A Note to My Fellow Progressives

Personal note: The author tries to understand privilege. Realizes that the very writing of this is in some way due to a lighter life experience. And so hoping that you might consider him an ironically hip yet still authentic ally, feels it necessary to list the following credentials: Son to immigrant parents. Grandchild of Holocaust survivors. Has a father that speaks with an accent and has an ethnic-looking mustache. Was formerly married to a visible minority and was totally cool with it. Often makes social situations awkward with rants on inequality and objectification. Has published pieces examining his own innate sexism as way to address victim-blaming and misogyny. Spent formative years in the communities and homes of people very different from himself, eschewing old norms, calling them friend, calling them love. Has been referred to as the n-word in affectionate terms by black friends but still skips the n-word when singing along to rap alone in his car, even if he’s really really feeling it.

I.

It’s getting ugly out there. And so let’s start by saying that the spirit of this article is of one compatriot to another, a commentary from the inside, a hopefully constructive criticism. I am unabashedly progressive, believe the only way forward is with education and evolution, and have tried to push things in that direction in any little way I can. But writing this whole thing has me on edge. I’ve edited and re-edited, trying to keep some bite while minimizing potential flash points that might distract the reader from the greater points yet to come.

Does being an ethnically-mixed yet still kind of white-ish male discredit my voice in some way? Are one’s credentials somehow identity-based? I don’t know. So basically I’m sort of nervous, extra careful, and self-censoring in a good way, I guess, but also in one that is kind of restricting and not altogether sincere.

Yet I suppose this process keeps me honest, making me check my words and my perspectives and making me aware that my experiences are not omnipresent. Most of this is learned from the better lessons of progressive ideals; but there is also a part that is doing it out of fear, straight scared that a certain word or interrogation will trigger a reaction that will shut this whole thing down and throw me into a category before I have a chance to get out what I really want to say, which is, at its simplest, that I care about all the same things that you do and want desperately for us to finally arrive at a place where all of this no longer needs to be taught or fought or resisted, that it just is.

II.

My first experience of something fishy going on with my people was back in 2015.

I got click-baited, happens to the best of us. But this was different. As someone formerly addicted to right-wing garbage as a motivational tool, as a sort of morning hate-coffee, the headline “David Brooks writes most mansplainy David Brooks line ever” was an obvious bait to take. But after reading the Salon mini-piece and the original Brooks New York Times article — and despite my eagerness to rage on whatever he was going to say — I was left feeling very uncomfortable.

There were no signs of “mansplaining” anywhere to be found.

Perhaps sanctimonious, perhaps not what you wanted to hear, but an objective reading shows that it was simply a male giving his opinion on a controversial subject. Brooks’ piece was actually pretty understanding of today’s fight for social justice and moved to criticism only when discussing the more extreme examples of SJW’ing. If his conclusion was patronizing, it was general, not specifically gender-oriented in any way. I am no expert, but I saw and still see zero signs of mansplainage.

This pissed me off. I’d been duped, had my ideological passions used for ad revenue. A critical perspective on equality was being thrown around inappropriately, accusing someone, in bold letters and on the front page, of a crime he didn’t commit.

But there was something else eating at me, more insidious than your usual click-bait material of gratuitous hotties or celebrity gossip.

It was the why. Besides needing clicks to keep online media profitable, there seemed to be something else motivating Salon, a very liberal media organization, to casually and incorrectly use an important word, cheapening it, and thus cheapening everything and everyone it represented.

I felt there was something terribly wrong with this. But they didn’t seem to mind at all.

III.

Yes, Milo Yiannopoulos is a douchebag. No doubt about it. Well-spoken and charismatic, barfing silver-tongued processions of sexism and anti-Muslim sentiments, existing only to provoke, this alt-right faux-bad boy has unfortunately made a name for himself in our current infotainment culture.

I don’t really like him. He is a fame-whore (allowed?) unconcerned with the damage he may cause. Yet when he got kicked off Twitter I did not celebrate, even if everybody else did.

The Milo-Twitter thing was a perfect opportunity to test our moral positions. If private networks like Twitter are the new public squares — the new venues where individuals, no matter their background, can be on an equal playing field — we should want to be very careful about one group restricting the speech rights of another.

