Disinterest in problems/solutions/aspirations that don’t have sharp tribal boundaries around them, is a barrier to us seizing the present moment.
Through much of American history, progressives have fought for tangible, physical wellbeing. We have fought for food safety, work safety, medical care, education, living-wage jobs, clean water and air, and beauty that is accessible to the public rather than sequestered behind estate walls. We have done so rooted in a sense of our shared humanity and vulnerabilities.
From Physical to Interpersonal. In recent years, however, many activists on the left have been less focused on physical aspects of wellbeing. Much of the passion has centered on inter-group and inter-personal dynamics, what I might call offenses against standing or status that then cause harms, large and small. At one end of such a spectrum might be a person fearing authoritarian violence because they are male and black or being unable to move up in their career because they reject a manager’s sexual overtures. At the other might be mislabeling and micro-aggressions between peers.
Patterns like these can cause real world harm, but the mechanism is interpersonal. The harms flow from dynamics around inclusion and respect, standing and power between human beings. My English teacher used to say that all stories are about man vs man, man vs nature or man vs self. Much progressive energy in recent years has focused on the first of these, with emotion and activism running high about race relations, sexual violations and consent, queer rights, immigration, and—on college campuses—cultural appropriations and offensive speech.
Some deride this as a trend toward progressive navel gazing, but it is natural, I think, that these things have been a focus. For one thing, some of the egregious harms faced by our ancestors—slavery and indentured servitude, genocidal colonialism, incessant pregnancy for women, lynchings and segregation, common infant and child mortality, chain gangs, casual brutality toward laboratory and farm animals, rivers on fire and gray smog envelopes around cities—and yes, death and disability from infectious disease—are mercifully diminished. The work isn’t done, but the technological innovations, scientific advances, and political struggles of past generations have born fruit. That allows us to focus on more nuanced manifestations of the same dynamics.
Also, changing communication technologies mean that people, especially young people, live more in a virtual social world. On the internet, physical danger and disease don’t exist, but insults do—and they even sometimes kill people by triggering suicide. So, with basic needs met, we live increasingly in a world in which the most important battles are over which tribes we belong to, whether we feel respected and included, who has power, and what we do and don’t say to each other. Social struggles like these face us against each other rather than against a common enemy, and so they are inherently divisive. There are winners and losers, victimizers and victims, good guys and bad guys, us and them.
Cataclysmic change. As I said, this focus has made sense in context. But a global pandemic changes things. What we face now is an external threat that forcibly brings us back into our bodies and the physical world. The most salient threats are to health and, for many, basic conditions of survival including food and shelter. It would be hard to find a narrative plot that is more clearly man against nature than this one..
As a psychologist, I find it helpful to look at this through the lens of Maslow’s needs hierarchy and what we know about how emotions and attention shift in response to stressors and threats. COVID has, at least temporarily, moved many people down the hierarchy of needs, away from a focus on esteem or belonging back to a more foundational, urgent focus on physiological wellbeing and safety.
This shift changes our orientation toward each other. Decades of social psychological research show that a common enemy has a way of bringing people together; and with coronavirus killing across international and racial boundaries, rich and poor, old and young, it would be hard to find a more inclusive threat. Not that the harms are equal across those boundaries of course; harms rarely are, and pre-existing disparities create unequal vulnerabilities. But few will come out of this altogether unscathed; in a meaningful sense, we are bound by our shared human physiology.
What might that imply when we consider progressive discourse and priorities?
“Opportunistic implementation.” Years ago, a progressive leader, Ed Zuckerman, then at the League of Conservation Voters, commented that he operated from a vantage of “long term vision, opportunistic implementation.” It became one of my activism mantras. Even if the long-range vision of the left is unchanged, the current moment offers its own profile of opportunities, which are very different from those that have been most salient in recent years.
The identity-based framing and messaging of the progressive left and the focus on interpersonal and inter-tribal dynamics is now less aligned with where people’s heads mostly are at. This may be frustrating to activists who have been working to call attention to harmful group dynamics and disparities. But it is reality. The most salient threats right now are not social; they are physical and economic, and that elevates opportunities to implement specific progressive policies that center on physiological and economic wellbeing.
