The Problem With Leftism Online




Please excuse grammar errors, this post was written a bit hastily. 

I will say, before I even begin this essay, that I'm a white, Jewish, cisgendered, heterosexual woman and recognize the inherent privileges and pitfalls this affords me. If this means you want to stop reading, that's cool, but this post calls out the performative nature of pretty much everyone involved in leftist identity politics, even if they have the best of intentions.

I'm going to start this off with a recount of an experience I had this week. Of course, this puts me at risk for people saying I'm not self-aware, that I'm making a tragedy about myself, which if you think that, that's fair as well. However, this isn't to bring attention to my own perceived victimhood (of which I am not), but to draw attention to a wider issue within leftist politics and something I see playing out over and over: mistakes and misunderstandings between people are not tolerated. One slip up, and it's free reign to wail on you. 

At its very nature, leftist identity politics are all about dismantling white supremacy, the patriarchy and everything that comes along with it. It's a way to amplify voices that might otherwise be lost, for people to learn to be better allies and to help educate others as you educate yourself on the issues. We all need to learn, no matter where we fall, because we all have our own inherent prejudices (this is NOT a nod to any kind of "reverse racism" or racism against white people but that we all have preconceived notions about groups of people).

But leftist politics does a very poor job of it and in turn, alienates people who would otherwise be allies. And I'll tell you why with a couple of examples that have happened to me and one I observed.

A friend of mine added me to a Facebook group all about identity politics. After the events in Charlottesville, even though I am Jewish and was, therefore, a target of the hate, I still felt that what is happening to people of color in our country is even more pressing. My Facebook feed was filled with well meaning white people who I felt, were participating in a huge performance about the situation. Although I'm guilty of reposting things, it seemed so many white folks needed to make statuses about how heartbroken they were, how to help people of color and be a better ally, etc. To me this seemed not only performative, and although well meaning, as though they were talking over other people and knew better how to be an ally than what people of color are actually asking for.

In the group, I asked how I could help people of color during this time without being performative. I said I struggled with knowing what to do because I don't want to be a "white savior," but I want to make sure people feel supported and for people to know I'm there for them if they need it, despite the fact that my own people were also under attack.

I was told I could pay for funerals of victims. Okay, fair enough. Then underneath, the same person said, "Pay reparations. All white people owe reparations."

It is likely due to my own ignorance, but I have never heard this term in the form that this person obviously meant. As I work with Holocaust survivors, to me, the term is a punishment for wrongdoings metted out to those who have been personally victimized. (And even then, the system is extremely flawed.) I questioned what he meant, and he continued to say that white people owe people of color money. In my mind, I was reading that this means individuals owe inidivuals money. I started to question this notion, as I wondered how you can decide which white people owe people money and which do not. How would you implement this? How would this occur? What about white refugees? Or white victims of the Holocaust?

The person then told me they were a person of color, which I couldn't really see from the Facebook picture. I don't assume people identify in any which way, knowing people who look white in all forms, with even white names, who are not...and knowing people who are classified as white but have very Muslim names (i.e. from the Caucus region). The photo was small, and did not clearly identify him to me. If we were speaking in person, I acknowledge, it would be different.

Because he is a person of color, I was accused of not listening to him and talking over him because I disagreed with what I perceived as his notion. I was also accused of misappropriating the term "struggle" when I said I "struggle" with finding the right things to do or words to say, since as a white person, I don't "struggle." I get called racist and that I don't listen to people of color. A white person attempts to explain it after identifying themselves as white, but still does not explain the notion other than saying that white people owe people of color monetarily for the system that places them above people of color. I apologize, but say I still don't agree with the notion, though I do agree that the system places whites above others, which isn't taken well.

I go to sleep. The next day, I have someone explain to me in clearer terms what reparations mean within the context of his argument. No, he did not mean mandatory reparations, but that white people should support people of color in businesses, giving money to funeral funds, etc., etc.

"Oh!" I think. "That does make sense. I get it now. Hopefully we can smooth this over."

I get back to the group, and I see that not only have things not been smoothed over, but I have been made fun of while I was gone. This person posted memes about how I'm a white person who have asked people of color to educate them and how I think white people's problems are just as bad as those of people of color. Someone calls me "a bitch." The original person calls me a "fuck" and an "asshole." Another tells me I don't even care about people of color, that I posted the question just for attention and points.

