Thursday 16 February 2017

Progressive white men: give up your faith in your own persuasiveness

I’m a white cishet male who grew up in an upper middle class household and has enjoyed nearly every privilege our society can confer. I have always had a profound belief in the power of listening to your political opponents and using empathy and persuasion to bring them to a more progressive view of the world.

I now believe that this faith in persuasion has been fed to me since birth, and that it has had extremely damaging effects on those who are more vulnerable than myself, which is to say almost everybody.

Growing up, I was constantly exposed both at home and at school to the victories of twentieth-century civil rights movements. Yet this exposure was always filtered through a lens that privileged rhetoric as the principal vehicle of societal change. I was implicitly told that Martin Luther King Jr. was such a great public speaker that he more or less persuaded America to become less racist. When I saw footage of black bodies filling the streets and being attacked with dogs and fire hoses, it seemed as though the footage was only there to show me just how much injustice King had managed to overturn with his words.

In school, I learned that having a command of language was a form of magic, that it was the best and only way to further the cause of justice. My university education more or less confirmed this belief, as it confirmed that critical thinking and the persuasive essay were the greatest tools available for creating social change.

What I didn’t see in all of this were the bodies that had filled the streets throughout history, the erased and marginalized bodies that shouted and dared to take up space, and were destroyed. 

While these bodies were being destroyed, I watched a lot of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart during the Bush/Harper eras. Stewart's brand of comedy made me feel very self-satisfied in the knowledge that regardless of what way the world went, intellectual and moral superiority belonged to me and people like me.

Then Obama was elected, and it seemed as though the world had finally gotten its act together. Obama came into office validating what I had always believed. He said that he was going to heal a divided America by forging bi-partisan unity through the magic of compromise, empathy, and his peerless rhetorical and intellectual abilities.

Except that’s not what happened. Conservatives shut down Obama at every turn and forced him much farther toward regressive policies than the public ever could have imagined. Also, his bipartisan, consensus-building approach was wrong on at least one key point—Those in power are never persuaded to concede any of their power. They are only forced, and forcing them requires bodies in the streets.

Then came the Occupy Movement, which many criticized for its lack of focus. What did the protesters want? Who was their leader? The movement refused to answer.

I retreated to online message boards and coffee shop commiserations to express my anxieties about what I saw as the failure of the Occupy Movement. I didn’t realize that when the protests had "ended," the concepts of the economic 99% and intersectionality had become as common in media discourse as the concept of freedom had become under George W. Bush. Occupy shifted political discourse itself, a feat more important than pushing through any concrete policy. 

The time of reckoning for my faith in persuasion came with the election of Donald Trump. It felt at the time that intellect and a persuasive command of language truly didn’t matter. And that was really the most important lesson of all—that my ideas and my powers of persuasion were not nearly as consequential as I’d once thought.

Among the many privileges and fantasies the progressive man must interrogate and relinquish, one of the most destructive is his belief in his own persuasiveness. I think this belief is at the heart of many instances of mansplaining.

No, fellow men. Mansplaining doesn’t mean you’re never allowed to explain anything to anyone. It means that you need to be aware of that confidence that fills your veins when you feel like someone is not communicating a concept or idea as effectively as you could. If only you could just interrupt the person and fill in the gaps in their explanation. You feel yourself resisting because you know that interrupting is rude, but fuck would this conversation be over so much quicker if the other person just let you commandeer the explanation. Yes, other people can see this eagerness in your body language and your darting eyes, the expectant intakes of breath indicating that you’re only barely resisting the urge to interrupt. You’re right to think that holding back is better than actually interrupting. But don’t expect a cookie for your efforts. The same confidence can be seen when you spend more than thirty seconds explaining something without interruption, unaware that speaking without interruption is a privileged form of claiming and taking up space. 

One of my favourite novels is Octavia Butler’s Kindred. I used to think it was the book’s depiction of unreformed toxic masculinity that I found most compelling. But I think that what rings truest for me now is the fact that even after the time-traveling black protagonist Dana has repeatedly saved the life of her white slave-owning ancestor Rufus, the toxic male still tries to rape her and she must kill him. It is one of the most compelling depictions of the failure of persuasion and reformation I’ve ever encountered.

I used to despair at the ineffectiveness of the ideas I was encountering in my university classes, especially those involving critical theory that sought to identify systemic injustices in our language and material practices. I became overwhelmed by the reality that even when I invoked something as patently undeniable as, say, Eve Sedgewick’s work on homosocial relations, a friend or relative of mine could simply say, “Nah, I don’t buy it” and laugh when I persisted in flummoxed frustration. I despaired over the realization that an idea could never compel someone to agreement, no matter how true it was.  

