Sheet-Caking, Sitting, and Outrage, or, Pondering The Radical Democratic Potential of Agonism
Let’s scroll through your social media timelines for a minute (I mean that figuratively; please don’t leave my blog post just yet).
In these last weeks, you’ve likely seen some write-up appear on your newsfeed(s) about Tina Fey (who, in the spirit of full disclosure, I may be in love with). Eating a sheet cake. As her answer to white supremacy and racism. Think pieces circulated, like this one from Fast Company concluding that the response to white supremacists can’t simply be to “stay home and carboload” or “How ‘bout This Tina Fey” from Very Smart Brothas, which drew attention to the white privilege apparent in Fey’s sketch, pointing out the work that really needs done isn’t chowing down on what looked like a delicious confectionary treat, but doing the difficult work of talking with those who support the racist policies and comments of the current administration.
And, circulating around the same time, you’ve probably seen a write up appear about Colin Kaepernick (who, in the spirit of full disclosure, I may also be in love with) who has continued to make headlines since he first sat during the National Anthem last year. Maybe you saw this essay from the Atlantic, which posits that by “exposing the hypocrisy of the NFL—and by extension America—protests like Kaepernick’s may have longlasting effects” that might move America away from its racial “denialism,” or this think piece from The Root, which explores the deeper concerns of race issues in the NFL, examining a “directed effort to discredit not only Kaepernick but his very protest.”
How might these two events be in conversation with each other?
James Baldwin (who, last self-disclosure, I’m definitely in love with) contends that there are separate planes of the American existence and that the two camps do not adequately address their differences:
In this country, for a dangerously long time, there have been two levels of experience. One, to put it cruelly, can be summed up in the images of Gary Cooper and Doris Day: two of the most grotesque appeals to innocence the world has ever seen. And the other, subterranean, indispensable, and denied, can be summed up, let us say, in the tone and in the face of Ray Charles. And there has never been any genuine confrontation between these two levels of experience. (99-101)
Framing it differently, still turning our eyes to our social media feeds: “Where is the outrage?” a friend posted the pardon of convicted felon, Joe Arpaio, asking why there hadn’t been a more meaningful social response. Good question. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that you have to be not only aware of the conversation but have some real relationship to that other social plane to be outraged in a way to mobilize a meaningful social response; that there needs to be a genuine confrontation between disparate planes of existence to come to terms with difference.
And that’s what part of the problem is; though both Fey’s sheet-caking and Kaepernick's sitting are happening on the broad stage of American entertainment, perhaps for many viewers they aren’t really in conversation with each other, or, rather, the people whose experiences they represent aren’t in conversation with each other. The folks that want to stay home, to stay out of it are on one plane of the American existence, the folks feeling the need to actively protest are on another. This is, I think, what is at the heart of why many seemed to embraced Fey’s sheet-caking while many more seemed resistant to Kaepernick's protest; our democratic model does not require and may actually hinder those living on separate planes to engage in any meaningful way with each other.
Our politics, Chantal Mouffe argues, is incapable of this real confrontation because of its fixation on consensus. In On the Political, Mouffe argues for the necessity of agonism for democratic discourse, or else antagonism takes root when unaddressed differences spill over. Antagonism, as defined by Mouffe, “is a we/they relation in which two sides are enemies who do not share any common ground,” whereas agonism functions with opponents being “adversaries” (as opposed to enemies) that “see themselves as belonging to the same political association, as sharing a common symbolic space within which the conflict takes place” (20). Moving from antagonism (which erupts from a focus on consensus that seeks as its project to erase differences rather than acknowledging them) to agonism is, Mouffe argues, the job democracy needs to tackle.
Our Facebook feeds and responses to Fey and Kaepernick seem to suggest that antagonism is alive and well. The theory of democracy we seem to be operating under seems to hinge on a presupposition of a rational public sphere, as conceived of in the model of Habermas and the democratic theory of John Rawls, where consensus is valued above all else. Conflict isn’t so much addressed as it is ignored for the sake of “Rational Consensus.” As Mouffe criticises, our model seeks consensus and resolution, trying to simplify complicated, convoluted issues into an easy “right and wrong” moralistic framework (5), rather than making room for those on different planes to productively work through difference.
