What this means is that I am more regularly annoyed by the radicals (or progressives that talk like radicals) than I am by the conservatives in my life. I have to remember that this is only annoying rather than worrying. I have to imagine what it would be like if I had to endure a lot of bullshit statements coming from conservatives. I am lucky. I do however want to take the time here to vent a bit about the kinds of thinking that annoy me coming from my 'side'.
To say my 'side' is to betray that I too am seduced by some of the simplifications that I resent. The post-modern online identity-politics array of movements loves grand narratives that lack any kind of historic context. History is 'culturally constructed' so one can safely dismiss any of it that complicates ones own perspective. The problem with this is that you miss some very important things if your focus is on contemporary impressions. For instance you may think that respectful debate is an affectation of the elite (like which cutlery to use during which course) and miss the possibility that it was developed by and for hitherto marginalized groups and has helped change the world for the better.
Some odd contradictions seem to develop. On the one hand online activists (rightly) dismiss the simplification of a 'gender-binary'. On the other hand they accept the simplification of racialist models that serve to mask huge diversity. These models only work in very specific contexts and many of them are US-centric. Indeed (and in contradiction of an older post of mine) I suspect much of the online activist scene is a captive of 'US cultural imperialism'.
Online activists can however say some very important things. The concept of 'intersectionality' is both elegant and useful in understanding the complexity of power and prejudice. However once the talk is done the end result is all-too-often just substitution of old prejudices for new. If advantage and disadvantage is context-dependent then you would think that anyone and everyone can both have or lack those in different settings. And yet frequently it is the powerful person in a US context who is deemed to be the hegemonic face of humanity across all of space and time. This derided figure sits behind all problems in the imagination of the online activist. And yet anyone can be an agent of that hegemon because of a particular definition of 'privilege' that allows anyone to be tarnished with that label and dismissed from having a valid opinion.
One thing that seems to be missing in all this is compassion. Surely if everything that we are is culturally conditioned by the society in which we are immersed then everyone needs to be cut some slack for thinking as they do. And yet such consideration is barely existent. Everyone is instantly expected to have the same political consciousness as the online activist and if they lack it then they are dismissed as wicked. This is a form of prejudice or exclusivity. There are many kinds of privilege and I'm inclined to say that 'privilege privilege' is one of them - anyone using the term willy-nilly betrays themselves as part of a well-connected and politically literate group with the power to change words and concepts. That brings me to another thing that bugs me - messing with the language.
I'm aware that language is a constantly shifting and changing thing. But there is a difference between changes to the way society uses words and the imposition of group-specific jargon. Jargon has a tendency to allow members of a group to demonstrate that they belong together as distinct from the rest of the world. However one frustrating thing with online activists is the tendency for them to think that the way they use words is the way everyone should use words. If the average person thinks that privilege still refers to the landed gentry (or at any rate to those who truly hold riches and power) then how can they just be expected to switch definitions to something more complex and challenging? Once more there is a presumptuousness here that is annoying.
Some of it also serves to blunt communication. I have noticed a trend online to re-cast the word 'sympathy' as bad in contrast with 'empathy' which is deemed good. What they miss is that both things are different and both are useful. If you are only allowed to be empathetic and this necessitates a direct understanding of a unique experience then a lot of the time that empathy simply cannot exist. If however you are prepared to accept that someone cannot understand your exact predicament but offers care and consideration anyway then you are that bit better off.
I have to stress that all of this is only annoying rather than worrying because the movements described are somewhat self-restricting. In another post I described how some groups use parts of the Internet as 'sheltered workshops' and it is worth noting that a lot of the thinking that I find frustrating is the product of having been marginalized and stigmatized. One thing that such abuse does to a person is to distort how they perceive the world and limit how they can engage with it. Some online activists will stay in relatively safe online spaces (while sometimes mistakenly thinking non-safe spaces are safe). Others however will eventually move into wider settings in which vigorous debate is okay. It is only then that annoyance may turn to worry but in most cases these activists will push for reforms I agree with. I may even approve of some 'political correctness gone mad' - we need a bit more of that.
So far my rant seem to characterize me as a modernist lover of reasoned and empirical debate. To some extent I am but I also wish to distance myself from others who trumpet the same virtues. In my post I have made reference to compassion and the ability to communicate with a wide audience and I think these are values they overlook. And while I can be annoyed by the trendy jargon of online activists I'm also annoyed by those who use old but pretentious words like 'ergo'.
