentials. On one day, he refused to join the rest of city council in giving a standing ovation to the organizers of World Pride in Toronto. Another day, he cast the lone vote against doing a feasibility study of allocating a quarter of existing beds in a youth homeless shelter to queer and trans youth, who make up a huge proportion of homeless youth but who are not at all adequately served by the shelter system in Toronto. And not only was he the only "no" vote to doing this study, but instead of just letting this fairly ordinary bit of administrative approval go ahead by default as it normally would have, he put what's called a 'hold' on it specifically so it would have to be raised in council and voted on, so he could have his 'no' publically recorded.

In watching people react to this in various corners of the internet -- both people I know, and people whose opinions the tides and currents of social media have brought to my attention; both queer folks and hetero folks -- it has been fascinating and kind of disturbing to see how people frame the exasperation, disapproval, and disgust they have with this situation. In some ways, what interests me is related to the point that Cole makes in his piece about too much attention going to the bigot and his motivations and not enough to the impacts on the victims of said bigotry, but I want to explore it in a bit of a different way.

So. "Homophobia" in general is a word that has the potential to be pretty limiting. As other writers have explored much more knowledgeably than I, it emerged at a particular moment as a way of taking the dominant image of queers at that time as "sick" and "deviant" and torquing it, insisting that intense anti-queer hositility from hetero people was the deep-seated psychological flaw we should really be concerned about. But as a way to recognize that the violence, harm, and exclusion experienced by people who engage in sexual and/or romantic relations with people of the same gender is about much more than individual hostility, activists and writers came up with other words to name what was going on, like Adrienne Rich and "compulsory heterosexuality" and Charlotte Bunch (and others, I think) with "heterosexism." That is, words that were explicitly social in how they explained things, not purely individual. But the meanings of words change over time, and the way that "homophobia" sometimes gets used to name obviously social (and not personal, psychological) phenomena today is not, I think, an error, but a shift in usage, and that's fine -- it may not always on its own be adequate to really get at the substance of what's happening in a given situation, to the what and the how of things, but no single word ever is.

All of which is to say that in thinking about people reacting to Ford's behaviour this week and the very frequent use of the word "homophobia" in those reactions, I'm not making a pedantic, etymological point that refuses to recognize that words shift in how they get used. Rather, it seemed very clear from what I was reading and hearing that people really were associating the emotional vehemence they were feeling in this situation with something individual in or about Ford. Whatever larger forces or structures or social relations might be involved, this particular moment was horrifying, it seems, because of one powerful bigot going out of his way, for his own individual reasons, to do anti-queer things. And that interested me. It got me to wondering what that fixation on an inner flaw in one person was doing in this situation.

Of course there is lots going on in this situation that is in and about Ford. He has addictions, which must be a tremendously difficult thing for him and his family. And he is also, above and beyond his addictions, a bigot and a bully who shouldn't hold an executive-at-large position in the local Lion's Club let alone be the mayor of a city of 3 million people. And for reasons intertwined both with the fact that he is a man who is sick and the fact that he is a man who is quite simply bad, he makes a lot of really dubious decisions, many of them in very public ways.

But why, in this week's situation and in the Rob Ford saga more generally, is this what so much of our attention gets attached to?

I think the answer to that has to do with the fact that what we pay attention to and how we react emotionally are not purely individual phenomena, but rather happen in a socially organized landscape of attention and affect. Moreover, this landscape changes. When people who experience a particular form of marginalization struggle against it and succeed in winning a relatively rapid shift for the better, part of what they succeed in doing is changing that mainstream landscape. But a key point in how that has tended to happen in liberal-democratic, capitalist societies is that when struggles, even quite radical struggles, have had an impact on dominant ways of talking about whatever form of marginalization is their focus, and on the related socially organized landscape of attention and affect, that impact has usually been taken up in the mainstream in an almost exclusively liberal mode.

I think you could trace a similar shift in mainstream discourse about a number of kinds of struggles that have happened over the years, but it is the case of mainstream discourse about LGBTQ rights that is of relevance here. In the case of queer struggles, you can trace a shift in mainstream discourse from conflict over whether such marginalization should be considered wrong at all, to a general acceptance that it is wrong and it needs to be changed, to a sense that it is wrong but we're changing it, and it all ultimately points towards an endpoint of "it was wrong and now we've changed it".

