Nick Cohen:

His throat cleared as he got to the meat of his complaint. Left-wingers, who criticise other left-wingers, must be closet conservatives. The Eustonites were like the early American neoconservatives who condemned the stance of others on the left, he said. They went on ‘a journey that led most of us eventually to abandon the left for good’.

I had Labour MPs and intellectuals deliver the same lecture. Stick to your own tribe, they said. Don’t wash dirty linen in public. Pretend that the left did not contain moral and intellectual gulfs that could not be crossed, and more to the point should not be crossed.

Like Jonathan Haidt, Cohen will learn, if he hasn’t already, that there comes a point for gadflies when your right of self-definition is rescinded by the community. You are what a larger number of people say you are. The more you point at the scandalous behavior of your ostensible allies, the more their apologists will point threateningly at you. There’s no exit from the maze of question-begging and circular reasoning among those committed to defending the indefensible. Thomas Sowell once noted that “If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labeled a radical 50 years ago, a liberal 25 years ago and a racist today.” It’s a paradox of political physics — to traverse the political spectrum, you only need to stand firm on some principle. You’ll travel from left to right without taking a single step.

I began to increasingly focus on criticizing the intersectional, social justice left a few years ago, and met with a fair amount of resistance from readers. Yet my criticisms themselves weren’t disputed — they were just “contextualized” into irrelevance. Well, that may be true, but in the aggregate, the other side is worse, so… Still, I insisted, the soil of left-wing thought has been contaminated for decades and shows no signs of improving. Nothing worth keeping is ever going to grow from it. The rest is useless hand-waving and special pleading.

When faced with such a bleak, overwhelming problem, it’s always tempting to look for another distraction, to personalize the impersonal. Comments here accordingly began to focus less on what I was seeing in order to fixate on what seeing it supposedly said about me. Straightforward observations made in a normal speaking voice were suddenly being tuned out and received on the ultrasonic level of signaling or the infrasonic level of personal subtext.

There are few things more insulting to a person’s dignity than to be treated as a victim of false consciousness. If you criticize your peers for a betrayal of principles, people who haven’t made a fraction of the effort you have to see and think clearly will appoint themselves your shepherd to make sure you don’t wander too far out of the progressive pasture. They will hover over your shoulder like a modern-day version of the Roman public slave, whispering “Remember, thou art liberal!” They will fuss and fret over your words like a hypochondriac and keep trying to stick a political thermometer under your tongue to check for signs of a conservative fever. Whatever it takes to keep the mirror focused on you and thus avoid any uncomfortable reflection.

Most people naturally react to tribal accusations of treachery by attempting to soften their pointed criticism, to justify themselves. But like a Chinese finger trap, this only keeps them held fast in a rhetorical snare. It’s futile to attempt to force your way free from the constrictions being imposed on you, which only plays into the logic of the trap. If you accept a need to justify your criticism, you play into the hands of those who will keep you permanently on the defensive by questioning your motivations. The only way you’ll convince them that you’re not criticizing your own side for ulterior motives is to stop criticizing. The trick, then, as with the finger trap, is to relax under the pressure rather than fight it. Speak the truth as you see it and associate with others who do the same. Ignore those who are more concerned with keeping up tribal appearances. Their respect isn’t worth what it takes to obtain it.