On the Limits of “Just Being Polite”

There are few things more intrinsic to what we do as humans than communication. Activism, politics, and philosophy rest heavily on our ability to effectively engage in meaningful discourse. Jürgen Habermas even claims in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action that communication is foundational to morality and freedom. All that philosophy jargon aside, the way we talk to each other is meaningful. Both the words we use and the way we structure discourse have ethical implications. In this piece, I hope to address both those issues in the context of left-wing and radical activism.

Specifically, we’ll talk about the strict rules of discourse imposed by activist spaces and the negative consequences of those rules, such as social hierarchies based on language policing. One particularly illustrative example of the dynamics I’ll identify comes from Max Stirner, but the point of this piece is not to defend Stirner or the particular example in question. In activist spaces, well intentioned rules are applied in deeply toxic ways, creating a structure where conformity to the discursive norm is valued above all else. The norms in question restrict people’s ability to participate in real communicative efforts and come to any kind of mutual understanding. If we seek liberation from oppression at all, it must necessarily come from within our own spaces as well as without.

If you’ve read this far, you probably know what leftbook is. For those who don’t, I’m referring to Facebook groups dedicated to discussion and shared community around leftism and memes. Here’s a little story about how those work: in one, it was against the rules to say the word “spooky” because it was considered a racist slur.

Wait, what?

Let me explain. Max Stirner, a 19th century German philosopher, wrote extensively about the relationship between individualism and society. He emphasized the way certain social constructs are insubstantial, saying notably that “Man, you see, is not a person, but an ideal, a spook.” A more literal translation is “higher being,” but the point is the same: Stirner argued that social constructs are not ontologically solid and exist only in the mind. Stirner’s ideas are prevalent in leftist and anarchist communities, but are otherwise obscure. Referencing Stirner and spooks became a sort of meme in leftbook, mostly because it represents an interesting and esoteric element of political philosophy. You could call anything a spook and other group members would understand that you were essentially calling it a social construct. It was a little bit meme, it was a little bit discourse, and it was funny.

One day, though, someone brought up the alternative connotations of “spook.” “Spook” has been used to refer to dark skinned black people as a derogatory slur. In the effort of approaching this in the best possible faith, it should be clear that I do not contest that “spook” has been used for racist purposes by racist people. Within certain contexts, it is indeed a slur. In this specific FB group, moderators called for a thread discussing whether calling various socio-political themes spooky was allowed or whether people who used it would then be banned. Eventually, the group decided that “spook,” “spooky,” and “spooks” would all be banned, and that those who used them would be asked to “self-crit.” If they refused, they too would be banned from the group. “Sounds spooky” was problematic.

Depending on your pre-held beliefs here, you may either think this sounds fairly reasonable or completely insane. If you think it’s reasonable, you might believe in what many advocates of political correctness maintain: that these restrictions pose no burden and that following them is “just being polite.” After all, no one has a right to be in a FB group. Follow the rules and use a different word.

But there are limits to just being polite.

Banned words in leftbook groups often surpass the limits of words commonly recognized as oppressive. Some of that is good; people opposed to domination and hierarchy shouldn’t use oppressive language. We should be on the front lines of being non-dominant in our language. It would be absurd to suggest that words can never cause harm and I’m not here to call people triggered snowflakes for being legitimately hurt by slurs. It may even be better to err on the side of caution in these cases; it has often been the case that derogatory words weren’t widely recognized for decades. But context matters. Until someone brought up that “spook” had alternative [racist] connotations, no one in the group had a problem with it. No one was using “spooky” to reference racism; there was absolutely no connection between the Stirner meme and the word’s alternative racist use. Only after “spooky” was labeled problematic did anyone make the connection. The context in which members of the group used “spooky” was utterly different than the context in which it has racist significance. But afterwards, those who disagreed with the ban were removed from the group, and those who supported and enforced the ban were lauded as woke and particularly anti-racist.

When activism takes political correctness and purity politics to an extreme, “just being polite” reaches its limits. Besides “spooky,” other examples of banned words included moronic, dumb, crazy, lame, and stupid. These words were all flagged as ableist and we were told to use “silly” or some similar word, as a replacement. Twitter posts circulating among leftist communities claim that non-binary people shouldn’t abbreviate their identity as “NB” as that is also used by non-black POC. It’s also recommended that polyamorous people abstain from using “poly” in their communities because Polynesian people use it. The arguments for this rest solely on the idea that using these terms causes harm to the impacted community. Clearly, here, not only do some communities become privileged over others, but the nebulous idea of causing harm substitutes for other analysis.

The structure of social justice activism online and in person lends itself to a “hierarchy of wokeness” which corresponds to social capital. It might seem initially unproblematic that leftist spaces exhibit a tendency towards leadership by the wokest among us, especially since we live in such an oppressive society. After all, shouldn’t those on the front lines of activism be the most empowered, the least oppressive? Shouldn’t they be highly educated and be the most politically correct? Well, maybe. I can’t offer a normative account of how we should organize in this essay. What I can speak to, however, is how a hierarchy driven by “wokeness” can motivate a highly toxic culture that excludes those new to the movement. Ultimately, I think, “internet leftism” provides incentive to create increasingly obscure in-group rules and structures that are both unstable and politically untenable.

