A critique of feminism that bears relevance to the NI flag controversy

‎In a recent blog post, Feminism and the Need to Treat all Adults as Moral Agents, Peter Rollins critiques some of the feminist criticism. It is a very interesting piece and I recommend you check it out. However, what I found interesting as I read it was that it seemed to be speaking analogously in regards the current flag controversy in NI.

To help make my point, below I have quoted a paragraph or two from Rollins’ article, replacing key terms with others pertinent to situation in NI as I go along.

The problem then with attacking only men Loyalists who hold sexist sectarian views is that we actually keep supporting a system that sees the man Loyalist as the primary moral sectarian agent and wom[e]n the nation as [a] child-like victim of circumstance. In this way any attack that focuses only on sexism sectarianism that arises from men Loyalists betrays the wider cause of feminism a shared future.

The problem is not that there are still men Loyalists who comport themselves toward wom[e]n the nation in sexist sectarian ways, but that there are still people [Unionist, as well as Nationalist] who do. If we believe that we are moral all potential sectarian agents then we must take the bold act of holding all people accountable for what they say. This very act of attacking both men Loyalists and wom[e]n people generally is a key move in feminism overcoming sectarianism, for it treats all adults as responsible and worthy of critique, thus undermining a very deeply embedded ideological support of patriarchy sectarianism.

I think the above is pertinent because there is a risk, in the midst of the ongoing violence, of making the primarily aggressive ‘Loyalist’ groundswell the “obvious and only sectarian” scapegoat. What, however, seems clear from the reactions of many purportedly moderate Unionists is that there is an implicit and lingering insecurity toward, and fear and mistrust of the Nationalist community and its leaders, that is in effect largely sectarian. It may not be violent but in refusing to compromise on our sectarian ideological commitment we seek its imposition on its opposite.

This of course applies also to the Nationalist community and its political leaders, in their posture toward the Unionist/Loyalist other which rather clearly reflects animosity and the intention of causing insult and offense – seen quite clearly in the excessive and patently insulting proposal re. the number of designated days the flag was to be flown at City Hall.

I think the mistake is not to bring to light and expression the implicit sectarian tone and demeanour of many involved on “both sides,” prior to and reacting in light of the events on Monday.

The problem is not that there are still men Loyalists who comport themselves toward wom[e]n the nation in sexist sectarian ways, but that there are still people [Unionist, as well as Nationalist] who do. 

Sectarianism should be called out based upon its results, not whether it is intended. For example, I may be racist without meaning to be, but I have still been racist. Conversely, many people following Monday’s vote (and no doubt before) have been quite sectarian (some, no doubt) without intent, but that lack of intent does not mean those people have been any less sectarian.

The flying of any flag acts as a symbolic gesture, making clear political statements. When we get stuck in a dualism that pits

  • “365 days” vs. “0 days,”
  • or, “Look at all this violence! You should have just kept it up.” vs. “Take it down and keep it down,”

any middle ground gets lost. Such irreconcilably extreme positions advocate the imposition of one community’s will over the others. It in turn risks becoming, if it isn’t already, a sectarian issue, as two divergent ideologies clash.

“The keeping up” or “staying down” of a flag means that it ends up getting flown over or trampled infront of the respective “other.” One ends up communicating, “We know that you don’t want to be British, but there is really nothing you can do about it!”, while the other tries to say, “Look! We’ve undermined your very sense of self.”

A perplexing and important element in the ongoing controversy is that the sectarianism of which I’m speaking isn’t even antithetical to those committed to and supportive of shared government – it is those very people of whom I speak. We want to meet and talk with the other, so long as they capitulate to our terms in the end. We want the flag to stay up because it becomes a symbol for our superiority and dominance. We want the flag up because while we are willing to speak with the other they will always feel their ideology to be powerless and so experienced as impossible, even while a “shared” future is discussed.

The utterly tragic problem is that the aforementioned binary and implicit sectarianism seems to be the implicit aim and desire of the leaders and constituents of the dominant parties occupying the seats of power in NI. It may be accidental, it may be an unintended reaction arising from an inherent and unconscious mistrust and fear – but this does not equate to a justification. It is best to call sectarianism what it is, rather than hide it behind or outsource it onto the most visceral expressions thereof. Any call for stasis is an affirmation of the as/is and an attempt to justify, and make the other affirm, our current outlook. We all know the as/is of discrimination, mistrust, and sectarian vitriol is not a solution. We need to pursue and create a third way.

If Nationalists experience the flag to be oppressive or utilised offensively in some way, which the motion passed on Monday suggests, then Unionists, if they put aside their mistrust, fear and insecurity, and enter into constructive dialogue, stand to gain significantly more than they could possibly lose. They would be seen to be recognising Nationalists as human beings, as residents of this nation with a radically different perspective. It is a sign of deep respect if this is recognised and space is made for them to articulate and contribute to how this country holds and expresses its political allegiance, in light of said differences – even and especially if they cannot or will not affirm this allegiance themselves.

Yet what many reactions since Monday have done is underline and reaffirm these radical differences and, in one way or another, sought to justify the imposition of sectarian ideologies over the other, regardless of how it may be felt or received.

What we need to do, returning to the start of this post, is recognise the good sense in holding to this sort of approach,

If we believe that we are moral all potential sectarian agents then we must take the bold act of holding all people accountable for what they say. This very act of attacking both men Loyalists and wom[e]n people generally is a key move in feminism overcoming sectarianism, for it treats all adults as responsible and worthy of critique, thus undermining a very deeply embedded ideological support of patriarchy sectarianism.

We all should recognise the potential threat we carry to a future we all must share. We all should recognise our own implicit potential for sectarianism, even if we are some kind of “moderate” who is not posting death threats or rioting and is seemingly committed a coalition government. Our ideology, and how it is carried, is as much a threat as a brick and when we outsource this sectarian threat onto a particular group, we lose the ability to reflect on ourselves seriously as agents who help shape and contribute to the common good.