‘Me-ism and The Left’ : A response to Joshua Dabelstein

[This post is in response to Me-Ism Is Undoing The Left, Joshua Dabelstein, New Matilda, December 4, 2018 (‘A feelpinion has no place in a contest of ideas, writes Joshua Dabelstein’).]

In responding to Joshua Dabelstein’s article it’s a bit difficult to know where to start, or even to know whether doing so is at all useful. Probably not, but I’ve decided to anyways (I never learn).

As I understand it, the author’s basic argument is this:

There are two generations of leftist, old(er) and new(er). The new(er) generation is Bad because it’s characterised by moralism, confused thinking (lack of conceptual clarity) and the elevation of emotion over reason. It may also be termed the ‘soft-left’ (as opposed to the ‘hard-left’), “[a]nd of all the arguments that the left has with itself, it is the soft-left’s immature replacement of political philosophy with moralism that has caused a rift the likes of which people like Jordan Peterson have been belched from”. Peterson, in other words, is popular because he directly attacks the moralism of the ‘soft-left’. The author also complains about the swiftness with which members of the ‘soft-left’ experience ‘offence’, and how easily it’s manipulated by these mushy-brained folks in order to avert rational discussion of their (flawed) political positions. Hyper-individualism is to blame for this predicament, according to the author, and this hyper-individualism is in turn a product of our neo-liberal age: “the left I fell for argued about praxis, not about whether or not dreadlocks are racist”.

What I reckon:

The article reads more like a complaint than an analysis, and the underlying thrust of the message it sends to “say, a young any-gendered feminist reactionary” could be neatly summarised as: ‘harden the f*ck up’. In fairness to the author, wanting to tell someone else to HTFU is almost certainly a sentiment everyone’s felt about someone at some point or other, but in this context, at least, it seems unlikely to generate much interest in discussion or debate. (Then again, I am writing this reply, so maybe it’s not a bad move after all.)

Beyond that, I don’t reckon the employment of a generational divide is useful. Certainly, I’m wary of its use in many contexts, but to the extent that the attitudes, beliefs and behaviours that the author identifies as being problematic are worth analysing, I suspect you’d find them distributed among all ages and generations. In which case, maybe it would be better to counter moralism, poor argumentation and emotional immaturity by explicit reference to these faults, rather than to the ages of those allegedly guilty of committing them?

Secondly, of course people generally finds others’ moral posturing objectionable; and yes, humility is generally preferable to hubris. But if, for the sake of argument, there is indeed a plague of “feminist reactionary” yoof who, for example, use Identity Politics in order to avoid taking responsibility for their thoughts and actions — especially if, as a result, they make the left look bad — it would be sensible to name such individuals, or at least to identify the political projects with which such individuals are associated. Who, exactly, populates the “swathe of self-important self-proclaimed ‘left-wing’ ninnies giving the rest of us a bad name”? The closest the author comes to answering this question is by way of reference to an imaginary conversation with “a young any-gendered feminist reactionary”, a fictitious entity who (correctly) bemoans patriarchy but then (wrongly) uses its existence as a poor excuse for failing to understand Berlin’s 1958 essay on ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ — and who compounds the offence by resisting attempts by a man in their imaginary study group to explain the distinction by simply categorising him as a ‘mansplainer’.

Now, if an event such as this did take place, it wouldn’t be too difficult to become irritated at this fictitious person’s attempt to dodge responsibility for their incomprehension, and to baulk at their enlisting patriarchy in their defence. By the same token, while the existence of patronising men is indeed a thing, the example is relatively trivial, and it would be incorrect to assume that feminist critiques of patriarchy can be reduced to, say, micro-policing of speech. Further, to do so is to risk dismissing a very substantial, theoretically-sophisticated, and politically-relevant body of work. I’d suggest that engaging with this critique in good faith is both more urgent and requires a bit more effort.

We live in an age where feeling offended is empowering. The assertion of disempowerment is an easy and often great way to reclaim power. But if we aren’t careful of how, when, why and with whom we are doing this, we run the risk of becoming a complete laughing stock.

