Why progressives trash each other
A conversation between Meghan Murphy and MK Fain which I discuss below.
This piece is free to read. The rest of this week’s Ruffian - the usual smorgasbord of brain food - is behind the paywall (see below).
This is Part II of a two-part series (for Part I, see here) on the narcissism of minor differences in politics. The question I’ve been taking a walk around is this: why do people who are ostensibly on the same side of political divides reserve a special kind of loathing for each other? Last time I looked at some of the underlying psychology of this tendency and touched on how it plays out in mainstream UK politics. This week we’re going to look at it in the context of progressive activism in the US.
Academics sometimes use the phrase “horizontal hostility” to describe conflicts between minority groups who ought in theory to be aligned in solidarity against the majority, but who in practice take aim at each other. Those groups might be defined by ethnicity, or by politics and ideology. For instance, here’s a study that looks at horizontal hostility among four subgroups of non-meat eaters: health vegetarians, ethical vegetarians, health vegans, and ethical vegans. (The basic story here is that the ethical veggies are contemptuous of the health veggies, those amoral narcissists.) That paper draws on a theory first proposed by a team which included the renowned psychologist Ellen Langer: that the closer a minority group is towards the mainstream, the more likely it is to have hostility directed towards it by the more ‘distinctive’ or extreme groups that are similar to it. Secular Jews are looked down on by reform Jews and reform Jews are resented by conservative Jews (example from Langer’s paper, which is a little more subtle than I’m making it sound - do take a look).
The theory of horizontal hostility is interesting and the phrase has a certain snap to it, but we did quite a lot of theory last time. This week I want to stick more closely to a real world example. I should say, I’m a stranger to the world of American progressive activism, in more than one way. First of all, in a world where everyone from journalists to pop stars seems eager to claim the title of activist, I’m very much an inactivist. Actually, even that would imply some kind of commitment to a cause bigger than myself, whereas the truth is I am hopelessly non-committal. I’m just not a joiner. I’ve never been part of a campaigning organisation or engaged in a political campaign other than signing the odd petition. I joined the Labour Party under Tony Blair then promptly forgot I was a member; it lapsed, I didn’t notice.
I’m not ashamed of being an inactivist, and neither am I proud of it. I don’t think it’s better or worse to be activist or inactivist. I can see upsides and downsides to both at an individual level, and at the level of society, both types are needed. One upside of my attitude, or personality trait, or whatever it is, is that it allows me to be more cognitively flexible than people who affix their identity to a cause or ideology, which is probably healthy for a writer. When I write, when I think, I don’t have to have to worry about pleasing or upsetting my side, or staying true to my political identity. That gives me a little more freedom. Another upside is that I can sometimes read the political room better than the politically engaged, simply because I’m closer to the feckless and pig ignorant average voter.
A downside is that I don’t get the emotional affirmation that can come from feeling that I’m part of a political community, or the clarity and comfort that can come from declaring “I am a (socialist/feminist/libertarian/environmentalist)”, which must feel like the reassuring thunk of a car door. More importantly, if all citizens were like me, nothing would change. The world needs people who invest time and energy in social or political reform. Without activists pulling political debates one way or the other, a society is more likely to stagnate and injustice to perpetuate.
Without inactivists, however, everyone would rip each other’s throats out. A society in which most people care deeply about political change is not a healthy one. Politics is about conflict and conflict inevitably spills over into hostility and mistrust. It is not good for US society that so many voters care so much about seeing ‘their’ party win power. Democratic societies require the stabilising agent of indifference in order to function smoothly; the act of shrugging is essential to civic harmony. A healthy polity is one in which most voters are inactivist and a small minority are activist.
The second reason I’m a stranger to the world we’re about take a look at is more straightforward: I’m British. While there are obviously similarities, increasingly so, between liberal or “hyper-liberal” cultures on each side of the Atlantic, there is no doubt that Americans pursue their causes with a peculiar intensity, sometimes verging on mania. It’s a quirk they inherited from the Puritans who departed from this country during a period when our population of activists had got rather out of hand.
