Bullies are everywhere to be found: on the right, on the left, and everywhere between; amongst the libertarian, the religious, the atheist, the gay, the straight, the rich, the poor, and everywhere else. That being said, some of the worst bullies are to be found on the progressive left. Perhaps this is because they think of themselves as being, almost by definition, anti-bully.
As C.S. Lewis rightly observes in God in the Dock (1971): “Of all the tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
For many people, myself included, the first step in dealing with a progressive bully is to recognize that they exist. Just because someone’s committed to social justice doesn’t mean they’re socially just. Notorious bullies have been known to lead anti-bullying campaigns. I recently had to part ways with an old friend over this very issue. He was always a bit of a bully, even when we were kids. But his engagement with online progressive politics has brought those tendencies out like never before. He’s become an abusive asshole who thinks the fact that he’s right gives him the right to be nasty and disrespectful.
He’s alienated at least a dozen old friends and family members, and he’s clearly unhappy, maybe even depressed. Yet he keeps on this miserable path, in part, because he has a cloud of online sycophants who Facebook-like every stupid thing he says: the meaner the better. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that none of these people are real friends. He’s never met these people and they have no intention of meeting him. When he was in the hospital last year, none of them came to visit him. It was his real friends, the ones he keeps alienating with his zealotry, who came to see him.
I’ve learned some valuable lessons from my fraught interactions with this angry little man, and others of his stamp, lessons which may prove useful to you: namely, beware of kafkatrapping, avoid orgies of self-flagellation, prepare for charges of gaslighting and mansplaining, prepare to be told that you need to check your privilege, and know what kind of person you’re dealing with.
(1) Beware of Kafkatrapping: The Urban Dictionary defines “kafkatrap” as follows: “To accuse someone of some form of ism (sexism, racism, etc.) and proclaim that their denial, or any attempt they make to defend themselves, is proof that they are guilty.” Progressive bullies seem to delight in kafkatrapping, as it’s their preferred strategy of attack in Social Media Land. So you should be prepared for it. Just as schoolyard bullies tell you to move your hands out of the way so they can punch you in the face, progressive bullies hurl abuse at you and then accuse you of “white fragility” if you refuse to passively accept it. The irony of an utterly offensive person telling the person they’re offending to stop being so defensive never seems to occur to them. Regardless, if you find yourself in this situation, bear in mind that you have a right to defend yourself. Remember, too, that the kafkatrapper’s circular argument is more or less absurd. Just as a net that catches the whole sea isn’t much of a net, an argument that explains everything isn’t much of an argument.
(2) Avoid Orgies of Self-Flagellation: Progressive bullies will want you to cower and debase yourself in their presence. Do not comply with this demand. If you’re invited to one of those orgies of self-flagellation which are so fashionable, at present, in certain circles, decline it. You can learn from others and listen respectfully without checking your self-respect at the door. If the working-class neighborhood I grew up in taught me anything, it’s that there’s no upside to walking around with a “KICK-ME” sign you put on your own back. As Omar puts in The Wire: “If you act like a little bitch, people gonna treat you like a little bitch.”
(3) Prepare to be Accused of Gaslighting: If you stand up to a progressive bully, you’ll eventually be accused of gaslighting. So you should probably know what it is. Gaslighting is an interpersonal conspiracy theory popular amongst consumers of self-help literature and pop-psychology. The word is derived from the classic thriller Gaslight (1944). In the movie, a creepy sociopath tries to make his new wife believe that she’s losing her mind. Just as there are real conspiracies in the world, there are real gaslighters in the world. But the circular reasoning employed by those who habitually accuse others of gaslighting makes it hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. Accusing someone of gaslighting is like accusing someone of witchcraft. There’s no way for the accuser to be wrong. If the accused denies it, or attempts to defend themselves in any way, this is proof that they are guilty.
(4) Prepare to be Accused of Mansplaining: If you’re a dude, and you dare to stand up to a progressive bully, you’ll eventually be accused of mansplaining. So you should probably know what that is too. Rebecca Solnit’s description of “mansplaining” is clear, precise, and painfully accurate. I’ve witnessed it first-hand on numerous occasions. For instance, I once watched two clueless dudes take it upon themselves to school my wife in the intricacies of climate change politics at a dinner party. These guys—whose entire knowledge of the subject was, we later on discovered, based upon one TED Talk and last Sunday’s New York Times—continued to tell her “what’s what” even after I told them that she was an expert on the subject! Even after she’d made it abundantly clear to everyone within earshot that she was indeed an expert on the subject! Even after she’d also made it abundantly clear that these guys had no idea what the fuck they were talking about! So yeah, I get it: mansplaining is a real thing. And it is indeed obnoxious.
