Freddie deBoer describes a particular sort of unhealthy progressive politics as the ‘politics of deference’:
I have personally taken to thinking of a particular kind of misguided progressive political engagement as the politics of deference — that is, the political theory that suggests that people of a progressive bent have a duty to suspend their critical judgment and engage in unthinking support of whoever claims to speak for the movement against racism and sexism. This is the common notion that allies should “just listen.” There are all manner of problems with that attitude, first and foremost among them the question of who, exactly, we should just listen to when different members of marginalized groups disagree, as they inevitably will. But more, the notion that we should just listen asks us to forego the most basic moral requirement of all, the requirement to follow one’s own conscience. Just listening is easy, and you will find many armies of privileged people in media, academia, and the entertainment industry who have made a career out of it, coasting along with whatever the day’s progressive fads are. But just listening leaves us bereft of the kinds of ruthless self-review that are a political movement’s only defense against drift, complacency, and corruption. Just listening is self-defense; just listening is bad faith.
If a person can tick off more boxes than you on the intersectional checklist, you must ‘just listen’ and morally defer to them. It seems to me that just this sort of thing is increasingly occurring in certain sections of Christianity and even evangelicalism, where people are elevated, deferred to, shielded from criticism, or otherwise treated as morally superior in no small measure because they belong to some historically oppressed class.
The politics of deference, by elevating victim classes beyond such things, and by constantly performing its ‘genuflections’ towards writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, can end up implicitly demeaning the agency and the thought of people of those classes. People and ideas emanating from that class are deemed morally superior and held to be immune to robust challenge, which patronizes members of those groups who want their agency to be taken seriously, rather than merely pandered to. John McWhorter discusses this dynamic in the clip below:
Obsequious praise for people of colour, sexual minorities, women, and other victim classes may seem to help those groups. However, it often comes at the cost of diminishing and demeaning their agency. Furthermore, in the context of the Internet, where one is largely defined by what one says over what one does, deference to victim classes can function as a sort of public performative piety, serving primarily to identify the speaker as morally enlightened themselves. One of the many lessons that should have been learned from the recent revelations about abusers in Hollywood and elsewhere is that many people who play what proves to be a self-serving politics of deference game in public can be deeply abusive or indifferent to those same classes in their personal lives.
This recent article by John C. Richards Jr. over on The Exchange is illustrative of the politics of deference. We are told that black voters, and black women in particular, ‘stepped in to save the day’ in the Alabama election and, indeed, that in so doing they ‘saved evangelicalism’. He writes:
Fifty years ago, Blacks fought for voting rights; yesterday, they fought for human decency.
That’s how the Black community has always been wired—especially Black Christians. For Black Christians, sexual harassment and assault (yes, even accusations) are as much of a gospel issue as abortion. For them, there is no separation of voting values and a social ethic because they have lived that reality for over 50 years.
Besides troubling echoes of the ‘magical negro’ trope, with morally courageous black women stepping in to save (white) evangelicalism from itself, it seems a trifle odd—nay, absolutely ridiculous—that a group that is one of the most predictable voting blocs in American politics should be regarded as peculiarly morally astute for voting the same way as they always do. Holding for the sake of argument that voting Democrat is a wise ethical choice for such voters, it is also strange that they should be praised for the strength of their moral voice when Democrats can so presume upon their vote that their party’s steady freezing out of abortion critics can proceed largely unarrested by concerns of alienating them or provoking strong resistance from their quarter. Yet those celebrating the moral heroism of black women don’t seem to consider the possibility that they might be morally compromised by the fierceness of their party political loyalties in a manner comparable with white Christians on the right. Because reasons.
Of course, many black women can see through what is going on here too, and don’t buy into the black saviour narrative that is being peddled:
On “The Daily Show,” host Trevor Noah asked correspondent Dulce Sloan if it’s been nice to see “black women’s contributions finally recognized.”
“Yes! We’ve been through so much!” Sloan said. “And you’re welcome, white people. But let’s be honest: We didn’t do it for you. We did it for ourselves. No black woman cast her vote going, ‘This one’s for Scott!’” she said as the audience cracked up.
It is always easy to moralize one’s vote when such moralizations neatly coincide with one’s tribal alignments or personal interests. If we have learned anything from the profoundly shameful political behaviour of white evangelicals over the last year or so, it should be that tribal loyalties and party interests can count for a lot more than moral principle. The fact that Roy Moore was ‘a bridge too far’ for many (white) evangelicals, as Al Mohler argued, is not especially encouraging when they are so far into compromised territory that the crazed crackling of any functional moral Geiger counter will long have receded to their background of their awareness. And it isn’t as if supporters of the Democratic Party enjoy some elevated moral ground, immune from the moral radiation of the nuclear wasteland of American partisan politics. Do we yet know what a bridge too far for Democrat-voting black women might look like?
