Leftists are notorious for turning on one another. Sometimes an organization splits. Sometimes two organizations go at it. Most often one individual attacks another individual. Escalation ensues. Some are appalled. Others cheer. Hooray for my side.
The immediately obvious price of personalized in-fighting is to destroy relations between potential allies. Such fighting often even causes committed people to exit politics rather than endure pointless, petty, vindictive slings and arrows.
Further, such battling causes even activists who are not immediately involved to defensively restrict their words and actions to avoid being criticized, in turn crippling diversity and creativity and breeding resentment. Worst, the battling causes people outside the left see the strife and say, are you kidding? You want me to join your movement? You want me to believe you can do something valuable for society, the way you act? Seriously?
So what causes internal fighting? And what can be done?
While avoiding details, consider a few examples.
Some on the left say that various Muslim religious practices have oppressive, anti-progressive implications. A reply comes. You are racist, western, imperialist, etc. Someone else defends Muslim rights. The reply arrives. You are a religion loving cultural air head. Mud flies.
Someone says Black Lives Matter was censorious or is too close to the Charter Schools movement. A reply follows. You are an agent of white supremacy. Someone else says race needs to be part of all left programs, your narrow focus on economics means you don’t care, you are racist. A response comes. Don’t tell me what I have to do to be radical. Your lack of lack of interest in union busting charter schools means you are a tool of school privatizers. Bam, gloves off. Substance replaced by personal body slams.
Someone says Bernie Sanders doesn't deserve support due to being pro-Israel, insufficiently anti-drone and quiet about the military budget. The reply comes. You are an irrelevant poser not truly serious about winning change. Someone else says, I urge you to work for Sanders. The response comes. You are pro Democratic party and therefore a bourgeois capitalism accepting tool of elites. Pass the knives.
Someone says Russian bombs will aid the elimination of the Islamic State group and that's good. A reply comes. You hypocrite, their bombs are good, but ours are bad? Are you pro-imperialism and just anti-U.S.? Someone else says a pox on all imperial houses. The reply arrives. Yes, so you are pure while populations are decimated? Verbal MMA ensues.
Someone says we should fight for a higher minimum wage and is called a reformist who doesn’t care about winning a new economy. Someone else says a minimum wage focus operating alone leaves out too much to lead forward and is called a callous crazy who ignores real people’s current needs. Pull up a chair, fifteen rounder to follow.
Someone says BDS is tactically flawed and even harmful in some of its implications. The reply is you are a Zionist agent of the West. Someone else says BDS is a wonderful approach, emphasize it, and the reply comes. You are a fool following a herd just to fit in, unconcerned about understanding real possibilities. Nastiness escalates.
Someone criticizes Cuba, Venezuela, or Ecuador, and is called an agent of international corporate capitalism. Someone praises Cuba, Venezuela, or Ecuador and is called a lover of dictatorship and accused of ignoring the real left in those countries. Upper cut, jab, and on from there.
None of the above are precise, all are, however, broadly indicative though actually they all fall far short of the nastiness that often ensues. One minute one can be a wonderful and revered progressive or revolutionary. The next minute, incredibly, one can be labelled an imperial, corporatist, bourgeois sell out, moved by vile motives.
I once watched a highly experienced audience get aggressively hostile toward Noam Chomsky because in a talk he uttered some words that they interpreted as racist toward Japanese people. He went, for them, in a heartbeat, for at least a while, from trusted source of insights and assessments to purveyor of vile white supremacy. I have myself heard lots of folks call me bourgeois, reformist, idiotic, etc. for very specific commitments which go, in such cases, substantively unaddressed. Name calling becomes the substance of argument. Apply a label, and evidence of its inappropriateness becomes irrelevant. The only thing that matters is the label itself.
When a dispute arises, one approach is to address the issues – it could be facts that are in dispute, or perhaps impressions of the likely implications of some choice, or, rarely, the merits of some value. To proceed, one would present the substance, assess it, make claims related to it, and so on. Nothing nasty. Just logic and evidence all addressing what is really being said.
Another approach is to jump to the conclusion that the reason a person has a view different than your own is not a dispute over substance, but is simply a different value system, a different agenda, and so motives are what must be addressed. The facts of the specific issue disappear. Imputed bad motives of the person with a different view become paramount.
At the same time, again when a dispute arises, one approach is to be quite relaxed and raise points, facts, evidence, or whatever in a manner one might employ in a dispute with a friend. Another approach is to quickly get highly aggressive and slash and burn using sarcasm and nasty epithets galore.
I think, if we were to exhaustively catalog disputes that become hostile, split inducing, and audience depressing, we would find that virtually every time they move away from substance of difference and toward motives of partisans, and away from calm communications toward hysterical stabs and parries.
Maybe there are lots of reasons this happens, but here is one that strikes me as very often at the heart of it. One or both parties feels their very being, the basis of their self image, is threatened and feeling assaulted replies with aggression, like one would with a thug attacking.
If I think something is totally evident, and to me it is core to my identity as a leftist and a person, and someone argues it is wrong, even harmful, to me it may sound like they are saying I am not what I think – I am myself, wrong, harmful – and then, typically, they will actually say it, too. Not surprisingly things go to hell.
If I am insecure in my views, and in their defense, yet I feel they are essential to who I am, if they are challenged, my easy path is to adopt sarcasm, or question motives, anything to move the discussion away from substance and toward my critics’ motives.
When we enfold our self definition in some views we hold, attacks on those views, even sincere ones, feel like attacks on us, as people. Pass the ammunition.
So what is the bottom line? If we have a difference with others, what do we care to accomplish. That is perhaps the best question. If it is to arrive at good views and to see them spread, then getting hostile is quite obviously counterproductive. If it is to get past the battle without revealing our own lack of information or of clarity, or to otherwise protect our self regardless of the impact on others, than grabbing a thesaurus to find the most disparaging words we can muster makes sense.
So at the risk of being guilty of the untoward behavior I am trying to argue against, which is it? Can we be calm, sober, respectful and address substance in pursuit of positive results? Or must we attack, attack, attack, personally, in pursuit of nothing but ego gratification, I guess?
Might we be able to find areas of agreement, clarify areas of disagreement, and work on from there? If we can disentangle our identities from our arguments, perhaps we can.