Sometimes life gives you synergy—and when it does it’s almost impossible not to pay attention.
This happened to me recently as I was listening to an episode of the Ezra Klein show. He was interviewing Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist, author, and professor at NYU, about his new book The Coddling of the American Mind.
My jaw dropped as Haidt eloquently expressed much of what I’ve been ruminating on recently, which is that our society is devolving into a bunch of sensitive babies who revel in victimhood and lack even the barest sense of grit, perseverance, or resilience.
One example he gives is the idea, now somewhat widespread, that words or language can actually constitute some sort of physical violence. Now there’s no doubt that what people say to us can hurt our feelings, and that if certain things are said repeatedly over a longer period of time—whether by a particular individual, a group, or society at large—that it could produce a lasting negative psychological impact.
But words alone cannot, by definition, inflict physical harm. It’s impossible. And the fact that SJWs and others on the left (to be clear, I’m fairly liberal) are alleging the opposite is, if we truly stop to think about it, absurd.
Because if it’s now the case that our words can be said to cause physical harm to another individual, the speaker has lost agency over whether or not they have committed a crime. That’s fucking scary. Like, I have to deliberately choose to commit a physical crime—I have to steal something or hurt someone or whatever. But if our words can actually be viewed as weapons, who makes the call?
Because as Haidt pointed out in the interview, if words are considered violent, intent doesn’t matter. I may not intend to offend someone, but whether I do or not is not up to me…
It’s up to the listener.
And people are more sensitive than ever. Why? Because in a strange way, our society rewards it—it’s actually become, in some spheres, a good thing to be viewed as a victim.
I realized this is why I was so frustrated by the left’s reaction to the whole Kavanaugh debacle. It’s not that I don’t believe the women who accused him of behaving badly or that I want him to be on the Supreme Court—he probably did and no thanks: we’ve got too much corporate welfare as it is—it’s that people were reveling in victimization and using it as a way to gain status. Even worse, people made the hearings an excuse to say things they knew to be sexist or racist in nature, because in the cult of victimization, if you’re a victim, it’s impossible to be sexist or racist.
It’s been posited in this sense that black people can’t be racist toward white people and likewise that women can’t be sexist toward men, because white men have traditionally held power in our society—and still do.
But no one—at least no one who’s sane and rational—is really disputing this, or the fact that systemic racism and sexism exists in our society. The problem is that there’s a significant element on the left who believe the best way to address these issues is to attack white people and men.
But where does that get us?
Not really anywhere, because it doesn’t solve the problem. Making people resent white people and/or men doesn’t give women or people of color more power, status, or equality—whether economic or political. Nor does it address the systemic racism or sexism that still exists. And while it’s true that marginalized communities may gain some social status as a result, it’s only among those who value grievance and victimhood.
Worse, by overplaying those cards, we alienate those who would be allies and give Republicans and conservatives every reason to believe what Fox News and right wing media regularly tell them, which is that liberals hate them.
Understand: this is why Trump won the election.
It’s not economic issues that drive people to vote Republican—there’s a reason the elephants didn’t run on their corporate tax cut in 2018. It’s social issues aka the culture war. And when asked to choose between a party that stands—or at least claims to stand—for personal responsibility, and a party that says being a victim is a good thing (and inferentially that men and white people are bad), a lot of people are going to choose the former.
The reason is really quite simple: the cult of victimhood only works if there’s an authority figure who can step in to fix things—the appeal to weakness isn’t a bug in other words: it’s the feature. And that is pathetic AF. It’s basically like: I’m helpless and I need someone to take care of things for me, despite the fact I’m a grown ass adult. Now who do you want to elect as a leader? Someone who encourages people to be weak little babies who cry at the slightest problem, or someone who asks citizens to take personal responsibility for their life circumstances and make an effort to better themselves?
John F. Kennedy—a Democrat no less—put it best: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
Now again, before people freak out (although I’m sure some already have), I’m not saying we shouldn’t think about or address the racism and sexism that exists in our society. What I’m saying is that we need to be solution oriented and put forth a message and policy prescription that is unifying, not divisive.
And we have to be more disciplined.
