One of the things I enjoy learning about in my free time is politics. I don’t consider myself passionate on the subject, but I find it productive to listen to debates about subjects I would otherwise not be able to form an opinion on. This practice helps me be a more responsible citizen, capable of making informed decisions. An interesting development in online political discourse is the the rise of a relatively new but popular term; The Regressive Left.
Like with most terms, people use this one for different purposes, meaning a variety of things. To make my work here simpler, I’ll use Wikipedia’s definition.
“The regressive left (also sometimes referred to as regressive liberals) is a political epithet used to negatively characterize a section of left-wing politics which is accused of paradoxically holding reactionary views due to tolerance of illiberal principles and ideologies (such as extremist Islamism) for the sake of multiculturalism and cultural relativism.
Among well-known political and social commentators, political talk-show hosts such as Bill Maher and Dave Rubin, as well as New Atheist writers like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have discussed the concept numerous times.”
Essentially the term The Regressive Left is a label that is supposed to fit the more radical, politically correct part of the Western (American & British) Left. The idea goes as follows; regressives are leftists who use traditionally liberal values such as acceptance and empathy in an intolerant way. They are people unwilling to face facts and who try to find excuses who every inconsistency in their opinions. Instead of arguments they prefer magic words like homophobia, transphobia, etc. in order to silence opposition. Such privileged brats have taken over universities, sabotage public discourse and degrade the intellectual level of the left.
Since I am an unemployed Greek trans woman in her late 20s I can’t comment on every single part of that narrative. I’ve never been in an American university and I have no empirical knowledge of how open (or not) they are to intellectual discourse. I’ve spent but a few weeks in the United States, certainly not enough to have an opinion on the country. My thoughts are formed by what I see discussed online.
A few years ago I wrote an article on how one of my favorite artists, RVSA, was insulted on tumblr for daring to draw a fanart of Satan which was, presumably, transphobic. People love making fun of how a student group from Mount Holyoke College decided to cancel their play of The Vagina Monologues because it wasn’t inclusive enough. Clearly, if we want to find cases where social justice has gone stupid there are plenty of examples. Furthermore, it’s true that mainstream liberal shows like The Young Turks display intolerant behavior  that fits the regression narrative.
But are those instances proof of a larger, growing regressive movement in the Left? And, more importantly, are those who criticize the movement offering viable, factual alternatives? The former is a question I don’t have the knowledge to properly answer decisively. I don’t spend 24 hours per day looking at articles and comments on political websites. From what I gather, however, even if such attitudes constitute a movement it’s a limited one. I’d be convinced otherwise if major liberal groups and politicians supported these aspects of the left the way that conservatives have no problem giving a platform to fundamentalists in their midst. But this is simply not what I see happening. As for the second question, my answer is no. Unfortunately I think the anti-regressives  have just as many flaws in their thinking as the people they criticize and constitute just as big of a problem. Let me explain some of my concerns about them.
The Regressives Wish to Stigmatize and Silence Discussion
That is usually an argument that refers to the way terms such as homophobia, racism and sexism (and many more) are used to label groups and individuals who are seen as prejudiced. It is also used as an argument against no-platforming practices and cases like the banning of Milo Yiannopoulos from Twitter.
I don’t disagree that there are cases where these labels are overused. I still remember how mad I was when Dr. Matt Taylor was called a misogynist for wearing a damn t-shirt. But is the misuse of these labels so common place that it constitutes a problem? Absolutely not. On the contrary, I can think of numerous instances, especially in my personal life, where people are shamed for using such labels, especially when they accurately represent reality. Consider for example how Bingham County (Idaho) sheriff Craig Rowland got away without being labeled a misogynist when he stated in an interview that
“The majority of our rapes — not to say that we don’t have rapes, we do — but the majority of our rapes that are called in are actually consensual sex.”
Or how Julie Bindel had no problem playing victim for facing criticism and ostracism from the mainstream feminist movement for her transphobic comments. From conservatives who dislike being called homophobes to anchors like Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck who whined endlessly every time they were accused of racism because they promoted yet another anti-Obama conspiracy to, and I couldn’t forget to mention this, the way Donald Trump constantly uses these labels to pretend that he’s been silenced, there are some obvious patterns here worth mentioning. First of all, it seems that those who are most critical of these labels are also the ones who feel the most threatened by them. Secondly, we’ve reached to a point where merely trying to show that a set of arguments stands outside the realm of reason and is purely based on prejudice, stigmatizes the accuser more than the accused. How can we call a world where i.e. women who call out sexism are labeled feminazis and delusional one that is ruled by political correctness? And doesn’t this false narrative feed into a conservative fantasy of victim hood.
Intellectual & Emotional Dishonesty
People like Dave Rubin, Kyle Kulinski and David Pakman often use the argument that the regressive left, supposedly, threatens freedom of speech and degrades our intellectual capacity. Cases like that of Nicholas and Erika Christakis are often used to support this argument. Personally, I think that cases like that of the prohibition of prostitution in Sweden and laws censoring pornography in the United Kingdom provide a more legitimate basis for such concerns. That being said, the most radical parts of the American Left are far from wielding such political power. I don’t think anyone expects that i.e. Hillary Clinton will ban hate speech if she is elected president, or that Elizabeth Warren will prohibit whites from calling out reverse-racism. This is not the case on the other side. It’s the American Right with the endless amount of religious freedom bills sprouting all over the Southern states, its amazing ability to make non-issues like the War on Christmas the talk of the day, the desire of much of its electorate to support religiously fundamentalist politicians like Ted Cruz and xenophobic nationalists like Donald Trump, that threatens freedom of speech. Let’s not even mention the GOP’s effort to suppress the votes of minority groups for non-existing cases of voter fraud or the conservative effort to legitimize complete anti-science movements like creationism and the climate denial movement. It’s clearly a false equivalency to pretend that a bunch of college kids complaining about appropriation are the equivalent of the things I described above.
