"I'm a Progressive, Please Don’t Hurt Me!"
Part 1: Against Throat-Clearing
An audio transcript of this post is available, for subscribers only, here.
I recorded a podcast recently.
The host was a long-time woman of the Left who has found herself at the wrong end of the party-line when it comes to women’s rights and gender ideology, as I had when it came to women’s rights and Islam. She too entered this topsy-turvy world where the very same propositions that once won her applause and commendations from her fellow leftists were now inexplicably received with suspicion, if not outright hostility.
Throughout the discussion, she displayed what I have come to understand as a verbal tic among dissident progressives - the peppering of reminders throughout the discussion of her left-wing identity, history and credentials.
I was proud of myself for resisting the instinct to do the same - one I engaged since I began speaking publicly, almost a decade ago.
Before touching on any perspective that I knew to not be kosher among other Leftists, I tended to precede with some version of throat-clearing: “I’m on the left” or “I’ve voted Democrat my whole life.”
I told myself that this was a distinction worth insisting on because 1) it was the truth and 2) because it helped frame the discussion properly - making clear that the argument is coming from someone who values what they value.
But there was another reason too. My political identity reminders were a plea to be considered fully and charitably, to not be villainized and presumed to be motivated by “hate”.
The precursor belief to this, of course, is that actual conservatives should not be taken charitably, are rightfully villainized, and really are motivated by “hate”.
But I’m done sputtering indignantly about being mischaracterized as “conservative”, or going out of my way to remind the audience that I really am a good little liberal.
Here is why.
It doesn’t work, you won’t be spared.
Worse - in all likelihood, as a dissident you will be treated worse than if you simply were an actual conservative.
My years of experience in being an apostate from the religion of peace have taught me that kaffir < apostate < reformer, in terms of capacity to generate vitriol from believers.
For those not familiar with Islamic parlance, I mean that the only thing worse than being born a disbeliever is to become one, and the only thing worse than becoming a disbeliever is to remain a believer but acknowledge that occasionally, the disbelievers have a point.
Those dynamics are in full display here too.
Perhaps this behavior is deeply innate. I am reminded of Jane Goodall’s thrilling account of the four-year Gombe Chimpanzee War.
(And yes, I know this is a real stretch and I should be careful drawing connections with the behavior of other species and our own blah blah, but it is good fun so I shall continue).
She noted the proclivity of chimps to divide the world into in-group and out-group, familiar and strange, just as we do. Like us they tend to be extremely hostile to strangers, but welcoming and peaceful to those familiar.
Interestingly, the very worst kind of brutality she witnessed was saved not for complete strangers, but a faction that splintered off from the in-group. When the Gombe Chimpanzees separated into the Kahama and Kasakela communities, she watched a seemingly mutual, relatively amicable separation become increasingly hostile over time.
Eventually tensions burst forth into violence - beginning with the savage attack on a lone Kahama chimp by Kasakela males. And then the attacks just kept coming. One by one the chimpanzees from the smaller splinter group were savaged - ambushed and left with broken limbs and deep gashes, days later limping away “never to be seen again”. No one was spared - not the old greybeards nor the wizened old females, nor mothers carrying their infants.
She called these the darkest years in Gombe’s history, “an entire community annihilated”.
My own experience as an ex-Muslim was much like this (minus, thankfully, the bludgenings, murder, and careful observation by Jane Goodall, so, uhm, not exactly like this but you get what I mean).
Former friends and allies are more than just critics, they are traitors - guilty of a moral crime worse than simple opposition. The severity and visibility of traitor stigmatization also doubles as a lesson for others.
Throat-clearing is a tax on energy and attention.
Aside from the saving-one’s-own-hide perspective, declaring your allegiance, explaining your history, proving your credentials….every time the charge is thrown (that is to say, constantly), is all time and energy that could have been spent in more fruitful pursuits.
