against political Calvinism

As I’ve written in the recent past, I believe that the current political uprising has a chance at being an enormously positive development. I worry though that it will be limited by the power of political Calvinism.

I know I’ve heard the term used before, though I can’t remember from who. By political Calvinism I mean the tendency within the left to see the structural injustices of the world as inherent and immutable, so baked into the cake of the current context, history, the United States of America, etc., that they will always exist. The stain of injustice can never be rubbed out. This is most obvious when discussing racial dynamics. White people are inherently in possession of white privilege, as many will tell you – most insistently white liberals, in my experience. Well, yes, today all white people enjoy white privilege, though the valence of that advantage varies with other factors in their lives. But the degree and intensity and in fact existence of white privilege is mutable; if we had a real racial awakening and all people worked to end white privilege, it would end. And not only do I not think this is a crazy thing to believe, I think believing it is a necessary precondition to being an agent of positive change!

Of course white supremacy is entrenched and systemic; it is neither coincidental nor easily overcome. But there is a difference between seeing these things as systemic and seeing them as divinely ordained. In our racial dialogue (again particularly among white liberals) the tendency is always to fixate on the difficulty of change, to luxuriate in despair. At some point people made the mistake of viewing extreme pessimism as radical. But in fact pessimism is an inherently conservative force, as it makes change seem impossible and agitates against trying. Real radicals never stop defining the better world that they see as truly within our grasp, and available sooner than we think. Posers act as if pessimism is the outlook of the truly committed. Fuck that. A better world is possible.

I’ve never heard a coherent answer to this: if your average uncommitted white American is told that their white privilege is immutable, that they will oppress people of color simply through existing, what is the motivation to try and change? Consider this from the standpoint of basic psychology. If you are told that you are in some sense fallen, simply by nature of your birth, then why exert yourself trying to change that fact? For someone who is not converted, the insistence that they are stained with political sin from birth simply pushes them to remain apolitical, to give up on racial politics and go back to grilling. People need to feel that their efforts have some meaningful possibility of creating positive change. The message should not be “you have white privilege and nothing you do will ever change that” but “you have white privilege but you can meaningfully contribute to ending it.” The latter is a call to action. The former is theatrics.

I believe that white privilege can be erased and that we can achieve true racial equality, that the traditional inequities of race are mutable and in fact chosen. If I didn’t, why would I bother to try?

The alternative to political Calvinism is to believe that, in fact, despite the existence of white privilege the individual actions of individual white people matter, that they can be better or worse. It’s to believe that the vagaries of white privilege, as serious as they are, can be overcome with dedication and integrity. In other words, the alternative is to believe that our tendency to oppress others is not fixed but rather determined by our behavior, and that the goal of our political outreach is to convince others that their behavior matters and that they should behave in antiracist ways. That’s the alternative to political Calvinism.

Of course, many progressive people now believe that changing minds is a mug’s game, that rather than trying to change minds we should only ever rally the already-converted and that doing so will result in victory. How that jibes with our commitment to deeply unpopular policies like defunding the police (a policy I support), I’ve never understood. But this too is political Calvinism, the idea that outreach and education are impossible and that the proportions of the righteous and the wrong are already predetermined. It is directly contradicted, to pick an obvious example, by public opinion about multiracial marriage. Looking at the world around us should convince you that we don’t yet have the numbers to achieve a just society. And if you think convincing and educating is impossible, it leaves you with the question: then why bother?

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