But you’ve gotta demonstrate that you’re being mansplained, you’ve gotta demonstrate that you know what you’re talking about; you can’t just assert it. As my friend Jed Trott puts it: “There is no problem with the idea of mansplaining but it requires an argument. You can’t just drop it and walk away from it like a fart in an elevator.” Dropping the mansplaining bomb in Social Media Land has become sort of like saying: “Hmm, that sounds just like something Hitler would say.” Those who wield this weapon no longer feel the need to justify their claims. What they want, what they’ve come to expect, is automatic deference. Calling people out for mansplaining has become little more than a progressive bullying technique, yet another convenient way to silence critics and shut down debate.
(5) Prepare to be Told that You Need to Check Your Privilege: This expression was once uttered in the spirit of John 8:7, wherein Jesus famously tells a group of men who are about to stone a woman to death: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” But it’s now uttered in precisely the kind of sanctimonious spirit Jesus despised: the self-righteous spirit of the Pharisees, who love to perform their good works “on the street corners to be seen by others.” These days, the person who says “check your privilege” is in all likelihood little more than a progressive bully who’s trying to silence you.
(6) Beware of Rhetorical Gerrymandering: Imagine if you and I lived in the same neighborhood and commuted across town to the same workplace every day. You have a car. I do not. You drive to and from work everyday. I take the bus. Now imagine that you and I sign a contract wherein you agree to “give me a lift” in 2019 for $500. Being American, you think you just agreed to a carpooling arrangement. But, unbeknownst to you, I was surreptitiously referring to the British definition of “lift” (that is, elevator). When this eventually became clear, would you honor your commitment? Would you build me an elevator in 2019 for the bargain-basement price of $500? Of course not. You’d quite rightly maintain that you never would have agreed to those terms if you’d known what I meant by “lift”. When activists engage in this sort of sleazy wordplay, I refer to it as rhetorical gerrymandering.
Rhetorical gerrymandering is a practice intended to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group by unilaterally redefining the borders of a word’s meaning. Here’s how it’s done: (i) Begin with a word, phrase, or concept like “racism” or “hate speech” that (a) has a commonly understood meaning, and (b) is commonly understood to be good or evil. (ii) Sneak in a weird, atypical definition (e.g., racism is only racism when certain people do it, hate speech is only hate speech when it’s about certain people, etc.). (iii) Now claim that anyone who is against this thing that is commonly understood to be evil, or for this thing that is commonly understood to be good, must agree with your policy proposal, analysis, etc. It’s a clever hustle. Beware of it.
Today’s Freedom Fighter, Tomorrow’s Tyrant
We entertain all sorts of illusions about ourselves when we’re watching a movie like The Hunger Games (2015): that’s part of the fun. Among other things, we tell ourselves that we’d be brave and courageous in similar circumstances, that we’d be the Teflon Hero with a heart of gold who manages, against all odds, to stay human through it all. But anyone with any knowledge of military history, or some first-hand experience with war, laughs at these presumptions. They know that it’s very hard to resist the urge to become a demon when you live in Hell, just as it’s very hard to resist the urge to dehumanize those who systematically dehumanize you.
This is precisely why Gayle Hawthorne’s character is so disturbing. He’s what I have often feared I would become in such a situation. He’s probably what you’d become too. President Alma Coin is, for me, even more disturbing. Because if Gayle represents a likely psychological future, Coin represents a likely political future. She’s a depressingly familiar character in the story of our species: namely, the freedom fighter of today who becomes the tyrant of tomorrow.
Look at those in Social Media Land who most loudly proclaim the Gospel of Liberation, and look carefully, because tomorrow’s tyrants will be chosen from among their ranks. There are wolves hiding in that flock, and we need to identify them, so we can see to it that they’re never given any kind of serious power. But how? How do we spot them? Well, as Gayle Hawthorne’s story arc makes clear, it’s not always easy, because brutalized sheep can, at times, become wolves. What’s more, there are now, as there have always been, wolves in sheep’s clothing. But my guess is that the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing is actually quite rare. Most wolves are rather easy to spot.
If you want to know who’s going to be a tyrant in power, pay attention to who walks and talks like a tyrant out of power. If you want to know how a freedom fighter’s going to rule tomorrow, pay attention to how they deal with people who disagree with them today. As Maya Angelou wisely cautions: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Progressive bullies keep showing us who they really are. We need to listen to them. We need to believe them the first time. And we need to beware of them.