For public figures, this is also a tax on the energy and attention of one’s followers - who feel obligated to defend the honor of a person they admire. For a large and contentious public figure, this can amount to literally hundreds of thousands of hours collectively spent waging war against a label.
Throat-clearing is bad for you.
Whether we like it or not, the labels we apply to ourselves and the tribes we identify with distort our thinking.
We like to think of ourselves as deliberate and careful adopters of our beliefs, but when a belief becomes an identity, it begins to adopt us, too.
The desire to appear consistent implicitly incentivizes us to be less receptive to ideas that would contradict our declared identity - especially one that is declared publicly.
If one seeks to maintain intellectual hygiene - it might be best to distance oneself from political identities altogether. It might not appear to be much, but there is a crucial psychological difference between saying “I support civil liberties” and “I am a civil libertarian”, or “I support women’s rights” rather than identifying as a feminist.
In the former the element of deliberate choice is highlighted - my choice to support - and is differentiated from myself. Choices naturally require substantiation, all the better for clear and independent thought.
If I say that I choose to support women’s rights because I believe that doing so is good for society, I am clearly setting up an implicit criterion upon which women’s rights could either lose my support or continue to receive it.
Meanwhile, by declaring myself a “feminist”, I close that very useful distance between myself and my positions. This will make it harder for me to critically analyze their effects, or to cope with critique without feeling personally attacked.
Constant declarations and affirmations amplify this effect, and are best avoided.
It is bad for the causes you care about.
Aside from the way it distorts one’s own thinking, there is the more troubling matter that political allegiances might force one to subordinate the causes one cares about to those of the larger tribe.
This is most visible at the institutional level- an effect I’ve seen first-hand in the atheist/secular community, which aims to defend separation of church and state and promotes the rights and dignities of nonbelievers.
While the “secular community” has always been housed in the progressive movement by default, increasingly this association is crystalizing into an explicit alignment.
But when Islam came into the picture, that alignment was tested.
Atheists and humanists had long stood for their right to criticize - even mock - religious belief, and Islam has proven itself to be uniquely intolerant of either. But as Muslims were placed as a protected category under the Democratic party coalition, the secular community was left in a bind.
Either they could choose to fight on the front lines for the rights of nonbelievers where they were most sorely needed - or they could continue to remain in the good graces of the left.
As criticism of Islam became synonymous with “hate”, many atheist and free-thought organizations made their choice and began quieting on the matter of Islam. The threat of being labeled as bigots was intolerable, and in the end, some groups even joined in and began smearing critics of Islam.
But in bowing to the directives of the Left, the secular community is making itself irrelevant. By ignoring the field where the need is greatest - they are becoming a movement without a cause.
A far more devastating example of this effect can be found in the ACLU - the once great defender of American civil liberties.
As the ACLU completes its evolution from a nonpartisan organization to a progressive outlet like any other, broadening its once focused mission to include an array of progressive pet causes - it has done what was once unthinkable - surrender its once most cherished cause - free speech.
The post-Trump era ACLU now takes into consideration other factors, like the effect on marginalized communities, when choosing which speech to defend.
While this has been great for the coffers of the ACLU (which has experienced massive growth since its turn to boilerplate progressivism) and great too for the Democratic party, this is very, very bad for civil liberties, which no longer have a true champion.
In Part 2, I will cover this list, and the implicit and explicit rules of left-wing identification. Stay tuned, and please subscribe!
I was already glad you’re back, but now I’m really, really glad you’re back. This post addresses my deepest concerns about current free speech discussions. Your conclusion citing the ACLU debacle must get more publicity. Far too many people still think the ACLU is the same organization they’ve cherished for years.
Oh, BTW, I love the gorilla story. It could help people grasp the sadness of situation we’re in.
I recently encountered another new (to me) argument against throat clearing, although it's only really applicable in certain scenarios.
It was this reply by Scott Alexander to a comment on his Substack blog: https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/against-that-poverty-and-infant-eegs/comment/4692065