I have become more and more uneasy with some of the manifestations of the modern left in America – identity politics, the campus PC culture, privilege theory, flirtation with far-left economic policies. Supporters say they are fighting for equality and justice. I believe most are sincere and actually believe that they really are fighting for those things. There are probably no more out-and-out cynics taking advantage of the left’s ideas than the right.
So what feels wrong about this new dialogue? For some discomfort comes from the anger expressed, but showing anger isn’t proof that the person is wrong – after all, anger is an appropriate response to injustice, so if you believe that an injustice is occurring you should be angry.
The missing link came together for me as I was traveling in eastern Europe. Eastern Europe is a region of the world still recovering from the brutality of communism and enforced equality. As the saying goes, to get a dystopia, just imagine a utopia and then take the steps to create the utopia. I also read a book by Jordan Peterson around the same time, and he was able to express my concerns in a way that clicked for me. The point of this article isn’t to say the sky is falling. But we do have a problem, and we should be careful about where we are going.
It starts with reducing the world to only one aspect that explains everything. The world is a complicated place and there is always a lot that affects people’s lives. Luck, education, birthplace, birth group, their own choices, the choices of the government and their society, the weather. You could go on forever. What this complexity of life means is that any good or bad outcome isn’t only due to one thing. Forgetting this leads to all sorts of problems.
Let’s look at the communist example. Economic inequality of outcome can and does happen for any number of reasons – luck of birth or geography, the amount of personal effort, differences in intelligence and personality, chance, the vagaries of consumer choice, natural disasters, disease – and also cheating or exploitation. Communist ideology declared that all economic inequality was the result of cheating or exploitation, period. No other rationale for why some people were poor and some people were rich – or even just less poor – were accepted. Anyone arguing anything else was denounced as a stooge for the rich. Communists also denounced anyone that said that any non-economic ways of explaining society – tradition, community, religion, biology – were invalid and again, just tricks to hide economic injustice.
Once this one-dimensional view of society is established inequality becomes the same thing as injustice. Normally people think of fairness as a separate thing from equality. Equality means things are the same. Fairness means things are as they justly should be. Few people would say it’s unfair that a doctor gets paid more than a waitress, for example, given the rarity of the skill and the time and effort needed to develop it. And few would say that someone who works harder or does a better job shouldn’t get more of a reward for it. And a lot fewer people are upset that someone loses their job and becomes homeless because of chronic drug use than after being fired from a company where they’ve worked for 25 years due to a merger.
In all of these examples one person’s outcome feels more fair than another’s, depending on how it happened. This type of view is why we have traditionally fought for equality of opportunity – equality before the law and equal access to resources like education – rather than for equality of outcome, which would be making sure everyone has the same amount of money and the same house. We look for examples of someone clearly gaming the system to help themselves or hurt others and try to stop them. That’s why we have laws against things like discrimination or insider trading. But in a worldview that has only one axis, all inequality is also unfairness. Communists would say that all of these differences are unjust. There is no valid reason one person can have more than another.
This is where things start to take a turn from the merely confused to the sinister. Let’s keep using the communist example. Practically everything in life is affected by economics – money – in some way. No one has exactly the same amount of anything as anyone else. And so if you think that every single economic difference that exists is the result of unethical behavior, you’re well on the way to hating just about all people. Only the very poorest will be pure in your eyes. Everyone else will be to some degree evil. Once you see the world as an endless series of exploitations, you start to become disgusted by people. Everything you see will confirm your justified rage and hatred. And your frustration will grow.
Because you feel this way about mainstream society, you’ll start to engage in a purity contest with like-minded people. It’s hard to compete for purity in a world where people can want different things and live in different ways for their own reasons. But obsession with ideological purity becomes almost unavoidable when you have only one yardstick to measure the world by, and one end of the scale is always better than the other. The believer will start to denigrate anything mainstream and try to prove how virtuously poor and exploited he or she is. If their circumstances prevent them from seeming poor and exploited, they’ll compete to show how much they care for and understand the victims. This cycle will be reinforced by the group. Communist societies all manifested some kind of group criticism, where people had to confess their ideological sins in front of a group of angry peers and be told how to do better. Anyone who said something contrary was shouted down or worse; and all this was matched by official censorship of books and other media.
Tens of millions of people died in the twentieth century – the Soviet famine, the Maoist Cultural Revolution, the purges in every communist country, the Cambodian killing fields, and the ever-present concentration and labor camps in the Soviet Union, China, or North Korea. This wasn’t a ‘perversion’ of true communism’s beautiful ideals, as some apologists like to say. Communism was always going to end the same way. This violence was and is the inevitable result of what we’ve discussed above. A Communist believes all economic differences are the result of evil. Therefore anyone with more has it because they are evil or at least in bed with evil. Anyone denying this is lying or stupid. They retreat into a search for purity to prove how much better they are than all those evil people. And when the world won’t stop its terrible evil, they become angrier and angrier until one day they are willing to use violence.
