“Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice” is a brief missive from the Woke-o-sphere that drifted across my Facebook feed earlier today. In it QTPOC1 Frances Lee complains that liberal activist circles often exhibit a variety of group-think, dogmatism, and puritanical intolerance that stands in hypocritical opposition to their stated mission of inclusion. This shouldn’t come as news to anyone who has spent time around human beings, but she has a particular story to tell that’s worth reading.
What struck me was the religious language. The talk about churches and ex-communication isn’t just a clever way to get attention in the headline: Lee returns to religious metaphor throughout. She was previously an evangelical Christian herself and finds parallels in the specific forms of intolerance in the two communities.
As a white, male, cishet, plus-any-other-privileged-group-I’m-currently-forgetting and an atheist2 I will always be an outsider to both these worlds and thus happily excused from their infighting. Even so, neither liberal activism nor Christianity are foreign to me. The former I know because I am an urban cosmopolitan fellow-traveller, and the latter because growing up in America it’s easy to get steeped in Christianity even if you don’t intend to. And like Lee, I find the parallels striking.
Take the notions of “sin” and “privilege”. Both are a kind of inescapable original stain on one’s moral character for which one must make ritual atonement. These rituals can often be ostentatious and self-regarding, but they still mean something, because there really is evil in the world, and society really does give unfair advantages to some people, and you have to find some way to confront these things both in the abstract and in yourself.
It often comes down to a matter of emphasis. There will be the Christian who uses an awareness of their own sinfulness as an incentive to be more forgiving, and there will be the Christian who uses everyone else’s sinfulness as an excuse to harangue them about Christian orthodoxy. Likewise you can use a knowledge of injustice as a reminder to be more respectful and understanding, or you can you use it to peer around the room quietly ticking off your moral inferiors.
Ironically, political correctness has made me much more sympathetic to religious conservatives. Here’s a story you’ve heard a million times: kid grows up religious, moves away from their small town, and discovers to their utter amazement that Christians aren’t the only good people on Earth, and some of them can even be quite mean. My instinct is still to roll my eyes at this, but Frances Lee is telling the same story here, and the change of details makes me willing to hear it fresh. Likewise, though religious talk of sin and forgiveness has always struck me as transparently passive-aggressive bullying, having the similar dynamics play out in my own liberal intellectual enclaves has helped me see the sincerity that can underlie it. I still recoil from orthodoxies, but more contact with actual human beings is always a good thing.
1 Don’t know what that stands for? Read the article.
2 I swore I’d never write an “As a…” sentence, but I have to admit there’s no more succinct way of expressing this point.