When you get down to it, the opportunistic “we” that I’ve been describing for the past couple weeks here isn’t the end-all-be-all of progressive discourse. Hope I haven’t implied such a claim. It’s really just one particular manifestation. Just one of the many strange varieties of doublespeak and mendacity that thrive in the bizarre, sprawling ecosystem of leftist rhetoric. But it is a typical example, a representative one in many senses.
It’s been noted on this very site, as well as elsewhere in conservative circles, that progressives have consistently won the battles of the culture war on the power of rhetoric. Not by a command of facts or subtle statistical analysis or by recourse to historical evidence but instead by controlling the terms of the debate. Such an observation is where we get words like “doublespeak” in the first place. It’s all about the words. The rhetoric of radical leftists, consistently and by design, transforms unpleasant realities like sexual abnormality into feelgood slogans: “Love is love!” “No H8!” “Marriage equality is a human right!” These slogans dissemble. They distort. The project that they serve, however, is not analytical to begin with but persuasive, so distortions of reality don’t represent much of a downside to the left. As long as they serve the agenda.
This is where the opportunistic “we” is perhaps most typical of progressive discourse. It plays fast and loose with its categories. The interlocutor posits that that category of “we” contains all of us when doing so is advantageous for him. Then he turns around and posits that that same “we” excludes him when doing that is advantageous instead. This slipperiness, the ad hoc nature of the opportunistic “we” in particular and of progressive categorizations in general, is an important characteristic to note. It’s important to note lest you and I, in our haste to contradict the conclusions of the left, are too quick to adopt the categories that they present us with.
Let’s take a specific example. Let’s talk “misogyny,” which is on my mind right now because of all this media furor over some rich Californian kid who went on a killing spree a couple weeks ago. It’s a flare up, yes, but the great and the good in the United States and Europe have been pushing the term “misogyny” for a while now. It refers to the hatred and fear that women experience at the hands of men. And there it is. See? The term creates a category, well two of them in fact: women and men.
The problem with this categorization from an analytical standpoint is not that there’s no such thing as “women” or “men.” No. It’s that categorizing thusly elides meaningful distinctions that ought to be made within those two sets. Men vary according to regional differences, cultural differences, racial differences, differences of religion, etc. etc. Women, too. At the men-vs-women scale of inquiry, then, you’re talking exclusively about human universals, which exist but don’t always provide the best explanation of phenomena that occur within a given society at a given historical period. In other words, the categories created by the term “misogyny” make for clumsy and heavy-handed analysis. They’re severely limited. The struggles of brave, independent girl programmers in Silicon Valley and victims of sexual trafficking in Romania probably don’t have all that much in common, at least not so much that we can trace both of their plights to a single concept called misogyny.
From a rhetorical standpoint, however, these categories work beautifully. “All women suffer misogyny all the time. All women are under the thumb. One Billion Rising! Everyone knows someone who has been a victim of sexual violence!” Big, sweeping generalizations allow for fireworks of sentimentality. Gigantic claims of victimhood. Tears and feelings! They pay off in that arena.
And that’s more or less my point. It’s important to realize that the terms of progressive discourse are suited for winning hearts first and only subsequently minds. Their concepts, their models aren’t primarily or even necessarily intellectual. What that means for us is that we need to be circumspect when we adopt such terms, even in self defense. I mean, sure, to a certain extent, it’s effective to defend men as a class from the accusation of misogyny as a concept. It’s useful to defend patriarchy qua patriarchy. It’s useful to point out that men and women are different creatures and ought to specialize their social roles accordingly, which will result in disparities that leftists attribute to “misogyny!”
But we should be cautious about building our own positions at such a grand level, or at least conscious that we’re doing so. Or else we’re apt to elide meaningful differences and muddy up our understanding of the world right alongside our progressive opponents. We’re apt to defend particular groups of men that we ought not to, in our rush to defend men as a whole. We can get embroiled in fights that are not our own. I, for instance, nurse no particular love for a bunch of jihadists stoning some adulteress in Africa, even though the jihadists and I are both firmly in a pro-patriarchy camp. It would serve me well to develop a positive vocabulary that preserves such distinctions. I need something more precise upon which to establish my own positions.
And I suppose an observation like that brings us full circle. The short term strategy for dealing with a tactic such as the opportunistic “we” is to fight it on its own terms. To reveal the weaseliness, the hypocrisy, the sleight-of-hand. The short term strategy is to look across the aisle at someone like Eric Holder and say, “OK. You say that ‘we’ need to improve race relations. That’s both me and you, right? What are you going to bring to this project? How are you going to contribute? Give me a concrete action plan here.”
But the long term strategy, the winning strategy, strikes me as something that will require a little more subtlety and sophistication. Because ultimately working in such large terms as “us” and “you” at the national level traps us in the same sort of centrally-administered, mass society that helped to engender all of this dysfunction to begin with. Because ultimately even fighting the good conservative fight in those huge, fuzzy prog terms is just perpetuating huge, fuzzy, prog categories.
Hell, maybe it’s just plain old Southern, state’s-rights talk here, but it seems to me that part and parcel of any serious reaction against the ills of modernity, any movement back towards societies worth conserving, will involve fragmentation and tribalization in one form or another. So I would say it’s best to find ways to reflect that reality in our own rhetorics over here on the right. I would say it’s time for us palefaces, both literal and figurative, to start looking at the people around us and asking a pointed question like the one that got this whole train of thought rolling in the first place: “Well, folks, just who are we after all?” That sort of consciousness is how we start reversing the losses of the culture war on our own terms, rather than simply attempting to halt leftist culture warriors on theirs.