Guest post: When politics becomes identity

Originally a comment by Artymorty on A broader range of social justice causes.

All across the left, we’re seeing this. It’s because the left have conceptualized the causes we hold dear — the environment, gay rights, anti-racism, women’s reproductive rights — not as fixed, external objectives we’re trying to achieve at this point in time in political history (reduction in greenhouse gases, equal rights for sexual and racial minorities, access to contraception and abortion, etc.) but as relative, internalized political identities on an ever-shifting political spectrum. When a progressive cause gains ground and enters the mainstream zeitgeist, it’s not seen as a victory but a loss: the cause is no longer appealing to the activists who championed it because it doesn’t line up with their internal political identity as being more progressive relative to the mainstream.

This is our old friend the Overton Window of course. But there are two extra effects at play here. One is a sort-of feedback loop that develops between the zeitgeist and progressive politics; it seems to be a repeating pattern in history: the point where progressivism suddenly and rapidly melts down into totalitarianism. (I suppose you could call it a “China Syndrome” in more ways than one?) It goes something like this: progressive cause succeeds in shifting the zeitgeist. The zeitgeist now sees that the progressive side is probably correct, and decides that in future it will be quicker to adopt the progressive position. Progressives now see that their cause is no longer progressive, so they quickly shift to a more progressive position. The zeitgeist moves even faster this time to incorporate the progressive position; the progressive wing moves even faster to an even more hardline-progressive position, yadda yadda the feedback loop has a meltdown and we end up with totalitarianism.

The other effect at play is that the “extremification” of the left isn’t just becoming more hardline about progressive causes, it eventually turns hostile to the very causes it started with. In the end, the Chinese Communist Revolution did the exact opposite of abolishing the ruling class and ushering in equality and freedom. Trans is an especially good (bad) example, because it is fundamentally about an inversion: flipping the sexes, thus flipping the polarity of the power structure behind sexism and homophobia, literally putting men and straights (even misogynist men and anti-gay straights) at the forefront of women’s rights and gay rights. Lots of people have pointed out that some of the more extreme “anti-racist” positions around things like cultural appropriation are sounding more and more like old-fashioned segregationism.

As for the environment, I won’t be surprised if eventually some self-styled environmentalists start embracing pro-coal and pro-oil policies under some Byzantine rubric of anti-racism or queer whatever. It sounds absurd, but hey, so much on the left has gone absurd lately. I can already picture a future Greenpeace news release:

“Why shutting down coal power plants is literal violence because it disproportionately harms BAME and Queer Bodies.”

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