Do we live in an age where (merely) feeling offended is empowering? I dunno. I ask myself: ‘Am I empowered when I feel offended?’ (Or do I merely feel empowered when I feel offended?!) For what it’s worth, it seems to me that claiming ‘power proceeds from feeling offended’ is to have things in reverse order; that is, it could also be reasonably claimed that it’s those in or with power who are most able to express their feelings of offence. And the biggest, best-paid whiners aren’t to be found in a University tutorial, but rather occupying prominent positions in the culture and media industries.

But maybe this argument could be rendered differently. After all, how does some person (or community, or collectivity, or class), both assert their disempowered status while also reclaiming power? And if there are other ways of reclaiming power, what makes this one so “easy and often great”?

I suppose one could argue that ‘assertions of disempowerment’ could also be protestations at disempowerment; ones which, through their historical unfolding, make the powerless powerful. Legend has it that the process by which this occurs lies at the centre of left theory and practice — well, it did, before the identity politicians went and mucked it all up with their liberalism. In which context, the breezy dismissal of ‘identity politics’ – or rather, its invocation as something understood to be inherently objectionable from a left perspective – is I think unfair. Granted, many online discussions of the topic are dreadful, but there exists other possibilities. One is that, for the left, identity and politics is not a straightforward relationship, and it’s the politics of identity, rather than ‘identity politics’, that matter, and it’s the ways in which these identities are shaped — typically, in the interests of some dominant group — that those on the left seek (or at least claim to want) to transform in the interests of the oppressed. [1]


‘Feelpinions’, ‘identity politics’, ‘professional victimhood’, ‘moralistic white-knighting’, ‘mansplaining’, ‘snowflakes’: all terms familiar to anyone who’s read a complaint like this and, for what it’s worth, elements that typically constitute the muck out of which the AltRight, in particular, claim this strawperson is being created. Aside from generating derision, such terms and concepts also perform another political function: obscuring the legitimate grievances of marginalised groups and rendering them fit only for contempt and dismissal. From a ‘left’ perspective, this is hardly an ideal situation, and I’d suggest it’s one that calls for some more thorough — and critical — examination. Further, the characterisation of ‘identity politics’ as being merely a “neoliberal pest; a hallmark of cultural capitalism, and a testament to … infectious ME-ism” is inadequate (to put it mildly).

I may be reading into it, but I think there’s a certain anxiety present in the text, and almost certainly a kind of anger and frustration, one presumably related to the relative failure of the left – or, moreover, the ‘hard’ left – to praxis their way into power. This is understandable. In 2018, the species as a whole is on the verge of complete catastrophe, and only a radical transformation in human relations — and the relations of humanity with non-human nature — will provide the necessary and, hopefully, sufficient conditions to make it possible to avert total disaster. To put it another way: ‘socialism or barbarism’ — now more than ever. [2]

I understand (or think I do), some of the justifiable objections to narcissism, of the too-easy avoidance of difficult questions – for example, those which require and may even prompt serious reconsideration of previously-held positions – and the countless other faults we all encounter and embody to a greater or lesser extent. But while the proposition that capitalist social relations profoundly affect contemporary culture and society; individual and group psychology; social expectations, norms and customs, and do so in a way that (re)produces the human being as a calculating, self-interested and autonomous agent let loose in a world of labour and commodities may be sound, it’s not the fault of that annoying person in your tutorial if it is. And neither is the left’s failure to dismantle this world and to build a new and better one in its place.

Jordan Peterson

And of all the arguments that the left has with itself, it is the soft-left’s immature replacement of political philosophy with moralism that has caused a rift the likes of which people like Jordan Peterson have been belched from.

I’m not sure I understand this passage. If it’s a fact that the ‘soft-left’ has replaced political philosophy with moralism — and this in turn has caused a ‘rift’ out of which Jordan Peterson has emerged — how is this fact an example of an argument that the left has with itself? That doesn’t make sense. (As I understand it, an example of an argument that ‘the left has with itself’ might be ‘Reform or revolution?’, or ‘Who should the left vote for?’.) Maybe what the author is trying to say is that the moralism of the ‘soft-left’ produced Jordan Peterson, and until the soft left grows up and begins practicing political philosophy, rather than engaging in moral condemnation, the left as a whole will continue to be cursed by the Jordan Petersons of this world. This line of argument contains more than a trace of similar claims made by Angela Nagle in Kill All Normies, a slight text which has had an over-sized impact upon these sorts of discussions (and whose author has since gone on to write another contentious text making The Left Case Against Open Borderssee also Brianna Rennix & Nathan J. Robinson’s response — and to score an appearance on Tucker Carlson).

