The Death of Position
It’s become something of a truism that progressive groups self-sabotage with factionalism and backbiting and purity testing.
When any new progressive rises to prominence or gets some time on the mic, there’s an immediate clamor of “but they’re problematic!”, and the concomitant rejoinders of “there’s no perfect candidate,” or rough analogues. We do the work of tearing down our own ostensible champions.
Now, I’m not about to exhort you to accept problematic public figures or get behind platforms you don’t support just to spite the conservatives. It seems to me, though, that we’ve been approaching this whole thing in the wrong terms, on the wrong level.
See, conservatism is a collection of positions. Sometimes one falls away (divorce is cool now), sometimes a new one is added (“build that wall!”), sometimes an old one resurfaces after a nap (“you will not replace us!”)… but as a general matter, these things are ideological fixed points. Purity is built into the framework. This makes them easy to adopt, easy to organize around.
On these terms, progressivism is an endless mire. The emphasis on intersectionality and pluralism makes it impractical if not outright impossible to articulate positions satisfactory to all. Every microminority has its own unique needs, and the more nuanced the intersection, the more likely those needs are to be unintuitive or outright invisible to people and movements outside those groups. (Bonus round: the more work I’ve put into making sure my politics are progressive and inclusive, the more jarring it’s going to be — and the more defensive I’m probably going to get — when someone tells me I’m actually stepping on their toes.)
Most commentators have responded to this in one of two ways: calls for greater accountability and refusal to accept anything short of perfection, or calls for greater pragmatism and incremental change and settling for what we can do today. Both of these approaches, ultimately, miss the mark.
The former relies on a belief in some platonic notion of Justice that we can identify and hold people to — it says, “here’s a set of positions that a Good Person will hold, and if you fail to hold any of them or if you hold any that aren’t among them, you are Bad and you should feel bad.” But experience teaches us that justice is a moving target, and that we’re actually pretty bad at identifying (let alone collectively agreeing about) where it lives at any given time. The latter can feel like a startling abdication of principle in favor of expedience — “I know it’s too much to ask you to quit cold turkey, but can you just do, like, a little less murder?” — in a way that tends to most benefit those already least disadvantaged, since it defers or disregards the needs of those at the intersection of the most axes of oppression. Its positions are, by virtue of its incrementalist approach, necessarily chosen based on proximity to the positions already occupied by power. But experience teaches us that there exists radical injustice in the world, and an exhortation to merely aspire to slightly-less-radical injustice leaves a sour taste in our mouths.
What to do?
Let’s remember that a given thing can have a number of different things that we might reasonably call its opposite — I like to say that I’m boring (as opposed to fun), but not boring (as opposed to interesting). This is to say that progressivism and conservatism are opposites, but not in the sense that they merely hold incompatible positions.
Where conservatism is a collection of positions, progressivism is a process, a posture, a method. The essential character of progressivism isn’t positional; progressivism is defined, rather, by a commitment to listening, to an active compassion that reaches for but doesn’t require understanding, to expanding the tent and restructuring what isn’t working. Where conservatism might be analogized to knowledge (a collection of known facts), progressivism is more like science (a set of processes and principles that inform our reasoning about the things we don’t yet know).
That’s not to say that we should ignore the positions of putative progressives, of course — the positions they hold tell us something meaningful about their process. But the fundamental measure of a progressive, I think, is less about the positions they hold and more about how they got to them, how willing they are to listen and to onboard the things they hear. Are they moving towards a world of greater liberty and compassion? Are they flexible, and open, and practicing some amount of epistemic humility? Then they’re probably worth keeping around, even if some of the positions they currently hold are a result of poor reasoning or systemic bias. By the same token, it doesn’t matter how radical their current positions are if they arrived at them through demagoguery or self-interest or crass populism; a revolutionary without a healthy skepticism or a commitment to listening is just a conservative-in-waiting.
And much like in science, I think there’s room — even necessity — for specialists under the progressive umbrella. A geologist isn’t a bad scientist because her work didn’t adequately account for, say, orbital mechanics; she’s only a bad scientist if the astrophysicist points this out and she doesn’t update her models. In the same way, the advocate for racial justice isn’t a bad progressive because she didn’t fully consider the intersection of her activism with queer theory or labor organizing — unless she refuses to hear the theorist or the organizer.
We need those specialists. We need the racial justice advocate and the queer theorist and the labor organizer, and we need them to talk to each other. One of the great strengths of progressivism is that, unlike conservatism, it doesn’t require total agreement; a progressive movement, if it wants to be effective, is a movement of shifting coalitions. This is how we can not only solve problems — maybe gradually, maybe just one at a time, if that’s what it takes — but solve them in ways that maximize positive externalities.
This is not moderate apologia. It is a rejection of the critique that progressives will fail due to self-sabotage, and the disheartenment that tends to follow. It is an assertion that the polyphony characteristic of progressive spaces is a feature, not a bug — one to be channeled and managed, to be sure, but not repressed. It is a recognition that the “but what does this mean for gender minorities?” feminist and the “but what does this mean for labor?” socialist agree more than they disagree, and that both have their eyes fixed on the horizon of liberation.
Progressivism isn’t a movement defined by opposition to conservative positions — it is itself movement, defined by opposition to certainty, to stagnancy, to position itself. Progressivism is a politics of compassion, and compassion by its nature requires you to move, to see a hurt and to go to it, to see a hurt you’re causing and to move from it. We don’t all need to sing in the same voice, but we do need to harmonize and to follow each other’s leads.