Isms & Phobias: Intent & Indifference

Frantz Fanon has been haunting me—he is a constant ghost. Haunting me as I try to think about the Tyler Clementi case and about the frames used to evaluate the two students whose actions may have led to Clementi’s tragic death.

In what I take to be a representative, moderate position, Richard Kim writes,

I . . . find myself reluctant to join the chorus of voices calling for the law to come down hard on Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, the Rutgers students who posted the video and who are now facing “invasion of privacy” charges. If convicted they could face up to five years in prison; some gay rights groups like Garden State Equality are calling for the two to be prosecuted under New Jersey’s hate crimes law, which could double the sentence.

What Ravi and Wei did was immature, prurient and thoughtless; it undoubtedly played some role in what became an awful, awful tragedy. That they acted with homophobic malice, that they understood what the consequences of their actions might be, or that their prank alone, or even chiefly, triggered Clementi’s suicide is far less clear. There’s no record of Ravi and Wei discriminating against gays in the past, and there’s nothing exceptionally homophobic about the tweet Ravi sent—”I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” One could easily insert “fat chick” or “masturbating to porn” into the scenario, which wouldn’t have made it any more acceptable—or legal—for Ravi and Wei to surreptitiously broadcast the incident, but might have provided just as much titillation and inducement anyway.

Intent is a notoriously slippery category. Literary critics have been playing around with it for a long time.

Intent becomes even more fraught in the political, where every slip of the tongue is taken as evidence of some deep-seated bigotry. It might be that, but political expediency is as much an obstacle to getting at the truth as it is anything else.

The question of “how we really feel” about others and Others is complex and historical.

Jameson writes, “That the structure of the psyche is historical, and has a history, is . . . as difficult for us to grasp as that the senses are not themselves natural organs but rather the results of a long process of differentiation even within human history” (The Political Unconscious, 62).

To say that “isms” and “phobias” as psychic phenomena are “historical” is, as Jameson writes, “difficult” to grasp. In less sophisticated hands, it pardons the past because “no one knew any better.” Here, of course, this argument refuses to acknowledge that maintaining hierarchies of difference requires ideological and affective labor. People in the past “worked” on believing” their prejudices, just as they do now.

The difficulty Jameson points to is, in part, how to register the ongoing labor that structures the psychic. To acknowledge the carelessness and utter futility of the too-common claim that “everyone is a racist” by showing the “labor” that rac(ism) takes.

I am circling back to the question of intent.

Fanon, whose Black Skin, White Masks is itself a work that circles around circles, writes with great acuity about the problem of intent:

To speak pidgin to a Negro makes him angry, because he himself is a pidgin-nigger-talker. But, I will be told, there is no wish, no intention to anger him. I grant this; but it is just this absence of wish, this lack of interest, this indifference, this automatic manner of classifying him, imprisoning him, primitivising him, decivilizing him, that makes him angry. (32)

In the new(er) Richard Philcox translation:

To speak gobbledygook to a black man is insulting, for it means he is the gook. Yet, we’ll be told, there is no intention to willfully give offense. Ok, but it is precisely this absence of will—this offhand manner; this casualness; and the ease with which they classify him, imprison him at an uncivilized and primitive level—that is insulting. (15)

Intent troubles us.

As famous and infamous figures have variously said racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-semitic things, friends and colleagues and peers have defended them: x is not a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, and so on. We have been asked, in a gross misreading of MLK, to examine character as elaborated by the offending person’s peers, whose integrity is somehow beyond question.

I cannot, here, write about the “structure” of “character witnesses,” though it is germane to this discussion.

Following Fanon, I am absolutely willing to believe that non-racist people say racist things, that homo-friendly figures fire off homophobic jokes, that progressive men (give me this one) can be sexist boors.

With the defenders of these figures, I am absolutely willing to acknowledge that context matters. But not in the way those defenders think.

To be clear: many hateful acts stem from hateful feelings.

Yet, if one follows Fanon in the cited passage (he changes his mind constantly, so one can only track him passage by passage), the virulence, the violence, the force of the hateful act rests in its indifference. In the casualness with which one negates an(other).

We lack the proper language with which to speak of this. Cruel comes close, but it does not really describe the unthinking ease with which one turns another into an object.

Feminists in the 1970s spoke of raising consciousness. We had to learn how to recognize sexism, how to name it, how to act on it, recognizing how much of it would still remain unnamed, would pass unrecognized and, even when named, would not be acted on.

At some point, and this because of how race inflected discrimination discourses, a blending of frames that I cannot map here, we started to think of the visibility of discrimination, to believe we could observe its workings. That we could name racists as racists, sexists as sexists, that patterns of behavior congealed. This observation was not wrong, only partial. And partial because it missed (even though theorists of race knew better) negation through indifference.

(I am still working this out.)

I have been trying to think of how we might bracket intent and still recognize the violence of negation. That people do not act out of hate or malice. That when they say they are not motivated by hate, they are actually telling the truth (this line beloved by those who tell homosexuals how quickly they are going to hell).

Love can be coupled with crushing negation.

How to think about this?

Of course, it is precisely this negation that is so difficult when it comes from those who love us.

I have moved away from Fanon’s indifference because I am interested in thinking about a range of unlikely emotional juxtapositions. To ask, rudely, what the sexist might be feeling as he acts. To complicate Fanon’s claim that he might feel nothing and also the claim that he directs malice or contempt.

And yet to be able to name isms and phobias, just not as we already have.

Of course, to name the act that stems from indifference requires taking structural responsibility for the histories that create that indifference. As the Queering the Air activists are arguing, Rutgers is displacing its own responsibility to create a queer-friendly environment onto two students who took up and enacted not merely what some are calling a generational indifference to responsibility but also, and more damningly, an institutional blindness to difference.

I cannot pursue this now.

Intent matters.

But focusing on intent risks missing the historical nature, which is to say, the psychic nature, of isms and phobias. As Sarah Silverman says, we cannot expect queers to be respected when we give air time and legal time to voices that negate queers.

Indifference negates, perhaps even more than intentional hate.

One thought on “Isms & Phobias: Intent & Indifference

  1. Indifference to homophobia by a loved one or friend often hurts more than homophobia from someone who hates you or acts out of malice.

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