Now, a lot of people I disagree with have, in fact, articulated a theory of change. They believe in the idea of the widening circle: that a group of people taking a very strong stance against sexism, racism, and homophobia will create a social expectation that certain attitudes, behaviors, and utterances are socially unacceptable. As time goes on, more and more people become aware of that expectation, they will find themselves within the circle, and will declare themselves part of it by participating in the expression of judgment against these behaviors. Over time, the circle grows to the point where most everyone with political power recognizes the realities of sexism, racism, homphobia, and privilege, and then works to address material or structural inequalities.
At this point, I don’t think that this frame is working. I think the evidence against it is present both in the continued intractable racial inequalities we can statistically assess, and in a more anecdotal sense in which I perceive growing skepticism and resistance to social liberalism among people who are not within a certain social or demographic cohort. I think that the reason for this failure is partially explained in this post by Rich Juzwiak, though of course I don’t claim to speak for him. The danger with the expanding circle is the potential that, rather than the circle actually expanding, its walls simply become higher and higher; rather than more and more people getting pulled inside, the people inside and the people outside become more and more divided. Each develops a deeper sense of resentment towards the other. More perniciously, those inside develop a social or cultural value in being separated. Because being inside the circle is associated with righteousness, and this righteousness provides social cachet, the incentive is not to draw more people into the circle but to keep them out. And without intending to, essays like the one Juzwiak criticizes become more and more oriented towards elevating people within the inner circle– and in so doing, make being within the circle less appealing or possible to those who most need to be convinced. When I watch people showily and ritualistically displaying offense on Twitter, I observe exactly this dynamic.
That first paragraph is probably the best possible expression of that idea, the most generous framing of it (or, if you prefer, more cynically, you could say it’s a self-serving way to pretend that engaging in petty Internet drama is actually Civil Rights 2.0). Perhaps needless to say, though, I agree with the second paragraph: in reality, such idealism turns into just another method of establishing status. Just look at how quickly the supposed devotees of the elevated ideals of Atheism+ interpreted the practice of such to consist of endless purification rituals and screaming FUCK YOU FUCK YOU CISSEXIST MISOGYNIST HETERONORMATIVE SCUM FUCK OFF AND DIE at any poor naïf who makes the mistake of trying to engage them in actual dialogue. Bug or feature? Which is more likely: that proponents of this theory genuinely believe in it and simultaneously believe that the best way to bring others on board is to attack and humiliate them, or that people recognize that professing such a belief makes for good P.R. and allows them to take partial credit for any positive change without doing any work beyond acting like an asshole online? The latter indicts them for being cynically self-serving, but at least it grants them self-awareness; the former necessitates an incredible level of pure stupidity on their part.
I’m not an activist, a socialist or a humanist, and I have increasingly less patience with the trendy, gossipy, amateur political/pop-culture punditry that comprises most of the social web. Nonetheless, if I did have a cause that I wanted to devote my time and energy to, I would go into it understanding that in order to create actual change, it would be better to spend my time patiently engaging with those who were neutral as well as directly opposed to my efforts. Losing my temper and venting my spleen would only be a waste of a time and a hinderance to the cause. I’ve read blogs where regular commenters will sigh exaggeratedly and insist that they “don’t have time” to explain everything that’s wrong with someone else’s comment. Yet they’ll somehow find the time to reiterate this exasperation dozens of times in thread after thread. They’d rather spend their energy distinguishing themselves among their peers by coming up with clever new ways to express their disapproval. Nobody should care that I personally find it irritating to have to explain, for the umpteenth time, a concept that I take to be self-evident. The plain fact is, for many people, it’s not self-evident and they need to be convinced. That’s the task at hand. I could either get to work on it, or I could hopefully have the sense to fuck off and quit posturing. Treating them with sneering “read the fucking manual” condescension may make me feel superior, but it will also turn what could be a productive exchange into a zero-sum, face-saving battle. I would want bystanders and opponents to be persuaded by my arguments and mollified by my unruffled approach, not coerced into agreement through a form of peer pressure.