Amal Alhaag: Mercy & Other Diseases – a Conversation on Debby Downer with Flavia Dzodan

Rene Boer



A few people have been asking me what Debby Downer constitutes and what the definition of Debby Downer is? There is no better way to introduce the concept of the Debby Downer and how it relates to the Killjoy than this e-mail conversation with feminist writer Flavia Dzodan. The Killjoy and the Debby Downer are both as terms very present in this conversation. The Killjoy entered entered the digital, feminist lexicon through tech-savvy, cultural theorist Sara Ahmed, but feminist poet Ama Ata Aidoo published a book of poetry titled “Our Sister Killjoy”. In comparison to the Killjoy the pop culture phenomena of the Debby Downer is relatively new and mostly used as a meme or as a vessel to troll mostly women who critique.

Amal: As a child of political refugees, I had difficulties with mercy and its aftertaste because it came with compassion and pity. It came with colonial sense of giving. I didn’t have the language for it but I knew that this form of micro-aggressive giving was a form of injustice. How did you relate to notion of mercy growing up?

Flavia: I grew up a Catholic (including Catholic school!) so the ideas of mercy and compassion were strongly present during my childhood. However, whatever religious ideas I was supposed to absorb at the time, didn’t quite work on me. I knew at a very early age that I didn’t relate emotionally to any of that (which I believe is the only way one can form an attachment to religion at such early age). Instead, I learned what compassion and mercy meant from my mother in practical ways. See, we had small farm animals when I was growing up (chickens, ducks, a couple of dogs, cats, etc). I was a very curious child and would go and harass the animals to see ‘how they would react’. Invariably, my mother would come and instead of getting angry over what I was doing, would explain to me why one should be compassionate to animals and treat them with love (in that regard, I had an early education of the relationship between food, love, animals and our place in all of that). While my mother never explicitly said this, I ended up associating these ideas with ‘weaker’ beings rather than as something one should have for fellow human beings. Instead, my mother always talked about empathy (something that we reserve for those we view as equal to us) as a desirable way to connect to people who were in difficult circumstances. So, I consider myself lucky that I got my own ‘home-schooling’ on these topics rather than have the experience you had.

However, when I moved to Europe, I was surprised by how prevalent discourses of ‘compassion’ in regards to immigrants, refugees and political dissidents were. In almost every ‘pro’ argument, there was (and still is) an element of ‘we need to help these people!’, which always strikes me as disingenuous because it is always removed from European roles in the creation of these circumstances to begin with. The a-historical ‘we need to help’, in this flow of ‘compassion’ invariably erases the role that European countries (and their corporations) played in the creation of socio-political circumstances that forces people out of their own country. In that sense, ‘compassion’, ‘piety’ and ‘pity’ function as a mechanism to avoid taking responsibility. Rather than accept the refugee because the category was created through European colonial interventions, the refugee is accepted (or not) due to the ‘kindness of the European heart’.

Amal: I find the concept of the refugee fascinating since it is a political position that is cemented in Europe’s notion of self, borders and imperialist wars. I became a refugee child due to the geopolitical game between Somalia, Ethiopia, US and Soviet Union, which is rooted in the Scramble for Africa. European border politics brought us to Euroland in 1989. So, being a Debby Downer comes naturally if one is a child of such a situation. Perhaps, being a Debby Downer essentially means being Zen with discomfort. How do you relate to discomfort?

Flavia: I can’t help myself making everyone uncomfortable! It’s like this force that starts to build up when something awful is happening. At first, I tell myself ‘shut up shut up shut up!’, but then it’s like my blood starts boiling inside and I *need* to say something (in fact, there is a point when I feel like I lose control and I no longer perceive this moment as ‘need to’ but MUST). I am aware that the moment I say something will be very disruptive. In fact, and that is one of my problems, because of this ‘blood is boiling inside’ build-up, I tend to say something in ways that can cause huge discomfort. Perhaps if I didn’t wait to say something and instead reacted immediately, my tone would be different. Instead, there is a gradual build up of discomfort inside me until I eventually speak up. For instance I was at this conference in Utrecht a few years ago and one of the speakers was saying incredibly awful things (racist, colonialist, etc). At first I was perplexed. I was angry and the ‘boiling blood’ started to take hold of me. But then I started laughing. Like, real loud, disruptive laughter. He hushed me. I went on. He stopped his talk and said ‘you need to respect that I am giving a talk’ and I stood up and said, ‘I thought this was a comedy show but if you are saying that you are serious then I will have to leave because this is some of the worst bullshit I have ever heard’. A number of people, notably Black women, stood up and said they were leaving as well. The talk was interrupted; his boss (a well known Professor known for not co-signing stuff like this) said she was also leaving then. Basically, I killed the whole thing but I swear that it was never ‘planned’. It’s not like when I started to feel uncomfortable I thought, ‘I will laugh at this and be disruptive’. It was merely an ‘improvisational’ moment.

