Getting Shit Done: How The Cannibal Left Is Actually A Good Thing

[CN: Dan Savage, CSA]

With June finally here, I’m looking forward to Sioux Falls’ Pride events later this month. I went to Pride for the first time in 2013, where I quietly walked around and then left. In 2014, I volunteered, helping kids with some games and face painting. This year, I’m too busy to volunteer, but I plan on attending all the same. It’s a pretty wonderful thing for me to be able to see other queer people around, and to feel safe and happy about my status as a queer woman in a red state.

But I only feel safe at Pride insofar as I’m aware of the powerful dynamics at work that allowed such events to come to fruition. I know that years of discussion and debate has gone into making Pride a safe space for people of all kinds to come together, and I recognize that Sioux Falls has a lot of road still left to travel when it comes to racial diversity and action on transgender issues.

Last year, the Center for Equality – the LGBT advocacy org that puts on Pride – listened to criticism about how it was very focused on issues affecting cisgender gay men and less so on issues facing, well, everyone else. Since that time of criticism, the Center has become more inclusive, advocating more eagerly and readily for transgender issues and making sure to include transgender voices in their board and ideas. It’s a change that could not have happened had they not initially been called to the carpet about their failures.

Many people of privilege on the leftist side of the political and theological spectrum would have looked at the initial criticisms as yet another example of the left eating its own. In some mythos, the political and theological left has come to be seen as a cannibal tribe, a group so dissatisfied with itself and so obsessed with ideological purity that we consume our children before they’re fully developed.

There was a time when I, too, may have agreed with such critiques. As a white woman who became engaged with Twitter and social media reluctantly at first, I spent quite a bit of anxiety and worry on what would happen if I screwed up, if I said or did something the Internet decided was Wrong. I remember, in 2010, talking to a friend over Skype and telling him I was afraid of the Internet, that I didn’t want to become a meme, that I was terrified of what could happen if I developed a visible profile.

I want to simultaneously validate and puncture the fears of the privileged in the process of this discourse about cannibalization of the Left. The narrative of cannibalization has always been a top down narrative – meaning that it extends from the privileged with power toward the marginalized without. The fear the privileged experience when engaged in critical discussion with the marginalized is a genuine fear insofar as the desire to protect one’s privileged status generates a fearful outlook. Privileged people unaccustomed to understanding and engaging with their privilege are necessarily going to be fearful of what they see as “cannibalization.”

On Monday, I brought up some problematic things Dan Savage had said about the Duggars – namely that he supports redefining “Duggar” to mean child molestation. This, of course, is in ignorance of the allegation that most of Josh Duggar’s victims also share his name, forcing them to carry this stain upon themselves if Savage’s campaign is successful.

In the course of discussing this, I argued that Dan Savage is a great advocate for Dan Savage, and not so much for anyone else. I was then on the receiving end of an argument I see repeated throughout media: that “punching our own” is a poor way to make progress.

Dr. Richard Beck took up elements of this same argument in a post about what he calls “purity culture psychology” and what I call “ideological purity.” Beck argues that a dose insensitivity – the phenomenon that, no matter how tiny or small the offense is, it has the ability to taint your reputation forever – lends itself to the cannibalistic nature of the political and theological left. Though this dose sensitivity argument is clearly Beck’s primary focus (and in itself has its own problems), Beck also uses this post as an opportunity to argue against critiquing one’s supposed allies and friends, vis a vis, “call out culture.”

Beck issues a brief disclaimer saying that call outs can be prophetic, and then undermines his own disclaimer by talking in generalities about supposed ideological purists and their critiques of allies. Discussions about the proper behavior of allies, Beck essentially argues, are a distraction from the primary goal of Getting Shit Done.

It’s the same argument that gets made in any larger movement – that critiquing people within the movement, that “cannibalization” is the opposite of actual progressive work. Beck makes the distinction between “progress” and “critique” very clear:

Progressives perennially struggle with allies, how to work with sympathetic but complicit people. Consider just how much commentary is devoted to "the ally problem" in online progressive spaces. Notice the number of Tweets and words progressives devote to the issues they have with allies. Just this morning I read a 2,500+ word post at a radical website that was 100% about allies and their numerous faults. A post not about injustice or concrete policy proposals--you know, a post about actually getting something done in the world--but a post about the shortcomings of allies.
No doubt allies are flawed, but if allies are your central, defining problem, well, you can see why progressive causes have difficultly reaching the critical social mass needed to get stuff done in the world.