It does not take an overly active imagination to fathom tomorrow’s Twitter being run by someone on the opposite end of the political spectrum, arbitrarily deciding that some progressive voices have become offensive and should be, for good reasons of course, shut down. (Ps: there is now a President who loves to shut people up and has talked about starting a media organization. Just saying.)

Chilling if you take a moment to think about it. Access to free speech and the control of it by a private corporation, beholden to nothing but their own considerations. An especially worrisome prospect for those concerned with minority rights and unequal access to power.

Milo being booted from Twitter could have been a chance to step away from the often incestuous embrace of our customary camps and reevaluate the consistency of our convictions. But we didn’t do that. Instead we celebrated, happy to have apparently won a battle.

That was my first experience with this type of active moral dissociation. In one breath re-affirming that of course we support free speech and open dialogue; and in the next tossing all those burdensome moral questions aside and being super cool with shutting down a toxic but never directly violent blowhard.

Knowing what it’s like to have one’s voice echoing off unheard, having been victims to that ethereal authority restricting and defining our sovereignty — there should have been a pause, a moment, a recognition and instinctive rejection of the unfortunately familiar from us.

IV.

Fast forward a few months. On Facebook. My colleague writes a piece on our blog accusing Instagram of fat-shaming unconventional body types and censoring breast-feeding nipples, while allowing other traditional porn-like pics to flood their network without recourse. A comment-section discussion coalesces around Instagram deciding to remove photos of a plus-sized artist in a tasteful but nude sex-embrace.

Then a friend of mine joins the discussion. He’s a tech guy working in IT and despite being somewhat rough around the edges, was only trying to add a different perspective, mentioning that there are automatic measures to monitor potential violators of Instagram’s terms (nudity, sex acts, etc), so maybe it’s not simply fat-shaming but rather that many people complained and the picture got flagged. And also there are countless other “traditional” nude photos that get removed by Instagram everyday but that we don’t hear about.

I felt the air tighten.

And then it came.

Thanks for mansplaining!!

That’s right. It trickles down, it seeps in.

Six months later I saw this dude out at the bar and he was, let’s say, somewhat less liberal than I remember him being. Of course one irrational Facebook comment is not enough to change someone’s political leanings, but this friend who I believe at his core leans naturally left was now suddenly dropping some silly pro-Trump defences. And his arguments weren’t so much in support of The Donald but rather against everything else. He knew the guy was a buffoon yet still seemed to be, not so much drawn, but pushed in his direction.

Anecdotal, I know. But something is going on. There’s an extremism building on the outer layers of the left, and this dogmatic attitude is bleeding into the vocabulary and behavior of the wider progressive movement.

We are getting a bad rep. The term “SJW” has become completely pejorative and is used solely to mock, to neatly categorize, and thus more easily dismiss. And I’m not only talking about conservatives painting liberals as wackos; there are now murmurs amongst our own ranks. I’ve had to deal with it myself. I have felt the doors of conversations threatening to shut down at the hint of an interrogative comment. I have been casually accused of things I devote much of my efforts to combat.

It is happening. No good in denying it. We are making ourselves into an easily definable and devisable group, doing all the things that justify the stereotype.

Something is up, and everyone seems to see it but us.

V.

Back in February our buddy Milo was at it again. This time Yiannopoulos was an invited speaker (invited by students) to UC Berkeley, the unofficial birthplace of the free speech movement in America. It did not go well. Before the fabulous fomenter even had a chance to start projectile antagonizing, what were peaceful protests of his appearance turned into all out chaos, with a group of over 100 agitators arriving clad in black, burning things, beating anyone looking like a Trump supporter, and pepper-spraying women in the face.

So, like, I get it. Every time Milo opens his mouth humanity shivers in morning-after hangover remorse, wondering where it went wrong, shame-walking straight to the clinic in its club clothes to get tested. His vacuously dangerous please-look-at-me rants use the guise of free speech for selfishly chaotic purposes.

But we burned shit down and beat people in the street. We hit a woman in the head with a bicycle lock. And despite the “of course we don’t condone those actions” pleasantries delivered by progressive spokespeople, you could feel them saying it through a hidden grin, preferring non-violence but in the end, down deep, kind of totally OK with it because it got the job done. Milo had been silenced.

