The false solidarity of progressive communities

CantWeAllJustGetAlongI’ve been thinking a lot lately about progressive communities, and how they handle criticism of their within-group power dynamics. Maybe it’d be more appropriate to say “groups that consider their collective cause or objective to be a progressive one.” Groups that see themselves as challenging the mainstream or status quo.

Some such communities that come to mind are atheists and skeptics, anarchists, and the free-speech libertarians that populate many corners of the Internet. So central to these groups’ collective identities is the sense of being an underdog in the David & Goliath tradition, whose skill and intellectual superiority will ultimately lead to triumph for themselves and for the greater good. Their own identity is held up in contrast with an unenlightened, perhaps even brutish or primitive status quo or cultural mainstream.

As in most social realms in the western world, white men in these communities tend to have the most power and loudest voices. And, like in most western communities, women and people of colour are rarely treated without skepticism, aggression and hostility when they point this out. But I find there’s something unique (and uniquely frustrating) about challenging sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, or other forms of bigotry in self-identified progressive communities.

Not only do challengers face the same vitriol, insults and threats of violence they would in any community (sigh), but also other, more insidious manifestations of resistance. Perhaps because these communities valourize rational argument (not a bad thing on its face), dissenters within the ranks must present scientific, peer-reviewed evidence that verifies their lived experiences. When the example of bigotry or power imbalance is too glaring for community members to ignore, challengers face accusations of “derailing” the community from their “core objectives” – as if any group claiming to pursue the greater good can do so while alienating marginalized groups.

There’s this sentiment of “we’re on the same side here, let’s tackle the real problems.” But who gets to define what our collective “side” is, and what problems we aim to tackle? While solidarity is important, dismissing or resisting community members’ good-faith concerns about inclusivity is pretty antithetical to solidarity.

It may be that the notion of not just moral but intellectual rightness as a core element of group identity serves as a barrier to progressive communities’ acceptance of the ways in which they still need to progress. It may be that the closer groups are to one another on the ideological spectrum, the more fraught these challenges become (I think I read something about that in first-year psych). It may be that I just feel more disappointed when my challenges are rebuffed by a group that I do feel should be “on my side” about representation and treatment of marginalized groups. (Personally, the stakes in my disagreements always seem higher when I feel I actually stand a chance of changing the person’s mind or broadening their perspective.) It may be all of these things, it may be none of them. I’m just thinking out loud here.

Have you noticed the same phenomenon or wondered about any of the same things? Are my musings totally off-base? Tell me in the comments!

3 thoughts on “The false solidarity of progressive communities

  1. You are definitely not wrong. As an easy example / demonstration of what you’re talking about : Try working within a political party and taking a point of view that is different than the party line. If you state this view loudly or refuse to back away from it you’ll generally be treated no differently than the members of an opposing party.

    The problem I think lies in the goals of individuals within the group. There are people who are interested in ideas and in reform based on the best available information. On the other side there are individuals who are primarily interested in leadership and power. They may support the ideas or the group but ultimately their interest is in power and leadership within the group.

    There is a saying in US politics that no one who wants to be president should be allowed to do the job. In order to be president you have to be more interested in power and authority than any ideological point of view. I know that is several levels above what you’re talking about but I think it’s all a related phenomenon – the power of ideas vs. the idea of power.

  2. Two observations.

    Firstly, word. God knows I want to be an effective ally, but I also backslide more often than I’d like. Ultimately it’s not really my call — it’s up to the people I’m working with to decide whether or not I’m an ally. One demonstration of solidarity doesn’t get you the “Progressive Guy” button.

    Secondly, the complexities you raise are both an illustration of the rightness of our objectives and a tactical disadvantage. The benefits of what we’re working for ought to be self-evident, but those complexities often get in the way of that. And our adversaries often have us at a disadvantage because they refuse to embrace or even acknowledge complexity; by reducing everything to lapel buttons and bumper stickers and shallow catchphrases, they can establish their narratives while we’re still working on our messaging.

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