Can we Please Not Throw LGBT Rights Away?
Reactive Overcompensation helps nobody.
One of the major faults of human psychology appears to be our tendency to react to the rise of an illiberal current in society with a counter-current that is illiberal in the opposite direction. This is what I have been referring to as “reactive overcompensation” and ‘negative reciprocity’ but which is most commonly referred to in the media as a ‘backlash’ and ‘giving people a taste of their own medicine.’ This is almost certainly a threat response that has served us well in our ancestral past when reacting swiftly and extremely to push back perceived threats from rival groups has been more beneficial to survival than attempting to reason with them. Nevertheless, it is terrible for the health of current liberal democracies and is responsible for much of the growing polarisation we are seeing across so many of them.
It also gets in the way of obtaining the accurate perceptions of social problems that exist that are essential to addressing them. For example, if one ideological group takes the extreme position that everything is racist, another is likely to take up an equally extreme refusal to recognise anything as racist. Because the reality is that some things are racist, the important endeavour of identifying and opposing racism where it exists is now being hindered by two warring groups each determined to read everything through their own ideological narrative, and getting at the truth of any scenario has now become significantly harder.
When humans become so invested in fighting for their side of a ‘culture war’ that they cease to prioritise what is true and what is ethical, and their determination is to win at all costs, the results are that there are no winners. One side might well win cultural dominance as the other succumbs to exhaustion but a society built on reactively overcompensating against an already illiberal and dysfunctional system is likely to be one that only the most extreme cultural warriors would really want to live in. Even they might rethink this once the immediate sense of threat they were overreacting to had passed.
Worst of all, the primary casualties of a culture war are usually not the warriors themselves but “civilians” perceived as possessing certain identities on whose behalves these wars have been waged in the first place, whether or not they themselves subscribed to any ideologies associated with them. Given that most people of all identities are not extreme ideologues but simply want to live in a society where they can live, love and thrive without being subjected to hostility, negative generalisation and discrimination, these wars result in a great deal of collateral damage. They also frequently give rise to another backlash producing the commonly expressed metaphor of the pendulum that always swings back and forth from one extreme crashing into different ideological groups and never achieving a stable equilibrium.
I fear very much that we are currently living through another of these pendulum swinging times as the illiberal socially conservative ‘anti-woke’ make significant headway in their reactive overcompensation to the illiberal identitarian woke. This is something that the liberal critics of wokeness have been warning against for many years and the eventuality we hoped to prevent by persuading more people to adopt liberal approaches to social justice.
For liberals, collective action to address any social injustice facing any minority groups is more ethical, factually accurate and works better when we emphasise our shared humanity and call upon our innate sense of fairness, empathy and fellow feeling to work together for a future where nobody is disadvantaged due to their race, sex, sexuality or other immutable characteristic. The liberal approach works by taking moral and social significance out of identity categories and objecting when any person, institution or law attempts to assign significance to any of them to constrain, denigrate or generalise about any individual. This does not mean that people cannot find any identity meaningful themselves, but that nobody else is justified in telling them that they should and what that meaning should be .
The Critical Social Justice approach is very different and works by emphasising difference and assigning not only unique knowledges and values to specific identity groups but also insisting that the views and experiences of each group cannot be understood by any other. This is the essence of identity politics and includes determining which views are to be regarded as authentic for each identity. Last year, in the UK, a Labour MP accused the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, of being “superficially black” due to his politics, education and accent while in the US, numerous articles were written about the inadequacy of Democratic Candidate Pete Buttigieg’s gayness due to him not holding sufficiently “radically queer” views. By reading all interactions through a system of oppressive power structures within which each individual’s positionality as dictated by their identity determines their axes of privilege and marginalisation and consequently what they may speak about and to whom, communication and empathy across identity groups becomes very difficult. It also makes collective action almost impossible.
