| by James A. Lindsay |
I‘m going to start by introducing a term that sounds funny but isn’t. Ophobophobia.
Ophobophobia is the irrational fear of being perceived a bigot (by self or others) by being deemed insufficiently sensitive to the experience of some identifiable group of others.
Ophobophobia is the strongest motivating animus in what we might call the Religion of Identity Politics, which, in its extreme forms, is now rightly being called Regressive Leftism. The most obvious example of an ophobophobic position is a rationally unjustifiable and rabid defense of obfuscation between Muslims, Islam, Islamism, and Jihadist Islamism, and it is the irrational fear of being branded an Islamophobe by being insufficiently sensitive in the discussions surrounding those terms. Such people exhibit Islamophobophobia.
In my book , Everybody Is Wrong About God, I make most of my case by proceeding from the observation that religions are a particular kind of societal object called a moral community. A moral community is a group of people who share similar moral attitudes. (Here, when I say moral, I do not mean it in the broad and nearly useless sense offered by moral philosophers, answering ‘what is good?’ but instead in the nearer, normative use often applied by moral psychologists — sets of beliefs, attitudes, intuitions, and social codes that enable and define communities. I will use the terminology framework-moral (or moral framework, depending upon syntax) to indicate that I’m referring to morals in this local sense.)
Religions are generally a special kind of moral community that I define in Everybody Is Wrong About God; what I call an Ideologically Motivated Moral Community (IMMC, pronounced “imm-cee”). What makes religions IMMCs is that they have taken on board certain unquestionable, or sacred, propositions. IMMCs are one correct generalization of religions, and include certain political parties and other societal objects. As intimated by calling it a Religion of Identity Politics, it, and thus Regressive Leftism, represent an IMMC, a kind of quasi-religious object. Thus, it is no surprise they act in ways so frequently identifiable with the worst of religious behavior.
Here, I hope to explain how this works.
There are at least two major denominations of the Religion of Identity Politics running already, and both are pretty profoundly ophobophobic and Regressive Leftist, but they are different. The reason that they are different is that they have different underlying primary motivations. On the one hand, we have a branch that is largely characterized by Islamophobophobia. Its major doctrine is indiscriminate hatred and blame directed at the West (or, cynically, capitalizing upon it where it is held by others). On the other, we have a narrower, more self-centered, self-satisifed and solipsistic variant that, while ophobophobic generally and Islamophobophobic specifically, reeks of societal advantage by pretending it doesn’t have any such advantage. Its driving attitude is a combination of the usual blinding ophobophobia and, it seems inescapable to deny, a perverse self-aggrandizing self-pity.
The two overlap, in that their central animus is perceived victimhood. Islamophobophobes perceive Muslims as victims, often of Western imperialism, militarism, exploitation, and disapproval (for their religious views). Adherents to the more solipsistic brand perceive themselves and those like them mainly as victims, though they have an entire moral hierarchy of victimhood, defined almost entirely on intrinsic characteristics instead of content of character. Both present with a marked hyperirritability to a perceived victimhood by systemic social forces, one in which beliefs about systemic power dynamics (exaggerated, accurate, or invented) trump the realities of victimhood, exploitation, unfairness, bigotry, and harm in the real world.
The Regressive Left’s exquisite hypersensitivity to systemic abuses illustrates the fundamental and peculiar hypocrisy at its core: adherents to the Religion of Identity politics will ignore relevant abuses, such as the treatment of women under strict Islamic Sharia, in favor of far more trivial causes closer to themselves personally. Examples include microaggressive cafeteria food at universities, body-hair-shaming, imagined lapses in safety allegedly caused by insensitive Halloween costumes, and tone-policing on Twitter. Meanwhile, they will defend perpetrators of far worse abuses, as we saw following the attacks in Cologne, Germany, on Islamophobophobic grounds. Amazingly, on that same basis, they will also abuse the critics of abusive power structures; “gross and racist” Sam Harris is a frequent and favorite target (a reference to Ben Affleck’s famous injunction when he appeared with Harris on Bill Maher’s Real Time).
Given the Regressive Left’s ophobophobic adherence to the Religion of Identity Politics, it is unsurprising that the language that facilitates the overlap of these two branches of Regressive Leftism is hyperbolic accusations of bigotry. From their deepest fear they swing their hottest brand. These frequently bogus and horrifically consequential accusations of bigotry seem peculiar at first, because they flow only along grossly oversimplified, caricatured lines of social hierarchical power, defined in almost cartoonish evaluations of social grievance and oppression. The blinding adherence to the Regressive Leftist IMMC blinds ophobophobes to the reality that such social power dynamics are often far more complicated than they recognize.
