Why this radical activist is disillusioned by the toxic culture of the left

I've seen from the inside how the left is destroying people's lives and censoring free speech, and I'm sick of it

Bailey Lamon
Monday 29 February 2016 11:33 GMT
A masked protester holds a flare during a student march against university fees in London on November 19, 2014
A masked protester holds a flare during a student march against university fees in London on November 19, 2014

I've been involved in activism since the Occupy Movement of 2011. Over the years this has included anti-capitalist, labour and feminist organising, as well as coordinating a local Food Not Bombs chapter, a number of direct actions against big oil (in solidarity with First Nations people), and prisoner justice campaigns.

While I will always be part of the movement and believe in creating a better world through people power, over the years I have become increasingly frustrated with modern activist culture and the way that today's left conducts itself.

First of all, I’m tired of watching people turn into pretentious assholes who think their activism makes them better than everyone else, even the oppressed and marginalised groups with whom they claim “allyship”.

If you’ve ever worked with oppressed groups, such as people who are homeless, abused, addicted or suffering from mental health problems, there's one thing you learn straight away. They usually don't frame their worldviews in terms of academic theories students learn in gender studies classes in university. For the most part, they tend to not analyse their experiences in terms of systemic power and privilege, concepts such as “the patriarchy”, “white privilege”, or “heteronormativity”.

While many of these folks know that they're directly impacted by class inequality, they don't sit around pondering capitalism, reading Marx, or tackling the effects of “problematic behaviours”. They are not concerned with checking their privilege. No. They are busy trying to survive. Getting through the next day. Meeting their basic needs. They don't bother with policing their language and worrying about how their words might unintentionally perpetuate certain stereotypes. They are more concerned with their voices being heard.

Yet I witness so many “activists” who ignore the realities of oppression despite saying that they care about those at the bottom of society. They think that being offended by something is equal to experiencing prison time or living on the streets. They talk about listening, being humble and not having preconceptions. Yet they ignore the lived experiences of those who don’t speak or think properly in the view of university-educated social justice warriors, regardless of how much worse off they really are.

This isn't to say that we should accept bigotry in any form — far from it. But I would go as far as saying that the politically correct mafia on the left perpetuates a form of bigotry on its own because it alienates and “otherises” those who do not share their ways of thinking and speaking about the world.

I've witnessed incidents where people have lost their jobs because of mistakes they've made in the eyes of left-wing activists. I've seen relationships and friendships destroyed. I've known people who have been banned from participating in certain places, and become so alienated from “the community” that they are afraid to go out in public at all. This has caused serious mental distress to people I've worked alongside, and has even resulted in suicide. Social "justice" indeed.

These incidents tend to happen over allegations that rest on each person's word. Yet only one party is allowed to tell their story, while the other one is told to sit down, shut up, and accept the potentially life-destroying consequences. And if anyone tries to step in or question how things are being done, they are immediately silenced and threatened with the same fate if they don't comply.

I'm sick of the cliques, the hierarchies, the policing of others, and the power imbalances. I am exhausted by the fact that any difference of opinion will lead to a fight, which sometimes includes abandonment of certain people who are consequently deemed “unsafe”.

It's disgusting that the left claims to be fighting for a better way of dealing with social problems, but if a person makes a mistake or says something wrong, they are not even given a chance to explain their side of what happened. This is because the process of conflict resolution is now driven by ideology rather than a willingness to understand facts. In today’s activist circles one is lucky to be given any sort of due process at all. Meanwhile, everyone is put under social pressure to believe everything they are told, regardless of what actually occurred in a given situation.

This is not freedom. This is not social justice. There is nothing “progressive” or “radical” about it.

There is a disturbing trend on the left nowadays of rejecting free speech that could possibly be hurtful to someone, somewhere. This is not only dangerous but it also works against us. As leftists we are often labelled as threats by the state and at the very least, we are unpopular by society in general.

Does this not mean that freedom of thought and expression are crucial to our struggles? That we should always defend our right to question what we’re taught, our right to be different? As Noam Chomsky put it: “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”

We have the right to challenge other people's speech, but what many people are seeing is the shutting off of dialogue entirely for the purpose of “safety”. What could possibly be safe about censorship? What could possibly be safe about a group of people who claim to be freedom fighters dictating who can speak and what can be said, based on whether or not we agree with them? Study any kind of history and you will find that censorship has never been on the right side of it.

Student protest: Demonstrators dispute the actions of Black Bloc anarchists after violence erupts

The world is not a safe place. It is extremely dangerous, flawed, full of bloodshed and corruption. By sheltering ourselves from its harshness we are doing nothing meaningful to change it. If we are serious about confronting power we must throw ourselves into the danger that so many people have no choice but to live with. While self-care is necessary to sustain us in the long run, avoiding the darkness entirely is nothing more than a cop out.

So folks on the left – do the world a favour and get serious about changing the world. And enough with the safe spaces and trigger warnings. I used to love the idea of safe spaces, but eventually realised that they did not protect me from humanity’s flaws. Escapism is necessary once in a while, but if we are serious we need to avoid hiding behind ourselves. It is extremely naive to think that we can just walk into a room, declare it a safe space, and expect it to magically become one. Unless you and your safe space enforcing friends plan on isolating yourselves from the world rather than engaging with it, it is not realistic at all and pretending it is will only hurt you further.

As for trigger warnings, as a rape survivor and someone who deals with PTSD, how is writing something like “TW: Rape” not inherently triggering? I simply don’t get it. Anything can be triggering to someone, and there is no way of knowing what that will be. Personally, I think we are better off working out how to support someone who becomes triggered in a given situation rather than triggering them ourselves in an attempt not to.

Our ideas cannot be forced on other people, but must be adopted voluntarily. This requires patience and a willingness to work with others as they explore themselves. We need to be there to answer their questions, and make it clear that no question is a stupid one.

We are not always going to enjoy the process! But without freedom of thought, speech, and expression, no other freedom can exist. Bigots and hateful people in general will make fools of themselves, and again, our freedom to speak means that we can and definitely should challenge and outsmart them. But the idea of being so self-righteous that we think we deserve to be authority figures in all of this is soul-crushing.

A version of this article originally appeared on Medium and has been republished with the kind permission of the author

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