In addition to the sheer complicatedness of trying to navigate all this - a feat which cannot be managed by anybody who has not undertaken several years of study of Critical Social Justice - the idea that only some people can be racist or sexist or homophobic or transphobic while other people are justified in denigrating others on the basis of their race, sex, sexuality or gender identity goes against hardwired human concepts of fairness and reciprocity. It simply does not work with who we are as human animals. As I argued in 2018,
It is in this way that identity politics is the most counterproductive and even dangerous. We humans are tribal and territorial creatures, and identity politics comes far more naturally to us than universality and individuality. Our history bears the evidence of humans unapologetically favoring their own tribe, own town, own religion, own nation, and own race over others and creating narratives after the impulse to attempt to justify doing it.
The universal human rights and principles of not judging people by their race, gender, or sexuality—which have developed over the modern period and resulted in the civil rights movements, legal equality, and much social progress—are much more uncommon to us and must be consistently reinforced and maintained. If we allow identity politics in the form of Social Justice to undermine this fragile and precarious detente, we could undo decades of social progress and provide a rationale for a resurgence of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Given the novelty of egalitarian society, it is not at all clear that women and racial and sexual minorities could easily win these losses back.
I fear that we are seeing a rise of people feeling perfectly justified in openly indulging in misogyny, racism and homophobia as a form of reciprocation because the social norms which made them so socially unacceptable have now broken down. Of course, some of them will have always held these abhorrent views and now feel able to let them out, but many, I fear, are developing these attitudes now as a form of revenge after years of being gratuitously abused themselves.
Why does this woman have 1.4 million followers when her entire account is dedicated to denigrating women? Of course, many will point out, she posts such tweets precisely because they garner her attention and revenue, but why does she have such a large audience? I have asked this question on Twitter and was dismayed by the number of men who replied that of course they did not agree with her but found her account refreshing and amusing given all the accounts demonising men.
The rise of a reactive form of white identity politics has been even more evident and alarming. I addressed this a couple of years ago.
Since then, we have seen a proliferation of accounts on Twitter dedicated to the denigration of black people in the name of “anti-wokeness.” We have seen accounts dedicated to crime in New York identify a young man gently swaying to music as a potential criminal, a Kenyan youth football team portrayed as a danger to the future of white children for being mostly black and an account called ‘End Wokeness” assume a medical conference of black doctors to have achieved their positions through diversity quotas. This last issue has now been addressed beautifully by the Black American conservative, Adam Coleman. Hardly a fan of wokeness himself, he has been cataloguing the ways in which some of the right-wing anti-woke have been co-opting the ‘race-conscious’ methods of the very people they criticise.
Many who claim to be anti-woke are becoming the very people they criticize. The people who are supposedly tired of talking about race when leftists bring it up, can't help but be triggered by something as benign as a group of happy black people in white coats.
In their desperation to fight the left, they became just like them. They're now race-conscious and they still think they're winning the culture war.
But when you discard your principles, you lose every time. Quit staring into the abyss because it always stares back.
This, I believe, hits the nail on the head. Too many of the anti-woke who have criticised wokeness for its collective blame of whole demographics to whom they assign certain negative values like ‘white supremacy’ and ‘toxic masculinity’ and ‘cis'/heteronormativity’ purely on the grounds of their race, sex, sexuality or gender identity are losing sight of the ethical problem with those negative generalisations and mirroring them. The distinction between ideological groups and identity groups has become as blurred for some of the anti-woke as they are for the woke. This is the core problem with the metaphor of the pendulum that swings back and forth. It may well have been the ‘woke’ who pushed the pendulum towards a form of identity politics that divided people naturally inclined to find common ground and denigrated large swathes of the population. Nevertheless, the people most likely to be hit in the face by it as it gets shoved back are those of racial or sexual minority regardless of their own political or philosophical views. This pendulum is not an ideology-seeking missile that takes aim at bad ideas but a very blunt instrument that aims itself at identity-based tribes. Thus, as Coleman points out, principles get lost and ‘anti-woke’ can become “anti-women’ ‘anti-black’ or ‘anti-LGBT.’
This is particularly distressing as so many of the most prominent opponents of Critical Social Justice have been female, black and/or LGBT thinkers each pushing back effectively at the illiberal theories claiming to speak for their own group. It is a disgraceful betrayal of those individuals who face not only the wrath of the CSJ activists for their wrongthink and often the loss of friends and community in the process but are then also accused of being part of the problem by their fellow critics of ‘wokeness’ simply for who they are.
