Field researchers from another planet might be hard pressed to distinguish social justice warriors from their rational liberal counterparts in the wild. Often frequenting the same watering holes—and participating in the same conflicts—to the uninformed observer, they could easily be taken as a single species.
Indeed, if the wild is extended to include the parched plains of the mainstream media landscape, they are for all intents and purposes the same.
Despite the valuable work done by rational leftists, this conflation persists—maddeningly—in most publications and news programs. By means of frequently disingenuous argument and alarming bullying tactics, the social justice lexicon has come to dominate baseline perceptions of the modern liberal movement.
I’m hardly the first to observe that if one is on the left, one is now understood to be fluent in the language of oppression and versant in the gradations of privilege. As aggravating as it is, the failure to distinguish between the two brands of liberalism is understandable. Jingoistic and hysterical proclamations usually win out over subtlety and nuance.
The social justice cohort—hereafter, the regressive left—and the rational left do of course share a commitment to, among other things, the elimination of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and classism. The means by which they hope to achieve that, and their conceptualizations of the problems themselves, are where they diverge.
One might think that, in the face of a resurgent conservative movement that directly controverts these principles, the two groups might be willing to put aside their differences in the interests of practicality. Allianceship, even. Not so, at least on the regressive side, which reserves some of its most violent vituperation for those nearest to it ideologically, suggesting a fundamental misunderstanding of both practicality and allianceship.
In contrast, the rational left treats the worst manifestations of social justice ideology with the exasperated remove of an adult waiting out a child’s tantrum. We acknowledge our common cause in spite of the taint that it carries as a result of SJW meddling. And we attempt, however haltingly and ineffectively, to diagnose and treat the fits of temper and the poorly conceived reasoning that divide us.
This relationship can be read as a warped and lopsided version of Freud’s narcissism of minor differences.
While rational leftists urge the social justice side of the movement to put aside their overwrought conceptualizations in favor of realistic, achievable shared goals, the regressive left is intent on painting the rationalists as worse than their true opponents on the right on exactly the basis of such disagreements, closing the door to any sort of productive partnership. Certainly, these differences are consequential to those involved, but given the two factions’ shared commitment to notions of equity, they read as minor to the right when they register at all.
Though the ratio is unbalanced, Freud’s schema nonetheless provides a useful lens through which to observe these differences.
Take two of the most-cited large-scale illustrations of the narcissism of minor differences, both serious and deadly civil conflicts that occurred in the 1990s. To external observers, the striking similarities between the Hutu and Tutsi of Rwanda, who descended into a brutal civil war, outweighed the disparities between the two groups that caused the conflict. Perhaps an even better exemplar than the strife in Rwanda is that which occurred in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In that case, a culturally cohesive group of people devolved into war and genocide partly over theological differences, to the horror and consternation of the rest of the world. Though less obviously cataclysmic, the current rift in the left—and, more specifically, the regressive insistence on maintaining it—has had a similar effect: the perception of the participants as irrational.
This had made it quite easy for the right to throw the baby out with the bathwater, solid liberal planks along with the nutty regressive ideology in which they are adrift. The arcane religious principles that precipitated the Bosnian conflict, in particular, parallel those that define the schism between rationalists and regressives.
Rational leftists are, well...rational. Our strength lies in our heterogeneity, our skepticism, our encouragement of dissent and debate, and our enthusiasm for empirical argument. We feel that these qualities best position us to address the social problems we are faced with. The regressive left, however, is largely premised upon a dogmatic strain of magical thinking that parallels the worst tendencies in theistic religion.
In this view of the world, conceptions of oppression and identity are sacred texts, the exegesis of which is restricted to those at the pinnacle of a mechanistically determined hierarchy based on an array of intersecting, immutable qualities—particularly those associated with oppression.
Those who are perceived as non-minorities, accurately or not, bear an indelible taint of original sin. Ritualistic prostration and self-abasement are the expected forms of penitence. Absolution—or at least a stay of execution—can only be granted by the hierophants. As in theistic religion, one need look no further than the sacred texts from which this power is derived, and how they are defended, to discern the illogically—magically— predicated foundations of the system.
