How I learned to stop worrying and love my isms

This piece was originally published on Thoughtleader.co.za in early 2011.

When I visit a restaurant, my opening line to the waiter is usually ‘Hi, I’m vegan. What do you suggest?’

What I really mean when I say this is: ‘Hi, I was just wondering…I don’t eat meat and I don’t want anything with butter in it. Also, no milk or cream or cheese. No ghee either. You don’t use yoghurt in this, do you?…Did I mention the honey?’

Admittedly I’m occasionally still forced to deliver a lengthy explanation of a plant-based diet, but as time goes by I find that simply stating my ism is the most efficient way of getting something suitable to eat. Of course, this is largely due to the fact that most vegans are proud of our ism, one which indicates a sustained ethical commitment to non-human animals and the environment, and we can thus be relied upon to defend and define it whenever necessary.

Some of my other isms, however, do not enjoy as much support.

For instance, if more of us anarchists were explicit about our views, ‘futurists’ like Belinda Silbert would probably be less inclined to use the term in its derisive, adjectival form, as is evident in Silbert’s response to the Anonymous-affiliated ‘Taking Back South Africa 2011′  campaign: “Who is truly behind all of this mischief-making? Who has such a vested interest in unleashing anarchy? I do not think that this is the way forward in South Africa.”

Then again, I can understand her uneasiness; ‘Winds Change’, the online persona responsible for spreading the campaign, seems difficult to pin down politically, and the admittedly captivating campaign videos are a bit longer on rhetoric and spectacle than they are on actual position. Disregarding the unfortunate name – ‘taking back’ South Africa does carry the implication that the campaign is addressing a group that previously ‘had’ South Africa and would like it back again – it’s not quite clear what the group wants: mild government reforms? More effective policing? Community justice? Violent insurrection? Libertarian socialism? Racial separatism?

While an ism could work wonders here, I’m not surprised by the campaign’s decision to occupy an ambiguous political terrain. After all, we are still – yes, still – living in the postmodern age of anything goes relativism, an age where ideology is seen as some sort of naive affliction and positions on anything more serious than consumer taste are best kept secret lest we embarrass ourselves in intelligent company.

As the infamous manifesto of French leftist group ‘The Invisible Committee’ – better known to the French police as The Tarnac 9 – puts it:

‘Today, Western imperialism is the imperialism of relativism, of the “it all depends on your point of view”; it’s the eye-rolling or the wounded indignation at anyone who’s stupid, primitive or presumptuous enough to still believe in something, to affirm anything at all.’The Coming Insurrection

The irony of this – and the endless capacity for irony is the bland plat du jour of postmodernity – is that this aversion to isms, because it doesn’t happen in a socio-political vacuum, amounts to a silent acceptance of the dominant isms. By not defining ourselves in opposition to the reigning economic order for example (that one where we’re pitted against each other in some kind of perversely imbalanced real life rendition of Darwin’s Monopoly), we’re saying that we adhere to capitalism. By shrugging our shoulders in order to defer decision-making to a small bunch of elected officials, we’re silently agreeing with the premises of statism. If you eat a meat-centric diet, you’re practising carnism – the appellation fits regardless of whether or not you’ve chosen to wear it.

It seems odd then that we so averse to admitting to our isms, especially odd given that prominent linguists like Zellig Harris have demonstrated their natural historical emergence. (Simply put, if a bunch of people are all describing kind of the same thing using phrases consisting of mostly the same  words, a shiny new word usually emerges to summarise these descriptions.)

Why such reticence?

On the one hand, history is replete with examples of the danger of falling behind an ism, a danger The Invisible Committee is all too aware of:

‘Of course, this imperialism of the relative finds a suitable enemy in every empty dogmatism, in whatever form of Marxist-Leninism, Salifism, or Neo-Nazism: anyone who, like Westerners, mistakes provocation for affirmation.’

On the other hand, perhaps our kneejerk reactions to any and all isms are subtle symptoms of consumer capitalism. As consumers we have become conditioned to accept the dictates of advertisers and biased media corporations. We’re used to being told, unique snowflakes that we are, what each of our isms are, as well as the speed at which we’re to disabuse ourselves of them – how rapidly each and every taste, affinity, or even political perspective should be subject to change based on the whims of, depending on how you see it, markets, neo-imperialists and/or other coercive forces.

Additionally, we have, probably fortunately, cultivated something of an incredulity towards grand narratives and totalizing systems. We’re pretty certain that no set of simple isms can ever wholly capture our respective idiosyncrasies, our nuances of position, our slight deviations from altogether questionable ‘norms’.

In my mind, however, none of this necessitates a wholesale abandonment of isms. Instead, all that seems to be required is the adoption of a specific kind of sceptical, cautious attitude. Armed with this, there’s no reason why we cannot or should not continue to use isms strategically in order to be able to efficiently convey information and share our affinities and desires with each other; if this works at a restaurant, surely it can work just as well in more important aspects of our lives.

In other words, if you share some of the ambitions of Winds Change and other revolutionists or reformists of undefined political affiliation, perhaps it might help to explore, however timidly, one or two isms. This doesn’t have to mean toeing a party line, signing a pact in blood or resigning yourself to wild-eyed zealousness; more often than not, in fact, it’s just about having the tenacity to be consistently explicit about your views – to be the token anarchist at the birthday party or the token vegan at the braai. In return, you’ll have the benefits of clarity, the ability to more easily locate people you can work together with to effect meaningful change, and the opportunity to grow and refine your ism. After all, the best isms, like anarchism, are those that evolve.

In case you’re struggling to find an ism that feels just right to replace your default adherence to kakistocracy (government by the worst), here are a hundred or so to get you started.

“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” – Paulo Freire