Essay: Not your average progressive thinkpiece

Jonah Lewis, a senior double-majoring in political science and sociology, is a Hatchet columnist.

Media Credit: Emily Robinson | Design Assistant

I am progressive.

I am pro-choice. I believe that #BlackLivesMatter. I support LGBT people’s right to live their lives as themselves, free of restrictions on their bodies or minds. I am in support of nearly every policy and practice that would reduce poverty, provide more resources to marginalized groups and promote equity and justice.

But during the last year, I’ve been having a crisis of faith in this identity. It’s not that I find myself less progressive than I used to be – it’s that I find the so-called progressive movement on college campuses to be less reflective of what I thought it was.

When I decided to call myself a progressive, it was because that label embodied empathy, care and concern. To be a progressive meant to be a fighter for justice, for all.

But now, the empathy we once prided ourselves on has been replaced with indignation. Listening replaced with silencing. Action replaced with reaction. Love and openness replaced with hate and exclusivity.

Suddenly, the movement I loved had become one that I didn’t recognize. I realized that some progressives spend most of their time fighting with each other instead of against the opposition. The movement became exclusive – only accepting those willing to criticize other progressives and those with abundant time, money and energy to dedicate to the cause.

There wasn’t one specific moment in which I came to this realization. But as incident after incident of progressive overreach on college campuses arose in the media or caused controversy at GW, I felt embarrassed and saddened by the divisive pettiness that often derails the progressive cause.

I’ve been concerned about this for a while – for a few years, in fact. While last week’s controversy surrounding Spring Fling didn’t inspire these sentiments, it’s still relevant. I personally agreed with the decision to cancel Action Bronson, but the controversy ignored the very real problems in campus activism: Progressive ideology seems to now center on infighting and nastiness, and it is pushing out those who do not meet a narrow definition of what it means to be a progressive.

I think back to Erika Christakis, a lecturer on early childhood education at Yale University, who sent an email earlier this fall in extremely poor taste exalting students’ right to be transgressive or offensive on Halloween. This email led to widespread student protests on the campus. While these protests were ultimately about the larger issue of racial justice, it was Christakis who was pushed out. A brilliant and innovative scholar, Christakis will now take her formidable knowledge away from the institution – or perhaps out of academia altogether over one cringeworthy email. That is not progressive.

I think back to when students at the University of Missouri were protesting racial injustice at their school. Their cause was just and admirable. But during the protests, communications professor Melissa Click called for physical violence against a student journalist whose transgression was simply covering the protest on a freelance assignment for ESPN. Click apologized and the university subsequently terminated her. Still, colleagues and progressive student groups largely defended her actions. That is not progressive.

Most distressingly, I’ve seen this trend creep onto our own campus, threatening our progress and dividing our student body. I have seen students boycott and attack Jewish student groups for having any relationship with the state of Israel. I have seen student journalists and writers personally attacked and shamed online for expressing opinions that did not meet a narrow progressive view of the world. I have seen other students talk in whispers and behind closed doors about their peers, creating cliques and spreading gossip over the most minor of transgressions. This is not progressive.

In a way, this sort of progressivism has become a means not to better the lives of others, but to prove one’s own credentials. Those who are ignorant or who make mistakes are not educated or forgiven – they’re thrown to the wolves. Real advocacy has been replaced with a competition over who in the progressive movement is the most marginalized and the most morally superior.

More than all else, it grew impossible to accept how exclusive this movement has become. Progressive politics is now about “who shows up.” This seems like a good philosophy on its face, but those who have the time and energy to show up to every coalition meeting likely don’t have to work three jobs to pay their tuition and rent, like I have. They likely don’t have doctor’s appointments two or three times a week, like many people do. They may commit their lives to art, or music, or science while their progressive identity is a supplement, not their focus.

When people do not show up, their commitment to the cause is often questioned and disparaged. In multiple settings, I have seen individuals’ opinions or knowledge questioned because they cannot dedicate their lives to campus activism. Most distressingly, campus activists isolate themselves so much by becoming the gatekeepers to their coalitions and organizations. The effect is a very real and very desperate lack of diversity of experience and opinion in a movement that ought to value these ideals.

I’m passionate and excited about the future of the progressive movement. There are so many new progressives who are committing their work and their lives to making a difference. Most are amazing people who would do anything for a better world.

But I worry about the future of the movement as a loud minority defined by indignation threatens to take it over. Today, the biggest threat to marginalized groups is a resurgence of the radical right that could negatively impact our government and nation. But instead of focusing on these forces, progressive ideology has led to intense criticism of even the most radical members of our own movement.

In a world where black people continue to be targeted by law enforcement, transgender people are often unable to even use the bathroom without fearing for their safety and college has become too expensive for most, it’s unconscionable to me that some think the best use of our time is to police the most minor transgressions of our friends and allies.

Despite all of this, I still plan to be progressive long into the future. With the work that needs to be done, I refuse to be hindered by infighting. Instead, I’ll forge ahead on the path of understanding and empathy. I hope to see some people joining me – complete with their mistakes, faults and lessons learned.

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