It’s one thing to fear speaking because you could be saying something wrong, but it is agonizing to self-censor because you fear you might be saying something right that is not allowed.
– Ayishat A. Akanabi
Many progressive organizations have been in a state of paralysis in the last few years. Plenty of in-depth articles, such as Elephant in the ZOOM, and books, such as The New Puritans, have been written about the widespread cultural phenomenon that affects progressive groups and goes under many names. I prefer to call it (Critical) Social Justice.
To understand the problem of talking about this phenomenon all it takes is to look at battles around the meaning of words. Wrong usage can upset someone, flinging open Pandora’s box and leading the organization into chaos—just because someone said something that is not allowed. Who determined the new rule of what is (not) allowed? Universities, tech giants, and progressive media established new boundaries of acceptability—without a proper public debate.
And this is just one side of the coin. The other side is how normal and common it has become to fish for “errors”, twist and exaggerate them to look horrendous, cover them with trashing labels, stir up public outrage, and insist such “errors” are absolutely intolerable, so they must be banned. Out of sheer terror, the accused will hurry to mend what he (supposedly) did wrong, apologize, and re-educate himself (and pray it all ends well). One thing is for sure: this will teach him a lesson to stay away from the outraged and never speak up again in public.
Even if the error was real and it was legitimate to call it out, the intensity of the reaction is overblown. If a foreigner observed the process without understanding the language he would, just from body language and facial expressions, notice hyper-sensitivity, paranoia, hysteria, vindictiveness, toxicity, and censoriousness. Douglas Murray described this as the Madness of Crowds.
“Progressive” climate blocks progressive politics
There is enough madness in this world and I am astonished to see the new “progressives” battling it with more madness. I am finding myself, paradoxically, resisting such change and, on this issue, agreeing with conservative analysts. Admitting this can cause me trouble in a progressive organization where Social Justice reigns.
The pressure to stay in line is immense. The frame of political correctness is narrow and polarized. Complex, nuanced positions are hard to maintain. If you’re not fully pro some modern moral imperative, you risk being called out as anti. The “public square” is charged with paranoia.
There is an ongoing war over the meanings of words, identities, structures, and morals. Before I got a taste of the upheaval of Critical Social Justice, I cheered new values breaking through. Intersectionality was adopted by the European Commission. Trans was the new gay, fighting for their rights could be nothing less than a moral triumph and a move in the right direction. Or?
I was put off by the toxicity that Social Justice activists brought in. They didn’t walk their talk. Once aggravated by an “error” they became unbearable. As the article that I link to above points out: “As critical social justice activists get drunk on their new power, they feel authorized to deem dissenters outdated (at best) or monsters (at worst).”
It was hard if not impossible to have an open-ended conversation, one that ends up with everyone learning something new and curious to learn more. Instead, I felt like being preached to by a rigorous priest. When I naively uttered something that was absolutely not allowed, all hell broke loose.
As it did in the case of J. K. Rowling, for example. When you read the article about the Author Who Failed Us, Rowling seems like a heartless enemy of the trans community, but if you go to her website and read her reasons for speaking out on sex and gender, you may reach a different conclusion. You can also go through the breakdown of the controversy and make up your own mind.
One thing is for sure: these are two utterly different and mutually exclusive portrayals of the same situation. If you agree with one, you cannot agree with the other. Because the public sphere is flooded with outrage, the much-needed nuanced conversation can’t take place. Rowling’s opponents completely lost me when burning her books spread like wildfire because she refused to yield to their unhinging accusations.
But today, there is a strong pushback against this madness. The moderate political center is changing with books like Trans and podcasts like Triggernometry, to mention just two. The general public’s opinion is shifting. Black intellectuals are speaking up, like John McWorther in his recent speech on Understanding the new politics of race. It is refreshing to see an actual debate organized by Oxford Union This House Believes Woke Culture Has Gone Too Far. Finally, publicists are wondering Have we reached peak woke?
Still, many progressive organizations, even when their leadership is aware of the toxicity of Social Justice, have their hands tied. Their membership is divided, and they dread that their “dirty laundry” would get out in public. They are afraid of a pile-on. Those in charge are exhausted from their internal upheavals and desperate to prolong periods of stability to do the work they need to do.
