Toxic Cultures: Reckoning as Humanists with Violent Political Discourse

Toxic Cultures: Reckoning as Humanists with Violent Political Discourse January 10, 2021

Protest sign on the pavement, reading "To be silent is to be complicit" - Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona,, CC0 Licensing

Let’s begin with a story. This one is annual. Every year certain cultures mark the completion of the Earth’s voyage around Sol — though Earth never notices, and Sol never cares; and although many of us mark the changing of the “year” differently, depending on our communities’ calendars.

And we know it’s an arbitrary marker, this flipping of one digit on to the next, but it’s also one into which many of us put a kind of superstitious hope, precisely because we’re going through this event together. Which surely means, does it not, that at those moments we’re the most focussed on collective societal advancement?

On being better than we were the year before?

On striving to build a better world than the one that came before?

The U.S. in 2021, however, quickly entered into a painful reminder that carryover from 2020 remains. And yes, as you know, I despise “hot takes” and related clickbait; I believe, in fact, that both are a serious part of the problem I wish to address.

But it would be disingenuous of me not to mention the elephant in the room, the background radiation through which this essay will most assuredly be read: The “storming” of the U.S. Capitol this past week. The attempted coup.

I think all of my readers were alive and aware of the world on 9/11 — a highly comparable day to January 6, 2021, with respect to the horror of watching so significant an act of disruption together (online, while physically distancing). The difference, though, as I noted elsewhere, is that on 9/11 the U.S. (and Canada) was more or less united in its horror over what was transpiring. This time, almost immediately after the attempted coup met with stark public consequences, right-wing media spin doctors got to work trying to shift blame, dredge up alternative conspiracy theories, and otherwise cast doubt on the mainstream narrative. People who’d been crowing at first about their “side’s” impending victory over the state then insisted that they’d never supported violence at all — that the only violent people had been “infiltrators” from other political positions. Politicians, meanwhile, frantically back-pedalled to save themselves. Other public figures did, too.

We were watching the same events unfold, but through decidedly different — dangerously different — silos.

And now, the bigger names involved in that violence are being taken to task (to various extents).

But today I want to talk about the broader, far more toxic culture of supposed democratic discourse, which allowed so many to feel that emboldened in the first place.

I want to talk about the complict waters in which we all swim — and which we as humanists especially need to reckon with, if we’ve any hope of changing more than the date in our cultural calendars, from one year to the next.

“Reasonability” as a Cover for Wrongheaded Policy

In my last essay of 2020, I spoke in defense of “incoherent” discourse. I argued then that it was dishonest to treat even contradictory political chatter, as we often find in left-leaning activist quarters (especially online), as a damning repudiation of the underlying theory being discussed. Rather, I argued that a level of “incoherence” is only to be expected when we broaden the political arena to include people from all walks of life, critical backgrounds, and core vocabularies — because to expect everyone to be on the same page, using the same academic-formal terms the same way, is to expect a suppression of democracy, not its advancement.

Today we extend that thought by looking at the alternative: the rhetoric of “reasonability” that many lean on, as shelter for a reluctance to partake in better-world-building. I have four white-male friends who this past year expressed concerns about “cancel culture” and the idea that the left would “go too far”, although it was difficult to pin down just what they were afraid of — often because they would insist that it wasn’t “fear” at all they were feeling: just pragmatic concern. (No emotion ever, nope, not there!)

These were folks who claimed sympathy for the plight of many demographics, but also articulated how little they chose to understand about whiteness as an ongoing project of empire. (Literally, some have told me they didn’t think learning about it would be of any use.) These were folks who complained that I was “being political” by even mentioning offhand, in relevant context, how English has been leveraged to entrench social hierarchies — although they’d no problem claiming “good” and “broken” English as distinct categories in their own replies.

“Being political”, in other words, for many means “saying something that jars with my sense of status quo”.

And many such folks also know that an easy way to “win” argumentation is simply to position oneself as “naturally” in the position of higher reasoning, while placing the other party in the automatic position of being more radical. It’s intellectually lazy, but it works — on the surface.

Beneath that surface, though?

Well, we’ve seen more examples than we should’ve needed to, this past year, of what can happen when certain positions are accepted as both moderate and meaningful to better-world-building projects, simply because they are advanced in a supposedly “reasonable” and unified tone.

And my worry right now (yes, my emotional worry) is that while we’re focussed on targeting a few, concrete offending individuals who manifested their violence most explicitly at the U.S. Capitol last week… we’re going to overlook the bigger, more complex changes that we need to make to our political discourse, if we’re to effect truly humanistic policies going forward.

Toxic Cultures of Democratic Thought

What kinds of changes do I mean?

I have two concrete thoughts in mind: two approaches to policy discourse, that is, which must not be tolerated as moderate positions, no matter how supposedly calmly and reasonably they are advanced.

And yes, one of these might seem especially hard to root out at present, but it will become easier the more we simply name it: the more we articulate its presence, whenever it emerges.

This first is the idea that “I’ll change my mind when I experience the issue myself” should have any meaningful standing in political debate.

And yet, it crops up everywhere. We let politicians get away with this rhetoric, because we also let neighbours, coworkers, friends, and family alike get away with spewing intolerance, prejudice, and ignorance right up until they have personal exposure to the impact of a given issue: When Dick Cheney learned his daughter was a lesbian, and changed part of his stance on LGBTQ rights. When Christopher Hitchens underwent waterboarding, after insisting it wasn’t torture, only to discover that it was in fact torture. When Meghan McCain came back from mat-leave with the sudden revelation that paid leave was vital.

