Andrew Sullivan wrote a piece last week expanding on his previously expressed view that intersectionality and social justice are a substitute religion, one currently undergoing substantial growth or as he calls it “the Great Awokening.”
For many, especially the young, discovering a new meaning in the midst of the fallen world is thrilling. And social-justice ideology does everything a religion should. It offers an account of the whole: that human life and society and any kind of truth must be seen entirely as a function of social power structures, in which various groups have spent all of human existence oppressing other groups. And it provides a set of practices to resist and reverse this interlocking web of oppression — from regulating the workplace and policing the classroom to checking your own sin and even seeking to control language itself. I think of non-PC gaffes as the equivalent of old swear words. Like the puritans who were agape when someone said “goddamn,” the new faithful are scandalized when someone says something “problematic.” Another commonality of the zealot then and now: humorlessness.
And so the young adherents of the Great Awokening exhibit the zeal of the Great Awakening. Like early modern Christians, they punish heresy by banishing sinners from society or coercing them to public demonstrations of shame, and provide an avenue for redemption in the form of a thorough public confession of sin. “Social justice” theory requires the admission of white privilege in ways that are strikingly like the admission of original sin. A Christian is born again; an activist gets woke. To the belief in human progress unfolding through history — itself a remnant of Christian eschatology — it adds the Leninist twist of a cadre of heroes who jump-start the revolution.
But while Sullivan is looking at this phenomenon from the outside, author Conor Barnes is writing about what it was like to be on the inside. Barnes became part of the radical community by the age of 18 and was for a time a true believer. He now considers himself an apostate (for reasons explained below) from a faith designed to make its adherents miserable and isolated. From Quillette:
When I became an anarchist, I was a depressed and anxious teenager, in search of answers. Radicalism explained that these were not manageable issues with biological and lifestyle factors, they were the result of living in capitalist alienation. For, as Kelsey Cham C notes, “This whole world is based on f**king misery” and “In capitalist systems, we’re not meant to feel joy.” Radicalism not only finds that all oppressions intersect, but so does all suffering. The force that causes depression is the same that causes war, domestic abuse, and racism. By accepting this framework, I surrendered to an external locus of control. Personal agency in such a model is laughable. And then, when I became an even less happy and less strong person over the years as an anarchist, I had an explanation on hand.
There is an overdeveloped muscle in radicalism: the critical reflex. It is able to find oppression behind any mundanity. Where does this critical reflex come from? French philosopher Paul Ricœur famously coined the term “school of suspicion” to describe Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud’s drive to uncover repressed meaning in text and society. Today’s radicals have inherited this drive by way of Foucault and other Marxo-Nietzscheans.
As radicals, we lived in what I call a paradigm of suspicion, one of the malignant ideas that emerge as a result of intellectual in-breeding. We inherited familial neuroses and saw insidious oppression and exploitation in all social relationships, stifling our ability to relate to others or ourselves without cynicism. Activists anxiously pore over interactions, looking for ways in which the mundane conceals domination. To see every interaction as containing hidden violence is to become a permanent victim, because if all you are is a nail, everything looks like a hammer.
The paradigm of suspicion leaves the radical exhausted and misanthropic, because any action or statement can be shown with sufficient effort to hide privilege, a microaggression, or unconscious bias.
Barnes says the nature of radical communities tends to attract a lot of genuinely compassionate people who feel the injustices of the world deeply and have a sincere interest in making it a better place. But the radical community they join celebrates illegal and often violent behavior. And intersectionality leads not to a classless society but to the creation of an alternative pecking order, one where the most afflicted are the most revered. That combination, a rejection of social norms combined with a call-out culture based on a pyramid of victimization, can easily be exploited by abusive personalities to dominate and destroy others.
The accountability process is a subcultural institution whereby survivors can make demands of perpetrators and the community must hold them accountable. Radicals are hesitant to report abusers and rapists to the police, for fear of subjecting comrades to the prison system. But turning victims into judge and jury and shared friends into executioners is a recipe for injustice that satisfies no one. And in light of the instant truth-value given to claims of abuse, accountability processes are an oddly perfect weapon for actual abusers. As one writer for the zine the Broken Teapot says, “The past few years I have watched with horror as the language of accountability became an easy front for a new generation of emotional manipulators. It’s been used to perfect a new kind of predatory maverick—the one schooled in the language of sensitivity—using the illusion of accountability as community currency.”
Entanglement with such an individual is what finally broke me from my own dogmatism. Having somebody yell at me that if I didn’t admit to being a white supremacist her friends might beat me up and that I should pay her for her emotional labor, was too much for my ideology to spin. The internal crisis it induced led to gradual disillusion. In the end, however, this was the greatest gift I could ask for.
I’d like to hear more details about the encounter that shook Barnes’ faith. What had he said to prompt such a response? You get the impression that in these communities, where every interaction between individuals is seen as part of a political struggle between identity groups seeking power, anything could be deemed problematic. For the accused, there is no way to argue the point without immediately proving oneself guilty of the privilege they are denying.
Barnes appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show this week to talk about his time in the radical community.