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Difference as liberatory politics

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my new piece in which i talk about difference as liberatory politics, in the context of lessons learned from the partition of india (and a documentary i produced along with my friend, filmmaker surbhi dewan), white supremacy in america, and the work of edouard glissant.

It’s ironic that I found out about India’s air strikes across the line of control, inside Pakistani territory, from a friend in New Delhi. Surbhi Dewan and I were texting each other, late at night on Monday, February 25, about the passing of her grandmother, Leela Dewan, one of the beautiful women who shared their testimony about the partition of India in our film ‘A Thin Wall.’ In the middle of the conversation, Surbhi sent me a news link, along with the words, “Just heard. Feeling terrible.”

Since then, Pakistan has claimed to have shot down two Indian jets inside its air space and to have captured at least one Indian pilot. As tensions escalate, Surbhi and I continue to talk about her grandmother, a woman who chose to humanize the other, who had immense affection for her home in Multan (in Pakistan), and who is part of a precious generation we are losing – our last, lived-in link to a common past and culture, a connection that is becoming dangerously removed from reality and is hurtling toward intemperate jingoism and military preening.

It took me seven years to make ‘A Thin Wall’, a documentary about the partition of India. It focuses on displacement, memory, and the possibility of reconciliation, rather than rely on the larger-than-life male politicians who have come to frame this historical event. It’s a personal take, told in two voices: mine, a Pakistani American perspective, and that of my Indian co-producer and friend Surbhi Dewan. Our families were dislocated in 1947, when British India was carved up to create a Muslim-majority Pakistan and a Hindu-majority India. The film is shot on both sides of the border, in Lahore and Delhi. It aims to decolonize our understanding of the partition, by rooting it in 200 years of British colonial rule, and hopes for a regional future that centers the needs and dreams of South Asians.

During those seven years, I thought deeply about nationalism, the colonial divvying up of the world, the drawing up of borders, and the idea of religious, ethnic or racial homogeneity, which is often the justification for the creation of modern nation states.

It became apparent to me that although nationalism can be a used as a rallying cry for freedom and self-rule, especially in a colonial context, it can also reduce complex struggles for justice to the black and white language of national borders, and the separation, forced assimilation or erasure of difference. Here in the U.S., Muslim bans, the militarization of our border with Mexico, and the massive deportations (that had already started under Obama), are all ways of ejecting diversity. Purity struck me as an aberration of nature – only enforceable by violence.

Myths about monolithic national identities are just that, myths. It’s not a coincidence that illusions of homogeneousness work in tandem with the capitalist enterprise. Rabindranath Tagore wrote about the “national machinery of commerce and politics” that “turns out neatly compressed bales of humanity which have their use and high market value; but they are bound in iron hoops, labelled and separated off with scientific care and precision,” and in the end, hardly human.

At a time when the U.S. is teetering on the verge of white ethno-nationalism, it’s imperative to understand the full dividends and implications of “difference” from every possible angle, and learn lessons from history.

The idea of separating what is different, by erecting electrified fences and borders, is a way of ignoring broader issues of inequity. We see this with the partition of India, which was supposed to solve the minority problem. Yet all it did was re-articulate that question vis-a-vis two nation-states. Both India and Pakistan have a troubling history of violence against minorities. They have fought four wars and are on the verge of another alarming military entanglement. At the core of these conflicts is Kashmir, a Muslim-majority territory that has been disputed since the partition in 1947. With 700,000 Indian soldiers positioned in occupied Kashmir, it has become one of the most brutally militarized places in the world.

Building walls and suppressing protests with pellet guns are cruel, ineffectual strategies that are bound to fail in the long-term. Instead there is a need to confront injustices head-on and engage in the hard work of rethinking diversity, beyond the facile jargon of multiculturalism and (token) inclusion. Diversity must mean full equity and social revitalization through the deconstruction of dominant racial, cultural, and religio-political systems and narratives.

Angela Davis warns us not to accept as standard and normal those who are located at the center of institutions we wish to dismantle. “Why would women want to become equal to men?” she asks. “Why would Black, and Latinos, and Arabs and Muslims want to become equal to white people? Why would the LGBT community want to become equal in the context of heteropatriarchy?” She describes how racism is kept alive, and transformation eschewed, by integrating people of color into a white supremacist society. This is inclusion without equity.

Similarly, in ‘Inclusion in the Atrocious,’ a piece about the trans ban on military service, Eli Massey and Yasmin Nair write: “a diversity agenda is morally meaningless unless we examine the institutions we are diversifying.” Although they agree that any kind of discrimination is unacceptable, they argue that ‘the push for trans inclusion in the military, much like the push to include women and gays and lesbians, can’t simply be framed as a matter of “inclusion” versus “discrimination.” That’s because, given the brutal history of United States military action, we also have to ask important questions about the meaning of participating in unjust institutions. Singling out the issue of inclusion without examining the institution itself produces morally incoherent stances.’

