Thursday, October 04, 2018

Left-wing Essentializing: Guilt By Association

So, I guess the time has come for me to speak up about a phenomenon that I keep encountering on social media; one that I find troubling and potentially dangerous to the Left.  To my knowledge a term for this sort of activity hasn’t been coined yet, but it’s definitely entwined with the more extreme versions of “Call Out Culture and Identity Politics”.  And please believe me, I bring up this issue with great reluctance. It’s a messy, emotionally charged subject and I’m bound to irritate some people, but I feel enough is enough.

I’m going to call this phenomenon, “left-wing essentializing”, for lack of a better term.  I realize it’s not a particularly “sexy”, comprehensive, or even necessarily a technically accurate term.  But it’s the best I can come up with right now. 

And before I start, let me make something very clear.  Like everyone else, I too have racist and sexist tendencies and I’m not trying to claim otherwise.  I’m critiquing a specific political strategy here; I’m not trying to claim that I shouldn’t be examining my day-to-day behaviour and making improvements as required.  

I first encountered the phenomenon of left-wing essentializing in 2016, while looking at various friends’ posts on Facebook.  I came across an article that my friend (a white dude, let’s call him Jim), had shared.  The article was about the subtle forms of racism that white people might not be aware that they’re engaging in.  No problem with that.  In fact, potentially a great idea, as racism can be very subtle and it’s possible to engage in it without knowing it.  The problem I had with the article was the headline, “Don’t Kid Yourself, All White People Are Racists”.  It was a quote from a trans, person of colour, who was being interviewed in the article.

I found the second half of the headline disturbing and I said so.  My comment went like this:  All people are racist.  In other words; all people have racist tendencies.  The difference is that some folks acknowledge it, accept that it’s undesirable and work to change it, while others don’t—regardless of their race. I went on to say, that I don’t believe in what I called “racial essentialism”.  By racial essentialism, I meant the attributing of a wholly subjective, negative quality, to a particular race.  And I pointed out that this reminded me of early separatist feminism, when men in the Left were unequivocally told that “all men are rapists”.  I said it’s time to move beyond such unhelpful rhetoric.  

This led to a back and forth between Jim and I, with him finally asking for clarification on my comment.  I reiterated my points as best I could and went on to give him numerous examples showing how white people do not have a monopoly on racism. I argued that to state that white people are racist, without any qualification, is itself racist, as it is a negative generalization of a racial group. I went on to say, “If what you and others are trying to say is that the dominant power structure in the West, favours white people and tends to disenfranchise non-white people, then say that and I won’t argue with you”.   

Suddenly, one of Jim’s Facebook friends, a young, white woman (let’s call her Emily), wades into the discussion and says that I’m accusing a person of colour of racism and therefore, I deserve to be publicly insulted.  She goes on to call me an “old white dinosaur” and “a bigot”. Finally, she makes a very dramatic pronouncement: “I shall have to block you”.  And she then proceeds to do so, as though I’m some kind of stalker or something. This is part of the reason I’ve been reluctant to bring up this subject by the way.  Who the hell wants to be treated like that?

Now to be fair to Jim, he often posts great articles that I find interesting and insightful.  I believe his heart is generally in the right place and although he posted the article and debated me on a number of my points, his comments followed some sort of logic and he was quite civil.  He didn’t try to demonize me or ridicule me.  But he didn’t come to my defense even once, while Emily did her very best to portray me as some vile, old boys club racist, even though he knew that the accusation was unfounded.  Why did he remain  silent while Emily was “calling me out”?  I believe it was out of fear; fear of being called out himself and fear of being excommunicated from his peer group.  As we will see, it may be that his fear was well founded.

So over the next few years I see a growing number of progressives on social media, posting and sharing similar articles, tweets and comments.  But I say nothing.  I want to say something, or at least “like” the occasional comment I see challenging the posts, but I don’t.  I procrastinate.  I wasn’t quite ready for another onslaught like the one I got from Emily.