Take, for example, the contention by many trans activists that trans women are not only gender-identified as women but are actually biologically female. In this view, there are few, if any, meaningful biological differences between a female-identified male and a natal female. And if there are, they ought not to be discussed. Any digression, how ever well supported by the available science, is heresy.
Even discussions of menstruation, child-bearing, and other biological functions unique to natal women are viewed as exclusionary in some circles. (Some have even maintained that trans women do in fact experience periods.)
While rational leftists, myself among them, are quite happy to acknowledge a widening gender spectrum and to define the word “woman” more capaciously than it has been defined previously, we stop short of defying biological reality. Are trans women women? And are trans men men? Sure, in a sense. And their right to define themselves as such ought to be defended, as should their rights to proper medical treatment and freedom from violence and harassment.
But they aren’t biologically female or male, as some would like us to believe. Sex in humans is an immutably binary characteristic. Though a vanishingly small number of people, notably those who are conceived as a result of two zygotes fusing and creating a chimera, may possess both functional ovaries and testes, everyone else produces either one type of gamete or the other, thus placing them in one sex category or the other. Atypical sex chromosomes and ambiguous genitalia, as in the case of intersex people, are often cited as evidence against the sex binary. Even in these rare cases, most intersex people can produce only one type of functional gamete.
None of this, of course, ought to have any bearing on how trans people, intersex or otherwise, are treated by society at large. Equity and respect for trans people are admirable and necessary goals, ones that have admittedly yet to be achieved. But rather than focus on that, some trans activists have devolved into a form of magical thinking that demands the suspension of scientific knowledge.
This is classic instance of the phenomenon: believing that internal beliefs can actually influence material reality. We must believe that in every meaningful sense a trans person belongs not only the gender that they align with, but also the sex, regardless of primary and secondary sex characteristics.
As such, lesbians who prefer not to sleep with trans women, gay men who eschew sexual relations with trans men, and heterosexuals who do not sexually engage with trans people of either gender are deemed transphobes and TERFs because their inclinations directly contest this magical view of sex determination.
This has manifested as a virulent strain of homophobia in the LGBTQ community, facilitated by trans activists, and bizarrely, perpetuated by even some lesbians and gay men. “Genital preferences”—i.e., sexuality as conceived by both the scientific community and society—are now pathologized and stigmatized as transphobic. Any attempts to temper the discussion with biological facts and explanations of sexuality—namely, that it is not a choice—are deemed threats to the very existence of trans people.
Take the case of Arielle Scarcella, a lesbian YouTuber and sex commentator. One can scarcely imagine a more charming and fair-minded personality. Scarcella is warm and compassionate and curious about the experiences of those who are different than her.
Yet, despite regularly talking to trans people in detail about their sex lives and identities, and having expressed an openness to dating a trans woman who has undergone gender reassignment surgery, Scarcella has been lambasted publicly as a transphobe because she is unwilling to date a trans woman with a penis. Among the tenuous arguments leveled against her and other lesbians who feel similarly is the notion that there is no material difference between penetration by a dildo, often used in lesbian intercourse, and by an actual penis attached to a human being. For a group so concerned with the supposed erasure of their identities, this segment of the trans activist movement is awfully quick to erase the identities of those whose “lived experience” contradicts their magical self-concept.
In this view of the world, not only is male female, white (or olive) is also black. Some black activists, who also lean heavily on the argument that any dissent from their contentions constitutes erasure, have persisted in claiming that ancient Egyptians were black. (And they rarely appear to be referring to the period of Nubian incursion, when there were indeed black pharaohs.)
Presumably, by asserting that historical figures such as Nefertiti and Cleopatra were black, they hope to channel some of the mythological significance accorded them. Nevermind that tomb paintings and statuary depict Egyptians in realistic detail as olive skinned, often alongside [enslaved] dark-skinned Nubians from the south. Nevermind that realism in Egyptian art was at its height during Nefertiti’s reign alongside her husband Akhenatan.
Nevermind that Cleopatra was Egyptian by birth alone and was of Greek ancestry, with an outside chance of possible admixture with Egyptian blood. (Evidently, the colonialist tendencies that resulted in Cleopatra’s reign are not worth examining.) And nevermind that recent DNA analysis has most closely linked ancient Egyptians to the olive-skinned people of the Levant. The numinous power of claiming descent from the pharaohs takes precedence over fact. One wonders why the Songhai Empire and the Kingdom of Kush, large and sophisticated civilizations of black Africans, are not of greater interest to these groups.
