Judith Butler: Sexist violence and forced migrations demand a transnational mobilization

We listened attentively to the talks that Judith Butler gave to visit different countries in Latin America and we proposed to talk about specific problems. In this interview, analyzes why feminisms should be thought of as transnational movements and not in an internationalist key, goes up the list of forced migrations and border policies, talks about cisexism and racism, and one more question: What happens when #MeToo denounces feminists?

Why do you emphasize that feminist movements like NiUnaMenos should be thought in transnational rather than international/internationalism terms?

JB:  Of course, feminism seeks to incite radical social change within the nation-state in order, for instance, to strengthen women’s rights to abortion, their power in the workplace, and their right to live freely without violence.  But all of these issues extend across the boundary of the nation-state. And given the politics of migration, and the important commitment to alleviate suffering at the border, we must make the border itself into a topic. By definitions, borders divide territories, but they are also sites of passage, and ways of being joined.  The violence against women and trans people, also travesties, throughout Latin America call for a transnational mobilization against violence. The disproportionate number of women who are poor or struggling with literacy is not only a national problem. When we stay restricted within the boundaries imposed by the nation-state, then we come to think primarily about those who belong to the nation.  But so many people are stateless now, and so many people are in a condition of forced migration – we have to follow those pathways and build solidarities across national boundaries. And if we follow the flow of capital investment and the dispossession of people from their homes, these, too, are pathways that cross national boundaries. So our concepts have to be extra-national, and our solidarities have to be trans-national.   Although I like the idea of a feminist international, a queer international, and I do already belong to a group called the Gender International, I want to caution against assuming the nation as the unit of analysis. The nation – and the nation-state – is also a problem, especially when nationalism stokes the call to close the border or to purify the nation of its foreign or unwanted ‘elements’.


Do you think that movements like Ni Una Menos can become imperialist practices? How can a movement inform mobilizations happening in other places without disregard to local specificities or using the category of “woman” in universalist terms? In that regard, why do you think the US has been slow in taking up the lead of women’s and feminist movements happening around the world?

JB:  Every movement can become imperialist if it joins with imperialist powers, including imperialist forms of thought.  Once there is a vanguard that decides the policy and imposes it on others, a hierarchy ensures, and the movement fails to prefigure the democracy it seeks to achieve.  The movement has to continue to listen to its critics, invite them into conversation, stay present for the conflicts, and be willing to change its vocabulary and its practices when it proves to be exclusionary.


Feminism in the US cannot be the model for other countries because the US is too absorbed in its own politics, assuming as it does that it is the center of the world.  But for some time more radical social movements, including more radical feminist movements, have been emerging outside the US, and Ni Una Menos is the most important of these.  The call of this movement has brought a wide range of people out into the streets, mainly women who are saying no to violence, who want greater freedoms, who are suffering under new and older version of patriarchy.  They want as well to resist the neoliberal economics that deprives their families and communities of basic social supports and asks them to conform to models of self-maximizing individualism that belong to the US and its western compatriots.


Of course, there is a great women of color feminist movement in the United States, which is inspired by the writings of Angela Davis, Patricia Hill Collins, Kimberle Crenshaw, but also Black Lives Matter feminists like Alicia Garza.  And there is the feminists from the 99$ which keeps the economic analysis central, and that is a trans-national alliance. But in the US, the main form of feminism is liberal feminism, one that believes in the market, in individualism, in personal liberty, but does not for the most part elaborate a multi-racial alliance.  The framework of multiculturalism is also an important one, but that term does not translate well into every region of the world. It is concerned with the internal differences of a national community, but does not usually grasp the problem of forced migration and the politics of the border – or the transnational operation of misogyny, racism, homo- and trans-phobia.


You are committed to the Palestinian struggle. In the USA there is the Black Lives Matter movement responding to police brutality and systemic violence against black people, in Argentina black and indigenous populations are invisible. Also throughout the region we see the criminalization of transvestite identities, the impunity of hate crimes against transvestites, lesbians and gays, especially if they are poor; the lack of rights for sex workers. What is the political intervention that intersectionalism makes, beyond solidarity and coalition-building? What does an intersectional politics contribute to justice processes?

JB:  I think that intersectional analysis began with the question, who has standing before the law?  When you refer to the impunity of hate crimes against the poor and the marginalized, you are saying that the citizen-subject who can stand before the law with a claim, a complaint, a demand for reparation, is constructed in such a way that the subject is not a woman, not trans, not indigenous.  These exclusions are built into the law. So one part of the struggle is to establish the place for all the marginalized and excluded within the public world. This will give them a place in law, but also in politics. We should not underestimate the power of solidarity. In my view, the bonds of solidarity build in advance the relationships that will characterize a more equal world, the one that we seek to bring into place.  If we ask, why is violence against a white, property-owning man immediately recognized by the law and the same violence against a women without property is not recognized, we can see that race defines standing, intelligibility, human-ness itself, that gender defines personhood, that property decides whose voice matters. We need this kind of analysis so that we do not assume that everyone is equal before the law. Not yet. That struggle for legal standing only arrives as the effect of a broader struggle for political equality, or so it seems to me.  In the end, the power to wage a revolution is more important than the right to file a lawsuit – but sometimes they are connected.


Since NiUnaMenos, feminist discourse was installed in Argentina in a massive way, but we see on the one hand the opportunism of the neoliberal government that incorporates liberal feminism in its discourse while cutting essential funding for social programs, the translation in the academy of popular feminist activism in exclusionary or technical terms, the attacks of conservative sectors against feminists, the backlash from those holding on to toxic masculinity. How can we prevent feminism from losing its power of interpellation of dominant powers? How do we not to suffocate the language of politics? Is there a risk of saturation of the message from feminism?

