How Progressives Make Enemies

In some circles, the First Amendment’s right to free speech is viewed as a bug rather than a feature, and defenders of free speech have not been welcome on campus. But as Matthew A. Sears, associate professor of classics and ancient history at the University of New Brunswick, argues, proponents of viewpoint diversity like Jonathan Haidt aren’t the real defenders of thought.

Indeed, many now insist that healthy skepticism and free inquiry, the supposed heart of the Socratic method and what Haidt labels the “disinterested pursuit of truth,” are in dire need of a revival in the academy.

I’m not so sure.

In fact, in important ways the social justice approach — which emphasizes the dynamics of power and oppression — that many fear has taken over the humanities and social sciences at its best is actually an improvement over the “disinterested pursuit of truth” and more in line with the Socratic method. In fact, rather than constituting an attack on knowledge, the social justice lens reflects new ideas generated by academic disciplines and experts within them, and generally encourages expanding our knowledge and opening up subjects to new perspectives, much like Socrates advocated.

This was driven home in reaction to a cut of a talk by Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker.

This week, a video surfaced of a Harvard professor, Steven Pinker, which appeared to show him lauding members of a racist movement. The clip, which was pulled from a November event at Harvard put on by Spiked magazine, showed Mr. Pinker referring to “the often highly literate, highly intelligent people who gravitate to the alt-right” and calling them “internet savvy” and “media savvy.”

The clip went viral. The right celebrated; the left fumed.

It was, as Jesse Singal explains, nonsense.

The idea that Mr. Pinker, a liberal, Jewish psychology professor, is a fan of a racist, anti-Semitic online movement is absurd on its face, so it might be tempting to roll your eyes and dismiss this blowup as just another instance of social media doing what it does best: generating outrage.

But it’s actually a worthwhile episode to unpack, because it highlights a disturbing, worsening tendency in social media in which tribal allegiances are replacing shared empirical understandings of the world.

Singal goes on to use the Pinker video, and the left’s tribal outrage, to prove a point.

That’s because the pernicious social dynamics of these online spaces hammer home the idea that anyone who disagrees with you on any controversial subject, even a little bit, is incorrigibly dumb or evil or suspect. On a wide and expanding range of issues, there’s no such thing as good-faith disagreement.

The online anger aimed at Mr. Pinker provides a perfect case study.

So stupid people on the internet are stupid. This isn’t exactly breaking news. But for those who wrap themselves in education, knowledge and insufferable self-righteousness, the “perfect case study” is illuminating.

It’s getting harder and harder to talk about anything controversial online without every single utterance of an opinion immediately being caricatured by opportunistic outrage-mongers, at which point everyone, afraid to be caught exposed in the skirmish that’s about to break out, rushes for the safety of their ideological battlements, where they can safely scream out their righteousness in unison. In this case: “Steven Pinker said the alt-right is good! But the alt-right is bad! We must defend this principle!”

>This is making us dumber.

And so it would seem, despite Sears’ argument that the social justice lens is supposed to make us smarter. Why is this? The internet? Tribalism? Or is it a product of the unduly passionate, filled with their passion and righteousness, making us hate them?

Mandel’s twit couldn’t have been more benign. The response was one of the more extreme examples of progressive idiocy, but beyond Singal’s point, this has become a common reaction to any statement, controversial or not, that fails to demonstrate the willingness to die on social justice mountain.

There is a broad spectrum of thought out there that abhors the alt-right, racism, sexism, etc., but refuses to adopt the orthodoxy of social justice, that everything, and I mean everything, is about “dynamics of power and oppression.”

Jesse called it a “sliver” of the population. I believe that it spans the vast majority of Americans, who believe in equality but are not about to make it the centerpiece of their lives, the primary purpose for their existence, for their every thought, the overarching goal of their every breathe.

And when the tribe rips people to shreds, hurls their hatred at the “misogynistic bigots” for failing to accept their religion of social justice and political correctness as passionately as they do, they don’t shame anyone, persuade anyone, change any mind. What they do is drive the vast center of America away from them. Who wants to have anything to do with these outraged flaming nutjobs?

This doesn’t push anyone into the waiting arms of the alt-right. They don’t become Trumpers. They don’t become conservatives. They surely don’t become white nationalists. What they do become are people who believe that the harder progressives try to ram their ideology down people’s throats by force, the more they will never enable, encourage or support them. And that infuriates the righteous tribe, for whom anyone not dedicated to their cause is their enemy.

You can make yourselves dumber, but you can’t force us to become dumber with you no matter how loudly you shriek or what names you call us. And that’s how you make enemies.

17 thoughts on “How Progressives Make Enemies

  1. B. McLeod

    The SJW “lens” is the enemy of knowledge, and of thought as well. It leaves very little room for either, just like any other inflexible, off-the-rack dogma.

    1. SHG Post author

      One either believes or not, but conflating belief and thought only works for those who believe. And attacking anyone who doesn’t believe is no way to sell their dogma.

        1. SHG Post author

          There are arguments, often sound arguments if not as overwhelming as they want to believe, but attacking is far easier and allows them to indulge their feelings that no decent person could possibly disagree with them.

  2. F5

    “The response was one of the more extreme examples of progressive idiocy”

    The source of the tweet isn’t a progressive. The response to Seth’s was either a troll or parody.

      1. F5

        Well the same person wrote articles titled “So Many Liberal Tears; So Much Winning” or “DEBUNKED: Media’s Top 7 Claims That Trump Is Racist” or “CNN’s Racist & Religious Attack On White Christians”. This makes me suspect that the tweet wasn’t sincere.

        1. SHG Post author

          If you say so. The point isn’t whether you’re right (and it may well be parody, for all I know), but it remains an example (it’s representative of hundreds of twits I receive), which is why it works as parody. But if you understood this, you wouldn’t have posted this comment.

          1. B. McLeod

            Truly. It is recognizably rooted in the standard Progressive shtick, and the only reason F5 questions its “sincerity” is that the same poster appears to have posted other messages that would be impermissible for Progressives.

  3. David Meyer-Lindenberg

    Far be it from me to argue with a New Brunswickian associate professor of classics, but… oh dash it, I’ll do it anyway. I studied classics too, y’know, and it’s just some place in Canada anyway.

    Does Mr. Sears understand what the Socratic method is? He might, but the vagueness of his description – “healthy skepticism” and “free inquiry” as its “supposed heart” – leaves the door wide open to the possibility that he doesn’t have a clue. The Socratic method is a method of debate: it involves asking your counterpart to elucidate his position by answering a series of questions, with the goal of drawing him into contradicting himself.

    What does it have to do with adopting this or that piece of political dogma, or “lens,” as Sears charmingly calls it? Nothing, as far as I can tell. At best, one might observe that the social-justice approach to debate, as typified by this twit from a Florida “tropical ecology & Latin American studies” prof, has a lot more to do with self-righteous yelling than taking any interest in another’s position, let alone the in-depth engagement necessary for the Socratic approach to work.

  4. DHMCarver

    Further proof of your proposition. Shadi Hamid, a scholar at Brookings, just twitted, “An old friend is about to block me on Facebook because I agreed with her that Trump was racist but did not agree that he was an advocate of “ethnic cleansing.” That’s apparently beyond the pale in some quarters”. FFS, people. . . .

      1. B. McLeod

        It is only a matter of time until we see MLK Day decried because Dr. King was insufficiently militant, insufficiently “intersectionalist,” and an evil harasser and exploiter of vulnerable women.

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