For what it’s worth, while ‘snowflakes’ presumably took ‘offence’ at his performances, there were to my knowledge no protests during the course of Peterson’s tour Down Under earlier this year. At about the same time, however, some solid critiques of his work were being published (see, for example: Houman Barekat; Nathan J Robinson; Pankaj Mishra). Suffice it to say that Peterson, nothing if not a moralist, blames ‘Marxism’ for producing ‘identity politics’, and in doing so demonstrates little understanding of either.

To conclude, it’s certainly true that moralism is no substitute for political critique, overly-earnest students can be annoying, and the left cannot be reduced to liberalism. But it’s also the case that, whatever cultural shifts may (or may not) be occurring on Australian campuses and among students in particular, complaints about their annoying habits aren’t sufficient to explain the success or failure of the left as a whole, to understand the relationship between historical and contemporary left movements, or to explain the role of that dastardly beast ‘identity politics’ in their numerous interactions.

See also : Digital Archive: What Is Identity Politics? (A collection of essays, 1986–2016) | Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis, Nancy Fraser, Verso (2013) | ‘Identity Politics and the Left’, Eric Hobsawm, Institute of Education, London (May 2, 1996).

[1] Note that ‘the left’ and ‘the oppressed’ are not coterminous or equivalent terms; also that like, say, liberalism and leftism, some people can and do confuse one for the other. As to who or what is most responsible for this confusion, I’d argue that this lies at the feet of dominant social institutions, not impressionable University students.

[2] Whether or not the left, or the left of the left, is actually capable of undertaking such a task is an open question, and the news on that front may be Good or it may be Bad. As it stands, I’m unconvinced … but then the left can and does refer to a multiplicity of political projects to which I’m more-or-less inclined. If I choose a political identity it’s usually ‘anarchist’, and the relationship of anarchism (and anarchists) to the left as a whole is pretty mixed (to say the least). But there are self-identified communists, socialists, Marxists, social democrats and leftists from a variety of other tendencies whose lives and work I’ve found insightful, inspiring and yes, moving. That fact doesn’t really alter my basic political perspective very much (or my own situatedness).

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2024 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
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9 Responses to ‘Me-ism and The Left’ : A response to Joshua Dabelstein

  1. @ndy says:

    Jordan Peterson: six reasons that explain his rise
    Janet Albrechtsen
    The Australian
    February 23, 2018

    Why has an obscure Canadian academic become a phenomenon across the Anglosphere? The man seems genuinely surprised at his 18-month transformation. Hence his tweet asking why so many people have watched the interview he did on Britain’s Channel 4. On March 8, Jordan Peterson kicks off his Australian speaking tour. At sold-out events in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane he will talk about his bestselling book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.

    One way to explain this rise of a man who has been described as a cowboy psychologist and an egghead who gives practical advice is that he drives many on the left bonkers.

    There are at least a dozen reasons for this, but this is a column, not a book, so here are six.

    Reason 1. Peterson reckons that listening is good for our soul and even better for human progress. Sounds banal, but in an age when campus outrage and an angry mob mentality have seeped into our broader culture, listening to those we disagree with is a truly revolutionary message.

    The University of Toronto psychology professor is old school. He gathers information and builds knowledge the Socratic way, by listening and testing ideas. That’s how he developed a fascination with why totalitarian regimes murdered millions in the quest for utopia. He’s suspicious of ideology, dogma and the doctrinaire. Ideology is dangerous, he says, because it’s too certain about things and doesn’t allow for dissent.

    Moral relativism is equally dangerous because it makes no judgments and is blind to the greatness of Western civilisation. Human beings need a moral compass. The demise of religion has left a vacuum, and it has been filled by rigid ideologues and nihilistic moral relativists. Well-timed, given so many millennials are bunkering down with socialism or moral relativism.

    If you want to ignore Peterson, that’s your right. But he is a symbol of what’s rotten within parts of our culture. When he speaks, his critics try to howl him down. Students scream over him, university administrators try to censor him.

