Max over at Wimpy Catholic had a really good post the other day, superficially about Cecil the Lion, but really about outrage porn and the lack of mercy that often accompanies modern social justice slactivism.
In explaining the appeal of “outrage porn,” a term he coined himself, political cartoonist Tim Kreider compared the effects of righteous anger to an opiate, but he was speaking of its effects on individuals. To explain the behavior of mobs, due weight should be given to the satisfaction that comes from creating or activating a public self distorted in the direction of blamelessness. Hey, look at me, joining an Internet mob gives us the chance to say. I’ve got to be one of the good guys. I’m against that person.
Joining with apparently like-minded people – I say “apparently,” because many, inevitably, are also sporting their own distorted public selves – creates a sense of common purpose, an illusion of community. Aw, you all re-tweeted what I wrote about the racist’s mother. I love you guys! Warm fuzzies all around.
I’ve blogged a lot over the years about the mercilessness of some right-wing Christians (particularly when it comes to LBGTQ issues), and I think it’s only reasonable to also talk about the lack of mercy in a lot of left-wing activism. As much as I am irked by some of the hateful comments that appear in Christian com-boxes, the fact is that if you really want to see a brutal bitch fight (often complete with threats of physical and sexual violence) you’re best go peering about in the back corners of Tumblr where trans activists are having it out with radical feminists. Political in-fighting on the left can be unbelievably brutal.
This brutality is fuelled by a sense of absolute moral righteousness, and by complete contempt for anyone who doesn’t immediately fall in lock-step with one’s own convictions. Perhaps the greatest weakness of the left is the increasing reliance on bullying tactics in order to silence those who disagree – or even those who simply don’t understand. To the righteous warrior, the justice of the cause is so self-evident that the only possible reasons for failing to believe in it are obstinacy, privilege, entitlement, stupidity or simple evil.
Too often, any attempt at dialogue, or even honest questioning, is shut down. The attitude seems to be “You didn’t immediately agree with what I said? Well, in that case I don’t have time for you. Also you’re sub-human filth.” There’s no space for conversation, and no willingness to try to understand where the other person is coming from. In some cases, any attempt to even try to comprehend or dialogue with those who disagree is seen as betrayal. “If you were serious about being my ally, you would block that scum.”
The irony is, that this lack of compassion is often promulgated in the name of compassion. It’s as though mercy were a scarce capitalist commodity: one over which different marginalized groups vie for a monopoly. The result is that disadvantage and lack of privilege become a kind of swag that people show off in ridiculous contests of intersectional one-up-manship.
Not only does this make social justice look stupid, petty and barbaric to people on the right, it also creates a toxic environment for anyone who wants to try to advocate for marginalized groups. You have all of these warring groups of downtrodden, politically disempowered people fighting among themselves for the biggest piece of the victimhood pie – and if someone with privilege, influence or power tries to intercede on their behalf, that person can basically expect to be torn to pieces for having the affrontery to enjoy power, inluence and privilege in the first place.
All of this is horribly self-defeating – just as self-defeating as right-wing Christians who wield “Turn or Burn” signs at gay pride parades. You cannot convince someone of your position unless you are willing to try to understand theirs. Left-wingers who will upvote that sentiment a hundred times when it’s directed at right-wingers need to understand that it’s a double-edged sword: if we expect others to listen and understand us, we have to be willing to extend the same courtesy in return. Even those whose opinions make our blood boil. We have to remember that our opinions often have exactly the same effect on them.
And if there’s someone that you just can’t relate to, where there’s so little common ground that you can’t even imagine a civil conversation, that’s fine. Just don’t engage. That’s what allies and advocates are for: to intercede and fight for you in places where you’re not able to gain access. That will probably involve your allies speaking in ways that seem alien, maybe even threatening – but it’s precisely that way of speaking that allows them to have any influence over those you most need to reach. Just because your German ambassador speaks German, that doesn’t mean he’s secretly working for the Nazis. It just means that he’s qualified to do his job.
The bottom line is that social progress gets made when people come together in solidarity, combining their interests and employing their different talents, skills and gifts in order to acheive a common end. Ideological purity policing, contempt for enemies, lack of compassion, in-fighting, resentment and constant affrontery only serve to fuel the outrage machine. The result is a kind of moral pollution where the best instincts of humanity are ground up in a froth of anger and bile, then poured out fruitlessly into a cultural cess-pool where hatred and toxicity incubate.
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