But eventually I come across a similar type of share on Facebook by another friend of mine (let’s call him Frank).  Now again, Frank is basically a decent person and often posts threads that I like a lot.  But this particular post reminded me even more of the “all men are rapists” essentializing of the early separatist feminists.  This one consisted of a shared Tweet posted by a person of colour (I’m not sure of their gender), in which he/she essentially claims, that men say that they don’t live in a pedophile culture.  He/she goes on to propose, that because men make fun of women with saggy boobs, are disgusted at body hair on women, only like women a lot younger than themselves, prey on minors and watch teen porn, that men are essentially pedophiles.

So I ask Frank if the author is talking about men in general, a lot of men, or some specific men in particular.  Frank responds by posting yet another article, which mocks the notion that one need be specific in calling out oppressors.  The article asserts that everyone knows that individuals who list the negative attributes of men, don’t mean all men, just like if you were to say, “dogs peed on my rose bushes”, one wouldn’t take it to mean every dog in the world peed on your rose bushes.  I responded by asking Frank that if I said, “Dogs are vicious”, would he take that to mean that I felt that dogs in general were vicious, or just the ones who killed my cat?  Or how about if someone said, “black people are lazy”, or “First Nations people are drunks”.  Would that be acceptable too?  I explained to him that I object to all subjective generalizations based on gender, race, language, ethnicity, nationality and sexual orientation, and that he should as well.

So this led to a back and forth between Frank and I.  Rather than actually answer my questions, he claimed that these generalizations are everywhere you look, for all sorts of people and that they’re commonly and harmlessly used for illustrative purposes.  I reiterated my point, that it wasn’t acceptable in the case of the target groups I had just mentioned—whether it was commonly done or not.  He went on to state that I was being disingenuous and repeatedly pointed out, that because of my objections, I sounded suspiciously like various anti-feminist men’s groups on Twitter—implying that I shared their views.  I explained that I never look at Twitter and my thoughts are my own.

At this point, a close friend of Frank’s (let’s call her Pam), posted the comment, “Keep a close eye on how people react to posts like this”.  I asked her if she could clarify her comment for me, but she refused to do so.  So I asked Frank if he could tell me what she was getting at.  He took a long time getting back to me, but finally, he explained to me that he learns something about people who object to this sort of post and that he judges them by their reactions.  He says that it’s like when white people cry, “oh my God, #NotAllWhitePeople”, or #NotAllMen.”  And then he says, “I find the defensiveness weird”.  I gave up at that point and that was the end of the exchange, but I’ve since discovered that Frank has unfriended me on Facebook.  I’ve known Frank and been on good terms with him for almost 40 years.  But apparently, questioning the doctrine of left-wing essentializing is a crime punishable by excommunication.

So it seems pretty clear that what Frank actually meant by, “I find their defensiveness weird”, is that when people challenge left-wing essentializing, he concludes that their politics are suspect.  In other words, though they may appear to be left-wing progressives or even radicals, the fact that they object to subjective, negative, generalizations of race, gender, or sexual orientation, suggests that they are in fact closet racists, sexists, or homophobes.   Of course—and this is the unacknowledged, rather large elephant in the room—this is only true when the generalizations are about white people, men and heterosexuals.  If someone were to make the same sort of generalizations about people of colour, women or gays, these same people who claim that these generalizations are just fine, would be up in arms.  And so they should be.   But I strongly believe in the saying, “What‘s good for the goose is good for the gander”.  Play by the rules you expect others to play by and be consistent.  If one wants to be truly progressive, one needs to set a good example and exhibit fairness, not just through their actions, but through their language as well.

And I believe that the reason Frank and Pam initially hesitated, and then were very coy about explaining to me what they meant by “keeping a close eye on how people react”, was because, perhaps, unlike the usual challenger, I brought a fair amount of “street cred” with me into the discussion.  It would be a lot harder to claim, in my case, that I was only raising objections to the post, because I was some kind of knuckle-dragging, sexist creep, worried that their generalizations were hitting too close to home.  Clearly, my history as an activist demonstrated otherwise.  So better to just keep the usual, more strident calling-out under wraps on this one.  

