Against Deference Politics: Or, The Importance Of Building Shit
Táíwò's book Elite Capture should have been a blog post, and I am trying to help
Identity politics, Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò argues in his book Elite Capture,has been captured for the interests of the powerful—mostly rich, mostly white, mostly male. He gives irritatingly few specifics (one of the most severe weaknesses of the book in my opinion), but I’ve certainly noticed the pattern myself. LGBT rights is coopted to sell rainbow cookies and diversity trainings. Advocacy to help mentally ill people results in condescending reminders from your boss that you should prioritize self-care, even as you work long hours for not enough money. We wanted a revolution and we got wellness influencers and the Bank of America pride float.
A lot of discourse around social justice doesn’t address anything of practical, material benefit to oppressed people. It is nothing more than an elaborate system of etiquette for educated middle-class people, signalling that the users have the free time and social connections to know that you’re supposed to say “trans” and not “transsexual.” This does not help trans people access medical care, but it does help cis people manage their psychodramas around gender.
And, of course, as eloquently described in the essay Hot Allostatic Load:
For years, queer/trans/feminist scenes have been processing an influx of trans fems, often impoverished, disabled, and/or from traumatic backgrounds. These scenes have been abusing them, using them as free labor, and sexually exploiting them. The leaders of these scenes exert undue influence over tastemaking, jobs, finance, access to conferences, access to spaces. If someone resists, they are disappeared, in the mundane, boring, horrible way that many trans people are susceptible to, through a trapdoor that can be activated at any time. Housing, community, reputation—gone. No one mourns them, no one asks questions. Everyone agrees that they must have been crazy and problematic and that is why they were gone…
The cycle of trans kids being used up and then smeared is a systemic, institutionalized practice. It happens in the shelters, in the radical organizations, in the artistic scenes—everywhere they might have a chance of gaining a foothold. It’s like an abusive foster household that constantly kicks kids out then uses their tears and anger at being raped and abused to justify why they had to be kicked out—look at these problem kids. Look at these problematic kids.
To be clear, neither I nor Táíwò think of this as a problem with identity politics itself. Everything tends to be captured for the interests of the powerful. That is what it means to be powerful. Intersectionality and identity politics are useful tools of analysis which are indispensible for justice. But just like a hammer can be used to build a house or bash someone’s head in, identity politics can be used to discover needs we’d otherwise ignore or to exclude someone who has been too busy working two jobs and worrying about the rent to master a set of complex and ever-shifting shibboleths.
Táíwò is particularly concerned about deference politics. Deference politics is a dynamic that everyone left-of-center has seen. It’s the call to “listen to the most affected” and “center the most marginalized" and “stay in your lane.” It’s queer-only fiction anthologies and academic job postings only open to people of color and policies to put at least one woman on each panel at a programming conference. It’s the entire career of Robin diAngelo.
Again, this is not an objection to deference politics per se. People really do like speaking about subjects they know nothing about and need to be urged not to do that. Homeless people usually know more about homelessness than people who have never been homeless. It is good to have more diverse voices represented in academia, fiction, and conference panels.
However, there are two serious problems with deference politics. First, deference politics usually means handing conversational authority and attention to whomever is currently in the room who appears to fit a category associated with marginalization. Unfortunately, marginalization is correlated with not being in the room in the first place. Academia, the arts, the media, politics, powerful positions in corporations, and so on are disproportionately open to rich, educated people from the developed world who don’t have severe mental illnesses.“Listening to the most marginalized” almost never involves talking to the global poor, refugees, or homeless people. If you are in the room where powerful people are making decisions, you almost certainly have access to clean water, enough food, basic health care, and adequate housing; you know how to read and do arithmetic, are able to vote for your political leaders, are not enslaved, and do not routinely face the threat of violence when you walk down the street. From a global perspective, this makes you “the privileged.”
Deference politics often serves as a way of redistributing power to the relatively privileged within a marginalized group. This is not to say that the relatively privileged don’t experience genuine oppression; they do. But it remains true that, say, my life is much better than that of a homeless trans woman who is addicted to opiates and who sells sex for food and drugs.
Naturally, the oppression people experience is much more salient to them than the oppression they don’t experience. It is very salient to me that I was once left in an emergency room for three days, not allowed to talk to my husband no matter how much I begged, after a doctor told me that I had almost died from my suicide attempt, and then threatened with forced drugging when this experience caused me to self-harm. I look around, observe that very few other people I know have experienced this, and conclude I am marginalized.
