They see in the population’s hostility towards the left only the hostility towards the left, not the hatred against those who are socially privileged. (Red Army Faction)
Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories. (Amilcar Cabral)
It happens, often. It may be a right-wing journalist, or it may be someone we know personally, a family member or someone at work … or a complete stranger on facebook. They make fun of or relativize/trivialize something our analysis has shown to be super important and that should be obvious to everyone. Or else they seize upon something they claim “leftists” — or in more irritating contemporary verbiage, “liberals” or “social justice warriors” — are up to, belittle or criticize it, exaggerate it to the point of ridicule, all to discredit or distract from the many good things our side is doing, all of our smart insights, the blessing that we are to this world.
This is met with a response from “our side” of denouncing the person in question as racist, sexist, etc. or right-wing, even fascist. Or simply as being stupid, or not cool, or a loser. And we then think we’ve won, or at least have “stood up for ourselves”.
Comrades need to distinguish between rhetorical attacks on the left, and attacks on the oppressed. The latter should be met with an aggressive defense, the former often call for nuance and even introspection. When coming from the oppressed themselves, or from third parties who we may wish to win over to our side, even what feel like unfair criticisms are sometimes best met with humility (though never obsequiousness).
Or to break it down in more detail — probably too much detail, but i know it’s useful to sometimes spell it all out (indeed, that is what this post is about):
Comrades need to distinguish between rhetorical attacks on the left, and attacks on the oppressed. This is an important distinction, even when the source of these attacks in the enemy, even when the motive behind both categories of attack are probably the same. It is true, when the enemy rhetorically attacks our ranks, it doesn’t do so primarily because it cares about us, it does so as a means of attacking the oppressed. Most of the time, we are a means to that end. Right-wing criticism of feminists is meant to reinforce the oppression of all women, feminist or not. Right-wing criticism of anti-racists is meant to reinforce white supremacy across the board. Right-wing criticism of trade unionists or those who work for labor rights is meant to reinforce the exploitation of all workers, especially the most oppressed, especially those who may not be in a union or benefit from the “rights” in question. Right-wing criticism of oppressor-nation anti-war movements in meant to prepare public opinion for attacks on oppressed nations abroad. Etc.
However, those comrades who assume our enemies are all stupid … well, let’s just say that wishful-thinking approach is neither helpful, nor borne out by the facts. And those right-wingers who are not stupid, are most likely to call attention to actual problems on the left, actual weaknesses. If they have the choice, intelligent opponents are less likely to invent something out of thin air, than they are to exploit real points of vulnerability. In other words, through our own fuckups and errors, we facilitate (on the level of that mythical “public opinion”, i.e. hegemony) the enemy’s attacks on the oppressed.
That is why our response to right-wing criticism should depend on whether it is the left or leftist arguments being singled out, or the oppressed directly. If the latter, we should respond aggressively, and generally should not dignify the charges being made with a detailed response. Oppressive discourse — understood in this case narrowly as discourse which explicitly attacks the dignity and advances the subjugation of oppressed categories of people — should be denounced for what it is, period. To do otherwise is to lend it credence, and to make ourselves partners with the right in a patronizing top-down “debate” about the merits or demerits of those who we then become complicit in oppressing.
On the other hand, when it is the left or leftists, or other putative anti-oppressive forces, being criticized, we should keep in mind that the criticism may be reminding us (or revealing to us) an actual problem with what we are doing. Even in those cases when the criticism seems “ridiculous” or a blatant example of “bad politics”, we should keep in mind that criticism and response is performative, with people watching (today, with social media, this is true as never before); people who we may hope to win over to our side, but who may actually be concerned or troubled by the charges being made against us. Indeed: they don’t know us, why should they trust us? The worst thing we can do in such cases is to decide to respond in an ad hominem manner, or to simply not dignify the charges with a serious rebuttal but just drop a flippant comment or dismissive joke. Doing so may make us feel more secure, more like we’re obviously right and have nothing to worry about, but the more perceptive observers (i.e. exactly the kind of people we need to win over) are going to see that we have not answered the charges or the criticism …and that rarely impresses anyone.
