The following is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board.
I identify as liberal. These days, that seems to be a qualification for taking part in any meaningful discussion on politics, policy or power. Continuing down the list: I supported Obergefell v. Hodges, Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement. But what if I hadn’t explicitly expressed my approval for these causes? I imagine a significant portion of people reading this article would have moved on to one written by an author who aligns much more with values held by them. I probably would have too.
So what? Is it wrong to assess authors’ credibility based on their support of certain social movements? Maybe. Because when I listed out Obergefell v. Hodges, Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement, you probably identified those as indications of a broader support for the LGBTQ+ community, for reforming a fundamentally broken justice system and for the feminist movement. You wouldn’t be wrong – it’s a heuristic applicable in so many cases that I’d wager the few Dining Dollars I have left this quarter on its accuracy. But I’ll also ask you to consider one form of the converse: If an individual (let’s go the extra mile and assume him to be a white, cisgendered male of high social economic status, the literal embodiment of privilege) were to express disapproval for Black Lives Matter, would we even be open to the idea that he supports any notion of equality? Would we invite him and his insights into a discussion that has anything to do with race?
Of course, the reality is rarely so extreme. Most people, myself included, enjoy some sort of privilege that we should be cognizant of when interacting with others of differing experiences and backgrounds. But I feel as if the answer to the previous question, more often than not, is no. In today’s world, where we’re held accountable online for virtually everything we say or do, it’s easy to create judgements of people whom we’ve never met and likely never will. More accountability by itself isn’t a bad idea. It’s the conclusions that we jump to that are responsible for the most damaging implications. At stake here is the fundamental idea that people are malleable, that they are capable of change. Though people are often ignorant of the consequences of their actions, it’s rare that previous prejudices can’t be shaped into something more empathetic and less egoistic. It isn’t a new concept, by the way, that people who do harm to others can be reformed – it was the original intention of creating prisons in a democratic society.
The narratives that the majority of the nation bought – pervasive, oftentimes meaningless "tough on crime" rhetoric – make a mockery of any real attempts at rehabilitation. On a much smaller scale, this shift is taking place on social media and all over the web – we’re increasingly likely to accept that people are simply what a tweet or Facebook post says about them. Social media, among other methods in which we are preserved forever online, make it incredibly easy to form incomplete judgements based on a single interaction that reflects a single facet of a person, making it simple to evaluate and exclude, easier to discern at a quick glance the most committed members of a certain cause. And so much easier to exact ideological purity from anyone wanting to participate.
Today’s social movements are a variation on earlier themes. Compared to their predecessors, they share purposes: in fighting for the big ideas of equal rights, equal opportunity, equal treatment. Both were fought by individuals, courageous and committed, who sought justice in a society unwilling to give it to those who needed it most. But in looking at this country’s most notable example, the Civil Rights Movement, it’s important to note that its protesters, freedom riders, activists and legislators were not a homogenous group – they represented a diverse cross-section of society who shared a belief that eliminating segregation would be beneficial to all. It was a war waged in multiple theaters: the streets of Montgomery, diners in Greensboro and Nashville, voter registration drives across Mississippi, the March on Washington and the Congressional Chambers on Capitol Hill. What I’m trying to say is that the great achievements of the Civil Rights Movement are derived from the shared efforts of the participants in all these battles. I’m not implying that the contributions of individuals were equal – because they definitely weren’t. Members of the African American community always held the greatest stakes in the movement, made the greatest sacrifices and bore virtually all of the backlash from reactionaries, the alt-right and white supremacist groups that vehemently opposed any semblance of racial equality. But were they alone in the strictest sense? The answer to that question is "no."
The thing is, meaningful change is rarely born out of polarization, violence or revolution. The greatest social movements of the last hundred years have been in large part an exercise in compromise – compromise between people who generally believe in one cause, and between people who generally believe in different ones. I think few people would argue against the claim that Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X cared deeply about the cause of equality. That Stanton and Sanger both furthered the cause of feminism. In a time when America is already deeply fractured among various visible and invisible fault lines, we don’t need to double down on division. We shouldn’t – and maybe even can’t afford to – alienate people who would otherwise help a cause we believe in. And doing that requires a sense of humility, to leave our pride at the door, which is hard, and some people argue that it isn’t fair, either. But if the world was actually fair, maybe we wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place.