It’s with great interest that I’ve been watching the development of the grrl-power thread on PA System. I initially chipped in, mostly to note Tze Ming’s usual adversarial style when dealing with white people. It always seems the best defence is a good attack. Further involvement was however prevented by the reasonable suggestion that guys stay out of the thread. Other than my compulsion to contribute to all and every argument I encounter, there was little reason to have to be in there.


[note: i wrote this post yesterday while on the road. pity to see the thread fall to pieces, but thought i’d put up this work anyhow]


In large part though, my interest was piqued by the responses of a few of the guys. It’s notable that this conversation puts, in my most humble opinion, a further nail in the coffin of “universalism” as a means to organise. What I mean is the usual philosophical justification for inclusion of diverse identities, the universality of human rights, and the equality of all people, is usually ensured by minimising difference.


It’s a line of reasoning I’ve never really accepted. What it says, essentially, is that difference accentuates inequality. Consequently, it’s necessary to ensure that majority rule is created and adhered to. To be certain that this majority rule is fair, means are usually put in place with objectives like ‘full inclusion’, ‘consultation’, or ‘procedural fairness’ They have a million different names, but they’re basically there to make sure everyone gets a voice.


So why put these things in place? Because if you don’t have them, minority voices are smothered by the weight of majority opinion.


Which always makes me think, why have the emphasis on ‘establishing’ majority rule? Doesn’t it kind of work at cross-purposes? You insist on equality, but then put in place lots of exceptions to make sure that the equality works. You want one, clear, coherent, singularly-purposed voice, but have to mash a bunch of voices to make the idea work. It’s an odd arrangement.


All this ties into the grrl-power call by virtue of the medium we’re using. When the internet first started to catch on I personally thought it would be a great medium to minimise difference and emphasise message over messenger. Instead of seeing an identity, gender, race, class, we could just see a voice and an argument.


Well, as we all know, that is simply not the case. People happily project their gender, identity and beliefs into their online personae every day of the week, often eagerly, frequently aggressively (regardless of gender), and usually voluntarily. That behaviour just reinforces my knowledge that identity is pivotal. Here we have the perfect medium to minimise difference, to disembody, but very few people want to do so. Strange, aeh?


The assumption this leads me to is, “identity-neutral” politics really is a myth. While it seems to stack on the paper of liberal-democratic philosophy, it’s yet another example of real-world behaviour getting in the way of utopian dreams. Worse, “identity-neutral” politics really does serve to reinforce the position of dominant and default identities like “straight white male”. And the PA thread is a good example of that.


While I don’t agree with Tze Ming’s approach, walking into a room of liberal white guys and shouting, “What, no ethnic people and not enough women?! Must be something wrong with you people!” She does have a good point. But, she overlooks the obvious reality, liberal white guys always want more ethnic friends.


Part of the problem is that, to paraphrase Nancy Fraser, the political “pub[l]ic space” is dominated the default identity. The dominance of masculinity in political discourse does need to be broken down, there’s no doubt about it. The best solution is more women engaged in public discourse. Female voices in public spaces work strongly to make sexism unacceptable (something all men are guilty of, aware of it or not), the same way that gay or ethnic voices minimise homophobic outbursts and racism. Mostly, that is. It seems that Islam is due for slightly irrational whippings for a time yet. Which is unfortunate in the extreme.


What puzzles me though is the common response of decent liberal guys to being challenged about their dominance in public spaces like PA. More often than not there is a “back-down” of sorts to assertions of female belonging that establish the writer as a member of some kind of minority as well. Kind of, “I get to talk in this space because I have experienced it disadvantage by virtue of [insert relevant justification here] and can therefore relate.” I see this as a bad thing.


A bloke shouldn’t have to justify his inclusion in a female conversation any more than a woman should have to justify her inclusion in a male-dominated space. This is for two reasons.


One because you shouldn’t have to change your persona to fit into any female social space (such as the one Tze Ming was seeking). Unless you’re some kind of asshole. In which case, why the hell are you hassling our female friends?


Two, if you do adjust your persona and “pacify” or “feminise” yourself, then what you’re doing is establishing a reverse power relationship. It becomes a female-dominated space, which defeats the objective of the exercise. As I read it, Tze Ming wants a space where women feel welcome to discuss topics of interest to the female PA System community. But I don’t think this automatically entails a space sans men, or a space populated by sooks. Last time I checked, women still want men, not boys. But it may not have been a representative sample.


Ideally what this achieves is a space where neither gender is dominant, and conversation itself is normalised by the content of what you’re saying. If what the PA grrls are discussing is something you can make a useful contribution to, then contribute! Conversation across identity groups builds consensus far better than artificial measures to establish a “majority voice”, because it makes for shared understanding.


My opinion is that being a man or a woman should just establish your point of view, that same way that ethnicity or religion does, but should not give you warrant to limit the point of view of others. In others words, be a man. It is a good thing to be a man who women like to talk with. But don’t expect to be talked to because you’re a man.