Consistent in the history of regressive leftist thought are recurring cycles of idealistic and well intended beginnings giving way to cynicism, repression and violence. This can be the result of failing to reach goals that were unattainable in the first place, or early successes leading to mission creep – the expansion of the movement’s original goals, or an arrogance of power – the tendency to equate success with virtue. In each case, the end result is the same: an intensification of radicalization and fanaticism which eventually fizzles out, though only after inflicting, to varying degrees, damage on the structure of society.
The current form of regressive leftism is directly traceable to the protections extended to movements representing marginalized people in academia and mainstream media, and the resulting taboos on dissent from and criticism of these ideas. Criticizing any aspect of feminist theory or critical race theory was equated to misogyny and racism. From there, the natural tendencies towards reductionism and extremism that take hold in ideologically homogenous spaces did the rest. First in academia, then in other spheres of culture.
This dovetails with the observations of former senator J. William Fulbright that:
Throughout our history two strands have coexisted uneasily; a dominant strand of democratic humanism and a lesser but durable strand of intolerant Puritanism. There has been a tendency through the years for reason and moderation to prevail as long as things are going tolerably well or as long as our problems seem clear and finite and manageable. But… when some event or leader of opinion has aroused the people to a state of high emotion, our puritan spirit has tended to break through, leading us to look at the world through the distorting prism of a harsh and angry moralism.
The liberal tradition in the west has become accustomed to defending the democratic humanist strand against the intolerant puritan strand, but has the weakness of perceiving intolerant puritanism is a feature solely of the far right. Since harsh and angry moralism usually does come from the right, and the anger of minorities when it does arise is understandably seen as justified, this is, to some extent, understandable. But it is also a testament to just how anglo and Eurocentric even the progressive traditions of the west can be. One look at the history of Russia or China makes clear how dangerous the leftist strands of intolerant puritanism and harsh and angry moralism can be, especially once they acquire institutional power. Which they now have in the western world, though not to nearly the degree that Stalinist and Maoist forms of totalitarianism did.
The result has become an affiliated network of intersecting identitarian closed belief systems structured around the rationalization of self serving double standards and exemption from laws and social mores binding on the rest of society. A now common pattern of initial and popular success followed by ongoing confrontation and social conflict due to unattainable or undesirable goals has been the pattern for civil rights, feminist and LGBT rights movements. This has been a failure by every measure, but especially the measure of its intended results: equality for marginalized people vis-à-vis mainstream society. As any regressive leftist would be happy to tell you, glaring statistical inequalities between races and across gender lines remain.
It can be asserted, and rightly so, that many of the remaining inequalities are economic and persist because the current wave of regressive leftism has focused too extensively on culture and identity at the expense of economics. This is true, but must not be seen as being by itself an effective antidote to regressive leftism. Don’t forget that we’ve had experience with forms of regressive leftism that were exclusively economic in their focus, and these too failed. It is the concept of reductionism, not any one particular manifestation of that concept, that is the core problem.
The status quo is not sustainable. Militant and confrontational regressive left movements are contributing to a counter-radicalization of the regressive right. The “alt-right” movement is a key example of this. This is contributing to an erosion of faith in liberal democracy that is frighteningly similar to what was seen in Weimar Germany in the 1920s.
What can be done?
The danger of the intolerant puritan tradition of the left must be recognized by the democratic humanist tradition of the left. It is as simple as that. This is not without precedent – the social democratic parties of Europe rejected the Soviet model and made this rejection explicit at varying points in the early to mid 20th century.
Taking the attitude of “no enemy to the left” is a good way to move out of the later and into the former category. This does not need to detract from being firm in opposition to the regressive right. Taking the attitude that to criticize any aspect of the left for regressivism is somehow taking away from focusing on the “real enemy” is a classic false dilemma. Moreover, is it any real victory to defeat the right only to assume its worst characteristics? Those who think it acceptable, let alone necessary, to accept anti-white racism, anti-male sexism or Islamic fundamentalism have very clearly lost sight of the forest for the trees, and become hung up on oftentimes self serving ancillary dogmas such as “power plus prejudice” at the expense of the initial long term goals of racial and gender equality and secularism.
Plus, if we do not get our own house in order, why should anyone else listen to us anyway?
Doing this will not be easy. The democratic humanists need to understand first and foremost that the intolerant puritans do not naturally listen to reason. Manichean worldviews lend themselves to distrust of outsiders and a propensity to see politics as an apocalyptic, winner take all power struggle as opposed to a process of give-and-take. As such, negotiating and bargaining with any serious prospect of results is simply not an option, especially when the intolerant puritans have the advantage of positions of institutional power. Which they most certainly do at this juncture. Regressive leftists will negotiate and bargain, but not out of principle but rather out of a strategic evaluation that suggests them as being the most expedient means in the moment. They will abandon reason and negotiation the instant it becomes expedient for them to do so.