The Internet allows us to be anthropologists of many cultures; my peek into this one came via a conversation about conflicts within US feminism on a podcast called The Same Drugs (you can listen to the audio pod or watch the video, I did the former). Someone recommended it to me and I found it unexpectedly engrossing. It’s long, but I listened to the whole thing and I suggest you do too, perhaps after reading this, then you can tell me if I’ve got it all wrong. But this is broadly how it goes.
The host is Meghan Murphy, a laconic Canadian feminist with wide-ranging curiosity. I was happy to be a guest on her show last year, discussing CONFLICTED, my book on productive conflict (we talked about The Beatles, too - Meghan is a fan). As a sceptic of gender identity theory, Meghan has found herself marginalised within current feminist discourse, and she sometimes uses her platform to include those who are similarly not with the program, including her guest on this show, Mary-Kate (MK) Fain.
Fain is in her late twenties. At high school she was in what she later realised was an abusive sexual relationship. At college, she became a committed feminist, focused on the fight against male sexual violence. She volunteered at a domestic crisis centre and worked for a radical feminist non-profit. She then moved sideways into another progressive cause: veganism and animal rights (the process of finding your cause seems analogous to finding a career path for young progressives). Fain ran social media for an organisation in Philadelphia which believes that animals should have equal rights to humans. She had a day job too, as a software engineer.
So far, so unimpeachably progressive. But Fain soon found herself at odds with her colleagues at the animal rights charity. They told her, “You can’t say eggs came from female chickens, or milk comes from female cows: that’s transphobic.” Such assertions are not, apparently, unusual or surprising in this world. According to Fain and to Murphy, gender ideology has inserted itself into all progressive causes, whether feminism (within which it has obviously caused a rift, not to mention some, uh, conceptual complications), anti-racism, or veganism (confoundingly, some “intersectional” vegans are switching their focus to humans over animals, on the basis that marginalised groups of people must take priority).
Fain didn’t buy the logic of gender identity theory. After falling out over this with her roommates and co-activists, who had declared themselves non-binary, and then being fired from from the organisation, she returned to her first cause, feminism, only this time as a “gender-critical” feminist - that is, a feminist who believes that women are a distinct category from men and that the distinction is rooted in biology (which doesn’t sound like a mindblowingly radical proposition but, well, we are where we are). Fain set up a social network called Spinster where women can feel free to discuss such issues without fear being censored or censured.
Having gained a reputation within the progressive community as something of a heretic, she was now a target. When she posted a video of a female cop dragged against her will by male rioters at a Black Lives Matter protest, describing it as an example of male violence, she was roundly condemned for being blind to systemic racism and for taking the side of the police. People weren’t just disagreeing with her interpretation of the video (which she admits to doubts about); they were attacking her. Progressives, including feminists, called her a conservative and a bigot and “fascist-adjacent”. The abuse was sustained and personal: she was being “trashed” by those she had regarded as allies in the cause of women’s rights. Being attacked by strangers or distant political opponents is par for the course; being targeted by your side is more harrowing.
Fain started to give a lot of thought to how this kind of trashing works and why people do it. She came across an essay online, written nearly fifty years ago, by a feminist called Joreen Freeman, called Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood. Freeman’s piece feels very contemporary; it is either reassuring or disturbing or both to recognise many of the dynamics observable in today’s Twitter wars described with such vivid clarity in 1976. (I don’t want to give you too much homework but I do recommend reading Freeman’s essay in full at some point, if only because it’s an absolute banger, dense with hard-won insight, forcefully expressed).
Trashing, says Freeman, is not disagreement; it is not conflict; it is not opposition, although it disguises itself as these things. Trashing is character assassination. It is not done to advance an argument, but to disparage and destroy. It is calculated to poison a person’s reputation within a community to the extent that nobody in it feels they can express sympathy or support for the target in public without tainting their own name. The person being trashed thus feels isolated, lonely, and under overwhelming pressure to leave the group.