It was only recently, while reading Angela Davis’ Freedom is a Constant Struggle, Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, and Judith Butler’s Notes on a Theory of Performative Assembly, that I realized what my problem has been all along. It’s a problem that might appear stupidly simple to anyone of less privilege than myself, but for me, it was nothing short of a fissure in the bedrock of my understanding. It was the realization that no powerful group has ever given up its power because it was persuaded to do so by a superior set of ideas. Rather, social change comes about only when bodies take up space and make a big, hot, stinky fuss. Protest doesn’t care whether anyone is persuaded by it—especially those who seek to silence the marginalized.  

This is why trolls like Milo Yiannopoulos are destined to lose. The only power they have is the power given to them by progressives who cling to a belief in the respectful exchange of ideas and the power of rhetorical persuasion. If a progressive gives up the belief that their ideas and intelligence are superior to those of their antagonists, the experience can be very liberating. No, we aren’t rhetorically superior to trolls, and it wouldn’t matter if we were. The right way to deal with someone like Milo is to go to one of his events and scream your fucking head off, a tactic that vulnerable people know and practice much more readily than people like me. That’s because they understand that contesting Power has never been a conversation—it has and always will be a fight, and it is only due to my enormous privilege that I’ve ever had the luxury of believing that a calm exchange of ideas and superior argumentation could bring justice for those more vulnerable than myself.

Yiannopoulos and his acolytes may try to hold themselves up as the great defenders of calm, respectful dialogue (which is bullshit, since Milo begins nearly every talk with some comment about a marginalized group that is extremely disrespectful. For some reason, his supporters think that if he issues his slurs with a calm voice, this somehow preserves his claim to a respectful exchange of ideas). But on top of this, people looking to defeat Milo need to realize that having better ideas or better arguments are completely inconsequential from a political standpoint. Power only responds when bodies make a big, hot, stinky fuss. This is not to say that ideas aren’t important. It’s just that persuading opponents is pretty far down the list of things that ideas are meant to accomplish. When you read Tah-Nehisi Coates’s account of encountering revolutionary ideas at Howard University in Between the World and Me, you don’t hear him talking about how he then used these ideas to persuade racist white people to become less racist. No, he used these ideas to understand his own experience and to illuminate injustice for other vulnerable bodies. 

The belief in the power to persuade is responsible for the rise of one of the most faithless characters we’ve seen crop up in the age of the Internet—the pathological devil’s advocate. Posturing as a Socratic gadfly, the devil’s advocate seeks to paralyze progressive arguments simply by exposing the fact that they—like all ideas—are predicated on a set of assumptions that begin to crumble when subjected to sophistic scrutiny.  But such weaponized skepticism is merely another tool of Power.

Power does not operate according to the laws of reason. It convinces you through your education that reason is a set of rules you should adhere to if you want to persuade people to accept your arguments. But then Power laughs at you when all of your arguments fail to prevent a Donald Trump from getting elected. This must mean there’s something terribly wrong with what you’re arguing, right? This must mean that we need to give up on the whole intersectionality thing and work harder to understand and empathize with the people who voted for Trump, right? Absolutely not. What the election and its aftermath have shown us is that the political change we seek will only come about if we make a big, hot, stinky fuss and keep on doing it indefinitely.  For privileged cishet white men like myself, it rests on the ability to let go of the fantasy of our own persuasiveness as a tool for meaningful social change. 

I need not make these points for those who have experienced vulnerability and marginalization in ways that I never will. But to privileged cishet white men like myself, I want to reiterate: give up your belief in your own intellect and persuasiveness—these things wouldn’t matter even if you possessed them. If someone reaches out to you for a genuine conversation, then meet them halfway. But be done with engaging devil’s advocates or those who never have and never will make an earnest attempt to defend the rights of bodies more vulnerable than their own. You can’t persuade these people about anything, and it wouldn’t matter if you could. The bigot’s support is inconsequential. The misogynist's is unwanted. Garnering his support simply doesn’t matter even if you can get it. It doesn’t matter whether your ideas win elections. Nixon created the EPA while Clinton deregulated the financial industry: what matters is the environment of protest that forces all of political culture to shift. That means you need to get out among bodies that are more vulnerable than your own, be the best ally you can be, and do whatever you can to make a






And please, be mindful of how you’re taking up space when you do it.  Like I said earlier, there’s no precedent for a powerful group giving up its power willingly, and that group includes you. It’s not up to you to decide when you’re being a good ally. The group you’re trying to support gets to decide that.



