Affect, Discourse and Politics: Interrogating Narratives of Fear

Originally published by The Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy’s online journal.

Recent comments made by Boris Johnson that burqa-clad women resemble “bank robbers” has sparked fierce controversy within the UK (Johnson 2018). These comments, particularly when made by someone who influences popular discourse and politics, reflect not only current anti-immigrant and Islamophobic views, but operate to reinforce them in ways not immediately apparent; through the language of emotions.

Emotions are not neutral; they have a power that becomes embedded in social reality through the very discourse of politicians. Emotions are part of our daily lives,  shaping our social interactions and relationships. These emotions become tied to certain groups, people and bodies and elicit a response: a response that then informs the political terrain of a country through feeling. A Google search for the phrase ‘fear of Muslims’ brings back 33,300,000 results in just 0.31 seconds (Google.co.uk 2018). This is no coincidence considering the language of fear circulated and associated with Muslim bodies within the UK’s political discursive terrain.

Within British politics, emotions have become instrumentalised, through discourse, and have the power to create inequality. In this context, the fear created in relation to the body of the ‘other’, the Muslim, creates a political will for Islamophobic policy, justifying control and regulation. This can be seen in the continued surveillance and othering of Muslim bodies and communities within the PREVENT Counter terrorism strategy (BBC News 2018; Qurashi 2018). PREVENT was created in 2003 in the ‘post 9/11 moment’, in which a ‘state of exception’ justified and legitimated the regulation of the Muslim community, situated as an ‘Islamic threat’ to the West (Agamben 2005). This set the tone for a continued focus on the fear of the Muslim ‘other’ within British politics. The PREVENT strategy became a legal duty for public sector institutions in 2015, extending its reach much deeper into society and embedding a surveillance infrastructure which has “served to contain and direct Muslim political agency” (Qurashi 2018: 1). Johnson’s comment of women in burqas resembling “bank robbers” (Johnson 2018) must be understood in this context; it is not only built upon this embedded Islamophobia, but continues to reinforce it.

Making visible this discursive framing and challenging what it allows is a significant place for resistance and transformation. There is a necessity to interrogate emotions and their circulations through the everyday language of politicians in order to understand and disrupt the very power it holds.

Discourse
Language is part of a social system producing and regulating the social world (Foucault 1997, 1998) through managing the way it can be discussed and thus understood (Chouliraki 2008: 2). In this sense, nothing is objective and our knowledge is not neutral; it is produced in “systems of power/knowledge relations which have historical and cultural specificity” (Foucault 1997: 27).  We must therefore interrogate the use of language and its implications in order to understand social realities. The language used in the discursive terrain occupied by Johnson thus informs the creation and regulation of a social reality that impacts both the creation of policy and the lived reality of Muslims in the UK and around the world.

“EMOTIONS ARE NOT NEUTRAL; THEY HAVE A POWER THAT BECOMES EMBEDDED IN SOCIAL REALITY THROUGH THE VERY DISCOURSE OF POLITICIANS.”

Affect
Language is also significant in the circulation of affect, demonstrating that emotions have discursive power in creating the social reality of the present (Abu Lughod 1986; Groz 1994; Haraway 1991; Hill Collins 1991; Lorde 2007). Sara Ahmed (2004b) argues that emotionality “is clearly dependent on relations of power, which endow ‘others’ with meaning and value” (Ahmed 2004b: 4). These meanings and values are created through their discursive circulation and repetition in which emotions shape objects or bodies, constituting these objects or bodies as signs which affects, and their associations stick to (Ahmed 2004a: 117, 2004b: 4). The association of fear elicited through the use of language by Johnson is therefore a necessary site of investigation in order to understand the circulation and perpetration of inequality.

Past histories of association
The creation of meanings and values are “performative and they involve speech acts, which depend on past histories of association, at the same time they generate effects” (Ahmed 2004b: 13), these histories inform the creation of the ‘other,’ drawing upon the social and cultural contexts in which they are circulated and in turn informing the creation of these contexts (Ahmed 2004a: 117).

