On Twitter recently I noticed two writers in a tussle with anti-CRT activist Christopher Rufo. They claimed he was “unprincipled”, a charge he denied.
Now infamous for his unrelenting social media campaigns against the woke Left, and even a profile at the New York Times, Rufo has become a force to be reckoned with. His new stardom has disturbed many, including some liberals known for their own criticisms of the woke Left.
I don’t always agree with Rufo, but I agree with him to a degree here. Regardless of whether or not the charges of dishonesty are true, when he says that his opponents don’t understand the rules of his game, he is right.
There is a fundamental disconnect between the functions of two different classes of “discourse participants” - those who use language to think and discover truth and those who use it as a means to power.
In temperament, instinct, and preference I am powerfully predisposed to the thinker camp. And when I look at someone like Christopher Rufo, I have much of the same feelings of frustration as others like me. He is a self-proclaimed partisan with a clear political agenda: he frames his language to ease black-and-white thinking, actively stigmatizes certain groups and institutions, and harnesses the rage and fear of the resulting mob towards his goals.
This all sounds very negative - and indeed, in many ways it undeniably is. But I have been actively engaged in activism for much of the last decade - living amongst the Romans so to speak. I don’t pretend to be incredibly accomplished, but I’ve studied the space closely.
Compared to other thinkers - Rufo might be fairly accused of being dishonest. Compared to other activists, however, Rufo may be unusually honest.
It took me some time to accept the dichotomy myself, and especially, the realities of what it might mean for my own abilities to be a highly successful activist.
The activist game, to sum in one sentence, is about results. The goal of a “good” activist is to achieve the ends as quickly as possible - as ethically as this might allow. Her morality is rooted in the goodness of the ends she works towards, indisputably noble means to attain them are not required.
The thinker game is about truth. The goal is to uncover reality as it is - to achieve a true map of the real world (and hopefully, to be the first to do it). Reflecting reality accurately requires honesty - with oneself and with others - and a strict adherence to principled conduct. Although all fields have some degree of competition, knowledge-building is inherently not a zero-sum game. Truth builds upon itself.
The activist, meanwhile, lives in a world of scarcity - limited time, limited funds, limited public attention. To her, not winning is the same as losing: every minute in which her goals are not achieved is a minute in which a harm has been achieved. There is a cost to delay.
Meanwhile, from the thinker’s perspective, the only activism that doesn't look like dishonorable demagoguery is, in practice, ineffective activism.