On the danger of assuming your “enemy” MUST be evil

FeindbildFormer US president Barack Obama and other left-wing personalities have negatively commented on what has come to be called “Cancel Culture”.
I believe this is an unfortunate name, as this is an umbrella term for different phenomena. Not all of them are equally problematic from a moral standpoint.

What I want to address here is the tendency of many people on the Left to believe that if someone ever said or wrote something they deem to be deeply offensive, then they can feel absolutely certain that this person is evil and wicked.
To be sure, many right-wingers reason and behave in this way too but since I’m a Socialist, I am mostly concerned by what I consider to be a very problematic and potentially dangerous attitude in my “own camp”.
Obama had this to say:

This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically woke and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly.”
“The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws.

There is this sense sometimes of the way of me making change is for me to be as judgemental about other people, and that’s enough“.

Like, if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself because ‘man, you see how woke I was, I called you out”.
To that, I can only loudly say “Amen!”. We do indeed live in an extremely complex world and most often lack the necessary knowledge and objectivity to understand what is truly going on and what ought to be done to rectify injustices. Given that, it’s impossible to expect that every decent human being will always agree with your most cherished ideas.

I also came across a video about Cancel Culture created by transgender woman Natalie Wynn, alias Contrapoints. She’s a radical Socialist and Leftist and one of her main goals is to counter the narrative of the far-right (including the Incel movement). And she’s also a very fair-minded person who truly tries to be objective and to understand her opponents’ viewpoints.

Here are some important things she has to say:

The point is that sometimes people who seem ignorant or hateful just need to be given a non-judgemental space to learn and grow and think. And to just condemn them as hopeless bigots actually prevents that growth from happening.

She mentioned many examples of people having bigoted values who later gave them up and apologised.

Here is a touching comment someone wrote:

I’m an ex-homophobe, with this very YouTube account I’m using now I have argued in YouTube video comments about why gay marriage is bad and I’ve parroted transphobic rhetoric more than a few times. I changed because a gay man became my best friend. He wasn’t put off my my beliefs, he was simply kind. It made me see the real human beings behind what I had previously thought of as a distant abstract concept, human beings which my words and my beliefs hurt in real ways as he helped me see. Seeing how nervous he was to come out to me once we were friends made me question if I was really the good guy, and on the deepest possible level I changed. I now make a conscious effort to look different than I once did because I don’t want to be recognized as that person. I have to believe that people are redeemable because if I didn’t, what would that say about me?

She also emphasised one of the main problems of online activists: they ESSENTIALISE their “enemies”.

Essentialism is when we go from criticising a person’s actions to criticising the person themselves. We’re not just saying they did bad things. We’re saying they’re a bad person.

I had similar things in mind when I wrote the following Facebook post:

“I’ve been watching the American culture for many years as a European Socialist outsider.
Conservative cultural warriors believe that progressive culture warriors are evil beyond measure and that you cannot have any rational conversation with them.
Progressive cultural warriors believe that conservative culture warriors are evil beyond measure and that you cannot have any rational conversation with them.
I’ve grown convinced there are good people on both sides who truly and earnestly seek to make the world a better place.
However, they badly misunderstand each other.
To white Conservatives, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” means that other lives and their lives don’t matter.
To progressives, the phrase “All Lives Matter” is an outright denial of the systematic oppression black people suffer from and the consequences of historical racism.
What about using the Golden Rule and trying to first understand each other charitably before jumping to conclusions?
Instead of engaging in a productive discussion, the reflex of many online progressive activists who see this picture (showing a man with the “All Lives Matter” slogan) would be to try to contact this man’s employers to get him fired or to harm him in other ways.
I think it is utterly COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE.
Instead of improving the lives of people of colour, you’re making white people MORE racist and less likely to recognise the racial oppression black people are exposed to.
If this man had been my Facebook friend, I’d have written this to him:
“While you probably have good intentions, I think you misunderstand what the people you criticise mean by such phrases.
As a progressive socialist, I believe that #blacklivesmatter BECAUSE I believe that #alllivesmatter. If you look at the statistics, you’ll see that black people are statistically much poorer and more likely to live in bad neighbourhoods and to be arrested and killed by the police.
It seems very hard to deny this isn’t caused by the historical racism black people suffered from and compounded by the current racism they’re still exposed to. “Black lives matter” means that we ought to seriously acknowledge this and seek to change this tragic state of affairs. It doesn’t mean we should also ignore the suffering of other people. Like Dr. Martin Luther King, I also believe that poor white people have a rough life and that they ought to be helped by better-off people in a just society.”

I think that if progressives had consistently used this rhetoric, Donald Trump wouldn’t have been elected in the first place and that much more white people would recognise the reality of systematic oppression and feel less defensive while talking about race.
I can’t help but quote the words that a (probably brown-skinned) very brave and wise Jewish Palestinian prophet said 2000 years ago:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

In one (European) progressive group, the answers were very positive.
In another (global) progressive page, the reactions were more mixed but we had some great and mutually enriching conversations.
However, in an American progressive group, the reactions were extremely negative.
I was not only told that ALL Conservatives posting “All Lives Matter” are racist and evil beyond any hope of redemption, but that I too must be racist and evil beyond measure for wanting to first give them the benefit of the doubt.

This made me realise I should have formulated and presented my ideas differently.
I originally posted a picture of the white Conservative holding the “All Lives Matter” slogan in his hands and that was bound to trigger negative feelings and thoughts.