Amal: I personally have been thinking about Debby Downer could be a vessel to cope with the daily realities of living and breathing in a world that people who look like you are the undesired, and thinking intersectionally means I also have to provoke myself to go into the unknown and be aware of my own privileges without oppressing others. Of course, Intersectional Feminism & Debby Downerism match with a decolonial attitude. How do these positions shape your daily realities?

Flavia: On a good day, they drive me to be a better writer. They force me into a critical space that I believe enriches the way I approach the topics I write about. From a personal perspective, these ‘frameworks’ also allow me to critique my own positions and try to find my own blind spots. I learned to look at the world through a lens that is not only my lived reality but also the realities of people who might be different from me in some ways. What happens is that if you start to look at the world through intersecting vectors of socio-political experiences, the world becomes a prism rather than a flat surface where you only ‘see’ from your own vantage point. This way of looking doesn’t make one immune from “blind spots” but it is an attempt to unpack those spots. The work always begins within ourselves. Writing, for me, is an attempt to make sense of that while reaching out to others. I write mostly about what I know directly but always try to keep in mind that it is not ‘the only’ way of knowing.

On a bad day, however, this way of looking at the world can lead to personal issues of sadness, melancholia, hopelessness, etc. It’s easy to lose oneself in the news cycle and become despondent as a result. I do not make a good writer or analyst when I am depressed (and I mean this in the medical sense, not simply as ‘I am having a bad day’). Being prone to depression means that I need to control how much emotional investment I do on a ‘bad day’. The kind of writing I do can lead to a degree of absorption and sadness that is not healthy in the long run.

Amal: My love for digital pop-culture brings me joy and laughter, feeds my notion of the world with alternative ways of being and resistance to the status quo. It’s the place where Debby Downers run looooose! Our love for pop culture is something we share I think so I wonder what two Debby moments in digital pop culture sparked your interest? Or fed your inner Debby?

Flavia: Everything brings out the Debbie Downer! Watching genre, of which I am a BIG fan (by genre I mean the generally accepted definition of sci-fi, comics, fantasy, etc), is a minefield. When there isn’t racism, there is sexism or general bigotry or messed up politics… it’s an exercise in self restrain!

I am deeply suspicious of any pop cultural product that is immediately embraced and uncritically celebrated by white feminists. Two things I have enjoyed in the past year have been the pointed critiques of Lena Dunham and Tina Fey. Both of these women are (mostly) uncritically adored by white feminists and both of them have engaged in the production of comedy that has in the recent past, been widely critiqued by feminists of colour. So, in both cases, I have to say, having my suspicious confirmed has been a moment of joy for me. It’s not that I enjoy the fact that these critiques need to be made (and it is exhausting that they need to be made to begin with). What I find amusing is that my ‘messed up politics radar’ is confirmed as “finely tuned”. I do not write much about pop culture myself because I believe there are many other women who do it better (I can get tedious and that’s the opposite of what my fandom is about) but I do enjoy reading those critiques. In fact, after I watch something I love, I usually go online immediately to search what others have been saying about it. It is always joyful when I read that other feminists had similar reactions to mine.

Amal: One of my favourite artist Mos Def aka Yassin Bey, once rapped on a song the following: ‘Why do I need I.D. to get I.D.? If I had I.D. I wouldn’t need I.D.? It perfectly summarizes my lifelong beef with migration politics in #forteu. I guess this is also a shared beef, so I wonder how can we speak about compassion or mercy, when we are reminded daily that the state, society is colonizing our racialized bodies, mind and excluding our alternative forms of belonging as part of its DNA while simultaneously feeding of our labour and precarious livelihood?

In fairness, I have zero interest in compassion or mercy as an approach to migration. Instead, I am interested in justice. What is ‘just and fair’ after centuries of colonial interventions? What is ‘just and fair’ after exploiting continents, populations, communities, etc. to create an exclusionary system in Europe? What is ‘just and fair’ after transferring resources and wealth from the areas where they are produced to the centres of power? I prefer to look at migration from that standpoint. The migrant/ refugee/ asylum seeker/ undocumented person is not a person deserving of our compassion. She is a person deserving of justice for the wrongs that have been inflicted in her community to that point that she was left with no other choice but to leave. Compassion, in my opinion, has little to do with justice for migrants. Within our ideas of justice, if someone breaks something you own, they are obliged to repair it. I view the topic of migration through this lens. Refugees/ migrants, etc., are not deserving of compassion. They are deserving of having the injustices that Europe inflicted upon them redressed.
When you look at the topic through that perspective, then the claim is not for acceptance or to be mercifully “allowed” to exist. Instead, it becomes an issue of rights. Due to injustice, the immigrant has a right to justice. That notion permeates my entire politics. I do not wish for anyone’s love. I wish for the wrongs to be corrected. I know it can sound pragmatic and dispassionate but it is far from it. My idea stems from materiality and resources. The colonial mentality entails that the Empire can have ‘benevolent love’ towards its subject while exploiting them. So, in my political conception, I do not have an interest in appeals to compassion. Instead, I have a demand for justice.

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