Sunday, 18 August 2013

Was Magneto Right?

It's one of the most boring things you'll hear if you're an X-Men fan, and you're always guaranteed to hear it. You know what I'm talking about: the political analogy. Get into a discussion about the X-Men and, eventually, at some point, someone is gonna come out with something very like the following:

'Well, of course, the thing, man, is that, like, Professor Xavier is like Martin Luther King and Magneto is, like, Malcolm X, yeah?'

What's so annoying about this? Well, two things: first, purely in comic-book terms, it ignores the more complex relationship between the characters by making them an allegory for other things. But more importantly it relies on a subtle, unstated assumption, which is this: Professor X is like MLK, and not his namesake Malcolm, because he is pacifist and tries to help humans, or in other words he rebels in an acceptable way, while Magneto is like Malcolm X because he uses violence and thus he rebels in an unacceptable way. The question is, acceptable to whom? It's significant that I've never seen a person of colour make this rather naff analogy, because it positively drips with unexamined white privilege. It assumes that definitions of acceptable and unacceptable rebellion are the preserve of the privileged, and that the opinions of the marginalised are of secondary importance; and, more important, they represent a highly distorted view of both of King and X.

The idea that Martin Luther King represents the acceptable face of the Civil Rights movement, the benign, nonviolent, reasonable pastor, while Malcolm X represents the snarling, violent firebrand, is simplistic and reductive. Malcolm X became more conciliatory in the period before he was killed, after he broke with the Nation of Islam and radically extended his political thought. He was never the cartoon terrorist he's made out to be. And King wasn't a comforting Buddha figure either. What people forget is that nonviolence is a tactic, a way of defeating a more powerful oppressing force by showing the starkness of its violent response to your protests. The idea of non-violent resistance being used by Dr King and the Civil Rights movement makes white people feel very comfortable now, but it didn't then: if you look at footage of the protests in Birmingham or Alabama you can see how angry it made the authorities. MLK knew this would happen from his study of Gandhi, but like Gandhi he would never say the possibility of real violent revolution on the part of those he advocated for was wrong or unlikely. He didn't judge it, indeed he said that if people didn't act on his nonviolent campaign then it was highly likely that there would be violence. As part of the Architects of Our Republic project I've had the opportunity to read the whole of Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech, not just the peroration which everyone remembers (and which, as Gary Younge points out, wasn't even supposed to be given on the day). This speech includes references to 'the sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent' and 'the marvellous new militancy' among black people, and warns that people 'will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual'. Yes, he also talks about the importance of nonviolence but he is clear that violence is a possibility. His job is not to be peaceful and reasonable and to make his oppressors feel comfortable, it is to tell them what time it is and to tell them what will happen if they don't get their act together on equality. But people forget this uncompromising aspect of the speech because they like the pretty image of children playing together at the end.

I suppose one reason I've been thinking about this over the weekend is the storm in  teacup kicked up by some pearl-clutching cis people, and, worse, some trans people too, over the use of the hashtag #fuckcispeople on twitter. Because the same simplistic dichotomy is being drawn. The same split between 'acceptable' and 'unacceptable' revolutionaries. The same idea that we should fight for our rights in a way that won't frighten the horses. That cis people will only accept us if we're good trans people. If we're nice. If we're unthreatening. If we try to be more like Professor X than Magneto; more like MLK than Malcolm X: and more like a comforting caricature of either than the messy, complicated reality.

I don't usually say 'fuck cis people' - many of my best friends are cis people, but something many of my best friends are not is fools, or faux-offended moralists with an agenda. They know that when I, or any other trans person, expresses outrage at 'cis people' we don't mean all cis people, any more than a black person expressing their exasperation with white people means every single white person they know, or a disabled person giving out about abled people is including all the abled people they're acquainted with in that charge.It's an expression of anger at a system that privileges one group over another, and those who do well out of that system and don't really care to do anything about it because they're alright and certainly don't want to do anything about it if it's going to mean, god forbid, making them uncomfortable. Fuck those people, is what it means. And anyone who fails to see that, or claims to see that, anyone who is shocked, gentlemen, shocked at the thought that their own comfort may be derived from the oppression of others?

Fuck those people.

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