This may sound like a pretty decent trajectory. Certainly this shift in mainstream discourse is associated with lots of material improvements in people's everyday lives, though I think it is the on-the-ground organizing that should properly be seen as the cause of those improvements. That said, though, this shift in mainstream ways of talking about the issue has a normative aspect to it -- a kind of social pressure to adhere to the mainstream story -- and that certainly plays a role in opening certain kinds of space and mobilizing certain kinds of sentiment for change once the whole process has reached a certain critical mass. But there are features to it that are pretty concerning, too. For one thing, because the mainstream story takes up these struggles in a liberal mode, it creates this normative discursive environment about and for a limited liberal understanding of what marginalization is about and what equality means. It also tends to be pretty disconnected from, uninterested in, and uninformed by the actual everyday lives of marginalized people. And that, combined with the normative force of this mainstream story, means that when you reach the later stages of this liberal trajectory in mainstream discourse (as we have in Canada around LGB, though not yet T, struggles), this discursive notion that a liberal version of equality has been or soon will be achieved tends to push out any possibility for recognition that the benefits of change are vastly unequally distributed and that landscapes of everyday harm and violence continue to pervade the lives of many people. (It also makes it hard for straight folks to grasp that there's a lot of awesomeness in queerness, too, but that's a separate topic.) When instances of harm and violence along that axis do become publically visible, they are most often framed as a deviation from the new, equal norm. Such deviations are to be deplored and opposed, but it is to be understood that they do not have any greater meaning than the flaws in the heart of an individual bigot.

All of this, as I said, socially organizes our attention and our reactions to things. This doesn't make us bad people or political failures -- it's larger than us as individuals -- but it is something we need to think critically about and figure out how to challenge.

So back to Rob Ford. Let's be perfectly clear about what his vote this week meant. He voted for more queer kids to die. He wanted, moreover, to be publically seen as not caring about queer kids dying.

And let's also be clear about the socially organized attention and affect in response: It was not about the harm and violence to queer kids. I mean, I'm sure lots of people condeming Ford do actually care about the welfare of queer and trans kids, but the energy behind the widely circulating public attention and affect was not about that harm and violence, which happens all the time and usually gets ignored in mainstream discourse. No, the socially organized attention and affect were focused on an elite man (and, for many, a political opponent) flouting the discursive norm of liberal equality describe above -- which mostly boils down to being boorish, being a jerk, being uncivil. In fact, I would bet that for many people -- and I'm thinking particularly of many straight people -- the powerful hold of the mainstream story of liberal equality almost achieved, and of deviation from it as individual flaw, is such that even in responding to a story that has ongoing systemic marginalization of queer kids at what should be its centre, the reality of pervasive everyday harm and violence and vastly unequal distribution of the benefits of struggle mostly don't register.

It's tempting to rationalize this away, to make it an "of course" -- of course a colourful, powerful figure behaving badly will grab attention, of course a diffuse "social issue" will be harder to mobilize to sell papers, and so on and so forth. But I think it's important to resist that urge.

It is all about norms and about whose lives matter. Rob Ford is the focus of socially organized attention and affect because he is an elite man who flouts established, mainstream social norms. Queer kids dying on the streets is -- tragically -- entirely ordinary and consistent with dominant norms, such that even among folks who deplore the fact that it's a norm, the publically available structure of feeling for responding to it is very different than for responding to bigoted mayoral buffoonery. The bottom line is that underneath the veneer of liberal equality, landscapes of harm and violence don't just exist, they are the norm and therefore are largely unremarkable in mainstream discourse.

And the reaction to Ford isn't even about politicians augmenting that harm and violence -- they do that all the time without so much as the batting of an eyelash in the mainstream. Rob Ford's violation of mainstream norms is the way he goes about it. To illustrate, here's a thought experiment: How many of the people heaping scorn on His Homophobic Honour this week are supporters of the Liberal government in Queen's Park that recently announced an escalation of attacks on disabled people, in line with international trends towards this in the UK, New Zealand, and elsewhere? The thing is, the Liberals are doing this in a way that carefully observes the norms of mainstream stories of equality, that follows the rules that manage to make it portrayable as not an attack at all or as just a sad thing that has to happen in the name of belt-tightening, while obscuring that it is a massive infusion of harm and violence into the lives of disabled people.

And let's face it, "austerity" is nothing more than a fancy word for doing harm to poor and marginalized people. It is happening all around us, it is expounded by all major political parties, it is endorsed by most mainstream newspapers. If the socially organized attention and affect in response to Rob Ford's most recent actions were really about the harm and violence to marginalized people, that would imply an environment in which it is relatively easy to make the massive harm and violence that is austerity legible as such in mainstream discourse. Which of course is not the case at all -- it can in fact be pretty difficult to do that, and in part that is because of the ongoing prominence of ways of talking about marginalization and harm and violence that either erase them completely in the name of dominant discourses of liberal equality, or that portray them as frightful aberrations by flawed individuals, rather than recognizing that they are constitutive of our social world at a very basic level.

As I said, this isn't about blame for how we as individuals react to things. It isn't about saying we shouldn't condemn Rob Ford, because he deserves every bit of it. But maybe as we do it, we can do our bit on our Facebook walls, in our Twitter feeds, in our blog posts, and in our conversations to nudge that attention and affect away from the flaws of an elite individual and towards the underlying, endemic harm and violence that myths of liberal equality so often obscure.

1 comment:

exurban said...

If the universe unfolds as it should, in six months RoFo (and his clan) will be nothing more than a rapidly fading stain on Toronto's history.