“You Pushed Me To”
On Polarization and the Politics of Provocation
In places such as the US, Europe, and more recently, Ontario and Quebec, far- right politicians and movements are accumulating support at historic rates. In response to this far-right “backlash” around the world, many fall back on a similar justification. They will say that they don’t agree with these far-right politics, but that it’s the left’s fault because they were too aggressive. For example, the popular phrase “this is why Trump won” refers to the ways in which leftist activism has accelerated and grown louder over the years. The logic here is that many people who were radicalized towards far-right politics would not be so “far gone” if the left had simply been nicer, more gradualist, and less exclusive.
The response from leftists can take various forms. One way is to simply deny that the left is responsible for such a thing. For instance, in the case of Trump, one might argue that pre- existing racial animus is what moved people rightward when a popular figure came forward embodying this racist rhetoric in a loud and public manner. Another response has been that data simply does not support this idea, because no more voters came out to support Trump than previous Republican candidate, Mitt Romney. Some might simply argue that it’s absurd to make such an accusation when no one can ultimately be responsible for making someone support far- right viewpoints and that they must have gotten there on their own.
Personally, I do not doubt that people can be pushed in all sorts of directions by the actions of their opponents. It’s reasonable to believe that the recent rise of far right politics is partly due to the predominantly leftist politics that preceded it. But accepting that one side can “push” another does not give us enough information to morally evaluate, excuse, or tolerate either side’s actions.
Plenty of leftist writers and theorists acknowledge that people on any side of the political spectrum can be “pushed” toward more radical behaviour if their opponents put enough pressure on them. For instance, Eric Hobsbawm observes that when oppressive conditions reach a certain point, oppressed groups would revolt to keep the powerful “in line.” Revolting served as a threat where the powerful had to ensure that the oppressed had the bare minimum essentials to survive. In these cases, the actions of the powerful engendered radical responses.
Another example is blowback. Leftists often argue that other political actors can be “pushed” into radicalization. For example, Western interventionists are largely responsible for the growth of Salafism — an extremely conservative branch of political Islam — in the Middle East. The interventionists’ brutal actions, such as the maintenance of torture camps in Iraq, contributed to the radicalization and rise of groups like ISIL. It is completely possible for one political entity to cause the radicalization of others and there is no need to shy away from that assumption.
However, these observations do not lead to a judgement or a justification. We can acknowledge the role Western interventionists have played in the spread of Salafism and still claim that violent Salafism is morally wrong. Simultaneously, we can also acknowledge that the interventionists have behaved immorally.
We need to look deeper to make moral evaluations. Clearly, a marcher in the white supremacist Charlottesville rallies, yelling anti- Semitic slurs, is not morally equivalent to a peasant revolting against their masters because they were starving. We should therefore consider how both the pushers and the pushed are historically and socially situated in order to form a judgement about them.
So, a right-wing person may have decided to march at the Charlottesville rally because they were pushed by leftist politics further rightward. Perhaps they did get upset by people calling them “racist” or “anti- Semitic” all the time. But the fact that they got upset about it, or radicalized over it, does not somehow absolve them of that accusation. Marching in the Charlottesville rallies could still be motivated by anti- Semitism rather than solely by leftists being “mean.”
Furthermore, the marcher is engaging in a kind of hatred that has been institutionalized for centuries, and that is responsible for the systematic and social domination of an oppressed group. It is easy to conclude a few things from these observations. First, that the marcher is motivated by anti- Semitism and racism. Second, that while the left calling him out on his bigotry may have pushed him further to the right, this does not morally absolve the marcher from engaging in racist and antiSemitic practices.
The left can do a few things with this information. One is to re-think the politics of shame it uses, including call-out culture — a self-reflection that is already being done by activists and anti-oppressive publications. But it does not mean that leftists should walk on eggshells with every potential far-right radical, either — clearly, that would be exhausting and unproductive. The main idea is to be mindful that the left can and has engaged in alienating actions as well.
Yet the left is by no means the only group in trouble for these kinds of discourses. At the end of the day, the “you pushed me” discourse does not benefit the right. If the right wishes to use the “you pushed me” discourse as often as they do, they should also acknowledge how right wing politics have “pushed” and marginalized large groups of people over the course of history, e.g., the working class, racialized people, non- men, etc. The emergence of protests that the right often complains about is evidence of this. The history of left wing protests shows us that change often begins when marginalized people come together to express their frustrations at abuses of power that they have tolerated for too long. The targets of these protests are often martyred and defended by the right, such as the police, the government, and Supreme Court justices. In this scenario, being “pushed” to act is not justifiable to them.
Ultimately, the “you pushed me” justification has some truth to it — the right is not wrong about that. But what they should understand is that people other than them can be pushed as well. With that acknowledged, the right should be more worried about the ways in which they weaponize the “you pushed me” discourse. Descriptively, we can all use this justification, but once we engage in serious moral thought, the right is in trouble.
The logic here is that many people who were radicalized towards far right politics would not be so “far gone” if the left had simply been nicer, more gradualist, and less exclusive.
It does not mean that leftists should walk on eggshells with every potential far-right radical, either.