  1. Way to go Phil, this is a really great piece.

  2. Phil ... I just read your essay. IMPRESSIVE ... Extremely well-written. I am on the same page as you are. To invoke change, you cannot sit quietly in the coffee shops trading pints of view. In our campaign against fracking, the industry and Government failed to take notice until we staged Walk-the-Blocks, public forums, town halls and plastered the highways with signs. It is important to be BOLD and to be strong in "demonstrating" your convictions. At the first forum we staged, the deputy premier came into the hall jammed with 400 very combative citizens. Being the moderator, I walked up to Minister Marshall and said, "Your not on the program (he had not replied to our invitation). Would you like to have the opportunity to speak?" His replied: "No! I am hear to bring you the facts and I brought my people with me to give you the facts!" Marshall was the arrogant face of politics. He was coming out to rule over the peons. Hmmmm ....By the end of the meeting, I counted 7 times that he was forced to get on his feet because the impatient audience demanded that he stand up and face the people. I know it is cliche, but "Speaking Truth to Power" is imperative. While persuasion may help, it is not a replacement for hitting the streets and demanding change. I especially like the way you portrayed the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King Junior was a great leader and a gifted speaker, but it was the people that marched across the bridge in Selma that made the difference.

  3. Lots to mull over here, Phil, and I want to throw another variable into all this. I found out recently that a relative of mine in India committed suicide. Not to sound callous, but I wasn't especially shocked by the news, as such events aren't uncommon amongst the Indian middle-class. Actually, my initial reaction consisted of two competing thoughts that popped into my head as I received this news. First, that this person was in some sort of financial trouble, as farmer suicides are a daily occurrence in India; and second, that it was a murder made to look like a suicide. I should add that this isn't the first relation of mine to die under suspicious circumstances, and just about everyone over there will have a similar story (anecdotal evidence, to be sure, but there's something to be said for anecdotes). So I'd like to get your thoughts on how the tension between this construct of white/cis/hetero male and the narrative of negations you've set up—thesis (liberal/civil rights utopianism), antithesis (post-Thatcherite or Reagan neoliberalism), negation (contingencies and conflicts between the Clinton, wee Bush, Obama administrations), and negation of negation (steaming piles of hot smelly protest on the Left and a Cheeto King on the Right)—can speak to a Global North/South context. How, for instance, does one speak of “justice” in the postcolony, in a state whose very being is predicated on corruption and exploitation, and on lawlessness as a means to maintain the law? Are the critical tools of the North American Left adequate or cross-applicable to these contexts, or at the very least compatible with the unique demands of social justice in postcolonies, or do they fall short of dealing with such inequities? Is it fair to even pose such a question? Are we perhaps at such an accelerated and disparate nexus of civilizational development that notions of global interconnectedness are quaint and oversimplistic?

    1. It's clear to me that you don't understand the post because you're still treating it like a thought experiment or an intellectual game. Your entire framework is wrong so your framing is wrong.

    2. Hi Jason,
      If this argument were applicable to a Global North/South context, I think it would have to be directed at members of powerful groups in other countries who are at least somewhat interested in critically reflecting on their own position and role in the web of power relations. Of course, if one lives in a place where the powerful nakedly embrace a might-makes-right approach to suppressing the vulnerable, my argument doesn't have much applicability. Rather, the argument is targeting what I think is a specific cultural faith in progress-via-persuasion that is highly concentrated in progressive white men. To that extent, I wouldn't be convinced right away that the argument is actually applicable beyond the context I've outlined here. I'll have to think further about the implications of your question, as I limited the scope of this article to progressive white men largely because writing to different groups would take on a different meaning based on my situatedness compared to those groups.

    3. For sure, Phil, that makes sense. And I admit that I'm asking the question from sort of a strange place personally; the impetus behind it is that over the last few months I've had this sensation that the distinctions between broad categories like power, gender, race, imperialism, North/South—which I'd once understood as coherent and distinct—are starting to crumble. Which is to say, I understand why we need these distinctions, and I can see where and how you draw your own lines about white progressivism and privilege to talk about persuasion and mansplaining. But when I really push at these concepts, I can't untangle the white cis/hetero subject of the Global North from newly privileged, neoliberal subjects in the Global South, and I can't untangle either of those categories from dictators and political leaders who have wielded institutional power since imperial withdrawal, or from the way that imperial power essentially programmed corruption and violence into nationhood. All of this is bundled, and bungled, into a long historical and ontological process. Incoherent and confused, I know, but I think it might be due in part because I've lived through, and borne witness to, forms of gender and racial violence that don't find their concrete expression as white patriarchy, but which nevertheless resemble white patriarchy, no doubt in part because those forms of violence have histories of white patriarchy embedded in them. So the form of the progress-via-persuasion narrative you present can't make sense to me because the conceptual boundaries of that position are already way too porous to have any coherence. In other words, I think it's absolutely urgent that your argument apply beyond the context you've laid out, but the question of how one might do is still beyond me. And, I imagine, for you too.

  4. "give up your belief in your own intellect and persuasiveness—these things wouldn’t matter even if you possessed them."

    ...Now let me publicly post an essay so I can tell you why my intellect and persuasiveness matter.

  5. Interesting take! Check out this recent NYer piece - relevant, I think, partly because it suggests that the limits of persuasion are not just a progressive white male problem but a human one: