Yesterday, an open letter on identity politics, to and from the Left was put up on Medium. From there, the #WeAreTheLeft hashtag was spawned. But none of this is as simple as it seems.
The format of the letter is straightforward enough. A struggle is framed in terms of women–some trans, some queer, some of color–who have spoken up and faced vicious harassment and verbal abuse. The anecdotes are troubling and depressing. Other issues are brought to the surface: communities where there are certain men known to be abusers and racists, in which women must be fortunate enough to be warned in advance or suffer the consequences; a litany of men abusing and raping women is described.
It’s all terrible and it’s all true.
And then the reason for it is announced:
It is being done because we have been identified as representatives of “identity politics.” Representatives of feminism, of anti-racism, of trans rights, of disability rights, of queer rights, of movements which explicitly aim for an intersectional approach to both economic and social justice. For these crimes, we have been serially, violently, sexually and continually harassed, with the aim of purging us from our positions or from our own movements, in order to establish a “pure,” exclusively class-based, left.
It is here that the real reason for the letter begins to come into focus. This is, presumably, a group of leftists writing, so they are very unlikely to align with the Republican Party. Instead, they are probably Democrats, or at least vote for them for lack of a better choice. Who recently ran a Democratic campaign that was “class-based”? Senator Bernie Sanders. Does that make this letter a screed against Sanders supporters?
I’ll split the difference and say “yes and no.” What has unfolded is a deeply contentious and often hostile Democratic primary season. “Berniebros” and “Hillarybots” clashed and continue to clash, mostly on Twitter. The authors of this letter claim to be the true stewards of leftism, because their leftism is intersectional and informed by systemic oppression, and believe they are being driven out of the movement by class-focused leftists who, in their view, reject identity politics and thus intersectionality.
Is this an accurate way to describe the ideological gap between Hillary Clinton supporters and Bernie Sanders supporters? Possibly. But contending for ideological purity in order to lay claim to the mantle of a particular political wing is a sucker’s bet. The Left, to the negligible extent the United States has one, is not organized or cohesive enough to have meaningful gatekeeping or a consistent platform. Does it include only progressives, or must it also include socialists, liberals, and even communists and anarchists? These are factions who may agree on little or nothing at all, except perhaps their disdain for the Right.
The letter then proceeds with a few calls to action, which deserve to be addressed individually:
1) We call upon progressives to acknowledge that all politics are identity politics.
As the letter notes, everyone has an identity, and every identity is political. This is true, as far as it goes. But it is not practical to shape a political platform that fully serves the needs and desires of every one of those identities all at once. We are forced to pick and choose, to find common ground for compromise or go our separate ways. In issues of feminism these conflicts become especially clear. Women of color find themselves at odds with white women–both have different experiences, different needs, different political aims. Whatever they may agree on may be substantial, but there is much on which they may differ. Transgender women have only relatively recently come to be accepted as part of the progressive feminist agenda, and yet that acceptance is not universal. There are still feminists who are ostensibly part of the Left who are trans-exclusionary. So-called TERFs may have things to contribute to feminism, but this is outweighed by the harm their aims inflict on trans women. It is customary among leftists that the relatively privileged person (or group) in a conflict should defer to the relatively disprivileged person or group. As it stands now, trans women are considered less privileged than cisgender women, so when the two come into conflict on matters of oppression and political action, it is customary to defer to the trans side.
If we blindly follow this logic to its conclusion, only the single most oppressed class of people should really have a say. For one thing, this is virtually impossible to determine. For another, it is absurd on its face, which is why we don’t actually do that. Instead, as I said, we must choose.
It is this inability or unwillingness to choose that is, I think, at the root of these internecene conflicts. Take feminist views on capitalism and socialism. Some feminists believe that it is sufficient for women to become part of the existing capitalist system–to have the same opportunities as men, make the same money as men, work the way men do, with relatively minor modifications to the overall economic and political system. Other feminists believe that this is all wrong, that the capitalist system is inherently patriarchal and destructive to women, and that it cannot be rehabilitated into a form that is not fundamentally oppressive.
Both forms of feminism have legitimate claims of being leftist, though clearly one is much further from the current state of reality than the other. Is one agenda too timid, or is the other too fantastical? What if both critiques are true?
Can there be room in the Left for both? If not, that would be a shame. If the goal is to improve the health, quality of life, and status of all women, then any progress in that direction is admirable, regardless of where people may differ in their ultimate goals.
What has been profoundly unhelpful this primary season is the allegation, levied by supporters of both Democratic candidates, that the other side is illegitimate, ideologically misguided, corrupt, stupid–you name it. They have all pointed fingers at one another, and as the saying goes, everyone who plays in the mud gets dirty. Who is ultimately at fault? Ask yourself: does that really matter? If we could find the one person who threw the first proverbial punch, could we then tar that entire side of the argument as wrong and invalid, forever carved out from the legitimate Left? What good would that do anyone?
There has been much focus on where liberals, progressives, and other left-leaning groups disagree. But more can be accomplished by finding where there is common ground, while continuing to make the case for why one’s own stance is better.
2) We call upon our fellow progressives to recognize that abuse is not dissent.
This is also true, and I would respond with two straightforward points:
- Abuse is indeed not dissent, but dissent is also not abuse. There are people involved with the drafting of this letter who believe merely being retweeted by someone they don’t like is a form of violence or abuse. This is an unhelpful distraction and does a disservice to people who face actual abuse.
- There are also people involved with the drafting of the letter who have engaged in the very kinds of abusive tactics they decry. This is not pointed out as a “gotcha,” but rather as advice that everyone should take to heart.
3) We call upon each and every one of our fellow progressives to clean up their own house.
Also sound advice!
Quoting what immediately follows:
Abuse has been actively facilitated by the silence and cooperation of our communities. We have seen people go quiet around this issue, and in the space provided by that silence, abusers have been legitimized, condoned, and given free rein to escalate their abusive behavior indefinitely.
“Identity politics” is not free of these patterns, either. White women have been silent about the harassment of women of color, or have facilitated it, or enacted it. Cisgender women have doxxed, threatened, excluded, or otherwise targeted transgender women and non-binary people. In each case, the problem was the same: The abuse existed, either because no-one outside of the targeted groups knew it was happening, or because people who did know did not address it openly.
This is all true, and it should not be overlooked that people involved with the crafting of this letter have done exactly these things. Are they taking their own words to heart? I very much hope so.
There is some writing out there which casts the entire letter as a cynical ploy–an obfuscated smear against Sanders supporters by Clinton-supporting feminists. Is this all really just an airing of dirty laundry, a grudge elevated into a public spectacle? I have no way of knowing. I don’t know what’s in the hearts and minds of the authors. The words are not directly attributed to any one person, and many who helped draft it are said to have kept their names off of it, for fear of receiving abuse for their participation. I wish I could say that was an unfounded concern, but I know it isn’t. In any case, as a result of this diffuse authorship, the letter doesn’t represent any one point-of-view. The audience it is directed toward is essentially anonymous, too. This makes it difficult to use as a springboard for discussion, except in a public venue such as this.
I don’t think it is productive for responses to consist of “right on” and “I agree” and then to move on. Groupthink is poison for the Left, and incompatible with identity politics to begin with. What has been exposed this season–and intensified–are deep fissures in the American Left. People ostensibly on the same side have been cruel and abusive to one another, and have spent more time popping off witticisms on Twitter than turning off the computer and doing some soul-searching about their own behavior. I applaud the letter’s message, even if I am uncertain about its ultimate intentions. There are lessons here for everyone and I can only hope they are taken to heart.
I am the Left, too.
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