Author’s note: This post was the basis for a presentation I gave at the Secular Saturday Chattanooga convention on 22-Jul-2017. Thinking back, I wonder if it would have been helpful to start the presentation by going through my “Solutions” section first. I say this because a member of Black Non-Believers of Atlanta left partway through the presentation and said to a colleague of hers outside that I was something to the effect of “another privileged white guy who doesn’t understand.” (A friend of mine overheard the exchange.) I don’t know her exact rationale for saying this because I didn’t take the opportunity to follow up with her. This was a failure of will on my part. In the spirit of my proposed solution, I should have talked to her even in spite of the possibility that it might have turned into an unpleasant conversation. Maybe that wouldn’t have helped bridge whatever gap there was between us, but I should have at least tried. At the end of the day, I think what separates us pales in significance to what we have in common. But we can’t see that if we don’t talk and get to know each other. That said, on to the post.
What is the problem and why am I writing about this?
If you’re the sort of person who spends a lot of time on social media, you may have personally experienced the increasing polarization of political conversations in the last few years. Like me, you may have asked yourself why folks on both sides are just going crazy – especially during and since the 2016 US Presidential election. I’m on the liberal end, myself, and I remember waking up the morning of November 9 last year and feeling terrified. I was terrified, not only for what it might mean for me and my own family, but also for many of my friends and loved ones who appeared to be targeted dead center in many of the policies for which then President-elect Donald Trump had advocated. And like many, I genuinely began to consider moving to another country.
And I still do consider emigrating. But not because of Trump.* And this is because I’ve come to see Trump as a symptom of a much larger problem. Trump’s lazy and hostile generalizations about everything from immigrants to journalists to Muslims to women seem emblematic to me of where conversation in the Western world has gone. The conversation has become petty, hasty, filled with indignation, and it doesn’t hesitate to dehumanize the other. And it’s creating what I’m beginning to identify as a Bully Culture. Now, a careful reader will notice that above I said the “Western” conversation, though, not the “conservative” conversation. And that’s because I’m seeing these tendencies amongst far more than just Trump loyalists or even conservatives more generally. I’m seeing it on both sides of the aisle. And it horrifies me.
“But wait,” my liberal friends might say. “Sure the left has its problems, but the right has a long history of being far worse. I mean, just look at the KKK, neo-Nazis, the Alt Right, abortion clinic bombers, white supremacist mass murderers, Christian militias, people working to impose their theology on everyone else, right-wing shock radio, Fox News, Mike Huckabee, the fact that your state’s constitution specifically bans people with your perspective on theology from being elected to political office, and the list goes on and so on….”
And yeah. All of those are problems. Especially you Mike Huckabee…
I’m not buying that folksy charm, Mike…
And I shouldn’t stop being concerned about these things. But I also shouldn’t be willfully dismissive about the problems on my own side of the political spectrum anymore than the fire across the street should make me dismiss the leaky gas line in my own house. I bloody well don’t want the whole neighborhood going up in flames. But if I focus on the areas where I can have the most impact, perhaps I can help make things a little better in my house and in the neighborhood. And I feel pretty confident when I say that a better neighborhood in which to live is what we all really want.
Emerging problems amongst the extreme left
So what are these supposed emerging problems on the left? I’m going to go through several examples here, and then I’m going to review some of the more compelling explanations for why this is happening and offer some possible ways to move things forward.
The University of Missouri, Fall 2015
In the fall of 2015, a series of reported incidents of racism along with alleged inaction of the university administration led to protests and a hunger strike at the University of Missouri. These protests culminated in the resignation of its president and campus chancellor. But perhaps the most emblematic moment for many outsiders watching these events was when Melissa Click, one of the school’s communications professors and a participant in the protests, reacted to a visiting journalist by trying to take his camera and yelling to fellow protesters, “I need some muscle here,” in an attempt to remove him. Nearly universal condemnation followed, and professor Click was suspended then fired a few months later. The protests may have succeeded in ousting some of the members of the administration, but the University itself has suffered in the aftermath with a precipitous drop in enrollment that members of the faculty directly attribute to the fallout from the protests.