The benefits of diversity are apparent in nature whether in ecology, where the landscape’s structural heterogeneity and biodiversity endow plant and animal systems with resilience, or in the hybrid vigor that strengthens our own genetic make-up. Nature seems to abhor homogeneity and is, in fact, driven to recomplexify when faced with uniformity.

In addition to ethnic, religious and cultural multiplicities, we must also recognize body diversity. In her New York Times article, ‘If you’re in a wheelchair, segregation lives,’ Luticha Doucette describes ableism as a form of segregation and explains how inclusive design can create public spaces that enrich all of our lives. Body diversity should be accepted as the norm rather than the exception, with a keen appreciation for what Sejal Shah calls “invisible disability” or neurodiversity. In her moving essay in the Kenyon Review, she describes the stress and isolation that come with depression, the leading cause of disability worldwide, because of “the pressure to display a wellness [one does] not entirely possess.” It’s the demand to dissolve difference and be absorbed into what is mainstreamed as normalcy.

Similar thoughts are echoed in Judith Butler’s article, ‘The backlash against “gender ideology” must stop’:

‘Ultimately, the struggle for gender equality and sexual freedom seeks to alleviate suffering and to recognise the diverse embodied and cultural lives that we live. Teaching gender is not indoctrination: it does not tell a person how to live; it opens up the possibility for young people to find their own way in a world that often confronts them with narrow and cruel social norms. To affirm gender diversity is therefore not destructive: it affirms human complexity and creates a space for people to find their own way within this complexity. The world of gender diversity and sexual complexity is not going away. It will only demand greater recognition for all those who seek to live out their gender or sexuality without stigma or the threat of violence. Those who fall outside the norm deserve to live in this world without fear, to love and to exist, and to seek to create a world more equitable and free of violence.’

It bears repeating that diversity does not cure racism – multiraciality can exist in parallel with white supremacy (or casteist/ethnocratic ideologies) and racial mixing does not guarantee an end to discriminatory systems. In the U.S. context, a majority-minority shift in demographics or the “browning” of America does not imply full equity. In fact, “inclusion in the atrocious” can lend credence and longevity to racist institutions. This is why diversity should not be limited to the framework of minority rights and should instead be seen as collective liberation.

The Martinique poet and philosopher, Édouard Glissant, offers us the language to articulate such a conception of diversity, such that the most minor human differences are acknowledged all at once, and are in equal relationship with the rest of the world. Such an open totality would lead to constant negotiation, exchange and mixing between a multitude of identities and in doing so, it would produce unknowable outcomes.

Unknowability, as espoused by Glissant, is a repudiation of stability and the model of extreme/100% safety that we are told to desire and strive for. Aren’t all our present wars, including the monstrous War On Terror, preemptive violence branded as righteous security?

In Glissant’s chaos world – his thinking of the manifold – people would learn to cope with incompatibility and unpredictability, and become adept at withstanding tensions.

The idea of the archipelago, with its multiple rich and diverse parts existing in an equal and simultaneous relationship with one another, is the opposite of European Universalism, which offers a kind of unity – a dictate to soak up diverse identities and achieve a one size fits all, Eurocentric ideal – what we call modernity.

Of course, the economic disparities between countries, and between people within countries, are real. These are not the differences Glissant speaks of. They do not represent atavistic identities but rather the theft and exploitation of labor and resources, facilitated by global or domestic power and its capitalist infrastructure, in direct contravention of Glissant’s egalitarian vision.

Another essential component of this non-hierarchical vision is the concept of opacity: the idea that identities and cultures need not be evaluated on a scale of transparency. It challenges rationality and the demand for complete comprehension, on Western terms.

In short, we must accept the world we live in – a chaos world we can never fully grasp, and parts of which will always remain opaque. Rather than try to shape or rationalize it, using hegemonic systems, we must learn to make peace with uncertainty.

We can map this process of exchange by looking at liminal spaces, borders and borderlands, for this is where “relation and difference link entities that need each other’s energy to exist in beauty and freedom,” according to Manthia Diawara in ‘Édouard Glissant’s Worldmentality: An Introduction to One World in Relation’.

It might be a tall order to flip our worldview and reinvent our understanding of difference, but new paradigms and possibilities matter.

My film, A Thin Wall, tries to imagine a decolonial South Asia, in which our common past and pressing present would allow us to jettison the colonial psyche we’ve been stuck in for the last 70 years. If only we could see through the thin wall that separates us, we would recognize some of our sameness. The last words in the film are: “nothing happens, unless we dream it first.”

Dreams matter. They show us a way forward.
More here.


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