Many of us come from societies where marginalized people are expected to know “their place”. Here, power can manifest in the form of belonging to a dominant group with regards to age, gender, class, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, ability status etc.
In many Ghanaian communities, older people generally expect younger people to defer to them for no reason sometimes, especially when they are being harmful or pushing harmful rhetoric. Sexually marginalized people are told by people in power to wait their turn and to not speak out of turn lest they attract the ire of the majority (read: cisgender heterosexual people). The majority who occupy powerful positions would then decide whether their existence/humanity should even be a topic of discussion.
People from dominant ethnic groups scream “inferiority complex!” whenever their privileges are challenged, or they are asked to extend basic human decency to people from historically marginalized ethnic groups. Religiously marginalized people are the targets of bigoted attacks from religious groups with systemic power. Islamophobic rhetoric has become the norm and adherents of African Traditional Religions are excluded from the public sphere and perpetually silenced and erased from national activities.
When we are critiqued for our politics, perspectives, and opinions, these are not personal attacks or insults but an invitation for us to reconsider how our politics may be hurting people who are often marginalized in ways that we are not.
The politics of confrontation
As someone who comes from a household where critique and confrontation are the norm, I constantly find myself in situations where critique and confrontation are read as personal attacks. It would seem that because powerful people generally tend to expect marginalized people to defer to them and dance to whatever tune they are playing at any given time, attempts by people wronged to hold their oppressors accountable are read as personal attacks on the oppressor. This means that confrontation generally becomes a taboo topic and action that everyone is expected to steer clear of for the peaceful existence and comfort of people in power.
Even within the household, children questioning their parents’ actions, decisions, and opinions are perceived as ill-behaved and chided. This approach to critique means that many children are raised not to question authority. Ultimately, they are not equipped with the tools to hold other people accountable even when they are the victims of harm.
This culture of silence around confrontation means that marginalized people are expected to “keep quiet and suffer.” And the closest many get to confrontation is employing passive-aggressive tactics to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo; a strategy which is unsustainable and ineffective.
Activism, respectability politics & critique
One of the notable ways that critique has been taken and twisted into what it wasn’t intended was the infamous incident at the Women Deliver Conference in Canada in June 2019 when Ghana’s president, Nana Addo, was critiqued for the lack of women involvement in his government. The president responded that not many women showed “enough dynamism” to hold leadership positions in his government.
In a matter of days, the women who had been appointed into President Nana Addo’s government, mobilized around the hashtag, #AmplifiedByNana, to show Ghanaians and the international community that the president benevolently appointed them to positions of power in his government. The point that was missed here was that this critique was an opportunity for the Nana Addo -led government to address the marginalization of women not just in politics but across various institutions in Ghana.
In Ghanaian feminist politics, responses to critique have taken the vilest and violent forms where marginalized people who ask for inclusion in mainstream feminist platforms are attacked for their marginalization (class, ethnicity, religion, sexuality etc.). While feminism aims to dismantle oppressive systems, picking and choosing which feminist issues are important means that these mainstream movements mostly address the needs of middle-class, Christian, ethnically dominant groups specifically cishetero women; sending the message that poor, LGBTQIA+, religiously marginalized people, people with disabilities etc. are not welcome to these spaces.
Ultimately, responding to critiques of your feminist politics by attacking the marginal identities of critics is not only unfeminist but is punching down. Punching down is when people in positions of power attack marginalized people instead of channelling their energies to focusing on the issues that produce their marginalization. When we punch down, we not only derail the conversation by not focusing on the issue being discussed, we also participate in silencing marginalized people.
Tone-policing is silencing
Tone-policing is focusing on the tone with which a point was made rather than paying attention to the point itself. People in positions of power often expect marginalized people to coddle and pamper them when they hold them accountable. Focusing on the tone that was used to critique rather than the content of the critique is not only a derailment tactic but a silencing strategy to discourage the oppressed from holding the oppressor accountable.
When somebody steps on your foot, your immediate reaction may be to scream and draw their attention to it. The nature of your reaction does not take away from the pain that was inflicted on you. The response of the person who did the stepping should be to immediately move their foot and apologize NOT fixate on the fact that you yelled at them rather than gently ask them to move their foot.
Saviorism vs critique
While critique is important for holding people in power accountable, changing the status quo and generally working towards dismantling oppressive systems, there is a fine line between proffering critique and assuming a saviorist position especially when marginalized groups are involved.
When we critique and punch up, we speak truth to power but when we find ourselves in situations where we critique people more marginalized than us in various ways, it is imperative for us to not only check our privileges but be mindful to not speak at, speak over or speak for marginalized people. For example, as an ally, speaking for Muslim women about their oppressions and lived realities without critically engaging the community, amplifying Muslim women’s voices, or creating space for them to speak for themselves is a slippery slope into white feminist politics.
Chandra Talpade Mohanty and other feminist scholars argue that these saviorist strategies and politics not only freeze marginalized people into harmful tropes but also undo the important feminist work being done in these communities. These types of “critique” politics are more focused on “saving” oppressed people than a desire to improve their lives. As an ally to marginalized groups, it is imperative to work with oppressed people rather than speak for them. Marginalized people have agency, they are NOT voiceless, they do not need a savior.
As an ally, you may feel hurt that your offer of critique which came across as saviorism isn’t well-received. You may also feel hurt as an ally that the marginalized group that you ally with calls you out for perpetuating rhetoric that is harmful to them. You need to deal with your hurt on your own time and in your own space; do not put the burden of making yourself feel better on the people who you have hurt.
Critique as a praxis of love
Often, I log on to social media and see a post that I believe to be problematic. Sometimes, I begin typing a detailed response to demonstrate why I find the post problematic. I often stop and realize that I do not care enough to engage in that conversation and then I delete my unfinished response.
It takes a lot of time and effort to be invested enough in a topic or issue to want to engage in a meaningful constructive critique of it. Critique often comes from a place of love, care, concern, and a desire to see things change for the better. In the academy, sometimes we critique an issue and proffer recommendations that can facilitate systemic change. This, however, does not mean that critique that isn’t accompanied by solutions is invalid. It is valid.
For example, when feminists call out media organizations for excluding women from the public sphere by presenting manels on their platforms, it is the responsibility of these media organizations to critically reflect on why they reproduce patriarchal politics on their platforms. It is the job of these organizations to put measures in place to work toward understanding why they perpetually exclude women, why women may be uncomfortable speaking on platforms built around a patriarchal culture, and why female panelists are perpetually misquoted/quoted out of context when they appear on these platforms. The burden of providing solutions to problems identified in the process of critiquing an issue should not necessarily be placed on the shoulders of the critic. It is the job of people who occupy positions of power to find solutions to problems identified.
When you are at the receiving end of critique especially as a person or institution in a position of power, don’t fixate on the tone of the critique pay attention rather to its content, and work towards doing better. We critique because we care. We critique because we love and because we want things to be better.
Dedication: This article is dedicated to LGBT+ Ghanaians who have suffered harm from cishetero feminists this week. May the rest of your month be filled with love and care.
Dr. Wunpini Fatimata Mohammed is a Ghanaian feminist activist-scholar and an Assistant Professor of Global Media at the University of Georgia. Photo: Sarah E. Freeman