by Freddie deBoer

I’ve developed something of a reputation as a socially liberal critic of today’s social liberalism. I got an email from a Dish reader who asked me to flesh out where I’m coming from.

I guess what it all comes down to, for me, is that social liberalism was once an alternative that enabled people to pursue whatever types of consensual personal behavior they wanted, and thus was a movement that increased individual freedom and happiness. It was the antidote to Jerry Fallwell telling you that you were going to hell, to Nancy Reagan saying “just say no,” to your conservative parents telling you not to be gay, to Pat Robertson saying don’t have sex, to Tipper Gore telling you that you couldn’t listen to the music you like, to don’t have sex, don’t do drugs, don’t wear those clothes, don’t walk that way, don’t have fun, don’t be yourself. So of course that movement won. It was a positive, joyful, human, freeing alternative to an exhausted, ugly, narrow vision of how human beings should behave.

It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing. I now mostly associate that public face with danger, with an endless list of things that you can’t do or say or think, and with the constant threat of being called an existentially bad person if you say the wrong thing, or if someone decides to misrepresent what you said as saying the wrong thing. There are so many ways to step on a landmine now, so many terms that have become forbidden, so many attitudes that will get you cast out if you even appear to hold them. I’m far from alone in feeling that it’s typically not worth it to engage, given the risks. The hundreds of young people I teach, tutor, and engage with in my academic and professional lives teach me about the way these movements are perceived. I have strict rules about how I engage with students in class, and I never intentionally bring my own beliefs into my pedagogy, but I also don’t steer students away from political issues if they turn the conversation that way. I cannot tell you how common it is for me to talk to 19, 20, 21 year old students, who seem like good people, who discuss liberal and left-wing beliefs as positive ideas, but who shrink from identifying with liberalism and feminism instinctively. Privately, I lament that fact, but it doesn’t surprise me. Of course much of these feelings stem from conservative misrepresentations and slanders of what social liberalism is and means. But it also comes from the perception that, in the online forums where so much political discussion happens these days, the slightest misstep will result in character assassination and vicious condemnation.

Suppose you’re a young college student inclined towards liberal or left-wing ideas. And suppose, like a lot of such college students, you enjoy Stephen Colbert and find him a political inspiration. Now imagine that, during the #CancelColbert fiasco, you defended Colbert on Twitter. If your defense was noticed by the people who police that forum, the consequences were likely to be brutal. People would not have said “here, let me talk you through this.” It wouldn’t have been a matter of friendly and inviting disagreement. Instead, as we all saw, it would have been immediate and unequivocal attack. That’s how the loudest voices on Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook act. The culture is one of attack, rather than of education. And the claims, typically, are existential: not “this thing you said is problematic from the standpoint of race,” but rather “you’re a racist.” Not “I think there’s some gender issues going here that you should think about,” but “you’re a misogynist.” Always. I know that there are kinder voices out there in socially liberal circles on social media, but unfortunately, when these cyclical storms get going, those voices are constantly drowned out.

If you are a young person who is still malleable and subject to having your mind changed, and you decide to engage with socially liberal politics online, what are you going to learn immediately? Everything that you like is problematic. Every musician you like is misogynist. Every movie you like is secretly racist. Every cherished public figure has some deeply disqualifying characteristics. All of your victories are the product of privilege. Everyone you know and love who does not yet speak with the specialized vocabulary of today’s social justice movement is a bad, bad person. That is no way to build a broader coalition, which we desperately need if we’re going to win.

On matters of substance, I agree with almost everything that the social liberals on Tumblr and Twitter and blogs and websites believe. I believe that racism is embedded in many of our institutions. I believe that sexual violence is common and that we have a culture of misogyny. I believe that privilege is real. I believe all of that. And I understand and respect the need to express rage, which is a legitimate political emotion. But I also believe that there’s no possible way to fix these problems without bringing more people into the coalition. I would like for people who are committed to arguing about social justice online to work on building a culture that is unrelenting in its criticisms of injustice, but that leaves more room for education. People have to be free to make mistakes, even ones that we find offensive. If we turn away from everyone that says or believes something dumb, we will find ourselves lecturing to an empty room. Surely there are ways to preserve righteous anger while being more circumspect about who is targeted by that anger. And I strongly believe that we can, and must, remind the world that social justice is about being happy, being equal, and being free.

(Thumbnail image via Alfred Hermida)