Secular Stories in Uncertain Times – Part II: A Reckoning for Progressivists

Secular Stories in Uncertain Times – Part II: A Reckoning for Progressivists June 7, 2020

M L Clark, June 2020

Let’s begin with a story.

(No, not my explanation for a month’s absence–that was in my last essay, Part I.)

This is a story of contradictory rhetoric among progressivists, and a collision-point nearly upon us, in how we tell stories about some of the most vital issues of our day.

Obviously, plenty of collision-points are already upon us: In recent weeks we have seen the streets of the U.S., and the world in solidarity, filled with them. Police brutality and the racialized problems therein have taken a critical center-stage in Western discourse; and even though there is a complex weave of other actors on the streets — white supremacists, libertarians, guns-rights’ activists, and people who generally think it would be great to live through a Purge — the general message is clear, with respect to our overreliance on a state institution that does not comport itself with as much self-control as nurses, teachers, and service-workers facing hostility daily on the job. And yet…

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Moreover, it’s a painful tip of the iceberg, because it’s one that many protestors have lived through before: not just in 2016, but also in the 1960s. A lifetime of struggling for change, in which ultimate concessions involved (at best) punishing certain actors, but not transforming the structure on whole.

So, yes, we’re now having a conversation about defunding the police.

And barely, on the fringes of this discussion, we’re having a conversation about the need for judicial and carceral reform as well. (But again–barely.)

But what we have not had yet — and what we still sorely need — is a conversation about the ways that our activism, as humanists leading with empathy to support other human beings in the world, takes too many contradictory premises for granted; and in so doing, often plays right into the very social order it ostensibly purports to bring down.

Pretty vague, huh?

Well, let’s start with the obvious — but also probably the most painful — example of our rhetorical disconnect.

“BELIEVE… Karens?”

One of the most exhausting campaign slogans of recent years, for me, has been “BELIEVE WOMEN.” Now, I happen to be a feminized person myself! But I keep waiting for an activist rhetoric that allows me to be a person, and not something set up on a pillar by those who would defend me, as some impeccable human construct that never lies.

It’s classic political overreach, of course — not at all isolated just to feminist causes — that so much of our necessary advocacy against violence, sexual and domestic alike, goes to such a stark extreme to fight against prior stark extremes.

But it’s also absolutely the wrong basis on which to establish a coherent praxis for justice. Why? Because it plays right into reinforcing existing systems, instead of imagining a better way to restore societal trespass. After all, the very reason that this strident rhetoric is used… is because we’re trying to get justice within an adversarial legal system. The vicious “He said, she said” binary is only a maddening end-point to social reparations within that system.  So… why are we playing at all by that system’s rules? Why not seek to establish and standardize more restorative/rehabilitative models instead?

Moreover, the neoliberalism of this absolutist rhetoric (i.e. the idea of trying to keep a brutal approach to state justice intact — only, with women as more powerful agents within it) gets even worse when we bring intersectional feminism into the equation… as we have indeed, most recently, with the phenomenon of the “Karen”.

The “Karen”, for those not already in the know, is the white woman who takes it upon herself to create a situation where the police are involved, wielding the force of the police and its histories of brutality upon Black, Indigenous, and other Persons of Colour, in horrifically minor local affairs. We have a myriad of videos of such persons harassing their neighbours for existing — a black student sleeping in a shared study hall space, a black family barbecuing, a black man who’s simply asked someone to abide by leashing bylaws  — and a myriad of videos likewise showing such women harassing people for wearing hijab or speaking Spanish in public.

Nor is the “Karen” a surprising phenomenon even for fellow white people. Ask anyone who’s worked for a spell in customer service, and you’ll probably find that white middle-class women tend to be the most irate at the idea of a subordinate speaking when they should be seen and not heard unless called upon. (See also: 2016 U.S. voting patterns.)

Moreover, there is an horrific history to the Karen at the intersection of sexual violence and racism, because the one place where U.S. women could historically expect “justice” to be served for supposed sexual violence was… when the “perpetrator” was black. And by “perpetrator,” during other eras of lynching in the U.S., I of course mean (more often than not) a black man who simply dared to occupy the same space as the white woman.

A woman who would often lie and exaggerate her level of perceived threat, that is, knowing that the black man she targeted would surely pay for her lies with his life.

And yet… dominant progressive activism has been living with this incredible cognitive dissonance for decades, all coming to a head with a lousy slogan associated with the vital, credible work of the MeToo movement. BELIEVE WOMEN, but also… BOO “KARENS” (and their predecessors).

Why this disconnect? Because ours is still a status quo activism, by and large.

It’s not really an activism, that is, intent on dismantling institutional and social inequalities, so much as on creating better power-sharing relationships within those institutions of social inequality.

That’s also why you see so much fixation on getting demographic percentage points for top economic jobs just right… and not as much on asking if these positions and their brutal expectation sets should even exist, let alone be permitted to exacerbate the current rich-poor divide. As long as we have the right demographic breakdown for our CEO overlords… great?

But We Can Do Better

We, especially, as humanists — persons, that is, who ostensibly practise an informed empathy by drawing upon wide swaths of empirical data from a range of critical disciplines to advance public policy — can dream better.

Moreover, this is one of those groundswell moments, as a society, when those dreams stand a real chance of being heard, and maybe even being advanced.

What would better rhetoric look like, to that end? Here are three suggestions — but, as always, these are more a way of starting the conversation than putting a definitive lid on any one part of it. So please consider sharing more in the comments!

