I’ve been reading The Onion pretty consistently since they were a regional print paper out of Madison, Wisconsin, and have always been a fan. So the sample size is significant enough to make it meaningful when I say that this, of all the Onion articles I have ever read, is my least favorite:
If you’re a glutton for punishment, clicking on the image will link you to the full article. But if you prefer to spend your brief time on earth living life to its fullest, you can also just skip it in favor of this brief summary: The premise of this piece is that God, due to the fact of Israelis and Palestinians continuing to fight each other like little babies despite His message of peace and lovingkindness, has gone ahead and drowned everyone in the region Noah’s Ark style to punish them for their bad and immature behavior.
This was not The Onion’s first experiment with the unfunny or tasteless, nor would it be the last. What sets it apart, for me, is the unconventional choice of blending those two ingredients with additional helpings of self-satisfied smugness and genocidal ideation. I bring this article up here because it also happens to manifest the logical endpoint of a certain kind of interfactional thinking. I’ll get to this in a second.
First, to summarize my points from earlier blog posts and grant a bird’s-eye-view of how interfactionality works as a system, I’ve made this neat-o flow chart. It’s downloadable, so you can print it out and put it on your fridge!
What I want to talk about now is the fundamental principle that enables, maintains, and protects this whole system. Namely, the desire to self-identify on the side of good against evil, to fight the bad people who are doing the bad things—in short, the compulsion to unambiguous righteousness. Interfactionality as a system feeds on this desire, is driven by it, and perhaps most importantly, conceals itself in the blind spots generated by it.
For example, some Jews in the 1940s saw a need to establish themselves as a majority population in a place far from the Holocaust’s perpetrators in order to prevent its repetition, and no place could be better justified than the ancestral homeland from which they were once violently ejected. Also, Palestinians, to survive as a people, must resist their brutal displacement, oppression, and disenfranchisement by European settler colonists. To place unambiguous support behind one of these eminently righteous needs is to betray the other, and so the will to fight for one prompts some self-inflicted blindness to the other. This configuration is not a bug but a feature of the interfactional structure by which the matrix of domination stabilizes itself, buttressing its constitutive oppressions against one another. It’s the key to the system’s resilience.
Anyone embroiled in an interfactional conflict will find themselves pinballing around that system, sustaining and intensifying its energy, for as long as they remain dedicated to a righteous cause within it. Fighting on behalf of the most oppressed will not free you from this trap, because no such category exists. Nobody lives at the bottom of every oppressive hierarchy, and everyone has the potential to be a vector of somebody else’s oppression. Remember, interfactionality creates a mirage of “most-oppressed” worthiness that shifts depending on your vantage point, so as to goad differently positioned champions into perpetual conflict.
The only way to extricate yourself from this system while actually maintaining a personal sense of righteousness is exemplified in the aforementioned Onion article. You simply gather all that righteousness to yourself to rise above the petty squabblings of Others, such that everyone beneath you can die and go to hell. This, however, is unhelpful.
The only other alternative is to relinquish righteousness and settle for practical ethics. This won’t feel as good. Practical ethics offer little release for the frustrated anger the interfactional system invests in you to provoke the response it needs to sustain itself. It’s also harder to do, requiring constant evaluation and re-evaluation. The answers it provides are often incomplete and unsatisfying. People invested in the conflict will accuse you of betraying them for the other side, or (confusing your position with that of the author of that Onion piece) being a radical centrist. But it remains the best bet for dismantling an interfactional system.
Interfactionality works by entanglement. It snarls threads of oppression together such that to pull against one tightens another. Righteous struggle strengthens those knots. Rising above it all to sneer at anyone who engages in the conflict just makes it somebody else’s problem. The practical work of undoing interfactional conflict, meanwhile, demands a slow and careful labor of disentanglement.
The relinquishment of righteousness is one aspect of that disentanglement. It separates the individual from the task they’re trying to accomplish, so allowing free operation on a terrain that interfactionality has shaped to ensure no unassailably righteous location exists.
Separating people from structures is another aspect of that disentanglement. While this may be an artificial distinction, the exercise is necessary for the work. The interfactional structure reinforces itself by goading people into to attacking the groups entangled within it. To dismantle the structure itself, one must resist the temptation to attack even the oppressor. White supremacy, not white people, patriarchy, not men, etc.
(Pause for a second, because people are going to fight me on this one. I’m not saying anger against oppressors is unjustified, or that they don’t deserve to be attacked. I’m saying the interfactional system will elicit justifiable attacks against oppressors and then use them to reinforce itself. This is a practical, not a moral question.)
Sometimes, though, people for their own sanity need to make angry blanket statements about their oppressors. For this reason, it’s also important also to disentangle private from public. People have to be able to work out that rage and frustration in smaller closed groups before they log on to Twitter.
A disentanglement of mutual oppressions is also key. The temptation when approaching interfactional conflicts is to weigh opposing sides in order to deem righteous whichever is less oppressive to the other. But the scales will be calibrated differently depending on where you’re coming from, and in any case, opposing oppressions do not actually cancel each other out. If an interfactional system shows you two groups oppressing each other at a 4 vs. 7, it wants you to see one group oppressing the other with a surplus of 3 so you won’t notice how the system itself is actually producing an oppression of 11. As a result, the real work of reducing the total oppression to zero is hampered by efforts to balance the score—efforts always doomed to failure especially given that the scoreboard reads differently depending on where you’re sitting.
What follows from this may be the most difficult disentanglement, that of justice from punishment. An interfactional system is not only structurally unjust; it uses people’s commitment to justice to reinforce itself. For activists to be effective in dismantling such a system, therefore, they need to suppress the desire to see old scores settled. Not because bad actors are undeserving of punishment, but because the system sustains itself by encouraging that fantasy and manipulating its realization. This may demand some reevaluation of what exactly we mean by the term “social justice.”
All of this is simply prerequisite for the actual work, once the interfactional system has been disentangled, of reweaving its threads into a truly just society. But hey, nobody said this was going to be easy.
Previous posts in this series: