Giving ideas to fanatics is like giving guns to kids. John Faithful Hamer tells us how.
“The genuine man of words himself can get along without faith in absolutes. He values the search for truth as much as truth itself. He delights in the clash of thought and in the give-and-take of controversy. If he formulates a philosophy and a doctrine, they are more an exhibition of brilliance and an exercise in dialectics than a program of action and the tenets of a faith. His vanity, it is true, often prompts him to defend his speculations with savagery and even venom; but his appeal is usually to reason and not to faith. The fanatics and the faith-hungry masses, however, are likely to invest such speculations with the certitude of holy writ, and make them the fountainhead of a new faith. Jesus was not a Christian, nor was Marx a Marxist.”—Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951)
A lot of the ugliness we see in Social Media Land is a function of precisely the problem that Eric Hoffer identifies in this passage. Putting dangerous ideas into the hands of faith-hungry fanatics is like giving firearms to schoolchildren. The sociological concept of “privilege” is a case in point. In the hands of a skilled practitioner (like my wife), it can clarify much and pave the way for positive social change. But in the hands of a dimwitted idiot with an internet connection, it can become a deadly weapon, which tears people apart, and discredits the desire for social justice.
There are social justice warriors who would have you believe that only a rich, racist, reactionary rube could refuse to drink the Kool-Aid of their progressive prognosis. But most of us know that there are perfectly decent people—poor, penniless, privileged people—who bristle when they hear preachy puritans and pushy prophets prating on and on piously about Power and Privilege, Patriarchy and Persecution, the Proletariat and the Past. They wonder, sometimes aloud:
- Where’s my prosperity?
- Where’s my prestige?
- Where’s my white male privilege?
And I sympathize with them at times, really I do, but they’re asking the wrong questions. After all, being privileged is, at the end of the day, not unlike getting ten penalty shots at the end of a hockey game: much as it helps, there’s no guarantee that you’re gonna score, no guarantee that you’re gonna win the game. In fact, having all that unfair advantage can make losing that much more humiliating.
Like many of the sociology professors I know, my wife can talk to her students about systemic social problems—like sexism and racism—without making any of them feel like group representatives. She can do this because she’s an intellectual, first and foremost, and intellectuals are adept at dealing—gracefully and effortlessly—with the paradoxical nature of reality; they’re good at binocular thinking, at seeing “the forest” and “the trees” at one and the same time. But alas, professors who aren’t intellectuals aren’t nearly so good at this, especially if they’re ideologues. For instance, a former student of mine who wears the hijab told me that one of her professors—a progressive who, as she put it, “talks about privilege all the time”—often calls upon her in class when they’re discussing things like Islamophobia, I.S.I.S., women in Islam, etc. As you might expect, this makes her extremely uncomfortable. The professor means well, very well actually, but that doesn’t make her pointed questions any less offensive. She has apparently called on black students for “the black perspective” a few times too, and, of course, systematically silenced any young white man who dared to “take up too much space.” She never seems to remember her students’ names. Why does this not surprise me?
Even as we struggle for justice, we should never lose sight of the essentially tragic nature of all human life. No life is devoid of struggle and pain. Death is coming for us all. And it’s coming for everyone we love too. Suffering and loss are inescapable features of the human condition. Life sucks regardless of how much privilege you have. But it usually sucks less if you’re privileged.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)