In which layered ideas are pounded flat

Another piece on the quest for purity in lefty politics, this one in the New Statesman and by Richard Wallace. It’s getting to be quite a popular subject these days, no doubt because there are so many purist lefties cluttering up the place and no-platforming everyone in sight.

(I figure before long Freethought blogs will consist of maybe eight or nine 100% pure people generating anything up to twenty posts a month, which no one will read. Purity tends to be a tad boring.)

If you use Twitter a lot, you may have wondered exactly how to criticise large parts of the left without sounding like a bigot, a racist, or worst of all Richard Dawkins.

The legacy of what the internet calls “identity politics” is that the lived experience of an individual now not only informs a given debate, as well it should, but dominates it, leaving no room for dissent.

Coupled with the binary nature of the internet, in which layered ideas are pounded flat by the limitations of the format, a new discursive register has emerged: either you’re with us, to the most extreme interpretation of our ideas, or you’re against us. There are no in-betweens.

That’s the purity drive. Agree with 100% of my ideas with 100% conviction or be denounced as cis scum. Answer the question, yes or no. Are you now or have you ever. When did you last. Can you pronounce.

Try having a grown-up conversation about freedom of speech or immigration or austerity without the debate quickly descending into a face-off around each word’s representative categorical implications. Unironic use of the words free speech mark you as a libertarian, your stance on immigration makes you either pro or anti racism, and what you think about austerity implies whether or not class privilege courses inexorably through your veins. I am using this garish italicisation as is customary for non-integrated foreign words, because at this point they may as well be: these words have no longer have any original or literal meaning but represent only a wider cultural idea, like saying plus ca change or c’est la vie. 

Like intent isn’t magic and check your privilege and the other stock phrases.

We risk devaluing useful globules of language by repurposing them so often not as useful signifiers but as brands for the ideologically impure.

Think about when Charlie Hebdo recently published cartoons of Aylan Kurdi. The cartoons were many things – tasteless, offensive, upsetting – but instead the controversial magazine was accused of making fun of a young boy’s death. A cursory Google translation of the captions and an ounce of critical analysis confirms that this interpretation simply wasn’t true – but try typing that online without looking like you endorse Charlie Hebdo’s repugnant sketches.

I have. Repeatedly, I have, and that’s one reason I’m considered so very impure by the so very pure.

That’s okay. I’ve always been a muddy type.

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