Criticism of my Criticism: Some thoughts on allies and critics

Let's start with a true story:

Some months ago I was tweeting back and forth fairly amicably with a very progressive Christian trans thinker. We’d been following each other for a little while, shared some interests, and I thought of this tweeter as something of a twitter buddy.

This tweeter was having some online frustrations with a particularly troll-y twitter parody account. The account often made crass and insensitive remarks while lampooning my buddy and some of my buddy’s other friends. At the time the account also had an extremely small following, to the tune of significantly less than 100 people.

As my buddy’s troll was being a bother, my grandmother passed away. I don’t share this to garner pity, she’d been ill for some time and it was not a great surprise—indeed it’s very common for people have to deal with losing their grandparents. I share this simply to explain that as I dealt with burying my grandmother, it was an inopportune time to be glued to twitter.

I suggested to my buddy that the best course of action in dealing with this troll might be to simply block and ignore her. Unfed, she’d surely go away, as she had almost no following as it was.  My buddy proceeded to lambast me unceasingly for being an oppressor, a transphobe, and a shitty ally.
How dare I tell marginalized people how to deal with people who say problematic things to them?

The tweeter refused to accept my explanation. I thought this was a solution for this one person and this one situation, and I don't consider it a philosophy for all people dealing with all oppressors everywhere. But my "buddy" wouldn't hear it, and continued blowing up my feed about how I had no right to speak on the topic of being oppressed, or speaking to oppressors, and was a terrible person for trying to speak to that situation. Finally, lacking the emotional bandwidth to deal with my buddy’s sudden flare of temper and the goings on in my own life, I simply clicked block. And have only even thought of the interaction a couple of times since.


I think this anecdote is apt for a couple of reasons.

For one, I did not then, and do not now think that I have a right to tell all marginalized people how they should respond to problematic people. Much of the criticism I've read in the last 24 hours has seemed to have ignored this. It would be offensive, and frankly absurd of me to tell the marginalized to "pipe down and be nicer." But what kind of friend (or ally) is only a yes man? What I suggest is that perhaps there are some instances when setting phasers for stun, rather than kill, would benefit everyone involved. Critique an imperfect person whose heart is in the right place rather than decimate them. I believe that's how coalitions are built.

Secondly, it's an apt anecdote because it's a one-on-one version of the very behavior I sought to critique. I offered a suggestion that this tweeter (who I'd mistakenly considered a friend) thought was a bad one. Rather than disagree, this person declared me persona non grata and berated me until the only thing I could think to do was to disengage. I'd lost a twitter contact I genuinely enjoyed conversing with, my contact lost me, and no progress was made in dealing with my contact's problem. Who wins in this scenario besides the troll who'd been actually bullying a trans person?


Another common critique I saw today I can try to respond to with a little less verbosity:

"Look at this white guy trying to tell people how to respond to problematic situations!" [with the terribleness of this situation implied by its very description]. As whitey I cannot speak on such matters (even though some of the people I'm speaking to are ALSO straight, white men).

Yes. I think I made it pretty clear in my piece I was a white guy trying to suggest a better way for dealing with problematic situations. I tried pretty damned hard to pay attention to the optics, and the reality, of me being me saying what I was saying to the people I was saying it to. Privilege very carefully checked. But, no, go ahead and claim I didn't check it enough.

Speaking of checking privilege though, I have a question. A serious question for my critics. Is the proper act of an ally to sit down and not talk and watch a person we wish to be allied with fail? Is it a better act of being an ally to attempt to be helpful? Or should we truly just shut up and let the chips fall where they may? Because if it's the latter, I'll honestly take that into account next time.


The last "criticism" I seemed to receive a lot of today was simply "This guy is critiquing us!" shared between likeminded individuals who all implicitly believed that my so doing was absurd. I got numerous mentions that weren't even substantive refutations of my post, but were just essentially "get a load of this guy, he has the audacity to speak!"

I'm a little puzzled that people who do as much critiquing of the problematic as some of these folks do would be so shocked, appalled, angered and dismayed at someone critiquing THEM. And as to this push back that simply says "I disagree with you?" Yes. I know you do, that's why I felt compelled to write what I did.