Fellow secular humanists — fellow atheists — know full well that part of the reason this “I saw the light” culture persists in our politics is because of how useful it is to many Christian communities: the “miracle” of having been a sinner without knowing it, and then of having been saved from one’s ignorance, into the loving arms of Christ.

In other words, it’s a key part of Christian rhetoric, for many communities, that transformation (through Christ) be celebrated as a miracle — and the more heinous the original position, the more extraordinary that miracle. Because of the widespread presence of such religious rhetoric, then, even Western-secular society goes along quite readily with narrative arcs of the “I once was lost but now am found” variety. We therefore find a great deal of media valuing a politician’s “bravery” in changing their position, after having for so long been an architect of awful ends — and in so doing, tacitly supporting a culture of political violence, in which people can advance terrible positions for very long periods of time, just so long as they close on a sufficiently (theatrically) chastened note.

Now, of course, I don’t want to underplay how important it is for people to be able to change their minds. New intel, new positions, absolutely!

But I do want us to stop treating this approach to public policy as anything but what it is: namely, the very least a decent person can do, enacting the lowest form of empathy that we as human beings can hope to attain.

Can we do differently? Even in deeply Christian cultures?

Well, yes, obviously.

For Christian humanists unsure of how to align these concepts, I recommend turning to contemporary Judaic discourse as a counterpoint to aggressive US.-evangelical ideas, including the idea that because a person is “saved” they’re entitled to forgiveness. Judaism has an immense amount of discourse about redemption — and in particular, about how atonement for one’s transgressions is both vital and yet also not intrinsically sufficient for forgiveness. A person can therefore still be “saved” (in Christ, in your communities) without compelling anyone else in the community to forgive; and they may well have to spend the rest of their lives working on atonement for the harm they’ve done. This is fine.

(What happens in many Evangelical communities, forcing victims to forgive perpetrators in the name of Christ? Definitely not.)

Speaking more broadly, to all humanists: We can also simply name this form of empathy as the lowest form possible. Whenever someone tries to make it out as a cause for celebration, we can plainly articulate that we’re glad [X] is now on-board with [Y] policy, without praising the individual for having done the bare minimum — and while, instead, continuing to advocate for higher forms of empathetic decision-making.

Decision-making, that is, which does not require a person to have experienced something firsthand to believe in its impact on other lives.

So. That’s the first concrete change we can make, in pursuit of less toxic cultures of policy debate.

And the Second?

The second major change to political-discourse norms is an immediate and utter pathologizing of any policy based on retributive justice.

Now, this one is also going to take some work — largely, because many folks see retribution as justice, and haven’t the theoretical scope to imagine other ways that “justice” will be done.

(This limitation, too, has been contrived by many aspects of our Christian culture, wherein true justice is seen as either a god “wiping away every tear” or punishing eternally with hellfire. Christian nihilists see nothing of value outside the confines of their faith, and so see little point in seeking out “Earthly justice” — indeed, it’s an absurd concept to them, for all justice in their worldview belongs to their god — but Christian humanists recognize the need for Earthly action, at the very least. That’s why this difference, the difference between nihilism and humanism, matters so much more than any of our specific cosmologies: Either you believe that our agency matters here and now, or you don’t.)

But just because it will take some work doesn’t make it impossible.

We need to start, again, by naming its manifestation: by naming, flatly and directly, when someone is proposing a form of justice that derives social satisfaction from the knowledge of another’s suffering, up to and including the termination of their life.

Likewise, we need to refuse the claim that justice can ever be done “for” the dead. It cannot. The dead are dead. They will never, ever, ever be able to see the benefits of whatever societal healing we choose to take up in their name after they’re gone.

Justice can only ever be for the living, which is why it must be restorative and rehabilitative.

An advocate of retributive justice may well think, for example, “when I criticize prisoners getting COVID vaccines before everyone in the general population, I’m doing it in the name of justice; these are criminals and they deserve nothing!”

But all these sorts of advocates are doing is deepening the well of societal injustice that forges criminality in the first place, by reinforcing the idea that one’s fundamental value, as a human being, is contingent on any number of broader social contexts; and that it is better for people who have erred in the eyes of others to be made to suffer for life, rather than to be rehabilitated as much as possible into functional, collaborative society.

Their approach to justice is “do even greater harm to the living, that the living who have harmed may know harm, too, and the rest may learn to fear reprisal for doing harm in turn.”

And it’s sheer tribalism: a way of framing society as always in a state of combat with itself; a way of cultivating the belief, furthermore, that everyone within a given discourse community is a potential enemy to oneself.

The Take-Away: Staving off Complicity in Toxic Cultures

Simply put, these two approaches to policy-creation are not conducive to the construction of a comprehensive and inclusive democracy.

And so, if we want to cut terrorism off at the pass — if we truly want to ensure that no radical ever feels emboldened to make decisions for themselves about whose participation in democracy matters most (whose life matters, furthermore!) — then we need to build a mainstream discourse that no longer tolerates dehumanizing approaches to justice, and no longer permits the lowest form of political empathy, the empathy only attained through personal experience, to be championed as somehow among its highest and most enlightened.

The year is “new”. The challenge, for humanists across the spectrum of cosmologies, is not.

We are all swimming in the waters of complicity in violence — and will continue to do so, for as long as we permit the rhetoric of “reasonability” and “coherence” to shelter to two conceptualizations of humanity that will never shine light on the path to better worlds.

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