The Venus Flytrap: Token Seats At Token Tables

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Her name is Chanel Miller, and she wants everyone to know it. She has revealed it in conjunction with the release of a memoir; her 2015 assault at Stanford University became a notorious case in which everyone from the media to the legal system tried to absolve her attacker. A preview of the book reveals that the university tried to coax her into creating a statement of forgiveness on a plaque for the memorial garden they instated at the site of the crime. She refused.

Somewhat relatedly, the author Kamila Shamsie was stripped of her Nellie Sachs Prize due to her support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel’s human rights violations. Ironically, the German award is given for “outstanding literary contributions to the promotion of understanding between peoples”, something reflected in Shamsie’s pro-Palestine activism. There are plenty of such honours, which appear to encourage anti-establishment thought, but only if it falls within certain parameters.

It’s profoundly frustrating when the work one does is co-opted by those it actually challenges. You can see this frustration all over Greta Thurnberg’s face in her widely-publicised speech at the UN. Right at the start, someone in the audience actually laughs, revealing how little seriousness the environmental activist is really given. Every person who cheers on this new hero but refuses to take personal steps to lessen their effect on climate change is letting her down. Our retweets don’t mean a thing if that plastic cup still goes into a landfill.

Powerful people and institutions allow interlopers in, indulge them, lionise and most crucially distract them, and continue to not incorporate the messages they carry. They are given a seat at the table as a means of placation, and a way to convince them that their work is finished or can be redirected. The indulgence also has its limits. As long as Thurnberg doesn’t do anything that crosses some major player’s invisible line, she will be entertained – and used as entertainment. If you’ve ever found yourself at a gathering and had the distinct feeling that you were on display, with the awareness sinking in that you’d be the topic of conversation once you left the table, you get the picture. Depedestalisation was recently discussed in this column, and some of the same ideas apply.

Can we say No to having that seat at the table at all? It’s a brave but not always viable choice. The choice between two outcomes – utilising the platform as a critical space, or making a statement by withdrawing – is not an obvious one. The latter can sometimes do little more than boost one’s own street cred, while the uncomfortable on-stage squirming of the former can add dimension to an event or the ensuing discourse. In some cases, agreeing to participate is to be cahoots with the problem, whereas in others, the participation brings challenge or at least nuance. But whether we fight for that seat, take it, or reject it, we have to treat the experience as window shopping. It isn’t the destination. We just need to know what’s available before we set about building a bigger, more honest, more effective table.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 26th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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