I also found it interesting, that no matter how many times I repeated my concerns about how this generalizing was a slippery slope and dangerous, no matter how many examples I gave Frank of how essentializing men was inappropriate for the same reasons that it would be to essentialize women, no matter how many times I tried to explain to him that it was totally unnecessary to essentialize in order to make his point, he remained totally fixated on the idea that I was objecting to it simply because I personally didn’t like being called sexist.  He had me neatly packed away in his  #NotAllMen box and all he seemed to hear were their voices, not mine.

Once this guilt by association process comes into play, real discussion becomes impossible.  If you say something like, “I don’t like the colour blue,” you’re immediately slotted under the #wedon’tlikethecolourblue social media group and nothing you say beyond that is heard.  It’s just assumed that you hold the exact same views as the people calling themselves #wedon’tlikethecolourblue and from that point on, you’ll be treated as such.  It seems there’s little room for nuance or independent thought in the left-wing essentializing/extreme Identity Politics camp.  Veering even slightly from the entrenched doctrine is seen as reactionary.  And I think we on the Left are kidding ourselves if we think this activity isn’t driving potential allies away—or even to the other side.  This isn’t building bridges, it’s burning them.

Also, I have to say; this activity seems more like performance, than a serious attempt at building a just and egalitarian society.  It actually looks a lot more like a somewhat desperate attempt to score points with one’s peers; as if to say, “Look, I’m way more woke than the rest of you.  I stand shoulder to shoulder with the oppressed”.  Sorry, but it seems to me that by standing off to one side, pointing your finger accusingly and loudly proclaiming that your gender or racial group is inherently oppressive, you’re actually, in a sense, loudly proclaiming that you are not. 

But this isn’t a game.  It’s not some competitive sport where the most woke progressive wins.   This is serious business.  Fascism is coming to a town near you—if it hasn’t already arrived there. Sitting in front of your computer with your thumbs in your ears, wiggling your fingers, shouting nah-nah-nah-nah-nah at your enemies—real or imagined— achieves nothing.  It isn’t going to stop human-driven climate change from flooding coastal cities and drying up most of the crops that you and others rely on for food.  Nor is it going to stop pension plans, Medicare, unemployment insurance, and education budgets from being clawed back or discontinued outright.  And it sure as hell isn’t going to stop gangs of black-shirted thugs from marching through your neighborhood, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at mosques, synagogues, abortion clinics and yes, your house.

So do we live in a patriarchy that benefits men at the expense of women?  You bet. Is that acceptable?  Not on your life. Does structural racism exist that benefits white people at the expense of people of colour?  Absolutely.  Is it acceptable?  Fuck no.  Do white men (in particular, but not exclusively), need to fully understand these truths and struggle against them?  Isn’t it obvious—of course!  It’s part of the holistic revolutionary process that many of us have been advocating for for years. But by making sweeping generalizations about race and gender, you’re not building the revolution, you’re endangering it; you’re using, bolstering and giving credibility to the very tools the Right has been using for years to keep women, people of colour—and the working class—oppressed.

Now is it possible that I’ve over reacted to these and other posts, or that I’m being too picky about language when it’s used in the service of political activism?  Sure, after all, I’m only human and completely capable of grand fuck-ups like everybody else.  But I don’t think so.  I think that left-wing essentializing, along with the reckless use of calling-out tactics and engaging in extreme Identity Politics, are all serving to split the Left at a moment in history when it’s absolutely crucial that we put forward a united front.  Now if you think I’m wrong, feel free to tell me why I’m wrong.  And if you think I’m right, please, stop posting and/or “liking” threads that essentialize.  Or, if you’re a brave soul, maybe even consider challenging the person that’s posting them.

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