This is my submission to the September Carnival of Aces, which I am hosting. The theme I chose for this month’s Carnival is “The ‘We’ of Me”.
I don’t recommend reading this post unless you’re willing to slog through 3500 words (roughly eleven pages) of introspection and complaining. If you do read it, please bear in mind that it was written as a way to explain where I’m coming from and why I feel the way I do about certain issues. It is not intended as a manifesto, but as a summary of where my thinking is at this point in my life. My thinking may and, perhaps, should change in the future, but, for the moment, the position I articulate in this post is the position I find myself stuck in. Suggestions on how to move forward are welcome.
Frankie, the whole idea of a club is that there are members who are included and the non-members who are not included.
– Bernice, The Member of the Wedding (1952)
In The Member of the Wedding, the film that inspired this month’s Carnival, twelve-year-old Frankie Addams says, “The trouble with me is that for a long time I have been just an ‘I’ person. All people belong to a ‘we’ except me.” Growing up, I felt much the same as Frankie: always on the outside, never a member.
The first time I hosted the Carnival of Aces, I chose the theme of “Identity”. In my own submission, “Expecto Patronum”, I talked about how very few labels really seemed to reflect my identity. In the end, the only “identity” labels I felt really comfortable with were the ones marking my relationships with my friends. Looking back, I realise one of the factors underlying that post was the fact that I don’t feel a strong sense of group identification. And so, when I try to describe my identity, I don’t find group labels very useful.
There are factors I do consider essential parts of my identity: my history of being bullied, my relationship with God, Star Wars. Take one of those things away, and I’m no longer me. But none of those things inherently lends itself to group identification. My relationship with Star Wars is very personal and not something I often see reflected elsewhere. Christianity (my religion) teaches that we should love all people equally, rather than favouring one group or another. And, as for being bullied, the whole effect of bullying is to make you feel like you’re not part of a group. It teaches you to fear and distrust other people, not to feel solidarity with them. If I had been bullied only by certain groups, perhaps I would have come to hate those groups and identify with other groups. But, for me, bullying was an equal-opportunity sport: boys and girls, white and non-white, all made me feel excluded. So, instead of “us versus them”, I grew up with “me versus everyone else”.
And perhaps it’s because of that formative experience of being excluded that I still feel an instinctive resistance to group identification. See, here’s the thing: As soon as you adopt a group identity label, everyone under that label can start to feel like a “club”. And, as soon as you create a club, you risk slipping into tribalism – the bad kind of tribalism, where you feel an unquestioning loyalty to everyone within your group and an instinctive hostility to everyone outside of it. As someone who has been on the outside a lot and experienced a lot of hostility, I’m not a fan of this kind of dynamic, and I’m wary of anything that resembles it.
Take gender categories. I’ve never felt a strong sense of solidarity with other girls or women, and I generally feel uncomfortable in female-only communities and spaces. Why? Well, on the one hand, the idea of female solidarity implies that I share something fundamental with all other females. But what would that be? Certain kinds of reproductive organs? My reproductive organs are hardly the most significant factor in my life, and, besides, I’m constantly being reminded that reproductive organs are not what makes someone a woman. Being treated a certain way by others? Well, not all women are treated the same way, and, besides, being treated differently on the basis of sex or gender is something we should be resisting. Some sort of essential “feminine” nature that transcends those other factors? I don’t have one, nor do I wish to be perceived as having one. In fact, when I’m surrounded by other women, I’m more often than not reminded of all the things we don’t have in common.
Conversely, I’m also aware that female-only spaces can only exist by excluding a huge group of people, namely, men. And I’m not big on the idea of excluding men. After all, the whole thrust of feminism is that men and women really aren’t all that different, that most of the perceived differences between them are social constructs that need to be dismantled. Having spaces just for women and excluding men from them doesn’t seem like it’s going to help with that dismantling; it seems more likely to reinforce restrictive gender categories. I’d rather see men welcomed into female-dominated spaces and encouraged to identify and form community with women. After all, I like men. Some of my best friends are men! Why would I want to belong to a club that would exclude some of my best friends?
