Monday, July 20, 2015

Maybe Progressives Are Too Critical of Each Other, or Maybe You're Just Not Used to Being Criticized


"The Left is eating itself!"

"We need to focus on our real enemies instead of criticizing each other!"

"Ultra radical social justice warriors are a joke, and their PC-policing will be the end of the progressive movement!"

There was a time when I was a lot more sympathetic to attitudes like this (well, at least the first two). If you're around activists, online and offline, you do start to notice a particular breed of organizer who seems to care more about scoring more-radical-than-thou points than about actually building a movement. They might roll their eyes because you haven't read a particular book, or talk all in academic jargon and then be super condescending when you don't get what they're saying, or swoop in to point out what you did wrong while never actually pitching in.

And yeah, those people are annoying. But they're also relatively rare. The problem is, however, that there seems to be a growing number of progressives who take that basic jackass archetype and apply it to ANYONE who has a critique, or a call for greater inclusiveness, or a challenge to the progressive status quo. So even when people have super legitimate, necessary critiques, they get lumped in with the fringe, characterized as "just as bad" as their radical conservative counterparts.

The reason that I'm no longer sympathetic to those attitudes is that my real-life experience with movement-building has shown me that very rarely is the problem that progressives are too critical; much more often, we are not critical enough.

When Bernie Sanders flubs an opportunity to stand with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, we can acknowledge that as a flub and push him (and his relentlessly white campaign) to do better, or we can shout down the critiques, on some "he's really great and the best chance we have for real change so everyone shut up!" (further conversation about this on my FB page).

When a panel discussion on a feminist issue features five white women, and then gets called out for being too white, that's not "nitpicking." That's acknowledging the long tradition of the erasure of indigenous women and women of color from mainstream feminist discourse, and pushing for something better. Maybe it's easier to see it as "not a big deal" when you happen to not be affected by it.

When "well-meaning" talk-show hosts and journalists continue to ask ridiculous, offensive, invasive questions to trans people, we shouldn't all just shut up because they're "trying to raise awareness." There are ways to raise awareness without throwing people's dignity under the bus. Again, they can do better.

The whole "we have to stop making good the enemy of perfect" attitude assumes that those adjectives are objective and universal, ignoring the fact that what so many of us see as "good" can actually be harmful and counterproductive to movement-building efforts. Historically, who has been able to frame this debate and decide what "good" is anyway? Even in progressive circles, it's been people who already have some access to power.

So now when the internet gives a platform to counter-narratives and other definitions of "good," old-school mainstream liberals find themselves being challenged. That's why so much of this discourse is couched in condescending, tech-oriented language ("hashtag activist," "tumblr feminist," etc.), and framed as personal attacks when they're actually critiques of power.

The idea that feminism, for example, has been "taken over" by the man-hating trigger warning reverse racist thought police is as ridiculous as it is weirdly common, and a lot of the people making that argument either benefit from the status quo, or have no dog in the fight anyway. My job lets me meet feminists/activists/leftists from all over, and I can tell you: the problem isn't that "we're too self-critical." A lot more damage is done by those with some access to power refusing to be challenged/critiqued than by the critics themselves. 

The thing that I just cannot wrap my head around is this bizarre belief that it's so HARD, that there's an expectation that everyone has to be PERFECT and we just can't-- as individuals or as a movement-- ever get there. Everyone makes mistakes. No one is perfect. But there is an enormous difference between those of us who actively try to do better and those of us who whine and want the rest of the movement to accept us unconditionally. I'm certainly not perfect, but somehow, even as a very vocal, very privileged, public personality talking about a lot of serious issues, my life is not an endless series of call-outs.

If your life does seem like an endless series of call-outs, maybe that's on you. If you're a liberal professor and you're scared of your liberal students because they embody "call-out culture," maybe you deserve to get called out because you're saying or doing things that hurt people.

If you're a guy who doesn't feel welcome in feminist circles, maybe you should think about why you want to be in feminist circles as opposed to introducing feminist ideals into the circles you're already part of.

If you're working on a campaign and you know that your candidate's platform will have a positive effect on communities of color, but those communities aren't supporting you, maybe you need to do more to bridge that gap rather than huff and puff that "they" just don't get it.

Of course, passionate people go too far sometimes. But it's really important to think critically about who gets to define "too far." Because for every bogeyman story about someone caught up in a wave of critique for an honest mistake or misunderstanding, there are many, many more stories about erasure, invisibility, and liberal racism/sexism/homophobia/etc. that have been silenced for decades. Slowly, this is changing. This shift is happening right now, and as progressives, we should have the strategic and moral sense to embrace it.

To me, being a progressive/radical//leftist means challenging established systems of power. Doing that within our own movement doesn't make us weaker when it comes to doing that in our society; everything I've ever learned or experienced as an activist tells me that it makes us immeasurably stronger, and that it's the only way we can actually win.


Further Reading:

Joan Walsh at Salon: Bernie Sanders’ big test: Can he learn from his Netroots Nation conflict with Black Lives Matter activists?

Kat Stoeffel at the Cut: Why I Stopped Rolling My Eyes at Trigger Warnings

Amanda Taub at Vox: The truth about "political correctness" is that it doesn't actually exist

Lindy West at the Guardian: Trigger warnings don’t hinder freedom of expression: they expand it

Roxane Gay at New Republic: Student Activism is Serious Business

Me: "A Visit from the PC Police"

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