This passage from Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country (1997) helps me pinpoint the shift from a predominant liberalism to illiberalism in the popular left:
The academic, cultural Left approves — in a rather distant and lofty way — of the activities of these surviving reformists. But it retains a conviction which solidified in the late Sixties. It thinks that the system, and not just the laws, must be changed. Reformism is not good enough. Because the very vocabulary of liberal politics is infected with dubious presuppositions which need to be exposed, the first task of the Left must be, just as Confucius said, the rectification of names. The concern to do what the Sixties called “naming the system” takes precedence over reforming the laws.
“The system” is sometimes identified as “late capitalism,” but the cultural Left does not think much about what the alternatives to a market economy might be, or about how to combine political freedom with centralized economic decisionmaking. Nor does it spend much time asking whether Americans are undertaxed, or how much of a welfare state the country can afford, or whether the United States should back out of the North American Free Trade Agreement. When the Right proclaims that socialism has failed, and that capitalism is the only alternative, the cultural Left has little to say in reply. For it prefers not to talk about money. Its principal enemy is a mind-set rather than a set of economic arrangements — a way of thinking which is, supposedly, at the root of both selfishness and sadism. This way of thinking is sometimes called “Cold War ideology,” sometimes “technocratic rationality,” and sometimes “phallogocentrism” (the cultural Left comes up with fresh sobriquets every year). It is a mind-set nurtured by the patriarchal and capitalist institutions of the industrial West, and its bad effects are most clearly visible in the United States.
To subvert this way of thinking. the academic Left believes, we must teach Americans to recognize otherness. To this end, leftists have helped to put together such academic disciplines as women’s history, black history, gay studies, Hispanic-American studies, and migrant studies. This has led Stefan Collini to remark that in the United States, though not in Britain. the term “cultural studies” means victim studies.” Cellini’s choice of phrase has been resented, but he was making a good point: namely, that such programs were created not out of the sort of curiosity about diverse forms of human life which gave rise to cultural anthropology, but rather from a sense of what America needed in order to make itself a better place. The principal motive behind the new directions taken in scholarship in the United States since the Sixties has been the urge to do something for people who have been humiliated — to help victims of socially acceptable forms of sadism by making such sadism no longer acceptable.
Whereas the top-down initiatives of the Old Left had tried to help people who were humiliated by poverty and unemployment, or by what Richard Sennett has called the “hidden injuries of class, ” the top-down initiatives of the post-Sixties left have been directed toward people who are humiliated for reasons other than economic status. Nobody is setting up a program in unemployed studies, homeless studies, or trailerpark studies, because the unemployed, the homeless, and residents of trailer parks are not “other” in the relevant sense. To be other in this sense you must bear an ineradicable stigma, one which makes you a victim of socially accepted sadism rather than merely of economic selfishness.
This cultural Left has had extraordinary success. In addition to being centers of genuinely original scholarship, the new academic programs have done what they were, semi consciously, designed to do: they have decreased the amount of sadism in our society. Especially among college graduates, the casual infliction of humiliation is much less socially acceptable than it was during the first two-thirds of the century. The tone in which educated men talk about women, and educated whites about blacks, is very different from what it was before the Sixties. Life for homosexual Americans, beleaguered and dangerous as it still is, is better than it was before Stonewall. The adoption of attitudes which the Right sneers at as “politically correct” has made America a far more civilized society than it was thirty years ago. Except for a few Supreme Court decisions, there has been little change for the better in our country’s laws since the Sixties. But the change in the way we treat one another has been enormous.
The key phrase is “the casual infliction of humiliation is much less socially acceptable than it was during the first two-thirds of the century.” This resonates with my own understanding, and I believe that actually was the left’s mission until fairly recently. We were supposed to oppose the humiliation of other people, and most of all, from humiliating others on the basic of categories we have ourselves have assigned them.
But what I am seeing now is a very strong desire for the humiliated to finally get their turn to humiliate.
