Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Brief: note on the 'regressive left'

To anyone who might have been missing them (I can dream), I apologize for the lack of updates lately. I've been busy with a project that—well, it's a project. Maybe it will pan out, maybe it will die in the water. We'll see.

Quick note on a topic we've alighted on from time to time: the aggressive tribal zealotry of (some) social progressives. You know the broader movement has a snowballing PR problem when young, intelligent, otherwise liberal woman are complaining about feminism/feminists. I'm not going to name names (I've mentioned them here before), but two women I'm close to, both in their twenties, recently expressed their distaste for feminism/feminists and the rhetoric of the social justice conversation. (One was referring to activist cliques in West Philly; the other is just fed up with quote-unquote SJW harangues in online fora.)

Their complaints were of the same tenor. "They're shrill, they take everything to seriously, everything offends them. They don't want equal treatment, they want special treatment. They hate men, they treat men unfairly. They're just mean people, I'm tired of them." Etc., etc.

Question: is it Problematic for a man to tell a woman why feminism is a good thing?

Last night I read a piece in 1843 ("It's a Boy Thing") examining the greater likelihood of married couples with sons to stay together than couples with daughters. When I came across this passage, I immediately thought of my feminism-fatigued friends:
Playgrounds in hip neighbourhoods may be full of sprogs with unisex names like Sage and Riley, and big-box retailers may be ditching gendered toys and clothing, but changes in public behaviour haven’t necessarily changed private attitudes. This can perhaps be seen most clearly in parents’ communications with Google——those quiet, furtive moments, when the site’s autocomplete feature absolves even the most neurotic questions (misery may love company, but anxiety needs it). A recent analy­sis of anonymous search data found that Americans ask “Is my son gifted?” more than twice as often as “Is my daughter gifted?”, even though young girls are more likely than boys to be enrolled in gifted programmes in school. Parents also ask “Is my daughter overweight?” nearly twice as often as “Is my son overweight?”, even though boys are more likely to be fat.
Yes. That's fucked up. To challenge and change such attitudes is why we still need feminism.

The so-called regressive left poses some real dangers, one of which is the risk that its antics (taking trigger warnings to a conclusion that's neither logical nor useful, weaponizing "safe spaces," bullying dissenters, making a mountain of every eligible molehill, judging the worth of an argument strictly in terms of how many oppressed groups its speaker can claim to belong to, etc.) won't just discredit the fanatics and the Tumblr kids, but provoke a backlash against social progressivism in general.

When I hear a woman (one who staunchly supports gay rights, is pro-choice, voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary, etc.) averring that feminism is bullshit, I have to believe she's been exclusively acquainted with a perversion or misrepresentation of its tenets. But it will all be the same if social leftism becomes such an acrimonious cesspool that a repulsed public tosses it, bathwater and baby together.


  1. You said you use Okcupid, right? Here's a gut check question for you. If a woman strongly identifies as a feminist, are you more attracted or more repelled by them? Do you see it as inviting or a potential red flag?

    Now, had you seen it maybe ten years ago or so, would the answer have been different? Because I know the answer for me.

    One of the problems I faced when I started having similar discussions with myself after seeing how the progressive movement started morphing through social media and feminist sites like Jezebel that were clearly profiting off outrage was that I slowly realized that I was trying to talk myself to supporting a belief system I just did not accept. And I was doing this because, deep down, I wanted to be on the right side, the side that for all of my life I saw as a force of reform and good. And more importantly, I didn't want to feel like I was anywhere near the other side, accepting even some of the assumptions from people and movements that, even now, I still strongly disagree with.

    But the truth is, I was lying to myself. Trying to tell myself that feminism is about empowering women so they are not second class citizens may be an idea I believe in, but it is not where the energy of the movement meaningfully or popularly is now. The broader, popular social justice movement online fundamentally fights in battles and causes I do not agree with, creating not just tactical harm for the movement I thought I agreed with but also real harm on an individual and policy level. My thinking was a rationalization, in other words, a way for me to say that I support (western) feminism while fundamentally disagreeing with nearly every action popularly done in its name otherwise.

