How did we get here?
Thoughts on an ascendent ideology
In his recent book, Canceling Comedians While the World Burns, leftist writer Ben Burgis draws attention to a viral YouTube video of a 2019 Democratic Socialists of America convention. In it, the forum is derailed by interruptions from delegates who recite their pronouns and then demand that audience members stop standing up (it’s distracting), stop whispering (it upsets those who are prone to sensory overload and triggers those with anxiety), stop clapping (instead please make jazz hands), stop waving banners, stop using gendered language like “guys,” and stop wearing “aggressive scents” that delegates “do not consent to” in the quiet rooms, which are designed as a reprieve for the emotionally overwhelmed.
The clip illustrates a number of the problems endemic to the modern left. As Burgis points out, this conference was streamed online; delegates knew that the world was watching. The fact that this was what they knowingly presented to the public is both baffling and bizarre. How could this behaviour possibly persuade anybody to join their cause? It underlines the fact that the left now favours performance over persuasion. And, worse, that it is completely cut off from mainstream public opinion.
But there’s also something deeper going on here, something quite revealing. The ideas expressed — ableism, safetyism, trigger warnings — aim to be as inclusive as possible. But the philosophy behind them originated in elite institutions. In both conception and dissemination, they are actually anything but inclusive.
Most people I’ve interviewed, and talked to socially, have no idea where all of this came from, and no understanding of how it’s gained such traction. The question for most people seems to be: Why have such extreme ideas spread?
There are several things that you need to know to understand why our cultural norms, from audience clapping to the use of the word mother (birthing person is the new term), have shifted so dramatically — and so fast.
The first has to do with young people and universities. As Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff explained in The Coddling of the American Mind, in the early 2010s you had a situation on campuses where young people were experiencing extremely high levels of stress. This generation grew up overprotected by parents, but also driven extremely hard in the school system. They graduated high school into one of the most competitive, uncertain, downwardly mobile labour markets in recent decades. They were online constantly and status-obsessed, but also socially awkward and insecure and unhappy. The institutions’ approach to dealing with these anxious young people, though, was not to help build resilience. It was, instead, to become surrogate helicopter parents — to cater to their neuroses and cave to their demands. The result: a generation of young people who believe that their own emotional distress is of paramount importance — and that the world will bend to accommodate it. This class of students are, as of a couple years ago, moving into the workforce, and taking this worldview with them.
Coupled with that, you have a set of ideas in academia that has been ascendent since the 1960s, catapulted into the mainstream around the mid 2010s, and then rose to prominence in the unrest of 2020, albeit in a reconfigured version. This is what’s called critical theory.
This Marxist-inspired school of thought originated with the Frankfurt School of philosophers after World War II. It posits that life can be understood by looking at power relations, and that this lens should be applied to every interaction in our society. It divides people into the oppressors and the oppressed — who has “privilege” and who does not — argues that these power relations are hidden and require training to identify, and seeks to dismantle them. Importantly, much of this work is meant to be about systems and structures, but as it has evolved in current practices, the focus is often on interpersonal relationships, and “microaggressions” in particular.
One of the most well known manifestations of this thinking is critical race theory — which includes legal academics like Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the now-ubiquitous term “intersectional” — but it has since spread to all sorts of disciplines, from musicology to medicine.
Critical theory sees all knowledge as social construction. It believes in “discourses” rather than truth. It sees language as capable of inflicting violence if the words support discourses that have been deemed harmful. It rejects the tenets of liberalism as growing out of, and supporting, bias and bigotry. Debating harmful ideas, according to critical theory, would only increase the damage. The goal is therefore to shut down all harmful discourse.
This philosophy is jargon-heavy and difficult to decipher. And, as a result of what’s called standpoint theory, it argues that people outside of protected groups cannot possibly understand and are therefore not qualified to contribute to the conversation.
This set of ideas has proven largely unpopular with people of all identity groups. In its current iteration, it is divisive in nature and inherently pessimistic. It offers no vision for the future and holds out no hope of redemption for those who have erred. It does not place emphasis on personal agency, nor on basic human commonalities or on building alliances across identity lines.
If the bleak economic conditions of late capitalism were the kindling, and the prevalence of widespread and debilitating mental illness was the dry heat, then social media was both the match that lit the fire and the oxygen that fanned the flames.
It’s impossible to overstate the role that social media platforms have played in spreading this thinking. Twitter in particular took these ideas out of the academic setting and pumped them into the collective consciousness with mind-boggling velocity and speed.
This ideology now dominates most institutions, from universities to the media, government to education, the arts to the nonprofit sector. Significantly, it remains an inherently elitist project. Which is why its goals are largely theoretical and interpersonal — and have little to do with the concrete conditions of most people’s lives. And it’s also why many salient critiques of it have come from the left in general, and Marxists like Adolph Reed in particular.
So, what do we call this new movement? The writer Wesley Yang calls it “The Successor Ideology,” since it replaces traditional liberal values. Columbia professor John McWhorter calls it “The Elect,” for its pseudo-religious overtones. The general public often thinks of it as identity politics. Centrists, heterodox thinkers, and conservatives call it “woke.”