Melissa Click calling for some muscle
Yale University, Connecticut, Fall 2015
A little later in the fall of 2015, Yale University’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent out an email in which it provided guidelines for students against wearing “culturally unaware or insensitive costumes.” Erika Christakis, Master at Yale’s Silliman College, reached out by email to the students in Silliman with a response to these guidelines. In her email, Christakis acknowledged the good intentions present in the guidelines, noting that “many people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense.” But she followed this by pointing out that pretending to be someone else is a normal part of childhood development and growing up, and that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with doing so. Moreover, she didn’t want to “foist her Halloweenish standards and motives on others.” Rather, she quoted her husband and encouraged everyone that “if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”
The email is longish, and I’m really not doing it justice in the above short summary. I encourage you to read it for yourself and to see how hard she tries to be simultaneously respectful of those offended by these costumes while also supporting students’ need to transgress boundaries and experiment.
The response from some students was both immediate and furious. Surrounding Nicholas Christakis, Erika’s husband and co-master for the past 2 months of Silliman College, a few dozen of Silliman’s 500 students proceeded to accuse Nicholas and Erika of 1) behaving in a racist manner, 2) failing to memorize their names, 3) stripping them of their humanity by failing to memorize their names, 4) failing to apologize for causing them pain, 5) perpetuating an act of violence against them, 6) being entirely unable to understand what it’s like to experience racism, 7) creating a space for violence to happen, 8) failing to create a safe home atmosphere, 9) of being disgusting and arrogant, 10) of not being willing to listen, and 11) of gesturing condescendingly. Again, the above summary really doesn’t do justice to the video, so I encourage you to watch it in its entirety if you can – though I’ll warn you that it’s not a pleasant experience.
Christakis is making every effort to attend to the concerns expressed to him, apologizing to individual students in their preferred terms again and again. But when he won’t simply accept and agree with every single accusation leveled at him, he continues to be berated and accused of some of the worst behaviors that the political left can imagine. The insanity of demanding that Christakis individually address the concerns of each person in that crowd simultaneously seems completely lost on everyone in it. And so it ends up looking more like an outpouring of Two Minutes Hate than anything else.
A student aggressively confronting Nicholas Christakis
Goldsmith’s University, UK, Fall 2015
A little later in the fall of 2015, Goldsmiths University’s Atheist, Secularist, and Humanist Society invited Maryam Namazie to speak on the topic of “Apostasy, blasphemy and free expression in the age of ISIS.” (You can see the full version here or the edited version here.) Namazie is Iranian who lives and works in the UK, and is the spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. Her work centers primarily on secularism, human rights, and supporting Ex-Muslims as they navigate their way out of their faith. Her presentation was highly critical of Islamic theology and the Muslims using it to justify human rights violations against non-believers and apostates. Goldsmith’s Islamic Society (ISOC) was opposed to this invitation to Namazie, and when she was not disinvited (a.k.a. “deplatformed”) several of their members instead attended her presentation for the explicit purpose of disrupting it. Throughout her presentation, ISOC members interrupted her, shouted over her, and even turned off the projector she was using to display her presentation.
Islamists in Britain acting in an aggressive and authoritarian manner isn’t particular surprising, but what happened next was definitely unexpected. Rather than stand in solidarity with Namazie, a woman fighting for human rights for women from some of the most theocratically authoritarian societies in the world; Goldsmith’s Feminist Society instead sided with the ISOC members attempting to bully her and silence her voice. They justified this by claiming that Namazie is “Islamophobic,” another term beloved by the extremist left that harms instead of helps the most disadvantaged.
A Goldsmiths ISOC member disrupting Namazie’s presentation
Anti-Fascists or “Antifa,” 2016 – Current
The year 2016 showed us that outright violence perpetuated by the extremist left was becoming much more of a thing. Called “the left’s unwanted revolutionary stepchild” by the New York Times; groups of Anti-Fascists, or Antifa for short, began spreading their message opposing the Alt Right’s perceived desire for instigating a racial holy war. Throughout the last year they’ve increased both their membership and their visibility, most notably after the election of Donald Trump. Masked and frequently dressing all in black and red, Antifa members began to much more regularly create counter-demonstrations to conservative groups or provocative speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos. These counter-demonstrations have often turned violent, with Antifa members frequently initiating confrontations with opposition demonstrators. These confrontations have escalated such that we’re now seeing Antifa and opposition demonstrators bringing weapons and/or small explosives with them. While ostensibly targeting fascists and white supremacists, 2016 saw Antifa’s net thrown wider to include Trump supporters and free speech advocates. While I’ll acknowledge that there almost certainly are people with fascistic qualities in both these categories, Antifa is inevitably painting with far too broad a brush here.
