Centrists, conservatives, and the alt-right love telling leftists that we’re mean. “Where has civil discourse gone?” “So much for the tolerant Left.” “I got so sick of their refusal to allow simple questions, I became a libertarian instead.” And so on. There are subtler variations on this; in my experience, almost any sentence that contains the words “both sides” paints the Left a lot more negatively than the Right. And equivocations abound when violence comes up, regardless of the context or even the extent of the violence.
The conventional reply among leftists is twofold. First: that anger is a natural and appropriate response to injustice. That’s certainly true. A person who can witness or learn about injustice without getting angry is either complicit or shockingly numb. (Numbness can come from burnout, but it takes a lot of being burned to reach that state—and in that sense, it isn’t natural.)
Second: that these accusations are bogus, usually on the grounds that they’re being advanced in bad faith. This is often true. A guy who reacts to being criticized on Twitter by joining the Proud Boys was probably going to join the Proud Boys anyway. He doesn’t actually care about fair treatment—he just wants a scapegoat for his bad behavior. Moreover, I strongly suspect that a lot of people who aren’t bigots are still lazy enough to prefer bad-faith misdirection to serious engagement with leftist ideas. And that’s really what it is—misdirection. “What about X?” and “You guys are such jerks” are red herrings, as an elementary critical thinking course will teach you.
However. An important aspect of critical thinking is what’s sometimes called the Fallacy Fallacy. A person may make a bad argument or raise an irrelevant point, but this doesn’t mean that what they said is not true. I think we do have a problem, or a web of closely interrelated problems, on the Left, and “meanness” is as good a name for it as any other. It has a double meaning: “unkind, hostile” and “lacking generosity.”
I see four basic aspects to this problem:
- Black and white thinking. Nothing fosters infighting and hamstrings practical action like this does. It isn’t only unjust to treat a neoliberal and a Nazi as morally and politically equivalent: it’s unproductive. You can’t build any kind of coalition like that.
- Suspicion of non-leftists. This is partly the product of fascist gaslighting, but also of black and white thinking. This makes it really hard for newbies to enter leftist spaces.
- No forgiveness. You can’t build, or reform, a society without a way to re-integrate people who transgress its norms.
- Lack of reflection. None of us can claim to be perfect; we all started somewhere. We need to be okay with other people starting somewhere, too.
Now, a lot of leftists would probably say they’re not interested in building a coalition with people whose ideas are harmful. I get that. But I beg you to get over it. I’m not saying we need to ditch our ideals, but we need to be able to prioritize among them. Because no matter who wins the election, American fascism is not going to evaporate. And it’s just not true that everyone who’s not a leftist is interchangeable and equally problematic. Speaking personally, I want all the allies I can get right now—and I only have one minority identity, my sexuality. I can hardly imagine how people more vulnerable than I am feel.
The alternative to coalition-building, as far as I can tell, is revolutionary politics, and I am not hot on that. (If and when our government becomes openly, thoroughly fascist, I may be on board, but we aren’t there yet.) Quoting C. S. Lewis:
I am opposed to all very drastic and sudden changes of society (in whatever direction) because they never in fact take place except by a particular technique. That technique involves the seizure of power by a small, highly disciplined group of people; the terror and the secret police follow, it would seem, automatically. I do not think any group good enough to have such power. They are men of like passions with ourselves. … The character in That Hideous Strength whom [a certain critic] never mentions is Miss Hardcastle, the chief of the secret police. She is the common factor in all revolutions; and, as she says, you won’t get anyone to do her job well unless they get some kick out of it.1
In this series, I plan to go through the four problems listed above, explaining why they’re problems and what I think the best solution is. But first I’m going to sketch out my own political philosophy, so you can judge how my views relate to your own opinions and see how far we agree. D’accord? D’accord.
1This is from A Reply to Professor Haldane (who is the “certain critic” in question). J. B. S. Haldane was a professional biologist and outspoken Communist who criticized Lewis for what he considered slander against scientists. Lewis’ Reply can be found in the posthumous volume On Stories.