Are SJWs the Tea Party of Social Activism?

Seven years ago, raw, unbridled anger drove the Tea Party’s rise to prominence. Promptly after President Obama’s first inauguration and his administration’s announcement of the “Homeowners Affordability and Stability Plan,” frustrated Americans congregated to protest government subsidies for homeowners’ mortgages, launching the Republican Party’s radical movement. In addition to the “moochers” and “losers” who needed help refinancing their mortgages, the Tea Partiers of 2009 primarily targeted the Obama administration, with demands ranging from “reclaiming the power of the people” to impeachment.

The electorate forms the basis of US democracy. It therefore does not come as a shock that grassroots frustration can propel a movement that was previously treated with disdain by political elites into power. Boiling rage is not necessary to incite a mass social movement; even implicit anger, once amplified by the media and interest groups, can cause confounding events at both ends of the political spectrum, from the Republican Party’s far-right turn to the spread of “social-justice warriors” (SJWs) among liberals.

The Republican Party’s trajectory over the past several years shows the incorporation of anger into political strategy. Noam Chomsky attributes part of Trump’s success to his reminding “less educated white sectors of the population, lower middle class and working class, people who are angry, frustrated, frightened, bitter” that they “have been in many ways cast by the wayside.” Indeed, it is easy to remind people of their socioeconomic troubles and point them towards causes of their discontent. Meanwhile, the infamous phrase “Make America Great Again” gives them a grand vision to aspire to. For Trump, this has proven to be an extremely effective method of attracting supporters.  

The Tea Party’s mission to reclaim the America that was hijacked by Obama’s democratic administration has channeled voter anger into unwillingness to compromise. Political scientists Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson interviewed a large number of Tea Party members to understand the seismic development of the Tea Party movement and reported little to no willingness to engage in “two-way dialogue with other Americans who think differently from Tea Partiers.” The Tea Party’s adherence to a “no compromise” principle was demonstrated in the 2013 government shutdown: engaging in discourse with the Democrats was deemed pointless, and meeting them halfway was certainly not an option.

Grassroots anger gave rise to both the Tea Party and Trump’s juggernaut. More recently, a similar phenomenon has taken place on the left. The past few years have seen an explosion of complex new gender and racial identities. Failure to acknowledge or tolerate these identities breeds anger, as demonstrated by how growing racial tensions have brought police-community relations to an incredibly low point. From Ferguson to Chicago to New York, civil unrest has resulted from the boiling over of tensions. An intense culture of sensitivity has been enforced precisely in response to these new frustrations; particularly on college campuses, the new priority has been to situate everyone in a “safe environment,” free of “micro-aggressions” and offensive viewpoints.

The left’s newfound anger has become especially clear over the past two months. In early February, a group of profane protesters interrupted an IOP visit by then-Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, silencing her presentation. A few weeks later, Mr. Trump had a similar experience at his UIC Pavilion rally when organized protests escalated into physical violence. Both were cases of aggressive censorship.

The liberal protestors at these events claimed to fight against bigotry and intolerance, yet hypocritically espoused hatred towards opinions that differ from or unsettle theirs. Through these protests, SJWs have detracted from social activism in the same way that Tea Party members have detracted from establishment conservative ideology—by proclaiming themselves to be the sole legitimate representatives of their cause and refusing to tolerate dissent.

The Tea Party has already demonstrated the potential for this attitude to translate into dangerous policies. In key races for the US senate, Tea Party candidates have put forth a host of absurd propositions, from eliminating the Department of Education and the Federal Reserve to using tax revenue to fund anti-government militias. It is even more alarming that ultra-religious positions, adamant opposition to abortion, and defense of Second Amendment gun rights have become basic requirements for any Republican to gain a nomination in the primaries. GOP members have been placed in a predicament: moderate conservatives believing in free market solutions and strong national defense find themselves sidelined for failing to be sufficiently radical. Meanwhile, they face the difficulty of distancing themselves from extreme views in front of moderate voters.

Social activists are in a similar conundrum, as they need to temper the radical claims of their SJW counterparts. Feminism is one relevant example. Man-hating feminism makes people reluctant to identify as feminist, to avoid association with man-haters’ hateful rhetoric and extremism. In this way, an unrepresentative radical few take legitimacy from a benevolent social movement that needs wide support. Research suggests thatin the popular imagination, the feminist – and the radical feminist in particular – is seen as full of irrational vitriol towards all men.” In reality this is hardly the case. In the twentieth century, the feminist movement affected considerable positive change throughout history, championing political campaigns on issues including equal pay, women’s suffrage, defense against domestic violence, etc.  Unfortunately, future gains are imperiled by a faulty “popular imagination” that conflates demands for gender equality with some extreme feminists’ loudly expressed bias against all men.

It would be dismissive to label every participant present at the IOP and UIC Pavilion protests as an SJW who refuses to listen to the other side. Striving for social justice is commendable. Ideally, if everyone our age had a bit of “change the world,” hot-headed compassion in them, the world would be a better place. But there remains an important distinction between an impactful social activist and the newly-prominent SJWs.

Tea Partiers, while self-labeling as conservatives, distort core Republican party ideals by catapulting them to extremes. Limited government regulation, for instance, becomes a hardcore stance to drastically reduce the role of government, going as far as to depict it as tyranny. Such extremism extends to SJWs. Criticizing a woman can be categorized as misogyny. Failure to acknowledge someone’s chosen gender identity becomes systematic oppression. SJWs insist on one-sided discourse to advance a rather narrow, predetermined political agenda. Much like the Tea Party, they seldom seek conciliation with what they would categorize as “the enemy”–often more privileged groups–whom they perceive as oppressors.

SJWs consider discourse with these groups to be unnecessary and insufficient. In their view, social justice is not fully achieved until these groups are stripped of their “privilege.” They evoke an oft-chanted phrase of radical feminists, “bring down the patriarchy.” In the weeks after the Alvarez protest, campus voices reiterated the importance of seeking rigorous inquiry and respect for free speech. Such civility and respect do not only extend to opinions we are capable of accepting–it should also apply to people like Donald Trump. We are guilty of matching intolerance with intolerance.

Unrestrained anger is dangerous to democracy, particularly when coupled with unwillingness to engage in dialogue. This anger lets any idea be carried to dangerous extremes. For example, The Oath Keepers, a group of anti-government extremists, is associated with both the BLM movement and the Tea Party. Their key stance is that members should not obey orders deemed to violate the US constitution. During the Ferguson protests in Missouri, members of the Oath Keepers were equipped with semi-automatic missiles and ready to engage in armed resistance against the Federal Government. In this way, opposition to government and the quest for racial justice can go hand in hand–in an extreme and dangerous fashion.

At the same time, this trend strangles the free and open discourse necessary to rein it in. Several thousand years ago, ancient Athens saw vigorous discussion between ordinary citizens, and, as depicted by Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind, “friendly men, educated, lively, on a footing of equality, civilized by natural, came together and told wonderful stories about the meaning of their longing.” Civil discussion became one of the basic tenets of democratic participation, which is not possible if one side refuses to sit down and listen.

Recall Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s famous phrase of classical liberalism: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This sentiment is not yet dead, but it is under threat by frequent attempts to silence dissenting voices through mob tactics. These tactics send a message marked by the same bigotry they seek to avenge.

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