Another fundamental problem in our political discourse, which spans the political spectrum but also applies to the progressive movement, has been the conflation of person and idea. Nowadays, when an individual expresses an idea with which we disagree, our typical reaction is to attack the person rather than the idea.

For example, when someone makes a racist remark, we have two options: we can either criticize the remark itself, or we can criticize the person. We often choose the latter, by calling the individual racist. But an alternative approach would instead be to state that the person’s speech is racist.

While there is certainly a connection between a person and his or her speech, and while individuals must be held accountable for their actions, we must learn to separate the person from the idea.

We can hate a person’s speech without hating the person. In fact, we can hate a person’s speech even while loving the person [1]. Our discourse and debate must fundamentally revolve around ideas, not persons.

When we respond with personal attacks, we accomplish little, even if those attacks appear to be true.

First, by denigrating the source of the disliked language or position, we alienate him or her, which only makes it more likely that the speaker will respond with further defensiveness.

We can hate a person’s speech even while loving the person.

Second, by stating that the speaker “is” a certain characteristic (such as racist) and affixing a corresponding label, we cast that person in an immutable light. We thereby minimize the space and opportunity for the speaker to rehabilitate or to express remorse and correct his or her speech. Ultimately, matters of personality severely distract from the core ideas at stake and undermine our ability to defeat those ideas.

Trump has been the ultimate individual who has transformed public discourse from ideas to personalities.

But while Trump may be guilty of personalizing politics, he has successfully baited the progressive movement into doing the same.

He has provoked progressives into responding with endless character attacks against him — which, although true or partially true, only have the effect of leading to further escalation.

Over the past four years, progressives would have done better to focus on refuting Trump’s ideas rather than Trump himself — and, not only doing that, but offering positive alternatives to those ideas.

In fact, the Trump character attacks have been particularly problematic because of the pathological loyalty that Trump has cultivated amongst his followers. Under such circumstances, character attacks against the leader only deepen the loyalty of the flock. Unfortunately, progressives tend to give little thought to this audience when launching their attacks.

These character attacks fall into a broader pattern of responses by the progressive movement over the past four years: virtually all progressive answers to Trump have become entrapped in a paradigm of negation.

Progressives have denounced Trump at every turn, whether in response to a xenophobic comment or an announcement of irresponsible policy.

While negation is often important, it is insufficient — for any negational response should always be accompanied by a positive proposal or alternative. Moreover, pure negation typically only leads to never-ending escalation of conflict, which is exactly what Trump wants.

Most of all, these observations also apply to responses to hateful language: not only must we denounce such language, but we must actively defeat hate with love.

King fully recognized the critical role of love-based approaches, saying, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that” [1]. He spoke of loving our enemies and described love as “understanding, redemptive, creative, good will for all men [and women]” [1]. Mahatma Gandhi saw these truths as well, saying, “An eye for eye will only make the whole world blind” [2].

Oftentimes, progressives have deceived themselves that their advocacy has been grounded on love and inclusion.

After all, the progressive movement is a coalition of many different identities and is founded on the idea of respecting — and loving — all of those different groups. As described in Part V, however, this professed love has frequently been perceived by outsiders as prioritizing certain identities over others.

Moreover, because the movement has often seemed to exclude key groups, the love only reverberates inside an echo-chamber. The love does not reach the enemy. Instead, it is a love for the ingroup only.

The progressive echo-chamber of love and conformity is reinforced by social media, where one misstep can lead to vehement, widespread shaming.

In fact, perhaps nothing has epitomized mutually hateful responses on the part of the progressive movement more than the practice of shaming, which often occurs in response to someone saying or doing something with which others disagree.

Shaming may fundamentally be a problem of social media, as opposed to the progressive movement itself — but progressives have nevertheless engaged in the practice. (The broader contribution of social media to our current predicament is a crucial matter that goes beyond the scope of this treatise.)

