Losing Liberal Lockstep, or Why Stealing From The GOP Playbook Is Bad

I sure as heck am a liberal. Politically, ideologically, and definitely socially. It’s that last part that gives me trouble these days, though. Not because of my opponents; most of those can’t debate their way out of a wet paper bag, and depend on sites like Drudge and Fox News for their slanted data. Anyone who sticks their head down that hole has no effect on me. No, the problem is among those on my own side… or who at least claim to be.

I guess what it all comes down to, for me, is that social liberalism was once an alternative that enabled people to pursue whatever types of consensual personal behavior they wanted, and thus was a movement that increased individual freedom and happiness. It was the antidote to Jerry Fallwell telling you that you were going to hell, to Nancy Reagan saying “just say no,” to your conservative parents telling you to choose not to be gay, to Pat Robertson saying don’t have sex, to Tipper Gore telling you that you couldn’t listen to the music you like, to don’t wear those clothes, don’t walk that way, don’t have fun, don’t be yourself. So, of course, that movement won. It was a positive, joyful, human, freeing alternative to an exhausted, ugly, narrow vision of how human beings should behave.

It appears to me that the modern public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing. I now mostly associate that public face with danger, with an endless list of things that you can’t do or say or think, and with the constant threat of being called an existentially bad person if you say the wrong thing, or if someone decides to misrepresent what you said as saying the wrong thing. There are so many ways to step on a landmine now, so many terms that have become forbidden, so many attitudes that will get you cast out if you even appear to hold them.

I’m far from alone in feeling that it’s typically not worth it to engage, given the risks. Dealing with younger people teaches me about the way these movements are perceived. I can’t tell you how common it is for me to talk to college-aged individuals, who seem like good people, who discuss liberal and left-wing beliefs as positive ideas, but who shrink from identifying with liberalism and feminism instinctively. I lament that fact, but it doesn’t surprise me. Of course, much of these feelings stem from conservative misrepresentations and slanders of what social liberalism is and means. But it also comes from the perception that, in the online forums where so much political discussion happens these days, the slightest misstep will result in character assassination and vicious condemnation.

Suppose you are a young college student inclined towards liberal or left-wing ideas. And further suppose that, like a lot of such college students, you enjoy Stephen Colbert and find him a political inspiration. Now imagine that, during the #CancelColbert fiasco, you defended Colbert on Twitter. If your defense was noticed by the people who police that forum, the consequences were likely to be brutal. People would not have said “here, let me talk you through this.” It wouldn’t have been a matter of friendly and inviting disagreement. Instead, as anyone paying attention saw, it would have been an invitation for immediate and unequivocal assault. That’s how the loudest voices on Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook act. The culture is one of attack, rather than of education. And the claims, typically, are existential: not “this thing you said is problematic from the standpoint of race,” but rather “you’re a racist.” Not “I think there’s some gender issues going here that you should think about,” but “you’re a misogynist.” Always. I know that there are kinder voices out there in socially liberal circles on social media, but unfortunately, when these social-media hurricanes get going, those voices are constantly and consistently drowned out… or driven out.

If you are a young person whose personality is still malleable and are subject to having your mind changed, and you decide to engage with socially liberal politics online, what are you going to learn immediately? Everything that you like is problematic. Every musician you like is misogynist. Every movie you like is secretly racist. Every cherished public figure has some deeply disqualifying characteristics. All of your victories are the product of privilege. Everyone you know and love who does not yet speak with the specialized vocabulary of today’s social justice movement is a bad, bad person. That is no way to build a broader coalition, which we desperately need if we are going to win. In the drive to correct everything and everyone with maximum energy and vigor, the zealots have reclaimed that aura of negativity and narrowness that was explicitly rejected by their ideological forefathers. It crushes joy, drains away positivity, and shackles thoughts in approved-language chains. The conservatives have blind adherence to their codes of thought and belief; we’re supposed to be better than that Skinner-box-trained crowd.