Worse still is their heightening propensity to use violence to achieve their ends. National Public Radio has noted that domestic terror experts are concerned about this growing phenomenon, and even the very liberal Salon.com has published an article warning of the danger these loosely affiliated groups pose.
Punching Nazis, Spring 2017
On inauguration day, Richard Spencer, the man who started the “Alt Right” movement, was punched in the head by an Antifa member while giving an interview. News of the punch spread quickly, with many leftists celebrating the act of punching Nazis. Better to make them afraid to express their destructive ideas than allow them to potentially influence others in our society, we were told. But many centrists reasonably began asking how we know if someone is a Nazi? Can we punch disabled Nazis? Can we punch both male and female Nazis? What about children parroting their parents’ Nazi ideas? Or is anyone spouting these ideas fair game? And what are the limits in terms of the kinds of violence we can use? Is a punch as far as we can go? Or can we also use more reliably brutal weapons? As expected, the offered answers to these questions have varied depending on who you ask.
Spencer doesn’t identify as a Nazi, but does advocate for white Christian nationalism. I don’t think there’s much of a difference, personally, and Spencer is hardly the sort of person I’d ever defend. I find his ideas and historical perspective to be both infantile and highly destructive in their application. But I also can’t support violence against someone simply because I find their ideas alone potentially destructive.
Richard Spencer before and during the assault
University of California at Berkeley, Spring 2017
Milo Yiannopoulos, professional provocateur and then-editor at Breitbart News, was scheduled to speak at Berkeley in February of 2017. Known for his flamboyantly gay persona and aggressively overt right-wing views, Yiannopoulos has a history of intentionally trying to provoke left-wingers into behaving badly. At this point he’d already been travelling to many universities throughout the US on his “Dangerous Faggot” tour, taking advantage of every opportunity to elicit the ire of leftist students.
Yiannopoulos appearing on Real Time with Bill Maher
Berkeley would be no exception to that trend, but very quickly became much worse. A group of masked non-student demonstrators using tactics known as “Black Bloc” gathered outside the event and “set fire and threw objects” in an effort to get the event cancelled, causing approximately $100,000 in damage to the campus. Threats of similar behavior contributed to conservative writer Ann Coulter cancelling a speech at the same university a couple of months later.
Black bloc protesters at Berkeley. Photo from Newsweek
Middlebury College, Vermont, Spring 2017
Professor Charles Murray, a social scientist controversial because of his choice to write a book called The Bell Curve that detailed how different racial groups average different scores on standardized IQ tests, was invited to speak at Middlebury College by a conservative student group. Allison Stanger, a Middlebury professor of international politics and economics, had also been invited to provide a counterpoint to Murray and give him the opportunity to debate someone who disagreed with him. Murray’s presentation was not about the Bell Curve, but that didn’t stop a large group of protesters from accusing Murray of supporting eugenics, pulling fire alarms, and chanting to drown out his voice.
As it quickly became apparent that he wouldn’t be able to speak, Murray was escorted to a separate room and given the opportunity to present his speech via livestream. Afterwards, Murray was escorted by security and professor Stanger outside towards a waiting car. There, they were confronted by a mob of protestors wearing bandanas to obscure their identity. The protestors aggressively surrounded Murray and Stanger, with one pulling on Stanger’s hair hard enough that she had to go to the hospital for whiplash and a concussion. The protestors then surrounded Murray and Stanger’s car, pounded on the windows, and repeatedly rocked it back and forth. Stanger reports fearing for her life. Keep in mind that Stanger had been explicitly invited to counter Murray’s presentation.
Protesters refusing to exercise their right to hear (and prevent others from hearing) opposing ideas
Evergreen State College, Washington state, Spring 2017
According to Bari Weiss at the New York Times, “Bret Weinstein is a biology professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., who supported Bernie Sanders, admiringly retweets Glenn Greenwald and was an outspoken supporter of the Occupy Wall Street movement.” With such liberal credentials, you’d thing that Weinstein would be the last person targeted by extreme leftist protestors. And you’d be wrong.
