“You Pushed Me To”

On Po­lar­iza­tion and the Pol­i­tics of Provo­ca­tion

The McGill Daily - - Contents - Mila Gho­rayeb Com­men­tary Writer

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.

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