Language is used as a signifier that builds upon a previously cited and understood concept to create the current understanding of something or someone. It is through the performance of discourse that one can see “the power of discourse to produce effects through reiteration” (Butler 1933: 20). In relying on the past histories of an object’s association, the object is thus generated through its naming. It is through the performativity of fear, weighted in its past histories, in discourse and its circulation through newspapers, online and in public rhetoric, that it becomes a reality.

It is significant therefore to acknowledge the long history of inequality and hierarchy perpetrated in the linguistic framing of the ‘other’. Post-colonial theorists have demonstrated that the cultural representation of the East has depicted the ‘Orient’ as inferior, violent and primitive in opposition to the enlightened ‘West’, informing the creation of a binary opposition between ‘us’ and ‘them’ (Mohanty 1984; Said 1978; Spivak 1988). This history of opposition and the association of ‘backwardness’ and violence with the ‘other’ has informed the current association of fear in relation to the Muslim body. This emotional response perpetrated by Johnson’s narrative framing of women who wear burqas “looking like bank robbers” (Johnson 2018) and the politics of fear this creates is both weighted in the history of the language of the ‘other’ and in turn creates these raced relations of domination and inequality.

“Bank robbers” and its associations
It is therefore possible to see how a politics of fear and Islamophobic sentiment has become embedded within UK politics through language. It is the common, everyday language such as that used by Johnson that must be made visible and interrogated in order to disrupt the invisible power that this language, and the emotions circulated through it, have. The phrase “bank robbers” used by Johnson (2018) has a number of connotations that elicit both fear and the unknown. Because of the fear associated with robbers in their ‘black balaclavas’, violence and aggression become imbued in the image of a Muslim woman wearing a burqa. Through the circulation of this language, in turn situated in the histories of violence associated with the ‘other’, the body of the woman wearing a burqa thus has a fear attached to it, a fear that will elicit an emotional response from those consuming the discourse perpetrated by Johnson. Not only does the phrase used by Johnson validate connotations of fear, it also legitimates the right to defence, placing Muslim women who wear the burqa in the same category of robbers breaking the law who, thus, deserve punishment or reform.

“LANGUAGE AND EMOTION THEREFORE HAVE THE POWER FOR RESISTANCE.”

This defence narrative allows the justification for the forced removal of the burqa in some spaces and situations. Johnson argues that it is completely legitimate to force women to remove their burqas in order for them to participate in public spaces, for example in a school, university or at an MP’s surgery (Johnson 2018). By essentially arguing that in order to participate in public life in the UK one must not wear the burqa, Johnson reinforces the historic notion of an ‘us’ and ‘them’- in order to participate in ‘our’ country ‘they’ must become less ‘other’. Johnson argues that “those in authority…should of course be able to enforce a dress code” and in fact should feel “fully entitled” to do so (Johnson 2018). This narrative can clearly be situated in the same realm of that of the PREVENT strategy in which the fear that is associated with the Muslim ‘other’ gives those with ‘authority’ the power and legitimacy to regulate and control the bodies of said ‘other’. In his article, Johnson legitimates this authority by stating that “human beings must be able to see each other’s faces and read their expressions. It’s how we work” (Johnson 2018). There is clearly a dehumanising narrative at play here, the ‘we’ of British society does not include those who choose to wear the burqa as they are not deemed ‘human beings’. This reinforces the ‘unknown’ and its associated fear: those wearing burqas are deemed unknowable and unable to participate in society. They are therefore situated as a threat, and a threat that must be protected against.

Resistance and disruption
It is clear that words generate effects through the situation and circulation of emotion and the histories of associations embedded within these narratives. It is, however, this concept of words generating effects that can provide the possibility for potential transformation and social change. The implications and associations that are attached to one phrase used by Johnson demonstrate the power of emotions and discourse. Language and emotion therefore have the power for resistance. If language is a social phenomenon, then it is through challenges to this language that the structures of meanings are altered (Jorgensen and Phillips 2006: 25). Through the power that language has, there is the potential to feel differently, and thus know differently (Hemmings 2012: 150). It is through “the transformation of affective dissonance to affective solidarity, through a critique of dominant knowledge, that there is the potential for affect to be transformative” (Hemmings 2012: 157).

