The killing of George Floyd brought many systemic problems with police culture to wider consciousness. However, the event also led to a cycle of predictable posturing, online activism and critique.
On 2 June 2020, a social media campaign called #BlackoutTuesday encouraged users to post pictures of a completely blacked out frame on their Instagram accounts. Many people who participated, including many of my friends who ordinarily do not express strong political views. But, soon afterwards the naysayers began problematizing the campaign:
Black out Tuesday was terrible & ill advised, but the positive from it is I’m seeing a lot of people collectively calling out this kind of empty activism as problematic and a constructive discussion on how to more effectively support BLM
— juliann d (@juliannthrax) June 2, 2020
wild that most of the people who posted a black square for #blackouttuesday went on as if racial injustice isn’t still an issue on wednesday
— Amber 🙂 (@amber_bialoglow) June 3, 2020
When you post a blackout picture then tag black lives matter, it’s hindering others from understanding the black lives matter movement.
— Tangi🤍 (@tangi_miller) June 2, 2020
The prevalence of armchair activism is certainly a concern, but too often this is expressed in a way that lacks compassion and an assumption of good will on the part of others. #BlackOutTuesday was clearly motivated by people’s sense that something morally and politically important was occurring and their desire to be a part of it, in whatever small way they could. Surely this desire is worthy of our compassion. When we condemn people for trying to do the right thing, what good does that do?
The problem is that online activists often repeat judgemental moralistic slogans as justification. For example, a widely shared Instagram post argues that when white people ask for more tactful or rational engagement (as opposed to anger) they are actually “saying they want to dictate how [people of colour] express their lived experiences and knowledge of racial oppression.” In other words, there’s no possibility that such a request could be a good faith effort toward mutual understanding and engagement, rather than a sign that the person is committed to controlling people of colour and furthering racism.
This tendency is probably influenced by ideas from critical theory that encourage an attitude of constant suspicion towards nominally well-intentioned actions or beliefs lest they conceal a layer of malicious power. In this view, you do not live in a free country—you’ve actually been subjected to a Foucauldian disciplinary apparatus of conformity. Similarly, free speech is just a tactic used to silence systemically disadvantaged groups; and a cis-gendered white person’s attempt to develop solidarity with Black Lives Matter is really just a way of silencing black voices.
As Bruno Latour has argued, critique of this kind, by authorizing us to undermine the subjects of our critique, can become a “potent and euphoric drug”:
When naïve believers are clinging forcefully to their objects, claiming that they are made to do things because of their gods, their poetry, their cherished objects, you can turn all of those attachments into so many fetishes and humiliate all the believers by showing that it is nothing but their own projection, that you, yes you alone, can see. But as soon as naïve believers are thus inflated by some belief in their own importance, in their own projective capacity, you strike them by a second uppercut and humiliate them again, this time by showing that, whatever they think, their behavior is entirely determined by the action of powerful causalities coming from objective reality they don’t see, but that you, yes you, the never sleeping critic, alone can see.
Of course, many of the goals of the social justice left are motivated by compassion for those suffering from systematic oppression. Take prison abolition, for instance. Its proponents point out that people of colour are more likely to spend time in prison, that many laws are designed to target minority groups and that the treatment of inmates often verges on abuse. I agree.
In many cases, these inmates have committed crimes that harmed others, yet those who advocate prison reform feel compassion towards them—especially since incarceration disproportionately impacts marginalized populations. Obviously, compassion plays an important role in social justice politics, but it seems to be applied unevenly.
There is good reason for this. If you have privilege you are probably not in need of as much compassion or understanding as those who are in trouble. Asking for compassion when you enjoy many privileges could even be perceived as offensive. But why base your politics on selective compassion for only those who’ve committed crimes? Usually, supporters of prison abolition argue that criminality itself is produced by unjust power structures. Their implicit claim is that the social world is largely defined by relationships of power, and that, as Foucault argued, social relations are really the result of disciplinary relationships. We internalize certain values and norms, which are forms of power. For example, while we might say that white people and people of colour have equal legal rights, there is a social undercurrent of valuing white European norms over others.
Such views tend to be built on a metaphysics that downplays the role of individual agency. The choices we make happen within a context of social systems of power that influence our unconscious perceptions of the world. In this view, privilege is enjoyed by those whose identities are a better fit with the dominant values.
