8 votes

The still-vital case for liberalism in a radical age


  1. kfwyre
    (edited )
    My following comment is partly prompted by this article, partly inspired by you @skybrian, as you've often talked on Tildes about things being forced into unnecessary binaries, and partly...
    • Exemplary

    My following comment is partly prompted by this article, partly inspired by you @skybrian, as you've often talked on Tildes about things being forced into unnecessary binaries, and partly something that I've been slowly unpacking in general for a while now as I mull over broader political and internet discourse. My thoughts have ended up here rather than elsewhere simply because this article was what finally prompted me to sit down and put them in writing.

    I'm currently reading Conflict is Not Abuse by Sarah Schulman. It is not at all what I expected when I picked it up, admittedly based on the title alone. One of the things I've been realizing, and that is further reinforced by this book and others I've read (i.e. Hate Inc.) is that I'm fully primed to filter messages into one of two camps: left or right. Each of those carries with them whole hosts of assumptions and foundations that act as the groundwork for not only what the message means but how I'm supposed to process and respond to it.

    Schulman's book doesn't directly talk about this binary, but it is implicitly highlighted for me all the same because she doesn't neatly fit into it on either side. On paper she sounds like she'd be on the left, as she's a feminist lesbian, but in her writing much of her critiques align with more right talking points, including those brought up about "cancel culture". That said, most of her arguments and conclusions seem to avoid any sort of foundational right or left anchoring, or at times seem firmly rooted in both. It's honestly disorienting, as she's entirely on her own ground and I'm having to do a lot of independent critical thinking in order to process not only what she's saying but whether or not I think it's valid. In many ways it's also forcing my own response out of another limiting binary -- wholly good or wholly bad -- and into something far more textured, nuanced, and substantive. The book avoids being yet another volley in the team-based talking points tennis that seems to dominate modern political and sociological discussions, especially online.

    While my personal jury is still out on many of the book's assertions, there is one point that she brings up that I think is vitally relevant: an overstatement of harm can be used to falsely justify punishment. It's hard to even talk about this statement because I can already feel the weight of the left vs. right baggage in its interpretation, and any given reader of it will likely have a different, very likely negative, take on it depending on where they think I stand and what my implications are.

    I'm hoping to cut through some of that here, because I think it is a side-neutral and value-negative tactic that we see employed nearly everywhere. I don't want to even bring up examples for fear of setting off a powderkeg, but I want to encourage anyone reading this to think of examples of people of all political alignments who use this tactic. I genunely see it everywhere.

    I'm not doing this to justify a false equivalency, as I'm not saying that all uses of it are equal. Furthermore, this does not mean that some harm isn't real or that some people aren't worthy of punishment. It's more that, on a divided social landscape that treats discourse as a game to be won, positioning oneself as a righteous aggrieved individual allows an easy and "just" win over the other side who gets positioned as deserving of punishment. Too often I see people overstating the premise of being harmed in order to justify the consequent harm that they do as punishment. Harm then is not treated as wrong in and of itself, but only wrong relative to other harms. If you can justify that they hit first or you hurt worse, you can allow your actions to go unexamined or unchecked.

    The reason I'm saying this is because I think, in leading with overstatement for effect, it pushes us into rhetorically untenable positions that are often transparently hypocritical when someone examines our position. I also think it, counterintuitively, has a sort of numbing effect to real harm by creating a sort of "boy who cried wolf" situation. When very minor things get escalated swiftly and immediately, it makes major harm feel like comparable noise instead of significant injustice.

    So much of addressing injustice is about proportionality, but that gets broken in instances where we're too willing to center ourselves in inaccurate representations of injustice for the sake of "winning" for our side or skirting accountability for our own behaviors. I cannot stress enough, to anyone reading this, that I am not intending this as a left vs. right thing nor as fodder for false equivalency. Instead, I see it as a destructive rhetorical tactic that I believe has thoroughly permeated our conversations. Furthermore, I believe it is incredibly easy to critique when it is used to support causes you oppose but, simultaneously, incredibly easy to overlook or even unintentionally participate in when it is used to support causes you believe in.

    10 votes
  2. vord
    As a member of the illiberal, looney-left... there is so much to unpack, dissect, evaluate, refute, agree, and discuss. I don't know where to begin. Not to say that the article is entirely...

    As a member of the illiberal, looney-left... there is so much to unpack, dissect, evaluate, refute, agree, and discuss. I don't know where to begin. Not to say that the article is entirely off-base. @kyfwre's phenomenal post also has some flaws relating to the binary nature of things, but given the otherwise excellent points raised I don't want to distract from them by addressing it directly as a reply on their post.

    Given this is an insomnia-ridden metapost, I'm going to break from my usual wall of text style for the actual points I want to discuss. I'm going to attempt to isolate each of my thoughts into their own sub-posts under this one, after more sleep, as time permits. This should (hopefully) make these thoughts easier to write, digest, and discuss. Large walls of text are harder to vote on and reply to, especially when the thoughts are intertwined, but somewhat disjointed. People who might wholeheartedly agree with, vote on, and further discuss sub-points might not bother if the message otherwise seems hard to engage with.

    This topic has so much potential for deep, important civil discussion. I think it could be a topic that could be a true stress test of the Tildes' civility, and if we all keep level heads could learn, teach, and debate each other a lot, and we'll all be better for it.

    Thus, in the morning I will follow this up with the actual discussions I want to have about this, when I can do so with more clarity.

    Stay tuned, I'm excited to debate.

    5 votes
  3. skybrian
    From the article: [...] [...]

    From the article:

    David Shor is a 28-year-old political data analyst and social democrat who worked for President Obama’s reelection campaign. On May 28, Shor tweeted out a short summary of a paper by Princeton professor Omar Wasow. The research compiled by Wasow analyzed public opinion in the 1960s, and found violent and nonviolent protest tactics had contradictory effects.


    Civis Analytics undertook a review of the episode. A few days later, Shor was fired. Shor told me he has a nondisclosure agreement preventing him from discussing the episode. A spokesperson for Civis Analytics told me over email, “Out of respect for our employees and alumni, Civis does not publicly discuss personnel matters, and we don’t plan to comment further.”


    Without rehashing at length, my argument against the left’s illiberal style is twofold. First, it tends to interpret political debates as pitting the interests of opposing groups rather than opposing ideas. Those questioning whatever is put forward as the positions of oppressed people are therefore often acting out of concealed motives. (Even oppressed people themselves may argue against their own authentic group interest; that a majority of African-Americans oppose looting, or that Omar Wasow himself is black, hardly matters.) Second, it frequently collapses the distinction between words and action — a distinction that is the foundation of the liberal model — by describing opposing beliefs as a safety threat.

    3 votes