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
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