It should be obvious by now that the new generation of progressive political movements, manifested everywhere from Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police to #Me Too and Idle No More, has not gone unchallenged. Opposition, certainly, is fundamental to democratic discourse, but what is notable today is the depth of the backlash. Endless channels of communication and debate – traditional platforms like publishing and broadcasting, modern ones like social media and Youtube – afford partisans the opportunity to denounce and deconstruct their targets in unprecedented volumes. Considering the revolutionary, almost messianic rhetoric of the causes which inspire such reaction, it may be time to ask how much idealism is too much.
No doubt many values we take for granted in 2022 (universal suffrage, say, or religious freedom) were themselves once contested by powerful antagonists; that not everyone approves of a goal doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing. Yet ever since the 2016 election of Donald Trump, cautions have been raised that the stridency of progressive protest has merely fed the resentment of otherwise sympathetic bystanders whom the protesters cannot afford to alienate – the open letter in Harper’s magazine warning of “cancel culture,” signed by Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, and Noam Chomsky, among others, being a recent example. Other caveats have been outlined in books like Laura Kipnis’s Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, Douglas Murray’s The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity, Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, and Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning’s The Rise of Victimhood Culture. Whatever else such voices may represent, they are not speaking for the MAGA crowd.
Yes, it’s easy to dismiss all of these with a curt “OK, Boomer.” The objections they advance, however, are not that anti-racism, anti-sexism, or anti-homophobia campaigns are inherently unwarranted, but that their with-us-or-against-us, guilty-until-proven-innocent paradigms are provoking citizens – and voters – toward an aggrieved populism which will be exploited by the likes of Trump and his enablers in the right-wing media. As free speech (and same-sex marriage) advocate Jonathan Rauch puts it in his 2021 book, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth:
[I]n a land of free, independent-minded people, norm-policing backfires against the norm police. The policed may go mute in public, but resentment builds up in their hearts and homes, then bursts forth in the voting booth when activated by a demagogue.
Thus every pious news item about microaggressions or cultural appropriation sets off a wave of derision on Fox TV, every vandalized statue nurtures a simmering defense of what the statues commemorate, and every thoughtless charge of systemic racism or rape culture turns decent people away from the work of combating intolerance and sexual assault. This is scolding, not persuasion. It sounds like retribution, not reconciliation. Self-righteous solidarity among some generates self-righteous solidarity among others; defiant pride expressed by one group stirs defiant pride elsewhere; blanket accusations of bigotry or privilege goad the accused into living up to the labels; no one likes being shamed into supporting even a worthy project.
For all its invocations of equality, freedom, and belonging, it seems likely that today’s social justice advocacy will lead to at least a near future of imbalance, restriction, and polarization. Imbalance between competing identities, restriction of dissenting opinions, and polarization of once coexisting populations. Past activism has argued that changing our attitudes toward some would ultimately benefit all – fostering broader talent pools, or discouraging useless social divides – but the modern variety seems premised on realizing one demographic’s overdue gain at another’s punitive expense. This is not a recipe for civil order. Progressives take note: the celebration of difference only adds incentives to discriminate, the emphasis on culpability only generates reasons to earn blame, and the language of faultless, unquestionable, irresistible change only encourages people to fault, question, and resist it.