This past Spring, Weinstein came into the national spotlight after objecting to a change to the way Evergreen College handled their annual “Day of Absence” this year. Inspired by a play by Douglas Turner Ward, Evergreen’s decades-old Day of Absence event has seen people of color voluntarily removing themselves from the college campus to demonstrate what their campus looks like in the absence of their contributions. This year, however, they reversed the event and asked white students to voluntarily absent themselves instead to attend off-campus workshops about racism. Weinstein objected, noting in an email to an event organizer that voluntarily absenting yourself can be admirable – but asking others to absent themselves should not be encouraged. In his own words, “The first is a forceful call to consciousness, which is, of course, crippling to the logic of oppression. The second is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.”
A couple of months after sending the email, a mob of students cornered Weinstein outside of his classroom and proceeded to scream at, insult, and demand that Weinstein resign because of what he had written. To his credit, Weinstein maintained his composure and refused to be bullied, instead very calmly and clearly noting that he had no interest in debate – wanting instead to engage in genuine conversation where both sides listened to the other. The mob attempted to frame this response as being an example of white supremacist bullshit and that it was just an attempt to control the conversation. Failing to secure an apology or resignation from Weinstein, the mob left the building and proceeded to draw in more and more supporters at the campus. Shortly thereafter, the mob took control of various portions of the campus.
After standing down the campus police, Evergreen President George Bridges then attempted to hold several meetings with faculty and students about the incident. These meetings devolved quickly into angry shouting and chanting, with charges of racism leveled at Weinstein, Bridges, and the entire structure of the college administration. It’s important to note here that Evergreen may well be one of the most liberal colleges in the US, with a storied history of focusing on racism, inequality, feminism, intersectionality, and a variety of other responses to perceived systems of oppression. These students could have hardly picked an institution more intent on agreeing with them, and President Bridges seemed to chomp at the bit to acquiesce to every single demand. Bridges was even berated for gesturing (normally as far as I can tell) with his hands and told that he was not allowed to use the restroom without an escort.
Weinstein, that same day, was informed by campus police that they could not guarantee his safety on campus due to having been stood down by Bridges. Further, he was informed by some of the students defending him that pictures of his students were being circulated and that they and he were being actively hunted by protestors on campus. Due to the active threat, Weinstein had to hold his classes at a nearby park for the remainder of the semester. Right-wing media got a hold of the story, and a death threat was received by campus police aimed at campus students. This led to a 2-day shut down of the campus, with at least some of the students responding by forming a roving gang armed with baseball bats to defend the campus. Students who didn’t support the protests were, understandably, somewhat unnerved by such vigilantism.
The college has yet to punish any of the protesters, and to date has responded primarily by involving the protesters in the crafting of new social justice policy on campus. A letter, signed by 58 professors at Evergreen, specifically called for an investigation into Weinstein alone, leaving out any mention of any other potential bad actors. Weinstein remains persona non grata on campus to this day, and chose to relocate his family due to security concerns.
The events at Mizzou, Yale, Goldsmith’s, the Inauguration, Berkeley, Middlebury, and Evergreen all suggest a pattern of willful intimidation, violence, and/or the threat of violence directed at those perceived by extreme leftists as deviating from or challenging their positions on race and equality. The proffered justifications for these responses seem rarely centered in a careful analysis of the issues or arguments, instead manifesting in self righteous anger and asserted claims of victimhood/oppression. That said, I want to be fair and accurately represent the concerns of the protesters, so I’m going to offer my best analysis of why and how they’re justifying their actions.
I opened this piece talking about how the election of Donald Trump terrified me. I would suggest that my base fear on this issue mirrors those of the extreme left at least somewhat. We’re scared of how a man so manifestly unfit for the office could have been elected, and of how his policies could hurt millions of people before and after the end of his term(s) in office. We’re horrified of what the election of this man might say about our neighbors who voted for him. We hate corruption and dishonesty and nepotism and incompetence, characteristics of much of the administration Trump has built. And this fear manifests in an increasing likelihood to band together, to retreat into tribalism, and to develop the Bully Culture evidenced in the examples above.
And once we’ve retreated to tribalism, anyone failing to align with the tribe is necessarily outside of the tribe – an enemy to be opposed. And when we’re so entrenched in fear, it is all the more difficult to oppose that enemy’s ideas with dialogue. Instead, it’s easier simply to shut that person down and expel them from our space. I suspect that this abject fear is the core of why we’re seeing so many become seduced by the extreme left. But how do we form those tribes? How do we develop and recognize the ideological borders of our tribe? From my reading, the most compelling answer to that question has been offered by an increasing chorus of philosophers and scientists. That answer lies in the anti-philosophy known as Post-Modernism.
