Freddie deBoer: The social justice left needs to grow up

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

The jumping off point for this Substack piece by Freddie deBoer is the story I wrote about here. If you missed it, the very short version is that a progressive data analyst named David Shor, who was literally fired from his job last year because a cancel mob went after him, is trying to warn Democrats that they are not going to win elections anytime in the next decade if they keep talking like leftist college professors. His advice to the party is simple: Talk about broadly popular things you support not about broadly unpopular things the far left is demanding you talk about.

Freddie deBoer’s take on that piece is that author Ezra Klein side-stepped the significance of Shor being canceled last year. Klein brings it up but then quickly moves on. But as deBoer sees it, that incident really wasn’t tangential to the larger conversation about how Democrats should proceed if they want to win elections. In fact, it was a clear example of a deeper problem Democrats have when trying to decide how far left to go. Simply put, one side of this internal war among Democrats has been given a green light to go in for the kill against anyone who dares to disagree.

…how can you have a discussion about discourse and messaging, Ezra, while studiously ignoring the powerful fear of imminent social and professional destruction that you and most others in your profession live under?…

On any given day the most powerful institutions in the world go to great lengths to mollify the social justice movement, to demonstrate fealty, to avoid its wrath. It’s common now for liberals to deny the influence and power of social justice politics, for inscrutable reasons, but if the current level of control over how people talk publicly is insufficient, I can’t imagine what would placate them.

And as deBoer sees it, this politics of terror, which threatens anyone who steps out of line, means Democrats can’t really have conversations about strategy, about the balance between moral purity and electoral reality. That’s because the penalty for criticizing left-wing extremism is too great. Criticize the woke left and you could become their next target.

The social justice movement is not just incidentally antagonistic to organizing everyone and recognizing all kinds of people as worthy of our compassion and support. That antagonism is existential. When you ask many people within the movement, “what could we do to convert the white working class to our values?,” they will simply tell you that they don’t want to convert them, that they are not worthy of being a part of their movement. They would rather have targets than converts, to lose as an exclusive moral caste than win as a grubby populist coalition…

Should the party moderate? Should the party push left? How should it accomplish either? These issues involve everyone in the Democratic coalition. The rules of the game, though, tell us that some people have to mind their Ps and Qs while others get to engage angrily, vengefully, jokingly, and immaturely, as for some bizarre reason we have carved out a total exemption to basic rules of conduct in argument within left-of-center spaces for those who claim to speak from the standpoint of “the marginalized.”…

So how can we have the immensely important debates we need to have, under those conditions? In so many domains, the left-of-center is hamstrung by a punishingly narrow range of acceptable positions, a mass assumption of bad faith, and a refusal to insist that everyone play by the same rules.

The solution to this problem, as deBoer sees it, is for the far left to stop being treated as exempt from the rules everyone else is expected to play by. That doesn’t mean they can’t argue forcefully for what they believe in, but “you don’t get to threaten people’s lives, which is very common in some social media spaces, and you don’t get to silence anyone, and you don’t get to dox anyone, and it’s profoundly fucked up to try and separate someone from their job in a world where you have to work to eat.” He concludes by demanding the far left activists “simply, grow up.”

I agree with deBoer’s analysis of Ezra Klein’s piece and with his conclusions, i.e. it’s not possible to have real conversations about important topics so long as one side has a metaphorical gun to its head in the form of cancel culture mobs. All of that is right on and very well said.

But I think he ultimately fails to realize the true nature of the danger. His demand that social justice activists grow up and play by the same rules as everyone else, i.e. have a conversation without making threats, is really a demand that they act like classical liberals. Classical liberals presume that everyone has a right to speak, that speech isn’t violence, that open discussion can lead to progress rather than cause harm.

The social justice left fundamentally doesn’t believe those things. I’ve referred back to this article by James Lindsey before but it really does highlight something a lot of people don’t want to acknowledge. The far left doesn’t want a debate because “conversation and debate are part of our game, and they are not part of their game.” In the most extreme form, they believe that debate is a tool of the powerful to keep the oppressed under control. They don’t want to participate in that process. Instead they want radical action, i.e. protests in which they make demands and the people in power give in to those demands or face calls for their firing. This is their chosen mode of operation. It’s not something they want or expect to grow out of sometime soon.

So getting back to the cancelation of David Shor, deBoer is correct that this incident is central to the argument about what’s wrong with the social justice left but I think he misses that they don’t see that behavior as regrettable. They don’t want to discuss the truth or falsehood of what Shor said, they want him fired for hurting their feelings and they want his firing to serve as a warning to others about what can be said and what can’t be.

Bottom line, you can’t reason with people who see reason and conversation as hostile to their goals. Asking them to behave better is asking them to not believe what they do. I don’t think that’s going to work because, at least at the moment, making demands and threatening people’s jobs is working pretty well for them.