4th of July Reflections on Working With People You Disagree With


Well, the fireworks are all shot, and I have a few moments to reflect on the 4th of July. We like to watch the movie "1776" as part of our celebrations, and this year I am struck by how these men, many of whom hated each other's guts, managed to put together a nation. Given the political climate of 2022 in the United--or should I say Disunited--States, it seems almost impossible that they pulled it off.

Key, it seems to me, is that the ones who greatly disliked some others were nevertheless willing to agree together that water was wet, and act upon that basis. What I mean by that is that they could agree at least that the situation with regard to Great Britain was intolerable and something should be done. Yes, it took years and lots of arguments, and lots of bad feelings, but they managed to pull together enough to get a new nation underway.

I guess that dimension of the founding hit me hard tonight because I am witnessing the squabbles among feminists about the consternation they feel because they agree with those on the right who would oppose things like males in women's sports. They absolutely do not wish to work with the right, who they probably rightly deem no friends of theirs. They even castigate those who try to build bridges across the aisle on issues the two groups agree on. They view these bridge-builders are traitors to women.

Sigh. No wonder men are in power, and women not. Men are willing to get in the dirt with their fellows and build something with them even if they don't personally like them. Women seem too pure to get dirty enough to build something in that fashion. As if it's not possible to work on the very same task with someone if you don't like them. I think we all work with people we don't appreciate or even like.

The British philosopher Kathleen Stock takes the topic of "guilt by association" on in a new essay of hers. She notices it is an interesting tactic, because one's guilt has nothing to do with anything one thinks, speaks, or does. It has to do with those one somehow "associates" with, and this may be as tiny an association as re-tweeting something. Here's Stock

"[G]uilt-by-association is even supposed to operate at several removes. For instance, this article (hosted by an organisation I vehemently support, written by a woman I respect) posits guilt-by-association for those UK feminists who associate with US feminists who associate for strategic reasons with the US religious right (= two removes). And it also posits some guilt-by-association for “a larger group” in the UK, who “whilst having no such links, either endorse this strategy or refuse to acknowledge it exists” (= three removes). That this larger group of women apparently should be deemed somewhat guilty for “refusing to acknowledge” the existence of the guilt of those with whom they associate is a further characteristic feature of this style of manoeuvre. In a moral universe in which guilt is presumed to travel fast as lightening, failing to publicly disassociate yourself from what others deem to be bad behaviour is also treated as deserving of some penance."

Stock goes on to parse the argument of guilt-by-association, and in her unique way, helps us to see how counter-productive it really is, for we all know how to walk and chew gum at the same time. I can disagree with you while fighting some battles next to you. It's not "my enemy's enemy is my friend," but rather "my enemy's enemy can be a fellow soldier in the battle against that enemy." In fact, this is exactly what politics is.

Here's more from Stock:

"The main objection usually offered here is about how such associations might appear to third parties on the Left. In a nutshell, this objection says that the existence of such public associations will confirm the suspicions of other left-wingers and liberals, who have always suspected that women sceptical of gender identity ideology were in the grip of rightist, reactionary, anti-woman thinking, and will see this point confirmed in any such public associations. Thus the credibility of gender-critical women will be tarnished within this group.

"Note that this objection could only possibly be of psychological relevance to women who already considered themselves to be on the Left – as many of the women habitually criticised in this regard are not. Why should women who are not on the Left care how those on the Left see them? (Again the spectre of the more irrational side of guilt-by-association arises: but aren’t these women morally suspect anyway, simply because they are not on the Left?) But in any case, moving on: even as it pertains to left-wing women, I find this argument to be unconvincing when offered as a blanket reason to avoid any such associations.

"To be clear, I think it’s true that some on the Left will be deterred from thinking more deeply about the problems with gender identity ideology, if they are aware of alliances between existing critics of such ideology and people on the Right. This will be true, for instance, of people with a very shallow, cautious, or essentially contrarian response to political issues, who wait to find out what opponents think before forming a view in opposition to this. If these are the people the Left wants to win over, then they probably should do as suggested, and avoid the associations in question.

