Tuesday, May 14, 2013

identitarian rhetoric, a case study: Stevie, Tibet, and slavery

At Free Speech, Blacklisting, and Tactics, J Thomas said:
Gandhi’s tools did not work for Tibetans who did not want the Chinese Empire to take their food from them. Nothing worked, and half of them died.
Being a longtime sufferer of SIWOTI, I noted:
J Thomas, this is a digression, but you should do a little more reading about the claims of the Dalai Lama’s faction, especially regarding the numbers of people who died. They’ve generally been discredited. Keep in mind that the Tibetans who fled tended to be the slaveowners; they’ve got a bit of an agenda. 
Highly recommended: http://www.michaelparenti.org/Tibet.html And to people who claim Parenti’s an apologist, note that he says scathing things about China.
The conversation soon returned to the main subject. Then Stevie entered.  Here's our interchange:

Stevie:
Arriving somewhat belatedly to the Tibet thing, courtesy of rather a lot of fascinating medical technology attached to various bits of me, I should point out that to scholars in England the notion of ascribing European social structures such as feudalism to wholly different non-european cultures is recognised fairly and squarely for what is is: imperialism. 
It never ceases to amaze me, and depress me, that people like Parenti are so ignorant that they don’t even know they are imperialists…
Me:
Stevie, yes, the same argument can be made that the Union was being imperialist when it freed the slaves in the states of the South. You may think that slavery should be respected in the cultures that practice it. I’m on the side of Tibetans like Wangchuk, who said, “I may not be free under Chinese Communism, but I am better off than when I was a slave.”
Do you also oppose “imperialist” attempts to end sexism, racism, and homophobia?
Incidentally, the imperialists interfering in Tibet were the British, not the Chinese. Tibet has been recognized as part of China for centuries by every major nation in the world.
Stevie:
Will
Nothing that I have ever written here or elsewhere could be construed as a statement that I believe that slavery should be respected in the cultures that practise it; quite the reverse.
I have written here and elsewhere that my father was a slave on the Death Railway, that he survived when vast numbers did not, and that he carried the scars both mental and physical for the rest of his life.
The fact that you resort to such an offensive straw man argument suggests that you are simply incapable of mustering anything better…
Me:
Stevie, it indicates that I am appalled by your attempt to defend slavery as it was practiced by the Tibetans up until 1959. Nothing more, and nothing less. I hadn’t thought there was anything to argue about in opposing slavery in the 21st century. Then I met apologists for the Dalai Lama. Slavery is an abomination in its Eastern and Western forms, and while I have no love for any non-democratic country, whether it calls itself communist or capitalist, it takes a cold-hearted person not to admit that freeing Tibet’s slaves was a good thing.
At that point, SKZB entered:
Stevie: Will is drawing conclusions from your positions; the conclusions may or may not be justified.
Will: Stevie does not consider herself as defending slavery, and you ought not to say she is before proving your case.
Both of you: This conversation needs to take place somewhere else.
Me:
“This conversation needs to take place somewhere else.”
Actually, it does not, but if Stevie wants to, it can happen on any of my Tibet posts at my blog. Though if she really thinks criticizing Tibet’s serf system is “imperialism”, I doubt there’s any point to it.
Stevie:
Skzb
You are right to conclude that this particular child of a slave is revolted by the way in which the people who suffered the brutal reality of torture, starvation and forced labour are being used as fodder for mere rhetorical device.
Thank you for your kindness. I’m folding.
Now, I'm sorry I wasn't kinder to Stevie, who was dealing with medical issues. I have nothing against her.
But her approach to rhetoric in general and metaphor in particular is fascinating. Social Justice Warriors often object to metaphors—see Sparkymonster on Amanda Palmer's reference to the Ku Klux Klan and K. Tempest Bradford on Elizabeth Bear using "death march". Yet they love violent metaphors like "Die cis scum", "Die in a fire", "stab somone" and, a favorite of Tempest's, "cut a bitch".

Stevie claims characterizing Tibetans before 1959 as slaves or serfs is imperialist. But the alternative is to use the Tibetan categories of mi-bo, mi-ser, or nangzen. Each is different, but then, slavery in New England in the 1600s and slavery in Louisiana in the 1800s were different, too. We expect English words to carry different meanings depending on context. Quibbling about "slave" or "serf" when describing Tibet's hereditary hierarchy is to argue that English words should never be used to describe anything from another language. When I'm eating noodles, must I say "tagliatelle" if the meal is Italian and "mì" if it's Vietnamese? Slavery was subtly different in every country—must we use the local word in every case, or can we simply say "slave" when we're talking about a class of people born into servitude who could be bought and sold?
Stevie calls her father a slave and herself the daughter of a slave. Referring to prisoners of war as slaves because they're forced to work is a valid metaphor for me, but I'm surprised it is for her. After all, POWs expect to be freed if they survive the war, and they don't expect their children to be born into slavery as happened in the US and Tibet.
And Stevie's use of "imperialist" is fascinating. Parenti's a communist who criticizes both China and the Dalai Lama's faction—is calling for democratic socialism "imperialism"?
The answer is that in the rhetoric of the social justice warrior, "imperialism" only means referring to something in an improper way. The modern warrior is as obsessed with proper terms for things as the 19th century genteel sorts who spoke of "limbs" instead of "legs". To warriors who fetishize the Dalai Lama in ways they would call Orientalizing if done by their opponents, it matters that the approved words are used to describe someone like Wangchuk; the life he was forced to live is irrelevant.

Possibly of interest: Tibet, the Dalai Lama, feudalism, slavery, and the Great Game.