By philosophy professor Steven Hicks’ telling, Post-Modernism originated as a counter argument to the Enlightenment. It began with the reasonable realization that we can’t be absolutely certain of the accuracy of any given interpretation of a text. That’s perfectly fine, and it led to some legitimate critiques within the study of religious literature. But rather than acknowledging that we can still be confident that there are more and less plausible interpretations**, soon to be Post-Modernists like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucalt instead rejected the legitimacy of all textual interpretation. By extension, they rejected the notion that we are able to collectively discover and recognize things that are true. For Post-Modernists, using the idea of truth must therefore be merely a pretext to try to dominate a conversation. Any attempted expression of a fact, thus, is merely an attempt to exert power. Power and oppression became the lens through which all human interactions came to be viewed.
Without conversation, the only way to resolve differences is to exert power with more than words. And without the possibility of collaboratively discovering truth, people of different backgrounds with different experiences (i.e. different identities) will necessarily be espousing different claims to truth. For a Post-Modernist, your identity determines your beliefs about what is true. Have you ever heard someone start a sentence with, “As a person of Jewish descent…,” or “As a woman…,” or “As a person of color…,”? That’s where this phrase came from. In the Post-Modernist worldview, the only thing that confers upon you the right to talk about something is if you’ve directly experienced it. Your identity has to match the thing you’re talking about, or you’re simply dismissed as biased or irrelevant to the topic. Forget being an intellectual trying to see things from others’ eyes. Since we can’t discover truths together, and we can’t resolve our differences using dialogue, the only thing left to do is attempt to impose our perspectives on each other through intimidation, violence, or the threat of violence. And that’s exactly what the extreme left is doing.
Genuine conversation and Humanist values
I feel reasonably confident that even the most ardent Post-Modernists, fully aware of the developing implications of their philosophy, don’t really want to live in a world where people no longer believe in the power of collaborative dialogue to resolve differences. (If they did, it seems unlikely that they would have spent so much time writing articles and books. Better to simply grab a baseball bat, after all.) So I’ve not yet given up on using dialogue to come out of this quagmire.
I’ve attended a few “Interfaith” panel meetings here in Chattanooga over the last year, and they’ve consistently been among the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. The panel typically consists of a local Christian, Atheist, Hindu, Muslim, and Jew. The panelists share their experiences of coming from their background in Chattanooga, and attendees then have the opportunity to ask questions of the panelists. As an avowed non-believer myself, I’ve been amazed at how willing to be genuine everyone at these events was. I witnessed dozens of religious believers approach the panel’s Atheist and genuinely try to reach out to him and learn more about his experience and perspective. The looks of realization that spread over their faces as they began to understand that they weren’t really that different is something I’ll never forget. And I remember one Muslim panelist seeking me out after I posed a potentially controversial question to the panel, thanking me for the question and wanting to discuss it further.
We have to resist dehumanizing those who disagree with us. The value of exploratory dialogue, of seeking out opposing perspectives, has to be the key here. These are the values of Humanism and of the Enlightenment. The political right and left need each other. They balance each other, and when one or the other of the extremes dominate the public space we all suffer. But we can’t collaborate as long as we exclude the other side from consideration. It’s not just a bunch of hippy, tree-hugging, peacenik libtards on my side of the fence (clearly, given the above!). And it’s not just a bunch of racist, bigoted, misogynist Nazis on the other side. That this even needs to be stated is actually a bit depressing, but it’s where we are…
Embrace Civilization’s Institutions and the Better Angels of our Nature
This post is already running overlong, so to wrap it up I’m going to additionally recommend Stephen Pinker’s excellent “The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.” Pinker carefully identifies a variety of causes for violence in human societies over time, and he offers some extremely well-researched assessments of why we are experiencing an unprecedented level of reduced violence in modern society. His comments on how civilizations institutions have conferred upon us tremendous benefits seems especially pertinent to the above discussion in particular. And if ever you need to disabuse someone of the notion that the world has consistently been getting worse (i.e. everyone is suddenly a Nazi!), this is the man to read.
*Trump seems to be doing a pretty good job of neutering his policy agenda all by himself.
**For example, we know that it is more likely that the Biblical story of Jesus is about a divine figure than it is about how to download songs from iTunes onto your iPhone.