I should also mention, when I hear the “intellectual capacity” argument I always check whether the person who says it actually holds up to that standard. Cases like that of Ben Shapiro are famous for their fact-free thinking, so I won’t comment on them. Where I take issue is with people like Dave Rubin, host of The Rubin Report, who claims to challenge our perceptions. His show is promoted as a place where honest, intellectual discussion takes place, yet most of the time I come away disappointed. How can someone who rarely, if ever, challenges or fact-checks his guests and who gives a podium to people with like Milo Yiannopoulos and Blaire White, individuals known for doubling down on fallacies, have a claim to intellectual honesty?
Unfortunately, Rubin is not the only one. Chris Ray Gun a popular youtuber serves as another example of this attitude. He is known for regularly criticizing silly and extremist views of the social justice movement. In this way he presents himself as an objective, non-ideological voice of reason. Yet I can’t recall another person who jumps the shark as often as he does. His video on LGBT Muslims is a good example of that. One of the arguments he uses to claim that “LGBT Muslims are a living contradiction” is the claim that “51% of Muslims support the implementation of Sharia law”. With a little research I discovered that the poll from where this statistic originates was conducted by Center for Security Policy, an anti-Islamic conspiracy think tank. This is hardly the video’s only flaw. Take the argument (01:44–02:16) that Christianity is not as hostile as Islam to homosexuality because Christians believe in the new testament, while Islam has not yet been reformed. It is debatable whether the New Testament is tolerant of homosexuality. The Greek Orthodox church definitely disagrees with this interpretation. I am not equipped to comment on Islam’s theology, but I would bet you that Chris, who is neither a theologian nor a historian, is. This is a claim so bold and so beyond his field of knowledge that the ease with which he spells it out amazes me. This, more than the absence of a degree, is what bothers me, especially coming from a person who shamelessly repeats “facts, facts, we need to address facts” just a few seconds after using completely unreliable sources.
If there’s a subject that probably sums up my problems with this reactionary movement is trigger warnings. If you dislike the term think of them, as Scott Alexander proposes, as content notes. These warnings are, essentially, an extra bit of information meant to help people better understand the content of what they are about to read/watch/etc. In that sense they differ very little from warnings on video game packages or cd albums (does anyone still buy those?). If we agree that the best kind of person is an informed one then the use of trigger warnings is recommended. Furthermore, if we consider how fucked up our world is, it’s reasonable to expect that there are more than a dozen triggers out there. As Alexander points in his article, there are practical, reasonable ways to use them in a beneficiary way.
Now, consider this article by Gad Saad, which I consider a good example of the anti-regressive approach. Saad’s criticism of the practice can be summed up to “I dislike these oversensitive kids who dare to have emotions I disapprove of. Since I don’t feel disturbed on the same issues they do, there’s no way their reaction can be just as valid as mine. They are, after all, just pretending victim hood.” In other words, instead of trying to find flaws in the practice he dislikes or, at the very least, propose alternatives, he prefers the disheartening (and ultimately anti-intellectual) approach of ridiculing opposition. Better to attack the messenger than argue the message. To me, this sort of attitude is not only dishonest but also shows complete lack of empathy.
This is far from being an exception to the anti-regression camp. Consider the easy with which Stephen Fry disregards how disturbing stories with objectively triggering content can be. Take into account how aggressively Bill Maher responds when he’s criticized for making fun of (underage) male rape victims. I believe you get the point. It’s hard to take seriously people who practice what they preach against. I believe this attitude ultimately leads to a different sort of repression, one that will ridicule attempts to protect minorities and to call out behavior that, no matter how one calls it, is despicable. I for one don’t wish to see a future when we won’t be able to call out prejudice of any sort without being called regressives.
What is the message of this article? It’s hard to sum it up in a paragraph. I certainly don’t wish to completely devalue all the people I mention here. Stephen Fry is an inspiring figure, Bill Maher is a great comedian and Dave Rubin has done entertaining and interesting interviews. I am definitely going to keep on following the work of these individuals. I also don’t want to pretend that there’s nothing wrong with the social justice movement, because that’d be a straight out lie. Myself I’ve come across regressive behavior and I don’t wish to excuse it. But there’s a hypocrisy here that I find hard to ignore.
- I can’t point to a specific instance where that happens. I’d say it’s the general attitude I see in the channel, especially Cenk’s yelling and his habit of interrupting others.
- There is no person I know who identifies as anti-regressive. Rubin calls himself a classical liberal and I am sure each of the people I mention here probably have other labels that describe their political ideas. The reason why I group those individuals under the same label is to identify a unofficial alliance of people with a similar thought process and shared ideas that oppose the so called “Regressive Left”.