The online magazine Quillette recently found itself at the center of a heated controversy concerning free speech, academic integrity and journalistic ethics. In response to a tweet castigating the magazine and those who write for it, University of British Columbia Professor Katja Thieme responded with “YES. If you’re an academic and you publish with Quillette we see you. We fucking see you. And we are looking right at you.” These comments provoked a firestorm of anger—individuals and outlets accused Thieme of everything from suppressing academic diversity to not caring about free speech. Quillette’s founder, Claire Lehman, responded by emphasizing that the magazine was created to combat the institutional dominance of certain forms of left-wing analysis in universities, whether called grievance studies, identity politics or postmodern neo-Marxism. Professor Thieme later responded with a nuanced rebuttal. She observed that no one endorsed blacklisting authors and that, while she didn’t want to silence academics, she was personally critical of Quillette for a number of reasons. Amongst the most prominent accusations made by Thieme and/or her followers were that the outlet presents itself as centrist when it is actually conservative leaning: that is, it publishes allegedly scientific articles that exacerbate harmful stereotypes and practices that affect marginalized groups, and relentlessly attacks the academic left and established scholarly practices without nuance or care.
One of the most interesting questions to come out of this debate regards the extent to which one’s viewpoints can be inferred from writing for a given outlet with a well-known political slant. The discussion has raised some intriguing issues. In particular: can one be an academic and write for an outlet that is known for attacking various academic practices? And, more relevant to our purposes, should anyone who does not share the political beliefs of certain (perhaps most) authors at Quillette write articles for the magazine? In other words: is a leftist who writes for a conservative-leaning magazine granting legitimacy to conservative perspectives?
We both consider ourselves staunch leftist academics, who defend multiculturalism and endorse the concepts and aims of social justice; and criticize nationalist postmodern conservatism and promote internationalism and egalitarianism, respectively. Nonetheless, we both feel that it is important to engage with conservative-leaning outlets like Quillette, and have therefore each written for the site. We regard these efforts as part of a trend towards engaged leftism, which has gathered momentum in many developed countries. Engaged leftism differs from the kind of politics associated with the New Left in eschewing critical ironism and declaratory statements of opposition. Instead, it is characterized by a move towards understanding, argument and persuasion, approached in a spirit of civility. As such, we see it as a necessary task of the engaged left to grapple with conservative ideas and outlets, in order to advance the cause of progressivism by convincing non-leftists that leftist ideas have something to offer them. And, where persuasion is not possible, the engaged left is committed to meeting bad arguments with good ones, rather than lapsing into ad hominem attacks or polemical slander. We believe there are a number of reasons why engaged leftists can (and arguably should) write for outlets like Quillette.
1) The New Left and Postmodern Irony
The New Left accomplished a great deal for progressive causes, particularly by advancing the political participation of previously marginalized groups. But it has also become associated with a deconstructive ironism. The limitations of this approach are now becoming apparent, not only because it seems to serve individual postmodern debaters far better than it does any actual progressive causes, but also because it undercuts the very idea of progress, which is central to progressivism itself. Indeed, as leftists, we view the gradual (and hard won) inclusion of previously disenfranchised identities into the democratic polis as clear evidence of moral and social progress, but such a view cannot be coherently advanced through a strict adherence to deconstructive relativism and postmodern irony. Thus, we fear recent developments on the Left have undercut the very foundations of the progressive project, allowing conservatives to claim the mantle of progress. This is well exhibited by polemicists like Ben Shapiro, who castigate leftists for neither caring about facts nor advancing the cause of reason. One motivation, then, behind our writing for Quillette was to make clear to the magazine’s readership that this ironic distancing is not constitutive of the Left, and that there are other varieties of leftism on offer.
2) Avoiding the Politics of Denunciation
The New Left not only comprises a postmodern relativistic strand, but also one that is quite morally puritanical (interestingly, these logically opposed strands are sometimes endorsed by the same individuals). Nina Eliasoph calls the style of politics that attends the New Left’s moral puritanism the “politics of denunciation.” This is a wholly negative politics, obsessed with radical critique, which attacks and reprimands from a position of supposed epistemic and moral superiority. The New Left’s embrace of the politics of denunciation has not only made it incredibly unpopular but, we argue, blind to its own shortcomings. Consumed by the need to denounce, it offers little of substance upon which to build a sustainable and positive political project. This is why we find the work of political theorists such as John Rawls, Jürgen Habermas, Martha Nussbaum, Roberto Unger, Michael Walzer, Will Kymlicka and Seyla Benhabib much more appealing. While diverse in their views, these thinkers are equally engaged in what we might call a politics of commitment. That is, not only do these scholars provide normative frameworks with which to criticize the status quo, but they also offer comprehensive and coherent visions of what a good and just society might look like.