Freeman wrote from experience. She refers to being ostracised from the feminist movement over an unspecified ideological dispute. She says that she thought she had a tough skin, having grown up feminist in a conservative, conformist suburban neighbourhood. But there, her critics usually attacked her ideas, not her character. On the occasions they attacked her, she found them easy to ignore or laugh off. Being trashed by fellow feminists - by her newfound sisters - was much worse. It felt more personal, more vindictive, and far more painful.
Freeman had felt the sharp edge of the feminist slogan, “the personal is political”. The feeling of intense camaraderie she gained from the movement also made her psychologically vulnerable to attacks from within it. “One can rethink one's ideas as a result of their being attacked. It's much harder to rethink one's personality.” For the first time in her life, she found myself believing the horrible things people said about her: “When I was treated like shit, I interpreted it to mean that I was shit.” She recalls feeling as if her identity had been voided: “I found myself confessing to my roommate that I didn’t think I existed; that I was a figment of my own imagination.” Eventually, she exited the movement altogether. It took her years to come to terms with what happened.
Last time, I quoted Michael Ignatieff’s reflections on the Bosnian-Serbian conflict, which seemed to him to be a war over very minor differences. He went on to ask, on what basis do we decide differences are minor or major? He concluded that the answer isn’t the difference itself - in belief, or ethnicity, or gender, or choice of cigarette brand - but whether and how that difference becomes attached to power and status. “No human difference matters much until it becomes a privilege.” (Note he was writing before the current use of “privilege” became widespread).
Trashing, writes Freeman, is a tool of power, of social control within a movement. Individuals who are perceived as getting too successful, or too popular, or just too individual, must be publicly humiliated so that everyone else stays in line. In Freeman’s analysis, it is a method of control adopted unthinkingly from the patriarchy, and it results in a feminist movement drained of its vitality and intellectual diversity. She concedes that it can be hard to discern the distinction between trashing and political conflict; between character assassination and legitimate objections to ideas or behaviour.1 She offers some tips on how to tell the difference:
Trashing involves heavy use of the verb "to be" and only a light use of the verb "to do." It is what one is and not what one does that is objected to, and these objections cannot be easily phrased in terms of specific undesirable behaviors. Trashers also tend to use nouns and adjectives of a vague and general sort to express their objections to a particular person. These terms carry a negative connotation, but don't really tell you what's wrong. That is left to your imagination.
(That last section in particular makes me think about how JK Rowling is attacked - usually in a way that leaves you with the general impression of her being a bad person, rather than risking specifics, thus opening the possibility of reasoned counter-argument.)
You can see why Freeman’s essay resonated with MK Fain, who experienced the same thing but in a world where trashing is amplified and scaled up by social media. Fain tried different ways to respond to being trashed; none of them really worked. She says you can grovel and apologise - but then they keep owning and controlling you. You can play tough and ignore it all - and be denounced as a “nasty bitch”. Or you can confess to how upsetting it is - at which point they say, how dare you make yourself the victim here? Not only must you be trashed: you have no right to be upset about being trashed.
For Fain, Freeman’s piece explained not just the dynamics of trashing but the effect that trashing has on political movements, the way it weakens them from within. Since it works by ostracising and excluding, it has the effect of splintering movements that depend on solidarity into hostile factions: “The patriarchy is sitting back sipping tea while we’re here destroying each other”. Fain now believes that personally identifying strongly with a cause or movement is a mistake, for both the individual and the cause. It allows these personal cross-currents to damage individuals and dilute the political potency of the movement. “I had to challenge myself not to adopt my ideology as my identity. I’m a feminist but now I try to not let it be my everything.”
Joreen Freeman observed that trashing is much more prevalent in feminist organizations which call themselves radical than in those which do not, and among those with vague goals rather than concrete ones. In conversation with Fain, Meghan Murphy notes that having concrete political goals forces you to work with outsiders, including people with whom you disagree, in order to accomplish them. “The [feminist] movement shouldn’t be self-help. It’s not about saving you. It’s not ‘sisterhood’. That puts too much pressure on a movement which should be about changing laws and policies, and ultimately women’s lives.”
