Progressivism is a Spectrum, Not a Binary State
In my last write-up I talked about my experience growing up in what is essentially the cultish-vein of Christianity: Evangelicalism.
There's no possible way to unpack all of these experiences in one post, even one that's over 2000 words long. So as we move forward I'll be sharing more about my experiences within fundamentalism. Today I want to talk a bit about politics.
When it comes to politics, Evangelical churches are exclusively conservative. To date I have never seen a church, Pastor, leader, or congregant be openly leftist and still be welcomed within the Evangelical movement unless they eventually agreed to change their position, or keep their political leanings to themselves. While some churches are more overt about their disapproval of “liberal” politics than others (shunning, preaching politics from the pulpit, endorsing exclusively right-leaning charities, etc.), they all are defined by their marriage to the Republican party. “The Religious-Right” is a term they embrace, despite its roots in segregation and white supremacy.
As a result, like almost every other child that grew up in Evangelicalism, I started my life extremely conservative. The problem was that I had no idea that I was a conservative. In fact, outside of academic debates around the dinner table (my parents are both poli-sci majors), politics was of little interest to me.
I defined myself as “Apolitical” up until very recently, as a result. In my mind politics were like sports. You could follow it, if you wanted to, and you could even play if you had the talent or the inclination. But they were a hassle for me, and I didn't enjoy conflict. So just like I ignored sports, I also ignored politics. I got very annoyed at people that insisted on talking about it all the time, though occasionally I would engage in an “academic” conversation on the matter.
For fun, of course.
I didn't understand why some people (namely women, POC, and LGBTQ+) would get so angry about it. I saw them as immature rabble-rousers that just wanted to stir up discord and create division.
This fit very neatly into my Evangelical upbringing, which taught me that what mattered above all else was “unity.” Disagreements were fine, but at the end of the day we should be “one body” (which is Evangelical speak for “conform and don't rock the boat”).
It never occurred to me that these people were angry not at me personally, but at the institution I belonged to which oppressed them. They were angry that a boot was crushing their neck, and the person stepping on them was saying “I don't care how this affects you.”
So what changed my mind? How did I become a “liberal” (as my old church would say), and a “commie” (as conservatives would say), and a “progressive” (as I would say)?
It all started with The West Wing.
Depending on how far left you lean, you may take issue with WW for its often neo-liberal stances, trivialization of race, and outright dismissal of any political position left of Bill Clinton. But this isn't really about WW as a political treatise; rather its about how WW helped me to break free of a toxic political stance.
Bear with me, please.
I started watching WW with my wife around 2010-11. It was a show we both enjoyed (rare in our home) that was entertaining, smart, and inspirational. To this day it remains a staple in our home for its quippy one-liners, hilarious situations, and often poignant observations about politics and the disconnect between Politicians and the citizens they represent. I've probably seen it all the way through at least 8 times (though I won't lie, we've started skipping the last season... blegh). And for someone that described themselves as “Apolitical,” watching WW was a significant step for me.
Art is a tricky, insidious thing. While a logical argument or a presentation of scientific data may never sway the heart or mind of an entrenched person, art has ways of weaving around that person's resistance and cutting right to the heart of the issue. Art is powerful in that it can single-handedly change a person's mind, often without them realizing that its happened. This is because our brains are wired for narrative, not facts. Narrative is what cuts through our defense mechanisms and logical bullshit.
As anyone who has ever seriously examined the “apolitical” stance can attest, it really is just a bunch of bullshit reasons to justify the fact that you don't want to engage politically. It's the height of privilege, in that only those who never have to worry about the ramifications of political policy can hold it without penalty. And it's almost always fueled by fear.
My fear had very much to do with losing my support system. I instinctively knew that being political in the way I wanted would lead to my ostracization from my religious and social community, unless I was willing to embrace the Republican platform. I wasn't, so I chose to take the more socially acceptable term “Apolitical.” I also had a deep distrust of government that was ingrained in me by my religious community.
But The West Wing gave me an alternative vision of government. Toby, one of the President's chief advisors, says it best when discussing the term “big government.”
Bartlet: What's on your mind? Toby: “The era of big government is over.” Bartlet: You want to cut the line? Toby: I want to change the sentiment. [pause] We're running away from ourselves and I know we can score points that way, I was a principal architect of that campaign strategy right along with you, Josh... But we're here now, tomorrow night we do an immense thing; we have to say what we feel: that government, no matter what its failures in the past and in times to come for that matter, government can be a place where people come together... and where no one gets left behind. No one...gets left behind. An instrument of good.
The delivery of this speech by Richard Schiff is powerful, and I remember hearing this for the first time and thinking “...Is it actually possible for the government to do something good? For politics to make the world a better place?” That question haunted me for years to come. It set up everything that followed. While small, this one question began the disassembly of a toxic belief system which told me I had to believe in a Christian Theocracy or nothing at all.
I won't spend anymore space here talking about all the ways that WW has informed or inspired my politics, other than to say that Aaron Sorkin's aspirational, optimistic outlook on politics has been a net positive for me, despite the misgivings I've developed about some of the finer details of WW recently.
And this, I suppose, leads to my main point: progressivism is a spectrum. It is not a binary state that you either are, or aren't.
The most common critique of the left is that we eat our young. As uncomfortable as the following analogy may be, I believe it to be true having been on both sides of the political spectrum: we share much in common with right-wingers when it comes to matters of enforcing ideological purity.
