Where would we be if intersectionalists did not offer some amusing distraction? Last week, Occupy Goldsmiths network committed a major faux-pas when employing irony in its promo material: alluding to alarmist Daily Mail headlines, a film screening and activist event was advertised as “a summer of thuggery”.
“I know Marx didn’t think much of us non-whites”, read a bizarre criticism from incoming student paper editor, Sabrina Sharif – according to her, the word ‘thuggery’ was just not on. Sharif wasn’t the only one to argue that the term was “racially loaded” and would make “people of colour anxious” on two counts. Firstly, the term ‘thug’ was deemed “colonial language” supposedly harking back to “anti-colonial uprisings in India”. Secondly, white people attempting to reclaim that word were “appropriating a struggle” they were “not part of”. Chastened, Occupy Goldsmiths issued an apology and renamed the event to the more inclusive “summer of violence”.
Trouble being, the Thuggees (ṭhagī in Hindi language), a sort of proto-mafia that robbed and murdered copious numbers of unsuspecting travellers for loot while professing religious motives, date back to the 14th century or earlier – a good three centuries before the arrival of Europeans in India, and some five centuries before the British colonial authorities issued a suppression act against their activities. They had no links to “anti-colonial struggles”.
But what are five centuries between friends, some may infer – and did the word ‘thug’ not acquire a racist timbre later when referring to unruly natives later on? Quite possibly – but then, it lost that connotation over time just as ‘punk’ no longer refers to a male prostitute in prison or ‘sinister’ no longer refers left-handers supposedly in league with the devil. We might cite Tupac Shakur’s use of ‘thug’ to denote a petty criminal who adheres to a specific moral code. Likewise, we could point you to dodgy 1980s Oi records that used the ‘thug’ label affirmatively – if some of those evoked anxiety among non-whites, “appropriation of anti-colonial struggles” was certainly not the reason.
The notion that words change their meaning seems alien to intersectionalists. Instead of ‘decolonising the mind’, they end up actively working, perhaps more so than anyone else, to re-racialise words in order to be offended by them. In a recent Weekly Worker article, Paul Demarty argues that intersectionalist activity has taken a qualitative leap, taking activists beyond the bounds of what might be considered ‘left politics’ in any meaningful sense.
One last thing: rumour has it that the thug affair was, in truth, instigated by a fading ‘intersectional celeb’ none too pleased about Occupy Goldsmith activist Bahar Mustafa’s recent ascendancy to quasi-martyrdom.