The notion that our ability to stand resolute against the moral depravity of other parties is guarantee that we would readily sacrifice our own interests to secure the moral integrity of our own should be laughable at this point. True evidence of moral heroism will generally be seen in people’s sacrifice of their interests for their integrity. And there is scant evidence of such moral heroism in American politics today, black women being no exception.
Beyond this specific case, the moral elevation of the victim in the politics of deference involves a subtle yet radical distortion of the Christian recognition of the class of the victim. The Christian recognition of the class of the victim involved a slowly dawning moral concern directed towards those who were the scapegoats and persecuted of society. However, the fact that victims should be the object of our moral concern should not be taken to mean that victim classes themselves are peculiarly moral, which is increasingly the case. In one of the more perceptive and challenging sections of his writing, René Girard remarked upon this modern distortion of the Christian regard for the victim into a twisted ‘victimology’, which he argues has become our ‘absolute’:
The current process of spiritual demagoguery and rhetorical overkill has transformed the concern for victims into a totalitarian command and a permanent inquisition. The media themselves notice this and make fun of “victimology,” which doesn’t keep them from exploiting it. The fact that our world has become solidly anti-Christian, at least among its elites, does not prevent the concern for victims from flourishing—just the opposite.
The majestic inauguration of the ‘post-Christian era’ is a joke. We are living through a caricatural ‘ultra-Christianity’ that tries to escape from the Judeo-Christian orbit by ‘radicalizing’ the concern for victims in an anti-Christian manner.
This perverse elevation of victims, Girard describes as a form of totalitarianism:
The attempt by Nietzsche and Hitler to make humankind forget the concern for victims has ended in a failure that seems definitive, at least for the moment. But it is not Christianity that profits from the victory of the concern for victims in our world. It is rather what I think must be called the other totalitarianism, the most cunning and malicious of the two, the one with the greatest future, by all evidence. At present it does not oppose Judeo-Christian aspirations but claims them as its own and questions the concern for victims on the part of Christians (not without a certain semblance of reason at the level of concrete action, given the deficiencies of historical Christianity). The other totalitarianism does not openly oppose Christianity but outflanks it on its left wing.
All through the twentieth century, the most powerful mimetic force was never Nazism and related ideologies, all those that openly opposed the concern for victims and that readily acknowledged its Judeo-Christian origin. The most powerful anti-Christian movement is the one that takes over and “radicalizes” the concern for victims in order to paganize it. The powers and principalities want to be “revolutionary” now, and they reproach Christianity for not defending victims with enough ardor. In Christian history they see nothing but persecution, acts of oppression, inquisitions.
Finally, he points out the direction in which the whole cult of victims tends:
The Antichrist boasts of bringing to human beings the peace and tolerance that Christianity promised but has failed to deliver. Actually, what the radicalization of contemporary victimology produces is a return to all sorts of pagan practices: abortion, euthanasia, sexual undifferentiation, Roman circus games galore but without real victims, etc.
Neo-paganism would like to turn the Ten Commandments and all of Judeo-Christian morality into some alleged intolerable violence, and indeed its primary objective is their complete abolition. Faithful observance of the moral law is perceived as complicity with the forces of persecution that are essentially religious. Since the Christian denominations have become only tardily aware of their failings in charity, their connivance with established political orders in the past and present world that are always “sacrificial,” they are particularly vulnerable to the ongoing blackmail of contemporary neo-paganism.
Neo-paganism locates happiness in the unlimited satisfaction of desires, which means the suppression of all prohibitions.
As Christians, it is profoundly important that we retain and develop a proper Christian concern for the victim, while being alert to the totalitarianism of the new ‘victimology’ that prevails in our culture. One of the things that this demands from us is a greater alertness of the dangers of allowing a proper moral concern for the victim to be perverted into a moral elevation of victims themselves, as if suffering mistreatment from society meant that one should enjoy privileged moral status. We should also recognize the neo-pagan direction in which the contemporary cult of the intersectionally-classified victim tends.
Black women are creatures made in the image of God like the rest of us. And fallen like the rest of us as well. True morality is not to be found in placing them upon a moral pedestal and deferring to them and other victim classes. Rather, we must reject all idolatries—even the idolatry of deference to victims—to serve the God who made and regards us all.