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It was an unlikely place to be moved to ruminations over today’s political climate. I’d taken my family for brunch in a chain diner, the sort of joint that was popular back in the ’90s, before the foodie revolution diversified British taste buds. The food was greasy, the coffee tasted like battery acid, and when the server came up to our table, she was proffering play packs for the kids: Transformers for the boy, My Little Pony to the girl.
As I sat eating my reheated bacon and overcooked poached eggs, it occurred to me that it was impossible to eat here without feeling faintly scolded by the liberal world’s admonishments. I couldn’t just sit and enjoy my meal without being aware of the pious angel on my shoulder, reminding me that the food would make me fat, that the gender-stereotyped play packs were wicked and wrong. I looked around at the other people here — mostly white, working-class Londoners, many of the tables occupied by three generations of the same family — and wondered how many of them felt the same way.
Sure, this place was a bit of an anachronism, a relic of a time before flat whites and small plates. But there was nothing to lament in its continued existence and no crime in patronizing it. Yet somehow, in this world we’ve made, it felt unwanted. What would it be like if this was the sort of place you loved — if you just wanted to enjoy your bacon and eggs without any of the attendant guilt?
This isn’t the first time I’ve felt a twinge of empathy for people of what you might describe as a conservative, or traditionalist, disposition. Recently, I’ve found myself siding with people whose opinions I would ordinarily disdain. Last month, Jordan Peterson, the poor man’s intellectual, responding to the tens of thousands who rushed to condemn a young woman for what they deemed to be a culturally appropriative choice of prom dress, tweeted: “The vile and contemptible harassment in the name of tolerance and respect continues unabated.” And, damn, I agreed.
If I might attempt to parry accusations that my latent bigot is awakening, these ruminations don’t manifest as a frothing, spittle-flecked fury. I am not undergoing a worldview-altering epiphany. I have not been red-pilled. It comes on instead as an unuttered sigh, an eye roll, a resigned “for fuck’s sake.”
I’ve rolled my eyes at universities’ no-platforming of moderately dissenting voices. I’ve rolled my eyes at Twitter mob pile-ons of someone who is rumored to have transgressed liberal code. I’ve rolled my eyes at the fact that every memorial or act of remembrance, cultural lodestones that underpin people’s sense of self and collective identity, must now be undermined by a denunciation of the obvious iniquities they conceal when measured against modern morality.
I am, for the avoidance of any doubt, an avowed lefty. But the fabled social justice warriors are making me roll my eyes.
Liberal pundits have spent years hypothesizing about the various ways in which precarity and resurgent xenophobia have fueled today’s anti-liberal backlash. However, one theory that tends to receive less scrutiny is the idea that people are pushing back against liberalism because liberalism has left them feeling shitty about their lives.
Liberalism is best understood as an exercise in self-criticism. It is about questioning and sometimes rejecting biases that are intrinsic to personhood, no matter how deeply ingrained. But for those of us who fail to engage with this exercise, it is surely inevitable that we will be left feeling deeply alienated by a society that has embraced it.
It is a well-worn bromide, though one worth reiterating, that to hold conservative views does not automatically connote evil or malice. A right-wing person can be a borderline sociopath with a hard-on for scapegoating others to exonerate their own mediocrity. But it can also be someone who, whether through caution, paranoia, or parochialism, feels suspicious of change and resistant to progress. For a liberal to feel empathy for such a position is not the great cognitive leap that we often like to pretend.
Think of some small piety that drives you nuts. Perhaps it’s evangelical veganism, or the languid exhortations of lifestyle gurus exemplified by Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, with its extortionate quackery and homespun recipes for a life well-lived. Now extrapolate from there and imagine that this small piety has become intrinsic to liberal dogma, and that failure to abide invites condemnation from the institutions and figures who shape our public discourse. Imagine that you cannot sit down for a meal without having a vegan slapping your hand with a stem of broccoli every time you reach for the steak, that ingesting “sex bark” or inserting yoni eggs into your vagina each morning has become a kind of social imperative.
Now imagine that this drumbeat of censure pervades every aspect of your life, from the food you eat to the church you pray in to the carbon dioxide–pumping truck you drive. You might get used to it after a while, but you’d be forgiven for feeling confounded by the dogmatism of it all. And under the right political stimuli and exposure to the right dog whistles, chances are you’d welcome the advent of a tub-thumping populist who promised to turn the clock back.