The next group I will vent about therefore is the supposed 'secularists' who forget that a secular society is one that accommodates all beliefs however fanciful they may be. These champions of rationality also tend to be lacking in the kind of human relations nuances that help develop alliances. Frankly a lot of the time they come across as arrogant and belligerent. I touched on this a while back in referring to sceptics who think they are so clever.
A lot of the time you find some pretty blinkered thinking among those who you would hope are constantly scrutinizing how they think. And while they have a passing interest in history they also have a mindblowingly selective interpretation of it. Pretty much anything ideological can be described as ‘religious’ if they have a problem with it. Under this prejudice Hitler was openly religious while Stalin was covertly religious. Why? Coz all religion sucks and all sucky things must come from it. And why do they think this way?
A lot of the time I think it is sufficient to assess an argument sans information on the identity of the arguer. But it can also be interesting to take a look at who is saying what. Many of the most vitriolic opponents of religion in the form of militant atheists are that way because they have a religious background. Family or friends who were religious made life difficult for them. They may even be deemed victims of its restrictive conditioning. They deserve pity for that but it also suggests that the way they respond to all forms of religion is distorted by emotion - ironic for a group who try to remove emotion from discourse. It gives you some inkling into why they respond so vehemently to trivial things like the voluntary labelling of food for religious purposes.
The other thing I have noticed is that even if they have removed religion from their lives they will tend to supplant it with something to fill the gap. Certainty still comforts them. Something that can reduce complexity into a tidy pattern is still attractive. They will sometimes embrace the kind of behaviour models promoted in the corporate world. But just like religions these are still just things invented to help make sense of things and they serve as rationalizations rather than rationality.
Once more I’m mostly just annoyed by these secularists rather than concerned by them. In some ways they may crudely exercise power over others. But in other ways they are limited by that lack of emotional nous and self-reflection. I can tolerate them and it can even be fun to turn the frustration back at them.
Technically this last group should be discussed in a separate post because they are in my opinion beyond-the-pale. A revolutionary is almost as much of a concern as a fascist. They want violent oppression. However the context in which I have met them effectively neutralizes them and I will tell you why. I once stood in front of a group of adherents of the works of Trotsky and asked them something like this:
“If somehow you managed to have a successful worldwide revolution and were now in control then how would you respond to dissent to your regime?”
I should have shortened my question because the opening part (involving the word “somehow”) was all they focused on. This is hardly surprising as the accusation that what they want is too much of a long-shot is one they face all the time. Naturally they latched onto that and ranted that revolution was more likely that I expected and could come at any time (and some I imagine were also thinking “and then you will be one of the first up against the wall”). My worry however is that it could happen and if so then what would they do with dissenters to the power they would hold? Would they return the favour that democratic regimes give them? They never responded to my substantive question and I have zero confidence that they ever will.
On the one hand this is a worry because they deny the danger of what they could become. On the other hand it was reassuring because it showed how lacking in critical self-examination they were. All they would do is all they ever did as they uttered the same litany over-and-over.
And then there is what they do in practice. They never try to capture the post office or the police station as they did in historic times. Rather we see them in the mall asking us to sign a petition to preserve funding for the ABC. Any moderate could do that. In the current kind of society and economy we live in I think they are just another movement lobbying for peaceful reform. In that context they are merely annoying. And if they ever became something different it would be because the context had changed and it would be the fault of conservatives if that were to happen.
Remembering Who The Enemy Is
Enemy may be too harsh a word. It smacks of war and bloodshed. Better words may be rival or opponent. In any case I have taken the luxury of criticizing those who are mostly working for the same things I am and in some cases even having a positive impact. I should keep this sort of thing to a limit however and focus on condemning the stupid or nasty things conservatives do to our society, economy and environment. This post then stands for all time as a rant. I can refer back to this from time-to-time and say “I made my objections known” rather than expend time poorly on arguing with those who only annoy me and who are otherwise making the world a better one.
And hopefully my conservative friends will keep their own counsel while I say the things I should be saying. I will argue with you but in all honesty an even better use of my time is in convincing wavering moderates of my politics.