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The Sacred Beliefs of the Left

A semi-repentant activist reflects on progressivist purity culture
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Here’s a fascinating essay by a Canadian progressive gay activist who uses the pseudonym Aurora Dagny, in which she criticizes her own side — and, as she admits, her younger self — for pursuing their goals with a zeal Dagny now finds frightening and monstrous. Excerpts:

There is something dark and vaguely cultish about this particular brand of politics. I’ve thought a lot about what exactly that is. I’ve pinned down four core features that make it so disturbing: dogmatism, groupthink, a crusader mentality, and anti-intellectualism. I’ll go into detail about each one of these. The following is as much a confession as it is an admonishment. I will not mention a single sin that I have not been fully and damnably guilty of in my time.

First, dogmatism. One way to define the difference between a regular belief and a sacred belief is that people who hold sacred beliefs think it is morally wrong for anyone to question those beliefs. If someone does question those beliefs, they’re not just being stupid or even depraved, they’re actively doing violence. They might as well be kicking a puppy. When people hold sacred beliefs, there is no disagreement without animosity. In this mindset, people who disagreed with my views weren’t just wrong, they were awful people. I watched what people said closely, scanning for objectionable content. Any infraction reflected badly on your character, and too many might put you on my blacklist. Calling them ‘sacred beliefs’ is a nice way to put it. What I mean to say is that they are dogmas.

Thinking this way quickly divides the world into an ingroup and an outgroup — believers and heathens, the righteous and the wrong-teous. “I hate being around un-rad people,” a friend once texted me, infuriated with their liberal roommates. Members of the ingroup are held to the same stringent standards. Every minor heresy inches you further away from the group. People are reluctant to say that anything is too radical for fear of being been seen as too un-radical. Conversely, showing your devotion to the cause earns you respect. Groupthink becomes the modus operandi. When I was part of groups like this, everyone was on exactly the same page about a suspiciously large range of issues. Internal disagreement was rare. The insular community served as an incubator of extreme, irrational views.

High on their own supply, activists in these organizing circles end up developing a crusader mentality: an extreme self-righteousness based on the conviction that they are doing the secular equivalent of God’s work. It isn’t about ego or elevating oneself. In fact, the activists I knew and I tended to denigrate ourselves more than anything. It wasn’t about us, it was about the desperately needed work we were doing, it was about the people we were trying to help. The danger of the crusader mentality is that it turns the world in a battle between good and evil. Actions that would otherwise seem extreme and crazy become natural and expected. I didn’t think twice about doing a lot of things I would never do today.

Dagny talks about the “anti-intellectualism” in radical circles, an impulse the demonizes intellectual inquiry about theoretical matters. Excerpt:

Consider otherkin, people who believe they are literally animals or magical creatures and who use the concepts and language of anti-oppressive politics to talk about themselves. I have no problem drawing my own conclusions about the lived experience of otherkin. Nobody is literally a honeybee or a dragon. We have to assess claims about oppression based on more than just what people say about themselves. If I took the idea of the infallibility of the oppressed seriously, I would have to trust that dragons exist. That is why it’s such an unreliable guide. (I half-expect the response, “Check your human privilege!”)

It is an ominous sign whenever a political movement dispenses with methods and approaches of gaining knowledge that are anchored to public revelation and, moreover, becomes openly hostile to them. Anti-intellectualism and a corresponding reliance on innate knowledge is one of the hallmarks of a cult or a totalitarian ideology.

If you don’t agree that a human being with a penis is not a woman, no matter what that person says, then, in the eyes of this sort of person, you are an Enemy of the People.

Read the whole thing. Interesting that the author wrote it under a false name. She’s scared of her own side.

As ridiculous as the whole Elton John vs. Dolce & Gabbana fight is, there is something important at its heart. Dolce & Gabbana are fashion icons, and have been so for a long time. They have also been openly gay. They spoke out in favor of privileging the traditional family, and against IVF. And the reaction from their own side? Prominent people saying they want to “burn,” or otherwise clear their closets of, D&G clothing, and saying that the men should have their business destroyed.

Unlike a bakery or a restaurant, Dolce & Gabbana, who are worth billions, will be fine. But the impulse that leads people to fanatically denounce them as if they were witches and this were colonial Salem is strong in our society, especially among gay rights activists and their allies. A reader sent in this essay about this kind of purity culture among progressive Evangelicals. Excerpt:

For evangelical Christians moral purity will fixate on hedonism (e.g., sex, drug use).

For progressive Christians moral purity will fixate on complicity in injustice. To be increasingly “pure” in progressive Christian circles is to become less and less complicit in injustice. Thus there is an impulse toward a more and more radical lifestyle where, eventually, you find yourself feeling that “everything is problematic.”  You can’t do anything without contaminating yourself.

To be clear, I’m not judging any of this. I’m simply trying to trace out the contours of the purity culture at work among progressive Christians. Mainly because I think many progressive Christians have become burnt out by this psychology. Progressive Christians have become burnt out by the chronic anger produced by the “good vs. evil” Crusader mentality and burnt out by the chronic exhaustion of living in a world where “everything is problematic.”

For most of us, the vision of progressive Christianity–as we took up the banner of social justice–started out so hopeful and joyous.

But for far too many, in the words of Aurora, the purity culture of progressive Christianity caused it all to “metastasize into a nightmare.”

It’s just so damn exhausting. If I had the money to buy Dolce & Gabbana clothing, and I wanted to do so, I would not give a rat’s rear end that they’re gay, or what their personal beliefs are on homosexuality, gay marriage, IVF, or anything. I imagine that I don’t agree with the politics, cultural or otherwise, of the creators of many good things that I enjoy. So what? The fact that Elton John is a hysterical prig does not take away from the fact that his music — his Seventies stuff, anyway — is quite good. The joylessness and zealotry will burn itself out, I imagine, but a lot of people are going to get hurt before it does.



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