This isn’t to trivialize right-wing bigotry or to glibly compare mandatory veganism with restricting someone’s rights based on their sexuality or skin color. Rather, it is to emphasize the way conservative impulses can flourish in an atmosphere of cultural prescriptiveness. As much as economic insecurity and outright bigotry, anti-liberalism is born of an urge to push back against being told what to do.
If we, as mouthpieces for liberalism, expend all our energy anathematizing the things that conservatives hold dear — if we criminalize their culture, denounce their history, vilify their heroes, and stigmatize their lifestyle — how exactly do we expect the conservative mindset to respond?
With this flimsy empathy bridge established, it becomes somewhat easier to understand why the liberal left, which has good morality on its side in so many ways, risks losing the battle for democracy’s soul.
Liberalism’s great ostensible weakness is that its adherents just don’t know when to stop. Rather than comprehend the forces that drove millions of potential allies toward Trump’s vile agenda, the left has instead opted to ratchet through the gears, following incremental victories with ever more vociferous demands.
Consider some of the hills that today’s liberal standard-bearers are prepared to die on. In Britain, one group of activists recently elicited withering head shakes from all sides of the political divide when they staged a protest in a North London café based on the charge that it celebrated colonialism because one of its breakfasts was named after Winston Churchill. The protestors’ rationale was that Churchill, who at the time was the subject of a deferential biopic, The Darkest Hour, expressed some reprehensible views, all of which have been airbrushed from the national memory. But you have to ask yourself what proportion of the British population was likely to think, “Why, yes, I will now relinquish my valorization of a man whom the British public nominated as the Greatest Briton Ever as recently as 2002.” It’s not that those disputing Churchill’s hagiography don’t have a point, but in the context of the culture wars, it feels like an ill-advised fight to pick.
None of this is to say that the protests of minority or revisionist points of view are unimportant. But there are unintended consequences. Watching vocal progressives persistently realigning the goalposts of political correctness when the world is burning is of a detached, censorious elite wagging fingers. Perhaps, in reality, all of us have a saturation point at which our apprehension of liberal dogma shifts from consensual to impositional, from noble to sanctimonious. And if we all have a saturation point, we all have a point beyond which we may start to doubt the sanity of the liberal project.
At one level, then, it’s all too easy to get a bit pissed off with the flag-bearers of this kind of breathless admonition. Unwittingly or not, they perpetuate the self-defeating idea that compassion is merely performative, that consensual liberalism has now been supplanted by something supercharged, absolute, and Orwellian, almost manic in its quest to excavate new seams of outrage to mine. They are grist to the right-wing mill.
For progressives who try to underpin their ideology with some pragmatism — not just incrementalists and status-quo apologists, but anyone who believes that, with the world aflame, the global economy wobbling, with the very planet that sustains us threatened with climate apocalypse, the overarching priority must surely be to win over the vacillating voter, gain power, and institute change. You wouldn’t think so to witness the binary dialectic raging on Twitter, but it is possible to be seduced by radical left-wing agendas yet still feel alienated by the methods and soapboxes of its most shrill proponents.
However, when we think more carefully about where this atmosphere of censure comes from, the waters start to muddy. Whence does this idea that liberals are preoccupied with fringe issues originate, and how is it perpetuated?
Switch on Fox News. Open the pages of the Daily Mail. Tune in to a right-wing shock-jock radio host. It has become as predictable as the tide — wave after wave of disproportionate hysteria coagulating around whatever outlier story is most likely to exercise right-wing indignation on any given morning. One day, it’s about free speech on campus; the next, it’s about some teacher calling time on single-sex toilets. But every time, the framing is the same: Here is today’s liberal bogey-man, peddling more political correctness gone mad, their cause representative of the entire liberal worldview.
This is where the drips on your forehead come from: the right’s insatiable appetite for outrage and to seek evidence for their inchoate sense of victimhood.
This puts progressive activists in an impossible bind. If you adhere to the fundamental liberal tenet that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then you must also agree that everyone has a right to fight for their own redress and equality.
In proportional terms, there is no comparison between the number of people who might be affected by climate change and the number affected by the fight for transgender rights. But for a transgender person, the fight is front and center, and they cannot be expected to stay silent in order to starve right-wing agitators of ammunition. We’re left stuck in an endlessly schismatic to and fro of provocation, which only serves to polarize us further into opposing camps.
Perhaps there is no way to break this trend. But it is surely incumbent on all liberally minded people to grapple with this epochal question: By pushing so hard, so soon, do we risk losing the war?
For a follow-up to this piece, in which the author responds to critics of its thesis, go here.
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