(Observing the toxic debate on the Sewell Report on racism in Britain, I noticed that the report’s critics were much more interested in contesting its use of airy concepts like “structural racism” than in addressing its policy recommendations, or making their own.)
Fain is now on a political island, isolated from the progressive main. She was fired from her software job after writing a feminist critique of the idea of “non-binary” identity. Some people who read it online complained about it to her employer, who fired her without warning. The next day they announced to staff that they had done so in the name of safety and inclusion. They had just fired 50% of their female engineers, a move to which Fain had led the internal resistance. It is illegal to fire someone for organising; this way, she suggests, they could fire her and get applauded for it. Fain has not been able to find work since. She has moved in with family, in a town where she is grateful not to be known by anyone. She makes very little money from the social network she runs, and has no health insurance.
If this is starting to sound rather maudlin on the page, you’ll see, if you listen or watch Fain talk, that she is anything but in person. She is upbeat and good-humoured throughout, even when recounting horrible or infuriating episodes. She is frank about her pain but she doesn’t dwell on it. I agree with most of what she says, intellectually. But I also just like her as a person, at least on the basis of this conversation, the only evidence I have. That makes me trust her as a witness and listen with an open mind.
I mention this in order to say that it’s hard to separate the personal and political, and perhaps not a good idea to do so altogether. You might say that when you’re evaluating someone’s arguments it should be irrelevant whether or not you like them. But for me, at least, the intuitive, liking part is important. In fact it probably outvotes my rational faculty, though both have a say. If I like someone, perhaps because I know them in real life or I like their social media output or whatever, I will find it very hard to accept that the only reason they are making an argument is that they’re suffused with bigotry or boiling with hatred. Even if I won’t always agree with what they say, I will be inclined to listen to them. I will extend them the benefit of any doubt.
This isn’t entirely irrational: liking contains valuable information about how a person thinks, rather than what they think. Fain conveys an authentic sense of humour and irony. Not only do I like people with that capacity, I believe they are more likely to be nuanced thinkers than those who don’t possess it. She also shows the ability to self-critique, intellectually, and even more impressively, emotionally. She questions her own interpretation of the police photo. She admits to having once been jealous of Murphy, as a prominent feminist, which helped her understand at an intuitive level the strain of envy which informs so much trashing behaviour. Such admissions help me trust in her candour, and in her ability to reflect on her own thoughts.
The personal and the political do overlap, then, and should do - but only somewhat. They shouldn’t come close to being identical. You needn’t let your positive feelings about a person stop you from disagreeing with their ideas, and you don’t have to stop liking them when you do so. On the other hand, if you dislike a person, you should still be able to recognise when they are right about something - which is, in turn, easier if you can find a reason to like them a little more or at least dislike them a little less (not always easy, I know). The world can always do with more liking rather than less; there should be no upper bound on human sympathy.
Fain doesn’t present herself as an uncommonly virtuous person. She acknowledges her own urge to trash: to snark and burn and destroy her enemies online when they come for her. But she tries to resist it, aware that it leads only to trashing wars which are emotionally draining and politically self-defeating. That doesn’t mean allowing attacks to go uncontested. Fain has adopted a policy of what she calls, half-jokingly, “emotional pacifism”. That is, she will defend herself vigorously from a trasher, but “I will never trash her back.” If someone calls her a fascist she won’t respond with a “You are -”. She will stick to the particulars of what they have said or done. Well, it’s a start. As Fain puts it, in the context of her own cause, “We need to end this cycle of trashing.”
Thanks for reading this piece, which is free to read, so do go ahead and share. And please check out CONFLICTED, my book on productive conflict, available in the UK and US and lots of other places too.
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Behind the paywall this week, a bumper collection of juicy links: things I have read and loved and been stimulated by in the last couple of weeks, including what Paul sent to Ringo the day after the rooftop concert…
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