We live in tumultuous times. The social, economic and political upheavals that have happened over the past few decades have left a lot of people frustrated and angry. There is the (usually midguided) sentiment that we have simply lost our way and things were better in the past. This is not a sentiment unique to conservatives though it is a fundamentally “conservative” idea. And, while there is some truth in these arguments, a fair and balanced examination of life as it is lived today compared to even thirty years ago would nearly always give the nod to the present. Sadly, that sort of careful thinking is increasingly hard to find. Additionally, the very idea of progress has almost disappeared from our language. Whether left, right or even libertarian, people have become a pessimistic lot during a time of unprecedented prosperity around the world.
But why? I suspect the culprit is closely related to social media, the 24/7 need for news, and a sense of individual entitlement. Each of these things focuses more and more attention on individual experience and less and less attention on reason and logic. In that context, it is not surprising that the so-called social justice movement, while having many worthwhile goals, has a underlying philosophy which simply makes no sense. The traditional basis of any meaningful political conversation has always involved establishing certain objective or inter-subjective norms within which that debate or discussion takes place. That stands in stark contrast to previous times in which privileged authorities are believed to possess all wisdom and must be obeyed.
Marxism was a rebellion against this so called “bourgeois” way of thinking. It denied, not only the possibility, but the desirability of objectivity. The only “argument” was the ongoing struggle between the ruling class and the oppressed class. The only “logic” was the eventual triumph of the oppressed in their struggle. Literally nothing else matters and anyone who denies that is a tool of the ruling class. If such people cannot be “educated,” they must be ignored or, if necessary, stopped from even speaking. Now Marxism never seemed to work out too well in practice but that hasn’t stopped some prominent people on the Left from adopting and adapting that framework to modern society.
The current variation, while continuing to oppose capitalism, has also adopted multiple categories of privilege in addition to economics. Race, sex, sexual preference, gender status, and other physical and mental conditions are all seen as fundamentally dividing society. The affluent, able-bodied, straight, cis-gendered white male is seen as being the most privileged class. As they have no valid experience of oppression, their views are not even worth considering. They are, at best, a quiet ally who supports the social justice movement and, at worst, an enemy who, if he can not be redeemed, must be swept aside.
On the other extreme, the working class, other-abled , gay, trangendered female person of color is uniquely to be valued, not because of their ideas or any personal qualities, but simply because of how many different ways in which they are oppressed. Everyone should listen to these individuals as they have an almost mystical wisdom. They should be looked to to lead the revolution that will bring justice to all people. Now, of course, I have oversimplified their views but that is the underlying principle.
Again, let me express my sympathy for many of the concerns these individuals have raised. I do think there is value in identifying categories of privilege and recognizing the role they play in developing our ideas. It is entirely valid to say that I do not know what it is like to be in one of these “oppressed” categories. I can imagine it and sympathize with those who suffer but I can no more know what it is like to be a woman than I can know what English sounds like to a non-English speaker. And it behooves us as individuals and as citizens to listen to those who are rarely heard. Their experiences are as valid as mine and their views must be a part of our national dialogue.
But that is not what many of these groups are saying. They are saying that my views are not even worth engaging and that my ideas should not even be allowed as part of the political discussion. My very existence threatens them. I am, by default, racist, sexist, ableist and so on and so on. And, if you are reading this, they are also likely talking about you. And this philosophy is all over college campuses throughout the Western world. I find that just a bit frightening.
Martin Luther King had “a dream” that one day people “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Given the poor track record of the human race, I’m not holding my breath on that one, but it should be a goal, not just as regards skin color but any other merely cosmetic difference. But we will not reach that end through class based thinking which regards a significant number of our fellow humans as enemies. We will not get there by decrying logic, reason and science as meaningless tools of the ruling class.
No, the only hope for uniting is for us to break bread together as equals, where no position is privileged. Yes, there is a greater obligation to reach out and listen for those of us who have traditionally gotten the better of things. But everyone has to commit to a honest exchange of ideas and viewpoints and each of us has to be open to change. That is the rational approach. And that is the only way to bridge our differences. Irrational politics can only lead to violence and resentment and, while this essay has focused on the Left, such forces exist within all political perspectives. To the degree that they dominate the political landscape, to that degree we are all screwed.
Thanks for reading and I hope you’ll join me again next week for a continuing discussion of the politics of liberty. Have a great weekend!