Where would we be if intersectionalists did not provide us with the occasional amusing distraction? Last week, the Occupy Goldsmiths network committed a major faux-pas – it used ironyin its public relations material: in reference to alarmist Daily Mail headlines, it referred to a forthcoming film screening and activist event as “a summer of thuggery”.
“I know Marx didn’t think much of us non-whites”, read a rather bizarre criticism from incoming student paper editor, Sabrina Sharif, but using 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”.Two arguments to support this were presented. First, the term ‘thug’ was deemed “colonial language” supposedly harking back to “anti-colonial uprisings in India”. Second, 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 sounding “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 were not linked to any “anti-colonial struggles”.
But what are five centuries between friends, some may infer – and did the word ‘thug’ not eventually acquire a racist timbre when used indiscriminately in reference to unruly natives? Quite possibly so – but then, it lost that connotation over time just as ‘punk’ no longer refers to a male prostitute in prison and ‘sinister’ has ceased to evoke 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 certain moral code. Likewise, we could point you to dodgy 1980s skinhead records that used the ‘thug’ label affirmatively – if some of this music evoked anxiety among non-whites, its “appropriation of anti-colonial struggles” was certainly not the reason.
Words change meaning, reflecting the social realities that shape and reshape them – a notion alien to intersectionalists. As a comrade of mine put it recently, rather than ‘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.” I recommend a recent Weekly Worker article where Paul Demarty argues that intersectionalist activity has resulted in a qualitative break, propelling 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 is, in truth, a spat in a turf warfare instigated by a fading ‘intersectional celeb’ none too pleased about Occupy Goldsmith activist Bahar Mustafa’s recent ascendancy to quasi-martyrdom.