    The conclusion I eventually had to come to was that trying to rationalize like this just giving tacit support to what I hated. And I think the only way that this regressive, divisive take on social justice can be beaten is for those alienated by it to not identify with it, to call it out with the same force that I'd call out actions from conservatives. Doesn't mean I can't find common ground or discuss ideas with those I disagree with, or even hope for reform. It means though that realized about a year ago that I don't belong with them anymore, and should stop trying to find ways to defend the broader movement even as its energy fights against what I fundamentally believe.

    1. To the first question: not necessarily. To be frank, it would depend on how many other identity politics gang war signs are on display, and how emphatically they're used. (To be honest: if someone self-identifies as "cis" on their profile, then I pretty much check out right there.)

      To the follow-up question: I've never thought about that, but very good point. Ten years ago, I would have read "feminist" as "I support reproductive rights, I want equal pay/opportunity, I shouldn't be judged by how closely I adhere to a fucked up standard of beauty," etc. Now it might mean any number of things. Many of them carrying a faint or sharp tinge of tribalism (to use my tired refrain).

      But yes: today it is far more likely to imply: "my ideology mandates broad and ruthless cultural purgation."

  2. Yeah, it's part of a crazy theory I've been thinking about since at least 2013 - that a lot of the spread of this kind of social justice politics, as well as its blowback, can be traced back to Okcupid, and to a lesser extent online dating in general.

    For example, the word cuck has been popular online for a long while now in the world of 4chan, but it's only really had power in the last two years or so outside of its walls. And the word, and the people that use it, often promote the idea of beta-male feminists with not-so-secret femdom fantasies trying to pander to female feminists with not-so-secret rape and domination fantasies, with terrible results. So if you're one of those guys that's been passive through much of your life, seen yourself as the good liberal, but spent year after year trying to find a woman online with at best mixed results, getting resentful when you're told that it's really women with too many choices that have it bad, seeing ideas like polyamory spread that seem to benefit straight women a lot more online, and noticing that this stereotype seems to apply to your life a lot more than you want to admit, it starts to feel like a stacked deck. Especially since, with Okcupid in particular, it was an early site to spread a lot of incubating ideas from Tumblr and the like given that it pandered to youth, the left, and "alternative" culture,

    There's a high risk of over-extrapolating here - it is a crazy theory after all - but I'm trying to think of common factors where personal experience has a told a good many people, men especially, that everything they believed about feminism is wrong. This seems like a good starting point.

  3. I've always considered myself a perfectly reasonable towards-the-left sort of guy. Racial, social and gender equality are ideals I subscribe to in the same way you do, as outlined in your addendum. I recycle. I'm against carpet bombing civilians in the middle east.... all of which contributed to my moving to Bristol a few months ago which is renowned as one of the most culturally, ethically and artistically progressive cities in the UK.

    Honestly, I have been shocked by the militancy of the left here. I always, evidently naively, thought the left to be the arena of the just and reasonable in the face of an authoritarian elite. A pretty broad strokes summary of my mindset but you get the jist....

    But I have since learned the hard left, particularly those pushing the volatile combo of a vegan, LGBT, feminist, racial and save-the-working-classes agenda are among the most irrational, aggressive people I've ever met and incapable of a reasonable discourse (i.e. if I happen to like eating hamburgers I'm a murdering racist in cahoots with the conservative right). I kind of feel that, on a certain level, these people are just LOOKING for a reason to be angry. And they're all inexplicably comfortably middle-class too, which compounds the aforementioned with a sort of hypocrisy that when all's said and done... no matter how long the dreadlocks or how hemp those clothes, they're getting that inheritance.

    Anyway, excuse the rant. I'm catching up on my Beyond Easy reads as I've been offline a while and this struck me quite poignantly as up until recently I lived with a militant vegan who, in not so many words, evicted me for being a caucasian male carnivore who believes in career progression. I'm obviously quite sore and bewildered by the experience. I like your observations and seems its much the same across the pond though :)