On matters of substance, I agree with almost everything that the social liberals on Tumblr and Twitter and blogs and websites believe. I believe that racism is embedded in many of our institutions. I believe that sexual violence is common and that we have a culture of misogyny. I believe that privilege is real. I believe all of that. And I understand and respect the need to express rage, which is a legitimate political emotion. But I also believe that there’s no possible way to fix these problems without bringing more people into the coalition. I would like to see the people who are committed to arguing about social justice online to work on building a culture that is unrelenting in its criticisms of injustice, but that leaves more room for education.

People have to be free to make mistakes, even ones that we find offensive, without being blown out of the water for it. If we turn away from or push away everyone that says or believes something dumb, we will find ourselves lecturing to an empty room. Surely there are ways to preserve righteous anger while being more circumspect about who is targeted by that anger. And I strongly believe that we can, and must, remind the world that social justice is about being happy, being equal, and being free.

Jason Francis

Jason Francis is a red-state liberal, residing in the heart of Dixie where he gets to watch the train wreck of conservative politics up close and personal on a regular basis. He's lived in affluence and poverty, in both urban and rural settings, attended both public and private schools, and has visited most of the US at one point or another.


Facebook comments

  • Ann Jones

    sometimes, it is difficult to un-brainwash the afflicted ‘conservative’ why, just the fact that they are willing to believe anything that is said on some of the totally debunked right wing ‘sources’ is in and of itself….hopeless

    • Larry Ham

      We think you liberals are brainwashed from your high school teachers and then college…and there’s plenty of proof of this. And we’re just as frustrated that you believe anything on MSNBC.

      • Moses

        Proof, please? I’d really like to see this proof, if you can find it. Caveat: Drudge, Fox News, Breitbart, and the Blaze are disqualified as sources… because, you see, people want to deal with facts when someone makes a ludicrous claim like that.

      • Larry Ham

        Proof? Are you really denying that colleges brainwash students with left wing indoctrination?

        Start with David Horowitz who has devoted his career to this plague, his book is the best I’ve seen: “Indoctrination U:The Left’s War Against Academic Freedom”

        But some other sources: try washingtontimes dot com/news/2012/aug/1/liberal-majority-on-campus-yes-were-biased/?page=all

        or go to cbsnews dot com/news/study-college-liberal-bias-learned-from-peers/

        then there is chronicle dot com/blogs/conversation/2012/10/03/surviving-academes-liberal-bias/

      • Moses

        Washington Times, sorry, another conservative rag run by a church. Strike one. The CBS one says “A recent study reports that students’ political beliefs become more liberal while in college and are swayed by friends rather than professors.” So that’s not indoctrination, that’s peer interaction. It also says that there’s a 3.5% shift after 6 years; if it was indoctrination (like, say, the blind belief in trickle-down economics or the specious idea that unwed mothers are destroying America), it would be permanent. Strike two. And the last is an opinion blog; not exactly proof that would stand up in court. Strike three, you’re done.

      • Cemetery Girl

        I identify as liberal, but my teachers and school were conservative. The high school sex ed was strictly abstenance only (back before that became the in thing) and the teacher would state that there was absolutely no reason for any of us to know anything about birth control or condoms because it is morally wrong to have sex before marriage. A completely different teacher would lecture about what makes a girl an obvious slut and how that meant she deserved anything that happened to her. (Such clear cut indications were if she smoked amoung others.) Random locker searches weren’t uncommon and refusal to allow your personal property (coat, backpack, purse) to be randomly searched was grounds for at least out of school suspension. I went to a suburban high school in an upper middle class community.

      • Larry Ham

        I’m a pretty conservative guy and I think that’s reprehensible. I could see it in a Catholic school where parents choose to send their kids but it’s wrong in a public school.

  • Lee Gunby

    That, sir, is the best thing I’ve read about being progressive in a long time. Thank you!

  • Cutter John

    I agree. It’s sad that I make a post clarifying someone in the political arena – especially within the last 15 years, they don’t try to say anything useful, they automatically jump to threats and predictable, ‘Yea? Well you’re a fag.’ or the elementary, ‘Your mom.’

  • Eldred Fuchs

    I agree, Jason. People are seldom husbanded by calumny, but sometimes by “witchcraft”. We gotta be smarter.

