Western civilization has always placed a high premium on owning one’s mistakes and making amends. Before Christianity northern Europeans demanded wergild for injuries done to kith and kin. This is still a wise course of action when dealing with friends and family: acknowledging an error is a vital first step towards correcting it. But our pre-Christian Ancestors also recognized a difference between innengarth and outergarth, between one’s family and tribe and those outside that circle. Perhaps more to the point, they distinguished between friendly and hostile outsiders.
Stalin eliminated the Trotskyite threat to his regime, and many others, through forced confessions and show trials. Maoism became notorious for “struggle sessions” where “enemies of the people” were paraded before a hostile crowd and forced to confess their crimes. The Weather Underground (Weathermen) took a cue from Chairman Mao and used harrowing “criticism-self-criticism” sessions to expunge any lingering traces of racism, classism and misogyny. These public humiliations kept potential troublemakers in line. They drew boundaries on thought, speech and association. And rooting out vice provided an opportunity to show virtue: dedication could be judged by how loudly you condemned the targets.
[T]he Weathermen’s deeply degenerate and cult-like internal politics didn’t do anyone any good. In fact, they seemed far more a product of neurosis and narcissism than of revolutionary strategy–they couldn’t stand to be seen as part of the white bourgeois society they came from and so they found entirely negative ways to purge themselves in the presence of other white radicals.
Weathermen Bill Ayers, Bernadine Dohrn and Howard Machtinger went on to lengthy careers as educators and activists, as did many of their fellow radicals. And the “encounter groups” popularized by the Esalen Institute in the 1960s — sessions where participants were encouraged to disclose their darkest secrets and deepest fears as part of a process of self-reinvention — have been reborn in workshops like Confront White Womanhood and Undoing Racism. All this self-analysis, with affirmation as the reward and “calling out” as the penalty, has helped to shape a whole generation of angry young activists who have reinvented themselves as “Allies” in an unending struggle against “oppression” in all its forms and who recoil instinctively from those who would question their goals.
But while the earnest young activist at least gets warm fuzzy feelings for toeing the party line, opponents can expect no reward for any efforts at discussion and engagement. Defending your position proves you are holding on to your racist and supremacist preconceptions: admitting a mistake is not the first step toward reconciliation but the final nail in your coffin. Any dialogue is aimed not at finding facts but at proving you wrong: consensus, compromise and cooperation are bourgeois affectations, not tools toward achieving mutually desirable (or at least tolerable) ends.
One of Donald Trump’s greatest yet least recognized strengths is his apparent lack of any sense of guilt, shame or remorse. Tax returns, bankruptcies, “Grab her by the pussy,” “bleeding from her whatever,” Stormy Daniels — no controversy has ever forced the words “I’m sorry” from President Trump’s lips. Wise men have advised him to back down; fellow Republicans have distanced themselves from his “intemperate” statements; critics have cheered that surely this time Trump will admit defeat and quit the primary/resign from office. And yet Trump has weathered all these attacks and remains in the Oval Office while outside his critics wail and gnash their teeth.
For yet another example, consider the recent Kavanaugh hearings. The claims made by Christine Blasey Ford and Debra Ramirez were not implausible: many drunken young men have groped women at parties or exposed themselves in dormitory common areas. Had Kavanaugh admitted that he may have grabbed a breast or two in his college days and expressed regret for his youthful indiscretions, his confirmation would have been derailed. Instead he stuck to his guns, denied everything and placed the burden of proof on his accusers. Surprised by his resistance, the Democratic Party flailed wildly and shrieked while busloads of protestors painted themselves with fake blood and dressed up as Handmaids. Pundits warned Kavanaugh should withdraw his nomination for the good of the country but Kavanaugh didn’t budge. And ultimately, despite a barrage of mud-slinging unprecedented in American judicial hearings, he was confirmed.
You may accuse Trump and Kavanaugh of using their cishet White Male privilege, and you might even be right — but what of it? Politics is a full contact sport: anybody hoping to succeed had best use every advantage available. Keith Ellison has certainly used his doubly oppressed status as an African-American Muslim to dodge some pretty well-documented and far more recent allegations of partner abuse. One could just as well argue that Kavanaugh’s accusers took advantage of his privileged status and used the “#metoo” momentum against a suspiciously prosperous and heterosexual White male. Disarming yourself in a fight to make your opponent feel better ensures nothing save defeat.
There is certainly room for discussion and even heated disagreement among like-minded people. Any political philosophy — even yours — should be subject to questioning. But there is a difference between honest debate and sophistry. Negotiation can only happen between two parties acting in good faith and by the same rules. Lacking that, it serves only to waste time and annoy the pig. Those seeking to attract a mass audience by watering down their message or avoiding controversial topics should keep this in mind. Compromising your principles for money, power or fame is a very bad thing: compromising them for nothing at all is even worse.