A writer who is a frequent and nervous re-reader of their own published work, in my opinion, suffers from a problem of ego (you may contend that the problem is lack of self-confidence, but there's a lot of ego involved even in that), and I make this judgement mainly because said writer is reading their own work far more times than any reader ever will (we’re just not that important, folks). But a second reason why I believe the problem of re-reading is ego, is that the time a writer spends re-reading their own work looking for mistakes is time not spent reading the work of far more deserving authors whose books could vastly improve the writing that our hypothetical re-reader spends so much time worrying about.
Which leaves me now to confess that over the past two days I have been this dreadful “re-reading writer”, going over all of the essays I’ve published— here and in magazines— since 2014, spurred by a late-night irrational fear of a thousand misspelled words, and ultimately discovering something I believe to be far worse: lack of nuance.
I have written frequently on the subjects of free speech, postmodernism, “social justice warriors”, and identity politics, and have mainly done so with an emphasis on students at universities. But in doing this, I haven't done a very good job at defining terms, and even more concerning, I haven’t done a very good job at letting readers know where my criticism comes from. As rightwing personalities on YouTube, other social media, and traditional television turn “social justice warrior”-criticism into a cottage industry that in itself is its own gross victimhood, I feel like it’s important to show the differences between leftwing criticisms of identity politics and social justice movements and rightwing criticisms, as well as show why those differences matter… a lot.
But first, I’d like to define terms.
Identity politics: To a certain extent identity politics is inevitable. The problems that African-Americans face are not going to be exactly the same as problems faced by Americans with disabilities, and the problems faced by Americans with disabilities are not going to be the same as the problems of gay and lesbian Americans. Due to the distinct lifestyles and experiences of each group, different needs tend to arise, and thus these different groups will look for candidates in elections who address those different needs. This form of identity politics is as old as politics itself and there’s nothing wrong with it. The term “representative democracy” would be somewhat meaningless actually, if Americans were expected merely to vote as a big mass without any group distinctions. The type of identity politics being criticized, then, at least by me, is a politics based on identity that elevates group identification and group needs above what unifies us as a country and above what Americans need collectively as citizens.
This pernicious form of identity politics really rears its ugly head when politicians employ it during elections, often to cover up some major policy problem they would like to keep buried. In the case of Hillary Clinton in 2016, she relied heavily on white suburban feminism and “shattering the glass ceiling” as a way to distract voters from her allegiance to Wall Street, while many of her supporters railed against the pro-single payer and pro-criminal justice reform Bernie Sanders campaign, because it was predominantly “white and male” (Which it wasn’t. Women under 30 supported Sanders by fluctuating margins of 20-30% more than Hillary Clinton throughout 2016, including minority women, prompting a very grouchy Gloria Steinem to wag her finger and claim that these women were only supporting Sanders “so they could meet boys”.) This is when identity politics is at its worst, and when it is deserving of leftwing critique; when group-pandering is used as a way of distracting from the candidate’s unwillingness to address vast income inequality and economic injustice, and maintain the political status quo.
There’s very much a sense, I think, among my generation that the neoliberal vision for the world has failed in every measurable way. And thus the only thing that the neoliberal elites have left to preserve their positions of power and influence is identity politics. Token offerings to women and minorities in exchange for allegiance, in an effort to prevent a (needed) total economic overhaul.
Social justice: There are many different types of “social justice” and many different social justice movements, most of which are very good. The Black Lives Matter movement has been extremely effective in raising national awareness of police brutality against African-Americans, and particularly against young African-American men. LGBT activists were very effective in getting marriage equality recognized at the federal level in 2015, and are still very effective in ensuring that their rights as couples are not infringed. And finally, social justice movements related to labor and economy (Fight for 15, Red for Ed, Medicare for All, etc) have also done amazing work beginning a national conversation on how wage stagnation, lobbying, and wealth concentration affect average Americans in really bad ways.
All of these movements are great, all of them should be applauded, and all of them fall under the umbrella term “social justice”. What, then, have I meant in past early essays where I decried “social justice” in a very general and careless way, and what have I meant in later essays when I narrowed that criticism down to the “excesses of social justice movements”? In short, misguided college students who believe that censorship in the name of “social justice” can be used for good. I think no matter where one sits on the political spectrum, it’s disturbing to see the next generation— or in my case, my own generation— calling for the suppression of opposing views out of a belief that there's a “right and wrong side” to history (There isn't, which isn't to say that there is no right or wrong, but rather that “history”— like the cosmos— doesn't give a damn). Freedom of expression is the central pillar of an open and free society, and without it the open and free society could not exist. What's more, social justice movements depend on the right to freedom of speech to survive in societies that— at least in the beginning— are strongly resistant to the messages of those movements. To bring an end to that right, or to undermine it in any way, would backfire and damage our ability to organize (at a time, too, where organizing labor is already facing massive obstacles like “Right to Work” legislation).
With my definitions out of the way then, what are some examples of how leftwing and rightwing complaints differ when it comes to identity politics and social justice? I'll give a few.
