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The problem of representation in the neoliberal age

Image: YouTube/CBC News

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On Sunday, CBC's The National convened a panel that examined Justin Trudeau's promise to have Canada’s first gender parity cabinet.

The panel featured three people: the perpetual CBC pundit for some god-knows-why reason Tasha Kheiriddin, son of Barbara Kay and editor of The Walrus Jon Kay and Buzzfeed writer Scaachi Koul, possibly the youngest, brownest person to appear on a CBC pundits panel not specifically related to being young and brown.

The segment was a gong show. Kheiriddin and Kay spouted idiocy about how they oppose a "quota system" to ensure that cabinet has an equal number of men and women. Koul pushed back. Her body language suggested that she was surprised to have fallen through a 1950s portal on live television.

Kheiriddin and Kay are conservatives. On the broad spectrum of opinions that humans can hold, they represent extremely similar shades of off-white. Koul was there to represent everyone else: women, racialized people and those white men who do not agree with Kay and Kheiriddin.

It's a format that's designed to be a trap: give the lone progressive voice the impossible task of toppling the Goliath of right wing "rational" thought, on TV. Despite a very strong performance, a hole in Koul's analysis left her open to progressive criticism.

On Twitter, she was called out for not having promoted an intersectional analysis about Trudeau's cabinet. Sure, Trudeau has promised to have 50 per cent of his cabinet be woman, but how will racialized MPs be represented? The criticism started with whether or not Koul is white (she's not) and moved to how she benefits from white privilege.

Kheiriddin barely got roped into the social media blowback. Despite her actual whiteness and terrible opinion, the critical leftist arguments centred on Koul.

While I don't imagine this would have happened had Koul been 30 years older (and definitely not if she were male), the minor controversy is an important reminder of the hollowness of representation under neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism has made the individual into the most important unit of society, and we progressives have more or less taken the bait. We spend a lot of time arguing that these few positions should be filled with the most representative of people possible, which they should be. But this assumes that there is broad consensus among feminists and anti-racist activists of what that representation looks like and who that representation is. Or, that liberation is tied to representation in otherwise oppressive structures.

The problem is that there isn't a consensus. There isn't even a place to arrive at a consensus. Outside of Quebec, there is no feminist movement. Sure, there are feminists, but there's nothing that resembles a pan-Canadian grouping of feminists. There is no broad platform where progressive women can debate: who do we want to represent us, how do we ensure that intersectional analyses are at the centre of feminist thought and what platforms do we have if someone falls flat and deserves constructive criticism?

In absence of such a movement, anyone who challenges the status quo, even if their day job is as a writer who may have never attended a single IWD event, automatically becomes our spokesperson. If they say something that should be addressed, even if they don't actually represent anyone other than themselves, there’s no collective way to address it.

This is most evident in debates that centre on sex workers' rights. There’s nowhere for feminists to have a respectful, nuanced debate that helps to build a broad, progressive and intersectional analysis. In absence of this, a group of feminists can call themselves radical and call for the deeply non-radical abolition of prostitution. They can name themselves as spokespeople and toe an oppressive line with few consequences.

There's no platform or mechanism for feminists to collectively sharpen our intersectional analysis. No formal learning from one another. No gut-wrenching debates where you have to actually look at the person whose opinion you're trying to influence. No chance for you to shut up and be schooled by someone in the same room as you.

More importantly, there are very few locations for young feminists to learn, grow and understand how they fit into (and change) broader society.

Instead, we have Twitter. We have subtweeting and shooting barbs at one another. We have blocking, mocking and insults. It's our go-to platform and our go-to tactic for all contentious issues around which there exists no consensus. Some of these tactics may have merit, but they hardly stand in for real, face-to-face debate.

Would the reaction to Koul had been the same if we did have this kind of community?

Reaction to Koul was intense because the stakes are so high for racialized women: in 2015, racialized women still must struggle and fight for their right to exist, be seen and be heard. To get access to a platform like The National in and of itself is an advance and Koul was privileged enough to hold that space.

But winning access to The National is a neoliberal victory. A single person who represents an alternative opinion to the status quo, up against two pundits who virtually have the same position, is hardly something to celebrate.

In reality, it isn't the victory we need: a victory that builds a movement to force out folks like Kay and Kheiriddin and demand their replacement by voices that actually reflect society's diversity. The victory is creating a combative movement where debates can be had, oppression can be challenged and where an intersectional analysis of feminism can emerge that is both sophisticated and simple, strong enough to penetrate and change mainstream media narratives of oppression.

And, through the strength of a movement, we can collectively build people up, challenge them and support them. It's a more constructive path and it's important, especially considering that racists and sexists wait for these kinds of moments to lay their most vicious blows.

Do we join the pile-on or do we build something to respond to the real opponents?

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