Religion is “good” for something
Regardless of the denomination in question, the Regressive Left represents at least one IMMC. The purpose of this essay is, in establishing the foregoing, to explain further that all IMMCs exist for the same purposes: to help people meet psychological and social needs, particularly needs for attribution (meaning making), control (security), and sociality (including esteem). These are the same fundamental categories that underlie religious belief, and are the real driving animus behind the Regressive Left. (Ophobophobia, as we will see, is itself motivated by a need for esteem and identity.)
Most important among these psychosocial needs, especially where the Regressive Left is concerned, are needs for identity, control, esteem, comprehension, community, and purpose, and their expression lies almost entirely along moral lines. A significant difference between the Regressive Left and theistic religions that should be noted is that theistic religions utilize the term and concept they call “God” to give attribution to morals, while the Regressive Left generally does not.
All IMMCs are a kind of moral community, and, as such, have at their core a moral framework. Something like a basic description of the moral frameworks defining the Regressive Left IMMCs served as the introduction to this essay. To understand what makes this moral framework ideological, we have to address what the Religion of Identity Politics holds sacred.
First, we must understand the concept of sacredness. Sacredness is a moral concept. The sacred is that which has been given infinite value, to paraphrase Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. This means that the sacred is unquestionable. It is, by belief, inherently “right.” There is no need for debate about a sacred claim, because it is already accepted with finality. A sacred claim is thought to hold truth of infinite “value,” which, in this context, means infinitesimal likelihood of being shown false by any means.
What sacredness describes, therefore, is a belief-state, not a knowledge-state. We cannot know anything, much less something as complicated as most moral attitudes, with such finality. When something is held as sacred, it is believed to be both completely right and finally settled, and hence unquestionable. This point of view is subjective, of course, and as a result, people often disagree about what is sacred and have a terrible time amicably settling such a dispute. Incidentally, secularism, broadly construed, is the attitude that nothing is globally sacred, although things may be considered locally sacred.
Generally, questioning or rejecting a sacred belief is called blasphemy. There is a reason that IMMCs aim to outlaw blasphemous speech and conduct: it upsets the IMMC’s capacity to maintain the sacred belief. It’s important to understand, as I’ll explain in just a moment, that people don’t make beliefs sacred arbitrarily. There is generally an important goal or value underlying a sacred belief – much more could be said on this topic, but is omitted for brevity. Usually, and germanely, the sacredness beliefs imbue their believers with a very real sense of righteousness, which is, apparently, a hell of a drug.
What makes an IMMC an Ideologically Motivated Moral Community, rather than a regular moral community, is that the IMMC has adopted certain moral attitudes as sacred. Because people believe their sacred beliefs are already perfect and already settled, arguing against these beliefs has a low likelihood of success. The mind will easily concoct as many rationalizations and defense mechanisms as are needed, ignoring other relevant imperatives (such as being right, consistent, or civil) in order to maintain a sacred belief.
Why is this so? Sacred beliefs are often tied to core psychosocial needs, and accordingly, the fear concomitant with being unable to fulfill those needs. It’s worth remembering that when arguing against a sacred belief, one is also arguing with core psychosocial needs and often deep-seated fears. I don’t say this to stymie such arguments, to be clear, but rather to shape them to greater efficacy. Keep this knowledge in your back pocket any time you engage in such arguments.
The remainder of this piece will highlight some of the ways in which the Regressive Left IMMCs express certain needs through their beliefs, many of which are held as sacred.
The Regressive Leftist IMMC generally elevates personal identity and individual context more highly than any other psychosocial need. The deafening roar of this need creates fanatics about identity and extremely strict adherence to the social norms peculiar to the Regressive Leftist IMMC. Ironically, people tend to derive most of their individual context from their conformity with and roles within a like-minded community. Like all moral communities, the Regressive Leftist IMMC defines itself by means of a moral code. This moral code is obsessed with ophobophobia, as discussed above.
It is therefore very important to understand that for the Regressive Leftist, fitting into, exemplifying, and virtue signaling within an ophobophobic community is how one feels value in oneself. It’s what makes the Regressive Leftist feel like a “good person”. It imbues her with self-righteousness and thus justifies whatever means she might feel the need to employ to achieve these ends.
