In the past year or so, Irish pro-choice protesting has taken on a new vitality. Some pro-choice actors have adopted the language of satire, humour, scandal and disobedience to show up the limits of the abortion regime. I have written before about the abortion pill train (which recently morphed into the abortion pill bus) and Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A., whose “Delivering the Word” (above) is a must-watch. Most recently, the comedian Grainne Maguire has been encouraging Irish women to “tweet their periods” to the Taoiseach, in an effort to “reclaim the humanity” of the abortion debate and to demonstrate that women are not ashamed to challenge a government which refuses to give up its control over women’s reproductive functions. For their pains, activists who choose these routes to political action are told that their methods are misguided, counter-productive, annoying, and an improper departure from those past feminist tactics which can now be celebrated and valued. The attempted suppression of disruptive political activism around abortion has its mirror in some official retellings of the marriage equality referendum, which close out both the history of Irish queer protest and the central role of working class campaigners and voters, in favour of a soft lens tale of constitutionalism and carefully choreographed deliberative democracy (on which see Anne Mulhall here). Closer to the root of the abortion issue, we find resonances with this government’s official discourse of abortion law reform. Fine Gael, which will not even commit to reforming the law on abortion information, much less to repealing the 8th Amendment, thrives on its occupation of the “proper” position from which to instigate legal change. When challenged on his reluctance to examine the 8th, the Taoiseach presents himself as unflinchingly guarding ‘the People’s book’ (the constitutional text which perfectly reflects the democratic will of the ‘people’) from the undemocratic hordes and calmly refusing to be “rushed” (after over 30 years) into ill-thought-out law reform. (This paternalistic identification of his government with the measured and careful exercise of proper legal agency is, of course, also reflected its limited abortion legislation, which operates on the presumption that the law must be protected from the dangerous and disobedient agency of hysterical women).
This sort of denigration of those whose demands for legal change do not fit ‘legitimate’ patterns is grounded in a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning and purpose of political action. I want to draw on Jacques Rancière’s distinction between ‘the political’ and ‘the police’. ‘Police’ here refers not to the police force but to the systems which establish a ‘distribution of the sensible’, dividing us into groups according to our attributed status and functions. These divisions are between the community of the “we” and those who belong outside it; between those who are included and excluded, accepted and unacceptable, and accordingly between the visible and the invisible, the sayable and the unsayable. What we think of as politics – limited deliberation in designated institutional spaces – usually consists in argumentation and negotiation around these divisions, undergirded by some “common sense” or consensus. True politics, by contrast, is about upsetting the dominant distribution of the sensible. Politics takes place when in moments of dissent “the part of no part” – those who normally should not be seen or heard – intervene in the established system of meanings, questioning it, and by that questioning insisting on their equality with others as political subjects and members of a broader “we”. For example, at this year’s March for Choice, the comedian Tara Flynn spoke movingly about Ireland’s abortion regime. In a lighter moment, she noted that reproductive rights campaigns were often construed in the public sphere as a ‘women-y fringe-y thing”. But, she said, of the assembled pro-choice marchers, “we are not some women-y fringe-y part of society, we are society”. That sort of statement gestures in its own way to the intervention of the “part of no part” in the distribution of the sensible – it signifies how those silenced by the dominant public settlement around the abortion issue have insisted on being heard and included in spite of systems of mockery, shaming and discursive degradation which diminish and devalue them. From this perspective, the very point of politics is to disrupt decided orders of power and civility. There can be no ‘proper’ set of political actors who are more entitled or more qualified than others to engage in acts of political subjectivization; to demand a new political place. And equality, similarly, is not a determinate goal which can be finally achieved in any sense, but something with limitless potential which is presupposed and constantly expressed or verified in our political actions. In intervening in the distribution of the sensible, the ‘part of no part’ refigures political space, making sayable and thinkable that which previously could not be said or thought.
The basic “moderate” claim which circulates within mainstream discourses of abortion law reform in Ireland is that women are not allowed to be ‘angry’ about the 8th Amendment. We are read as angry when we make urgent demands for law reform, or compose or share satirical barbs, or draw attention to the bodily injuries, the despair and pain inflicted by the law. And that attributed anger is dismissed as worthless, even when it may be visionary. As Sara Ahmed says, the refusal of oppressed groups’ attributed anger and the insistence that they ‘go along’ with dominant political modes of work – the insistence on gentler, even happier forms of political action – is a classic tactic of political exclusion. When we are angry, we are accused, not only of the irrationality which should disqualify us from political participation in the first place, but of threatening the smooth communication which supports the political bond. (In this respect, the dismissal of more militant strands of the movement for abortion rights betrays a certain sense of the liberal mainstream’s vulnerability – its fear of fragmentation). But, on Rancière’s account of the political, we create political community through conflict. The apparent incivility of the oppressed is not something to be tamed and disciplined: it is the point of politics. That being so, it is never clear that there is a “right” or “wrong” mode of entry into the political. Contests about the ways in which we can speak properly about issues of central importance to the community matter. And it may be that the more unsettled and scandalised those with the most power to regulate the agreed boundaries of the “we” become, the closer things are to the heart of the political. Moreover, if equality can never be finally achieved, then it is never clear that a political struggle is over. The demands of equality always exceed what has already been achieved. (This is the point of Marlon James’ recent interrogation of the Liberal Limit.)
Those who insist that abortion rights campaigners conduct themselves in ways which do not “annoy” or “upset”, or talk too much about bodies, or otherwise tend to excess, may claim – in the grand tradition of liberalism – to be defending politics’ essential virtue and decorum, and to be guarding the proper way of doing things from untamed or naive outsiders. But in so doing, they are merely attempting to reinforce their own powerful position within the police order; insisting on a politics which can only be conducted on their terms; turning politics into an insurance policy for their own privilege.