When we degenerate into shaming, we violate another person’s rights to dignity and respect, fundamentally undercutting our moral cause — for we cannot defend the existence of some people by denying the existence of others.

Now, it is difficult to discuss shaming without touching on the broader debate of so-called “cancel culture.” However, regardless of where the truth lies in the cancel culture debate — and the answer is probably somewhere in the middle — shaming is problematic because of its dehumanizing nature. As described above, we should be able to reject a person’s speech, or even cancel a person’s platform, without shaming the individual.

When we degenerate into shaming, we violate another person’s rights to dignity and respect, fundamentally undercutting our moral cause — for we cannot defend the existence of some people by denying the existence of others.

In fact, the dehumanizing nature of shaming probably helps to explain why cancel culture itself has become such a polarizing force in our society.

First, keep in mind that most human beings initially react to situations based on emotions rather than rationality. Second, keep in mind that all of our cultural dramas unfold before large numbers of lay citizens, many of whom may not have the time or knowledge to sift through free speech technicalities or to study the specific positions of the characters involved.

Consequently, the shaming involved in cancel culture is immediately perceived as an affront to human dignity and only serves to escalate conflict.

There is little doubt that the social opprobrium for disfavored speech has reached vitriolic levels in recent years. Even though this opprobrium may not constitute a formal infringement of free speech rights, the unparalleled nature of present-day shaming can easily be perceived (whether rightly or wrongly) as censoriousness — which itself is at the heart of the cancel culture debate.

Often, the effect of shaming is to broadcast a message that we wish to suppress certain speech because there is something about it that we fear.

For hateful groups, this perceived suppression tends to reinforce their conspiracy theories, confirming to them that powerful forces in society have aligned to block free participation in our social discourse.

Unsurprisingly, extremists such as Stephen Miller have built significant support in opposition to cancel culture — a direct illustration of how the strategic methods of the progressive movement, even if they have been in pursuit of rightful moral purposes, have had the counterproductive effect of breeding further extremism on the opposite end of the political spectrum.

The apparent suppression of speech through actions such as shaming also relates to Trump’s idea of the silent majority. Even though the “silent majority” may not be the majority that Trump wishes, it is a sizable minority that perceives its voice to be silenced by the “establishment” in society.

All in all, rather than becoming entangled in the politics of personality (whether through shaming or through other forms of character attack), we must remember that our fight is fundamentally about creating better systems — because systems, not individuals, are the ultimate source of injustice in society. To create more just systems, we fight against problems, not against people. We fight for ideas.

To create more just systems, we fight against problems, not against people. We fight for ideas.

As we also need to win over hearts and minds to join the cause for those ideas, launching personal attacks is a weak strategy that will undercut any cause. Indeed, the personalization of ideas is an extension of tribalism — for it is the manifestation of identity-based strategies at the individual level.

In contrast to these feeble approaches, moral ideas — which are inherently true ideas, transcending all individualities and identities — provide the most powerful weapon in the world.

Progressives and Democrats, however, have lost sight of these truths. By engaging in constant denunciation and vengefulness, they have contributed to a marked spiral in our political rhetoric and have failed to offer positive alternatives.

At the end of everything, the Democrats have only been left with a 2020 campaign platform that essentially amounts to “not Trump.” This platform is woefully, perhaps fatally, lacking.

Works Cited:

  1. King, Jr., Martin Luther and James M. Washington. 1986. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. New York: HarperCollins.
  2. Goodreads. n.d. “Mahatma Gandhi Quotes.” Accessed September 1, 2020. https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/5810891.Mahatma_Gandhi?page=1.

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Human, activist, scholar. Physician-Economist-in-training @UMich. CEO @proghealth. @FulbrightPrgrm Awardee. I work on anything that matters, locally & globally.

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Josh Greenberg

Josh Greenberg

Human, activist, scholar. Physician-Economist-in-training @UMich. CEO @proghealth. @FulbrightPrgrm Awardee. I work on anything that matters, locally & globally.

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