The violence that erupted in Communist revolutions and their aftermath was never very limited. A lot of people sympathized with the revolution or tried to stay out of its way because they thought it was directed against the injustices of the rich and powerful. But they learned too late that the rich weren’t the only target. As we discussed above, everyone was guilty. Look up what happened in Russia during the collectivization famine or China during the Cultural Revolution. The Soviets got down to killing or enslaving peasant farmers for having slightly different outcomes within the same little villages. The family with the extra story on their farmhouse, or twice as many acres, would be targeted for having ‘exploited’…someone…to achieve this difference between them and the rest of the poor farmers in their village. The Cambodians started targeting people that owned books or wore glasses.
So let’s get back to the modern day. Again, I’m not saying that we are all doomed and that the left is a bunch of communists out to overthrow our democracy and kill us all. I’m also not saying that we shouldn’t care about racism, sexism, or poverty.
But I am saying this – the way the left talks is starting to scare me. It seems like the conversation is starting to have too many similarities to the mistakes that led to all the suffering in the last century. The ‘critical theory’ approach has become the main way the left understands society. This view of society shares some of the same impulses we discussed above. If you haven’t studied humanities in college, you may not have heard of this, but you’ve probably seen its effect on the social conversation.
Critical theory is the idea that social ‘hierarchy’ or the combination of race, sex, gender, and identity is the most important thing affecting every individual’s outcomes. Racist and sexist prejudices are the main force in society whether it’s conscious or not. In this view of the world you don’t have to believe women or Black people are inferior to be sexist or racist – you are unconsciously sexist or racist because that’s just inherent in the very existence of our culture and institutions. Conversely someone who hates men, or White people, still can’t ever be sexist or racist because the culture doesn’t work that way. Individual feelings aren’t relevant. Your virtue is determined by the intersection of your skin color, gender, sex, ethnicity, and sexual preference.
This leads to a disregarding of all other explanations for any perceived differences between identified groups. Maybe hiring is sexist – or maybe women and men tend to prefer different types of jobs and roles. Maybe cultural differences between ethnic groups also affect choices and outcomes. Maybe so do geographical differences between regions and cities, and that shows up in the racial and ethnic data because every area has its own mix of people. Maybe schools in some areas are broken, and we need to fix those – and therefore its not the companies downstream that are to blame for the hiring problem. You might even say that maybe measuring outcomes by race or gender isn’t important because every individual’s life is more affected by other factors, and we should focus more on issues like poverty, healthcare, or education without talking about race and gender. Not only are all of these alternate views wrong under the left’s current point of view, but even discussing them is racist, sexist, and threatening. It only proves how evil you are that you wouldn’t acknowledge the realities.
I think we can already see how this narrowed view of the world is leading to the next steps. The more someone believes in this view of the world, the less they seem to like human beings in general. The purity contest to find ever newer and more precise ways to discuss victimhood and aggression is very much out in the open. We have allies, microaggressions, and intersectionality. Speech on campuses and the media is becoming an echo chamber – full of ritual apologies and jumping on the next bandwagon. A view that was progressive just a few years or months ago can be shouted down as reactionary today, at least on campuses.
Despite the US and other North American and Western European countries being the least racist, sexist, and most open societies in history by any measure, we are condemned for our complete and total evil by our own people. There are still countries where slavery is legal in all but name, annd where minority ethnic groups have no legal rights and are brutally oppressed every day. But we are still described by leftists as a society based on racism despite having legal equality and having made generations of effort to correct for these past wrongs. The left sometimes describes even the most violent ethnic disturbances in other parts of the world as somehow the fault of the West, due to the legacy of colonization that happened before most of the people killing each other were even born. This explanation takes away the moral responsibility of the people involved and makes them helpless in the face of the actions of white people who aren’t even there anymore isn’t seen as offensive or stupid. That just fits with the way critical theorists view the world.
There are countries where women are allowed to do virtually nothing. In some, a woman who is raped is the one who has committed a crime and may be killed for it. On the other hand, we treat rape as a serious, if sometimes difficult to prove, crime. We allow women to vote and hold any job, and there are laws to fight against discrimination, as well as all sorts of programs to help mentor women into traditionally male roles. But nonetheless the left describes us as a ‘rape culture’ in which seemingly all of our upbringing is about conditiong us to oppress women.
To question anything about this conversation is to prove your own evil privilege. People of color can now be called white supremacists and race traitors by white students for disagreeing with them, and liberal women can be called patriarchal fascists for cautioning against extreme views on gender relations. Most recently we have antifa – who are nominally against fascism, and how can we object to that? But it doesn’t seem like they are too careful about only attacking fascists. Maybe it’s better to say they only attack fascists but almost everyone looks like a fascist to them.
My argument here is not that we shouldn’t be on the lookout to combat instances of racism or sexism – we have been for generations, and we still should be. These things divide our society and hurt our fellow citizens. But we should also be on the lookout for all the many problems that aren’t sexist or racist. We should also recognize the differences that aren’t a problem at all. We can’t keep going down this one-track path. It doesn’t lead anywhere we want to go.