But are people with privilege responsible for the effects of their privilege? Moral condemnation should require that we ascribe agency to the person being condemned. But if people’s social positions are produced by systems of power of which they are not conscious, then neither the privileged white man nor the incarcerated criminal deserve our condemnation: they are both simply caught up in a system over which they have limited control. This does not mean that people should be immune to criticism. But critique should always be tempered by compassion. When we don’t grant everyone equal understanding and compassion, we can fall prey to oppositional thinking, which splits the world into us and them and can cause us to lose sight of our fundamental, shared humanity.
Progressive politics should foreground the truth that the people caught up in our critiques are human beings, all subject to the same unconscious social forces. Understanding and compassion are demonstrably more effective than harsh critique. Here are a few examples that demonstrate why.
Part of the problem with our current ineffective and dehumanizing criminal justice system is that it divides people into two categories: law-abiding citizens and criminals, who need to be corrected, punished or removed from society.
Institutions based on retributive justice are oppositional because by committing a crime you are transformed from a human being with the potential to change for the better into a criminal, who needs to be punished. Under this view, to improve prison conditions is to reward bad behaviour and encourage poor societal values. However, the evidence strongly indicates that “rewarding” bad behaviour yields dramatically better results than the retributive approach. In Norway, inmates are given a surprising amount of freedom of movement and many opportunities for self-improvement, and often have a collaborative and friendly relationship with their guards. As this BBC report explains: “Guards and prisoners are together in activities all the time. They eat together, play volleyball together, do leisure activities together and that allows us to really interact with prisoners, to talk to them and to motivate them.”
The results speak for themselves: recidivism rates in Norway are down to around 20% after two years. In the US, the rate is closer to 60–70% after 3 years. Why has this method worked? Because it sets aside oppositional thinking and puts human potential first. Rather than believing that criminals need to be permanently removed from society, this model suggests that many of them can be taught to be valuable members of the community.
The current system of policing in North America is based on oppositional thinking. The defund the police movement—despite its name—is, in its best versions, not about abolishing the police, but a call for non-oppositional critique and change. As the Brookings Institute notes, 90% of all 911 calls concern non-violent situations that require conflict mediation or relate to mental health crises. Yet most police training is based on use of force, not de-escalation. A new first responder division devoted to mental health problems could change things for the better. Police forces are currently built on a myth that they are out there to “get the bad guys” and this can attract brutal personality types. For public safety to improve, we need non-oppositional approaches that do not see members of the public as possible bad guys, but fallible, redeemable human beings.
Addiction and Harm Reduction
Non-oppositional thinking and compassion also lead to better outcomes in drug addiction. Traditional approaches—such as just say no campaigns—argue that addiction is caused by a moral failing on the part of the addict, who freely chose to take the drugs, or by the overwhelmingly addictive properties of drugs. The war on drugs is motivated by the idea that drugs need to be eliminated so that people cannot make bad choices and that if people use drugs they should face criminal penalties. This ignores important evidence about the causes of addiction. Traditional experiments to prove the addictive properties of opiates gave individual caged rats the option of drinking either plain or opiate-laced water (they chose the latter, often drinking to the point of exhaustion and starvation). But, as psychologist Bruce Alexander has shown, when rats are placed in pleasantly landscaped “rat parks” with other rats for company, they still occasionally drink the opiate-laced water, but never compulsively or to the point of death.
A similar natural experiment was conducted following the Vietnam War. In 1971, a US Congress study found that as many as 20% of US soldiers in Vietnam were addicted to heroin, but a follow-up study found that 95% of them stopped using the drug without assistance once they returned home. Frightening and demoralizing conditions can lead people to self-medicate. Remove the context and you remove the addiction. This suggests that addiction is less the result of a purely chemical dependence or a free choice than a product of psycho-social contexts. Criminally penalizing users or making certain drugs more dangerous and difficult to obtain will not improve people’s wellbeing. What people need is ways to escape whatever existential cage they are in.
Decriminalization and regulation paired with harm reduction policies like safe injection sites have been shown to be tremendously effective, partly because such approaches are based on compassion and understanding, while the criminalization approach is built on oppositional thinking, which ignores context in favour of moral judgment.