I try to make amends. I own that I did use some us vs. them language that was pointed out. I explain I did not mean to talk over anyone, but I really didn't understand what was being said. I'm told again that I'm a racist fuck, and then that I would never lift a finger to help anyone of color. Someone asks me what I have done to help people of color in my life. I tell them it isn't their business because answering that is performative. I'm told since I won't answer, I'm being evasive. Finally, I do, and the person is silent, but later the original person who took umbrage with me talking over them says I shouldn't have said anything.

After they finish insulting me, I am told that if my feelings were hurt, it is because I am white and fragile and because I need to reflect deeply on myself. And if I leave the group because I no longer feel welcome, I was never an ally to begin with.

 I write to this person privately. He tells me again that I spoke over him because he is not white. I tell him I apologize and that was not the intention and can we move on--I was earnestly just challenging a notion that he wasn't even arguing to begin with.

He then writes a post underneath saying that he is a victim of my racism, that I don't understand how racist I am, that I have gaslighted him and that although "I think I'm not racist" and my friends likely think this as well, I "definitely am."

Instead of what could have been a moment in which we both learn from one another, realize wires cross, and I get rightfully called out on some language I shouldn't have used, it became a witch hunt. And it was heard loud and clear: mistakes are not tolerated. Any infraction means you will be subject to ridicule, and if you are defensive, then all the worse.

I understand it is not a person of color's job to educate myself or anyone else on oppression and that it is likely exhausting to explain ways in which they are oppressed. I experience this myself as a disabled woman. However, these infractions that occur within the spaces of the leftist sphere are often not someone asking someone else to explain their suffering or oppression, but a blunder, miscommunication or misstep that escalates into putting people on blast, which only serves to further divide people.

To be clear, I am not advocating that people of color, women or any minority group engage in any debate in which someone literally asks for examples of their oppression or says, "I'm just being logical, please show me where your life is more difficult than mine." I don't refute that it is, which is why I'm here.

However, sometimes things come up, well-meaning people make mistakes, and it's okay to correct them without villifying them.

In some ways, I wonder if some of this villifcation, especially from white people on these topics, comes from a self-congratulatory pat on the back. They would never make that mistake. They are more woke than anyone who just made a blunder. They know exactly how to support people of color or any other minority without taking time to reflect. They know it all. 

Similarly, on my personal Facebook page, I asked how I can support people of color during this time. I felt frozen. I see them asking if we are here, and I am, but am I doing enough in my role? Is my privilege being used in the best way possible in this situation of crisis to help people feel supported, that they aren't alone and to work to dismantle systemic oppression?

I had read a few articles about allyship. What I read was when in doubt, ask.

So I did.

As a Jewish person, I appreciate people asking how they can support me, and I appreciate those who have asked about helping during this crisis. As a disabled person, I appreciate someone asking how they can help me or be a better ally. As a female, I appreciate when men ask how they can help instead of contradicting my experience with the old, "But I'm just being logical." line.

While most people were lovely, a few of them told me (all white, of course), "Congratulations you just made this entire situation about yourself." or "It's called Google. It's not anyone's job to teach you how to treat people like human beings." (I don't recall asking, "How do I treat someone who is not the same color as me?") or "Don't ask stupid questions."

Several people messaged me privately saying they were appalled by the way I was spoken to. Does this make me a victim? No, of course not. But what it is is simply an example of the way people on the left make no room for error. Maybe the question was offensive. Maybe it wasn't appropriate. But I'm unsure why villication makes up for it, or indulges people in self-reflection.

I've been there before on the other side. I've seen people make frustrating statements from well-intentioned places and I'm sure I've called people racist or sexist. However,  I acknowledge, and we need to acknowledge as a movement that this is not productive. When I have done that, predictably, it has not gone over well and the person disengaged. Unpacking the situation has typically been more helpful.  And if people of color are exhausted of unpacking situations with people (which is more than understandable) it is the ally's job to roll up their sleeves and to the work--not further inflame the situation with hateful rhetoric.

Yes, there is such a thing as white fragility. But there is also such a thing as general common sense, that people typically don't react well to being called out in an inflammatory manner, and making fun of people usually doesn't lead to self-reflection on their end, even if they said something that's problematic.

