Steven Lewis is an adjunct professor of health policy at Simon Fraser University.
When author J.K. Rowling recently voiced her concerns around transgender activism, the criticisms and pile-ons quickly reached a fever pitch. Ms. Rowling is on trial because she thinks that sex and gender ought not to be entirely decoupled. The attempt to limit debate and the vilification of the debater is yet more worrisome evidence of the problematic culture among too many on my side of the political spectrum.
I’m a boomer, and the circles I travel in lean pretty heavily social democratic. A lot of us are Canadians-for-Bernie types, readers of The Guardian and Vox, a bit ashamed about our fossil fuel consumption, enthused about long-overdue reckonings with racism, appalled by police brutality. Some of us march in Pride parades and donate to Médecins sans frontières. We are progressives, but I suspect that some would dispute that claim because our brand is insufficiently pure.
I’ve about had it with the way too many progressives go about their business. Liberal democracies are admirable precisely because they are liberal, in the classic sense. Freedom matters, especially freedom of expression. I am a John Stuart Mill liberal: the silencing of an opinion – even and especially one without much merit – robs humanity of “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.”
A sign that a movement has become sclerotic and dangerous is when it stifles debate and turns on its own. Totalitarians such as Stalin and Mao wrote the manual on silencing dissent and dissenters. The progressives have not sent Ms. Rowling to the gulag or Margaret Atwood to a re-education camp, but their hegemonic impulses flow from the same well.
Ms. Rowling’s view that sex and gender should not to be entirely decoupled is not an issue about which there is settled science (and there may never be). It is not like climate change or Confederate statues. It is emergent, fluid and intellectually contested; some impeccably credentialed feminists argue that de-linking gender from sex is dangerous ground for women. Ms. Rowling is obviously and famously progressive, and her views are informed by both her politics and her own experience.
Ms. Atwood was pilloried for daring to state the obvious: that the University of British Columbia prematurely and improperly fired Steven Galloway on the basis of sexual-assault allegations that have proved unsubstantiated, in a deeply flawed process that equated being heard with being uncritically believed. It doesn’t matter that Ms. Atwood was right; what matters is that too many progressives turned on her because she refused to overlook a travesty of procedural justice.
Not every opinion deserves a hearing and not every proponent deserves respect. Some want to limit immigration because they are racists; others want to limit immigration because they don’t want to deprive developing nations of their best and the brightest. Such differences matter, and motive and past behaviours are often critical to understanding the argument being made and its subtexts. But excommunicating or censoring thoroughly decent people for raising perfectly legitimate questions sends an ominous signal.
Truth emerges from relentless scrutiny – exactly the kind of questioning and challenges to orthodoxies that have fuelled so many progressive causes. Churches are exempt from taxation. Can I create my own church and declare my house a tax-exempt temple? Surely it’s right for someone to question the legitimacy of my claim even if it offends my sensibilities – just as it is reasonable to ask why churches are tax-exempt, period. There is nothing unfair or disrespectful about probing discussions of gender and sex, or the presumption of innocence or guilt.
One cause of much of this piling on is humourlessness. Tyrants don’t laugh, but the tyrannized use humour to sustain hope and show their contempt for their oppressors and the lies of their regimes. It is possible to be committed and serious without being dour and dogmatic. We are all inconsequential specks in an absurdly vast universe. Our very existence is cosmically laughable, and amusement is an essential coping mechanism. I am much more inclined to trust leaders and fellow adherents who laugh – especially at themselves.
When your cause becomes your dogma, you have entered dangerous psychological territory. What drives the search for truth is curiosity and doubt. Shouting down speakers, stifling classroom discussions and having a black-and-white view of the moral universe are wrong, unnecessary and fatal to the prospects for building a progressive majority.
Political correctness is a mocking term; the irony is that its substance is indeed (mostly) politically correct. It is correct to acknowledge and try to redress historical wrongs. It is important to broaden representation in the halls of political and economic power. It is just to remind all of us that life’s playing field is disturbingly uneven. The comportment of many – by no means all – progressives is a gift to opponents, who can make the politics about the behaviour rather than the substance.
I don’t want to choose between my substantive politics and my even more fundamental beliefs. If I have to, I will. And I’m not alone. Enough scolding, enough censorship, enough dogma and enough beating up on good people. Cannibalism is a lousy recruitment strategy. Progressives everywhere need a lesson in the importance of not being so angrily earnest.
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