They explore carefully the political landscape to avoid any “mines”. They constrain conversations, institute surveillance to monitor speech, expect or even demand employees to self-censor (if peer pressure fails to do so), trying everything they can to avert yet another explosion. The trade-offs of heightened vigilance are tension, fear, irritation, and stress, sucking their power and crippling them even more.
The situation is doubly absurd, an ostrich with her head in—not sand, but poop—and even aware of this but still unable to do otherwise.
The solution: Let’s talk!
With this, I mean opening space for dialogue across the divide. I am not suggesting that this dialogue can actually happen, but it is crucial to provide and protect the open space. What I absolutely don’t mean is stirring up more talking past each other from increasingly entrenched positions.
Let’s begin with carefully scrutinizing the very phrase “social justice”. Every non-violent voice should be allowed and dialogue ensured until a fair conclusion is reached. I know this requires maturity but that’s exactly the main point.
If for whatever reason, some members of the organizations choose to protest or obstruct such openness, they should be offered exactly two options:
- to behave as adults, be courteous, and actively participate in a constructive dialogue about the topic on the table, no matter how contentious they think it is, or
- to leave and let the conversation take place without them.
A Letter on Justice and Open Debate states: “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.” Similar appeals to constructive dialogue have been made by thousands of intellectuals and public figures, and even new institutions in forming, such as the Heterodox Academy.
These are role models we should look up to. Organizations that fail to protect free speech and a high culture of dialogue will lose their best: people with competence, integrity, intellectual breadth, and empathy. They will be left with the Dark Triad traits unchallenged and actually hurting them.
One more thing has to be said. No organization can survive this without access to financial mechanisms to feed its endless internal processes, committees, working groups, and trainings. Relying on clumsy bureaucratic mechanisms adds yet another layer of self-preoccupation and steals time from the work they should be doing. With all the problems that plague the world, wasting resources on keeping the ghost of Social Justice either flamboyant or bottled up is utterly irresponsible.
I won’t be surprised if a section of society reacts to my writing the way they did to J. K. Rowling. For example in a Tweet that said: “Do NOT read her transphobia manifesto. I already did it for you. Every line is misinformation, fear-mongering, misgendering, othering, ignorance, far-right language/dog whistles, and pure hate. It’s not just ugly. This is HATE. Don’t ingest this BS. I beg you.”
If you agree with this Tweet and think that it describes my writing at least somewhat correctly, we’ll have a hard time talking. Still, the only way to move past the paralysis is to come together in an open circle and talk. If talking in a civil manner is beyond you when your (im)positions are challenged, I don’t think you should be given the radical privilege of bossing the organization with emotional and moral blackmail. That should be met with a polite but strict: “No!”
When grown-ups can’t control their behavior and repeatedly resort to outrage, we have to allow the possibility that we’re dealing with some kind of psychopathology. If suggesting this is not allowed, then the ostrich analogy is very pertinent and the madness of crowds is a reasonable diagnosis.
Some norms of civility and professionalism are crucial in any functioning organization. If old norms have become inadequate and some other norms are to be introduced, let’s talk about this and decide together. As the article I linked above says towards the end: “If activists convince a critical mass of people that the new rhetoric adequately describes reality and helps improve respect for rights, then they might succeed. But then I must tell them: be patient. Explain why you believe the new rhetoric makes sense. Don’t hammer it home and insult those who disagree. /…/ As a discursive strategy, subsuming human rights under critical social justice rhetoric might prove to be more than a mistake. It could be a suicide.”
My dream is to have a compassionate and nuanced conversation with the most ardent radicals among the “progressives.” Until they grant me this request and for as long as they’re blocking this conversation in general, I’ll hold them accountable for the new form of madness that’s plaguing the progressive (environmental, human rights etc.) movements in the liberal West and spilling over to the rest of the world. I call on progressive organizations to pull their ostrich heads from the poop, set boundaries to outrage, and resist this madness.
I know it is very hurtful to some to hear the words: “The emperor is naked!” but we have to swallow this truth and deal with our situation as adults.