We could easily speculate about what causes Regressive Leftists to feel value in ophobophobic displays — self-directed guilt, bucking a sense of oppression, a sense of victimization, a love-affair with self-pity, projection to mask their own bigotry, terror over the social stigma of being (mis)identified as a bigot, even a genuine and laudable desire to help the social milieu and its least-advantaged members (even if measured by a skewed metric) — but what is important to recognize is that the Regressive Leftist engages in ophobophobic behavior on the impulse that this, more than any other kind of action, makes one a good person. This need for esteem, especially pushed to the degree that it is by fear of a powerful social stigma and a sense of guilt — and reinforced by love of the attention attendant to pity — is probably central in the psychology of the Regressive Leftist. Consequently, the Regressive Left makes ophobophobia sacred.
Sadly, this sense of identity and thus righteous esteem often leads to outright othering, the negative side of a groupish effect known as parochial altruism. Parochial altruists defend and help members of the in-group, and they distrust, demonize, and even become hostile or violent with members of perceived out-groups. This is the dark side to an ethic of identity politicking (and all manifestations of social identity), and it is pervasive within the Regressive Leftist IMMC.
A pursuit of goodness is typically the very definition of purpose. People generally need to feel a sense of purpose, often significant purpose, in order to achieve psychological satisfaction. The Regressive Left IMMC offers this in spades. A Regressive Leftist is, in her own mind, fighting the damaging forces of evil, which are often entrenched and hegemonic, especially on behalf of the underdog. A Regressive Leftist is crusading for social justice and the reparation of harms, historic and present. A Regressive Leftist is fighting a holy war to create a safer, happier, more tolerant and accepting space. So they believe, and so they define their purpose in life — and it is a fulfilling one.
As is the case with many “grand” purposes, the Regressive Leftist is fighting for a romanticized notion of social justice, not necessarily a real one. And, as with all things romanticized, she must bulldoze nearly all of the relevant details in order to fill the cast of her drama with obvious, type-cast archetypes. Nuance is distracting and unromantic, after all. Real societies are complicated and difficult, but categories that can be neatly made into hierarchies, dramatic themes of power dynamics, and Manichaean roles are simple, efficient, and romantic. Thus, when reality presents the Regressive Leftist with characters outside of these neat categories, the easiest resolution to the ensuing cognitive dissonance is to conclude that they are somehow traitors — which is itself a neat, Manichaean category. The addiction to the romantic drama is the problem here, and the need to feel a clear sense of purpose on a tractable problem is the psychological basis upon which it runs amok.
Human beings often derive meaningful purpose in life from struggle, especially noble struggle: hard, demanding work done in service to some higher ideal. The struggle over identity politics, as defined by the Religion of Identity Politics and its central doctrines of ophobophobia and a perverse elevation of victimization (in order to remedy it), is certainly one that has romantic appeal, and seems noble. In fact, social justice progressivism is noble, so long as it maintains a firm tether to reality.
As the best lies are half-truths, ophobophobia, construed as a noble struggle over identity politics, seems both romantic and noble. It therefore possesses enormous capacity to cause its adherents to feel properly meaningful and good, and thus it is very seductive as a worldview. Indeed, it is something they are likely to make sacred, as, of course, they do.
It is my expectation that, of all of the various ways in which moral attitudes and intuitions arise (Jon Haidt and his collaborator Craig Joseph name at least six moral axes in their Moral Foundations Theory), Regressive Leftists will be particularly sensitive to a rather narrow and peculiar understanding of fairness. In fact, I generally think that of all of the moral foundations, fairness is usually the most sensitive knob to human psychology. If you really want to send someone into a dither, make something unfair. One will quickly find that it is probably even more potentiated than the care/harm knob (and, of course, these two axes can be understood in terms of each other — unfairness causes harm, both real and psychological, and harm is often unfair).
Regressive Leftism, the Religion of Identity Politics, and ophobophobia seem to grow out of an exaggerated distortion of a narrow view of fairness assessed upon a simplistic, ironically bigoted metric of perceived structural unfairness. That metric itself results in bigotry, insofar as it relies upon assumptions about intrinsic characteristics and their relationships with societal power dynamics, which (as explained above) is frequently an oversimplification born from romanticization.
Sensitivity to this metric appears to be the root of the Regressive Leftist’s tendency to elevate perceived victimhood and injustice (as perceived along their moral hierarchy, often painfully oblivious to the realities of victimhood). To the Regressive Leftist, ophobophobic hierarchy is written in the languages of bigotry. This skewed perception often has the consequence of increasing bigotry, while simultaneously incensing actual garden-variety bigots to even greater reactionary bigotry.