In March, Charles Murray was invited to speak at Middlebury College in Vermont (invited by students). Murray is infamously known for The Bell Curve, his 1994 book that discussed measures of intelligence and their implications for social advancement and policy. According to Murray and his Harvard psychologist co-author, IQ scores are important indicators of future success (and thus the correct social policy) and that the differences in scores between ethnic groups is likely partly due to environmental factors and partly due to genetics (test results show Asians and Jews scoring higher than Whites; Whites ahead of Blacks and other groups). Cue shitstorm. Despite the data coming from some respected sources (US Census Bureau etc.) and his work generally being considered as academically respectable, for the last 20 years Charles Murray has been demonized as everything from closet-racist to Nazi eugenics mastermind.

Kind of understandable. It’s the touchiest of subjects. The history of the United States, and the world, leaves us very wary of anything that gives permission to judge and classify by race. We don’t need more ammunition to be disgusting to each other. 

And so that’s why when Murray took the stage at Middlebury a large group of students stood, turned their backs, and began reading out loud a sort of manifesto, chanting loudly, and almost cult-ish-ly, that they would not accept racism, sexism or homophobia, etc. This went on for about 20 minutes and Murray couldn’t even get his presentation started. Eventually the event was cancelled and moved to a private room on campus where the talk would stream online. The protesters followed. When Murray and the Middlebury professor-moderator tried to exit to their cars, the gang of protesters swarmed, getting violent, eventually grabbing the female professor by the hair and sending her to the hospital with neck injuries.

Now I won’t even dare an opinion on The Bell Curve, it’s too hot a topic and is a 900 page book that I don’t care to read. But what I can do is list some details found during research on this ugliness.

Before the event it was made clear that Murray’s talk at Middlebury was not to be about race or IQ, but about his new book Coming Apart, a look at the white working class and social elites in America and how it is relevant to today’s divisive politics.

The injured moderator that evening, a liberal professor, told the audience that she had difficult questions prepared and that this wouldn’t simply be a platform for Murray. Here are her words on the ordeal, supporting Murray’s right to speak. She wrote them while wearing a neck-brace, a black eye, and suffering from a concussion.

After the protest, two Cornell professors sent a transcript of Murray’s planned speech to 70 professors across the nation (blind, no reference to Murray) asking to judge it as either liberal or conservative, and the results of the speech’s content came back almost exactly in the middle, with no clear bias left or right.

Charles Murray is anti-Trump and came out early and publicly against the Trump campaign.

Many of the protesters at Middlebury admitted to never having read The Bell Curve.

Now I don’t know what’s in his heart, maybe he is a secret racist in an academic sweater vest. But since the punch-up in Vermont, I have personally listened to several hours of interviews with Charles Murray and have not heard anything obviously discriminatory, his only clear statement on race being that even if there are differences in average scores between ethnicities when looked at as a group, that no individual person should ever be judged by their race. His words.

Yet none of this mattered. Likely wasn’t even considered. An enemy to the cause had been identified and so actions were taken.

End of story.

VI.

“People talk a lot about ‘freedom of speech’ and I think this fetish of speech misses the larger point. It is about ideas of freedom itself. Who has it, and who is denied it.”

A thoughtful perspective from a Milo protester at Berkeley. Not wanting hateful speech to be normalized is a worthy aspiration. Marginalized people face not only obvious obstacles but also subtle restrictions to their freedoms, and careless speakers can create conditions that exacerbate these inequities. Bringing these more nuanced definitions of freedom into the light is no doubt a good thing.

The problem is that these important considerations are being delivered in front of broken windows and from behind convenient moral relativism, standing high and mighty atop discarded pieces of our better selves.

We are screaming. Shutting things down. Eating our own.

See the liberal Yale professor being violently shouted down by students and eventually resigning because his wife, also a liberal professor, said that perhaps we should learn to deal with and confront potentially insensitive Halloween costumes instead of regulating them

Watch as students at Evergreen State College take over the campus, force the college President to go to the bathroom with escorts, and so rabidly vilify progressive professor and Bernie Sanders supporter Bret Weinstein as a racist that he had to teach classes off-campus and move his family into hiding.

See how comedian and proud feminist ally Aziz Ansari is criticized and forced to defend himself for the imperfection of his feminism because during a David Letterman interview he dared to bring up feminist issues to a mainstream audience with anything less than PhD-level gender studies comprehensiveness.

Remember that time someone delayed in agreement on an issue of social importance, how they raised a question, wanting only to dive in a bit deeper, see what could be found, what more we could take from it; and how you flinched, how you began to close some doors, how something else came to the forefront.