That said, identity categories can be useful as supportive alliances. And those alliances can be very important, especially for people experiencing marginalisation, oppression, or abuse. For example, I’ve never been a victim of sexual violence, but, as a woman, I can remember that that could easily change, and I can show solidarity with the women who have been. But how important is womanhood to that solidarity? Not all women are sexual assault survivors, but there are many men who are. And if women who aren’t survivors can stand in solidarity with women who are, why can’t men? Treating sexual violence as a women’s issue risks flattening out the differences between women and overstating the differences between women and men.
That’s the problem I have with a lot of identity politics. While I’m not always a member of the communities involved (and therefore don’t have the right to judge their tactics), they do often seem to tend towards an “us versus them” dynamic: This is the group with the problem; this is the group that causes the problem. If the people in the second group are only called out or brought down or made to pay enough, then the problem will be solved. That ignores a lot of factors, like the fact that people in marginalised groups don’t experience the same amount of marginalisation and people in privileged groups don’t enjoy the same amount of privilege. Not to mention that disadvantaging people from privileged groups doesn’t always automatically (or equally) advantage those from underprivileged groups. I find myself wishing that, instead of “This is a this- or a that-group problem”, we could simply say, “This is a problem”, and work together across social categories to fix it.
Of course, the fact that we don’t almost always has more to do with privileged people than marginalised people. Because tribalism is a problem for people with privilege, too, and, generally, a much bigger problem. After all, marginalised people don’t have a lot of choice but to form into communities of solidarity and resistance. Identity politics is simply the result of oppression and injustice that is disproportionately faced by certain types of people. But people from privileged groups can express tribalism too, generally with much less justification. I’m talking about men who feel threatened by feminism, white people who are personally offended by Critical Race Theory, or Christians who act like the “love thy neighbour” injunction only covers other Christians. If we should be working across social categories to fix problems, then the onus is on people from privileged groups to step outside of their privilege bubble and show solidarity with those who don’t enjoy the same privileges.
So, how does this affect my behaviour in real life? How am I working to fix problems? Well, in practice, it’s not easy. After all, I’m just one person, and there’s only so much I can accomplish on my own. That’s the bad side of lacking group identification. While it means that, in theory, I’d love to work with different kinds of people to make the world a better place, in practice, it’s hard to find people to work with. I have tried. In my school days I experimented with various clubs with a social justice bent, but I never felt welcome in any of them. In my experience, being interested in social justice doesn’t necessarily make people more logical, empathetic, or welcoming, and the people in social justice communities can be just as prone to prejudice and violence as anyone else.
In fact, the clubs I’ve felt most at home in have generally been what might be called “geek” communities: the space club, the anime club, the D&D club. Geek communities – at least in my limited experience of them – tend to be places of universal acceptance. If you show up and are willing to participate, then there’s a place for you. Unfortunately, geek communities aren’t very interested in making the world a better place. So I ended up stuck between welcoming spaces that were kind of useless and activist spaces that felt very impersonal. If the atmosphere of geek communities could be described as, “Hey, pull up a chair!”, the atmosphere of activist communities often feels like, “Welcome to the Good people club! Isn’t it nice to be with Good people and safe from all those Bad people? I hate Bad people; don’t you?” And that’s not a very welcoming vibe when it’s not clear who the Bad people are. Or whether they’re people you like. Or whether they’re you.
And that brings me to the other problem with clubs: that any group based on excluding certain kinds of people may one day decide to exclude you. It’s hard to feel a secure sense of group identification when you know you might suddenly be kicked out of the group. Once again, my history of being bullied comes into play, but this time what I feel is not just sympathy for those who are being excluded but fear that I might become one of them. And I don’t think that fear is unjustified. In the past couple of years, two prominent vloggers I follow have talked about coming under attack, at least partly by members of “their” communities. Incidents like this are a reminder of an important life lesson: It doesn’t matter how strongly you identify with a community or how important that community is to you. Step out of line, say the wrong thing, or have some embarrassing secret revealed, and your community will turn on you.