On the other hand, it is not very salient to me that I have always had enough to eat. I am used to having enough to eat. Most people I know have also always had enough to eat. It takes conscious effort for me to remember that nine percent of the world’s population doesn’t have enough food.
When people decide to listen to trans voices or neurodivergent voices, people are going to listen to me. I have free time to blog. I am can talk like an upper-middle-class person; for that matter, I am reliably capable of concise and coherent speech. Hell, I have a good friend who runs a magazine. And, unless I deliberately think about it. all of these advantages are invisible to me. (That’s what privilege does!)
Of course, when asked to speak for trans people or neurodivergent people, I talk about my own concerns and advocate for my own needs. And so deference politics warps our sense of what matters most. Feminism frets about the number of women with C-suite jobs and about online harassment of female journalists. Advocacy for mentally ill people concentrates on destigmatizing depression instead of institutionalized violence against the schizophrenic. We are absolutely obsessed with occurrences on Ivy League college campuses.
Again, I’m not saying that it’s wrong to be worried about those things! Being relatively privileged doesn’t mean that it’s okay for you to be harassed, stigmatized, or discriminated against. But a disproportionate share of energy goes to issues that affect relatively few and relatively more powerful people.
Further, deference politics tends to make people more comfortable with unjust societal structures. Most people care about justice and equality; even powerful people feel uncomfortable with how white and wealthy and male the halls of power are. If you practice deference politics, it feels like you’re fixing the problem. But deference politics subtly reframes the issue. We ask “how do I make sure that everyone in the room has an equal chance to speak?” and not “how did we pick who gets to be in this room in the first place?”—and the latter is the far more important question.
The second problem with deference politics is something Táíwò puts more eloquently than I can:
I’ve watched and felt myself change in reaction to fearing for my dignity or life, to crushing pain and humiliation. I reflect on these traumatic moments often, and very seldom do I think, “That was educational.”…
Humiliation, deprivation, and suffering can build—especially in the context of the deliberate, structured effort of “consciousness raising” that Toole specifically highlights. But these same experiences can also destroy, and if I had to bet on which effect would win most often, it would be the latter.
Contra the old expression, pain, whether born of oppression or not, is a poor teacher. Suffering is partial, shortsighted, and self-absorbed. We shouldn’t have a politics that expects different. Oppression is not a prep school.
Demanding as the constructive approach may be, the deferential approach is far more so, and in a far more unfair way. As philosopher Agnes Callard rightly notes, trauma (and even the righteous, well-deserved anger that often accompanies it) can corrupt as readily as it can ennoble. Perhaps more so.
When it comes down to it, the thing I believe most deeply about deference politics is that it asks something of trauma that it cannot give. It asks the traumatized to shoulder burdens alone that we ought to share collectively, lifting them up onto a pedestal in order to hide below them.
When I think about my trauma, I don’t think about life lessons. I think about the quiet nobility of survival. The very fact that those chapters weren’t the final ones of my story is powerful enough all on its own. It is enough to ask of those experiences that I am still here to remember them.
I also believe that deference politics asks us to be less than we are—and not even for our own benefit. As scholar-activist Nick Estes explains in the context of Indigenous politics, “The cunning of trauma politics is that it turns actual people and struggles, whether racial or Indigenous citizenship and belonging, into matters of injury. It defines an entire people mostly on their trauma and not by their aspirations or sheer humanity.” This performance is not for the benefit of Indigenous people; rather, “it’s for white audiences or institutions of power.”
Relatedly, deference politics leads to moral cowardice in the privileged. You don’t have to look at the world and figure out for yourself what is important and what you should do about it. You find the nearest marginalized person and make them do it—or, all too often, you come up with an imaginary marginalized person, ascribe all your opinions to them, and no longer have to take responsibility for your beliefs and actions.
What is the alternative to deference politics? Táíwò calls it constructive politics. In two words, it’s building shit.
Deference politics tends to be inwardly facing. People focus on moral purity, avoiding complicity with oppression, and rooting out the racism and sexism from their own hearts. They focus on giving more attention to relatively marginalized people around them, and not on questioning and disrupting the overall structures that cause some people’s needs to be prioritized and others neglected.
Deference politics also tends to define itself by what it’s against. We are anti-racist, anti-carceral, anti-homophobia. Deference politics is less clear on what what it is for.
If you’re only against things, it is very easy to spend all your time focusing on the issue of Am I, Personally, A Racist Person and not on what kinds of structures we can develop to replace the racist ones that hurt people.
Conversely, constructive politics is outwardly facing; it is about creating good things which practically and materially improve people’s lives, especially the lives of the most marginalized.
