On performativity

Tank Green/ March 19, 2022/ Thoughts

We have long reached peak performativity in society. Of course, there has always been an element of performance, and if I could control my reading to just Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, then I would likely give you a nice little overview of the work on this subject. I’m going to have to come back to that as I have a feeling this is going to become a series of posts.

I think, if I were a different kind of person, I would be talking about “wokery” right now. I hate that word. I hated it when the self-righteously inclusive self-proclaimed themselves as “woke”, and I still hate it now those without broadly inclusive politics justifiably use it as an insult against those who proclaim broadly inclusive politics.

Even as I type this, there is so much to unpack.

What do I mean by “peak performativity”? What do I mean by “broadly inclusive politics”? Why did I emphasise “proclaim”? Let’s come back to that.

I am trying to root the moment in time when I first started noticing this acceleration towards people performing values, as opposed to encountering people who emotionally and intellectually held and owned values. I think my suspicions were first raised in around about 2016, during Jeremy Corbyn’s Momentum moment, as the ripening performativity of many of the Momentum members was suspicious to me. I observed people I knew suddenly start “caring” about things they previously had never cared about, simply because their new tribe “cared”. This was especially so as I was researching and writing my PhD at the time, and knew how utterly absurd and false their revisionist history was in terms of the Labour Party and its historic approach to ‘race’ and racism. (This is not a slight against Jeremy Corbyn who I think was unfairly maligned by many.)

During my PhD, I had been a literacy volunteer at a local charity serving young people in my neighbourhood. In 2017, I got a job working at the charity around the same time that Rashan Charles was murdered by the police. I went to most of the marches and rallies protesting the injustice of his murder and was disgusted to observe that the police were suddenly registering to become volunteers at the charity. It was clearly a cynical act of political damage control by the police. I objected to it on those grounds and because, demonstrably, the police were not safe to be around the young working class, often black, kids we worked with. One of my colleagues objected to my position (daddy was a police) and filed a complaint against me. I was then told by the CEO that I could either retract my comments or be fired. Owing to the fact that my comments are my ethics are my truth, I was fired.

Next came a couple of years working in a university. Because I don’t perform my values, and actually hold them deeply and unwaveringly, I was very institutionally active in equalities initiatives. There is a lot I could write about the hollowness of academia (and academics) and the emptiness of the performative handwringing endemic to academia, but I will just recount a few obvious hypocrisies I experienced.

The middle-class white male Professor who had never, not once, not ever researched or been involved in any equalities initiative suddenly decided that ‘race’ equality was his pet project as the political wind had changed. This self-same Professor then told me that I did not have any expertise in issues of ‘race’ and racism (I had wanted to run a workshop with a prominent black activist) and worse, even told me that he had no way of verifying that I had the PhD I “claimed” to have.

(I have actually lost count of the amount of men who seem to think my PhD is not my own and/or doesn’t give me any expertise in the area I researched. There are even those who seem to think that my thesis isn’t my intellectual property and are currently using my intellectual framework without my consent.)

Or how about the line manager of my additional voluntary role at the university who reprimanded me for being too helpful to a black security guard. I had helped the security guard secure a flexible working arrangement which enabled him to collect his kids from school. His line manager had denied his request multiple times, despite it being institutional policy to allow it. With my help, the security guard was able to achieve his simple goal of having 15 minutes less for lunch so he could leave 15 minutes early and be in time to collect his kids from school. I forget how now, but somehow his elation got back to my line manager who subsequently reprimanded me for being too helpful. This is despite the fact that my voluntary role was to help colleagues exactly as I did.

The one which takes the cake, and is also why I do not work at the university anymore, relates to a sexual assault I experienced. By a set of strange coincidences, I was forced to disclose the experience to my line manager who then proceeded to belly laugh in my face. Twice. This was already bad enough, but the situation got demonstrably worse. I resigned and put in a grievance which the university refused to investigate even as, in literally the same breath, it also proclaimed to investigate all grievances filed. All grievances but mine, perhaps? And let’s not forget all those Professors in the Department who would slag off my line manager behind his back but who, when the time came, wouldn’t even stand up and be counted. In some ways, the disgusting misogyny of my ex-boss is more valuable than the fake posturing of his colleagues who engage in habitual performative inclusivity. At least he is authentically himself.

And then the so-called “social enterprise” running the Local Authority leisure centre in which I was assaulted deleted the CCTV footage and refused to put me in contact with the witnesses. The police refused to investigate. Unsurprisingly, there was an almost total lack of investigation by the “social enterprise” management. Subsequent to that came the fake investigation by the Safeguarding Officer of the Local Authority who clearly had never heard of the Public Sector Equality Duty and worse, was actually an employee of the “social enterprise” on secondment to the Local Authority. So, plenty of chances for impartiality there, right?

Then there is the other Local Authority who put out comms during the beginning of COVID about how it wanted to support private renters. Contact us if your slumlord is behaving badly they said, and since my slumlord acted despicably, I wrote to ask the Council for support. In exchange, the Council came after me instead rendering me more unwell than I have been in many years. They were of course in the wrong, and the Ombudsman found in my favour, but how many who read their performative comms about supporting private renters erroneously believes that they are on our side? Their comms are good. I believed. I believed until I found out the hard way that every single Labour councillor in my ward is a mascot for disingenuous doublespeak. And let’s not talk about my MP…

All of these stories are chapters in a book in their own right, but then came COVID, the murder of George Floyd, and the flourishing of performative “Save the NHS” and “Black Lives Matter” posters in the windows of the middle classes. Then came the vaccine mandates, and those of us who took a stand against the mandates and vaccine passports because we meant it when we said segregation is wrong and bodily integrity is a human right, became labelled neo-nazi, racist, misogynistic, fascist terrorists.