This kind of thinking is not naturally or easily understood by the democratic humanists, who tend to place faith in the best ideas naturally winning out once shown to be truly the best. Evaluating ideas entirely on the premise of who benefits between the good guys and the bad guys is not what democratic humanists naturally do.
Democratic humanists evaluate ideas on what produces the greatest benefit to the greatest number. They assume, or at least hope that this criteria will naturally lend the best ideas to implementation by responsible people in authority, and become despondent when this doesn’t happen. They do not like coming to grips with the realities of power politics. They take their own propensity to reason and justice for granted. They must get over this. Marx once said that the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it. Democratic humanists must realize this and act accordingly.
They must think in terms of gaining influence and power so as to impose their worldview, even if that world view ultimately boils down to taming the scope and strength of influence and power. There must be a long, hard look at how institutions such as media conglomerates, academic institutions and access to government are structured, and how power and influence are distributed in those institutions.
The democratic humanist tradition must now take seriously the need for its own “long march through the institutions” in order to preserve the integrity of those institutions, while at the same time criticizing those same institutions for the flaws in their power structures and the abuse of power those flaws lend themselves to. Ultimately, transparency and democracy across all mediums should be the end goal.
It is a sad truism of history that fanatics and true believers are naturally adept at organizing and coordinating their efforts, while getting any two free thinking libertarians, left or right, to work together if they disagree on anything is notoriously difficult. Perhaps that is an insurmountable problem and a big part of the reason why regressive forces have wreaked so much havoc throughout history. But cultural and civil libertarians are going to have to put aside their differences and work together to counter regressive influences.
Three particularly important goals for enemies of regressivism:
- Requiring that intent to harass or create a “poisoned environment” be proven on at least a balance of probabilities or a preponderance of evidence in order to secure a remedy in court over a harassment or hate speech allegation. “Privileged” people cannot be held responsible, on pain of professional or even legal consequences, for the emotional states of “marginalized” people, given what we know of how the human mind works, regardless of “social context” so prized by regressive social theorists.
- As a corollary to the above, political opinion and opinion on social issues should be a protected category of legal discrimination, especially in employment, just as race, gender, etc. It should be especially costly to terminate an employee for expressing an opinion on political or social issues, just as it is for protected grounds for discrimination. Exemptions to this can be extended if the non-expression of certain views can be shown to be a bona-fide occupational requirement. There’s plenty of information about these concepts in fields pertaining to human resources management and employment law.
- Strong College Campus Free Speech legislation must be passed, preferably at the federal level but at least at the state/provincial level. It's provisions would include the following:
- Require colleges to adopt, at the governance level, policy statements that make crystal clear organizational commitment to free expression, and make crystal clear that it is not the university's role to protect students or faculty from ideas they find offensive or disagreeable.
- The campus must be declared open to any speaker invited by students, student groups or faculty. Disinvitation of controversial speakers should thus be prohibited.
- There must be serious consequences for actions that result in shutting down speakers on college campuses or harassment of students and faculty for political reasons, including complicit administration failing to act accordingly in response to such events. Suspensions for first offenses, expulsion/termination for cause in the case of repeat offenses, and even legal prosecution if warranted.
- Independent bodies should be established to investigate student and/or faculty allegations of "ideological gatekeeping", which I define as attempts to block the academic progress or careers of students or staff for political or ideological reasons. This body would also be emboldened to investigate claims of ideological indoctrination in academic settings. Remedies could include reprimands or other disciplinary measures up to and including termination (in the case of multiple repeat convictions) against offending faculty members.
- The legislation itself would contain language cautioning academic institutions against fostering or allowing to be fostered a campus culture that romanticizes violent extremism, direct action, and other militant and confrontational forms of activism. Honest discussion of the above would be permitted.
- Strong protections for the due process rights of students and faculty charged under any of the above sections, and strong protections for the rights of student and faculty to engage in peaceful and non-disruptive protest.
People simply must have assurance of their protection from legal or employment related repercussions for expressing their views if regressivism of all kinds is to be pushed to the margins of society.
These measures will not be adopted by legislative bodies voluntarily. Doing this requires organizing from the grassroots level up. Here is where the regressive left, with its roots in Marxism and the social movements of the 1960s, have an advantage. Cultures of activism are deeply entrenched with them. But it will have to be done by anti-regressive voices if the regressive voices are to be countered.
The good news is that smaller victories can be racked up along the way if anti-regressives learn how to act effectively in groups. Names on petitions or email blitzes to counter regressive pushes to boycott what they deem offensive or terminate the employment of people who offend them would be much more valuable than the broad mass of the population proclaiming “what is this world coming to?” whenever the boundaries of political correctness are pushed to newly absurd extremes, but otherwise doing nothing.
