Along with almost the entirety of the English speaking world that possess an internet connection and anything above a tenuous grip on sanity, I sat with silent slack-jawed astonishment at the recent viral footage of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) convention. Then I immediately watched it again and laughed harder than I have since the Lamborghini scene in The Wolf of Wall Street.
For those that haven’t seen it, it views like a parody of a parody of every twitching hypersensitive Social Justice Warrior cliché since about 2014. It’s so beyond belief it looks like a sketch the progressive left would concoct to mock right-wing caricatures of them. In this regard, it’s useful to watch. Those of us who have grown weary of the culture war and the repetitive grind of engaging with the same shrill interlocutors on the same non-arguments sometimes begin to doubt ourselves. Maybe we’re exaggerating how crazy these people really are? And then something like this comes along as a reminder never to be too surprised at how heights of battiness progressive identity politics can reach.
But once the laughter dies down, it is important to consider the sinister element to all this as well. To listen to such people speak and interact is to witness the collective pathology of minds in a constant state of fight-or-flight at the prospect of some harm taking place. “Harm” is a very frequently deployed term in such circles and so broadly as to denude it of all meaning. It is from this near-infinite interpretation of harm that we get such made up babble as “micro-aggressions” or “cultural appropriation”. There is a kind of modern day puritanism about it but instead of living in perpetual fear of someone somewhere having fun (as the old adage goes) these fanatics live in a state of terror at the prospect of someone being upset by something they see, hear (including the sound of applause apparently) or even, and I am not exaggerating, smell (one of the delegates enjoins the attendants not to enter one of the many safe spaces provided with “an aggressive scent”).
It is very easy to laugh at the absurdity of such people, but we sometimes demur at condemning them because, absurd as they are, their very absurdity seems to stem from their overly earnest good intentions and their inane ramblings seem relatively harmless. But you don’t have to look far to see how this is manifestly wrong.
As I have argued before, the problem with expanding the definition of terms such as “harm” or “violence” is that you also create a near-limitless range of appropriate responses. One day you wake up and get told that on the basis of your gender, skin-tone, sexual orientation or any other arbitrary aspect of your personal identity, that you are a victim of oppression. Not only this, but that your oppressor is anyone who doesn’t share the same immutable characteristics (or at least one of the others singled out for special victimhood status). Further, not only is anything that hurts your feelings now defined as violence, but that your very existence as a member of that marginalised category constitutes violence already committed upon you, which must now be answered for by your oppressor, regardless of their complete lack of participation in this apparent violence.
This is why identitarian ideologies are a magnet for bullies and cowards. What vindictive narcissist would turn down such an offer? A permanent, immutable moral high-ground where all your actions in response to your very existence are justified by a pre-existing power dynamic. Recall if you would, the look of glee on the face of a black student as she assaulted a white student with dreadlocks for allegedly appropriating her culture. I know that smile well, it’s the unmistakeable calling card of a cowardly bully. Or recall the impunity with which a Missouri college professor called for “some muscle” to eject a reporter from a public space when he tried to cover their protest.
These are weak people who have identified a way to attain morally pre-justified power through professed victimhood. As Jordan Peterson said, “there is nothing more dangerous than a weak man”.
It seems all very well to excuse social justice movements as being morally untouchable because they are “anti-establishment”, well-meaning or purport to stand up for the little guy. But spend any time engaging with this material and it is like listening to the authoritarian demands of mid-tantrum toddlers. Thank goodness such people are so entertainingly ridiculous as to preclude broad public endorsement, giving us the luxury to laugh at their absurdity where otherwise we would have to fear their madness.