As demonstrated, Johnson’s language and it’s associated emotions influence both popular opinion and politics: his discourse reinforces and creates Islamophobic sentiment under the guise of ‘protection’. In order to remove the power created by this discourse the work of this language and the emotions associated with it must be made visible; only then can we challenge the relationships of power produced by it. Through questioning the associations and articulations of fear perpetrated in Johnsons discourse, there is the potential for creating new narratives. There may then be the potential for British politics to begin to feel differently, and feeling undeniably matters in politics.

Bibliography

Abu-Lughod, L. (1986). Veiled sentiments. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Agamben, G. (2005). State of exception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ahmed, S. (2004a) ‘Affective Economies‘, Social Text 22.2: 117-139.

Ahmed, S. (2004b). The cultural politics of emotion. Edinburgh: The Cromwell Press.

BBC News. (2018). Prevent scheme ‘built on Islamophobia’. [online] [Accessed 12 Sep. 2018].

Butler, J. (1993). Bodies that matter. New York: Routledge

Chouliaraki, L.  (2008). Discourse Analysis. In Bennett, T. and Frow, J. The Sage handbook of cultural analysis. London: SAGE Publications, pp.674-698.

Foucault, M. (1997). Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Foucault, M. (1998). The will to knowledge. London: Penguin Books.

Google.co.uk. (2018). fear of Muslims – Google Search. [online] [Accessed 12 Sep. 2018].

Grosz, E. (1994). Volatile bodies: toward a corporeal feminism. Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Haraway, D. (1991). Simians, cyborgs, and women. New York: Free Association Books.

Hemmings, C. (2012) ‘Affective Solidarity: Feminist Reflexivity and Political Transformation’, Feminist Theory 13.2: 147-161

Hill Collins, P. (1991). “Learning From the Outsider Within, The Sociological Significance on Black Feminist Thought.” Beyond Methodology: Feminist Scholarship As Lived Research. Ed. Mary M. Fonow and Judith A. Cook, Indiana University Press.

Lorde, A. (2007). Sister outsider: Essays and Speeches. New York: Ten Speed Press.

Mohanty, C. (1984). Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses. boundary 2, 12(3), p.333.

Jørgensen, M. and Phillips, L. (2006). Discourse analysis as theory and method. Los Angeles, Calif: Sage.

Johnson, B. (2018). Denmark has got it wrong. Yes, the burka is oppressive and ridiculous – but that’s still no reason to ban it. [online] The Telegraph. [Accessed 12 Sep. 2018].

Qurashi, F. (2018). The Prevent strategy and the UK ‘war on terror’: embedding infrastructures of surveillance in Muslim communities. Palgrave Communications, 4(1).

Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.

Spivak, G. (1988) ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in Nelson, C. and Grossberg, L. (eds) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

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What Sweden’s Feminist Foreign Minister Gets Wrong About Women, Peace and Security

My article for Foreign Policy Rising about the direction of the UN Women, Peace and Security agenda.

Foreign Policy Rising

37917057396_61fcb3aba1_kUN Women/Flickr

Ever since Sweden’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Margot Wallström launched the first explicitly feminist foreign policy agenda in 2014, she has become a figurehead for feminist foreign policy. But at the United Nations last month, Wallström made a surprising comment about its peace and security work and its approach towards gender and conflict. “All of this is not a women’s issue,” she said. “It is a peace and security issue.”

Focusing on peace and security rather than women contradicts the goals of Sweden’s feminist foreign policy to promote peace and gender equality. It even contradicts other parts of Wallström’s speech, including her assertions that “women often bear a disproportionate burden” of conflict and that the Security Council has a critical role to play in ensuring “that women’s voices are heard.”

By making this distinction between “women’s issues” and security issues, Wallström effectively dismisses “women’s issues,” pushing gender inequality…

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Failure

At the end of January I set myself the goal of writing a blog post a month and me being me declared this publicly in an attempt to hold myself to account. It is now month four of that promise to myself and to you and I have only managed one post, meaning that I have failed. I haven’t done what I set out to do and I’m disappointed about that, but I am also okay with it, and here’s why.

