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?