Oh, a quick P.S.!
One person critiqued the unserious play on words I used to promote the piece, "leftist cannibalism." I used it because it evokes the idea of leftists turning on themselves. One of my twitter critics claimed I was essentially calling people of color cannibals. The mental gymnastics required to get to that point are astounding to me. You made some points today, person who tweeted this, but that one was an embarassment. Even for you.


It's Not Okay To Be A Little Bit Progressive

Rightly or wrongly, I consider myself to be a progressive. A liberal. A leftist.
Dislikes include the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
In the vast majority of my interactions with other lefties online, and with the people lefties like me claim to have a heart for, I'm led to believe I've pretty much got it figured out:
I believe that rape culture is a thing.
I believe that policing, and mass incarceration is inherently--probably intentionally--racist.
I think TERFs are terrible.
I believe we can't survive on $7.25.
The AUMF is a disaster.
The NSA is a disaster.
Drone strikes are unconscionable.
Israel is not an apartheid state only because calling it that undersells the true horrors Israel is perpetrating on the Palestinian people.
What's more, I'm a Christian who holds all the quote-unquote correct progressive theologies.
I'm an open-theist. An egalitarian. I don't buy into 7 literal days or eternal conscious torment. Prevenient grace makes more sense to me than double predestination. I think churches should affirm (and perform) same-sex marriages and allow for the ordination of queer (and female!) clergy.
I'd pat myself on the back for my correctness, but I'm also a comfortable straight, white guy, so let's be honest: I'm already playing life on the lowest difficulty setting, and I didn't get into this for cookies.

But not everyone gets all of these things. These things, many of them, go against the conventional wisdom of our day. We're constantly told that communism is evil, police are always justified, trans people are confused and sometimes women are just asking for it (and why are they leaving the house?) And yet, a lot of well meaning people who aren't constantly listening to Democracy Now, Citizen Radio, Radio Dispatch, Best of the Left, etc etc DO pass a few of these lefty benchmarks, but maybe they've got 3 kids and a couple jobs and haven't had an opportunity to drill down into all of them. So what?

Why is it not okay to be a little bit progressive?

Here's what I mean: The Facebook group Stuff Christian Culture Likes is often a first step for folks out of fundimentalism, or conservatism, or the cult-y side of evangelicalism. It's hostess/curator Stephanie Drury is constantly poking at, and poking fun at, the awful wrongs that the church is capable of unchecked. And in providing a pressure valve for those escaping such places, it's an invaluable community for many.

But it's not acceptably progressive for many others. The group as a whole, and especially Drury personally, are attacked, maligned, and shamed on the regular for being insufficiently advanced through the rubric of proper leftiness. I don't know how someone who was in fundamentalist Christianity a month or six months or a year ago is supposed to now know the proper vocabulary and GLAAD Media Reference Guide for discussing trans people. But by God they'd better figure it out or a watchdog tumblr might be started. (I wish I were joking. Regardless, I'm not linking to the SCCL Watchdog Tumblr because its charges are childish, trumped up, and they've got a whole bunch of gifs on there all about how they don't care what you or I think anyway).

It's not okay for things to be "better" or "good," they must immediately be "perfect" or we'll cut them down.


Mother Jones writer Kevin Drum had a piece about this phenomenon recently. In it he wrote of people trying to find their way around lefty politics and having their not-there-yet best efforts highlighted by others.
If you write a blog post or a tweet, and the wrong person just happens to highlight it, your public is suddenly gigantic whether you meant it to be or not. Then the avalanche comes. And, as deBoer says, the avalanche is dominated by the loudest, angriest, least tolerant fringes of the language and conduct police.
This isn't Bill O'Reilly bemoaning the PC police. This is the guy who released the Romney 47% video for one of the nations' best known progressive outlets saying that leftists have a problem with eating their own young. And the worst part is he's not wrong.

Drum was writing in response to a similar piece by Freddie deBoer at Andrew Sullivan's The Dish who framed the problem like this:
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.