As such, when we — as leftists, as anarchists or communists or feminists or anti-racists, as “activists” or “revolutionaries” — are criticized or rhetorically attacked by those we deem “enemy”, we should approach this as an opportunity to explain our politics and to explain why the criticisms being made are incorrect. If we cannot do that, then we have to face the fact that there may be some truth in the criticism, and what’s worse we have allowed our enemies and not ourselves to call attention to this. That’s a double failure on our part. How we deal with it will depend on tactical circumstances, however if only behind the scenes, rectifying the error in question needs to be a priority.
Finally, we need to be exceptionally careful to differentiate between attacks from our enemies, and attacks which may use terms or arguments crafted by our enemies, but which are coming from the oppressed and/or from people we would otherwise hope to win over to our side. Too often, the more radical one feels one has become, the more arrogant one becomes not only in respect to the enemy, but also in respect to everyone else, including even the oppressed when these are not the immediate object of one’s political activity (and sometimes even then). This is not real radicalism, in fact it is more a real mirror image of the disdain the middle class mainstream (where many “activists” come from) feels for both oppressed people and the “less enlightened”. And while not necessarily the main reason, it certainly contributes to the hegemony the middle class has on the left.
Criticisms are made using problematic terms or arguments for all kinds of reasons. In contexts where debate on the left is either too quiet to be noticed, or where the right simply enjoys hegemony in public discourse, criticisms leveled by all kinds of people — including people whose interests objectively have far less in common with our enemies than the average “activist” does — will borrow the arguments, the idioms, the catchphrases crafted by the right. They may not even associate it with, or realize, where it originated. It drives me bonkers, and i am sure i am not the only one, to hear people leveling criticism using lousy terminology like “social justice warrior”, “political correctness”, etc. or words or turns of phrase that our movements have rejected or identified as oppressive or reactionary. But in cases where the people using this lousy language are oppressed people, or people who we feel objectively should be on our side, it’s worse than useless to focus on the words being used and not the criticism being made, on the form and not the content.1
People will use the terms and words that have currency in their culture, in their milieu; to use the way they speak as an excuse to discount their concerns is a sure way to signal that they have no place as equals in our movements. That they can join, but only on our terms, we gatekeepers of “liberation”. People with self-respect and enough wits to recognize this will either decide that all politics are useless, or else will check out other quarters for a place to intervene in social developments. And the latter possibility can be more than rhetorically dangerous to us.
This is not an argument to not confront and struggle against oppressive and reactionary ideas wherever they may be found, including amongst oppressed people. On the contrary, it is an argument to struggle against these ideas, to put in the work to refute them, but to also try to understand them, to take them seriously, and to not concede terrain to our opponents by pretending that we’re so cool or smart that we don’t have to address the concerns of others. And to keep in mind, that not every idea that challenges us is a bad idea — that other people, even in their badly formulated criticisms, may have a lot to teach us.2
OK, so obviously this isn’t cut and dried. Reality provides many opportunities for people to be both oppressed and oppressors, and it’s not difficult to think of examples of oppressed people using racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. terms and arguments. Which should of course be rejected. But care should be taken not to assume that something we analyze as implicitly oppressive is intended as such, and in these cases intention is not nothing. We may have to challenge the terminology as well as respond to the argument; what i am saying is that doing the first does not absolve us from our responsibility to do the second, and should not be used to cover up our laziness. ↩
In this regard, a lazy attitude to refuting people’s arguments or addressing their concerns, instead just focussing on the words or tone or form of speech they use, or what “kind” of person they are, signals a lack of seriousness on our part. After all, if our ideas are not meant to be implemented then it doesn’t really matter if there are weaknesses or flat-out errors contained within. It’s all just for show, a game, in any case. But if we are planning on putting our ideas into practice, imposing them even, then every critic who identifies our problems and our fuckups is doing us a favor, regardless of their motivations, because we can’t afford to overlook anything. ↩