05.04.2021 0

What to do about the Left’s growing anger and hysteria

I want to focus on character, what someone is like rather than what lever they pull or what politician they endorse. Honesty, compassion, insight, and a quick wit should be present across the divide. But this outlook has taken more and more effort to maintain lately. 

By Jonathan Swift

In “The Two Americas Have Grown Much Fiercer,” an op-ed which resonates far deeper two years after its publication, Peggy Noonan is able to make us look anew at the anger and hysteria which we’ve been slowly simmering in for the past few years. She describes a fundamental shift in how we relate to each other, on fierce tribalism, and the appealing, addictive joy we get from these clashes. In short, “people are proud of their bitterness now.”

At the end of the essay, readers should be asking themselves a simple but not superficial question: What do we owe those we disagree with?

For much of my life, the answer to that question was a given: We owe them the same respect and rights that we enjoy, from a moral and legal standard. This not only avoids favoritism and hypocrisy but can save us from ourselves: if we treat others as we wish to be treated, when we’re at their mercy, they will do the same.

Now I’m not so sure. It’s been a slow build the past few years (and accelerated as 2020 devolved), but the straw that broke the metaphorical camel’s back wasn’t a celebrity cancellation or political witch-hunt. Instead, it was a post from a friend.

I don’t just think of them fondly, I want them to succeed at whatever they care about. Then I made the mistake of looking at their Facebook page. They said, in short, “If you’re afraid of posting your opinions and aren’t willing to say what those opinions are, that’s a big red flag for me.”

This is, intentional or not, a snare waiting to be sprung, a dare for the foolish or brazen. It’s like the old misleading, malformed question: “When did you stop beating your wife?” It’s a Trojan horse, confirming a faulty premise if answered glibly. A true answer would be “You’ve already told me that my views are unwelcome and that you’re ready to judge me harshly if I deviate from your ‘correct’ answers in the slightest.”

It’s telling but not surprising that the post was met with several hearts, thumbs-ups, and smileys. There was a reply from another friend, which led to a gleeful back-and-forth about how terrible it would be for a ‘racist’ to lose their job and how incredibly censorious Current Year is. So far, just a few drops in an ocean of bitterness. I’ve ignored these before, but this one left me shaken. I played back every interaction I had with both, trying to reconcile who I thought they were with this behavior.

If asked, both would, like most of us, describe themselves in positive terms: compassionate, well-informed, well-meaning, ally, and tolerant. When confronted with the disconnect between their behavior and that last adjective, they’d claim that it was justified or righteous. The first step in the crusade is to view anyone who doesn’t align with your ideology as lesser, even subhuman. If pressed, they might even state that “we shouldn’t tolerate the intolerant/bigots/right-wingers/etc.”

‘Tolerance,’ like so many words, has become stretched thin. It should mean only what it should mean: to put up with, sometimes begrudgingly. Not to endorse, wholly accept or admire but to let it be. If my acquaintances were truly what they claimed, they’d shake their heads at whatever nebulous ‘racist’ or ‘insert-prefix-here’-phobic misdeeds were done online or off, and move on, not cheer for the perpetrator’s ruin.

I want to focus on character, what someone is like rather than what lever they pull or what politician they endorse. Honesty, compassion, insight, and a quick wit should be present across the divide. I’ve known an out-and-out socialist for decades and have friends & family that make me seem left leaning. Despite the claims that everything should be political, that’s not a reflection of reality. Entertainment, philosophy, exercise, volunteering, travel, religion, and more aren’t necessarily shackled to the left-right or authoritarian-autonomy spectrum. But this outlook has taken more and more effort to maintain lately.

So far, so obvious. Hypocrisy, hyperbole, tribalism, and casual cruelty are part and parcel of our discourse these days. Tell me something I haven’t heard before, you say.

There’s another aspect that these would-be-authoritarian acquaintances share: they’re both transgender. In years past I would swear that wasn’t relevant, but lately it’s been harder and harder to convince myself of that.