This is not to say that words do not cause harm.

Discovering the problematic aspects of words and phrases we use is necessary. Interrogating the language we use is essential if we, as radicals, desire to avoid oppression. But oppressive structures can easily replicate on a micro level. By not requiring rigorous justification regarding why people should remove words from their vocabulary, activist spaces allow claims of “harm caused” to go unchecked. Further, it is actually taboo to question why words are banned once they have entered into the collective consciousness. Not only do activist spaces not require justification for bans, but challenging the bans becomes grounds for removal from the group or space. People therefore begin to fear speaking out against the accepted dogma. As the icing on the structural cake, those who “call out” problematic words are rewarded. They are generally accepted as an authority on the topic and sometimes — especially online — are given a position of power within the group. Perhaps they even become a moderator for a particularly shocking discovery.

This is not a structure that encourages discourse. Nor does it encourage learning. It only encourages listening and accepting. “One size fits all” rules regarding discourse ignore the contexts in which words are used and limit what we’re able to do with communication. Insofar as radical spaces require extreme engagement just to keep up on the ever shifting rules of what is and is not allowed, they discourage participation and encourage conformity rather than liberation. Arguing will see you punished: publicly humiliated or banned. People are thrown out for asking questions and rewarded for calling language out. The process, in sum, goes something like this: Someone claims that X community doesn’t like Z word. They make the case that Z is problematic, and that we shouldn’t use it. Anyone who questions their case is called out for problematic behavior. The members of the space, who have by now internalized this system, spread the news. The person who made the original claim gains followers, attention, and social capital. They might even gain monetary capital for a particularly popular post. Something is banned, someone gets cancelled, and someone gets rewarded. Repeat this a thousand times and create a social structure based on who makes the best call out posts, and you’ve got yourself online activism.

Maybe this isn’t such a big deal. After all, activist spaces are niche, and getting laughed at online isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. Specifically because activist spaces are niche, however, the severe punishment and exclusion of being found problematic becomes more serious. Questioning a local authority can lose real people real friends. And this drives people away from activism. Radical activism tends to be wildly toxic. People are afraid to ask questions and will sometimes publicly prostrate themselves in elaborate self criticism exercises. No one who isn’t benefiting from their position in activist hierarchy enjoys this. There are entire Facebook groups and pages dedicated to discussing some of the more absurd things that happen in leftbook. Members talk about leaving leftbook groups because they couldn’t stand walking on eggshells constantly.

I am not the first to raise these concerns. Frances Lee has written several relevant pieces. In the widely shared “Excommunicate Me From the Church of Social Justice,” Lee writes:

Scrolling through my news feed sometimes feels like sliding into a pew to be blasted by a fragmented, frenzied sermon. I know that much of the media posted there means to discipline me to be a better activist and community member. But when dictates aren’t followed, a common procedure of punishment ensues. Punishments for saying/doing/believing the wrong thing include shaming, scolding, calling out, isolating, or eviscerating someone’s social standing.

They offer similar sentiments in “Why I’ve Started to Fear My Fellow Social Justice Activists,” commenting:

I am also concerned about who controls the language of social justice, as I see it wielded as a weapon against community members who don’t have access to this rapidly evolving lexicon. Terms like “oppression,” “tone policing,” “emotional labor,” “diversity,” and “allyship” are all used in specific ways to draw attention to the plight of minoritized people. Yet their meanings can also be manipulated to attack and exclude.

Ultimately, Lee offers a vision for the future of activism that has promise. Check it out.

Internally policing your own language, especially when you haven’t been given any truly convincing reason to do so, is not “just being polite.” It requires internal energy. It also requires that you spend time staying up to date on activist language and what is, and is not, permitted. Something accepted yesterday can be banned overnight. The “rules” of activist spaces are constantly shifting, require everyone to stay involved, and cannot be questioned. One leftbook group has two rules that a person might consider conflicting, not that they could ever voice that. First: if you ask for a trigger warning as a joke, you will be banned. Second: anyone who questions another person’s request for a trigger warning will be banned.

This is not a radicalism that I want. It’s also not one that is plausibly liberating. In erring on the side of caution with regards to potentially problematic words, radical activism ignores the contextual elements of discourse and creates an environment so demanding and heavily policed that it feels like a burden to even be involved. Where there is a substantial — and context-appropriate — link between language and harmful effects, we should avoid that language wherever possible. On the other side, excessive burdens on language are, of course, driving people away because they feel unsafe and uncomfortable in radical spaces. If it seems like a cop-out to critique both sides without offering a definitive answer to what makes language oppressive, that’s okay. It kind of is. The answer really is that it’s complicated, and that in itself provides a starting point. Neither unjustified blanket bans nor edgily denying that words can harm can construe a truly free vision of discourse. And insofar as we do pursue freedom, we owe it to ourselves and others to pursue it in all that we do, from the abolition of the state to encouraging liberated, non-oppressive, and authentic communication.

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