I’m going to clarify a couple of things very quickly and simply before I offer a more in depth analysis. If you’ve been reading my stuff over the last year or so, you might have noticed that the subject is very often discourse itself. Importantly, when I write about the discourse of a particular issue, my primary interest is in how the conversation is being conducted and not in supporting one side or another. This is a source of very much confusion, for when I object to the way a criticism is being made people will invariably infer that I am siding with the group being criticized and that I believe there is no criticism to be made at all. This inference is wrong.
With that in mind, I obviously need to explicitly correct a couple of inferences of this kind before we proceed. For clarity, I will do this point for point.
I do not believe there is a single, ideologically coherent group of people called ‘the Left’. That is why I often object to arguments which speak in such broad and sweeping terms.
- This does not mean that I don’t believe the criticism applies to anyone.
- This does mean that I feel the target of the criticism has not been adequately identified. This does mean that I feel the use of such a broad term as ‘the Left’ tends to claim a broader relevance for the criticism than it actually deserves.
I believe that the term ‘Political Correctness’ is often abused, and that people like Donald Trump and the ‘alt-right’ use it as a bogeyman to drum up support.
- This does not mean I don’t believe that overly sensitive standards of speech are a problem. This does not mean I think that people always express or ‘enforce’ their standards of speech in a healthy, reasonable, and justified way; I do believe there is a very toxic culture of call-outs, accusations of bigotry, and hostility towards opposing views.
- This does mean that I recognize that what people refer to as ‘Political Correctness’ is, as I allude to above, simply a set of beliefs about what speech is frowned upon and what the appropriate response to such speech; and that all social and political groupings have such a set of beliefs, not just young, college liberals.
I think the issue is probably overstated and over-prioritized. Most people who care greatly about the PC issue argue that it is a pervasive problem with ‘Leftists. The implication is that something like half the population can be neatly categorized as simply ‘Leftist’, and that pretty much everyone who fits into that category is part of the “PC brigade”.
- This does not mean that I don’t think it’s a problem at all. It doesn’t even mean I don’t think the group is large. It might be. I don’t know – that’s the problem.
- This does mean I would like to see some evidence for these bombastic claims. And I’d like to emphasize that the following is a fact, not an opinion: every article I’ve read, every person I’ve talked to, every online discussion I’ve read; in all of the very many opinions I’ve read to the effect that ‘ALL leftists are PC thugs, and there are lots of leftists indeed’, there has never been one iota of evidence to back the claim up. Only opinion, hyperbole, anecdotes. “It’s obvious!” is the general retort, but that is, of course, anecdotal.
- This does mean, on a related note, that since I think there is a real problem, I would like to see an appropriate response; and an appropriate response would obviously be grounded in facts. That is why I would like to see a more sober analysis of the extent of the problem.
Having corrected those misunderstandings, I hope we can now proceed with a far better chance of mutual understanding.
As I said at the outset, much of my writing in the last year or so has been about discourse itself. I have my own opinions, and fall on one side or another of plenty of issues, but it has been my firm belief for some time now that something must be done about the state of discourse in general, and I tend to prioritize this over my own opinion as a matter of great importance. What use is having an opinion if it’s impossible to have a rational conversation? So I get annoyed when I feel that language is being used ineffectively or –far worse- in ways that obscure the truth, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Language is abused in discussions of politics more than anywhere else, and the consequences are far more serious than you might initially think. I’m not being a pedant. I don’t care which antonym of ‘your’ or ‘there’ you use if it’s obvious from context; life is just not that long. But if you’re trying to make a serious political statement and you’re using terms incorrectly, or terms with contested meanings or false premises embedded in their popular use, then the conversation is pointless.
Two terms that distress me more than any others (oh, except for ‘capitalism’) are ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’. The world isn’t that simple: you can’t neatly divide everybody with an opinion into two easy categories. If you write a Facebook post, an essay, a book, anything which makes liberal use of these terms without spending sufficient time and effort delineating which of the many possible meanings you might be attaching to them, your post, your essay, your book is likely to be trash. And its trash because it obscures the truth. And what’s more, it’s divisive – most of the statements I read which contain the terms are using them as a pejorative.
I repeat: that is why I object to statements like ‘the left-wing are’, or ‘leftists just…’. They’re profound oversimplifications. And I repeat: if you substituted another term, something specific, something which clearly identifies who you’re talking about, I might agree. And this doesn’t only degrade communication, it degrades thought. It encourages us to think in equally generalized terms, and to ignore nuance, to be oblivious to diversity of opinion. Personally, I value diversity of opinion, because I love nothing so much as a contrary viewpoint which is expressed with intelligence and good intentions. I believe this is the best kind of intellectual check and balance, which helps us develop a broader understanding of things, to be able to change our opinion based on new evidence, and generally to refine our own positions.
And if you stop to think about it, this suggests a better guiding principle for our criticisms. Every article or essay I can recall discussing an ideology which was not the author’s own had the same combative tone; the aim was to debunk, to discredit, to dissuade, and so on. The aim should be dialectic: to arrive at the truth by the exchange of differing opinions. We should be prepared to offer constructive criticism, and to listen sympathetically to constructive criticisms as well. I, too, have some serious problems with what has become of liberalism, and parts of what people call ‘the Left’ especially, and I intend to write about it. But I don’t intend to write about it simply because I am not a liberal and would like to persuade others that they shouldn’t be liberals either; I will write in the hopes of a better liberalism. I yearn for the liberalism of yesteryear which had so much to contribute to human thought. I will write because we all need to be challenged, and at present I find no real value, no allies or debate partners, in any popular ideology.