In fact, if I could be a part of any club, the one I would most like to belong to would be the one that welcomes all people. The one that treats everyone with kindness and fairness. The one that doesn’t draw “us versus them” lines. Or, if it does, draws the line between those who act on logic and practise empathy and those who act on prejudice and practise violence. In a way, I feel like that’s the “club” I’ve been looking for my whole life, but I’ve never been able to find it. The best I’ve managed is finding individual people who are kind, logical, and empathetic. Commentators who attempt to break down situations fairly, educators who focus on teaching facts, and random people who strive to understand diverse points of view. Those are the people I’ve always been drawn to. But, generally, any connections I’ve formed with them have failed to lead to a broader community.
And if such a group did exist, could I even claim membership in it? Am I really as welcoming and unprejudiced as I’d like to believe? The fact is I do have my own sense of solidarity and my own prejudices that sometimes surprise even me. Any time I encounter a situation where it feels like one person is being “ganged up on” by many, my instinctive reaction is to sympathise with the one and be suspicious of the many. Like any good Canadian, I pride myself on being different from Americans, but, when I was living overseas, it was the Americans that, of all the nationalities around, I felt the most affinity with. I got really angry a few months ago reading about racism in the Star Wars fandom, probably because a part of me registers Star Wars fans of all races as “my people”.
And then there are the group identities that I have without thinking about it. I don’t often have to think about my identity as a white person or as an anglophone because I live in a culture where whiteness and English are privileged. The same goes for being hearing, sighted, ambulant, and neurotypical. But those things have shaped who I am in ways that are no less profound for being invisible. If I felt threatened in one of those idenities, would I be able be philosophical about it, or would I lapse into my own defensive tribalism?
The truth is, I doubt my ability to live up to my own moral standards. Groucho Marx famously said, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member,” and maybe that’s my problem. Maybe the only club I would want to join is one I’m not worthy to be a part of.
So, what does all this mean for my relationship with asexuality and the ace community?
Well, the ace community could certainly be thought of as a “club” I claim membership in. And, yes, I do use the word “we” when talking about it. Being an ace-spectrum person is important to me, and being a member of the ace community is even more important. So, unlike when I was Frankie’s age, I do have a social category that I feel a strong sense of loyalty towards. But, because of the factors I’ve mentioned above, I’m always wary of letting this identification slip into intolerance.
For the most part, I’m not worried about his happening. In general, I’ve found the ace community (or, at least, my corner of it) to be a very tolerant and welcoming place. One proof of that is the fact that I’ve never felt unwelcome in the community, despite my demisexual (and, previously, questioning) status. If people are open to the idea of asexuality, then, in general, the asexual community is open to them.
Oh, asexuals can be tribalist, but tribalism isn’t only bad. There is a good kind of tribalism, too, that supports, defends, and validates its members. It’s good for people to have that, including ace-spectrum people. Sometimes we may let off steam about how “Allosexuals are the worst!” (I’ve done a fair amount of that myself), but that rarely slips into actual hatred.
Still, the danger always exists, and that’s what I always want to be on guard against. In my reviews, I’m always trying to strike a balance between representing my own perspective, representing the perspectives of other aces, and also acknowledging faults or virtues a movie may have that have nothing to do with asexuality. I do that because I want to represent my community fairly, but I also don’t want to shy away from expressing my own opinions, even if they’re not “the party line”. Nor do I want to get so set in viewing things through an ace lens that I can’t see beyond it – including seeing ways an “ace-friendly” movie may be bad or an “ace-unfriendly” movie may be good.
Beyond my reviews, I try to avoid rigid thinking about how we should understand asexuality or intolerance towards those with different perspectives. I’m wary of describing people’s behaviour as “acephobic” (Is it really ace-phobic or just ace-negative? And does that negativity stem from irrational hatred of aces or from other factors?). I’m even more wary of describing people as “acephobes” (Is it ever acceptable to reduce an entire person’s character to one negative label?). And I tend to stay out of angry “Are aces queer?” arguments, because, honestly, does it matter???