The backlash against LGBT individuals or anybody who lives a sexual and romantic life that is not a monogamous, vanilla, heterosexual partnership is quite possibly the most alarming manifestation of this phenomenon of all, particularly in the United States. It was not too long ago, during the refugee crisis when many traumatised people from war-torn countries, mostly Muslim, were seeking refuge in Western ones that conservatives suddenly seemed to develop a concern for the safety of the LGBT community as a reason not to admit them. During the recent Pride month, numerous Twitter accounts, many of them Christian, celebrated scenes of Muslims stamping on Pride flags or banning them from public buildings. How quickly allegiances shift.
While some of these people were almost certainly religiously motivated social conservatives before the current moment, the internet is also awash with comments like this.
The evocation of this slippery slope fallacy which completely fails to show how enabling same sex couples to marry leads to teachers deciding children’s gender identity is one of the clearest examples that we are in the midst of a most alarming right-wing moral panic.
This is clearly related (in some people’s heads if not in reality) to recent developments within authoritarian trans activism which has included the defence of introducing sexually explicit and ideologically biased materials on sex and gender into schools and the proliferation of extremely shoddy gender clinics offering an affirmation-only approach for children suffering from gender dysphoria. Reasonable liberal concerns have been raised about all of these developments affecting vulnerable young people, many of them by people who had suffered gender dysphoria themselves, some of whom still identify as trans and some of whom have now detransitioned. Concerns about situations in which trans women cannot be accepted straightforwardly as women due to reasons of safety or fairness such as prisons, shelters and sports have also been raised strongly but reasonably by liberal voices, many of them lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered/transexual. Threats made against these peaceful individuals did not endear the general public to authoritarian and aggressive trans activists. Nor too did authoritarian and aggressive language policing, an insistence that everybody must have a gender identity and accusations of ‘genital fetishism’ against any lesbian who did not find herself attracted to a trans woman with a penis or gay man who could not become aroused by a trans man with a vagina.
It is undeniable that of all the forms of authoritarian CSJ, trans activism rooted in queer theory was one of the most aggressive and incomprehensible and did a strong disservice to the cause of trans acceptance more broadly. Due to the special focus on educating (or indoctrinating) children in one gender ideology, the trans issue was particularly ripe for a reactionary right moral panic which struck out indiscriminately with its “OK, Groomer” meme.
Calling someone a ‘groomer’ is an extremely serious accusation as it refers to the deliberate psychological manipulation of a vulnerable person, usually a child, so that they develop a false sense of their situation, trust their groomer explicitly and can be abused and exploited, usually sexually, without realising that this is what is happening. The sloppy use of this term can now be applied to anybody who believes in gender identity, thinks the existence of homosexuality should be part of sex ed. classes, is not appalled by child friendly, non-sexual drag queen acts or is just LGBT. This not only disrespects the victims of genuine grooming, but also makes it much harder to identify and address genuinely ideologically biased or age-inappropriate materials or services being supplied to children experiencing confusion about their gender identity and putting them at risk.
The rise of the virulently homophobic ‘anti-woke’ right resurrecting old hateful slippery slope fallacies and tropes about LGBT people being a threat to children should not be underestimated.As Alexander Von Sternberg shows in his excellent essay, “The Backlash Against Sexual Freedom and How to Address It” which I encourage you to read in its entirety, this is not simply a matter of some hateful memes on social media. Support for same sex relationships has dropped seven points. in a single year after consistently rising for several. This is a metric to be watched closely.
As Von Sternberg says,
Even if many people don’t understand the nuances of the ideology, it is only natural that we’re now seeing a reaction against the undemocratic push for critical race theory, critical queer theory, youth gender medicine, attacks on free expression, and the imposition of esoteric academic jargon and far-left norms on mainstream society. Natural, however, does not always mean good. It’s clear that the worldview emerging from this reactionary backlash is one that does not merely resist CSJ but also devalues sexual freedom, LGBT rights, and women’s rights. We need better than one sick, illiberal cult mentality supplanting another.