So yes, finally, I share many of your concerns. I’m not sure If I agree with your characterizations of the demographic in question or its size, and I perhaps don’t prioritize it as highly as you, but it’s not because I find no grounds for criticism at all. This intellectual climate is too bombastic, hyperbolic, unclear, incomprehensible, as it is, and I’ve been hesitant to join in on a crusade which doesn’t seem to have a clear enough definition of who they’re fighting against, however much they can talk about what they’re fighting against. I didn’t want to contribute to a perception of this problem as monolithic when I’m not at all convinced that it is. But I want to put to bed the notion that I’m simply defending ‘Leftists’ (when I don’t believe any such homogeneous group exists) and anything they might do (when I object to much of the same behaviour that you do).
There is a profoundly toxic element amongst young people who fight for goals which have traditionally been associated with leftist ideologies (note: plural), such as opposing racism, sexism, colonialism, and so on. This toxic element probably does identify as part of ‘the Left’, or at least opponents of ‘the Right’. This is the beginning of a definition, but everything I’ve said applies to more than one group of people. The causes they associate with, moreover, are admirable, and many people are sound, effective advocates for them. So we are probably talking about a subset within this group (which is itself a subset of ‘leftists’). Thank God our criticism didn’t begin something like “the problem with Leftists…”
This subset, this group of people, are best characterized by an attitude and by the toxic traits which result from it. The attitude is superior, sarcastic, dogmatic and arrogant. They seem to feel that the fact they’re ‘fighting for’ good causes entitles them to act however they like. If you don’t agree with their every dogma, you are at the very least stupid and probably a racist and a misogynist to boot. Their tactics are primarily to shame, ostracise, belittle, condescend to, humiliate, etc. Because if you’re not with them, you’re against them, and because they’re against oppression, well – why should they have to be polite to fascist oppressors? Don’t police their tone, please, shitlord.
The problem with this self-righteous and childish posturing becomes apparent very quickly if you are at all sensible. If you claim to really care about something, then you ought to care about being effective. You can’t say you are fighting racism or misogyny if you’re not changing minds. You might feel good calling people out on each and every social misstep, you might feel like you’re standing up for what’s right, but unless your actions have a real, positive impact, then all it amounts to is moral grandstanding oblivious of consequences.
On many occasions I have watched such people belittle and humiliate well-intentioned people they had a disagreement with. Sometimes called ‘call out culture’, they delight in pointing out any minor ignorance or unintended expression of privilege or crime against the laws and dogma of their ideology. For instance, somebody who is trying to argue for tolerance and harmony inadvertently uses a word in a way that is offensive; rather than kindly pointing out the error and asking them to bare it in mind, they call the individual out; they publicly shame them for their sin and express a lack of respect for the individual, treating them with snark.
What is the purpose of this behaviour? I assume it isn’t intended to effectively educate others in order to avoid future mistakes. It’s hard to see any purpose except for making oneself feel superior at another’s expense; showing off membership to the ingroup and highlighting the outsider status of the individual who made an honest mistake. Call me crazy, but that doesn’t seem like the objectives of somebody who genuinely cares about a cause; it seems like the empty posturing of someone to whom anti-racism and anti-sexism are status symbols and social capital.
This behaviour is profoundly divisive. It makes people feel unwelcome in progressive circles and discourages them from trying to change and help. Oftentimes it makes them resentful of progressivism and activism in general. It has turned God knows how many people away from the causes these people are supposed to be promoting. It has made discourse about the issues they care about limited and explosive: these topics are often so loaded with emotion and so sullied by personal attacks that they’re near impossible to have a conversation about, thanks to this behaviour. So the real, measurable impact of this behaviour is to alienate valuable causes, to associate these causes with vitriol in people’s minds; in short, the precise opposite of furthering the goals they claim to care about.
This is doubly frustrating if, like me, you also care about these causes. To see a group of fanatics try to claim exclusive ownership of ideals you hold dear, to watch them turn these ideals into buzzwords, into objects of ridicule and anger; this is the most upsetting thing you could possibly observe. A dozen white supremacists couldn’t do as much to hurt the cause of anti-racism as just one of these supposedly progressive warriors for change. And should you try to communicate these ideals effectively, you’ll find yourself fighting an uphill battle just to shake off the stigma they’ve attached before anyone is willing to give you a fair hearing.
This is the situation one finds themselves in as a feminist, as an anti-capitalist, even as a vegan. I repeat: the fanatically inept proponent of an idea can do infinitely more to discredit it than even the most effective opponent.
Yes, I care deeply about this. I’m sick of this intolerable behaviour, but I’m disheartened by the lack of calm, lucid responses to it. It disgusts me to see people celebrating the rise of Donald Trump and the ‘alt-right’ as a victory in the fight against this behaviour. It’s not. It is a blatant continuation of the same bullshit. Don’t stoop to their level and don’t celebrate people who do. And if you’re going to do something about it, then we should really start trying to ground our analysis of the problem in facts, lest the opposition to this toxic element continue to be obnoxious and flaccid.
I hope that clears up where I stand.