The pursuit of a sense of justice is certainly something worth making as near to sacred as sensibility should allow, but this impulse taken to an extreme — without that sensibility — is characteristic of the Regressive Left and the Religion of Identity Politics.
Have you met a Regressive Leftist, or an adherent of the Religion of Identity Politics, or any other ophobophobe, who isn’t also deeply given to the authoritarian impulse? Me neither. People undoubtedly need to feel a sense of control over an uncertain and dangerous world, as well as over an uncertain and dangerous society. Often, afraid when confronted with their powerlessness, people exaggerate some fears, and diminish others. Regressive Leftists seek control over a society that they find hurtful either to themselves or to people with whom they identify via their moral valuation hierarchy, which is based in oversimplified, perceived victimhood.
Authoritarianism, an almost ubiquitous feature in all IMMCs, is an easy way to feel a sense of control, and a sense of control in life often comes with a high value. Add to this that the moral valuation hierarchy for the Regressive Leftist is based upon perceived victimhood, and it’s unsurprising that the impulse for control in this case is brazenly despotic. Operating on the dubious assumptions that offensive speech constitutes violence and that society follows speech, one of the main things that the Regressive Leftist wishes to control is speech. This is merely the impulse to craft blasphemy laws arising in a non-theistic context. It is, therefore — however well-intended — equally misguided and odious.
There is a great deal more that can be said on this subject, but it will wait for a later essay. A need to feel and exert control, however, is central to the impulse underlying ophobophobic behaviors that seek effectively to create “secular” blasphemies. Critical to my point is that the behavior is typical of IMMCs, and indeed, religions, including the Religion of Identity Politics and, thus, the Regressive Left.
The worldview of the Religion of Identity Politics, and of the Regressive Left, is the result of one of humanity’s most central occupations: trying to make sense of something complicated and yet obviously important to living a good life. In this case, the social universe is the primary thing that is under consideration.
Usually, simple answers to complex questions are wrong, and wrong answers held sacred become ideologies. This we see with the Religion of Identity Politics and the Regressive Left. The complex question, in this context, is how to organize society in order to make it fair, without clearly specifying even what “fair” must mean (as that is unknown and itself desperately difficult to answer). The simple answer offered is the perceived intrinsic victimhood hierarchy that grew from the seeds of the rotting fruit of deconstructionist academic sociology. Still, it defines a perverted heuristic by which one can “make sense” of the social universe in which we live.
People will go to great lengths to defend the ways in which they understand the world, especially when those attributional schema, as we might call them, are intimately related to core values, a sense of personal identity (esteem), and a feeling of control over the environment (even if illusory). This is a feature of the Religion of Identity Politics, just as “Jesus died for my sins because I am saved” is a feature of the religion of Christianity.
The Regressive Left is an ideological branch within a broader IMMC that I have termed the “Religion of Identity Politics”, and the case that it represents a religious object is compelling. As such, it should be treated like a religion in most regards, which entails that it should not be given any undue credence based upon the sincerity of the conviction of its adherents, nor should it be afforded special attention or acceptance in secular spaces.
Understanding the Regressive Left as a religious object, together with understanding the nature of religious objects themselves, should allow us to have more fruitful discussions about these phenomena, and thus hopefully arrive at better solutions. Adherents to the Religion of Identity Politics that are reading this — especially those who are non-religious in the usual sense — should take this opportunity to reflect and see if, indeed, this poisonous, damaging approach to a set of social goals (however noble it may seem at a glance), is something better met with doubt, skepticism, open-mindedness to change, reason, and, ultimately, reconsideration.
Though I won’t get into it here or now, much could be said about the ways in which religions, and IMMCs in general, represent manipulative groups, that seduce their members into particular skewed world views in service to their beliefs, aims, and goals. They do this by manufacturing or cultivating vulnerability, and then manipulating it (and the people they entice). The Religion of Identity Politics cultivates vulnerability along axes of victimization, self-pity, and ophobophobia, which is a kind of self-shame about the possibility of really being bigoted. It is no more honest in doing so than any other manipulative group.
If we understand how a group is manipulative, we can resist it. That we should do — if finding effective, reasonable solutions to our problems is a desired goal.
James A. Lindsay is a thinker, not a philosopher, with a doctorate in math and background in physics. He is the author of four books, most recently Life in Light of Death. His essays have appeared in TIME, Scientific American, and The Philosophers’ Magazine. He thinks everybody is wrong about God. You can follow him on Twitter @GodDoesnt
Header Photo: Oscar Keys
[Editor’s note: this essay was first published on January 24th, 2016.]