Regressive left outlets can even be subjected to boycotts of their own advertisers unless they agree to publish voices that counter Islamist, misandrist or anti-white narratives. Anti-regressive forces will gradually be taken more seriously when they prove themselves capable of exerting the same kinds of pressure as regressives have fine tuned the art of exerting. I would caution against countering one set of identity politics with another, however, and hope that anti-regressive forces do not start calling for the censorship of voices they disagree with. If regressive voices are to be marginalized, it should be because the majority of the population reject their message out of a belief in liberal-democratic ideals, not because regressive voices have been silenced in any way.
Long term success means studying the deep as well as the surface arts of political activism. Study the history and theory of the new left especially and learn how they did what they did. Read Saul Alinsky, for example. Study the theory of Marshall McLuhan and learn about how media works on a deeper level. An early political influence of mine had a saying, "don't hate the media, become the media." If you can, research critical theory and postmodern philosophy and think about how they can be used against rather than for regressive aims.
Study the works of George Lakoff and learn how to use language to frame issues in ways that do not inadvertently bolster the worldview of your opposition. Do not accept regressive frameworks, rather use democratic humanist frameworks to construct a narrative that casts non-regressive activists in a noble light. People will go to great lengths on behalf of causes bigger than themselves and leadership that casts them in heroic roles.
Do not attack the values of regressives when those values are good, but rather cast non-regressives as the better representatives of those values. Suggest that marginalized people would be better off, in the long run, if their individual autonomy and liberty is respected rather than their being puppets of a self appointed vanguard interested in appropriating popular struggles as a means of advancing their own world view. Think what you will of #GamerGate, #NotYourShield was infinitely more valuable.
But don’t be afraid to attack the values of regressives when they are obviously flawed. The self serving and hypocritical nature of any position deriving from “power plus prejudice” thinking is long, long overdue for being called out as such. Especially when the regressives manipulating this kind of thinking are themselves obviously powerful, or at least influential.
Pick your battles, and do not dig in your heels over issues that play into regressive hands. Is, for example, an all-female Ghostbusters reboot a hill that anti-regressive forces should commit themselves to dying on? The backlash against stuff like that just confirms regressive left claims that their opponents are driven by misogyny. Think through your criticisms and be sure you're attacking from high ground: in the case of the Ghostbusters reboot, you could criticize the cynical use of gender equality as a Hollywood marketing tool, for example, or condemn the psychological blackmail inherent in using the potential to be accused of misogyny as a device to compel otherwise unearned positive reviews or to deflect legitimate criticisms of the film.
Does it not make more sense to go after regressives on areas where they are more easily and demonstrably wrong, such as the absurdity of feminist and Islamist cooperation? And when you do make your arguments, make certain of the strength of your position and have the necessary facts and logical conclusions to those facts at your disposal. Educate yourself on logical fallacies, and don't allow yourself to be fooled by common bait-and-switch rhetorical tactics, such as Greenwalding, bulverism and the regressive propensity to rely on emotional shock value to bypass the critical thinking logical mind and go for the more instinctive, emotional and thus more easily manipulated core.
Think along the lines of a Sun Tzu or a Miyamoto Musashi and simply don’t give battle when your opponents have the advantage. Strategize and strike from a position of strength. You'd better believe that regressives are going to be thinking likewise. They are quite directly taught this when they learn to deconstruct literature, study media theory or sign on with professional activist and protest organizations. The most malignant of regressive leftists - a small minority of the total who, by their nature, tend to gravitate towards positions of power and influence - are downright Machiavellian.
Part of the reason that the skeptic community is having a harder time with regressive leftism than they are with religious fundamentalism is that the regressive left is right about some things. Feminist and anti-racist doctrines begin from the naturally defensible position of racial, gender or even economic equality. Nuanced analysis will be required to catch them when they stray from the good sides of their core doctrines. Democratic humanists will have to be on their toes if they are to catch the point at which regressive leftists betray or abuse core liberal principles in pursuit of regressive aims. It requires ongoing study of the thought of your enemy.
The regressive right is an easy opponent by comparison. Religious fundamentalism, white supremacy, unfounded conspiracy theories and patriarchalism are simple matters to attack and discredit from without. Though it has been done countless times, regressive right ideologies require ongoing deconstruction and refutation. The regressive right also cannot be allowed to thrive by speaking to concerns that a regressive left, bound by its own political correctness, are unwilling to address.
The regressive left is not so easy to defeat. The regressive left cannot be beaten by an external attack on their principles. The regressive left will only be beaten by superior, meaning non regressive versions of themselves. That is what the alt-left, the revival of the democratic humanist tradition, must at all times strive to be.