On Personal Politics and Growing Out of Intellectual Snobbery

Fresh out of a university held in high regard – and famous for its protests – I craved a certain standard in an individual’s politics. I wanted to know their position on this or that Marxist thinker, or what Ambedkarite feminist zine they were reading. I wanted friends who were edgy, intersectional and radical, even as they went about earning their livelihoods in the utterly corporatised urban market.

But even my artist friends fell short of my “revolutionary” ideals. The frequent debates – okay, shouting matches – I had had with my parents over the patriarchal, Brahminical order once rang as earnest as a coming-of-age novel, but I was now of “adulting” age. I had to coexist with people outside my newfound circle of artists. The horror!

I needed to shed the logocentrism of academic thought and become someone that does not differentiate – in an assembly-line like manner – thought from action.

At first, I resisted. I cringed when fellow teachers said, “Boys are always so distracted!”, or “What did Mummy cook for you today?”

Their politics is non-existent, I would think, and work myself into a tizzy. Are we ever going to raise a generation that is truly gender-inclusive and egalitarian? I was too embroiled in the seriousness-of-revolution to see that what I really wanted was a world where everyone thought and acted like I did.

Slowly divesting myself of the impulse to “correct” the adults around me, I became privy to everyday wonders. The preschool where I worked revealed an intimacy that eludes most male-dominated workspaces: coworkers talked freely of their pregnancies and difficult teenagers.

Meanwhile, I recalled how conversations at university had turned dour – how I rolled my eyes at those whose politics was not as crisp, whose aesthetics not as refined, as the slick-yet-grounded public intellectual I had hoped to become.

Also read: An Epidemic of Unconscious Art

Now I reconsider this wordy model of collective action – intellectual snobbery only makes people feel guilty and ashamed, and not supported in larger politics. A friend shared this brilliant essay in which the late Mark Fisher reminds us of

“this grim and demoralising pass, where class has disappeared, but moralism is everywhere, where solidarity is impossible, but guilt and fear are omnipresent.”

Given the scourge of police violence rocking the front pages today, I can’t help but extrapolate “class” to mean race, religion, caste… As a non-black non-American, how much can I say about race? As a cis woman, how can I envision the feminist world I want without echoing my childhood hero, whose tweets over the last few months have, sadly, clarified that she is a TERF?

As an English-speaking, savarna woman, how can I speak to the casteist reality that I most certainly continue to propagate? If I must educate anyone, it has to be my own self: I need to read and read and listen and listen, because only then I will be able to amplify without a show of intellectual muscle (or a spectacle of self-victimisation).

Recently, something pricked my resolve to listen. Someone asked me why Zoom’s reaction emojis have so many colours. “For some racial diversity,” I said, trying to hide the volcanic surge of #BlackLivesMatter babble threatening to erupt out of my skull.

“So someone from Africa can say ‘thumbs-up’,” laughed another person, making my skin crawl. They didn’t say that “flesh tint” (remember your oil pastels?) represents the spectrum of human skin colours; they also didn’t mean that all dark-skinned people are African, or that Indians are all the same shade of brown. And yet, had they considered racism and colourism – both of which are rampant in India – they might have measured their words.

Maybe a teacher who is invested in a gender-equitable home will not ask what your mummy cooked, but who cooks your lunch. But would they even be invested in dismantling a power structure, especially if they work in a “good” school that pays well, finally making teaching a viable career?

When I came back home after Jawaharlal Nehru University, I sought people with progressive politics. Four years later, I scratch my head at the very possibility of an individual politics: retweets? Participatory action? Union strikes?

Also read: The Lure of the Subculture of ‘Dark Academia’

But like most millennial Indians born roughly around the 1991 economic reforms, I trundled into the workforce when private organisations already had a firm grip on our economy and lifestyles. The market is open; the world is your oyster – but trade unions are undoubtedly on their way out, and employers do not want them around. You don’t do “politics” as an employee because the corporate structure simply doesn’t allow you to belong to a collective.

Instead, it furthers the myth of the private individual – think “confidential” agreements rather than union-approved salaries; think insulated offices where you can only speak about the management in whispers, and not in a legitimised forum that looks out for your collective interests.

If you stand to gain, why bother about anyone else? Isn’t this what we have borrowed from the American dream – work hard, earn your material wealth, and shake your head at those who don’t? If someone gets sacked, it’s a pity; no more. And so it becomes immensely desirable, this exclusive-access travelator, which takes you noiselessly from private school to university to job, while those with heavier bags are left to lug them the same distance.

No need to participate in politics, which is for gundas and wayward students anyway. You emerge squeaky-clean and “apolitical”, proud of an illusive state of neutrality that masks your underlying complicity in a system that literally places your net worth in your productive capacity.

In the hope for a breakthrough, I return to Mark Fisher, who reminds us that

“[w]e need to learn, or re-learn, how to build comradeship and solidarity instead of doing capital’s work for it by condemning and abusing each other.”

The virtual “public” space of social media allows several of us to believe that we have become activists, enabling us to level moralising accusations against our “silent” friends. But ours is the harder work of recognising that political praxis is polymorphous.

We must go beyond our textbooks and back into our living spaces; we must free ourselves of the guilt and superiority of language; and we must certainly laugh at our failures in order to look ourselves – and our aspirations – in the eye.

Anishaa Tavag is an independent dancer and editor based in Bangalore.

Featured image credit: author provided