  • Connie Shetterly-Strnat

    I really loved this. It hit home with me in a lot of ways and made me realize that, as a liberal, I’ve risen to the bait of conservative vitriol on social media and responded with vitriol of my own. Not something I’m proud of, but this article makes me rethink and regroup. From now on, I’ll try to have a calmer voice. I’ll strive to get my point accross and make my perspective understood without anger and sarchasm. Thank you, Jason, for a great commentary!

    • Michael McAngus

      “sarchasm”. I love it. Is that the measure of how completely someone doesn’t get the joke?

      • Connie Shetterly-Strnat

        Just a typo…

      • Connie Shetterly-Strnat

        But actually, Michael, I like it! I might have just coined a word… like “truthiness,” lol!

      • Michael McAngus

        ‘… like “truthiness”‘. More like ” pwned”.

  • Sandy Greer

    We were proud of being Leftie Loosies (as opposed to Righty Tighties) Now?

    Liberal Lockstep is a disease antithetical.

  • Michael McAngus

    Jason. While I agree that rage and anger have their place in political and social discourse, I find that for too many people rage and anger are their default setting. Rage and anger should be reserved for truely outrageous words and deeds.

  • The Bruce

    Well put, sir.

  • RayOne

    I understand, ‘keep it funny, and no-one gets hurt’, unless they show the bodies.

  • Larry Ham

    So do the liberals here believe that ALL of liberalism has been wonderful? That all left wing thought is good and right?

    As a libertarian/conservative I agree with a lot of liberal social positions: legalizing pot, gay marriage, abortion rights, etc. But let’s be honest, other things are not so smart, like this notion of having kids out of wedlock as being just another lifestyle choice. It’s killing us. And the policy of not enforcing our borders, absolutely suicidal.

    I’m telling you, this left wing arrogance and hubris will be your undoing.

    • Cemetery Girl

      It is better for a couple to marry if pregnancy occurs and eventually divorce? I guess that it could be argued that the true answer would be for people not to have sex before marriage. The only problem with that is that people aren’t good at that. If you look into old birth records, children born outside of marriage isn’t even remotely a new thing. The lack of stigma is a change, but not really a bad change. The children suffered the stigma. They faced the negativity for something well beyond their control, the circumstances of their birth. The aspect of single parenting that is harmful is when a parent (father or mother) abandons the child. Men are usually pointed to, but there are some deadbeat mothers out there. It’s just more common for the dead beat parent to be the father. Forcing marriage in the cases of pregnancy won’t solve that problem even if divorce was made illegal because one spouse could still just walk away (which before the acceptance of divorce you can find numerous records of one spouse leaving despite still being legally married.)

      • Larry Ham

        I have to disagree with your data, there are way more children born out of wedlock today, especially in minority communities. And with birth control and abortion being completely legal, and paid for by taxpayers in many instances, I just don’t get why people continue to have kids when they’re clearly not ready to have them.
        It’s the single biggest factor in poverty along with substance abuse.

      • Cemetery Girl

        Single parent households tend to be more financially strained, but demanding marriage isn’t a solution. The couple could divorce or even just have one parent abandon the family (yet still remain legally married.) The problem is far too complex to say that marriage is the answer.

      • Larry Ham

        I agree with you about marriage cemetery girl, but the women in my part of Boston are choosing to have kids with derelict guys…I don’t think anyone even considers marriage.

        They choose to have kids out of wedlock for a variety of reasons and it’s absolutely killing us.

      • Cemetery Girl

        I think everyone has at least one person that they had an interest in or dated that they can look back and wonder what were they thinking. I think a fair number of single parents feel that way. They don’t regret their children, but question what the saw in the other parent to begin with. If the guy is derilict he’s not going to be any better if he gets married. I’m pro-choice but I can’t encourage forcing abortion. That is a tough choice, if a woman feels that it the right choice but not something anyone should be bullied into. I also don’t support going back to times when single mothers were pressured into placing their child up for adoption. It really isn’t even possible to find one absolute solution.