Thursday, July 27, 2017

Losing people to the right, emotion, and movement building

I've been thinking, lately, about the transition that some people go through from having left politics to having not-left politics. It's not that it happens all that often, in my experience, but it is something that I've seen come up more in the last little while as a rhetorical device to discipline other people on the left -- as in, "Don't do X, or you'll drive me/him/her/them to the right" -- and that has got me thinking about when and how it actually does happen.

In reflecting on this, there are a couple of ways that it happens that I am not thinking about right now. I'm not thinking about the stereotypical life-stage explanation of politics: you move left as a university student, and then right again once you're in the world of paid work, which is really the updated version of Winston Churchill's dismissive quip about people who aren't a socialist at 20 having no heart and people who are a socialist at 50 having no brain. For lots of reasons, I don't think this pattern is nearly as common as bewildered older relatives of student activists often presume, but there is a conversation to be had about how political community, the material necessities of life, and the challenges of committing to activism and organizing over the long term figure into our political choices and identities at different points in our lives. It's just not the conversation I'm having here.

As well, I'm not really that interested at the moment in the case of people who transition from movement involvement to being in some kind of institution which (not inevitably but often) pulls their politics to the right, or at least towards the centre -- which could be the academy, it could be the agency sector, it could be the state, it could be a social democratic party. Again, that happens, and it's worth talking about, just not right now. What I'm thinking about here is people who make the transition from left politics to not-left politics in other kinds of contexts.

In reflecting on this, I have five specific people in mind who have undergone a transition of this sort. Four of them are people that I have known, two moderately well and two much more casually. The fifth is a prominent liberal feminist YouTuber who recently jumped ship to the alt-right -- I don't know her but lots of people have been writing about it, so I have a sense of the situation. The kinds of left (or at least left-ish) politics that each of these people started with are different, and the kinds of not-left politics they ended up with are different too. The amount that I know about each of their journeys varies considerably. For those that I have known personally in one capacity or another, I don't want to reveal anything that might be too identifying, so I'm not going to lay out what I know in any depth. And I could go into more detail for the one who is a public figure, but I won't -- while I admit to reading a few pieces about her case, Laci Greene just isn't interesting enough for me to write about at length.

So here's what I've come up with: I'm always wary of psychologized explanations of people's political choices. I think psy discourses tend to make it harder to see the ways in which all of us are woven into the social world, and I think they often get deployed not to understand but to belittle and dismiss people's political analyses and convictions. That said, it's also a profoundly unhelpful tendency -- and a common one on the left, or at least in its less feminist contexts -- to separate our emotional lives from how we narrate our political choices and actions, and to maintain a sort of masculinist insistence on a particular kind of rationality that implicitly or explicitly devalues feelings. I don't think depoliticized psy explanations and self-fracturing faux-rationalist posturing are our only options, though. It's not always easy to do, but integrating affect into how we talk about the social world and our political navigation of it is certainly possible. (I'm a big fan of Sara Ahmed's work, for instance, and find her really inspiring in this regard, but there are lots of other writers out there, especially feminists, who do this.)

In thinking about these five people who used to be on the left in one sense or another and who are no longer, I think for all of them this political transition was at least in part a means of resolving some kind of emotional challenge. Again, the depth of my knowledge varies a lot across these instances, but as far as I am aware, all five of them were experiencing some kind of sustained knot of bad feeling which was resolved by a change in their politics.

The exact details of this knot vary, though with a perhaps telling relationship to timing. Of these five, two of the transitions occurred longer ago. One of these was related to a very deep and passionate commitment, political and affective, to a particular position on one specific issue that at one time was quite common in the white-dominated North American left. Over time, it became much less common and much less accepted on the left, to the extent that this position is now seen as supporting some pretty intensely oppressive realities. On this issue, the broader left shifted and this person didn't, which I'm sure was temendously difficult in emotional terms -- feelings of loss, betrayal, etc. And eventually, though not as spectacularly as some of the others I'm thinking about, this was resolved by a partial shift away from identifying with the left. The other instance that happened longer ago was -- well, it was more complicated than this, but it involved a very emotionally difficult personal situation that was shot through with gendered implications. This person's later embrace of explicitly reactionary gender politics, and subsequently a broader reactionary perspective, was in part related to resolving the heavy emotional stuff from this personal crisis.

The more recent three have all happened during the Trump era -- not necessarily since he was elected, but since, say, he became the frontrunner in the Republican nomination race. In all of those cases, the knot of bad feeling being resolved by a move to the right is much more similar. In all of them, it is connected to being politically challenged, I think probably in a sustained way over time. The exact content of that challenge varied in the different situations, and I have no idea how fair or deserved it may have been in particular instances, or how exactly it was conducted. Some of the content that one or more of them was challenged about was related to race stuff (all three are white), some of it was about trans stuff (all three are cis), some of it was about political choices, and so on. And even though these challenges were about a lot of different things, there is a weird way that it all feels tied to whiteness -- not so much the challenges per se, but having the space to resolve feeling bad because someone else is challenging you politically, whether or not that initial challenge was about racist behaviour and/or politics or not, by moving to a politics that really is pretty openly racist. All three of them -- this is the two distant acquaintences plus the former liberal feminsit YouTuber -- had a knot of bad feeling that at least from a distance appears to be similar, and in the Trump era felt that they had space to resolve it by making a similar kind of shift in political identity and practice.

I think it's important not to jump to conclusions that are too hasty or too broad from these observations. Certainly the more recent three have narrated their own experiences in ways that decry "callout culture" and the "intolerant left." But while I agree that there is a need for ongoing nuanced discussion when it comes to the toxicity of social media and the politics of calling people out, cutting people off, no-platforming people, left purity, sectarianism, and all of that stuff, I'm really not that interested in the opinions of people who use "someone said mean things to me" as an excuse for their renunciation of support for social justice. So "don't challenge racists or they might become more openly racist" is not even close to a sound conclusion to draw based on what I'm saying here.

I'm also not saying that strategizing about how to prevent this transition from left to not-left should necessarily be a big priority for us. For all its use as a rhetorical device by certain people, it's not clear to me that it is really that common an occurrence, it's not clear to me that there's much we could do about it while remaining principled in other ways, and it's not clear we'd be better off doing those things even if we could.

I think what I am saying, though, is that thinking about the mechanics of what's happening in the relatively rare cases when this kind of transition actually happens is one relevant factor among many to consider when we are having those nuanced, careful conversations about how we engage with each other and how we engage with those beyond our immediate circles. It's about recognizing that -- like it or not, and whether or not it should necessarily factor into any specific political decision that we make -- our emotional journeys, and the spaces that our circumstances and self-understandings allow for resolving emotional crises, are integral to our political journeys. Without at all pre-judging what this has to mean in practice, I think it is fair to say that movement building has to take this seriously.

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