1) We would more often question the premise of the complaint, and look for the status quo being affirmed in its sense of transgression

Trans discourse is an obvious example here. The bathroom wars have been such a clever win for anti-progressivists, because all they had to do was contrive a site of tension on their terms, getting progressivists to defend “bathroom rights,” to keep the conversation from involving any genuine transformation of cultural norms and institutions.


But the premise here is rotten, and progressives should never have played into it. Rather, unisex or single-occupancy bathrooms are an easy fix that bypasses the whole site of outrage (and all the awful fallout, furthermore, for natal-sex persons who are easily misgendered, too). However, that fix — common to many places around the world! — would also involve, in much of the U.S., dismantling far more insidious notions about gender and public space.

Instead, progressives take the battle on the terms they are given, and are left fighting for meagre wins within it.

The same is unfortunately true, especially in the U.S., for workers’ rights and causes like universal healthcare. There is a whole world of other approaches that could be learned from, and adopted — but anti-progressivists are deft at setting the conversation about possible outcomes around two extreme polarities: Freedom and Communism. Progressivist discourse then all too often buys into these terms, plays by these rhetorical rules, and… in so doing loses its fight for better economic protections at the outset.

No more of this, please. Let’s refuse to accept the premise as readily as we do. Let’s look for, and refuse to engage with, any unjust status quo propped up as the implicit basis of someone else’s complaint.

2) We would use the word “justice” with far more caution, and complexity

The whole “Justice for Ahmaud” campaign, which arose after video of his modern-day lynching was circulated online, broke my freaking heart. There were many black activists, mind you, who refused to use the word “Justice” in this context — because of course it’s an incoherent phrase: “justice” can no longer be experienced by Ahmaud; only by those left reeling with grief and horror in his wake. But the majority online latched onto this incoherent activist phrasing… and with it, advanced a sense that justice might be served if his killers and their accomplice are found guilty in a court of law.

But real justice cannot be effected here by the courts alone — and it’s dangerously myopic to treat racism as a matter that can be resolved by throwing specific perpetrators of its most violent and sensational acts into prison.

What’s a better model? Fellow humanists still mostly at home: I recommend Unforgotten (2015-), if you haven’t seen it already. It’s a British forensic-detective show that spends a great deal of time sitting with the victims of cold cases and discerning what would help them heal from the loss; as well as looking at other forms of social and private transgression, and the kinds of restorative justice they call for in all the suspects’ lives.

More than most any show on criminality I’ve yet seen, Unforgotten — which also does not in the slightest bit sensationalize the tedious nature of police work, nor allow for any glib commentary about the gravity of murder — embodies some of the most critical concepts for compassionate humanism. It’s not perfect, but inasmuch as it recognizes that holding someone to account before a legal body is only one small part of restoring the wounds that we cause one another over the course of our lives… it’s an exceptional start.

3) We would check our rhetoric against the humanity of the people for whom we’re advocating

This last is probably one of the most difficult parts of the whole process of transforming progressivist rhetoric into something more coherent, cohesive, and serviceably humanist. This is where our social training in the adversarial likes of “he said, she said” leaves us trained to prefer rigid activist notions of a human condition that is, instead, incredibly complex. Humanists, being people who should be able to look frankly at our mountains of evidence about behavioural norms, need to do better.

One other telling example of a woman who “lied,” after all, comes from Roe v. Wade, a pillar of progressivist discourse. As a recent documentary has made abundantly clear, the “Roe” in this situation was first emphatically for abortion rights and then… for the right price… embraced the warm welcome of the anti-abortion community for many years, before on her deathbed recanting all of her associations with them.

AKA Jane Roe shouldn’t come as a shock to any humanist, though. Do we not recognize what a disorienting thing it is to be in the public spotlight, and how few do it well over time? Do we not recognize how financial precarity can make people choose comfort over convictions; or how good it can feel to be welcomed into a community? Moreover, do we not understand how incredibly hard it is for a human being to own up to past lies when the reckoning they know it will bring is sure to see them cast out? Do we not understand the rationale for digging in and holding to a lie for decades, if that’s what it takes to keep our lives more or less stable and safe?

We absolutely cannot base our push for a better justice on the false idea that human beings are immaculate — or that they need to be immaculate, in order to be deserving of life in a better world.

The Take-Away: Progressivists Are Not Always Humanist

Suffice it to say, then, so much of this world’s trespasses anger me, but a great deal of the rhetoric used in the name of progressivist causes does, too — because much of it is not humanist. Much of it, rather, elevates human beings to impossible extremes, in service to supposedly transformative and radical objectives that… are not really outside the status quo at all. Activist communities — economic, racialized, gendered, and more — also often operate in some truly confounding rhetorical silos, such that unnecessary tension-points crop up between them, and lead to that notorious “in-fighting” used by outsiders to dismiss all efforts to build a better world on whole.

Nevertheless, we’re persisting, aren’t we? And the world is currently going through such strange upheavals on such scales that it might be possible, at this incredibly vulnerable point in living history, to push for more than change to the tip of the iceberg.

But if we’re to tackle the depths of our system’s problems, my fellow humanists, we’ll need to start by re-imagining justice; and re-evaluating the premises underpinning our sense of our most vital social institutions; and most of all, questioning the staging grounds we’ve allowed to be seen as the most important sites of cultural discourse.

Much warmth to all of you, then, as you fight for the inclusion of more humanistic thinking in what currently counts as “progressive” rhetoric; and as we advocate together for the creation of a more just world.

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