It may feel vindicating and righteous for women to say things like, “kill all men,” when we see a high profile situation about domestic abuse, or to throw out a hashtag involving the phrase “white people” when some jackass says something racist to a black person in a convenience store and is caught on camera. But people need to understand that the impulse to say that is exactly the same type of thinking that allows people to believe that black people are lazy, or that Mexicans are criminals, or that women aren’t as capable as men—because they see an instance in which that appears to be the truth (or even is true), and then they use it as a justification to stereotype an entire group of people.
Do we really want to do that? Because if so, I’m out. I have to admit that I’ve become much less motivated to care about what happens politically as a result of this sort of language—the PC culture and corresponding thought police—not because I don’t support equality and greater opportunity and safety for marginalized groups in this country, but because I don’t see how playing identity politics helps those groups.
How does hate solve hate?
If we want to end harmful stereotypes, what good does it do to promulgate new ones?
This is not zero sum game where there are only winners and losers, and if someone wins that means someone else has to lose. No, if we make our society more equal by addressing systemic racism and sexism, we all win.
To go back to the interview, something Haidt said was that if we want to live in a secular, multi-cultural society, we can’t go around stereotyping or labeling particular groups as good or bad based on their status relative to power. We have to appreciate, value, and celebrate our differences, be they inherent, cultural, or otherwise.
This reminds me of something Andrew Sullivan wrote about the two ways we can step back from tribal politics.
The first is to embrace individuality. He writes: “I don’t mean individualism. Nothing is more conducive to tribalism than a sea of disconnected, atomized individuals searching for some broader tribe to belong to. I mean valuing the unique human being — distinct from any group identity, quirky, full of character and contradictions, skeptical, rebellious, immune to being labeled or bludgeoned into a broader tribal grouping… Perhaps I’m biased because I’m an individual by default. I’m gay but Catholic, conservative but independent, a Brit but American, religious but secular. What tribe would ever have me?”
The second is, “mutual forgiveness. It doesn’t matter if you believe, as I do, that the right bears the bulk of the historical blame. No tribal conflict has ever been unwound without magnanimity. Yitzhak Rabin had it, but it was not enough. Nelson Mandela had it, and it was. In Colombia earlier this month, as a fragile peace agreement met public opposition, Pope Francis insisted that grudges be left behind: ‘All of us are necessary to create and form a society. This isn’t just done with the ‘pure-blooded’ ones, but rather with everyone. And here is where the greatness of the country lies, in that there is room for all and all are important.’ If societies scarred by recent domestic terrorism can aim at this, why should it be so impossible for us?”
Sullivan and Haidt are right. If we want to step back from identity politics, extreme partisanship, and tribalism, we can’t define people by their demographics or use call out culture (where we take to social media decrying the behavior of others instead of engaging with them to help them understand why what they did or said was hurtful) to place value on victimhood.
Should we work to correct speech that is hateful? Yes. Do micro aggressions exist and should we teach people to be aware of how what they say might be hurtful depending on one’s audience? Absolutely.
But we can’t do these things if we use hateful language and stereotypes while claiming victimhood and grievance as badges of honor. No—if that’s the road we continue to go down, we will only succeed in further dividing this country along the lines of sex and race, haves and have nots, rural and urban, religious and secular.
I’m not sure if we have ever truly valued diversity in this country, but I remember a time when we at least claimed to. When I was a kid we were taught that American was a melting pot where all people were welcome and had the opportunity and freedom to pursue happiness.
It wasn’t true then and it’s not now…
But we believed it, and it seems to me that if we can believe in an idea—if we can put our faith behind it—there’s no reason it can’t become true.
So instead of crying like a bunch of babies about every little thing that appears to be unfair, unequal, or insensitive, we have two choices:
- Ignore it, move on with our lives, and try not to be around that person or group in the future. Or,
- Engage that person in a constructive dialogue.
And yes, I’ll concede that choice two will not always be super pleasant and ultimately that person/group may not agree or understand our perspective.
But at least they’ll respect us for being direct.
And politically, Democrats should focus on policy, not grievance. Let’s have better training for police officers. Let’s penalize companies who don’t pay women the wages they pay men for the same job. Let’s make the process for reporting rape and sexual assault more straightforward and do a better job prosecuting the perpetrators–generally men. And why in the world anyone who’s accused of domestic violence or harassment is allowed to own a gun is beyond me…
In other words, let’s actually work at solving these problems instead of just bitching about them.
It’s called taking responsibility and being an adult. And that’s something even conservatives who disagree with us will respect.