A third acquaintance, this one a colleague, transitioned in the past year. When A. came out, they asked to be called by a new name. Making a clean break with their birthname makes a kind of sense; it’s tied to someone who no longer exists. But where they would call this a new beginning, I’m mourning the loss of a sharp, upbeat, reasonable peer. Looking back, their progress through the degree was in lockstep with how much they bought into the ‘correct’ narratives. The gradual loss of interest in open discussion, a skepticism of cancel culture, enthusiasm for such ‘right-wing’ hobbies as gaming and writing speculative fiction, abandoning their thesis at the start of their 3rd year for a wholly new, more ‘appropriate’ one, going from reading Arthur C. Clarke to The Hate U Give, and lastly, a near-religious devotion to attending the on-campus sermon of secular saint Margaret Atwood alongside other acolytes. Those who transition, or announce their orientation, are quick to affirm some version of “I’m still me, but more myself.”

But is that true? Hearing the same points parroted all around you and dissenting voices fall silent or relent over the course of several years, as your peers and friends lurch further left, as fringe rhetoric becomes policy, one has to wonder if it’s honest self-expression or submission.

In the years I’ve been on-campus, the LGBTQ support center has undergone a metamorphosis too, claiming more and more of the hallway and lounge. A poster, a billboard, a temporary-at-the-time table turned into a permanent marker of territory. The contents of the territory have shifted as well: from signs showing events, general contact information, a reassurance that they will listen but not judge, and rainbow-themed décor to what look more and more like recruitment materials. This person is trans and a rock star. An actor. An activist. This person transitioned at a young age. Questioning? Come on in.

The staff of these departments, along with the activist brethren on and offline, proudly proclaim that they are fighting for Inclusion, Representation, Justice and Equality. Except that marriage equality and more broadly, legal equality has already been achieved. Most organizations, once they grow large enough to need an HR department and/or a boilerplate statement about discrimination, have codified that everyone should be treated with decency and respect. Why the shifting goalposts? Why the desperate need to scour the land for injustice, real or invented? If it was only about being true to themselves, why are the majority of LGBTQIA (I’m sure there’s another letter added at the time of this writing) folks so radical?

It’s spread far beyond the confines of that office. Recently, the New England Journal of Medicine published an article pushing for the removal of sex designations on birth certificates, claiming they “offer no clinical utility.” A few weeks ago, I would’ve considered that satire, not the stance of a medical journal. Then again, converts become patients for life, recurring revenue for the medical complex.

To paraphrase Christopher Buckley, even crusaders have mortgages.  They must justify their existence, and one way to do that is to forever widen the scope of their mission and pull in more converts. These activists prey on the insecure, assuring them that this is the way to be accepted, to be comfortable in their own skin, part of a protected class. It’s the intersectional version of being born again; starting over with a ‘clean’ slate, a new identity, free to explain away past missteps as part of the struggle of ‘finding who they really are.’

And yet, seeing all of this play out, I keep looping back to sadness. It must be exhausting to be eternally vigilant, to be hyper-attuned to anything that could cause offense, to think of yourself as being oppressed, first and foremost, with an external locus of control. At the same time, they pounce on any opportunity to be vicious, cheered on by their ‘allies’, only reverting to being ‘marginalized’ when it shields them from critique.

How can we remain compassionate, fundamentally decent, to those we disagree with, if the same courtesy isn’t extended to us in return? I don’t have a simple answer. For the past few years in academia and outside, I’ve tried to be more virtuous, to tolerate the intolerant that cannot even be honest about their intolerance. I’ve extended a hand in friendship and had it slapped away. I don’t blame anyone who after the dozenth, fiftieth, or two-hundredth time gives up. I’ll leave the final word to Noonan: “America isn’t making fewer of the lonely, angry and unaffiliated, it’s making more every day.”

Jonathan Swift is a pseudonym for a contributor who works in higher education.

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