Knots (ii)

A second theme, obscurely knotted together for me with that of “subculture”, is that of “weakness”. I am thinking partly of the vulnerability of shared values, which are often a layering-in together of explicit and implicit values, to attacks on those values which demand that everything be explicitly argued and justified, or aim to put their targets to the trouble of attempting such a justification.

While it’s often useful to make the implicit explicit, to provide a narrative which explains the origins in experience and practice of the commitments and attitudes which scaffold the positions we publicly espouse, we are always driven into a place of weakness when we try to explain ourselves in this way to a hostile interlocutor, who reserves the right to interrupt our backstory with a curt demand that we “answer the question!”. If we ourselves want to revise our explicit values and commitments, we may also have to return to this place of weakness, where we are not so sure of ourselves, and may be asked to consider concessions we do not want to make.

The interlocutor who is prepared to enter into a position of mutual vulnerability with us can be of help here, but the interlocutor who simply wants to knock down our defences so they can pick at the soft meat inside is an adversary to be resisted.

I have two examples in mind as I write this. The first is the demand that antifascism justify its premises, that it provide answers to questions such as “how do you define fascism?” and “what are the proper limits of political violence directed against an adversary?”. Because antifascism is the practice of tracking and identifying fascist and fascism-enabling currents within political and cultural life, and confronting those currents wherever they manifest themselves in public, with the aim of suppressing them, it is neither tied to a specific definition of its adversary nor bounded by a fixed protocol of conduct. It is, in this regard, rather like cybersecurity. Those who guard our information infrastructure against malicious infiltration must face an obscure and protean adversary, and make use of a variety of tactics in frustrating that adversary’s advances. The usefulness of a communications technology such as email is degraded if spammers and scammers are permitted to disseminate their messages unimpeded. We track threats, filter and block, in order to maintain a usable channel for legitimate communication.

This does not mean that it is not useful to have working definitions of fascism, and principles to guide antifascist action, or that these cannot be questioned or critically evaluated once adopted. It’s a difficult and ongoing task; I’m not going to get into it here. But we have the right to distinguish between interlocutors who are seriously interested in helping us work through the difficulties of maintaining our defences on a sound and principled basis, and interlocutors who are simply interested in weakening those defences so that they can pursue their own agenda unimpeded.

The second example is the ongoing furore within academic philosophy concerning the legitimation of a “gender critical” agenda which is inimical to trans rights activism. Figures such as Kathleen Stock arrogate to themselves the right to demand answers to supposedly intractable questions concerning trans identity and the legal and political ramifications of recognising trans rights. Once again, it is necessary to enter into a place of weakness to give a full account of why advocates for trans rights hold the commitments that they do. These aren’t questions which can be settled by arranging tokens representing pieces of consensus reality in the correct order; they involve worlds of experience which are not universally accessible, or commonly understood, whose explication requires a difficult passage through vulnerability. Stock and her allies are demonstrably not interlocutors with whom such conversations can safely or productively be had. Given the assymmetry in terms of epistemic security and practical stakes between those asking the questions and those expected to answer them, it is wholly legitimate for the latter to refuse the bait.