Now we have Ukraine, and the dipshits who likely couldn’t even point to Ukraine on a map two months ago are now performing their allegiance to Ukraine and it’s neo-nazi militia. We are now asked to believe that genuine neo-nazis are good; so good that we are welcome to buy their merchandise on Amazon. Or is it that they are good so long as they are not the kind of neo-nazis who oppose vaccine mandates and segregation? Or is it okay now to believe in bodily integrity if you also hate Russia? I don’t know. It’s all so unclear.

What is clear is that the terms “left wing” and “right wing” are meaningless nowadays. In fact, it is clear that many words and terms have long been emptied of meaning. If I am a racist, fascist, neo-nazi terrorist for knowing bodily integrity is a human right, for knowing segregation is a moral wrong, for knowing that the intense and coercive forms of control and surveillance currently being undertaken by many so-called liberal democratic governments is a terrifying violence, then it is clear that the words racist, fascist, neo-nazi, and terrorist no longer have any meaning.

What is also clear is that there are very few people with genuinely held values. There are very few people who genuinely hold inclusive politics. There are very few people who genuinely believe what they say and say what they mean. There are very few people who genuinely live out the values they proclaim. There are plenty of people who can stick posters up in the halls though. Well done you.

I have also observed a new cohort of people talk about the loss of societal meaning and values and overarching narratives. I say “new cohort” because this is an ancient conversation which those of us who have studied religions know has been going on forever. I am watching people grapple with this from a variety of different political and cultural perspectives. This new cohort of people intrigue me much as religious people intrigue me: because they both are so alien to me.

Many people who know me well call me the most ethical person they know. My mother used to call me too ethical because I was sometimes ungovernable due to my allegiance to my integrity. Simply put, I came out of the womb giving a shit. I do not know why or how but is hardwired in me to come to terms with the other, whatever that is, so as I might understand it. So as I might come to know how I feel and think about it. So as I can generate my own values and ethical stances on things. And from that moral grounding, my intensely personal and authentically held moral grounding, I know what to think and feel, and how to act in ways which keep my integrity intact. Because that matters to me. It is also why I am not experiencing some crisis of meaning because I do not need to look externally for it. I already have a bedrock of experiences, values, thoughts, beliefs, actions, ethics, morals and so on which enable me to be true to what I believe, even if my belief in, say, bodily integrity renders me a “good feminist” on a let’s support Roe vs Wade day, and an “evil fascist” on a let’s hate the truckers day.

During COVID, I noticed how desperately people needed certainty and how the obvious lack of certainty in dealing with a microscopic virus was creating fissures in their psyches. As I have said before, I think a need for certainty underpins the psychology of many religious people. I used to think that I do not have a need for certainty, but I now think that is not quite true. I think I likely tolerate external sources of uncertainty better than religious people (whether that be the covidians or the Christians) simply because I have a vast repository of internal certainty to draw from. The innate functioning of my heart is to care about others. From there, the innate functioning of my brain is to sort through, evaluate, and categorise everything of significance (to me) that I encounter. I think that process enables me to generate my own certainty alongside the more obvious meaning and value-making elements of it.

People often mistake me for being confident. I am not. What they mistakenly read as confidence is simply the fact that I am myself. I do not perform my values. I live them. I mean them. I am them. There is no front with me. For all that is wrong with or about me, what is right, what is really, really right, is that I am a fundamentally honest person. And that honesty and integrity gives me substance, weight, and depth, and the ability to see through the logically impossible lies that so many of you are performing as inclusive politics nowadays.

I have noticed that the institutions and organs such as governments, schools, universities, businesses, churches, and social and mainstream media who previously didn’t care much about inclusivity, have decided to use COVID to remake themselves in the image of inclusivity in an attempt to control the narrative, and hence us. Because it is about control, there is no coherence to the values; yet because they collectively have access to the most amount of power, they can control opposition by calling it “fake news” or dis/mis/malinformation.

Curiously, so many people now perform the often contradictory, illogical, and irrational values given to them by governments and the media (etc.), which is, in and of itself, the most profound internalisation of hypocrisy and oppression. It is also the logical outcome when people are saturated by impossible amounts of information but have not been given training on how to sift through, analyse, evaluate, and assess it. People are bewildered. They are unmoored. They are adrift and because they are adrift, they dance around like caricatures in an impossibly windy performance of inclusivity and care.

Ordinary people are trying to “be good”, to “care”, to be “in solidarity” with others. I recognise and accept this, but they are going about it in the most deadly and destructive way. They are not thinking through their stances deeply. They are reflexively parroting whatever the organs of control tell them to. In doing so, they are also acting as extensions of deeply coercive and troubling agents of power who are piggy backing off performative inclusivity to remake the world.

And make no mistake: that remake is a cage. An even greater cage than we have known for a long time; a cage in which dissent results in your bank account being frozen, your job and home being lost, friendships ended, divisions widened. These people perform their whirlwind of inclusivity and they decry “fake news” like all “good citizens” “should”. I wonder when they’ll look up and notice precisely how many they excluded through their inclusivity, and how the fakest thing they’ll encounter all day is the performance of themselves.