Alongside the other competing priorities and stresses in my life I could feel myself turning writing into a chore, another thing to add to the list stretching out in front of me. I had turned something that was meant to be an outlet, writing, into something else in my life that required a deadline (like I don’t have enough of those already!). There is a constant battle between pushing yourself and punishing yourself, like standing in the middle of a seesaw trying not to let either end hit the ground. By setting myself this requirement of writing I quickly realised that one side of the seesaw had too much weight on it and was smashing back down to earth. And I don’t want to strip the light from something that brings me sanity, it’s a necessity in my life, just as much as the blood running through my veins.

So here I am holding my hands up and saying yes I failed at one thing, but I’m not sorry about it, in fact I am okay with it because the failure in itself has given me clarity. These things that are part of my being, I need them, so I shouldn’t spoil them. Yes write more, yes share more, yes create more but I don’t need to produce a certain amount, or be creative in a certain way. Sometimes my creativity expresses itself through writing, other times drawing, other times through kicking of my shoes and loosing myself on a dance floor. I am affording myself that freedom.

I may not have succeeded in this particular goal, but these past months have involved many other successes, priorities ebb and flow, and that is okay. I have written 12,000 words worth of essays, I have cycled 268 miles I have drunk tequila shots and celebrated with my friends, I have sat alone in the garden for hours with the sun sinking into my skin. These are my successes and they will make my writing even better, when I do come to it. Failure is a regular occurrence, one that I am only just starting to accept. It is from those failures that we learn how to be and to adapt, failures can lead us to great places. Failure is a process that we learn and develop from. The creativity and that freedom that I am affording myself from this failure will lead me to exactly where I want to be. And not surprisingly, now I don’t have the obligation to write looming over me, I want to more than ever. There is plenty in the world to be explored, so don’t worry you haven’t heard the last from me, I’m just learning from my failures.

You & me

Crying. Explaining.

Words.

Live my own life.

Bits and pieces.

Breath faltering,

Adequate expressing.

I’m trying.

Without you.

Without me.

——————————

Eyes open.

Exhaling.

Free falling in solitude.

Sunflowers and sun rays.

Catching glances,

Feeling pathways.

I’m working.

Without you.

With me.

——————————

Knowing smiles.

No words.

Feet grounded.

Friendship growing.

Sipping pints,

Stories flowing.

I’m smiling.

With you.

With me.

Revolutionary self love

The last five months have probably involved the most reading and writing that I have ever done in my life, yet for some peculiar reason I have set myself the goal of writing a blog post every month; and so here I am on the last day of January, telling you all about it in some attempt to hold myself to account!

The setting of goals for the year ahead is something that I have scoffed at in the past; arguing that it’s a waste of time, I like my life the way it is and there is no way I’m going to stick to them anyway so what’s the point – well past Florence, as often is the case, you have been proven wrong. Last January for the first time ever I actually sat down and spent some time reflecting on what I was doing and what direction I wanted my life to take, I probably got a little over excited and set myself ten goals for 2017 (since when have I made things easy for myself right?!). Although I haven’t stuck to all of them and my priorities have ebbed and flowed throughout the year, writing the goals in the first place has forced me to check in with myself, to ask how I’m doing, and generally bring a little more self-care and reflexivity into my life rather than charging full pelt through the messy realities that surround us.

Instead of starting the year telling you all about what my goals are for 2018, because they are really just for me right now, I want to reflect on what I am proud of from the last year in my life. I am not a natural cheerleader for myself, as you will probably see through my reflection below, but I am discovering that there is so much value to be had in giving yourself a bit more credit. As a woman, I often feel that I diminish my achievements and devalue myself simply because I don’t want to be seen as showing off, demanding too much or taking up too much space. During a discussion with my wonderful friends recently in which we were all telling each other how amazing the other was, yet devaluing ourselves in the same sentence, I realised how ingrained this notion is in us.  I have absolutely no problem holding up other women, supporting them and shouting about their achievements but when it comes to myself I am suddenly silent. I am trying to change that through bringing confidence to the way I articulate and position myself in the world. One of the first steps in creating this unapologetic self-love is reflecting on my achievements and putting them out there in the world, so deep breath and here goes – the thing that I am most proud of from the last year, and equally that has involved the most self-doubt and anxiety, is the fact that I am now a masters student!

