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These are reflections inspired by listening to a panel discussion led by bell hooks at the New School in New York City on May 6, 2014. The panel consisted of bell hooks, filmmaker Shola Lynch, and authors Janet Mock and Marci Blackman. The title of the panel discussion is taken from a book title, Are You Still a Slave (1994), by author Shahrazad Ali who was not present. The subject of discussion is freedom, since the alternative to being a slave is being free. The question is direct and very personal: Are you still a slave (or are you free)?

The Question Itself

The question “Are you still a slave?” will be surprising and puzzling to many people, since the United States celebrates itself as The Land of The Free, and slavery was legally abolished there in 1865 by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, 89 years after the United States declared its independence. In that context of American nationalist and legal culture, the question “Are you still a slave?” is absurd, because no educated and middle class contemporary American could be enslaved except by a criminal cult or a rogue criminal perpetrator, and the discussion does not involve overt criminality. In the kind of “being a slave” invoked in this discussion there is no localized slave-master, and enslaved individuals are not controlled and exploited by deviant cults or rogue personalities but instead by ordinary cultural influences, economic processes and widespread ways of behaving, reflected in popular media images and stories, involving legitimations of specific forms of human inequality.

hooks approaches the question of personal freedom from within the history and lingering vestiges and effects of a culture of white supremacist racism originating in Europe that enabled and legitimized black slavery in the United States in its colonial period and for the first 89 years of its constitutional existence. The purpose and intent of slavery, the motives and reasons for slavery, have always been perfectly clear, namely top-down human-on-human parasitism: certain factions of humans become parasites on other humans. Nothing is more blatantly parasitic then slavery. Slavers use the domination and control of other humans as a means of making their own lives easier, more abundant, less involved with sweaty labour, cleaner, more dignified and prestigious, more sexually exciting and entertaining, less confined or restricted, less tedious. Those benefits are achieved by forcing the exactly opposite qualities of life onto specific other people. Those motives for parasitism, the hegemonic domination and control of vulnerable humans by other humans, have not changed in the least throughout history and are still very much in operation in modern institutions. The ancient and enduring success of certain factions of humans in enjoying such parasitism has inspired the development of elaborate and pervasive cultures and ideologies which celebrate and legitimize the achievements of human parasitism, so much so that even when overt slavery came to be seen as illegitimate, cruel, and criminal, more subtle methods of parasitic domination and control, of cultural hegemony, became indispensable to the factions accustomed to the enjoyment of human parasitism. hooks is not talking about anything obscure or conspiratorial but about the normal operating of the overt structures of power and influence within modern societies.

In a society still living with pervasive cultural legacies which celebrated and honoured the achievements of parasitic human institutions, every inequality and every subordination remains an opportunity for advantaged factions to arrange parasitic benefits for themselves. Ideologies of inequality sanctify many forms of human parasitism, so the resulting culture is not merely white supremacist but also misogynist since it manifests in the general oppression of women of all races. It has been the experience of hooks and her fellow panelists that their personal freedom had to be achieved by resistance to the same ideology of oppression that legitimized slavery, and that is what makes the question “Are you still a slave?” relevant in the contemporary context.

Freedom, especially for people in historically host categories, requires a disciplined effort to get beyond the normal state of cultural colonization (what I have often called zombification). To be free, a black woman, for example, must de-colonize herself and eject the influence of cultural depictions in stories and media images which are sexualized, victimized, objectified, and commodified, and which thereby limit and diminish her self-experience and self-identification. Personal freedom requires a deliberate and painstaking process of critical thinking to eliminate the influence of cultural definitions and so become aware of, and act from, personal impulses of authentic self-expression. The members of hooks’ panel are presented as people who are not slaves because they have been able to develop processes of self expression independently and in ways that resist the cultural environment which legitimizes systemic inequality, and the denigration of certain identifiable groups, including ones that these panelists appear to represent.

The possibility of such a process of self-expression requires that there be a difference between cultural assignments of personal identity (relevant images or narrative depictions involving personal worth, potential, dignity, and substance) and something else originating or grounded in every individual independently of culture and in fact normally contradicting cultural assignments. That personal source which is counter-cultural is usefully identified as innocent personal intelligence. The panelists call it their personal voice. Because innocence is what is left when you completely de-colonize and “be yourself”, hooks seems to be pointing toward the notion of a rich personal innocence, innocent self-possession, without identifying that idea specifically. There is an existentialist quality to her view in the sense that she has little development of the idea of personal innocence, subjective interiority, but places strong emphasis on inward freedom and creativity, the need to create a personal voice. hooks says of herself, “I wrote my way to freedom.”

hooks acknowledges both an internal and an external process of resistance to oppressive or cultural hegemonic forces. There is the critical thinking of de-colonization from denigrating images and narratives flowing through popular culture, and also there is publicly expressing a personal voice that contradicts or violates the limits and restrictions in the models and images of mainstream culture which have the force of authoritative predictions, categorizations, and prescriptions, and an implied threat of penalties for transgression. It is those restrictions that are on routine display in normal behaviour and in cultural media which reveal the enduring legacy of top-down human-on-human parasitism, namely an imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. hooks repeatedly refers to the imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy, which looks like having a lot in common with something often discussed in the postings to this blog, namely the institutionalized system of top-down human-on-human parasitism, based in the alpha-trophy-looting culture of masculinity, and derived historically from nomadic animal herders who essentially live by enslaving herds of animals, eventually expanding to include humans. It is a little surprising that hooks does not develop the concept of top-down human-on-human parasitism specifically, although she does refer to parasitic classes in some writings.

hooks has a very sharp focus on the clear case of ongoing oppression bearing upon women of colour even in the most advanced modern societies. That focus is completely justified, but it is also important that the problem of freedom faced by women of colour is not restricted to them or even to just women or people of colour. The same process of culture-based self-identification which plagues women of colour, and women generally, is universal. Economic criteria, such as the personal possession or control of particular amounts of money, are of overriding importance in any capitalist culture-based self-identification. That serves the ownership capitalist class perfectly by placing everyone with less money in a position of humiliating dependency and insecurity of self-esteem. People in that position are controllable and inclined to remain inconspicuous. That is the internalized hegemony of the parasitic controlling class. Such culture-based criteria of self-identification are tactical weapons in the cultural system of top-down human-on-human parasitism and they apply to everybody and not just to women or visible minorities or people with unusual characteristics. Everybody faces the same problem of freedom, namely the need to de-colonize from the internalized hegemony of culture-based self-identification and instead to find and trust the voice of innocent personal intelligence.

What makes hooks’ work extraordinarily interesting and important from a philosophical point of view is her identifying and documenting a kind and degree of social control of individuals by malleable cultural conditions which remains broadly excluded from academic study and from popular culture beyond feminism.

Copyright © 2014 Sandy MacDonald.