Imagine you were to write something about the problem of child sexual abuse or world hunger. Or imagine you made your living working on these issues — perhaps as a therapist in the first instance, or, in the second, in a non-profit organization dedicated to addressing the subject. Imagine you put your heart into your work and were committed to advocating for a world in which these problems would be substantially mitigated.
Now, imagine that in response to your efforts, someone suggested you didn’t really care about those things but were merely virtue-signaling to make yourself seem like a better person. Even worse, imagine they accused you of actually wanting those problems to continue. After all, were they to stop, “What would you do for a living?”
Although such critiques may seem preposterous, they pervade conservative discourse in response to those of us who write about racism or do other types of anti-racism advocacy or activism. Secretly, they suggest, we want and need racism to continue, lest we be forced to get a “real job” like ordinary people — presumably like them.
A few months ago, a commenter on one of my previous essays made this point by way of the following quote attributed to Booker T. Washington, the famous Black advocate of self-help and critic of civil rights agitation:
“There is a class of colored people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs — partly because they want sympathy and partly because it pays. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances because they do not want to lose their jobs.”
By relying on the words of a Black person to make his argument, the white commenter likely hoped to head off accusations that his rejection of anti-racism might be motivated by bias. There were plenty of white people who said the same thing in Washington’s time, plenty who said the same thing about Dr. King and the civil rights movement, and there are plenty who say these things today. But this guy opted to go with a quote from a Black man for reasons not likely coincidental. It’s the reason you’ll see this quote bandied about often in the right-wing blogosphere and on conservative social media accounts. What better way to discredit the social justice crowd than by showing how even this famous Black person can see their real motivations? As such, everyone else should feel free to ignore them.
Of course, his use of Washington’s words here is more than a bit revealing, and not in ways he might have hoped.
First, picking a quote from one Black person to argue against the position held by the vast majority of Black people is astonishingly disingenuous. Doing so implies we should ignore what the overwhelming bulk of Black America thinks and cast our lot instead with the position of an outlier. Yes, we should listen to Black people, but only those Black people who disagree with most Black people and thereby ratify our pre-existing beliefs. White folks do this a lot, never noticing the irony of elevating a Black voice precisely because it’s Black, all to discredit Black people’s beliefs in the aggregate.
Sort of like siding with Candace Owens over pretty much the entirety of Black people.
Secondly, the commenter who posted the Washington quote misses the disturbing historical message they’re sending by doing so. Remember, Washington said these words in the early 20th century when Blacks in the South had been returned to a status of virtual enslavement — as documented by historian Douglas Blackmon — and lynchings and white terrorism were commonplace. It was a period when Black men were murdered for failing to show the expected deference to whites, for looking the wrong way at white women, for being too successful in commerce, or for simply “forgetting their place.”
It was a time when no remotely rational person would deny systemic racism was in full effect. Yet, there we have Washington, accusing those who raised the issue even then of only doing so for self-interested reasons. But rather than recognize what this means — that Washington was a disreputable apologist for white supremacy — white conservatives a century later quote him as if his remark had been the pinnacle of insight.
There is no way you can deploy Washington this way without saying, in effect, that you think he was right, even when he spoke those words. Meaning, those who opt for such an appeal are suggesting that even in, say, 1910, Black people exaggerated their suffering, and those who complained about racial injustice did so only as part of some devious manipulation. That only a fool, a lunatic, or both could believe such a thing should be obvious.
The thinking implicit in the Washington quote and its usage today is the very definition of cynicism. Following this reasoning to its logical conclusion, we should accuse doctors of wanting widespread illness to persist as a paycheck protection scheme, teachers wanting ignorance as a matter of job security, and soldiers wanting war for the same reason. By this logic, John Walsh wants people to keep snatching kids and killing them — as happened to his own son — just so he can keep going on television to talk about predators at large.
Of course, no one would say those things about the folks mentioned above. It’s only those who fight for a changing of unjust social dynamics who bear the brunt of these attacks. And why? Because the people launching the criticisms prefer things as they are and resent anyone seeking to change them — but are reluctant to admit as much. So instead, they have to impugn the integrity of those they oppose.
It’s a profoundly incredulous, even conspiratorial mindset, which ultimately destroys the impulse for informed discussion and debate itself. If we can’t examine issues and consider the arguments made by our opponents as good faith offerings, then political discourse itself becomes pointless. We’re all on a grift if we purport to care about anything other than ourselves. Only the most openly greedy and mercenary are honest and to be trusted.
There’s a method to this madness, of course. Attacking the motivations of those with whom you disagree is easier than grappling with their arguments. And when it comes to racial inequity, it’s far easier to insist that those who fight it have insincere reasons for doing so than to face the fact that you don’t care about it at all — and then acknowledge the unflattering truth revealed by such a thing.
As long as compassion and concern are bullshit, your lack of either can’t be seen as a character flaw — it’s you who are normal and well-adjusted, while the person who wishes to improve the world must be a con artist, a phony.
What better way to soothe one’s conscience than to suggest the deployment of conscience itself is a ruse? What better way to justify indifference to suffering than to argue that those who claim to care about it only do so for selfish reasons: to look good, or maybe even to get laid? Yes, men who challenge sexism are often accused of this one by guys who are bitter about their own dry spells but haven’t managed to figure out how perhaps their misogyny is what’s keeping them unbedded.
This is what conservatism has become: a movement of people who presume the worst in others because they see the worst in themselves. And they wish to re-brand their pathological indifference as a positive good — shameless self-interest as the only legitimate human impulse. At least they, the thinking goes, can be honest about their motives, unlike social justice types who are just as greedy but not as willing to ‘fess up about the things that drive us.
The thought that people may actually believe injustice should be fought for moral, ethical, or even practical reasons — that there are purposes to life other than personal gratification and enrichment — is too much for them to bear. For if it’s true, then they have chosen their path, not because it’s normal or natural, let alone healthy, but because their values are narcissistic to the core.
They must assume we are signaling phony virtue because they know they are signaling genuine vice.
They cannot face those they deride as social justice warriors because doing so honestly would mean having to face themselves. And that would mean acknowledging that what drives them are the most base and primitive of human impulses — impulses that make them unfit to be parents, friends, partners, lovers, or respected citizens.
They are fit only for defeat — total and uncompromising.
What a truly virtuous signal that would be.
Previously Published on aninjusticemag
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