“Viewpoint diversity, when it treads on certain progressive articles of faith, is scorned, and the ideas considered within the bounds of respectable discourse on contentious issues is increasingly narrow.”
Most critiques of the progressive Left contend with its overzealous activism and moralizing approach to politics, which can resemble a secular religion. It has even become a staple of conservative media in recent years to highlight the voices of former progressives who have demurred from the excesses of social justice, as though it were tantamount to leaving a cult. Unfortunately, as a consequence of the all-encompassing gravitational pull of the culture war, critiques of the Left “from the Left” tend to swiftly turn into partisan potshots, betraying more opportunism and bad faith than sincere desire to improve the cultural discourse between opposing political tribes around complex and important issues.
In a series of articles published last year in Quillette, Uri Harris encouraged supporters of the so-called Intellectual Dark Web to engage with social justice ideas, particularly around issues of identity, privilege, and structural oppression. The real challenge for those of us concerned with the trajectory of modern progressivism, Harris argued, is to parse the efficacy of its ideas from the activists who apply them destructively, insisting the aim should be, “to figure out how to embrace this more nuanced view of society without descending into authoritarianism, bigotry, or anti-intellectualism.”
In an effort to do precisely that, I’d like to briefly outline some prevailing ideas of the cultural Left. In my own view, the problem with social justice is not that it’s inherently authoritarian, bigoted, or anti-intellectual—but that its premises are not followed to their natural conclusions, which reveals an underlying bias that works against its stated goals. Here are some examples:
A good place to start is with the concept of privilege. Privilege theory argues that each individual is embedded in a matrix of categories and contexts that confers advantages to some and not others. According to Wikipedia, “social privilege” is an entitlement or unearned advantage that we are unaware of and that is employed to our benefit—and to the detriment of other people.
Examples from history abound: In the era of Jim Crow, a lack of awareness of the privileges of white society and their impact on the black community (such as the institutionalized practice of redlining that relegated blacks to dilapidated housing quarters to maintain the property value of white neighborhoods) undoubtedly expanded the lifespan of segregation. The idea that our relative privilege can blind us to the suffering of other people, who might not have those privileges, borders on the undeniable.
The question beckons, why is it so often the case that people who rail against privilege appear to have so much of it?
But the fact that privilege theory tends to express itself with an almost exclusive focus on the privilege allocated by visibly immutable traits like race and gender—as opposed to less obvious markers of privilege like our relative health and wealth—should give us pause, as should the discomfiting fact that purveyors of privilege theory tend to be wealthy, white, and operate in elite institutions. The question beckons, why is it so often the case that people who rail against privilege appear to have so much of it?
Following the logic of the privilege concept, we arrive at the vexing truth that almost everyone is privileged in some capacity or another and are blind to the implications of that privilege in some way, which leaves the question conspicuously open as to what should be done about it. How do we quantify the importance of one kind of privilege in relation to another, and how do we effectively redistribute that privilege?
That these questions are left unaddressed alludes to a major problem with the privilege concept: that grappling with the complex nature of privilege is auxiliary to shaming the fact of privilege itself to dissociate from one’s own relative privileges.
Intersectionality is the idea that a human being can experience multiple dimensions of identity-based oppression at once, or, as Coleman Hughes recently summarized, oppression is more than the sum of its parts. For instance, we might be a minority, which is one dimension of potential harm, but we are also a recent immigrant, which is another, and we also happen to have an illness—and the intersection of these challenges paints a more accurate portrait of what that particular individual has to contend with than looking at just one feature.
But if we follow the logic of intersectionality to its zenith, we are inclined to recognize that almost every single human being is oppressed along one dimension or another—and that the intersecting dimensions of that oppression may well be invisible. If the ways in which we might be marginalized are near infinite and difficult to identify, the sensible response would be to recognize the individual as the ultimate minority and treat every person we interact with in accordance with that ideal.
Rather than cultivate a principle of charity in our engagements—remaining open to the prospect that the people we interact with are suffering in ways we can’t fully understand—intersectional theorists focus only on oppression as measured against the moral void of the straight white male, seemingly more interested in tearing people down from the top of the social hierarchy than pulling them up from the bottom. You would be forgiven for assuming this worldview is more concerned with valorizing victimhood and enshrining group identity than ameliorating suffering en masse.
Identity politics refers to the tendency to form political alliances around a shared background. But it has a more immediate and controversial definition: our respective identities are accurate predictors of our political views.
For starters, it is clearly the case that having a particular identity can engender a certain experience that shapes our understanding of the world. More, identity politics has proven historically useful in overcoming group-based oppression, such as the abolitionist movement or the civil rights revolution. But rather than simply acknowledging that our group identity can be politically expedient, the prevailing tendency is to draw a straight line between group identity and ideology, such as when representative Ayanna Pressley asserted that “we don’t need anymore brown faces that don’t have a brown voice,” as though being a person of color necessarily implies a certain political orientation.
Contra Rep. Pressley, the logic of identity politics could just as easily land us in a space of mutual respect, appreciating the divergent experiences involved in belonging to different groups without forgoing our respective sense of identity. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and the identity politics model appears much more likely to inch us toward an increasingly balkanized time bomb of political and racial tribalism. Moreover, the fact that only certain identity groups are given space to express grievance, while other less recently marginalized groups attempting doing the same are pathologized (and associated with the evils of history) shows us this formulation of identity politics is not about grappling with the intricate contours of human identity, as much as atoning for historically asymmetric power relations between groups.
Multiculturalism is a societal dynamic in which a plurality of identity groups can intermingle cooperatively and constructively. Although differences between cultures certainly matter, these differences can be transcended in pursuit of greater diversity and inclusion.
But for a concept in support of cultural pluralism, the spaces that promote multiculturalism—elite universities, media outlets, corporations—often more closely resemble a monoculture on closer inspection.
But for a concept in support of cultural pluralism, the spaces that promote multiculturalism—elite universities, media outlets, corporations—often more closely resemble a monoculture on closer inspection. Viewpoint diversity, when it treads on certain progressive articles of faith, is scorned, and the ideas considered within the bounds of respectable discourse on contentious issues is increasingly narrow.
One could certainly argue that this approach is necessary to account for historically produced inequality, but what one cannot argue is that it embodies a multicultural ideal, which would mean giving different cultural narratives and identities the benefit of the doubt. The logic of multiculturalism would compel us to err on the side of openness and tolerance, yet—in the case of white working class culture—anyone who challenges the tenets of anti-racism, acceptance of cultural differences no longer holds sway. From this, it follows that multiculturalism is not the universalist humanism its adherents claim but, rather, a method of disidentifying from historical oppression to feel a sense of innocence.
The thread running through each concept is that—though the logic behind each is universally applicable—it tends to only be applied selectively, bringing to light the central blindspot of modern progressivism: that it was founded in reaction to white supremacy and, therefore, is more focused on dissociating from the original sin of racism than augmenting the human experience in ways that are independent of our particular identities. This is a profound shame because if progressives were able to live by their own principles and ideals, committing to them in the same spirit that the civil rights leaders were committed to nonviolent protest (accepting the necessary sacrifices involved in taking the moral high road), then a truly powerful movement could arise on the Left that aspires towards The Good rather than denouncing the evils that dwell conveniently in the hearts and minds of our political opponents. If social justice is indeed a secular religion, perhaps it would benefit from a healthy dose of genuine spiritualism that recognizes our fallen state and offers the hope of redemption.
Sam Kronen is an autodidact interested in the intersection of politics and culture. He can be reached on Twitter @SalmonKromeDome.