I also came to the realisation that without intending it, I had formulated my sentences in such a way that they could sound very arrogant to outsiders not sharing my worldview.
I should have said, for example, that “without this online rhetoric, Donald Trump MIGHT NOT have been elected”, instead of confidently asserting he wouldn’t have been elected.

However, none of the answers I read convinced me rationally that I was wrong: I still believe that AT LEAST SOME people who write or say things such as “All Lives Matter” aren’t evil but just ignorant and/or irrational.
I can give you a personal example from a European standpoint.
I’m a Germanic Frenchman and one of the main important sentences of the German constitution is:
“Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar” which means in English: “Human dignity is inviolable“.

On the face of it, “Human dignity is inviolable” is very similar to “All Lives Matter” in that it is a universalistic statement including every human being. However, in Germany it is used very differently than in the US.

I recently reacted to an article describing the horrific chronic abuse of a Black German man living in Leipzig in Eastern Germany.
I wrote this as a comment (which I just translated into English):
While I believe that accusations of racism can sometimes be exaggerated, no sensible person can deny that the writer of this text has been the victim of horrible racist misdeeds which could very easily lead to a severe post-traumatic disorder.
This poor black German man has been persecuted, spat on, bullied, hated, rejected by customers at work, and harassed by white police officers just because of his skin colour.
Is it really a coincidence that the AFD (a far-right political party in Germany) is so strong in Saxony where this happened?
Because I believe that human dignity is inviolable and holy, I believe we must absolutely support this man and wage a war on racism in our midst.
For any collective silence in the face of injustice is always a grave sin“.

My post was liked by almost all left-wingers and Leftists who read it.
And yet, I used a universalistic phrase very similar to “All Lives Matter” to make my point!

If a German or a French person mostly ignorant about the current American culture war were to interact with American progressives, I could very well imagine him or her tweeting “All Lives Matter” or even “All Lives Matter, and that’s why we must fight for marginalised people!”.
It would be extremely hard for him to understand why everyone suddenly calls him a white supremacist or a bigot.
The same points can be made about Conservative or apolitical Americans: you cannot automatically assume that by “All Lives Matter”, they mean: “We know that Blacks suffer much more than Whites on average but we don’t care and don’t want to do anything for them!“.

They might, for example, live in a Conservative bubble and honestly believe the lies of Fox News and other crazy stuff such as Young Earth Creationism.

A commenter to my post made an interesting remark:

While productive conversations are possible, it is particularly difficult in this climate. There are a few things people can do to help ratchet down the vitriol, but even the best approaches are unlikely to have much effect. One possible approach is to clarify definitions. In this meme, I seriously doubt the person with the sign has the same definition of “racist” as most progressives. It would not hurt to ask him how he understands the term “Black Lives Matter.” It’s also good for him to ask those same questions of someone with whom he disagrees. Agreeing on what one is talking about is an important first (baby) step.

A thought experiment: the infinite sequence of bigotry

I want to make clear I am NOT trying to defend MYSELF against accusations of racism and white supremacy and to save my own honour here.
First of all, it’s completely impossible and pointless to prove to Internet strangers that you aren’t a racist.
Second, I know all too well my own heart. I have lots of irrational prejudices about many things that I must constantly hold in check in order not to treat some persons unfairly.
Instead, I want to criticise the very logic of the accusation because I think it can have bad real-world consequences on the interactions of people who have very different worldviews.

As I said, many folks thought not only that all Conservatives writing “All Lives Matter” are racists and white supremacists but also that I too must be a racist and a white supremacist because I am willing to first give them the benefit of the doubt and consider they acted out of ignorance or irrationality rather than malice.
Interestingly, Natalie Wynn (Contrapoints) had a similar experience she describes in the video linked above. She self-identifies as a transgender Lesbian and a woman but once had a video with an older transsexual who doesn’t identify as a woman.
Many followers of Contrapoints assumed not only that the older transsexual was a transphobic bigot but also that Natalie Wynn herself was a transphobic bigot, despite the fact she spent an enormous amount of time defending Trans Rights!

Now comes my thought experiment.
Suppose that Person 1 says something that can be interpreted as racist.
Person 2 says: “While I believe her remark was incredibly harmful, I believe this could possibly be due to her ignorance and irrationality“.
Person 3 says: “I know that Person 1 is racist, but Person 2 might be simply ignorant or irrational instead“.
Person 4 says: “I know that Person 1 is racist and Person 2 must be racist too because she gave her the benefit of the doubt. However, Person 3 might simply be ignorant or irrational instead“.
Person 5 says: “Person 1, 2, 3 are racists, but Person 4 might simply be ignorant or irrational instead
Person 6: “Person 1, 2, 3, 4 are racists, but Person 5 might simply be ignorant or irrational instead

I think you get it now. This could go on and on until the heat death of the universe.


Would you say that Person 1,000,000 is every bit as racist and bigoted as Person 1?

Or would you rather say: “Person 1, 2, …, 500″ are racist and ignorant.
Person 501 could possibly be only stupid. Person 500,000 is okay, I could drink a beer with her on some occasion“.
I don’t mean this as a rhetorical question or as a “Gotcha!”.

I sincerely want to know how you would draw the line (if at all).

One thought on “On the danger of assuming your “enemy” MUST be evil

  1. Not bad but your notion Barack Obama is “left-wing” is pretty stupid. Obama is much more of a conservative than people who claim to be conservatives.

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