Basically, I never want to see asexuals becoming too insular, too caught up in our own perspectives, or too invested in our own narratives. I want to be an ally to other aces, but I don’t want that allyship to be unquestioning. I want to be able to express the ace side of my personality, but I don’t want to be unable to step outside of an ace perspective. And, perhaps most importantly, I don’t want to close myself off to people with non-ace identities or to ignore the alliances that can be formed across the ace-/allo- divide.
I’ve talked about this last point already. A recurring theme in my posts (in “If We Had a Parade Who Would March in It?”, in “On Being an Evangelist”, in “Why I Blog”, in “Asexuality: Not Just for Asexuals Anymore”) has been that the issues faced by aces aren’t just ace issues but are actually shared by people with many sexual orientations. And so, as much as possible, I would like to see us working with non-aces to make those issues better for everyone.
I mentioned Star Wars earlier. One of the many appealing things about the original Star Wars trilogy is that it’s not really about one group of people fighting another. Oh, you’re going to say, aren’t the Rebels fighting the Empire? Well, yes, but is the Empire really people? I mean, kind of, but they’re not really a society, a culture, or a community. Nor are they really individuals. They’re a collection of mutually-distrustful middle-aged men and faceless killing machines. Aside from Darth Vader, none is given any real humanising qualities. Their “culture” consists almost entirely of a) shooting things, b) blowing things up, and c) threatening to shoot things and blow things up. They’re not people; they’re personifications of evil.
That evil is what the Rebel Alliance is fighting against. It’s not about “good people” versus “bad people”; it’s about all kinds of people working together to make life in the galaxy better. The Alliance is open to everyone: Male, female. Old, young. Black, white. Human, droid, Wookie, Ewok, fish-headed… things. Heck, even the Emperor’s right-hand man eventually ends up on the Rebels’ side thanks to the unconditional love and validation given him by his son. No one is excluded; no one is rejected. It’s a community where anyone can belong.
Of course, in real life things are always more complicated than that. Making the world a better place is never as straightforward as just blowing up the right space station. The privileges and traumas associated with belonging to a certain sex, race, class, etc., cannot just be ignored or wished away. And, “Why can’t we all just get along?” has never been a particularly persuasive argument.
But, for me, the question is, “Where do our ideals lie?” Is our ideal to work only within and for small insular groups, or is it to make broad mutually beneficial alliances? Do we see inter-group conflicts as a matter of “good guys” fighting “bad guys”, or as symptoms of greater systemic evils that may oppress both parties? If Star Wars is the ultimate fantasy, then, for me, the ultimate fantasy is not to see one group of people defeat another group of people, but to see all people working together to make the world better for everyone.
In The Member of the Wedding, Frankie’s stated desire is to join in her brother’s wedding, essentially becoming part of an exclusive three-person “club” with him and his wife. She sees membership in this club as conferring almost infinite privilege, and she imagines herself and her brother and sister-in-law having grand, fantastical adventures together. However, Frankie’s true desire is not for privilege and exclusivity. Getting more and more caught up in her fantasy, she predicts, “We will just walk up to people and know them right away. We’ll be walking down a dark road and see a lighted house and knock on the door, and strangers will rush to meet us and say, ‘Come in! Come in!’” Her monologue crescendos triumphantly to its sublime conclusion: “We will be members of the whole world!!!”
What Frankie truly feels she is lacking is not belonging in this group or that group, but belonging, period. What she wants is not to be a member of a club; it’s to be a member of humanity.
Remember what I said at the beginning of this post? The lesson I grew up with was that I was on the outside, excluded by everyone. And so, like Frankie, what I’ve most longed for in my life is to belong to everyone. Not simply to be accepted by a few people, or a group, or a club. But to be accepted by the world.
There’s a catch, though. Because the humanity I want to belong to isn’t just one that accepts me but excludes other people. It has to make room for everyone. It has to be willing to look at people and ask, “Why do they act the way they do?” It has to be willing to look at conflict and ask, “What circumstances created this conflict?” And, instead of looking at some people and dismissing them as “bad” and in need of exclusion or punishment, it needs to focus on problems and ask how we can work together to solve them so that the world can be made better for everybody.
That’s the club I want to belong to.