The examples are building. Both at the fringes and in daily life. Yet when confronted with criticisms and alerted to the potential dangers of our transgressions, we, using some serious hot yoga moral flexibility, somehow always manage to justify our sketchy moves.

Take this piece by Osita Nwanevu of Slate. It posits that in a time of Trump, of dog-whistle xenophobia leading to the Presidency, and because it has been done before and will be done again, restricting some forms of speech is acceptable. Some speech and speakers can be restricted, even by extreme actions, if the results are potentially bad enough. And so the tactics employed by the protesters who shut Charles Murray down at Middlebury, even if violent, are ethically justifiable.

I liked the essay very much. It was clever, well-written, and thought-provoking — but ultimately an elegant argument for the ends justifying the means, for the relinquishing of the high road for an even higher one.

Ours.

And it’s these justifications, these high-end intellectual gymnastics, that most concern me. Because this is what allows it to filter down, giving permission for everything from violence to ruining someone’s career to casually tossing around accusations on Facebook.

The idea that free speech is the mother of all rights, the one that protects the others, that ultimately, in practice, in the real world, gives the oppressed a chance to be heard, to not be swallowed by the majority —  well, whatever. Now, in this one case, what is being said could potentially be harmful so fuck the whole thing. Fuck it all. Who cares what may come next, how it may be used against us, against the very people we wish to protect. Now here are some examples of bad things that are worse than the bad things we are doing.

Beat on some people because Milo is a toxic loudmouth? Sure why not. It is, when looked at what we have to endure, kind of the right thing to do. No? He’s a threat after all. He says ugly things, things that inflame, that give permission for shitty people who would be shitty with or without Milo to be shitty. So yes, it is justified. Oppression still exists. And so we will do what we must.

No matter that our extremism gives permission for extremism; that it de-legitimizes our legitimate grievances; that people like Milo are frivolous, and fleeting, and that after two minutes of finally sitting with some serious people on Bill Maher’s Overtime that he was schooled and revealed as the irrelevant soundbite slut that he is. No matter.

Anything is justifiable. Even if it spills over and sets bad examples. Even if it trickles down and gives dubious permission and flavors how the rest of us think and act, tainting and eventually hurting the greater movement.

Everything is available as potential sacrifice for the cause, even the cause itself.

Because what we care about is right. Because what they are doing to us is wrong.

VII.

And so what now? I’m not sure. But obviously we need to have a talk.

This tendency — to too quickly cry foul, to default to the extreme, to demonize with puritan fervor — is getting noticed by the general population, and is beginning to repulse.

We are giving critics an easy target, a ranting SJW boogeyman to rally around, to use as an excuse. For resisting progress, calcifying, voting Trump.

It seems that every day there’s a new op-ed, or podcast, or YouTube interview decrying the extremism of the left. And these critiques are now being delivered by liberals, by gay comedians and ethnic minorities and social progressives, people who consider themselves allies but who also now feel pushed away from a movement they care about, pushed away by a willingness to censor, to shut down, to accept an irrationalism bred out of dogmatism. 

These new critics are respected speakers who shape opinions, influencers who used to gladly call themselves liberal or progressive but now feel the need to hesitate, to qualify their position on the ideological spectrum because they no longer feel comfortable where they used to naturally consider themselves. And they have platforms that reach into the millions. From big names like Joe Rogan, Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and academics like Jonathan Haidt, there seems to be countless influential liberals who despite agreeing on 99% of the issues, now feel repelled from the left and towards some new sort of center.

Who cares, you might say? They’ve said some controversial things in the past, stuff that irks, that smells of something contrarian, making them not one of us, even if they really are.

But what if the left continues defining itself with identity politics and continues to ostracize anyone who dares raise a doubt? And what if this reputation continues to solidify in the minds of the public?

Imagine Republicans or conservatives one day getting their clown-act together and running a center-right candidate, someone seemingly normal, conservative enough to appease the base but publicly accepting (in a very surface and bullshit type of way) climate change and gay marriage and some other nice sounding things. Oh man, how easily he or she could scoop up all the formerly left-ish voters now pushed towards the center. 

It would be so easy. Handed right to them. All the issues you care so deeply about now condemned to be decimated by years of right-wing legislation because we got a bit too woke, too eager to finally wield some power after so long being denied it.

