James Baldwin once wrote, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” This sentiment has been echoed, in various forms, by many heroes of social justice from Bertrand Russell to Howard Zinn. The logic is simple: If you love something, you work to develop and improve it. You actively challenge its shortcomings and contradictions whether it’s an idea, a relationship, a faith or something as rich and complex as a country. Although it is seldom recognized, this logic is equally valid with regard to political agendas and ideological tendencies. We must not shy away from our responsibility to speak out against the infirmities of the movements to which we belong. This is particularly true when these movements concern the advancement of equity and social justice.
In the same way that a critical stance toward any established enemy (e.g. the USSR at the height of the Cold War) is typically as safe as it is ineffective, predictable attacks on rival factions and philosophies are rarely conducive to progress of any sort. Squabbles with opponents and competitors have always been an integral part of the fabric from which politics and social debate are cut. However, if we intend to grow social justice movements and strengthen our resolve, we must turn our attention inward to those doing the work that social justice entails. What are the problems that we face? What is preventing those who are yet to join our ranks from getting involved? Why do the very people for whom we are working often scorn those who work toward a more just and equitable society? Much emphasis has been placed on external factors such as attempts by reactionary forces to stigmatize “intellectuals” and to frame social justice issues in terms of “takers” and “degenerates.” However, pointing the finger at others has done little to cultivate wider understanding or to draw new recruits, and so an acutely introspective look at those of us engaged in social justice work may be instrumental in undoing much of the disparaging narrative about social justice practitioners.
I am not the first to draw attention to the harmful dogmatism often exhibited by the group broadly referred to as “the left” - those generally credited with pursuing social justice most passionately. Nor is this the first attempt to draw attention to the problematic methods and behaviors that have evoked the contempt of political foes and the apolitical alike. To be clear, I very much identify as a creature of the left, and if this piece has the desired effect, it will draw attention to some of the issues that have been obstructing progress and hindering the realization of a more just society. In other words, no movement can live up to its full potential if it refuses to recognize, much less address, its handicaps. George Orwell, a hero to many on the left, once wrote, “What sickens me about left-wing people, especially the intellectuals, is their utter ignorance of the way things actually happen.” While this immediately strikes the reader as a reactive insult, a bit of context reveals that this statement stems from a warranted frustration with the inability of the “intelligentsia” to understand the oppressed, and to amend their tactics accordingly. That is to say, potential allies were being alienated, not by the poverty of the arguments being put forward, but by the showy, sanctimonious, and confrontational manner in which they were being delivered.
This dynamic continues to plague the left today, and the social justice agenda has suffered as a consequence. This problem has been compounded by the rise of identity politics and the “culture” surrounding what is often referred to as intellectual liberalism. Putting aside the well established tactics of conservative forces to demonize “latte-liberal” culture, I am proposing here that the detrimental effect of the methods and attitudes often employed by those who advocate for social justice has been grossly underestimated. Part two of this piece will focus on cultural inhibitors and how to identify and resist behaviors and attitudes that have endangered success in organizing and movement building.