"But there are also many on the Left who who are not so shallow or contrarian, who can grasp basic humane points about children’s health or women’s rights without waiting to see who else agrees with them; who can understand that people across political divides can agree that water is wet, and that sterilising young people or putting rapists in women’s prisons is wrong; and who also can grasp precisely the points I am making in this essay, about the value of sometime associations with political opponents in order to achieve wider goals.

"Perhaps even more importantly, there are also a lot of people not on the Left, or even particularly on the Right – relatively apolitical people - who also can grasp these basic humane points in relation to the impacts of gender identity ideology, and who also don’t think tribally about who else might agree or disagree. This is arguably the vast majority of people, including women who it would be useful to reach. If those who strategically associate with people on the Right do so, the better to get the message out to these apolitical people in particular – and surely this is a thoroughly worthwhile goal, since there are so many of them - then I see no problem with the effectiveness of that plan in principle. It is perhaps to be expected that women on the Left would specially prioritise the good opinions and agreement of fellow travellers on the Left, but this doesn’t mean that it is the only possibly useful goal.

"There is also a challenge here for those left-wing feminists who freely use guilt-by-association against other women, and especially against those who are not particularly on the Left, which includes the apolitical majority. How strategic is it really to launch scathing public attacks about the associations of other gender-critical women, knowing that this will inevitably cause many of them to feel humiliated and defensive and exposed? How wise is it to insinuate that through these associations these women are evil or at least in league with evil people, and so morally contaminated themselves? If the aim in doing so is to demonstrate the author’s own purity to those imaginary allies on the Left she hopes will one day appear like White Knights around the corner, that is one thing – though whether they will ever come is quite another. But if the aim is to win these women round to your point of view – or even just to appeal to the neutral witnesses looking on in confusion, seeing only paternalistic, lofty attempts to judge and shame women for not understanding arcane political relationships between people they have never heard of - I think this particular strategy is counterproductive.

"It seems to me that anticipating how imagined others will react to a particular association, and how this in turn might then affect oneself, is at the heart of why guilt-by-association is so often used by women against other women. For women tend to be particularly alive to the intricate, mutually referring structures of the social world in an intuitive way. (Perhaps I’m wrong but it is my suspicion that the peculiar degree of feminist agonizing about dodgy associations would be met with bafflement by many seasoned male politicos.) But in my experience, women can also be blind to how what is done in the name of principle and effective strategy - or any other high-minded thing - can be a way of hiding competitive urges and personal dislike. So if you are going to wield guilt-by-assocation, and you care about integrity in the way you say you do, you had better be sure that when you use it, it isn’t a way of outgrouping a woman that somehow threatens you personally - of saying “Don’t sit with her!’, à la Mean Girls. And even if you are sure that this isn’t the case, it certainly won’t stop it seeming that way to many observers.

"So wouldn’t it be better simply to present your arguments robustly and directly against those on the Right and those who are anti-abortion, and leave it at that, treating other women as adults who can make their minds up about whether or not to then associate for what they judge to be strategic reasons? It seems telling to me that more energy is sometimes put towards criticising and shaming Associates than is directed towards criticising the individuals and organisations with which they associate. When this happens, it starts to look to me like what this might be about, at least partly, is keeping dissident women in line.

"In the touchy world of online feminism, saying this – I know – will have its own negative effects. It does not sit in that comfortingly clear-cut place of “either-for-us-or-against-us”. Though I have barely named names here, and don’t want to, those who use guilt-by-association habitually will feel judged and defensive too, and probably retaliate. And so on the tedious cycle goes. I am resigned to it. Still, I think these things are worth saying."

It really is refreshing to hear Stock's argument. I am so sick and tired of purity spirals that are used to keep people in the hive-mind. In addition, these purity spirals are often used as petty power plays, having nothing to do with principle and everything to do with power and ambition. Last, I think the purity-above-all position means political defeat.

You can't argue about whose sword is sharpest--or purest--when the barbarians are at the gates.

My hat is off to our founding fathers, who--thank goodness!--put aside the quest for purity so a new nation could be born.