An Open Letter to MSJP on the Left & Identity Politics

I cannot possibly overemphasize the essential role that love must play within an organization.  And when I say love, I’m not trying to be corny, and obviously I don’t mean romantic love.  Perhaps the best way I can explain what I mean by love is by explaining its antithesis, what I have seen and read about happens in leftist activist spaces more generally.  Self-righteousness….self-righteousness is a big problem within context of people’s ideologies and beliefs.  There is a strong tendency for some to talk down to those who don’t share their ideology or their beliefs in a self-righteous manner.  The goal in this case is not to dialogue with the person, not even to convince them of your position through reasoned argument, but rather to draw a line in the sand and then explicitly shame the person for holding an opinion which is different from your own.  Strong language is often used to condemn your character.  You may be called problematic, oppressive, toxic or disgusting.  You may be told by the other person that they are disappointed in you, they assumed better from you, and they thought you were different as if they are your parent.  Sometimes you are told that simply by expressing your particular opinion, that you are silencing the opinions of others not even present in the room or the conversation.  Sometimes you are told that your opinion doesn’t matter simply because of your identity.  Sometimes you are told that you hold an opinion solely because of your identity.  Even if you try to tell the person the process by which you came to your conclusion, they won’t listen.  Sometimes you are told that by expressing your opinions, you are making the space “unsafe.”  Sometimes words are even stripped of their meaning and re-appropriated in order to condemn you.  So they you might be accused of acting in a “colonial” manner despite the fact that no definition of colonialism concerns itself with the interpersonal dynamics of an activist circle.  Some people, even if they may not explicitly say so, consider themselves gatekeepers.  Sometime entire groups even act as gatekeepers, gatekeepers of the right way to think, the right concepts to believe in, the right way to be a person of the left.  Now I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have principles or be principled.  Obviously as an SJP we are against Zionism as a principle.   But you simply cannot enter into a conversation thinking that someone has to agree with you just by virtue of you stating your position.  Then when they don’t, you impugn their character.  I want to emphasize that we shouldn’t be treating one another this way, when we’re tabling, at events, in meetings, and when we’re trying to recruit people we shouldn’t be treating others this way.   It is important to understand that there used to be a time when you didn’t know what you know now, when you didn’t believe what you believe now, and there will most likely be a time in the future when you know or believe the opposite of what you do now or at least something slightly different.  And just as this is the case with you, it’s also the case with everyone else.  Language and words, these are not the planes on which we are fighting.

As Bailey Lamon writes, “There is a disturbing trend on the left nowadays of rejecting free speech that could possibly be hurtful to someone, somewhere. This is not only dangerous but it also works against us. As leftists we are often labelled as threats by the state and institutions of power and at the very least, we are labeled as unpopular by society in general.  Does this not mean that freedom of thought and expression are crucial to our struggles? That we should always defend our right to question what we’re taught, our right to be different? As Noam Chomsky put it: ‘If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.’”1

Obviously discriminatory behavior and language which is disrespectful to any identity group must always be challenged and we should see it as our responsibility to challenge it within this space.  But the contemporary left, especially the contemporary student left too often expands the bounds of what is considered disrespectful and discriminatory to include ideology and simple differences of opinion on certain issues.  For instance, let’s say you don’t agree with the academic concept of privilege.  You may be ostracized.  You may be shamed.  You may be accused of making a space unsafe.  You may even be expelled from a group because you have stepped outside the gate.  There is nothing progressive, there is nothing forward-thinking about acting in this manner.  It is actually extremely reactionary.  I hope that leftists can continue having these conversations so that eventually such practices will have been completely discarded at some point in the future.  But in the meantime and with regards to this group, we should endeavor to always make this a space for healthy debate and discussion on any topic which concerns the group.  We should endeavor not to silence and shame one another for our beliefs.  We should endeavor to speak to one another passionately but respectfully.  We should endeavor not to alienate and “otherise” those within our group and outside our group who do not share our way of speaking our thinking about the world.  People on the right alienate and otherwise people on the left all the time….assassinating our characters for believing in concepts such as social democracy, socialism, anarchism, and communism.  We should endeavor not to emulate their behavior.  I want to foster a space in which differences of opinion will not lead to fights, character assassinations, or personal attacks.  I want to foster a space in which people are not socially pressured to believe certain things.  We are not gatekeepers, not as a group and not as individuals.  I want to foster a space in which we do not tokenize one another and treat one another as the sum of our identities, but rather as complex individuals and human beings with opinions that may deviate from some fictitious norm that exists primarily in people’s heads.  We should endeavor to make this a safe space but not in the way that leftists typically define safe space, a space in which people are checking their privilege, policing the tone of one another based on the level of identity-based oppression they face, excusing bad behavior just because someone may belong to a marginalized identity, and generally engaging in practices which only serve to silence those who some may disagree with and shut down debate.  On the contrary, we should endeavor to make this a safe space for healthy and vigorous debate and discussion on any topic which concerns the group.  Sometimes people may feel uncomfortable.  Sometimes people may strongly disagree with what another person has said.  But this should not be a space in which we shame, silence, and call one another oppressive for simply having differences of opinion.  We should endeavor to make this a space in which we treat each other as individuals not as identity tokens.  In other words, we should endeavor to make this a space in which we practice love towards one another.