This has been one of the many things I’ve appreciated about the Black Lives Matter movement. Their productive use of the adversarial model, to point out differences experienced by those living on several different planes and how public policy exacerbates inequalities along those planes, has been, Alicia Garza (co-founder of the movement) argues, “engaged in important work to help our communities understand the root cause of the violence that we experience. Some of our people are engaged deeply in making sure that the barriers to participation are removed. Still others of us are meeting to discuss what it means to build independent black political power.” This movement seeks to have discussions about difference, and isn’t shy about being aggressive about it when necessary though protests, with those who hold opposing, “adversarial” views.
But I pause here; when I praise the work BLM is doing, I don’t mean to imply that the burden to have this discourse should be placed on the shoulders of people of color alone (in fact, here’s a handy “syllabus for white people to educate themselves”). This work must be taken up by our communities and in our communities (as Garza thoughtfully underscores). In that spirit, BLM does not need my praise or approval as the community of black activists is forming its own agonistic methods, echoing the thoughtful insights from the article you may have also seen circulating your News Feeds, “Dear White People, Stop Trying to Tell Us How to Protest,” by Arkee E., which points to the objections to BLM articulated by white critics who fixate on the tone; the article takes up Tomi Lahren’s appearance on The Daily Show, where Trevor Noah (the show’s host) pointed out that BLM has been criticised for marching, for joining protests, and even for Kaepernick sitting. Noah asks, “what is the right way to protest?” to which Lahren had no answer. E. writes,
Although our first amendment right grants all Americans the freedom of speech and protest, many Black activists are still met with ceaseless opposition, especially if they’re challenging racial inequalities. Further, many conservative White people feel inclined to dictate how Black activists should protest, which is certainly not their place.
Despite this ceaseless opposition, BLM has found potential in agonism, and it’s no surprise that their method of challenging systems of oppression is met with such harsh opposition. Mouffe argues that agonism “should bring about new meanings and fields of application for the idea of democracy to be radicalized. . . to challenge power relations” (33). BLM activists have carved out space for themselves, forcing the moment of rational consensus desired by the rational public sphere model of Habermas; an agonistic approach that is forcing onlookers to acknowledge the tensions of America’s racial divide.
But how can agonism be properly mobilized in other spheres? How does the ball start rolling? Sheet-caking? Sitting? Public demonstrations of outrage?
What would this change look like in your communities?
(The author would like to extend his heartfelt appreciation to Dr. Rachael Wendler Shah, Dr. Robert Brooke, Stevie Seibert Desjarlais, and Anne Johnson for their courteous reading and thoughtful, provocative questioning that helped form the thinking reflected here.)
Baldwin, James, and Raoul Peck. I Am Not Your Negro: A Major Motion Picture. N.p.: Vintage International, 2017. Print.
Berkowitz, Joe. "Not Everyone Found Tina Fey's." Fast Company. Fast Company, 19 Aug. 2017. Web.
E., Arkee. "Dear White People, Stop Trying To Tell Us How To Protest." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 28 Aug. 2017. Web.
Mouffe, Chantal. On the Political. N.p.: Taylor and Francis, 2011. Print.
Newkirk, Vann, II. "No Country for Colin Kaepernick." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 11 Aug. 2017. Web.
Whitted, W.B. "The NFL's Race Problem Is Deeper Than Colin Kaepernick." The Root. Www.theroot.com, 26 June 2017. Web.
Young, Damon. "How 'Bout This, Tina Fey: Give Us (Black People) the Sheet Cake, and You Go Confront the White Women Who Voted for Trump." Very Smart Brothas. Verysmartbrothas.theroot.com, 18 Aug. 2017. Web.