Thinking back to my first introductory lecture I remember feeling like an utter imposter; the first Women, Peace and Security programme in the world, in one of the best institutions possible, and there were only 20 in my cohort – what the hell was I doing there?! Did they let me in by mistake or something? My classmates introduced themselves telling us about their past experiences which ranged from working in the field and for NGOs to working for the UN and government organisations – not going to lie I felt somewhat intimidated. As I got chatting to them, however, in socials and in class over the next few weeks something amazing began. We began creating a network of strong likeminded women who were impassioned, intelligent, challenging and empowering. Turns out that rather a few of them felt the same way as me on that first day – it’s an odd thing that we do as women, to put ourselves down or devalue what we are saying before it even comes out of our mouth. Very quickly, however, we have built a fantastic community of women who hold each other up and hold each other to account. On a daily basis I learn something from my peer’s experience or I have my arguments challenged by them. I am taking in so much information and continually developing and articulating my ideas and understanding. Despite my insecurities, I have begun to realise that I do deserve to be here and that I do add value – and that is a revolutionary realisation.

#metoo : Some thoughts and worries

#metoo

TW: sexual violence

I have written and re written this a number of times today. Yes, me too. I hear you, I see you and I am raising my voice with you. I do, however, have some further thoughts about the complexities of this movement.

1.) The issue here is with the fact that survivors of sexual violence are NOT BELIEVED. Not that we do not speak out, so many times individuals speak out about sexual violence and their voices are not heard or taken seriously, the patriarchal structure of society works against survivors (who are predominantly women) to silence them.

2.) Those that do speak out are categorised as ‘victims’ – they are all to often blamed and are stripped of their ‘voice’. This is a moment to come together and challenge that.

3.) Whoever you are, whatever you feel, your experience is valid. You are believed. You are believed whether you choose to speak out with a ‘me too’ status, whether you choose not to disclose your experience. Your voice or your silence does not make your experience any less valid. We must remember that at this particular moment.

4) Sexual violence is not a “women’s issue”, you should not simply think about it because I have to tell your ‘sister, girlfriend, or friend’ has been impacted. It impacts us all. I hope this movement has made you pay attention, but this movement shouldn’t be needed in the first place. I shouldn’t have to tell you ‘me too’ for you to care about gendered violence.

5.) To those who are reliving trauma due to this, I am sorry. It is not my intention to cause you to distress. I hope you are able to see why I have felt the need to post this.

I have no answer to the issues with this movement, nor do I want to devalue it, it is a place to start but let’s think further and open up a conversation that needs to be had. To my sisters, trans and non binary folk, and all who have experienced sexual violence, solidarity.

She

She is 22. She is tall and slim with a short blonde bob. She is a woman. She has dimples on her inner thighs and bites hard on her lovers lip.

She does not want to sleep with you without question because the hem of her skirt skims her arse. Nor is that an invitation to touch her.

She will not hang on the syllables that slip off your tongue so as not to damage your ego. She will not be afraid to challenge or be heard, she will demand that her light is acknowledged.

Her body is not an object for you to handle or discuss. She is defined by so much more. She is courageous, she is smart, she is challenging. She is beautiful and she will not minimise her ambition for anyone.

—————————————————————————————————————————–

She will challenge and speak out against what she believes to be true and right. But deep within her lies a hurt and anger, an inability to see herself as accepted or acceptable. Conflict has become a permanent fixture in her being that is masked with the confidence that slips off her skin.

Anger seeps into all parts of her life like a dank dark rot. She can keep the rot at bay but a part of her will always be in decay.

That part of her that feels unwelcome is sometimes suppressed but it also feeds her. It forces her to raise her voice to deal with the decay – the moss it creates is a symptom of society.

Only by bringing it into the light will we see, that the anger has a beautiful power.