    Last year, Lindsay Shepherd, a teaching assistant at Ontario’s Wilfrid Laurier University, played one of Peterson’s YouTube videos in a communications class. In a meeting with university honchos, one professor, Nathan Rambukkana, accused her of breaking Canadian law and creating a toxic environment for students. Another said her decision to show a Peterson debate clip was akin to the Nazis relying on free speech. The meeting was taped. It’s literally crazy. An uproar led the university to apologise to Shepherd.

    Some of this explains why, as of Thursday, Peterson’s cracker interview with Channel 4’s Cathy Newman has attracted 7.4 million views since it aired on January 17. Sure, some of us have watched it more than once, because it’s funny, it’s serious and it ought to be shown in the first lesson of a journalism 101 course.

    As reported in Inquirer last month, the interview is a 30-minutes precis of what happens when you don’t listen. Peterson was calm, measured, respectful. He used science and evidence when explaining the differences between men and women. He raised obvious questions about dogma on the gender pay gap. And he smiled politely when a woman who brought him on to her show wasn’t interested in listening.

    There are now memes about Newman’s closed-ears interviewing style. Like this one. Peterson: “Women want strong and competent men.” Newman: “So what you’re saying is women are incompetent.” And this. Peterson: “I’m a clinical psychologist.” Newman: “So what you’re saying is I need therapy.” But none is as humiliating as the interview.

    Reason 2. Peterson believes in free speech. He’s worried about the illiberal direction of modernity, not just on campus. That’s another reason this solid-gold cultural disrupter, with a quiet but firm tone, drives many on the left nuts. The professor attracted headlines at home in Canada when he said he wouldn’t abide by Bill C-16, introduced in May 2016, amending the Canadian Human Rights Act and making it illegal to use the wrong pronoun. It became law last June. Peterson baulked at being told by the state to use the pronoun “ze” for transgender people. He said if someone asked him to use it for them, he’s a polite guy and he’d do it. But when the state tells you what to say, the state has crossed the line into forced speech.

    Reason 3. Peterson is a force because he’s also damn good at getting his message across. He uses our most important stories, drawing from history, psychology, neuroscience, mythology, poetry and the Bible to explain his thinking.

    The man described as an “ardent prairie preacher” grew up in the small town of Fairview, Alberta, watched some of his friends succeed while others ended up drug addicts. He spent years searching for answers to big questions such as what makes life more meaningful and, going back a step, why meaning even matters.

    His 12 Rules book, extracted in Inquirer earlier this month, sprang from an online free-for-all forum called Quora, where anyone could ask questions and provide answers. His answers attracted a huge online crowd, then a curious publisher, and this week his book is topping Amazon’s bestseller list in Australia.

    Why storytelling matters calls for a divergence. Last December Jonathan Sachs, a rabbi and member of Britain’s House of Lords, said we need an army to defend a country. And to defend our civilisation we need a conversation between generations. “We need to teach our children the story of which we and they are a part, and we need to trust them to go further than we did, when they come to write their own chapter,” he said.

    This is not woolly idealism, Sachs said. “It’s hard-headed pragmatism.” Understanding our own story, our history, where we went wrong and what we got right, allows children to face the challenges and the chaos of a rapidly changing world. “We need to give our children an internalised moral satellite navigation system so that they can find their way across the undiscovered country called the future,” he said.

    Peterson is a navigation system with a twangy Canadian accent, trying to direct us towards meaning. Wrong way, go back, he’ll tell you when you’re heading down a dead-end street.

    Reason 4. Peterson is secretly feared by utopians on the left. Life is full of unexpected and unavoidable suffering, he says. We get sick, we get betrayed, we lose jobs and friends and a sense of order. Get used to it. Deal with it.

    This starting premise is where he departs so spectacularly from cultural Marxists. The utopian imaginings of socialism and communism created great suffering. So stop dreaming, Peterson says, accept that life can be hard. Accept, too, that each of us is capable of being monstrous and marvellous in all our human complexity. And make choices about that. Accept individual responsibility.

    Start by standing up straight because it can “encourage the serotonin to flow plentifully through the neural pathways desperate for its calming influence”. If people around you see you as strong and capable and calm, you might too — and vice versa.