I've seen leftists eviscerate allies because they didn't subscribe to their particular vision for a better world, or because they disagreed on how to get there. I've watched as feminists, anarchists, democratic socialists, communists, and liberals engaged in pettiness, vendettas, mob-mentality, unscientific assertions, and ostracization over issues where genuine disagreement and debate should have been embraced and encouraged, but were instead treated as a litmus test for whether someone was “in,” or “out.”
Say what you will about conservatives, but they know how to form a united bloc that moves in lockstep. Its why they've been so effective for so long. It's really the only thing animating the corpse at this stage. While they are awful at self-reflection and criticism of the group as a whole, they are extremely effective at moving together as a unit.
Am I saying that leftists and right-wingers are the same? Absolutely not. At the end of the day, despite our disagreements, leftists agree that humans deserve dignity, respect, freedom, and the chance for happiness. Right-wingers believe that authority trumps autonomy, that pluralism is bad, and that governance is an inherently corrupt exercise. These are irreconcilable differences, and there is really no way to equate the two movements, as some people have naively tried to do with horseshoe theory. Nevertheless, we share the tendency of right-wingers to insist on uniformity in belief, sometimes going as far as attacking our allies to enforce uniform belief and behavior.
Earlier today I had an exchange with a self-identifying “feminist” on Twitter. She was an exvangelical, like me, who was talking about how “side boob” is neither inherently sexual, nor should it be taboo and grounds for disqualification of leadership if a woman's outfit displays side-boob. If this sounds like an absurd conversation to have, I'll assume you've never been entrenched in an Evangelical church before. Someday I'll have to talk about some of the crap taught to me about “sexual purity.”
A commenter replied to this tweet with “No part of the human body is inherently sexual.” Out of a sense of curiosity, I replied “Genitals?” I legitimately wanted to hear the argument for this, and was confused how this would play out given the context of the original tweet. This is a conversation I've never had before (I've only been a progressive for 2-3 years). How on earth do you live in a world where someone can simply expose their genitals whenever they wish? What about issues of consent? What about triggers for sexual abuse survivors? It didn't seem very progressive to me.
The OP responded with a very curt reply. I can't see it, because I have them blocked. But it was something to the effect of “not even this.” I got even more specific, and continued to use question marks to show that I was genuinely trying to understand and not pick a fight. I essentially asked the questions above.
The OP quote tweeted me, essentially making me an example to her followers, and woke-shamed me for not understanding that “I never said you should wear clothing that exposes your genitals, obviously. That would create problems of consent. But some people never use their genitals sexually and have no desire to, and genitals have other purposes such as disposing of bodily waste.”
The comments, predictably, were a chorus of “get em girl!” and “you tell em!”, complete with gifs of (predominantly) black women making check marks with their fingers, snapping, and mouthing “ohhhhhhh shit”. When I confronted the OP on why they quote tweeted me, they said they “wanted to let their followers know how they felt about the subject.” They denied it was a “call out,” and minimized how it had made me feel. They told me I would know if I was being called out because they use a lot of swear words when they're upset. At no point did they apologize.
They gaslit me.
They are now blocked and I will (hopefully) never have to interact with them ever again.
What started as a misunderstanding on what was effectively two separate conversations (1, are genitals inherently sexual, and 2, should people be able to display genitals whenever they want as an extension of sexual liberation), and a request for clarification from another progressive (me), became a concerted effort to shame someone that's “not as woke as we are.” From there it devolved into a pile-on thread, not because I was wrong, but because the “leader” had quote-tweeted me (which in the Twitter world is the social cue for “this person fucked up, let's cyberbully them”).
I'm honestly not all that upset about it, actually. It sucks, but I've been treated worse and in the grand scheme of things their follower count didn't allow for much damage to be done to me before I blocked them.
But it was a reminder that, in the world of progressive politics, our worst interactions are often with ourselves. Ironically, I agree with them, now that I understand their position. I have asexual friends that are impacted by the belief that genitals are inherently sexual, and I can understand the topic with far more nuance now. It's too bad that, in the process, this person chose to attack me over what I didn't yet know, rather than putting in the work to educate me so that I could understand without injury.
It is not possible for a person to become “woke” overnight on every issue. It is not possible for a person to understand the nuance of every argument before they've researched the topic or been introduced to the conversation. And the fact that we expect every person we meet to know everything we do without putting in the work to educate them about the topic is damaging and wrong.
When we shame our allies like this, we weaken our platform. We weaken our ability to effect real, tangible change. Without our allies, we have nothing. The power of leftism is that we believe we are collectively stronger than we are divided. We believe amazing things can happen when a group of people unite behind a common purpose. We believe that a better world is possible, and that the only thing keeping us from it is our will to act cooperatively with one another.
To be clear, I am not saying that we shouldn't call out bad behavior by allies. We absolutely must. It's one of the most important things that separates us from right-wingers. But punishing genuine inquiry, or differences of opinion, or expecting someone to be just as progressive as you are, doesn't lead to a better world. It only leads to more pain from someone that was vulnerable enough to open up to you about how they think and how they feel. It divides us needlessly, and it leads to rigidity in thinking, which is antithetical to progressive thought.
In short: it's a betrayal of the very ideals you claim to hold.