The discussion surrounding recent political violence in the United States has reached a surreal state, with serious allegations being widely flung about and taken seriously regardless of whether or not they are deserved.
Yes, some terrible things have happened, and yes, there has been terribly violent rhetoric. Yes, violence has been initiated in the name of several points on the political spectrum.
Every bit of it has been unproductive. That includes violence initiated after labeling disapproved speech “violence” and actual violence “self-defense” to excuse throwing the first punch. It includes violence initiated under the excuse that just one’s disapproval of the political views of one’s target justifies it, no matter how vehement that disapproval is.
Heather Heyer‘s death in Charlottesville was tragic and senseless, regardless of why James Alex Fields Jr drove his car into that crowd. Nobody can rationally, honestly deny that his actions were violent and his targets undeserving of that violence. Nobody can rationally, honestly argue that his motive is in any way a determining factor in whether or not that is true.
It is reasonable and rational to condemn his actions. It is reasonable and rational to have human compassion for those he targeted, and for those who knew, loved, and are now mourning their loss of Heather Heyer.
It is not, however, reasonable or rational to exploit that and other recent events as a tool to silence anyone’s political speech. Heyer’s death was tragic, and Fields’s violence was reprehensible. Neither makes Heyer a hero or legitimizes or delegitimizes anyone’s political position.
Why does that even need to be said?
That would be due to a very real effort being made to exploit the incident as a social battering ram by political ideologues.
You’ve heard a variety of political positions labeled “alt-right.” Now, meet the ctrl-left.
The ctrl-left is my label for the authoritarian collectivist end of the “progressive” or “identity politics” facet of American politics, whose positions rely on filtering the human rights discussion through the progressive stack. That’s an illusionary hierarchy based on demographic labels such as race, sex, gender identity and social class, with values assigned ranging from “privileged” to “marginalized.”
While progressives classify the stack as a means of ensuring that “marginalized voices” are included in collective decision-making, that is not the limit of the concept’s effects. Rather than ensuring inclusiveness, it has been used to excuse varying one’s compassion for others based on their position in the stack, even to the extent of pitting the human rights of those labeled “privileged” against those labeled “marginalized” in a kind of negative-sum game.
That filter is used as a sort of thought-terminating cliche against individualism, meritocracy, and libertarian or conservative ideals. Through it, lack of prejudice in favor of those labeled “marginalized” is seen as prejudice against them, and anyone advocating equal compassion for all, including those labeled “privileged,” is seen as a bigot.
During the last couple of election cycles here in the United States, that has been combined with aggressive “othering” to take things a step further. We’ve seen an escalating narrative among the far end of the so-called “progressive” left attempting to justify violence in the name of their political beliefs. The left side of establishment media, commonly called the mainstream media, has bent over backward making excuses for rioters’ destruction of property, attacks on speaking venues, and even direct assaults on anyone speaking from another perspective.
This involved some serious mental gymnastics, including creative labeling. Labels were used to proclaim violence justified… things like “nazi,” “white supremacist,” “fascist,” “racist,” “misogynist,” and “extremist.” Those labels were then applied outside their meanings in attempts to shut down all opposition to the application of authoritarian identity politics in law and policy.
It has always been reasonable and rational to apply the label “supremacist” to individuals arguing that their demographic is superior among all humans and therefore deserving of greater consideration in the human rights discussion. The ctrl-left, however, applies that label to anyone arguing that the demographics “men” and “white people” are not for any reason uniquely undeserving of equal consideration.
By following “It’s okay to punch Nazis!” with “Everyone who I disagree with is a Nazi,” Antifa and other groups like them have rationalized becoming the very thing they claim to oppose: Violent authoritarians who use mental gymnastics to silence the voices of demographic groups they deem less deserving of compassion and consideration than those they personally value… hence the label “ctrl-left,” as the classic liberal language of tolerance and love has been warped into a weapon using resentment and hate to forcibly control political debate.
Heather Heyer was part of a protest against the free exchange and open judgement of ideas. For that, she does not deserve to be lauded… but neither did she deserve to be murdered. On the other side, there were demonstrators promoting the equally stupid belief that some human beings are superior to others. For that, they do not deserve to be lauded, either… but neither did they deserve to be assaulted, nor does anyone else deserve to be lumped in with them for the “crime” of protesting efforts to silence political dissent.
Slapping labels like “Nazi” and “Fascist” and “white supremacist” on people like men’s issues advocates and anti-censorship activists won’t make us bigots. It will only rob those words of their meaning altogether. Combining them with violence won’t intimidate us into silence, either. All it does is galvanize the groups “progressives” have accused us of being. It has given them a direction to point to as evidence of their narratives.
The biggest lies being promoted today are that human beings are less human if they’re on the wrong side of the political fence, hatred isn’t hate if it’s aimed in the “right” direction, and unprovoked aggression can be redefined as self-defense if the right people are targeted with it. They are also some of the oldest. They have been used throughout history to divide populations and preserve oligarchs’ power.
Their use, rather than quashing actual racism, has resulted in a deterioration in America’s political environment from the hard-won, budding “different strokes for different folks” attitude of the 1970s & 80s to a modern mosh-pit of racial, sexual, and religious conflict, with battle lines being drawn along many of the differences that make human beings interesting in the first place. Worse, every attack makes it exponentially more challenging to walk the violence back, as each incident becomes fuel for more hatred, more aggression, more dehumanization, and further escalation.
A political environment in which those are the rules will inevitably descend into civil war. The ability to avoid that by substituting vigorous debate, even when appallingly stupid beliefs have been expressed, is one of the reasons America’s founders sought to protect open political discussion from government interference.
But what is the antidote to such damaging lies? You cannot eliminate darkness by covering it up. If we genuinely want to be a nation where diversity is one of our strengths, we have to learn as a population to handle discussion – even extremely heated debate – that emerges from a variety of perspectives fed by an even bigger variety of life experience. Some people will draw faulty conclusions from theirs. Shaming them into silence will not change that, but instead harden their resolve. Darkness can only be destroyed by light, and lies by the light of truth and rational debate.
What is the truth?
Hatred is hateful regardless of who is its target, and who is its host.
There are no less-human people.
No demographic label excuses excluding of anyone from the human rights discussion.
“I disagree” is not hate speech, even if you believe your ideas give you the moral high ground.
Disapproval does not make beliefs or the speech that stems from them into violence, nor aggression in response to them into self-defense.
And real social progress is achieved not by shaming irrational prejudices into secrecy, but by drowning them in facts and logic until they are impossible for anyone to maintain.
We don’t need an alt-right or a ctrl-left to tell us what to think. We need an adult conversation among a diverse population that will analyze the facts and strive for a rational conclusion – one that involves compassion for all human beings, regardless of their demographics.
- Back for more! Masculinities and covid-19, continued | HBR Talk 169 - February 25, 2021
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- A look at feminist research on masculinities and covid-19 | HBR Talk 167 - February 11, 2021