willful killjoys and conscientious objectors

by tobybee

i recently heard sara ahmed giving a paper about what constitutes a ‘bad citizen’. she started from the premise – or the popular conception – that a good citizen is one who contributes freely to society: it is someone who gives their time and money to others in order to make other people happy, and thereby contribute to making a society a happy one. she then asked, ‘what makes a bad citizen?’ and concluded that someone is seen as ‘bad’ when they block other peoples happiness. the examples she used for this were key figures like the feminist or queer willful killjoy: people who point out when a comment, a joke, an incident is sexist, anti-queer or racist, and who are perceived to act ‘willfully’, or purposefully against the common good. and when they do they stop other people being happy. you can’t laugh at a joke that has just been labelled racist, or you’re racist. but then the person who named the joke as racist becomes the problem because they’ve raised an issue, or created a problem where there was none before. the racism was invisible, but has now been made visible, creating an ‘uncomfortable’ situation. there is a perception, ahmed argued, that if something isn’t named as racist (or sexist, or whatever), then it is not. so people go out of their way to twist themselves and their words around in order to say that ‘[insert name] is not [sexist/racist/queerphobic], they’re just talking [from another time/just being funny etc]’.

ahmed gave an example of this that, from the laughter from the audience, was something many of us could relate to: at a dinner party, or the family dinner table, calling someone out on being offensive; and the sighs and eye-rolls that inevitably follow from various people around the table. that, ahmed suggested, made us, in that moment, ‘bad citizens’, blocking other peoples’ happiness and enjoyment at the table.

imagine sitting around the dinner table with the family whose father is a former mossad chief and whose daughter, Omer Goldman, is current conscientious objector… ‘bad citizen’? nope. unless she/we reclaim that badness as a badge of honour, which was ahmed’s point. and one i like. who wants to be good, anyway? let’s be willful…