(A sidenote: I think it's funny that without mentioning her, deBoer alludes to Suey Park, who I've found to be the greatest champion of this kind of lefty cannibalism. Finding left-leaning people to be not leaning left enough is seemingly her raison d'ĂȘtre, and impressively she does it in both Christian and secular progressive circles).


Another recent example, I think, proves the rule. And brings it back to the fact that this problem happens as much in Progressive Christian circles as it does in Occupy circles.

My readers might be familiar with Christian blogger Micah J. Murray. He's the guy who awhile back wrote some incredibly powerful pieces poking holes in the ludicrous Christian patriarchy and its refusal to understand egalitarianism and the problems of purity culture (and its ugly cousin rape culture).

Micah, a designer, recently produced and sold a shirt that read "Love the sinner, hate the sin." For its intended audience, likely people still operating in the vicinity of folks who believe the stricken phrase is appropriate behavior, the shirt is a step in the right direction. It states clearly that LOVE is the only correct part of that concept, and it does so succinctly.

Unfortunately, others found this shirt to be triggering and co-opting. Micah has killed it and is donating its profits to charities supported by his critics.

I'm being a bad leftist when I say this, and I've already watched Micah's critics tell others to "sit down," and not to "speak for LGBTQ people," but I find criticisms of this shirt as "triggering" as compelling as I would the same criticisms for a "Fuck Cancer" t-shirt. That is: not very. I truly think you have to willfully refuse to see the point being made.

As for the criticism that Micah's design is making money on the backs of LGBTQ people when he has no experience being in their position? I feel a little like the critics are now saying that if you aren't sufficiently far left, you don't get to profit from your labors. No wonder the labor movement in America is dead, amirite?

I don't know (and don't think) that he was specifically thinking of this last example in his latest post, but yet another progressive blogger whose input I admire weighed in on this problem today. Writing at his blog, Matthew Paul Turner wrote of the problems of Progressive Christianity, including:

Because again, progressives are fantastic critics—needed critics! However, their talent for critiquing the ills of the Church or the sins of the “other side” are only outdone by their seemingly limitless ability to eat up their own kind without a second thought. It’s kind of shocking to behold actually. But progressive Christians jumping on other progressive Christians over the tiniest differences is disheartening. I’ve watched Christians who support equality lash out at other Christians who support equality. I’ve witnessed Christian feminists hating on other Christian feminists. And that’s just the beginning. Many of us are just spectators to these wars, and while we don’t get involved too often, the interactions silence us. Why? Because we’re afraid of our own kind (problem 19). Yes. It’s true. I think THIS is one of the biggest problems in the progressive Christian culture and why so few new ideas come out of this trend/movement: Because it seems there’s so little grace for mistakes or for being wrong or for being not completely right… And so many progressives become so intoxicated by their own “pet issues” (ideas that most inspire them or interest them) that speaking into that issue is to risk getting attacked socially online by that individual and their friends…. somebody who fights poverty but doesn’t fight poverty the way one person or group thinks it should be fought, they are ridiculed with rage online. Or somebody who speaks out against our country’s racial inequality but either doesn’t do it exactly the way a person/group thinks it should be done or isn’t the kind of person that a person/group thinks they should be, they get vehemently attacked. And I could go on and on. Which is why I think progressive Christianity remains so vague, so undefined. It’s not conservative theologians that limit us. We are far more limited by those with whom we agree with 99 percent of time (Problem number 20).
Look. Lefty politics are important. Inside and outside the church, progressivism is first and foremost about progress. But if we keep fighting battles to the death against those who have progressed--but not far and fast enough for our liking, we're going to lose the greater war through attrition.

And if you really have the guts to claim there's no difference between Mark Driscoll and Fake Driscoll, it's also possible I just don't know how to help you.

[Author's Note: I'm honestly a little bummed that I felt I had to start this piece by listing my lefty bona fides, especially since they'll surely be dismantled as wanting by anyone who thinks of themself as left of me, but there they are all the same. Feel free to destroy me in the comments, tell me I ought not speak for whoever it is you think I'm speaking for, and imply that I'm a racist, homophobe, Calvinist, or capitalist (or worse, a bro-gressive). I assure you that before I started this piece I already took those consequences to heart as an inevitability.]