Feb 4, 2015

The Thousand Natural Shocks That Movements Are Heir To

It’s long been known that “an identity is something only women or African-Americans or perhaps LGBT people have. White men just have ideas about politics that spring from a realm of pure reason, with concerns that are by definition universal.”  Sadly, I have failed my fellow white men, and my ideas about this thing I’ve been talking about--political correctness, language policing, the idea and abuse of limiting expression so as not to cause offense--still bear the stamp of their lowly origin.

I touched on this last time, but to put the thing succinctly, if I took kindly to people martyring the weak to justify their strictures on my pleasures and free expression, I’d have stayed a Southern Baptist.

So I’m biased.  I’ve watched a collective in-group bend over, spread wide its hairy asscheeks, and devour its own head in a Cartman-esque inversion of an ouroboros.  I’ve seen Grand Loyalty Oath Crusades play out in real time.  Maybe that makes me twitchy, jumping at shadows and reimagining the cannibalistic terrors of the Rankinid Inquisition in every mild critique.  But maybe living through that shit taught me to recognize its nascent form in other contexts.

Let’s never imagine I’m against the goals of the Left.  Quite the contrary, it does the soul good to challenge and upend unjust power structures, to restore dignity to victims, to end discrimination and the casual bigotry embedded in language and humor.  But the movement that does these things is still a movement, susceptible to the thousand natural shocks that movements are heir to.  Intent isn’t any more magical for tribes than for individuals.  I work for a major humanitarian organization, and I assure you that righteous goals are no inoculation against the everyday headaches and inefficiencies of any large institution.  Social movements are no different.

Every principle will bend back round and up its own ass if you take it far enough--every movement can go overboard, and I want us to remember that.  The LGBTQAIPS acronym slipped into self-parody somewhere between the sixth letter and the ninth, and I want us to acknowledge that.  I want us to shoot for the balance point of justice, and not for the far end of the scales to balance out the injustice on the other side.  I want us to remember that any set of norms or rules runs the danger of becoming more about the rules themselves than about the goals they sought to achieve, no matter how noble those goals are.  I want us to regard ostentatious virtue as automatically suspect, if not actually unvirtuous.  I want us to think long and hard about any attempt to police tribal boundaries (especially by excommunication), because such attempts are all too often a pretext for advancing one’s own tribal position.  I want us to have the common sense to recall that people being people, they will--consciously or not--tweak, bend, short-circuit, and otherwise game any system of rewards and punishments, no matter what behavior it actually meant to encourage.

So that’s what’s wrong, and that’s what I want, and that’s what Chait ought to have written, if he had had a more compelling insight into the problem and more useful life experiences with which to analogize.  Exceptions abound, and there’s no clear line or any method other than to be intelligent.  I wish I had a more satisfying ending than “Our standards of goodness lend themselves to dick-measuring, rewards-gaming, and status-seeking just as much as anyone else’s,” but since we seem to have forgotten that, it’ll have to do.

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