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We need to calm down – and swiftly please
When it comes to social movements and activism more broadly, who is allowed to speak for others? Is there such a thing as a 'perfect' representative?
Following years of silence on her own political persuasions, country-pop star Taylor Swift finally dropped her apolitical stance in 2018 when she publicly endorsed democratic candidates supportive of gay rights. Her Instagram post triggered a huge spike in new voter registrations (65,000 new registrations in 24 hours), but regardless of what she does, backlash appears to follow Swift every step of the way. This quickly became apparent again after her latest release - You Need to Calm Down. But what does this mean for activists in general? Take a look below.
For years she was criticised for not being political enough. In 2018, when she finally ended her deliberate silence on politics, backlash ensued again, with Donald Trump stating he now liked her music “about 25% less”. So it was hardly surprising when Taylor Swift, the country-pop queen the world loves to hate, released her first explicitly political song ‘You Need to Calm Down’ that the world instantly went a bit bonkers.
Coinciding with Pride month, the song had a simple enough message directed mainly at the modern scourge of keyboard warriors: stop the hatred and trolling. After all, as Taylor put it, “shade never made anybody less gay”.
On the surface, it was somewhat astonishing to see a pop song against hate generate so much… hate. But overall, the response to the song also highlighted something different altogether; the difficulties faced by activists who subscribe to a movement, but do not necessarily represent its perfect archetype. Is the backlash against woke but imperfect pop stars achieving the desired outcome? Or are we, in our quest for perfection, and with a propensity for instant reactions amplified by digital technologies, undermining valuable voices?
Taylor-bashing has become an international sport. Hating on her is easy because it is intellectually lazy. A privileged white girl who has made a fortune from writing catchy tunes about her teenage romances and professional rivalries is an easy target, even if the longevity of her career would suggest that the work has given comfort to millions of people, especially young girls, worldwide.
Some of the criticisms leveled at the song – such as the question of minority representation, and the increasing corporatisation of Pride more broadly – merit a careful scrutiny
Some of the criticisms leveled at the song – such as the question of minority representation, and the increasing corporatisation of Pride more broadly – merit a careful scrutiny. Other arguments, such as that she hadn’t been an activist long enough, or The New York Times reviewers’ self-indulgent flexing of their bourgeois muscles (“For what it’s worth, the lyrics also misuse the word shade”) on the other hand amply demonstrate the level of misplaced judgment that comes with the territory when somebody steps outside the accepted narrative.
What’s more, even a cursory glance at questions regarding allyship and representation, and their associated counterparts authenticity and validity, reveals the complexities of trying to do activism – to be an activist. It has striking similarities of arguments made through the decades and across different movements regarding who can speak, and what they’re allowed to say.
Consider for example the following remark by Carol Hanisch in 1970s vis-à-vis ‘apolitical’ women and the feminist movement:
One more thing: I think we must listen to what so so-called apolitical women have to say – not so we can do a better job or organizing them but because together we are a mass movement. I think we who work full-time in the movement tend to become very narrow. What is happening now is that when non-movement women disagree with us, we assume it’s because they are “apolitical”, not because there might be something wrong with our thinking.
Much has been written recently about the changing nature of citizens’ participation, with people less likely to commit to movements and ideologies for life. My own research on online mothers’ groups showed that rather than adopting one static identity, people weave in and out of projects and campaigns as it suits them. As such, measures such as length of advocacy work may not provide good metrics for assessing their validity.
Individual in the narrative: The problem with standpoint epistemology
“You are somebody that I don't know
But you're takin' shots at me like it's Patrón
And I'm just like, damn, it's 7 AM
Say it in the street, that's a knock-out
But you say it in a Tweet, that's a cop-out
And I'm just like, "Hey, are you okay?"
Taylor was also criticised for conflating her personal matters with the hatred directed at the LGBTI+ communities – an argument that is easy enough to understand. And yet, is there not a level of universality to the claim that the hatred and online trolling need to be controlled?
The post-Trumpian world has seen an unprecedented rise in the polarisation of debates. At the same time, as our recent national survey about Australians’ attitudes towards gender equality showed, an increasing number of people feel that political correctness stops them from saying what they need to say.
While often our initial response is to ask what could people possibly want to say that they can’t at the moment, perhaps there’s actually more to it? Perhaps rather than looking at whether or not political correctness stops people from spouting out their worst vitriol online, we need to look at whether the way we respond to those who don’t agree with us on all accounts also presents a problem.
This is of course not to be glib and suggest that all will be overcome if we all just link arms and sing a happy song together. And indeed, we need to tread very carefully here and acknowledge the prevailing structural hierarchies in order to avoid cultural whitewashing and pinkwashing. As Dora Mortimer put it, “If we fail to log difference then we also fail to see how much tougher it is for some people than others. It is the difference between sympathy and empathy.”
Privileging standpoint epistemology, taken to the very extreme, renders us all silent. It is corrosive for solidarity across multiple lines of oppression
As a straight-passing queer in a conventional relationship, I know as little about the current lived experience of gay women as I know about teenage boys and their possible struggles with masculinity, toxic or otherwise. Does that mean that in my line of work as a gender equality scholar, I can only advocate for middle-aged Scandinavian migrant women? Privileging standpoint epistemology, taken to the very extreme, renders us all silent. It is corrosive for solidarity across multiple lines of oppression.
A community can and must never be a homogenous entity. An individual can never represent the views of the whole community. For activism to remain relevant, it needs to be broad enough to embrace various standpoints and allies, because the moment we subscribe to groupthink and start telling people there’s only one way of doing things, we’ve lost the fight on diversity.
So please. The next time we feel the need to react to something straight away, can we all just first take a deep breath and calm down – and swiftly please.