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A rallying cry for liberalism
On depolarization and dialogue
I recently posted a recommendation on Facebook for a podcast, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling. I'd listened to the first two episodes (all that had been released at the time) and found them fascinating — full of cultural history from the 90s and 2000s that I vaguely remembered but hadn't been paying much attention to at the time. Of course I'm also aware of JKR's more recent reputation as a transphobe, and the accusations that she's actively endangering trans people's lives with her rhetoric. As someone who's never been a huge fan of Harry Potter or J.K. Rowling, I mostly took those accusations at face value but didn't dig into them too much.
Recently though, the discourse around all things trans has been heating up. From what I could gather, J.K. Rowling’s views seemed to be representative of a growing conflict between certain strains of feminism and certain strains of trans activism. So when this podcast came out, I was intrigued. It seemed like a good opportunity to understand the crux of this conflict and hear multiple perspectives directly from those who hold them, as opposed to how they’re described by others. I listened, I found it enlightening, and I shared it.
And then the dynamics described in the podcast started to play out right there on my Facebook page: The accusations of bigotry for daring to listen to such content. The admonitions (I’m paraphrasing): "You've been told what the correct viewpoint is; why do you need to do any more thinking at all?" The expressions of deep disappointment: "This is so cringe from someone I used to like and respect." The warnings of danger: "You're putting trans lives at risk by sharing this."
None of the outraged commenters had listened to the podcast. They refused to based on the title, which I agree suggests that the podcast would be framing Rowling as a martyr. That was part of why I recommended it. I hoped folks would look past the title and give it a shot, since its contents were actually full of nuance, history, and context for where we find ourselves today.
But the comments all added up to a very clear message: You do not get to do your own thinking about J.K. Rowling or these issues and expect to remain in good graces with your tribe.
The scolding comments came fast and furious. It felt like entering the Gladiator ring and getting punched repeatedly by a line of people, while folks in the stands watched and cheered, little blue likes and red hearts peppering the thread to celebrate the landing of the best punches. I wanted to defend myself from all the positions and perspectives being projected onto me, but didn’t feel I could do so properly in that format.
Then came the private messages. They came by FB messenger and by text — nearly 20 of them at last count. Little notes of courage, support, and reassurance. It was fascinating, this blend of public condemnation and private support. A couple of folks said they respect the way I engage with delicate issues in ways they don’t feel brave enough to do.
Brave enough to recommend a podcast? It seems silly. I know what they mean, though. I've also refrained from commenting on threads about delicate issues. No one wants the Eye of Sauron turned on them. Most people don’t want to enter the Gladiator ring. I certainly don’t either, and to be honest, I wouldn’t have posted the recommendation if I’d known what would follow.
I thought about deleting the whole thing. But ultimately I decided to leave it up, because I think it illustrates a rising dynamic that I can’t ignore, even if I can’t solve it.
It’s been my experience that liberals tend to be averse to black-and-white, moralized thinking. We’re into things like harm reduction and restorative justice. We like to wrestle with nuance and complexity. I for one love hearing from people with strongly held views, but I like to listen deeply to many of them, then carry their arguments home, sit with them, and let them bump up against each other in my head.
Of course I have some strongly held views of my own. But I’ve watched enough of them evolve over the years as I gained experience and knowledge that I tend now to hold them a little more lightly. Now the things I own most fiercely are fundamental values: the importance of free speech, personal autonomy, fairness, and kindness. Because the real world always involves tradeoffs, I’m open to rigorous debate on which policies will maximize social benefits and minimize harms. And I’m less sure about the irredeemable evil of those with whom I disagree. Increasingly, I feel that these traits are alienating me from my most far-left friends.
Moral objectivists (those who believe there is absolute truth, and it’s black and white) are often exasperated by moral relativists (“There is no absolute truth, it’s all gray”). But there’s another way of being that appeals to me more than either of those: the synthesizer, who says, “Multiple positions are true, but partial.”
One of my complaints with the moral objectivists is the way I feel they often resort to mischaracterizing or strawmanning other perspectives as a way of claiming obvious victory. If you can paint your interlocutor as stupid, disingenuous, hateful, violent, or “causing harm,” well, case closed. They’re the bad guy. This is not to suggest that harm doesn’t exist. Particularly after the past few years, many of us are truly and deeply hurting in many different ways. But too often we transmute our valid pain into misdirected anger and oversimplify complex dynamics into tidy tales of good vs. evil.
I’m wary of this instinct. Sure, there are cases in which people act or speak in bad faith or with malicious intent, and that should be condemned. Hate? Unequivocally bad. Violence? Same. Discrimination? Bad, bad, all bad. But there are many more instances when the nuances of someone’s position are misrepresented in order to justify going nuclear on them, impugning their character, and ignoring the actual argument they’re trying to make.
There are a couple of memes going around online that illustrate this tactic:
The message here seems to be: It’s all virtuous people on one side, evil people on the other side, and credulous morons in the middle. There’s no actual thinking required if you want to be aligned with the good guys. Just look at the symbols and slogans, and stick with your tribe on all matters that arise. Job done.