But whatever you choose to call it, the social justice movement that’s sprung out of all this is focused mainly on shifting language and speech norms, on symbolic victories like toppling statues, and on building a vast, identity-focused human-resources apparatus that provides university graduates with lucrative administrative jobs.
This is how we wound up during the pandemic, in Toronto, with a largely racialized working-class population stuck on packed public transit, working precarious warehouse jobs for very little pay and filling emergency rooms — while the conversation on the left was almost entirely focused elsewhere.
There’s something else that we need to understand here. And that is that this new brand of leftism, as the conservative writer Douglas Murray has pointed out, is an inherently unstable proposition.
Since the 1960s, mainstream leftist political parties have abandoned their union base and have instead become parties of wealthy, credentialed cosmopolitans — driven by an ethos that’s right on economic policy and left on culture. The current assumption within Western leftist parties is that they will proceed with a centre-right economic agenda, while also following the lead of their activist wing on most cultural issues. This is what many have done, aggressively, in the wake of 2020 demonstrations.
To achieve this aim, parties see themselves as uniting women, people of colour and members of the LGBTQ-plus community (and occasionally the working-class, if their views conform).
The trouble, as Murray makes clear, is that the interests of these different groups rarely align.
Any causal glance at the news these days will show you that radical feminists and trans activists have quite a lot that they don’t agree on, from sports to the presence of trans women in prisons. Queer theorists, meanwhile, want to dissolve all categories (gender norms are repressive; everyone is non-binary to some extent), while trans activists prefer to reinforce definable identity groups (trans women are women).
Similarly, gay white men and anti-racism activists are not always in agreement; gay men who have only recently won the right to marry are often not keen to be cast as oppressors.
And we can’t forget that a good many immigrants and people of colour are culturally conservative and not on board with, say, the concept of a “throuple” (a romantic arrangement that involves three people) or a “polycule” (a network of people in non-monogamous relationships with each other). And that the working-class isn’t as interested in conversations around preferred pronouns as it is in things like affordable housing and accessible health care.
The modern left, then, is on shaky footing. And it risks losing working-class voters of all races to conservative parties, which champion cultural conservatism and increasingly position themselves as advocates for working-class interests by dabbling in a handful of leftist economic policies. We saw this with Donald Trump and his rhetoric around trade.
As this all takes place, the left, living in its coastal bubbles of extreme economic privilege, has lost perspective on what ordinary people think, as the DSA convention clip so tellingly illustrates.
The left does not notice how out of step its ideas are with the public, which is why it was so surprised in 2016 when Trump was elected, and then again in 2020, when the Democratic party lost Black and Latino voters to the Republicans.
The press is not in a good position to cope with any of this.
Several factors have combined to dramatically weaken the news media. Social media has robbed the industry of advertising dollars, subscriptions, and eyeballs. This has forced legacy media to compete on the Internet’s clickbait terms and has created an army of people willing to work for free, dragging down writing rates.
Newsrooms are floundering. Outlets are closing. Local news coverage is dropping off.
Journalists are stressed and overworked; we face a cutthroat, hyper-competitive business that is under-resourced and understaffed, and that incentivizes our worst instincts.
During Trump’s presidency, outlets cashed in on his ability to generate ratings. As Matt Taibbi details in in Hate Inc., activist outlets like Fox News on the right and MSNBC on the left have promoted a business model in which outrage takes centre stage. This has accelerated political polarization and eroded the basic concept of a shared truth and a shared nation. It also, arguably, has lost the media the trust of the public.
Meanwhile, there is no good business case to be made for the time-consuming and litigious work of investigative journalism. Fewer outlets now hold powerful corporations, institutions, and people to account. Many journalists have stopped bothering to try.
Which leads us to another trend: the transformation of the media from a working-class, adversarial job to an elite, conformist profession. Journalists at American outlets overwhelmingly come from expensive schools and live among business and governmental leaders in a handful of trendy neighbourhoods in coastal cities. And their allegiances reflect this.
Journalism has become less hostile toward government and corporate America, and more hostile toward fellow citizens with ideas that Twitter does not agree with. Thus, you see prominent tech journalists cheering on Silicon Valley censorship, and much of the media following suit.
Add to all of that, journalists now argue that we should abandon the always-going-to-be-flawed ideal of journalistic objectivity in favour of a new standard: “moral clarity.” But nobody can answer the question of who gets to decide what is and is not moral. Or how readers are supposed to trust the media if the goal of fact-finding is traded for that of narrative-shaping.
Perhaps most troublingly, the ascendent critical social justice ideology underlying much of what I’ve just laid out is strangely invisible within left-leaning organizations. It is presented not as political thought, which it clearly is, but rather as incontrovertible fact. And as basic decency.
The task for those who object to it, then, is to untangle the ideology, its aims and methods, from the broader project of human equality, which has widespread support within society, and with good reason. The task is to challenge one while affirming the other. Indeed, it is to challenge critical social justice ideology because affirming equality requires it.