JB: It seems to me that as long as you have the power to bring millions of women onto the street, across Latin America, in Europe – especially Spain and Italy, and the left sees that you have more mobilizing power than any other aspect of the left, you will remain powerful.  The appropriation of liberal values by neo-liberal governments and institutions has to be exposed. So many government offices asked me to speak in Argentina, but I refused. I saw that they wanted to use me to enhance their liberal reputation while they withdrew life-sustaining social services from the population.  That contradiction has to be named and described, and has to become part of a public pedagogy. Also, the collective dimension of the movement is very powerful, but with this power comes responsibility, since the movement has to house its conflicts, give shelter to its sympathetic opponents, and no one person can speak for all.


There are cisexist practices. The news is reiterated to the trans people referred to the spaces (panels, organizations, etc.) carried out by cis women who claim to be transfeminists but do not include trans people. What practices would you recommend? How can we use privilege in productive ways?

JB:  I understand transphobia not only as a disposition but as a structure of power. It is built into the idea of gender, family, education, health, and social life. It is often bound up with police harassment and violence.  So the struggle against transphobia is something I understand. When we speak about “cisgender” we tend to refer to individuals and the way that they appear. If they appear to others as “cis” then they are called “cis” but, as we know, there are conflicting perceptions in public life, and not everyone is perceived in the same way.  Someone may be called “cis” in one context and absolutely not “cis” in another. Go figure! I don’t believe that someone else’s perception of one’s gender is the last word on who one is. Of course, people who conform to standard gendered norms of beauty are generally treated better. And those that conform to gender norms do not have to deal with the same issues of exclusion and violence that non gender-conforming people do.  Gender non-conforming is a broader category than trans, and so I accept a spectrum, a vibrant spectrum, but not a binary that gives you only two boxes. In California, I was able to check the box that says “non-binary” and I suppose it is in that spirit that I raise questions more broadly about unproductive binary oppositions. Some oppositions are productive, though, and we have to come to know what they are. If women fight only against violence that is done to women, but fail to include transwomen in the category, or transmen who are also vulnerable, then we have to have that fight..  But if we start to have local fights about who is and is not cis-gendered, then we have, I think, substituted a micropolitics of despair for a more radical opposition to transphobia. I call it a politics of despair, because we target each other on the basis of how we perceive the other, and we fight with the language of accusation and denunciation. We need to be finding ways to move forward together with our differences to overcome the systematic violences that are waged, with impugnity, against women and trans people. The real problem, as I see it, is the pact of brotherhood that allows men to beat and kill their wives or their girlfriends. It is a pact because their friends will generally not condemn them.  They will cover for them. The police will not arrest them, but act on that silent pact of brotherhood. So it is this lethal pact that should concern us all, since the killing of any one of us is hardly a crime if no one recognizes it as a crime. The mobilization against violence joins us, and we have to be able to see this larger picture.


What do you think about the recognition of trans and non-binary identities after the law of gender identity?

JB: On the one hand, it is very good that people can now choose their identities without having to demonstrate their reasons for that choice.  On the other hand, “identity” is not always the goal, and it can foster a kind of serial individualism, restricting our idea of freedom to personal liberty.  So if a state allows that choice, but it does not address the issue of violence, of the abuse of trans people in prison, their lack of employment, and their continuing vulnerability to discrimination and harm, then it gives with one hand what it takes away with the other.  The freedom to live freely in the world with others is not the same as the individual choice of how to register oneself legally. The latter matters, to be sure, but if it is not a step in the process of an emancipatory movement, then it works to stop that movement by offering a solution both individualistic and identitarian.


You stated that feminism is a movement that is well-positioned to confront fascism. However, street protests have been discredited by those in dominant positions. What other tools do you think feminism have today to confront fascism? How does feminism build itself like anti-establishment movement?

JB:  I think street demonstrations continue to be important, but so are demonstrations at the borders, legal cases that seek to establish new precedents for queer families, and legislation that takes a stronger stand against systemic violence.  There is no one site where feminism takes place. It has to be in the home, the school, the health system, the legal profession, and it has to link people of all social and economic classes. My sense is that the movement provides a site of anger and joy for women who understand themselves to be increasingly dispossessed of their lives, rendered precarious by economic processes beyond their control.  At the same time, it produces communities that allow women to criticize the forms of masculine domination and control that limit their movements and their potentials as living bodies in the world.


Why do you think the femicide category is not used in the US? What is the role of the state in preventing domestic and sexual violence?

JB: The US recognized “domestic abuse” but it does not track the murder of women in the same way that other countries do. It would be important to have that category everywhere so that we can understand how and where the practice continues and so that we can have stronger transnational opposition.  The state is responsible for stopping feminicidio, to be sure, but if we look to the state for all solutions, we strengthen its power. The power is more powerful when it comes from below.


What happens when #MeToo denounces feminists?

JB:  If feminists are abusive, then they too should be denounced.  The same for feminist men and women. Some people fail to understand the injurious consequences of their actions, and no one should be protected against an accusation that claims harm.  Of course, the anti-feminists rejoice when a feminist proves to be a exploitative. But that is a moment in which we have to continue to hold ourselves to the highest standards, for it is not finally consistent to be an exploitative feminist.  We have to hold each other to account, but also allow for errors and for growth. If we are only punitive, then no one ever learns. But a serious mistake – such as the emotional exploitation of a student – should be followed by an apology and a new understanding.  People do change, and feminism can support that kind of ethical transformation.


*The interview was conducted by Marcela Fuentes (Marsha Gall), Vanina Escales, Agustina Paz Frontera and María Florencia Alcaraz.

Spanish version