Lauren Duca writes:
To all of the “nice white people,” I say this: Stop furrowing your brow over “the partisan divide,” and loudly declare your position in this fight against hatred. There is no such thing as bias when it comes to white supremacists. To hell with fairness and respectability. Burn politeness to the ground and get vocal. Talk to your friends and family members. Be willing to make sacrifices and insist on taking a stand for what is right. The president is talking about “many sides,” and one of them is white supremacy, so you better make a clear f*cking choice about which side you’re on.
Duca’s op-ed is in response to the violent incidents in Charlottesville this weekend. Her main point is that non-supremacist whites still benefit from privilege that is afforded to them because of the actions of a few supremacists, and she refers to Peggy McIntosh on privilege (1989) who explains very convincingly how easy it is to not notice one’s own systematically conferred power. As an aside Duca also includes what she considers a corollary of this - that there is a right side here and you ought to make clear what side you are on. I find this argument to be consistent with what I have written in the past about making your beliefs known being the strongest vehicle for progress.
I’ve been seeing the anti-partisanship point of view slowly creep into the mainstream discussion. This argument basically posits that attempts to move American society in the right direction should start with attempts to bridge the ideological divide between reasonable Conservatives and reasonable Liberals. Given that I have been touting this fairly consistently and personally hold this point of view you would think that I’d be more excited that more people seem to agree, but its slow emergence has been accompanied by an equally compelling reaction: people who reject this point of view on the grounds that tolerance of intolerance does not better a society. That if your reaction to a violent white nationalist riot is “don’t blame this on all Conservatives/Trump supporters/white people/whatever-thinly-veiled-tribal-indicator-you-prefer,” then you are implicitly ignoring the systematic power conferred upon all Conservatives/Trump supporters/white people as a result of the actions of a few. That part of owning up to your own privilege involves actively trying to correct the offenders.
And I actually agree with this. In fact I think what Duca misses is that this reaction is absolutely consistent with the point of view that partisanship is bad for the country.
Let me tell you something someone very wise once said to me. In college when my communities were reacting to the idea of political safe spaces a lot of my smart and discussion-minded friends had the strong opinion that “if you close yourself to other people’s ideas by staying in a safe space you’ve curated for yourself, you’ll miss out on the important arguments that make you grow out of your incorrect beliefs.” This made a lot of sense to me until someone asked a very important question, “so have you ever actually changed your mind from one of these arguments?”
Duca references McIntosh so I will too. In her notes for facilitators who are presenting her papers, she advises:
Urge participants to avoid self righteousness and preaching to family and friends about privilege, especially if it is something they have just discovered themselves. Explain the word “systemic.” Help participants or students to think about what it is to see society systemically, and structurally, rather than only in terms of individuals making individual choices.
I think McIntosh understands something that I had to learn in college, something that I think Duca is missing in her op-ed. If you treat someone as hostile while you’re trying to change their mind they are far less likely to listen to you, no matter how right you are. That’s what a political safe space is for. It’s not a place where you hide from people with new ideas, it’s just a place you hope to be treated kindly even by people who disagree. In other words, it’s a place you go to change your mind. When your friends react to a violent riot with pleas for nicety, they aren’t doing so because they think you’re wrong; they’re doing so because they think you’re right, but they know that the people whose minds they want to change are going to react to hostility by leaving the conversation, and if they leave the conversation then everyone loses. There is a difference between being against all conflict and being against unnecessary meanness. There is a difference between saying we should all “sit in a circle around a campfire, smoke a joint, and sing Kumbaya” and saying that solving the partisan divide is important. There is a difference between ignoring your privilege and avoiding the assignment of individual blame, as McIntosh urges us to do when exposing these ideas to people who aren’t used to them.
Duca writes that we should stop prioritizing niceness over standing for what’s right. I say that these are not two competing things. Duca writes that we need to make sacrifices and fight hatred even when its hard. I say that being fair and polite while fighting hatred is hard. Duca writes not to furrow our brow over the partisan divide. I say sure, don’t furrow your brow in anger. But absolutely absolutely absolutely don’t forget that being mean doesn’t change minds, and being nice sometimes can.