What is the best way to deradicalize someone who has begun to adopt an extremist belief system, such as white supremacy or neo-Nazism? Those who advocate marginalizing or even punching Nazis are exercising oppositional thinking, based on a logic of retribution. Once again, this ignores context and presumes that radicalization is a free choice for which people should be held responsible—when it is more often a symptom of something else that has gone wrong in a person’s psycho-social context.
Former neo-Nazi Christian Picciolini explains that his radicalization was a direct result of a search for the “identity, community and purpose” that were missing in his previous life. Picciolini turned his back on the far right after, he relates, only after “I started to meet people that challenged what I believed about them, people that were black, brown, gay—they showed me compassion at a time in my life when I least deserved it.” As Picciolini observes, “if you have a heroin addiction, there are groups for that. If you’re being abused, there are groups to turn to for that. But unfortunately, if you’re struggling with these ideas of hate, there really is nobody else.” Compassion is urgently needed in deradicalization work.
Another instructive example is African American blues musician Darryl Davis, featured in the documentary Accidental Courtesy. Over the years, through patience and friendship, Davis has persuaded dozens of people to leave the KKK.
Neo-Nazism itself is based on oppositional thinking, so responding with oppositional thinking only reinforces that worldview. The proper response is critique tempered by compassion. We should assume that the racist or fascist is a human being with the potential to be better. This is the only way to break the cycle.
Duelling Oppositional Cycles: Cancel Culture and the IDW
Activist Desmond Cole has suggested that the term cancel culture should be replaced by consequence culture. Cole was a recent guest on the Canadaland podcast, where he discussed the suspension of CBC news anchor Wendy Mesley, for using the N-word during a meeting when referencing the title of a book. For Cole, Mesley is “a racist disgrace,” and the ending of her career was a fitting punishment for her use of the hateful word.
This reasoning is based on oppositional thinking and a logic of retribution. Cole adopted a morally righteous and dismissive attitude and refused to consider the specificity or proportionality of the situation. Mesley’s use of the N-word should not be brushed aside, but, if the goal is to help people understand why words may be inappropriate or harmful, we should not dehumanize those people. Compassion and understanding should be granted to people like Mesley, as well as to convicted criminals, disadvantaged people of colour and radicalized neo-Nazis.
Cancel culture is problematic not because people should be let off the hook for what they say, but because it hinders progressive social change. Retribution cannot lead to a meaningful change in people’s attitudes nor help them understand how to become better people. It just makes them afraid and reinforces oppositional thinking.
Cancel culture has already led to an overcorrection in some online intellectual circles. The Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) is essentially built around a hysteria about social justice warriors. This view produces even more oppositional thinking. Instead of discussing concrete ideas and policies, the IDW and its followers simply oppose the excesses of the social justice left. I agree with some of their criticisms of political correctness, but I worry that conservative voices are trying to hijack such criticisms for their own ends. There is another way to handle this, a way that resists oppositional thinking and puts compassion and understanding first.
The Pleasures of Righteousness
While non-oppositional thinking might be desirable, achieving a broad shift in attitudes will be far from easy. That is why institutions should be the focus of these changes, wherever possible.
People like the righteous feeling they get from oppositional thinking and retribution. Condemning others for their moral transgressions is easy, fun and reassuring. Seeing someone as a full human being, a victim of her circumstances, a person with the potential to improve, and deserving of our compassion, is hard, painful work and disrupts the flattering fantasy that we should feel good about ourselves for our righteous attitudes.
Slavoj Žižek has speculated that many social justice leftists don’t really want to win their battles because their very identity depends on the feeling of being on the right side of a righteous fight. Similarly, the IDW depend on the exaggerated fantasy that there are neo-Marxists and radicals everywhere trying to destroy our freedom. Both sides psychically benefit each other. Oppositional thinking can be essential to the development of a stable identity: I know what I am, because I am not that.
In one scene of the documentary, Accidental Courtesy, Daryl Davis is shown meeting members of Black Lives Matter to discuss his work persuading people to leave the Klan. Strangely, rather than expressing gratitude, the BLM activists are angry with Davis. Why? Because Davis threatens the oppositional logic that authorizes their morally righteous anger and sustains their identity.
The truth is messy. It requires attentiveness to each situation in its specificity and demands compassion, understanding and humanity. This will be difficult to achieve. But perhaps reality can be incrementally shifted in that direction. Reforming our institutions so that they reflect the ideals of compassion and understanding, rather than retribution and opposition, is an obvious place to start.