On the heels of the latest incident in Alec Baldwin’s long string of gay-slur-laced outbursts of anger, there was apparently a very serious debate about whether or not Baldwin is, deep in his being, a homophobe. Andrew Sullivan and Ta-Nehisi Coates both agreed that he was, and that his public advocacy for gay rights is rendered false, even pernicious, by these nasty explosions of apparent homophobia. Sullivan wrote that Baldwin’s slurs “reveal who he really is,” and both he and Coates complain about Baldwin’s “liberal enablers,” who … I’m not sure, let him get away with saying mean words when he gets steamed at photographers?
Obviously the things Baldwin said are horrible, and he should be duly criticized for them. But I’m rather repulsed by this effort to determine whether Baldwin is ontologically homophobic, and to insist that it requires his banishment from the liberal “team,” whatever that is. Wes Alwan, from the great philosophy podcast The Partially-Examined Life, has a good takedown:
These condemnations are grounded in a number of highly implausible theses that amount to a very flimsy moral psychology. The first is the extremely inhumane idea that we ought to make global judgments about people’s characters based on their worst moments, when they are least in control of themselves: that what people do or say when they’re most angry or incited reveals a kind of essential truth about them. The second is that we are to condemn human beings merely for having certain impulses, regardless of their behaviors and beliefs. The third is that people’s darkest and most irrational thoughts and feelings trump their considered beliefs: Baldwin can’t possibly really believe in gay rights, according to Coates, if he has any negative feelings about homosexuality whatsoever. The fourth, implied premise here—one that comes out in the comical comments section following Coates’ post—is that we are to take no account whatsoever of the possibility of psychological conflict. We refuse to allow ourselves to imagine that a single human being might have a whole host of conflicted thoughts and feelings about homosexuality: that they might be both attracted to it and repelled by it. That they might associate it with weakness and submission on the one hand, and on the other with the strength and courage required to face discrimination and disapproval. That they might be personally repelled by homosexuality yet be ashamed of that feeling, and meanwhile an ardent supporter of gay rights.
Alwan’s post hits a couple of themes that are recurring pet peeves of mine with liberal pundits: the inordinate weight given to labels and terminology, and what seems like the increasing tendency of strident moralism to replace political argument. Not only is moral sentimentalism anti-political, but it tends to recreate the climate of conformity and censorship that the left, if anyone, is supposed to be against. Dan Savage, while still participating in the labeling of Baldwin as a “bigot,” seemed to get that politics is action, not moral sentiment; Baldwin’s political actions are more important than the words, even the nasty words, that spring to mind when he is really angry at invasive photographers. (Sullivan, in a passage quoted approvingly by Coates, actually argues the gay rights is “not merely a political struggle,” but a “moral case”—never mind that nobody has to listen to your moral case until you’ve spent a long time building political leverage.)
But for so many liberals, the words are everything. There is no bigger sin than using the wrong term, or revealing that you haven’t completely purified your inner life of unapproved sentiments. Of course, as Alwan points out, this is an absurd, impossible, and even dangerous expectation, but it is nonetheless the one that animates a significant swath of American social liberalism to the point that a few wrong words can undo a larger body of actions. You can do almost all the right things on the outside, but if the bloggers’ jury decides your inner life betrays the cause, you’ve got to go.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a devastating mentality for the left to embrace. I left behind the religious conservatism I grew up with partly because I saw, over the first 20 years or so of my life, the self-defeating absurdity of movement orthodoxies and the obsession with moral shibboleths. There is some basic part of humanity that resists imposed conformity, especially when it claims the authority to judge even one’s individual inner experience. I became a liberal because I believed in the fundamental sovereignty of the individual to determine their existence as they see fit, free from totalizing legal or religious regimes; I became a leftist when I understood that systemic economic conditions impose even greater constraints on that self-determination. If all liberalism is about is policing the state of one’s soul, entirely apart from what one does to tear down those restraints, we might as well give up politics and go back to church.
I’m sure most liberals would say they agree with the previous paragraph, but I think the record would show that, in practice, labeling and shaming play a larger role in their discourse than they would like to admit. Almost all gay rights controversies center on whether or not certain individuals’ comments are “homophobic” or “anti-gay”—not just the content of the comments, but the essential truth they are taken to reveal about said individual. (Not to mention if they disagree with the majority view on gay marriage, which also = rotten, immoral human being.) Far too much “internet feminism” is a kind of privilege tournament, where the innate worth of the speaker must be assessed to determine their right to be listened to. Calling conservatives “racist” on the basis of one or two comments is a time-honored tradition. Oh, and don’t forget, Glenn Greenwald “mocks rape survivors” and Brown University students are “totalitarians.” Twitterstorms, petitions, and social-media shaming around these labels are near-daily events.
None of this is to say that racist, sexist, or homophobic remarks don’t matter or should be ignored. It is to say that the use of those labels is often grounded in moral philosophy no less flimsy than fundamentalist theology, and thus often presumes far more about complex individual human beings than it has any right to presume. Worst of all, the massive amount of liberal oxygen these moral outrages consume accrues to the benefit of the economic exploitation that receives far less vociferous and strident opposition. Seriously, what the bloody hell is it accomplishing? Jamie Dimon should pay Alec Baldwin a monthly stipend to keep spewing those slurs.
The left’s gradual devolution from political dissenters to morality police have given the right the opportunity portray itself as the new champion of the old leftist values: of individual liberty, of free thinking and speaking in opposition to conformity-demanding dogmatism. In many cases that has been a cynical lie, but in plenty of others it has contained a grain of truth. I don’t have any more faith in movement conservatism, which is an orthodoxy-enforcing tribe if there ever was one, but I feel a certain strange affinity with intellectually honest conservative and libertarian writers who have honed their skills against the liberal establishment’s allergy to real debate. We may not share anything politically, but rhetorically, we share the experience of being labeled and written out by the center. When you haven’t had a long period of dominance to insulate you from challenge, you learn to argue.
The weird thing is, the ascendance of social liberalism has come parallel with the left’s near-total defeat on issues of systemic injustice. Thus, the moral sentimentalism feels especially defensive, especially small and reduced—less of a challenge than ever to the forces of reaction, whatever they may be. Perhaps the first step to breaking out of that limited purview is to reject the logic that restricts justice to a matter of private morality, to a pure, theological state of the soul that outweighs one’s actions in the material world. Maybe more people would be fit to be on the team.
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