What kinds of things should we build?
Táíwò and I, naturally, have different answers to this question. Táíwò is a fan of concrete advocacy projects which work to solve specific problems: the campaign against lead in the water in Flint, Michigan; collectives which buy debt and forgive it; independent journalists who seek to inform the public about issues that the corporate media ignores. More broadly, he supports mutual aid and labor unions.
As an effective altruist, I have different suggestions. The simplest is donating. Anyone reading this can play their part in making a better world through giving to cost-effective public health programs, to work against factory farming, or directly to the global poor. You can also do good through your career, even if you’re a fairly ordinary person. If you have spare time, animal advocacy organizations in particular have a need for skilled volunteers.
If you’re more interested in helping people close to you, I suggest getting involved in state or local politics. It is very easy to become the best-informed person you know about state and local politics. With the death of newspapers, it is surprisingly hard for the average voter to find even basic information about who in their local government is corrupt or lazy; this is a valuable opportunity for citizen journalists. In many cities, a committed person can, with relatively little effort, get a part-time unpaid government position and make concrete improvements to anything from the number of potholes in the roads to whether censorious assholes get to remove LGBT books from school libraries. And, in my endorsement of Building Shit Politics, I’d be remiss not to mention literally building shit: consider getting involved in (or founding!) a local YIMBY group.
I think Táíwò’s vision for America doesn’t necessarily look like mine.But I think there’s something powerful in centering your politics, not around listening to the marginalized, but around building good shit. I might quibble with him about what good things need building. But I do think there’s something soul-rotting about a politics of utopian speculation, personal purity, or attention allocation. Asking yourself “what good shit am I building?” is bracing and clarifying. And I think, most of the time, regardless what your vision of the world is, a sincere, humble, and empirical attempt to build good shit will make the world better.
Constructive politics is, in many ways, more demanding than the common social-justice politics of doomscrolling, etiquette, and self-hatred. But it’s a kind of demanding that’s good for you. Instead of despair, it creates hope; instead of helplessness, it creates strength; instead of victimhood, it creates power.
I leave you with the remarks from Taiwo that follow from the previous passage and conclude the book:
When I think about my trauma, I also think about the great writer James Baldwin’s realization that the things that most tormented him “were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
That I have experienced my share of traumatic experiences, have survived abuse of various kinds, have faced near death from accidental circumstance and from violence (different as the particulars of these may be from those around me) is not a card to play in gamified social interaction or a weapon to wield in battles over prestige. It is not what gives me a special right to speak, to evaluate, or to decide for a group. It is a concrete, experiential manifestation of the vulnerability that connects me to most of the people on this earth. It comes between me and other people not as a wall, but as a bridge.
Going together—the politics of solidarity, which deference provides one, flawed model of doing—is a good start. But on its own, it’s not enough. We also have to decide collectively where we’re going, and then we have to do what it takes to get there. Though we start from different levels of privilege or advantage, this journey is not a matter of figuring out who should bow to whom, but simply one of figuring out how best to join forces. As Paulo Freire showed us in theory, and the African anti-colonial and Portuguese Carnation revolutions showed us in practice, we will need each other to get where we’re going. And getting there, after all, is the point.
Elite Capture: How The Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else), by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò. Published 2022. 168 pages. $11.99.
As you might expect, Táíwò (who is Nigerian American) uses mostly race-related examples; I am going to use mostly queer- and neurodivergence-related examples.
I personally love rainbow cookies and it breaks my heart to have to criticize them.
DiAngelo I think we can do without.
And so on and so forth.
I’m a One Billion Americans type. America’s great! Let’s welcome immigrants, support parents, and build baby build, so we can let as many people be Americans as possible and have more soft power we can wield to preserve liberal democracy.
I think that some of the flaws you (correctly) attribute to identity politics, are also as bad or worse with "build shit" politics. Anything that isn't just one individual building shit by themselves is going to end up with most of the important decisions being made by people with free time, education, the ability to navigate bureaucratic systems and talk like an upper-middle-class person, etc..
None of which is to say I disagree with you that there are big benefits to build shit politics! But the way your post is set up, it gives the impression that these problems are reasons that identity politics is worse than build shit politics, when they're probably the same. (Or even worse, since in build shit politics, there might not be any impetus to try and make sure everyone in the room gets to speak.)
How does build shit politics lead to people asking what determined who gets to be in the room deciding which shit to build?
> I am can talk like an upper-middle-class person
I don't know whether this was intentional, but if not, typo. :)