3) Learning from Those with Whom We Disagree
We are living through an era of intense political polarization. As engaged leftists, we feel quite disoriented; we are generally unwelcome on the New Left, yet unconvinced by most aspects of libertarian and conservative thought. One of the reasons why we might feel out of step intellectually with many today is because we have learned much from reading and wrestling with both progressive and conservative ideas. We are not the only ones: figures such as Cornell West have recently found a great deal of value in the work of conservatives such as Patrick Deneen. In these polarizing times, it seems out of fashion to read one’s intellectual opponents’ invectives, but we both admit to having benefitted greatly from engaging with the writings of those on the other side of the political aisle. Indeed, while we remain committed leftists, we believe strongly that there are lessons that progressives and conservatives can learn from each other. Of course, this does not mean we give credence to all conservative ideas—we acknowledge that there exists quite real and vitriolic racism, sexism, bigotry and hatred among certain factions of the Right (as is also true of the Left). But we think it wise to interrogate the ideas of those with whom we disagree in order to determine, for ourselves, whether there is anything worthy of consideration. Moreover, we endorse this principle not simply for intellectual reasons. In order to survive, a democratic and pluralistic society requires some degree of solidarity across axes of identity, and, for this reason, attempting to understand one’s opponents’ positions (even if one disagrees) demonstrates a level of respect that we think is crucial to repairing some of today’s social and moral fissures. Conservatism is, as Ian Shapiro put it, as much of an outlook as it is a political philosophy. This means that conservatives are not going to go away anytime soon, so a genuinely democratic orientation by leftists requires accepting this and finding a way to advance progressive causes in spite of contestation.
4) The Need to Win Converts and Political Optics
At the moment, so-called political correctness has become extremely unpopular, including amongst youth and people of color. Whether fair or not, the left has become associated with this, and conservative opponents delight in taking every opportunity to castigate the left as anti-free speech and unwilling to debate its positions. Instead, leftists are perceived as using moral condemnation and invoking radicalism in lieu of making persuasive arguments. One of the only ways to counter these accusations is to argue against conservative positions and persuade people that left-wing positions are better. This will obviously not work every time—indeed, many people will never be swayed by argumentation, since their political positions have already hardened. But a few will, and that is the demographic we must seek to convince. What’s more, demonstrating a genuine willingness to engage in public debate is powerful, insofar as it can have impressive knock-on effects. The Left today has a serious image problem. By showing up and offering, in a civil manner, lucid arguments in favor of leftist ideas, engaged leftists can chip away at, and ultimately change, public perception. In short, it matters not merely what we do, but also how we do it. Adopting a more argumentative and engaged style does not mean that we will achieve success in every instance. The impact of political polarization means that many will never give ideas a fair hearing if they do not coincide with their ideological presuppositions. But we may influence some to shift their viewpoint leftwards, or at least moderate the extreme edges of reactionary positions. This is a valuable enterprise.
Why We’ve Written This
Thieme’s tweet and the subsequent discussion brought a number of issues to the fore that have been simmering amongst leftists for some time. There are genuine strategic and moral questions to be asked about the legitimacy of engaging with one’s political opponents in media that present contrary views. Writing for outlets like Quillette and other right wing media can have value for advancing progressive causes. Doing so allows us to move constructively beyond the limitations of postmodern ironism and reclaim the mantle of progress. There are benefits to moving past the politics of denunciation and towards a politics of commitment. We need to learn from those with whom we disagree, since thoughtful conservatives often make good points, even when the insights they are working with aren’t fully realized. Finally, leftists need to win converts by engaging with media that aren’t typically associated with progressive causes. This includes outlets like Quillette and others that have a reputation for criticizing certain strands of leftism.
We would like to end this piece on a more positive note, demonstrating why these positions may not seem as far-fetched as first appears. Many engaged leftists have begun to emerge, taking seriously the ideas of conservatives while still subjecting them to (often scathing) criticism. More importantly still, engaged leftists have gained traction by presenting constructive and inspiring visions of a more egalitarian and just future. Figures like Contrapoints, outlets like Zero Books, writers like Aisling McCrea and even comedians like Trevor Noah are all pioneers of this shift. Our hope is that more progressives will draw inspiration from their examples, and that this will encourage conservatives and independents to give leftism another serious look. The current era is one of great political discontent, but also real opportunity to change society for the better. We can gain a lot of ground by reaching out to those willing to listen.
Edit—A previous version of this essay included the mention of tweets advocating a list of Canadian academics who write for Quillette, so that their colleagues could know who had gone to the “dark side.” The writer of the tweets objected to McManus referring to this as a “blacklist.” We have removed the reference as it was not central to our argument.