The Righteousness Mob: A Liberal on Liberals
by Manfred Wolf
Our age has spawned any number of new attitudes and cultural styles. These days many people take great pleasure in “calling out” others, i.e., accusing them of wrongdoing, for which they must be shamed, and for which an apology is demanded, — though when the apology is given, it’s often deemed “not enough.” Whether the target has made a questionable joke, or is in some way insensitive to someone’s feelings, or has been accused of impropriety, a chorus of self-righteous voices demands resignation, or apology, or contrite confession of wrongdoing. As a liberal, I’m sorry to say that most of this comes from our side of the aisle.
This behavior is so common that the phenomenon is widely accepted and rarely analyzed. While in some instances the targets of attack may well deserve condemnation, much of the time they don’t and are singled out because they seem to stand in the way of some progressive thought or espouse an unfashionable idea.
Since the Left is close to the undulations of the culture and often the purveyor of new and modish ideas, its adherents are at the forefront of these attacks. These liberal extremists think themselves genuinely liberal, but their behavior in these matters is in fact zealously absolute. They champion purity and are ever on the lookout for sin. Like a puritan lynch mob in pursuit of witchcraft, they have no patience with nuance, or with difference of opinion, or with any kind of pluralistic thought. They recognize one truth and require total adherence to it.
While they feel they represent good against evil and perceive themselves as thinking people, they take an almost sensual pleasure in what they do because it creates an opportunity for indignation, indulges willed anger, and displays their righteousness. The wrongdoing of the victim becomes a pretext for the pleasure of accusation and denunciation. Their satisfaction derives from emotional self-indulgence, all the better for being shared with others.
And they take pride in their sensitivity and discernment. Since sin must be rooted out wherever it may lurk, they probe into some obscure corners. So it turns out that many Harvard students can’t tolerate their dorm-master, a law professor, serving as Harvey Weinstein’s defense attorney. Now the target of shaming is tainted merely by association. It gets worse: sometimes the target-person has done nothing more than propose an unpopular idea. Recently I heard of someone “called out” for recommending that the age of consent be lowered. Why is that reprehensible? What about the exercise of free speech? Not important — if an idea is suspect, that is to say politically incorrect, then its discussion is evidently forbidden.
Here, we are almost in the realm of thought crimes, where merely voicing an opinion can get you into serious trouble. After all, it may make someone “uncomfortable.”
It will be said that I’m concentrating on the excesses of the “good” side rather than on the depredations of the “bad” side (the Right) with its attraction to white supremacy, its anti-immigrant stance, and so forth. But precisely the lack of awareness within the Left — its unwillingness to recognize its totalitarian instincts, its lack of self-scrutiny — is the greater failure in those who far more than the Right speak for the larger culture.
It may also be said that I’m a traitor to the liberal cause. But I’m just as concerned by the behavior of the extreme Left as moderate conservatives are of the activities of the extreme Right. With neither set of moderates honestly speaking out, we are only due more of the same death-spiral toward a completely tribal political system.
Manfred Wolf, PhD is Professor Emeritus at San Francisco State University’s School of Humanities and a frequent lecturer at the University of San Francisco’s Fromm Institute of Lifelong Learning. His books are available on Amazon.