And so in the end this is isn’t about any one particular example, it’s about how what’s happening at the fringes is making its way down, influencing and defining and ultimately damaging. It’s about acknowledging, despite our best intentions, that some elemental faults have metastasized and need to be dealt with.

With the new school year here and underway and with university campuses seemingly the breeding grounds for these conflicts, we would do well to start stepping and reeling back this trend towards the fringe.

Yes systematic injustices still exist, and new perspectives on old oppressions are important modes to bring into the mainstream. We should continue to fight. There are indeed a bunch of evil assholes out there using fear and prejudice, using our history and our skin and our love, to divide and distract and expand. 

But we can do better than this.

We must be able to stop for a moment and see what we’re doing wrong. Accept criticisms. Blend our new and more nuanced views of violence and speech and protection, with the realities of a world that will most often drive ahead without such considerations. Reject absolutism. Embrace a passionate but reasoned activism that truly takes the higher, and ultimately more effective, road. Do not back down. Take their weak ancient shit in the face and smile because they are almost done. We are tearing down their oldest and highest walls. Race. Religion. Gender. Money. We barely see these things anymore. They are nearly gone. Soon they will have nothing left.

See how far we’ve come. Appreciate our gains, our direction, the perspectives of our youth.

There is an arc, frustratingly high and sometimes seemingly out of reach, yet one that does bend towards justice, towards progress.

Let’s push it forward, and not get in its way. 

Jason Najum

Jason Najum is an author, freelance writer and regular contributor to The Huffington Post. He hopes to bring a fresh perspective and deeper look to today's issues. You can reach him via email at jnajum@gmail.com

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Jason Najum

Jason Najum is an author, freelance writer and regular contributor to The Huffington Post. He hopes to bring a fresh perspective and deeper look to today’s issues. You can reach him via email at jnajum@gmail.com

9 thoughts on “A Note to My Fellow Progressives

  1. Excellent, thank you. Articulates many of my own thoughts. One action to take: when a conversation is cut off or otherwise infected by a label – whether you are sympathetic to it or not – (“thanks for mansplaining”; “you cuck!”) – stop it and try to force the conversation to address what *ideas* might be offensive.

  2. Randy, your article is a thoughtful introspective piece; which sadly, is largely missing on the Left these days. Just one question… What the hell took you so long to see these things? Let me rephrase that… Maybe a better question is; what took you so long to acknowledge these problems?

  3. The comments are truly disappointing. This was an excellent piece, and it was published in just the right magazine. Hope Jason keeps his thoughts coming.

  4. Very well said. Give him time though. Perhaps, he will garner the courage of his convictions and not apologise or qualify them. Leaving the left for a genuine liberal disposition takes time. I used to be like the author but I came to see that true liberalism is the antithesis of so called progressivism which is in fact a regressive mindset that seeks to erode individual freedoms and replace it with totalitarianism,

  5. Sorry, could not even get past the first paragraph. Your qualifying statement which basically commumivates “I’m sorry I wrote this, please don’t hate me” is exactly why I’m not a progressive any more. If you have to try so hard to get your reasonable opinion accepted or even just tolerated by people with different ideas those people and those ideas are not worth it. If you wouldn’t kow tow and try so hard be taken seriously by alt right extreamists you ought not do so with the left wing extreamists.

  6. A classical liberal is a very different thing to today’s progressive who is consumed with the divisive narratives of identity politics and also espouse far left economic policies on the whole.

  7. Perhaps I’m not your audience. You lost me at “Personal note: The author tries to understand privilege”.

    I am a lefty. But the left left me. You seem to get this, in the body of your post. And yet really, you don’t.

  8. As a liberal, I find “progressive” theories, policies, and plans remarkably illiberal. To say that “We are tearing down their oldest and highest walls. Race. Religion. Gender. Money. We barely see these things anymore. They are nearly gone. Soon they will have nothing left” is to ignore the fact that “progressives” advocate racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and Islamophilia, as well as anti-male, anti-white, anti-heterosexual, anti-science, anti-capitalism, and anti-West ideology. It is “progressives” who have divided the world into “oppressed” and “oppressors,” and declared war on categories of people alleged to be oppressors. It is “progressives” who have resuscitated race and encouraged race was, just as they have encouraged class and sex war. Guess what? It is the antics of progressive that persuaded Americans to vote for Trump. Congratulations!

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