In these cases, I think often of my parents and people of their generation who do not engage in discourse on Facebook. If they did, they would not stand a chance. My parents are well-meaning people who have worked to combat their own prejudices and racism that was ingrained within them from the way they grew up. I have seen pretty big strides in them. But they don't engage in discourse online everyday. Occasionally, they slip up and use outdated terms that used to be acceptable, but have fallen out of fashion and are now offensive. Typically, simple explanations fix those kinds of issues, but it seems leftist discourse isn't interested in that.

Most people who are trying are interested in being called out. We really are. But labeling people and making fun of them for slipping up or for trying and getting it wrong leads to further division and people pulling away from engaging. White fragility may be silly, but insulting a person's very character for a misunderstanding or misstep does not help anyone.

The last story I want to reflect on is the performative and hijacking nature of leftist identity politics, particularly amongst white people who want everyone to know they are NOT RACIST OR SEXIST.

A woman in a Ravishly article recounted an experience she had "advocating" for women's rights. The woman had a friend from high school who announced she was pregnant and the gender of the child at the same time. The parents included a hashtag to the nature of "She's not dating ever" and held up a onesie declaring their daughter a princess. While all of this is inherently problematic to feminism in general and something that should be worth a discussion, this woman took the time to call out her friend publicly on her pregnancy announcement.

Predictably, it didn't go well, and the woman wrote an article whining to Ravishly about it. While her points about the nature of the image are all very valid, one must reflect on whether or not this is truly the right time, place and forum to have the discussion. Literally, any other time could have been used to call her attention to it or form a discourse. But instead, the woman had to let everyone know she was ~not okay~ with it.

I get the need to call people out when they are making problematic statements, I truly do. But especially for white people, we need to examine how we are speaking to people, when is the right time to engage and be willing to move past mistakes or miscommunications, especially those that are well intentioned. Otherwise, we risk alienating people further from the movement, which then contributes further to the divide we already have.




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6 comments

  1. Hi Anna,

    I don't know how I feel. Mostly angry and frustrated. Not at you in particular but at everything happening. I don't want to speak for all people of color or all black women or anyone, but for me, I think the number one thing you can do is just be nice, and when you are with your friends and you see someone not being nice to a person of color, call them on it. Try to learn how to pronounce our names. Go to our events if you are invited or if they are open. Read books (but you have a phd now so I'm sure you've read hella books already). I don't think I'm a good ally or supporter of trans people and I kinda feel like a jackass most of the time about this so I'm taking a Coursera class and doing a lot of research on my own and just educating myself on the issues and following trans people on twitter and not commenting, just listening. Maybe that will help.

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    1. I can imagine feeling frustrated. Many white people feel frustrated and we haven't been even attacked for like 2 centuries straight, so I totally sympathize with that.

      Thank you for your suggestions. It is always helpful to hear from a wide range of people and that's fantastic you're doing a Coursera class! Which one is it? I might sneak on.

      If you have any book suggestions, let me know. I love to read and I'm always down for a good new title, especially one that's thought provoking.

      Sending you love.

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  2. I am mixed minds about this post, some parts I agree with and some parts I really strongly dont. All parts however, I respect as your opinion - which everyone has a right to :).

    That said, as a former history major who studied Caribbean History, US history and European history (im now a lawyer thought), I dont think anyone fully explained to you what reparations mean. It doesn't mean what your friend described, its an actual argument that has been ongoing for years i.e whether descendants of slaves deserve to be paid.

    I linked an article below for you but basically, When slavery was abolished in many countries including the Caribbean, the former slaves believed, and some descendants still do believe, that they should be paid repartions / compensation for the distress their ancestors suffered. Similar to Germany's payment of billions of dollars to the survivors of the Holocaust and even the US payment to Japenese-Americans for WWII. Essentially, its compensation for the distress caused. Descendants of slaves have long felt that have never been adequately compensated for their ancestors struggles even though in many countries, for arguably less grave or at least similarly grave struggles, compensation has been afforded. Its been a debate in America and Caribbean for years. While I hate to link a wiki page, its pretty concisely stated here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reparations_for_slavery_debate_in_the_United_States

    Hope that helps. To clarify, I personally don't argue for this, I'm just letting you know what it means.

