Over 1 in 100 people in the United States took to the streets on Saturday, January 21st, for the women's march in protest of the election of now President Donald J. Trump. These protests were joined by y number of sister protests around the world, sending a resounding message of defiance to the President, who has wasted no time in giving his political opponents things to defy.
There was lots to criticize about the protests, chief among which were pointed questions for the movement newcomers presumed to fill the ranks of the protest. Many expressed these criticisms, importantly working class trans and cis women of color. But these critics themselves came under fire, notably from Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of “From #BlackLivesMatter to Black liberation”. They accepted many of the criticisms of the women's march on their merits, as well as the value and justifiability of political anger, but stressed that some of these criticisms (or their time and place) worked counter to the goal of building a mass movement, and should be delivered in some other way than they apparently were.
It's important to note that the defenders are just right about the history. But that seems like a reason not to judge the people who criticized the march, which is different from evaluating what they're doing. Moralizing, in this case, has subtly changed the subject: what began as a conversation about which actions to take for strategic reasons became a conversation about whose feelings were valid, and Garza and Taylor were unfairly taken to be on the opposing side of a judgement about the second because of their opposition to critics on the first.
The problem with moralizing as a rhetorical tactic is not actually that it necessarily makes genuine moral considerations especially salient in conversations where this tactic is used. What is distinctive and problematic about moralizing is precisely the opposite: that it doesn't.
We organize politically to achieve concrete political ends that matter to us, for justice: to block the construction of new prisons, to win wage increases, to prevent the closure of health care centers. It also matters, also for justice, that our organizing campaigns themselves be just and fair for those who are able and willing to participate in them. But the strategy used in the defenders' answer to Garza and Taylor's point doesn't just pay insufficient attention to the former considerations of justice. If we are supposed to take it that our criticisms of organizers' choices of public speech acts stand and fall with the justifiability of their motivations, we are treating the movement's goals as functionally irrelevant to the question of what organizing decisions we will make, at least with respect to public messaging.
The philosophy nerd in me wants to point out the weird contradiction that results here, that organizing can't even be for what it's for! But the rest of me is more concerned with the fact that, in my view, this kind of reasoning is a way of refusing to participate in the important conversation about the morality of our political decisions. Our alternative, more just visions of the concrete world – the aspects of our vision of justice that benefit other people, who usually aren't in the room when we're organizing - only happen if we succeed. On the other hand, the people that experience the approximations of justice we can cobble together in the rooms where organizers meet are primarily other organizers.
Considerations of political effectiveness are how we practice accountability and responsibility to the people who aren't in the room. If we are really trying to change the world, or even a corner of it, people who aren't in the room are the vast majority of the people who will enjoy the fruits of our successful labor and bear the burdens of our failures. Paying the kind of consideration to the people in the room that was involved in the defenders' criticisms of Garza and Taylor throws everyone else under the bus.
Organizer self-care that does not eventually translate into political victories will not help people who aren't in the room. Organizer political education that does not eventually translate into political victories will not help people who aren't in the room. Avenging personal or factional slights, if it does not eventually translate into political victories, will not help people who aren't in the room. However intersectional it is, if it does not eventually translate into political victories, it will not help people who aren't in the room.
We shouldn't overcorrect. Exclusive focus on political victory would bring its own frightening and probably worse set of dangers. The things that fall into these categories are worth doing and worth considering, but become problems when they are the only or primary things that people do and consider, displacing the political objectives that brought us into the rooms in the first place. Call that being-in-the-room privilege or something else cool if you want. But neither this focus nor the moralizing conversations that are enabled by it seem like the sorts of things that will lead to responsible discussion of the full range of what is morally important about what we're doing.
So, moralizing doesn't necessarily involve moral reasoning, and often blocks our genuine efforts to think morally together. What moralizing does involve, on the other hand, are aesthetic uses of moral considerations (language like 'should' or 'right'). That is, moralizing might be used intentionally to artificially raise the stakes of disagreement in conversation, to block and distract and obscure. Let me be careful here. What I just described is a worst case scenario, and I don't bring it up to talk about the defenders of Garza and Taylor's targets. It's just not true of them. I'm certain that they are speaking in good faith, but I just think they're getting this one wrong, and that we need to challenge some of the norms on the left that folks are responding to (like being-in-the-room privilege).
But that worst case scenario has and will be true of Trump and his administration, and, also the Democrats. A political resistance that can't tell the difference between moral language used as a way into a genuine moral conversation and as decoration for something else entirely, something potentially sinister, might make the wrong choices. And, unlike with incoming arguments that we don't like, we will not be able to moralize or otherwise distract our way out of onrushing fascist fists, we'll need to duck; our critiques will not tear down walls, but many hands holding sledgehammers might. For those things we will need collective strength and power. We will need each other.
On that note, a preliminary word on realism, co-signing Liam Kofi Bright over at the Sooty Empiric blog – theory heads might want to get on this. Realist political thought is primarily concerned with describing how power is gained, lost, and maintained, and realist political thinkers tend to attribute political actors motives that can be more or less reduced to those things.Han Fei, Balthazar Gracian, and Niccolo Machiavelli are some older figures worth checking out. Realists tend to emphasize strategy over morality, equlibria over agreements, and incentive structures over norms. Don't get me wrong, when this goes wrong, it goes wrong – political realism has been a philosophical haven for some of the fuckest of boys. But even there it might be worth looking at, but to acquaint ourselves with what we're in for and to make some guesses about how to respond. But more on that next time.