The Problem With Dogma

A recent column by Michelle Goldberg in the New York Times focused on an impediment to positive social change that routinely drives me nuts: activists for causes I agree with who insist on making the perfect the enemy of the good.

It isn’t just the MAGA ideologues who are prisoners of their own ideology. Goldberg’s column focuses on organizations on the left that have been roiled by internal conflicts pitting purists against pragmatists.

In June the Intercept’s Ryan Grim wrote about the toll that staff revolts and ideologically inflected psychodramas were taking on the work: “It’s hard to find a Washington-based progressive organization that hasn’t been in tumult, or isn’t currently in tumult.” Privately, I’ve heard countless people on the professional left — especially those over, say, 35 — bemoan the irrational demands and manipulative dogmatism of some younger colleagues.

Recently, Maurice Mitchell, who heads up the progressive Working Families Party, has written about  what Goldberg calls “the left’s self-sabotaging impulse.”

Mitchell’s piece systematically lays out some of the assertions and assumptions that have paralyzed progressive outfits. Among them are maximalism, or “considering anything less than the most idealistic position” a betrayal; a refusal to distinguish between discomfort and oppression; and reflexive hostility to hierarchy. He criticizes the insistence “that change on an interpersonal or organizational level must occur before it is sought or practiced on a larger scale,” an approach that keeps activists turned inward, along with the idea that progressive organizations should be places of therapeutic healing.

As Goldberg notes, these impulses are not new. She points out that “destructive left-wing purity spirals are at least as old as the French Revolution.”

I can think of two relatively recent illustrations of that tendency, one local and one national.

On the local level, I am personally aware of two incidents where internal insistence on maximal (and performative) devotion to non-discrimination resulted in the very public ejection of leaders who were accused of encouraging  a less-than-ideal racial environment; in both of those situations, the executive found to be imperfect was anything but a bigot. (In one, there was actually an investigation by an outside company that found absolutely no evidence to support the allegations.) To the contrary, both had been involved in anti-discrimination activities for several years.

On the national level, I am convinced that dogmatic excesses actually diminished the beneficial impact of the #MeToo movement. (Admission: I still resent the unnecessary loss of Al Franken from the U.S. Senate thanks to indignation over a dumb joke told before he ran for office.)

When #MeToo first emerged, I applauded. Like all women, I had encountered unwanted “approaches” from men ranging from boorish behaviors to significantly worse and I certainly recognized the unfairness of blaming the victim (complaints about sexual assaults being dismissed with “well, what was she wearing?” or other responses suggesting that the woman was somehow “asking for it.”) Holding predators rather than their victims responsible was long overdue. Sending a message that unwanted touching and worse are not amusing, not a male prerogative, and not to be tolerated was also long overdue.

That said, there is a difference between unwanted attention and assault.

Inappropriate behaviors occur on a continuum–and responses to those behaviors should be calibrated to the severity of the behavior. Furthermore, fundamental fairness requires rejecting essentialism– all men are not dogs, and all women are not saints. Taking women seriously is not the same thing as uncritically believing anything and everything any woman says. An accusation of impropriety should be considered a rebuttable presumption–true, until and unless there is probative evidence to the contrary.

More generally, those of us old folks who have been “in the trenches” for a long time generally recognize that “strategy” is not a curse word, and a focus on strategic considerations is not evidence of insufficient devotion to the cause at hand.

Over the years, most of us learn to favor evolution over revolution, recognizing that sustainable progress is almost always incremental and that half a loaf really is better than no bread at all.

Recognizing that we aren’t going to change the world tomorrow to meet activists’ most exacting specifications doesn’t make people traitors to the cause.