I Disagree, But I Understand

I wasn't intending to publish anything until at least September, because I have actual work to actually do - both academic essays and my hustling paying off. But this wouldn't get out of my head.

Back in March an author called Tim Lott published a column on Comment is Free railing against left-wing purism. Certain sections of twitter promptly reacted with disgust that's actually still ongoing, questioning why Comment is Free would ever publish such trash (this is the same Comment is Free that's had notorious transphobe Julie Bindel writing for it, by the way, and that spawned an entire tumblr parodying its weirder articles, so I'm frankly not too surprised).

That is easily answered: hello, he's a reasonably notable writer who works for the Guardian. Also, assuming the Guardian has employees who actually know about the internet, they know an article like this will generate lots of discussion, debate and clicky clicky linky linky. Which means more ad revenue.

One question that didn't even get asked is why he would write an article like this (apart from views and ad revenue). At least, I didn't see it asked by my incredibly biased selection of people I follow, who are virtually all leftists, liberals and social justice types. Most of the more left-wing types railed against it, with a small minority of liberals agreeing with him. I didn't see any analysis of why he would think that way, which I thought was weird.

A big disclaimer here: I'm not particularly interested in condemning people or giving fire-and-brimstone speeches on why so-and-so is an irredeemable piece of shit or why such-and-such is literally the worst person ever to live. I'm not interested in that because I want people to make better-informed decisions so that we can have a shot at not screwing up the world for once, and I fail to see how angrily insulting people behind a computer screen is going to make the world a better place. Instead, I think that if you understand how people think, you'll understand why they do and say the things they do. That way you can better question their thought processes and you'll have a better shot at getting them to agree with you than if you just shout at them about how terrible they are. The latter is the equivalent of smashing a locked door with a bottle and wondering why it doesn't open.

As I read the article for the very first time, I thought to myself: well, a lot of this is self-evidently wrong. I mean, how can you defend transphobia and question the gender pay gap?! And then I had a second thought: I understand where he's coming from.

In some circles it is thought that if you understand where objectionable viewpoints or behaviour might come from, it means you must condone them. I've already said that a lot of the article was wrong, so hopefully that puts paid to that unless my blog post is so mind-destroyingly awful you're having to skip over a lot of the wrongness. In other circles, even if people are smart enough to realise that you don't condone everything you can understand, they might still think you're a bad person.

And I'm going to tell you this right now: I am a bad person. On my blog, displayed for all to see, are shocking examples of ableism and misogyny (to name two). I refuse to take them down because they'll only get dug up at some point anyway. I've sex-shamed other girls. I've been racist. I keep doing bigoted things because we live in an institutionally bigoted society and I'm rolling in privilege. I admit to all of this because while I might be a bad person, I'm a bad person with principles, goddammit, and I believe in telling the truth. Worse than being a bigot is being a bigot who hides her bigotry and pretends to be a good person.

The one upside to this is that I understand why some people think and do certain things a more morally pure person might find objectionable. By all means condemn me, but also know that I've got useful things to say.

I grew up in a reasonably right-wing household. Being very strong-willed, I held things like individual liberty, equality, free speech etc. etc. very dear and clashed with my parents on some points of freedom. I didn't hear of things like critical theory, critical race theory and privilege theory until I was in my mid-teens, having never been exposed to them, and because of their focus on structures and frameworks rather than individuals I got incredibly confused. I didn't understand how only white people could be racist or how only men could be sexist. I didn't understand how I could benefit from racism, much less be racist, because I didn't do overtly racist things like say racial slurs.

The attentive reader, who is probably also the masochistic reader, will notice that there is an incredible focus on the individual here. I was trying to interpret worldviews based on structures and frameworks through a lens that emphasised individuals. This is like looking through the wrong end of a microscope and wondering why you can't see anything.

All my education came from the internet, not books - this is why my theory is shockingly poor. I distinctly remember seeing other people ask questions about, for example, how it was that only a privileged group could actually be racist/sexist/etc. (Terms like racism and sexism were assumed to only refer to the institutional forms - that is, prejudice plus power.) I also distinctly remember the answer mostly being "It's not my job to educate you". This is fair enough, because strangers posting on the internet for free are usually doing it as a hobby, but it also means that getting a direct answer is difficult. So I parked myself down on the sidelines and watched other people talking and asking questions, which helped my understanding a lot.

And one day I realised that I had been looking down the wrong end of the microscope - that I needed to be looking at the problem on the scale of institutions. This is not a recent development; as far as I understand it this has been common knowledge in academia for decades. So either there is a problem with these academic ideas getting through into the rest of the world or I was just living under a rock. This is fair enough for a sheltered 15-year-old, I suppose, but for a grown man?!

If I shut up about myself and stop faffing around, the point is that from my personal experience I can see why people who have a very strong individualistic streak would have problems adjusting to a leftism based around structures and frameworks - especially if that is not made obvious, which it isn't. I find Lott's article sad more than anything, because he doesn't get it. He could probably get it if he shut up and listened for a month.

I also find it scary, because Lott is not alone in being confused and angry. There are lots of disgruntled people out there who don't understand why one day the discourse should be X and the next it should be Y. They need to be pointed to information on what Y is, what Y's tenets are, etc. They might still disagree, but they're more likely to agree with something they understand. These people are not gleefully rubbing their hands oppressing people. They are bumbling about probably not knowing much about how oppressive structures work. Ignorance does more damage than malice.

And why should it be important for them to agree? I'm going to throw my hands up and admit that my fixation on getting other people to understand and agree and work together is a bit naff. The reason I focus on it so much is that right now, it feels like relatively few people understand Y as opposed to understanding X. That means that we're pushing back against a lot of people. I don't think that this is necessary or even inevitable - I think that if we make information about Y more accessible, we can become the majority and make the pushback easier.

On the other hand, if we yell at them for not giving a shit about privilege if they don't even fully understand what they're doing wrong, at best they think we're insane and at worst they get sucked into the crowd who scream "SJW" at every opportunity. That is to say, we create a bigger problem for ourselves because we assume that the information is either easier to find than it actually is, or that these people don't deserve that information.

Here's a naff problematic liberal idea: try working out why disgruntled liberals act the way they do. Assume ignorance and stupidity before malice. Try to make the basic tenets of your ideas explicit, because then the ideas themselves will make more sense. See if that works better than just assuming everyone is a problematic piss-streak.