There is plenty to be done in this space. On the domestic side we can focus on paid family leave, universal healthcare, living wages (and other economic safeguards), disability insurance, childcare, and education reforms. On the international side, we might focus on improving trust, information flow, and the governmental structures by which nations work effectively together. We might also focus on shifting private sector incentives and regulatory structures to reward investments that maximize human wellbeing rather than simply maximizing profit.
Strike while the iron is hot, so goes the old saying. A blacksmith knows that metal is malleable when the temperature is right, and only then. If progressives were to ignore context and continue to center on inter-human conflicts, that would be, metaphorically, striking cold metal and missing the pieces that are glowing in front of us. It would misalign us with the social psychological zeitgeist. Issues like sexual harassment or transgender bathrooms, for example, while still real, are less front of mind and, by contrast with the threat of death or destitution, focusing on them can seem offensively privileged.
Thinking opportunistically, we had a pivotal moment to move discourse about race and police training after the salient killings of a series of black men, and BLM rose up. We had a key chance to move culture and law around sexual boundary violations when Donald Trump took the stage, and #metoo rose up. We had an opening to advance queer rights when Hollywood and pop culture made homophobia bizarre to a generation of young people, and the shift reached a tipping point.
Bucking trendlines. Right now is a pivotal moment for economic security and health and education and globalism. But can we make the shift strongly and quickly enough? To do so pits us against pre-COVID political trendlines. For the past decade, both left and right have been increasingly attracted to polarization and differentiation. Many progressives have centered not only their activism but also their identity and pride in calling out racism or sexism or another ism. This feels virtuous, and at its most extreme, it has become a way that people vie for status in progressive nonprofits and social circles.
Complicated lines of academic reasoning and popular discourse have grown up around this dynamic—literally whole books and new vocabularies that tout the virtues of elevating tribal identity and that implicitly or explicitly sneer at universalism. Progressives argue, for example, that it is naïve to think our society is currently race blind or should be, which is true. (We all know it’s not, and there are problems that disproportionately affect some groups, and we serve them best by naming this). But many take this a step further and scoff even at aspirational universalism, the kind reflected in the MLK quote: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
This attitude, meaning disinterest in problems/solutions/aspirations that don’t have sharp tribal boundaries around them, is—I think—a barrier to us seizing the present moment. Centering on tribal conflict has acquired some righteous emotional appeal that may not surge as strongly if we are simply fixing problems. Focusing on health, economic security and better public education all disproportionately benefit people who have been harmed by racism and other isms. But, they address the tangible effects of historical and systemic isms without necessarily calling them out. And that is where the challenge lies.
Next stage inclusion. Social justice progressives have built a more and more inclusive tent, but it is not yet big enough. We still exclude people from our circle of caring based on accidents of birth. Some people have been of little interest to progressives of late, most specifically rural dwellers, working-class whites, and men—whom we often dismiss as oppressors.
Now we are faced with an unsought but extraordinary opportunity to bring people together across those tribal lines in a way that is deeply genuine—not simply telling white people to step up for black people or men to step up for women, not mere ally-ship, but a return to the awareness that we are all in this together—that a harm to the most vulnerable is a harm to all, yes, but also a recognition that we are all vulnerable.
When we treat people as representatives of tribes, then they become symbols rather than individuals. We can’t care about the suffering of some, we can’t even see their vulnerabilities, because other people who look like them—who share their skin color and sex organs—have had it too good for too long. Our recent habit of treating white males as if they were relevant only as overprivileged victimizers who need to take a turn at the bottom of the pecking order belies the full humanity of a whole bunch of people who are now frightened and suffering. It is tokenistic, and it is wrong.
During a global pandemic, it is also out of touch. Right now, unemployment in some regions is approaching 20 percent. We have sailors falling ill en masse, and doctors dying, and young men and women graduating off a cliff, to borrow a phrase from Van Jones. Working class families and gig workers of all races are staring at bankruptcy and eviction. This is an opportunity for us to expand our sphere of compassion and advocacy to include them all. And it is an opportunity to build a unified swell of support for durable compassionate policies that make life better, especially for those whose wellbeing is most fragile. But that will happen only if progressive leaders and communicators make an explicit pivot toward language—and thinking—that is as inclusive and current as the plague itself.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings.and a co-founder of the Progress Alliance of Washington. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Quillette, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.