This is the nub of the matter. The need to stop that pendulum from swinging from one illiberal ideology that demonises some sets of people to another which demonises other ones. I agree with Von Sternberg that we are seeing a reactionary backlash to wokeness and that it is natural in the sense of being something we tribal apes with brains just big enough to be really stupid will do when left to our own devices but also that it is far from good.
As I argued above, the advances made in women’s, racial and LGBT rights have been largely achieved by liberalism which rejected identity politics and called upon our shared humanity and our fellow feeling and accepted our ability to understand and empathise with each other even though we had different identities. This called upon our best impulses of compassion, fairness and empathy and expanded that circle of empathy outwards. With a liberal individualist and universalist approach, there was far less push and pull on the pendulum and its relative restfulness allowed for a period of rapid social progress. The Critical Social Justice approach by drawing people into distinct identity groups with different knowledges and values and essentially setting them against each other called upon the worst of our tribal and territorial natures and set it swinging wildly again. We need to find a way to still it again and this can only be by finding common cause and strengthening our liberal institutions.
We cannot expect to entirely overcome our tribal natures. Nicholas Christakis in his book, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, describes the highly replicated finding that humans will form in-groups over almost anything as ‘dispiriting’. However, there is considerable evidence that the way in which humans build societies and social mores considerably influences how narrowly or widely we will understand ‘us’ and how willing we will be to empathise with, find common ground with and forgive others. The societies which have done this most successfully are those that could be considered liberal, pluralist and individualist. Christakis writes:
In fact, findings from cross-cultural studies suggest that in-group bias and an emphasis on the distinction between us and them is higher in collectivist societies (including Communist societies), which stress the importance of group membership and subsume the individual within the group, than it is in individualist societies (where social interdependence is less salient), which stress autonomy. Similarly, the more identities available for individuals to assume and the more cross-cutting they are (such that people who are discordant on religion might be members of the same political party, for instance), the more tolerant a society can be of outsiders and, hence, of everyone. (p277)
That is, a society in which individuals are not completely defined by one aspect of their identity is one in which more common ground can be found and more difference accepted without somebody becoming part of an ‘out-group.’
Steven Pinker too, in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, draws upon Peter Singer to address the ways in which our circles of empathy have been enabled to expand via greater familiarity with different kinds of people and this results in a greater ability to avoid the revenge impulse.
The desire for revenge is most easily modulated when the perpetrator falls within our natural circle of empathy. We are apt to forgive our kin and close friends for trespasses that would be unforgivable in others. And when our circle of empathy expands… our circle of forgivability expands with it.
However, he warns that while an increase of empathy may act as a catalyst for expanding our ‘in-group’ this emotional response is unreliable and must be supported by systems that recognise the human rights of all groups.
What really has expanded is not so much a circle of empathy as a circle of rights—a commitment that other living things, no matter how distant or dissimilar, be safe from harm and exploitation. Empathy has surely been historically important in setting off epiphanies of concern for members of overlooked groups. But the epiphanies are not enough. For empathy to matter, it must goad changes in policies and norms that determine how the people in those groups are treated. At these critical moments, a newfound sensitivity to the human costs of a practice may tip the decisions of elites and the conventional wisdom of the masses. But as we shall see in the section on reason, abstract moral argumentation is also necessary to overcome the built-in strictures on empathy. The ultimate goal should be policies and norms that become second nature and render empathy unnecessary. Empathy, like love, is in fact not all you need.
As Pinker indicates here, there have been times when we have been culturally inclined to expand our empathy and support liberal policies and norms that further social equality and there have been times (like right now) when we have become divided and polarised and it has been very difficult to summon that will. We cannot rely on our fellow feeling to carry us through hard times when people are feeling under threat. We must continue to oppose the illiberal Critical Social Justice activists and the illiberal sex-negative, anti-gay social conservatives with consistently liberal principles and to preserve protections for all groups and for freedom of belief and speech. I’m sure it will come as no surprise to anybody that my take on this issue is to get more people more assertively behind consistently liberal ethics but this is the only way to get that pendulum to stop swinging and smashing good people in the face.
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