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    1. That's honestly what I thought when it was discussed what they mean by "pay reparations" and thought this was being demanded personally. I don't have an issue with this, honestly, and think this should perhaps be instituted--but in all honesty, it doesn't work well for first generation Holocaust survivors because people are corrupt and horrible in general. Germany has paid a lot to survivors, but it actually getting to them is a totally different story. It's an interesting debate in the form of paying descendants of slaves and has merits on all sides, though I can't see the US getting it together to actually pay people after what I see with my own work.

      That's awesome that you're a lawyer now and Caribbean History would be so interesting to study as its an area of the word I don't know much about at all.

      Out of curiosity, what in this post do you not agree with? (There is no attack here about it, as I respect all opinions that aren't racist, sexist, etc...because those are not opinions!)


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  3. I'm also in mixed minds on this topic (your post and just diversity/racism/sexism etc in general). Also as a disclaimer I'm a white, straight woman who has never suffered any kind of prejudice so can't even begin to understand what it is like to be discriminated against.

    That said both sides annoy me. I hate people who can't just accept others for being who they are, be that due to their colour, their sexuality, their religion or whatever. I've actually just been reading a gaming forum where people were asking if they play with LGBT or interracial couples in their game and what annoyed me was they kept referring to them as "ethnic" couples. Well... in non-white countries us whites are probably technically "ethnic" but no, here in the UK or in the US it's everyone but whites who are ethnic.

    On the other side of things it does sometimes make me think a little "get over yourselves" and I don't mean this in an offensive way but in a "stop drawing attention to yourselves and you won't get attention" kind of way. For example when you see the adverts that basically say being gay is ok. Yes, being gay is ok, but if you go around saying hey, look at me, I'm gay you're going to get attention both good and bad. I'm not saying hide it; if you want to kiss your same sex partner in public then go for it but at the same time if society in general stopped making a big deal out of these things then it would only be a big deal to those who are seriously bigoted. Everyone else would probably not even notice that such things exist most of the time and that is how it should be. It is all normal and therefore not noteworthy. As being straight is 'normal' I wouldn't expect adverts to state that it's ok so just treat everything else the same way. But maybe I am viewing it too simplistically and giving the human race too much credit.

    Of course an actual attack is a very different thing to simply drawing attention to your cause but I hope you get my drift here. Something like Charlottesville is deplorable.

    I also hate the fact that I now feel I need to say that I mean absolutely no offense whatsoever with any of the above. I have no issues with anything anyone 'chooses' or just outright is, it makes the world a better place and one final thing that I hate is having to say I don't want to offend anyone simply because I have a view on something but that is the world today. We have to be so careful of what we say and do in case someone doesn't like it and that is a very sad thing indeed.

    Maybe I should start becoming offended by the old classic "dumb blonde" jokes so I can join in ;)

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  4. Hey Anna :)
    I've been trying to figure out how to be a better ally too. One of the things I've done is try to consume a lot of independent media that focuses on minority groups and gives them the opportunity for their voices to be heard. I've been listening to a few podcasts that are hilarious and really informative. They're really good at dealing with the awkwardness that you mentioned above as well.
    - The Guilty Feminist - Really funny podcast showcasing various comedic talent from all sorts of minority groups. It focuses on 21st century feminism and lots of different topics related to it like dealing with the patriarchy, privilege, the nhs crisis, fighting, women in work etc etc. It's a travelling show recorded in theatres. I've got tickets to see it in December!
    - Ethnically Ambiguous - 2 American women with middle eastern heritage, one Iranian, one Syrian. They talk about life in America as brown women, ongoing issues in the Middle East, and how much they hate Saudi Arabia - again, very funny.
    - Queery - Haven't jumped into this one yet but I hear it's very good and hosted by Cameron Esposito!

    I have privilege as a middle class, white, cisgendered, hetero individual in a western society. I am also disabled, and a woman. I try to use my privilege for the benefit of others when I can. That might mean listening, it might mean learning, it might mean donating and supporting certain causes. I've found that I am a better ally when I take the time to really get to the nitty gritty of what's happening in the world - I find that being as informed as possible is the best gateway into being a good ally as you can genuinely relate to people and reflect/echo their upset.

    Sorry, I've rambled a bit here. I hope my post makes sense!!

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