A response to Fredrik deBoer’s “economic reductionism” (http://www.theestablishment.co/2016/03/16/why-its-ok-for-activists-to-be-all-talk/)

(TLDR: we shouldn’t be distracted by virtue signaling and emotional/affective dimensions of oppression, when there’s so much legal and economic work to be done)

and Noah Berlatsky’s “All Talk” (http://www.theestablishment.co/2016/03/16/why-its-ok-for-activists-to-be-all-talk/)

(TLDR: it’s misguided for FdB to harp on virtue signaling and activist culture, because evidence shows that those symbolic movements actually increase engagement, rather than hampering it)

Berlatsky’s point is well-taken here. deBoer’s characterization of virtue signaling as a distraction isn’t proven, and it’s just as likely that virtue signaling might act as a gateway gesture for the massive demographic of people who need some kind of symbolic foothold in consciousness/activism. Lots of people are participating in this sort of activism who, a decade ago, might not have had any accountability or entry point into consciousness whatsoever. Virtue signaling itself — a framework of accountability applied to discourse, that barely existed only a decade or so ago — might be the whole reason that activism is rising so fast among the young and interconnected.

Doesn’t mean that activism is smart, though.

Here, I think, is where deBoer’s argument is an important one to consider: his distinction between oppression’s structural/economic dimension and its “emotional and affective” dimension — that’s still a useful point, and could have very serious strategic implications in progressive politics.

It does seem, from trends in the news, that a lot of new activism is focused on campus speeches and high-profile rallies. If we want to measure engagement in activism that really hits the root of the problem, we can generally sweep away those rallies at Trump conventions, and protests on campuses over free speech.

The way this really needs to be measured, if we’re to come to any concrete conclusions about practical/political/structural strategy: we need to compare the rise in different types of activism over the last half-century or so. Are protests and outcries over structural transgressions— local legislation, discrimination cases and decisions, inequitable enforcement, evidence of redlining, educational and legal disenfranchisement, etc — keeping up with the rising outcries over rhetoric and spectacle?

The problem is, these numbers wouldn’t settle the matter. This is still a problem of interpretation: increasing focus on spectacle and rhetoric may be distracting from structural/economic progress, or it may be dovetailing with it, creating some mutual constructive interference.

Or the highly-visible public outcries over rhetoric and offense may also cause backlash, empowering anti-PC demagogues like Trump, and setting back the legal and economic progress that might be achievable in the absence of these pitched culture wars.

OR the emotional/affective activism could cause splits and resentments within the progressive coalition itself, much like the “outraged/paranoid fundamentalist” strain of conservative has recently split from the “establishmentarian” strain. And if this split caused a bit of a collapse in strategy on the right, a similar split could do similar damage on the left.

Amazing, isn’t it, that politics is a sphere of imagination and possibility, and the subtle shifting of perceptions, as much as (much more than) it is of data, whether demographic or psychological.