Sometimes I daydream about quitting socialist organizing, because I get tired of all the resentment. I’ve felt my share of resentment over the years — for people not stepping up or not following through with commitments. Now that I’m doing EMDR therapy (which I discussed in my last essay), I notice this process of resolving old trauma is freeing me from a lot of that judgment. I’m not giving myself such a hard time about grinding for the cause, which means I’m going easier on other people, too. That part of my recovery feels really liberating.

So now I just have to reckon with another sort of resentment, the kind that comes from bad social interactions with fellow leftists. I’m sick of the knee-jerk snobbery and condescension I often experience, especially from dudes. Their prickliness usually feels like some combination of misogyny and ageism. The immediate assumption that I don’t know things, or require their direction. Lots of talk about their specific tendency, and the implied or sometimes stated understanding that their politics are far to my left. Or sometimes they come at me with a mean, eyerolly sort of hostility, which mainly feels like hatred for middle aged, normie moms. I’ve dealt with these incidents so frequently in the past five years, I sometimes wonder what batshit alternate reality I’ve stumbled into. Why am I trying to be in any kind of movement with these people?

Okay, I know why — the truth is that there are a lot of leftists I couldn’t stand at first who grew on me after a while, and then we did some good work together. This is how it usually goes: we meet, they say something rude to me, and I think, “Wow, what a prick.” But I still deal with them as I see them, and make sure someone (maybe not me) calls them when we’re doing organizational outreach. Eventually they notice I’m a serious and dedicated organizer who’s respected by her peers. They become nicer and we get along fine. And then we do some good work together.

As much as I value all these relationships that begin a bit rocky, I’m now at a point where I’m no longer interested in earning basic respect from someone who just met me. I think it’s important to note the difference between trust and respect. Trust must be earned, especially in political and social justice organizing groups. I don’t expect anyone who just met me to trust me. Particularly as a white woman, I understand that when I’m first getting to know a person of color, or someone who’s experienced extreme poverty, it might be a while before they believe I’m not some fake-nice Karen who’s gonna turn on them. That sort of slow process is just to be expected, and I don’t take it personally. On the other hand, when another middle-class white person that I just met talks down to me because I clearly don’t spend my free time reading obscure philosophical texts, that’s just called being an asshole. Treating others with respect should be a default setting. I shouldn’t need to go through any kind of trial period just to earn basic politeness. 

And for sure, I’m sensitive. I notice slights that perhaps weren’t intended to be rude. Sometimes when a very serious young man with soft hands is calmly explaining to me that his politics are far too radical to be associated with anything I might be organizing, I can tell he’s just doing his due diligence for the revolution. Or so he believes. Who knows, maybe he maintains some personal beliefs that would completely blow my normie mom mind. I rather suspect that he just spends a lot more time thinking about the intellectual stuff than I do. And that’s great! Our anti-capitalist movement needs theory nerds. I’m just not one of them. I do other work for the movement. I get people to show up and do stuff, from phone banking to canvassing to rallying. And I’m good at it. That’s enough for a working mom. I don’t need to beat my brains out trying to learn theory. I hope someday these guys realize that it takes all kinds when you’re trying to defeat capitalism, and maybe we can work together.

On the other hand, some fellow leftists are just plain hostile. And that’s probably because many of us have severe, untreated trauma. People work out their aggression in left organizing spaces because they’ve never received justice for the pain they’ve experienced under various systems of oppression, and too many can’t afford mental healthcare. It sucks! Yet as much as I feel for anyone who’s been screwed by any kind of system, toxic behavior just shouldn’t be tolerated. I’m a real stickler about this. I completely avoid anyone who is chronically aggressive toward other leftists. Most of them don’t act out in person, but they’ll talk a lot of trash online. They’re always bad news! Even when their cause is righteous, you can always tell it’s really about their ego or personal gain. Or I can, anyway. Some of these people are very good at getting into positions of power, because they’re charming or charismatic. They might be friendly at first, becoming more caustic over time.

But hey, we’ve got narcissists and sociopaths in all walks of life. I think what makes all this very rude behavior on the left a special sort of hell is that it’s so often coupled with an air of moral superiority. Hey, we’ve all been there, right? Most of us were liberal activist types at some point, and thought, “Anyone who disagrees with me is bad, and anyone who isn’t fighting alongside me just doesn’t care.” Unlearning that mindset takes a lot of time and effort. For years I thought that when people didn’t show up or flaked out on their tasks, it was because they didn’t care enough. The fact is, there’s simply no way for me to know exactly how much a person cares vs. all the other factors that complicate their time and energy. So why get hung up on it? All I can do is persuade them to take action, and not take it personally when they don’t.

In conclusion, I would love for any leftists reading this to walk away knowing that no matter what your political beliefs are, how hard you organize, how much theory you read, or how angry you are about injustice and oppression, you are not actually better than other people. We’re all just people, and we want at least some of the same things. I want whatever power and goods the working class can get. And I won’t quit. I’ll keep organizing. But just know, the next time someone I never met before decides to give me free advice or a political education lecture, wants to sneer at my hippie nerd mom style or project lots of weird assumptions about me being an anti-revolutionary lib, I’m probably gonna say something really blunt or make fun of them to their face. As someone who is lucky enough to be receiving the mental healthcare she needs, I now understand that I no longer want to be in a movement where anyone working in good faith gets treated that way.

Five of Swords card from the Radiant Rider-Waite Tarot deck depicts a smug man holding two swords while leaning another. Two more swords lie near his feet. He stares wt two men in the distance who seem to have their heads hung in anguish.
The Five of Swords from Radiant Rider-Waite Tarot

2 thoughts on “To the Left, To the Left

  1. Hey! I jumped over hear from Twitter and read this post. Just wanted to say it really resonated with me. I’ve not been super active in organizing but the people I’ve met at the meetings I’ve been to have largely made me uneasy (yes, especially the cishet white dudes). It felt like very culty, like there were scripted lines that I needed to learn in just the right way to be a good liberal (or leftist or progressive or whatever). I’ve also experienced a lot of ableism from leftists, very much in line with that “not being revolutionary enough” bit. Anyway just wanted to say I appreciate the honesty.


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