These are difficult times for progressives. Many of the values we’ve long cherished and fought for — rationality, freedom of debate, a resistance to dogma — have, of late, become tainted concepts, more likely to be demanded by the other side than our own. Last week, Richard Dawkins was the latest to cop progressive ire after a tweet of his was widely read as an attack on trans people, leading to the American Humanist Association — once very much his tribe — revoking an award they’d bestowed on him 25 years ago. This revocation, dismissed by Dawkins as trivial, seems another example of what the right like to call “cancel culture” and what the left prefer to call “a non-issue”.
For some, Dawkins’s latest furore — he has plenty of form — was further evidence that the public sphere has become so polarised as to be basically uninhabitable. Only the brave, foolish or journalists would choose to spend time on Twitter. Attempting to understand your opponent is no longer an important tool for discussion, but a morally suspect act. Our ideological opponents are so corrupt as to be beyond our understanding. In that context, being open to discussion is at best weakness, at worst corruption. How did we get here?
We knew American culture was bad for us, but it was big, dumb, fun and, above all, extreme
Whatever the right might claim, it is unfair to blame the left for our increasingly polarised age. As the much-criticised Harpers letter evinced, many on the left are equally discomfited by a perceived intolerance to debate. Yes, in the 90s it was the religious right burning Harry Potter books, whereas today it is young progressives, but to suggest the political valencies of extremism have flipped is to miss the obvious common factor. It wasn’t the right or the left who burned those books — it was Americans. Perhaps the left and right aren’t divided by their differences, but by their similarities.
The American worldview has become so dominant over the past century as to appear almost invisible. And yet social media has weaponised that worldview in a way that even one hundred years of Hollywood couldn’t manage. Twitter — which is built on a system of being able to report heretics or, preferably, recruit a mob to burn them — has allowed an extremist American worldview to colonise political discussion on both sides of the Atlantic (and the Pacific, come to that). The way America perceives its issues dictates how the rest of us discuss our own.
So inescapable and prosaic is the American perspective that it can now be difficult to remember just how unique and bonkers that perspective is. It wasn’t too long ago that the rest of us knew. Leaving aside the weird gun fetishism, the superpowered American culture was, like its side serve of junk food, at once repellent and enticing. We knew it was bad for us, but it was big, dumb, fun and, above all, extreme.
Puritanism gave Americans the sense that, like the exiled Jews of the Old Testament, they were a chosen people
From the outside, Americans often seemed like crass, big talking, self-loving, ruthless narcissists convinced everyone was interested in what they were selling. Now that’s just how everyone talks on social media. We have all become Americans.
Those of us interested in remembering how to talk to people we disagree with, for our own good, if not the good of our societies, might do well to remember how to be less extreme, to be less American. To embrace scepticism, ambivalence and doubt instead of fury, conviction and righteousness.
In her excellent piece for The Sunday Times, Sarah Ditum notes that the atheist left has inadvertently adopted the moral framework of the church they despise. I would add that the dominant interpretation of this borrowed framework belongs to a particularly extreme branch of Christianity — the puritanism that runs through the American character like Brighton through a stick of rock. It is this puritanism that surfaces again and again throughout American history from Salem to McCarthy to the cancel culture that either a) doesn’t exist b) doesn’t work or c) is actually more of a problem on the other side of politics.
Puritanism gave Americans the sense that, like the exiled Jews of the Old Testament, they were a chosen people with a unique destiny to fulfil. Implicit was the piety of those who have been historically oppressed; the most oppressed being the most holy. In our online world, this plays out as the oft-critiqued oppression olympics, whereby (in progressive circles) fragility not only delivers political capital, but also immunity from debate, for fear of causing further trauma. Discussion is divided into those whose opinions are pure and those who must be excommunicated, no matter how enthusiastically they recant. Blasphemy is an eternal sin, even among atheists.
Divisiveness was a key characteristic of American puritanism, which quickly fractured into factions including Quakers, Methodist and Baptists. Likewise, puritan ethics tended to be focused on the individual, whose triumph of self-discipline would result in the divine gift of wealth and worldly power. Little wonder that much of the current progressive discourse focuses — much like the other side — on individual transgressions, personal identity and the need for self-improvement (or re-education).
The result of this inheritance is a cultural and political landscape where the oppressed and their allies seek power by shaming those out of step with an ever-changing orthodoxy, thereby proving their own moral purity. To put it another way, the current Twitterised discourse is dominated — on both sides — by true believers looking to start an argument they are sure they have already won. To listen would be to admit uncertainty, or a lack of faith, just as our opponent’s disagreement cements them as irredeemable and worth of Old Testament justice.
It is, of course, unfair to write off America entirely on the basis of its loudest extremists
Within the West, there remain pockets of resistance to this colonisation of ideas. Thomas Chatterton Williams has written about the freedom of leaving behind the strictures and polarities of American conceptions of race and identity for the secular, “colour-blind” model of France. It may be no coincidence that the gender critical movement has arisen in the UK, where modern feminism was arguably born and where progressive politics has traditionally focussed on collective action rather than individual responsibility or behaviour.
But it is, of course, unfair to write off America entirely on the basis of its loudest extremists. In Don’t Label Me, Ugandan-Canadian Irshad Manji argues that the way out of our polarised age is not to look for purities in others, but pluralities. We are all more than one thing. Dawkins may have offended the left, but he was quick to distance himself from any right wing allies his “academic” question may have attracted. More than that, while he may be indelicate and he may have opinions that embarrass many of us, his contributions to humanism and science are surely no less worthy of reward. Even in America.
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