Most folks on the popular left see this counter-humiliation in terms of a financial metaphor — as a sort of “social capital” account, debited when praised, honored or granted of privileges, and withdrawn against when criticized, scorned or penalized.
I’m a little skeptical that many have even questioned this metaphor, which functions as a Kuhnian paradigm among subscribers of the left worldview, and which unconsciously guide all their thinking, judgments and even their perceptions. I have also seen little evidence many of them have questioned the either the scientific or moral validity of the sweeping generalizations they make and their applications of these generalizations to individuals to whom they assign to categories. This practice was once condemned by all liberals as as prejudice, but prejudice has been redefined to
allow encourage people of certain disprivileged categories to vent their resentments on individuals of other categories.
I don’t believe privilege functions like one fund that can be transferred to another through inflicting humiliation. Yes, there does seem to be short-term influx of visceral pleasure on one side at the apparent “expense” of the other, but the pleasure gains soon evaporate, while the anger of the humiliated lingers and festers, and ultimately the sum of the transaction is a red negative. In fact, there was no transaction, only an abusive interaction performed for the sake of getting to be the abuser — in other words, sadistic pleasure.
I also don’t believe individuals automatically get to draw from cultural capital held in common by social categories. There is no such thing as a quantity of “white male heterosexual” prestige anyone of that category can access and use or spend wherever they wish. Social capital just doesn’t work that way. Treating categories constructed on resemblances one has observed as realities capable of intention, moral agency, practical effectiveness is reification, a confusion of what a subject views as true and the reality beyond what a subject imagines. (And of course, the social or legal imposition of one’s own reifications upon real individuals who do not share one’s beliefs about the reality or the properties or the theoretical justifications of these categories, however much one is convinced of their validy, is one of the traditional core prohibitions of liberalism.)
And, finally, I don’t think people who lash out at various categories of person are actually motivated by a desire to improve the world, however much they pose as champions of the oppressed and however much they justify their attitudes and actions with social scientistic arguments, one-mindedness with everyone who matters, and memories of tearful moments of insight cuddled up with their favorite novels on Sunday afternoons.
All these highminded concepts, proud unanimity and empathetic sentiments are prettifying rationalizations for enjoying what liberalism has always forbidden on principle: hatred of the Other.
And they are most definitely not, as they claim, “punching up”. It is only their refusal to factor class into their assessments of relative privilege that permit this delusion of “speaking truth to power”. As Thomas Frank persuasively pointed out, they’re actually “speaking truth to weakness” from a position of superior class (remember class, fellow liberals?) and generating enormous resentment in a group that is becoming dangerously sick of being scolded. Pay attention to the actual educational pedigree, income bracket, actual, individual institutional position and relative vulnerabilities of who is doing the judgmental confrontation and who is being judged, and you’ll certainly find a power differential, but not the one doing the judging sees or wants you to see.
Everyone outside the ideological sphere of the pop-left and radical academic left sees it though, plain as day. And this number includes not only the awful elements of the right. It also includes leftists who still believe in liberalism, Moderate libertarians and most centrists. To us, this looks very bad, not only practically, but ethically. It is not only a matter of electoral consequences, it is a matter of where we stand on the most important matters, whether we can actually count people who carry on this way as allies at all.
If liberals do not renounce casual infliction of humiliation on despised categories of people, bad things are definitely going to happen, and those things will happen as a direct result of indulging prejudice, hate and sadism. There is no honor in such calamities, only disgrace and discredit.
Once again, I will quote one of America’s greatest liberals, Martin Luther King.
In your struggle for justice, let your oppressor know that you are not attempting to defeat or humiliate him, or even to pay him back for injustices that he has heaped upon you. Let him know that you are merely seeking justice for him as well as yourself.
Liberals need to get back to the morality that alone justifies us, and we need to return to practicing what we preach. We mist stand up to prejudice, hatred and humiliation of all our fellow Americans, whoever the perpetrator and whoever the target, and whatever the rationalization.