Communities of the good and the politics of purity

In certain sections of the political landscape, debate over ideas and policies has become a lesser form of currency than grandstanding, finger-wagging and moral posturing. This might get you a cheer from your friends, but it’s not going to win you any new ones.

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pitchfork leaning against wall

Transportation Twitter is a weird place. A couple of weeks ago, someone I’ve followed for a while, a well-known and well-respected author who often posts really interesting stuff, offered his appreciative synopsis of a recently-published paper in an academic journal. “Executive summary,” he wrote, “‘Since you’re a car-owner in the 21st century, we’ve already established you’re an asshole. At this point, we’re just trying to establish exactly what *kind* of asshole you are.’”

OK. Might as well get this out of the way first since it’s so thuddingly obvious it’s barely even worth saying: many people in this country own cars because they have to, not because they want to. For many rural Americans, not to mention people who live in urban areas with lousy transit, a car can be a lifeline: the only means of access to jobs, schools and amenities. If you want someone to blame for the fact that people still drive cars, blame the planners who designed our cities and the politicians and lobbyists who perpetuate a century-old system of transportation finance that systematically underfunds non-auto modes of transport to the point where for many Americans, driving is the only viable option.

So there’s that.

If this had been an isolated outburst from one of the millions of irrelevant keyboard warriors who populate the social media commons, that would be one thing. The reality, however, is that it speaks to a pervasive tendency that’s taken root on both sides of the Atlantic over the last decades, and which is profoundly relevant to anyone involved in political campaigning.

I’ll give you some examples from my homeland.

In the buildup to the 2016 referendum on the U.K.’s membership of the European Union, a ubiquitous campaign tactic in large sections of the pro-EU camp was to label anyone who didn’t share their uncritical adulation of the EU as a racist. Instead of engaging with the substance of the arguments put forward by those with misgivings about the bloc, all were dismissed out of hand as expressions of bigotry and xenophobia. To their surprise, when it came to the referendum, the remainers lost.

Also in the U.K. at around that time, anyone on the center left voicing any opinion that could be constructed as being in any way critical of then-Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn could reliably expect to be invited by Corbyn’s hard core of supporters to “just fuck off and join the Tories.” Well, guess what? Millions of Brits fucked off and joined the Tories, resulting in the most devastating general election defeat for Labour since 1935.

And as for the U.S. – well, turns out people don’t much like it when you call them “deplorable.”

To some degree, politics by its very nature is a tribal business. But what we’re seeing right now, from national-level political movements right down to the attention-hungry tubthumpers of the Twittersphere, is the emergence of a politics in which those with differing views are no longer seen as simply mistaken in their beliefs, to be won over to one’s own position through persuasion and reasoned argument, but as enemies: morally deficient, and as such to be neither tolerated nor engaged with.

Sociologist David Hirsh argues that this phenomenon fundamentally comes down to a question of belonging. In certain sections of the left, Hirsch argues, the dominant mindset involves defining one’s own camp as the community of the good and the pure, and positioning anyone who disagrees as being outside of that community, thereby licensing their treatment as “other.” Debate over ideas and policies is thus abandoned in favor of a politics that merely defines anyone who voices a different view as “not belonging.” In other words, Hirsh argues, in certain sections of the political landscape, activism has become little more than “a negative symbolic enterprise concerned primarily with asserting [one’s own] innocence,” and “staking out the boundaries separating the in-crowd from the out-crowd.”

It’s not hard to understand the allure of this way of doing business. Aside from the warm, fuzzy feeling you presumably get from the absolute certainty of your own superiority, and the sense of comfort and belonging that comes with being part of a tribe, if you and you alone are the custodians of purity then people who hold views that diverge from yours need not be engaged with, instead merely exiled outside of the “community of the good” and branded enemies to be condemned, ridiculed and talked down to.

Get asked an uncomfortable question? No problem! Simply lump the questioner into an “enemy” category, outside of the “community of the good,” and poof! Not only is there no longer any requirement to engage with the substance of the question, but you’ve also reinforced your own status of moral cleanliness, earned a cheer from your friends, and as an added bonus, legitimized open season on the questioner, who by virtue of having asked the question has forfeited their right to be treated with decency and respect.

Nowhere is this infantile form of dissemblance more clearly visible than on Twitter, where grandstanding and posturing are rewarded and the slow, ponderous business of persuasion a lesser form of currency than attention-grabbing retweet fodder designed for no other purpose than to be circulated unchallenged around an echo chamber of people who think exactly like you do.

Posting a tweet calling 91% of the U.S. population assholes might well earn you a round of applause from your friends and bump you up a notch in your own social circle, but it isn’t going to win you any new ones from outside of it. Then again, it’s not designed to, is it? The only possible reason for making such a self-evidently stupid statement is to reinforce your own status within an existing community, not to broaden that community.

Unfortunately, broadening the community of people who think like you is precisely how you win campaigns and ultimately make your own vision of the world a reality. Publicly dismissing vast swathes of the population as assholes because their behavior doesn’t live up to your own standards of moral purity is not going to do that. It’s not going to convince them that you are right and they are wrong. It’s not going to get them to rally behind your cause. It’s just going to make them think you’re an asshole.

Image via Piqsels


James Horrox

Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

James Horrox is a policy analyst at Frontier Group, based in Los Angeles. He holds a BA and PhD in politics and has taught at Manchester University, the University of Salford and the Open University in his native UK. He has worked as a freelance academic editor for more than a decade, and before joining Frontier Group in 2019 he spent two years as a prospect researcher in the Public Interest Network's LA office. His writing has been published in various media outlets, books, journals and reference works.

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