Here’s how it works. You take an obviously heinous caricature of a fringe position from one side (“We want to kill Black people,” or “We want state-funded genocide of unborn babies”) and contrast it with an obviously sane, already quite centrist, widely popular opinion from the other (“We want civil rights,” or “We want sensible regulations on late-term abortions”). Then you accuse centrists of equivocating between the two.
It’s dumb, it’s shitty, and it’s everywhere. This is just how we talk to each other now, left and right, especially online.
It’s not only harmful to our personal relationships, it also drives the very polarization that it’s seeking to address. When people can’t hear or engage with nuanced critiques of their views, those views tend to grow more hardened and extreme. And we grow angrier and angrier at the self-evident evil of the other side.
I’m heartened that more and more people seem to be awakening to the toxicity of these dynamics. In a recent essay for Compact Mag, anti-racist professor, author, and leader of workshops on transformative justice Vincent Lloyd detailed his experience leading a seminar for teenagers at the Telluride Association called “Race and the Limits of the Law.”
The students — a mix of Asian-American, white, and Black teens — attended the seminar in the mornings, and in the afternoons they attended anti-racist workshops led by a teaching assistant. The seminar and the workshop covered similar material, but in very different ways. The seminar was designed to allow students to grapple with various readings and arguments over time, in conversation with each other and their professor. In an interview on the Persuasion podcast, Lloyd says the workshop took a different approach:
“These workshops were much more in the spirit of communicating the politics that one ought to have, statements that one ought to believe, basically, to be a good person. And all the content of those anti-racism workshops was content that I agree with. It was what I wanted to push the students toward in the seminar… But they were being communicated to the students in this format of the afternoon anti-racism workshop in a way that was basically dogmatic: ‘These are things that one has to believe. These are the prerequisites to participation in this democratic community.’”
Lloyd goes on to describe another tenet of the workshop that found its way into his seminar: the proposition that “one needs to respect and to defer to those who've had personal experiences of discrimination and harm done to them and their families.” Like Lloyd, I think this is right and good. And like Lloyd, I also think “that should be a conversation starter rather than a conversation stopper. [It] should open up a dialogue about these systems of harm, their histories, the cultures around them and how we can address them, rather than shutting down conversation.”
Instead, some of Lloyd’s students claimed that the seminar discussions themselves were harming them. This was one of the accusations in the comment thread on my Facebook page as well: that any discussion of these issues (namely, areas where some feminists and trans activists see the rights of women and trans people as being in conflict) is inherently violent and harmful.
This is a profoundly illiberal notion — that people must accept the predetermined conclusion of one group, and then stop talking and thinking. The definition of authoritarianism is “the principle of blind submission to authority, as opposed to individual freedom of thought and action.” This is what people are referring to when they talk about the authoritarian left.
If you care, as I do, about advancing social justice, wouldn’t you want people’s belief in the worthiness of that goal to be as sturdy as possible? And their advocacy for policies that achieve it to be as effective and broadly persuasive as possible? I’d argue that that’s best achieved by letting them engage in rigorous learning and contemplation, rather than by handing them the correct hashtag to post and threatening them with expulsion from the group if they don’t do so. Yes, this risks people ending up in different places and with different conclusions, but that’s what it means to live in a democracy.
As in a liberal democracy, Lloyd writes that “the seminar assumes that each student has innate intelligence, even as we come from different backgrounds, have different amounts and sorts of knowledge, and different skills.” He continues:
“We can each be formed best if we take advantage of our differing insights to push each other, over time, again and again… A seminar takes time. The first day, you will be frustrated. The second and the third day, you will be frustrated. Even on the last day, you will be frustrated, though ideally now in a different way…
It is tempting to add: Such is life. Such is democratic life. We each have different, partial knowledge. We each get things wrong, over and over. At our best, we enter the fray by listening to each other and complementing and challenging the insights of our fellows. In the process, over years, decades, we are oriented toward justice and truth.”
Sadly, Lloyd didn’t get to finish teaching his seminar. It was abruptly canceled when the college-age teaching assistant who’d been leading the afternoon workshops demanded that he change the seminar format into a lecture, in which he would feed the students the predetermined orthodoxy, the correct viewpoints, without opportunity for discussion. He declined, and that was that. Seminar canceled.
For better or for worse, we don’t have the option of canceling society. We need to stay in conversation with each other. We need to cultivate the tools to do that — resilience, respect, a willingness to listen, and the patience and fortitude to muster our strongest tools of persuasion.
In order to do that, I think we need to calm the bone-deep sense of being existentially threatened, fundamentally unsafe, that’s been growing in many of us for the past several years. This is both an inside job for each of us and a task for community leaders, teachers, healers, and artists. We need to co-regulate our nervous systems in shared time and space, stop seeing each other merely as two-dimensional avatars to be attacked and defended against. We need to calm our impulse to castrophize. The truth is that there are threats, real and imagined, around us all the time. All the more reason to cool our heads, that we may prevail.