As the reader has no doubt guessed by now I’m referring to the reactions from yesterday’s attack on the Charlie Hedbo office in Paris, which left 12 people dead. By no means, however, is this the only example of the phenomenon I’m starting to take issue with, which for lack of a better word I shall dub ”leftist contrarianism.” I’m using this as a case study because it is the most recent example.
Left contrarianism is this tendency to see masses of people grieving over some kind of tragedy or outrage, and then instead of saying something empathetic so as to attract the masses’ attention one tries to say something totally contrarian so as to sound edgy or subversive. Perhaps at times it’s an attempt to sound more righteous than the current cause, but it fails nonetheless. I just want to share a few of the “leftist” responses I’ve seen since this tragedy, and explain why they are logically flawed. After that, I’ll discuss why this is a really shitty approach to politics and how it alienates the masses, the people any progressive movement should care about the most.
What about Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, etc.?
Who said that we’re supposed to stop being concerned for those travesties of justice? Does showing sympathy for ordinary people getting gunned down in an act of premeditated murder exclude continuing to speak out against unwarranted police violence? Seems to me like these two causes go together pretty well, seeing as how they both share a very simple message- “Don’t shoot people.”
What about drone wars, Syria, etc.?
Again, there is no reason why a person can’t express sympathy for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo shooting and continue to condemn the wars that are waged by the US, NATO, Russia, etc. Yes, this can be a good opportunity explain how Western foreign policy contributes to the spread of terrorism, or the inconsistency of fighting radical Salafists in one country while supporting them or at least looking the other way when they happen to be fighting an unfriendly regime. The thing is, there’s a right and a very wrong time to bring this issue up. The day after it happens would be the wrong time.
But Charlie Hebdo sometimes published racist and Islamophobic images
Indeed. I’m sure they published sexist and perhaps homophobic images as well. Does that deserve capital punishment? They also made fun of Islamophobes and right-wingers like Le Pen. It’s not like this was some kind of right-wing political propaganda organ which was deliberately trying to whip up pogroms against Muslims. We’re not talking about Julius Streicher here. Keep in mind that throughout the world there are leftists, including Communists and anarchists, who have been killed by radicals with the same ideology as those killers in Paris.
Racism, sexism, and xenophobia are just a few of many social ills in our society. Chances are that you, at some point in your life, have been guilty of one if not all of these things. What if an offended gunman had got to you then? Keep in mind these are working people, working for a publication which must attract readers to survive. Are you sure that the company you work for is squeaky clean? What if you work for the state?
Lastly, if you think these guys’ jokes deserved the death penalty, why don’t you put your money where your mouth is. Are you prepared to go gun down Louis CK or Dave Chapelle? Both of them have made plenty of racist jokes in their career. Here’s a tip, a lot of people secretly realize that they have racist or sexist impulses. They’d probably be a lot more open to talking about them and working them out if they didn’t think you’re advocating that they be shot for them.
But freedom of speech is a liberal idea!
Yes, yes, I know “freedom of the press is freedom for those who own a press.” I know that freedom of speech is never absolute, nor is it entirely fair in a capitalist society. By no means does this mean it isn’t real or can’t be quantified. Plenty of people in Russia and numerous other countries can tell you all about what it’s like not to enjoy the level of freedom of speech you have in countries like France, the UK, or the all-time winner for freedom of speech, the United States. This isn’t liberalism nor patriotism, it is a statement of fact. It is really fucking hard to get so much as indicted for making public statements or publishing things in the US.
Yes, the American corporate media can easily drown out dissenting voices. You know what they can’t do? They can’t get the state to open a bogus legal case against you or have police sent to search your home because you published something that fell under the ill-defined label of “extremism.” These are things that actually happen to people in most of the world.
It’s true that people are often hypocrites when it comes to free speech- They will often call for the banning or restriction of speech they don’t like. That being said, people generally do not like the idea of being punished for saying, writing, or drawing the wrong thing. If they believe that we will place all kinds of restrictions on them were we to achieve any measure of power, they will be put off by us. Also keep in mind that leftists have also often been the target of censorship by self-appointed moral police. Perhaps you need a refresher course about the abolitionists, labor organizers, socialists, anarchists, and Communists who were jailed, lynched, or shot for speaking out for equality and social justice.
Pretty much everything I’ve seen that fits into this category of contrarianism is just a variant on one of those themes. Whatever form it takes, and whatever the event, left contrarianism always seems to raise its head. Why is this such a problem? Let me make it perfectly clear: It makes you look like a total asshole with no empathy.
You don’t come off as subversive or revolutionary. You come off as a dick. Here you have these people who are just expressing grief and condolences and in comes what seems like a Che T-shirt wearing college student to make sure everyone knows they are all wrong and that they should be talking about his or her favorite topic. Yes, I realize that this discourse attract Islamophobic bigots. Save your anger and arguments for them, not people who are just trying to show a little empathy. It’s not that you look like a dick just because you’re telling them they aren’t caring about the right issues. You’re also making an unjust assumption that they have no concern with those issues you think they need to be talking about right now, when the blood has barely dried. That, my friend, makes you a giant dick.
Oh yes, I know that saying “Je suis Charlie” doesn’t actually help anyone. But go back through all your status updates that “express solidarity” for workers in Bangladesh or the residents of Gaza. Are you sure that does so much more? Yes, it is pretty oblivious when a white female college student at a protest says, “I am Mike Brown.” Does she need some explanation from the people around her about why that is problematic? Yes. Does she need dozens of people attacking her for being so out-of-touch thanks to her privilege? What about the fact that in spite of her privilege, she has enough empathy and sensitivity to understand that a white woman should care when unarmed black people are gunned down by cops. Do you need someone to constantly remind you that your ” statement of solidarity with the people of Gaza” doesn’t alleviate their suffering in the slightest, and most likely there is nobody in Gaza who even knows you exist?
Progressive politics are supposed to be based on empathy. That’s what made abolitionists look at slaves in chains and in spite of the law, the prevailing ideas of the time, and the danger that opposing either of those posed to one’s person and still loudly say, “No, they are not property, they are human beings!” This is what made Marx, an intellectual, and Engels, an actual factory owner, look at the plight of industrial workers and realize that for all its progress, capitalism was an inherently immoral system that needed to be abolished.
Indeed, people must be made to see the big picture and understand the structural, systemic factors which make tragedies like this possible. They need to understand that just as these gunmen had no concern for the humanity of their targets in Paris, governments exercises no more compassion when a 19-year UAV pilot is ordered to fire a missile at “suspected militants” who may well be unarmed villagers. The thing is that you have to make them see how these things are connected, how they need to stand up for those powerless, impoverished people thousands of miles away and not just the urban office workers whose lives resemble their own. You don’t do this by attacking people when they express sympathy for latter.
In short, if the left wants to start winning for a change, it had better start recognizing the importance and power of people’s emotions. If we don’t, rest assured the right has that mastered. They will seize upon people’s empathy and turn it into fear, outrage, and finally hatred and a lust for vengeance. We will be portrayed as self-righteous hypocrites. Do you really want those bigots to score such an easy victory? Have they not had enough triumphs in the past few decades for us to wake up and realize that what we’ve been doing all this time hasn’t been working? Left wing politics are about the masses, and yet all we’ve seen since about the 1980’s is the left continually alienating those masses and turning into a university-based subculture while the right-wing all over the world wins over the working class again and again. Maybe it’s time to stop being a contrarian asshole and start learning how to deal with people, don’t you think?