It is difficult to know how to react when a particular idea is obnoxious and risible, yet seems to have captured a great deal of attention. Do you expose it for what it is while nonetheless giving it more oxygen, or hope it just goes away quietly with the next news cycle?
Such is the challenge with Bari Weiss’ bizarre New York Times article on what she calls the “Intellectual Dark Web,” a group of supposedly iconoclastic conservatives whose ideas are no longer accepted in polite society but have large followings nonetheless. The article itself borders on ludicrous, but it has also given rise to some valuable discussions about political shaming and how to deal with the fact of white male panic and the continued strength of bigotry in the electorate.
First, to the substance of the article: Weiss presents the likes of noted traditional masculinity advocate Jordan Peterson and race “science” promoter Sam Harris as intellectual counterrevolutionaries promoting renegade ideas, modern-day Galileos bravely fighting a suffocating liberal orthodoxy. The ridiculousness of this framing has been noted again and again since the article’s publication.
The notion that people of color are genetically inferior in intellect to whites isn’t some bold new idea: it’s a wrongheaded, racist lie thousands of years in the making, one that was nearly universally accepted among white people until recently. The notion that empowered women are infantilizing men is a continual conservative generational complaint as old as Cicero, and is as toxic now as it was then.
That all races are genuinely equal, that whites are only empowered today by a combination of imperial aggression and an accident of geography, and that women really are just as good or better at math and science as men–these are still the counter-cultural and radical ideas in a world mostly dominated by patriarchs and good old boys. This remains the case even if those facts are now widely accepted in liberal, educated circles. In a world where Donald Trump and Republicans are ascendant in the United States, machismo reigns supreme in Latin America, Eastern Europe is in the throes of fascist impulses, most of the Middle East is engaged in ethnic warfare with explicitly misogynistic value systems, the Han Chinese are perpetrating the slow cultural and ethnic cleansing of Tibet while female babies are devalued, and so on, it will be a very long time before anti-racism and anti-sexism become anything close to a dominant oppressive ideology anywhere of significance.
More interesting is the question of what to do about the alt-right backlash. An implicit corollary of Weiss’ thesis is that polite society should be more accepting of retrograde bigotries because shunning them serves to make them cool and to alienate large portions of the public that agrees with them. Weiss has been busy peddling this very notion recently on twitter. But this is also wrong on the merits.
First, these ideas are not generally cool or trendy. Despite the edgy front projected by younger proponents of such philosophies like Milo Yiannopoulos, in truth the vast majority of far right supporters are among the elderly. That is still who elected Donald Trump, while the vast majority of millennials are leaning hard to the left. Yes, there is a worrisome radicalized group of young white (mostly) men who count such figures among their intellectual heroes, but these young men are also typically children of conservative parents. Second, one should not countenance harmful bigotries in society simply out of fear that the bigots will take offense. Decent people should not be worried that middle-aged white people with racist leanings can affirm their beliefs by listening to a Sam Harris podcast, nor should they hold back on their critiques of Harris lest his listeners have a collective temper tantrum.
Now, from a electoral standpoint it is true, as Briahna Joy Gray ably notes, that the politics of shame do not work. It is further true that racists and sexists cannot be shamed out of being racists and sexists over short time horizons, and that trying to do so in the context of political campaigns is the worst idea of all given the tribal nature of modern politics. One of the many frustrations of class-conscious progressives in the last few years is that it is much more difficult to address social justice via legislation than economic justice, and that campaigns focused almost exclusively on eschewing bigotry generally fail to turn out young people, women and people of color while actively turning away voters with even mildly deplorable views. Politics is downstream of culture–particularly in the arena of social justice–and, much as with the LGBT rights movement, the greatest advances tend to be made not by electoral campaigns and legislation but rather by cultural ambassadorship in tandem with judicial rulings. Elections tend to be a particularly terrible place to fight this battle. If the left cannot win until racism is fully defeated, then the left will continue to lose for a long time.
But that also doesn’t mean bigots should be coddled at the expense of their victims, or that bigoted philosophies should be given a platform. If Trump’s election has proven anything, it is that giving deplorable views a respectful hearing only emboldens and radicalizes the deplorables. Hate crimes have skyrocketed since the election, neo-nazis openly march in the streets, and society’s worst elements wear their prejudices on their sleeve while shouting “Trump!” as a magic talisman. Such behavior cannot and should not be countenanced, it should be combated actively and aggressively on all fronts, and the beliefs that give rise to it should be scorned and mocked.
Pragmatically, it may yet be necessary to win the votes of people who believe in some awful ideas. Keep in mind that many Democrats also hold terrible views: after all, over one-third of Democrats have a negative opinion of the Black Lives Matter movement. And Democrats still need to win a great many states and congressional districts with precious few voters of color not necessarily to win the presidency, but certainly to do well in the House, Senate and state legislatures.
But that doesn’t mean treating the likes of Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson with kid gloves. Their pseudo-intellectual garbage should be resisted intensely and de-platformed wherever possible. If it is necessary to win the votes of those who believe some of it (and it still all too often is), then it is incumbent on the left not to cede ground to the terrible at the expense of the oppressed, but to offer an economic program whose obvious practical and moral incentives for voters can often outweigh the price of losing (to paraphrase Du Bois) the psychological wages of whiteness and masculinity.