    Face your problems with honesty, he says. Choose friends who are good for you. Pursue what’s meaningful rather than what’s expedient. It’s the kind of advice given a generation ago when people talked more about responsibilities than rights and parents warned their children that life is tough. Today it offends our rights culture, not to mention our mollycoddling parenting. So three cheers for common sense from this Canadian disrupter.

    Reason 5. Get your own house in order before you start lecturing others or presuming to know how to fix other problems. Peterson’s message is a direct challenge to two particularly rank strains of modernity: victimhood and virtue-signalling. Both are cop-outs. Much harder, and more important, says Peterson, is to fix what you can at home because if we all did this there would be fewer victims and less misery in the world.

    Reason 6. Men need to grow the hell up, he says. A whiny guy who blames others for his poor life choices is of no use to himself, no use to women, no use to children and no use to a world that has prospered from those who take responsibility. A boy who never grows up can’t possibly deal with the periods of chaos we all must face. And parents shouldn’t bother children when they’re skateboarding, meaning let them take risks so they can manage them as adults.

    Maybe now you’re seeing why the mild-mannered Canadian psychologist is attracting brickbats and bouquets.

    Those living in a women’s studies world can’t bear him and wail about him entrenching the patriarchy. Men especially want to listen to him, and plenty of women, to be fair, because he makes a reasoned case, based on evolutionary science and evidence, for men to be men, in all their masculine complexity. The “patriarchy” hasn’t hampered human progress, he says, but helped it.

    Peterson, who is the only member of his department to maintain a clinical practice, draws on his work with patients when he says that being “agreeable” doesn’t drive achievement. Instead, it’s being assertive, even aggressive.

    And there’s this. He said recently he has figured out how to monetise social justice warriors. The more they scream and go crazy over what he says, the more money he makes.

    They just keep feeding him material to work with and he’s making a motza each month from a crowdsourcing fund that pays for his YouTube videos.

    If this information leads some of them to change their tune, it will mean they have listened after all.

  2. Nicki Townley says:

    Maybe I’m being a bit facetious and/or snowflakey, but the thing that stood out most to me was where Joshua starts his hypothetical about the ‘young, any-gendered feminist reactionary’ then in the last sentence of the scenario, he says ‘…and how dare people treat me like that just because I’m a woman’.
    Hmmmm I thought this was meant to be a hypothetical expression by an ‘any-gendered’ person, but Joshua seems to have forgotten that aspect. Perhaps Joshua is at the mercy of his own unconscious bias?

  3. People do love to write the same article over and over again, don’t they? I’m sure I was bored of reading essentially that same article years ago.

  4. @ndy says:

    @Nicki : Yes I did notice that, but I didn’t think it worthwhile mentioning: it may be suggestive, or it may simply be a mistake. (I also refrained from riffing on ‘hard’ and ‘soft’.)

    @nothingiseverlost : The sad thing is that there’s lots of rlly interesting debates & discussions on this & related matters, but they rarely receive the same lvl of attn.

  5. Yeah, I’ve not got around to reading Haider’s Mistaken Identity yet, but it sounds really worthwhile and actually thoughtful about this stuff. I remember Eleanor Robertson having some good writing on related subjects too.

  6. @ndy,
    I enjoyed reading this. Glad you wrote it.
    I like your work, and this was no exception.
    You make some good points. Same to you Nicki Townley.
    Feel free to email me at [email protected] if you want to turn this into a conversation.

  7. Futilitarian says:

    Most generations produce snarky minorities that enjoy challenging some — occasionally all — of the ideas and practices of the societies they find themselves in. Some of these minorities demand wholesale revolutionary change, some try to get whatever they can through ideological and minor insurrectionary challenge. The latter tend to be more successful. Over time, and with persistence and occasional menace, some of the demands of these minorities penetrate into the Behemoth’s ways of going about things. Thus, that which was once radical becomes mainstream. The Behemoth lumbers on. Subsequent generations come up with new schtick, and on it goes.

  8. @ndy says:

    @Joshua : I wrote you.

    Of relevance:

    Against apologies
    Joanna Horton
    No.232, Spring 2018

  9. @ndy says:

    Also of relevance:

    Special pleading: free speech and Australian universities
    Glynn Davis
    The Conversation
    December 4, 2018

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