When leftists criticize student activists for shouting down lecturers, wanting to outlaw “hate speech”, and for thinking that “microaggressions” are tantamount to physical violence, that criticism is out of a genuine wish to 1) preserve and make better the open society, and 2) be consistent with the application of our values. But when the right criticizes student activists, I find that it’s a one-sided criticism made out of political opportunism rather than any real concern for free speech. Evidence for this was conservatives’ deafening silence when Trump supporters were egged-on by Trump himself to beat protesters at his rallies. At a 2016 rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the presidential contender told the attendees, “Knock the crap out of ‘em, would you?! Seriously, okay! Just knock the hell— I promise you I will pay for the legal fees, I promise!” At a rally in St. Louis a month later, he opined that “Protesters realize that there are no consequences to protesting anymore. There used to be consequences, there are none anymore.” Despite these very disturbing instances (of which I’ve only mentioned two out of nine), self-appointed Free Speech Defenders on the right like Milo Yiannopoulos, Lauren Southern, and so on, had no problem openly and loudly supporting Trump in his bid for the White House. The right to free speech— apparently— was not in danger when a candidate for the most powerful office in the world was talking about “consequences” for using it; the right to free speech was only in danger when 18-22 year olds started yelling in school.
When the right gets angry that a conservative or libertarian figure has been censored on social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook, they ultimately have no ideological recourse, because at the end of the day they’re forced to shrug their shoulders and say “Well, these are private companies. Even though censorship sucks, they can do what they want.” Whereas we on the left recognize that these platforms have become so large, and cover so much daily discourse, that they’re basically the new public square; and therefore sites like Facebook and Twitter either need to be nationalized (putting speech on these platforms under constitutional protection) or they need to be democratized (meaning that all users of the platform get an equal share of ownership and can therefore vote on the direction and decisions of the platform). Notice the difference? One side pouts about the decline of free speech, but isn’t willing to question the “rights” of corporations in order to preserve free speech, while the other side recognizes that under a capitalist system all rights are subservient to the needs of capital.
But the biggest difference of all between the left’s criticism of identity politics and “social justice warriors” and the right’s criticism of the same, is that leftists talk about other stuff besides those two subjects! I could seriously watch a Dave Rubin episode from two years ago and not tell the difference from one released last week. The same with CRTV. The same with Rebel Media. By contrast, I learn something new every time I listen to leftwing podcasters like Michael Brooks, Sam Seder, Douglas Lain, and The Young Turks, or whenever I read Jacobin, The Baffler, or a book from Verso. The subjects that these podcasts and publications tackle range from the American economic system to criminal justice to voter suppression to the environment, etc. This is why I find the aforementioned “Leaving the Left” cottage industry that has sprang up in places like YouTube completely disingenuous, and to some extent I suspect, orchestrated. These are harsh accusations but justified ones, based on how the narrative structure of the left-defecting online personality typically goes: “The left is becoming too politically correct and/or I had a bad experience with someone on the left, and therefore I have changed my opinions about economics, energy, social issues, healthcare, and racism.” It simply doesn’t make sense. All movements, political and otherwise, contain elements within them that will always annoy— and even disturb— some adherents of those movements. That happening though, does not normally lead to a reversal of every political position one has ever held.
But ultimately the final difference between right and leftwing criticism of identity politics and social justice can be so plainly seen that it almost needn’t be written: The right criticizes identity politics and the excesses of social justice movements to tear the left down, while the left criticizes identity politics and the excesses of social justice movements because we are invested in our own political viability. It’s important, then, that leftists who criticize identity politics and social justice not ally themselves with rightwing pundits doing the same. Joining forces with an enemy to police one’s own side is completely counterproductive and will never ever lead to anything good.
To be sure, yes, the American leftwing has naively bought into concepts which I believe were invented by neoliberal interests to ultimately undermine leftwing goals: The assertion of postmodernism that “there is no objective truth” is promoted so it can be used one day to cast doubt on the truth of the plight of the working class and to undermine the reality of class warfare. The political philosophy du jour of “intersectionalism”— though advocated with good intent by many on the socialist left— is meant to keep a genuine democratic populist revolution from ever rising (because it’s hard to agree on common causes if potential members of a mass movement are instead bickering about how their interests differ and conflict). Virtue signaling is largely a tool corporations use to deflect attention from their tax breaks, shipping of jobs overseas, and their paying of unlivable wages.
But I can’t help but voice a minor regret that my criticisms of the left have outnumbered my attacks on the right, who are— politically speaking— the actual enemy. Though I’ve never used the term “being a snowflake”, I’ve attributed snowflake-ism almost exclusively to students at universities, when there are in fact as many— if not more— snowflake conservatives, and certainly more snowflakes among the 0.01% of earners in our country. The economically privileged, and the talking heads which defend them and are paid by them, cry victimhood far more frequently than any pink-haired Gender Studies major or internet forum crusader.
In short, readers, while I will never stop the Dumbledorian exhortation to “stand up to my friends” when necessary, I am going to lay off a bit, and focus more invectives on the other side of the political spectrum who wish to see wealth further concentrated at the top and desire to impose the perceived norms of an idealized past which never really existed at the expense of minorities.