It is understandable and even laudable that a historically oppressed people might look to the past for examples of success and dominance. But then one realizes that these more-relevant histories do not possess nearly the magical significance of the Egyptians.
So, too, even the morbidly obese can be fit and healthy in this ever-expanding magical universe. Never mind that this is definitionally impossible. The “health at any size” movement has so distorted the concept of fitness as to render it essentially meaningless. Fashion models like Tess Holliday, who is morbidly obese by any objective measure, are not simply held up as facilitators for the acceptance of multiple body types and the humane and civil treatment of those with weight problems, which are worthy objectives.
They are characterized as fit and healthy, despite the overwhelming evidence that obesity is a predictor of numerous healthy problems, including, morbidity—that is, quite literally, death. Even the explicit concern of the medical community that this movement has fundamentally misunderstood what constitutes a healthy body, as expressed in several studies (here and here) over the past few years, has not been enough to get this train back on the right track.
Those within the movement who acknowledge the problems with this do so indirectly, claiming that the health of fat models is no one’s business. These are some of the same people, one assumes, who—rightly—criticized the glorification of skeletal clotheshorses in the recent past.
On a personal level, certainly, it is between an individual and their doctor to discuss such issues. But when people politicize their own bodies as fat activists do, and take a didactic public position on the issue, it does become a legitimate topic of debate.
Some scholars have even pointed to a strain of magical thinking in the current incarnation of affirmative action—likely not in the way that unreserved supporters might expect. In a June 2005 editorial, three professors, all concerned with equity issues and, in one way or another, advocates of campus diversity, said this:
...we believe the rationale, especially regarding the benefits of diversity equation, is limited by “magical thinking.” The rationale provides no guidance for campuses on assembling the appropriate means to create environments conducive to realization of the benefits of diversity or on employing the methods necessary to facilitate the educational process to achieve those benefits.
That is, they find fault with the notion that simple, mechanistic adjustments to campus racial demographics are sufficient to truly address inequality. The idea that such a system can work to achieve its goal of greater integration without any real effort to facilitate it beyond the admissions process is suggestive of the same strain of delusion that might be diagnosed in a cook who expects a souffle to rise from a bowl of flour and eggs, without stirring, seasoning, and baking.
As frustrating as these tendencies are and as easy as it is reject them logically, it is worth looking deeper in an effort to discern why they emerged in the first place. Most of the groups that exhibit them have in fact been subjected to some level of oppression and discrimination. Magical thinking is known in the psychological literature to emerge as an antidote to anxiety, an obvious and understandable consequence of oppression. So too, in an increasingly secularized world, it’s conceivable that the same evolutionary forces that led to the emergence of religion might manifest in other ways, particularly in groups that feel isolated from society at large.
The parallels between regressive leftist ideology and religious belief are the object of increasing scrutiny for good reason. In addition to facilitating group cohesion in the face of opposition, the magical self-conceptions of these groups serve the further function of setting the argument in terms of arcana, hermetically sealed to external logic.
Even the most measured and sympathetic interrogation of these ideas is frequently met with, at best, indifference, and at worst, disproportionate hostility. Conceptual and methodological critiques that come from a place closer on the ideological spectrum sting all the more both because they are likely to be more nuanced and thus difficult to dismiss, and because of the perception that this proximity ought to entail sympathy and agreement. When that sympathy and agreement is expressed with reservations, it then becomes easier to cast those who question certain orthodoxies as the enemy rather than as concerned but trepidatious allies.
As Freud says of the narcissism of small differences, “the inclination to aggression [is a] means of which cohesion between the members of the community is made easier.” By casting even the most carefully worded dissent as condemnation, group solidarity is further enhanced.
Luckily, apostates from nearly all of the groups whose interests are supposedly represented by the regressive left have begun making themselves known. The shoddily constructed foundations of these orthodoxies are, as expected, beginning to crack. And the rational left will be there to pull survivors from the rubble.