(Emphasis mine).

To summarize Beck’s point: discussing the failures of allies to actually act as allies is the opposite of writing about … what? A law in Congress? A letter writing campaign to a Senator? What happens if those “concrete policy proposals” require responding to someone who is being a poor ally?

The real truth is far messier than the bright lines Beck insists on drawing here. While disclaiming the idea that he is critiquing “call out culture,” Beck upholds the more frustrating dichotomies that develop within such critiques. It’s a neat sleight of hand, but it’s just an illusion all the same.

A couple of weeks ago, a few black independent media personalities I follow had a Twitter fight with a white lady who listened to their podcast. One of the hosts, Imani Gandy, was complaining about a troll who has been stalking her for years on Twitter, creating multiple serial accounts to harass her and several other people daily. This white lady popped in, commenting that Imani just needs to block and ignore. Imani replied as one would expect when dealing with harassment from a known and vicious troll – by telling this white lady that she knows how to handle herself and that she’d be fine, thanks.

The white lady was incensed, in a completely absurd manner. She accused Imani of calling names, was wildly upset that Imani refused to take her well-meant “advice.” She escalated to the point where she asked Imani’s boss, Elon James White, to refund her subscription to their podcast and to consider how their Twitter behavior impacts white allies to their cause.

Elon and Imani laughed, and said, correctly, that allies who insist on stomping over the agency of those they are supposedly being allies to aren’t people they want as allies.

This is a prime example of the cannibalization that Beck and other privileged Leftists would critique as wrong. Elon and Imani lost a subscriber to their podcast and lost some potential audience members – people who may have learned from their work. But what good does it do for the marginalized to lay themselves down like a doormat for people who insist that they’re doing good in our names? How can our allies learn if we pretend things are all roses and butterflies?

The basic fact of the matter is that this cannibalization is far more complex and far more intertwined with power dynamics than Beck and his privileged cohorts want it to be. With a simplified narrative of “critique is the opposite of actual progress,” Beck and his ilk create a false dichotomy between calling out and “getting shit done,” ignoring the fact that calling things out is actually a major part of getting shit done.

Beck writes that “The left does need friends but the left, because of its purity psychology, is also very hard on its friends, fracturing a potential coalition from ever reaching the tipping point needed to change things.”

But if your “friends” are unwilling to listen to you, are unable to recenter your feelings even just once in awhile, they aren’t exactly friends. If your friend or your ally insists on ignoring or fighting any kind of pushback or criticism because “infighting hurts the movement” then the movement isn’t actually going to go anywhere. Indeed, the push and pull of criticism and discussion is actually the only way anything has ever actually gotten done. Critiquing our allies – like Sojourner Truth critiquing the whitness of the suffragette movement or transgender people critiquing the cisnormative nature of the LGBT rights movement – is precisely how progress is made. Ignoring those call outs, ignoring that criticism, only works to keep privileged power structures in place.

Let’s look at it as building a house. Many, many leftists – mostly white, cisgender, hetero men and women, exhibit a strong desire to get certain walls in place before making progress on things like the front door. They aren’t actually going to live in the house – it’s basically a Habitat for Humanity build. So mistakes are easily dismissed, and certain things are overlooked because they aren’t going to be affected by them. They’re the contractors who are invested insofar as they get monetary results from satisfying the customers.

But the marginalized are the ones who are going to live in the house. They are the people who stand to benefit the most from making sure that the house has a solid foundation and that the walls and doors and ceilings are all working correctly and that the lights turn on when they need to be. The work might become harder if they fire the contractor for refusing to listen to what they want done, but then someone who actually listens to what the homeowners want might do the work. It’s a slow back and forth process, but it eventually results in the right living space for the people who are actually going to be occupying it.

Could the homeowners eventually learn to be okay or possibly fix later what the contractor messed up? Certainly, but they’d rather make the best attempt to get it right the first time.

We marginalized folk and we “allies” know that people are going to mess up. What matters is how people respond to and listen to critique – and insisting that critique is the opposite of progress is not productive, nor does it "get shit done."