 

Works Cited

  1. http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/why-this-radical-activist-is-disillusioned-by-the-toxic-culture-of-the-left-a6895211.html

The Mythology of Bobby Kennedy

In his review of David Halberstram’s journalistic profile of Robert Kennedy, William Spragens writes that the author “feels Robert Kennedy was a transitional figure in American politics, with an understanding of the old politics but also with a rare feeling for the new politics.”[1]  Indeed, in the first chapter, Halberstram lays out this thesis quite matter-of-factly when he says that Kennedy existed “at the exact median point of American idealism and American power.  He understood the potency of America’s idealism, as a domestic if not an international force, and yet he had also exercised American power.”[2]  It is difficult to disagree with the latter assertion; Bobby Kennedy’s illustrious political career included stints on the McCarthy Committee and the Senate Racket’s Committee, time as John F. Kennedy’s campaign manager and one of his most trusted political advisors during his brother’s presidency, as well as an appointment to the most senior position in the Justice Department.  However, Bobby Kennedy’s evolving views on the Vietnam War from 1965 to 1968, ultimately reveal him to be, not an idealist, but, rather, a shrewd realist.  Continue reading

Lyndon Johnson & The Power of the Presidency

In response to Robert Caro and Lyndon Johnson’s other disparagers, Johnson historian Robert Dallek cautions that “we need to see Johnson’s life not as a chance to indulge our sense of moral superiority, but as a way to gain an understanding of many subjects crucial to this country’s past, present, and future.”[1]  Indeed, Dallek is correct in his implication that to view the decisions and the major policy initiatives made by Johnson during his presidency solely as products of a single mind and a single determination is an analytical mistake.  Continue reading

David Frum, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Corey Robin, and the Ideology of loss: On Conservatism’s Opposition to Reparations For African-Americans

Before diving into a discussion on whether or not African-American reparations are satisfactory on their own for rectifying the crimes of the past, it is important that one first methodically analyze, dissect, and ultimately dispose of the nonsensical arguments put forth in opposition by individuals such as David Frum and the multitudes who will eagerly lap up his illogic in order to justify their own prejudice and bigotry. Continue reading

Film Review: West Beirut

                     West Beirut depicts the trials and tribulations experienced by ordinary civilians during the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in April 1975.  The film begins with two feisty and self-confident teenage friends, Tarek and Omar, and their schoolmates filming and staring mesmerized and in awe of the aerial dogfight taking place directly above their heads.  With this scene, one immediately understands that the war has not yet touched the boy’s lives, and that, as a result, they are able to view the battle in the sky with a sense of gleeful detachment.  Indeed Director Ziad Doueiri comments that “During the first years of the civil war, despite the anxiety that I could see in my parents, I was incapable of feeling it myself.  I wasn’t born with fear; I acquired it.” (www.barbican.org)  Through the development of his young protagonist Tarek, Doueiri effectively captures the process of how a seemingly carefree, hormone-infested teenager comes to learn to fear, for the first time, for his family and his future in a time of war.  But not even his witnessing of a massacre of a busload of civilians right outside his school nor the frantic scurry of he and the inhabitants of his entire apartment complex into a bomb shelter in the middle of the night can dim Tarek’s adolescent whimsy or his desire to locate a shop that will develop the super 8 movies he and Omar surreptitiously took of Omar’s Uncle Badeeh and the old man’s attractive new girlfriend. Continue reading

Letter to the FIRE on Bill Maher

To Whomever This May Concern:

I would like to begin this correspondence by mentioning the fact that I greatly admire the work that FIRE does to protect the free speech rights of students and faculty on college campuses. Your organization was instrumental in helping a student organization of which I am a member beat back reactionary forces on my campus. However, I am concerned with your stated position on the push by students to disinvite Bill Maher as a commencement speaker at UC Berkeley. More generally, I am concerned with your position on the recent push by students to disinvite a number of commencement speakers at various universities across the country. This is not an issue of free speech, and by claiming that it is one you are revealing your organization to not just be a protector of free speech but also a reactionary force in your own right. Your deliberate obfuscation of the core issue here is troubling and speaks to FIRE’s ideological leanings and values. The students leading the charge to disinvite Bill Maher have made their justifications abundantly clear and not one of them has to do with free speech. In fact, in several instances, in articles and blogposts they have explicitly stated that their decision has nothing to with free speech.

http://www.dailycal.org/2014/10/31/mahers-invitation-shows-disregard-students/

“There is no question Maher has a right to speak on campus; but the question is whether commencement, a time of celebration for all students, including those victimized by Maher’s commentary, is the appropriate forum. UC Berkeley undoubtedly must remain committed to principles of free speech. But this is not a matter of free speech — Maher can iterate his beliefs on campus at a debate or club event. This is about granting Bill Maher the honor of being our commencement speaker when he clearly spreads ignorance and intolerance affecting the very people he would be addressing.

Though we strongly disagree with the substance of Bill Maher’s racist, sexist and homophobic language, we value the university’s role as a public academic institution committed to preserving the free exchange of ideas — even when those ideas are at odds with our own. If the administration worries that it is discouraging debate by revoking this invitation, the administration is welcome to invite Maher to an open forum on campus instead.”

I would encourage you to read the bold statements especially carefully. The same assertion was made in the case of Ayaan Ali Hirsi, and still FIRE continues to characterize this recent movement to force administrations to cancel commencement speakers as representative of an assault on free speech. The notion that a commencement ceremony can be characterized as a setting in which the free exchange of ideas is happening is patently absurd. The students are out the door. It is a celebration of their accomplishments. The speaker and whatever they are about to say are being honored and endorsed by the university. It is a choice to elevate one person’s voice above all others, and the notion that the students, the students whose accomplishments are being celebrated, should not have a say in choosing the speaker is anti-democratic. The plain fact of the matter is that they should decide who is going to speak because it is a celebration of their accomplishments. FIRE draws a false equivalence between commencement speakers and other speakers by asserting that this is an issue of free speech. University administrations do not endorse the views of other speakers, and, in fact, when calls for disinvitation erupt in response they are quick to assert that fact. The same can not be said for commencement speakers.

Regards,

Ephraim Hussain