On a recent trip to visit my best, but politically quite different friend in Florida, I got an eye-opening glimpse at the polarization and tribalism that is not only tearing our country apart, but making it impossible to even understand one another. My friend (let’s call her “Alison”) had taken me to a Tallahassee bookshop specializing in radical leftist literature. Not exactly my scene, but I tried to approach it with an open mind. Strolling past the books defending Marxism and the practice of looting, I entered the anarchist section and thought, “Ah, finally. These are my people.” Boy, was I wrong.
I walked out of the shop with two books that day. One of them, Abolishing State Violence by Ray Acheson, sounded right up my alley, so I read most of it on the plane trip home. I’m against violence at the best of times, but the abolition of state sponsored violence (wars, police brutality, overcriminalization, surveillance) has been a major preoccupation for me and one of the main thrusts of my career for the last dozen years. Yet, while I agreed with many of the goals laid out in the book, I found myself a little shocked at how off putting I found the language and style in which it was written, and more than a little puzzled at some of the assumptions underlying the author’s arguments.
You see, this book was not written for me, or for people who think like me. It’s written for the members of a specific political tribe, one to which I do not belong. This was telegraphed through the author’s use of political jargon, slogans, and shibboleths that signal group membership. Thus, instead of arguing that state violence is bad because it is, well, violent, she argues that it is bad because it disproportionately impacts BIPOC and the LGBTQIA+ community while reinforcing capitalist hegemony and the patriarchy.
This kind of phrasing appears again and again, on nearly every page, repeated like some kind of occult mantra long after it has ceased communicating anything meaningful to the reader. Perhaps this is simply a tactic to boost the book’s word count (without words like “patriarchy,” “white supremacy,” “racist,” “heteronormative,” and “capitalism” it would be considerably shorter), but I think there’s more to it than that. I think these words are used because they must be used by anyone who wishes to appear to be on the correct team, on the right side of history.
One problem (or is it a feature?) with this is that it makes the book less approachable for those not already inducted into the tribe and its particular dialect. As a white, heterosexual, American male, I couldn’t help but feel a little attacked by the book’s constant references to whiteness, the patriarchy, heteronormativity, and toxic masculinity. I understand that this is probably not the intention, and I’m willing to admit that maybe it’s at least partially my fault for having that reaction, but I don’t think it’s entirely my fault. As an author, it’s part of your job to make yourself as clear as possible and minimize the possibility of your text being misunderstood. If people are consistently having a negative reaction to something you’ve written, maybe the audience is not wholly to blame. The overuse of jargon and slogans creates the perception of exclusivity, where the uninitiated are not especially welcome.
Before I go on, I want to be clear that leftists are not the only ones who do this. There are plenty of libertarians and anarcho-capitalists who are guilty of the same failure to communicate. While I personally like and appreciate the sentiments of the Non-Aggression Principle and “Taxation Is Theft,” I recognize that most of the time these terms are only useful in preaching to the choir. If we truly want to reach out and persuade others, we should use simple, inclusive, and welcoming language.
The fact that every political tribe has developed its own shorthand is a major barrier towards bridging political divides and reversing polarization.
Another thing I noticed when reading Abolishing State Violence was the lengthy bibliography. I consider myself pretty well-read when it comes to critiques of government abusing its power. Between anarchism, libertarianism, anti-war, justice reform, and a number of related issues, I would estimate I’ve read well over a hundred books dealing with these subjects. And yet, when perusing Ray Acheson’s bibliography, I found almost no titles or authors (apart from Marx) that I even recognized, much less ones I had read. I would imagine that the reverse is also true, that Acheson’s reading has precious little overlap with the volumes in my own library. If we’re not reading the same books, that’s an indication that we are isolated from one another within our own political bubbles, and that’s a problem because without exposure to different ideas, we are unable to get a complete picture of how other people think, what motivates them, and what their priorities are. Without this picture, it’s easy to demonize and caricature our political opponents when we should be trying to empathize with them. In order to work together, we must first have some sort of common language.
Here again, I am not placing the blame solely at the feet of leftists. This is a wakeup call to myself as much as to anyone else. If I haven’t read any of the books that this author is citing, I should do so, and that’s on me. The fact that I have managed to learn so much from this one text is proof that there is plenty of room to expand my mind. And again, I would stress that this isn’t entirely my responsibility. The communication I’m taking about won’t come from one side simply conceding to the other. We all have to work harder to listen to one another, and that means exposing yourself to ideas you aren’t going to like or agree with.
Many times when reading the book, I caught myself growing defensive or formulating counterarguments and rebuttals in my head. I tried hard to suppress that instinct, because my goal is not to argue with the author, but to understand her. I think this is a natural reaction that we are all likely to have at one time or another, but I would urge people to try to set aside their own opinions for the purpose of hearing those of others. There’s an old, and rather glib, caveat that you shouldn’t let your mind be so open that it falls out of your skull, but we have to be secure enough in our convictions not to fear hearing our opponents out. There’s no harm to listening to someone else’s argument, and if you fear that you might end up agreeing with it, then maybe you haven’t thought as carefully about your own position as you should.
The hardest communication barrier to overcome is without doubt the difference in basic premises underlying our worldviews. More than once, I found myself scratching my head at Ray Acheson’s priorities and assumptions. For example, I can’t understand the fixation on collective identity. To me, a person’s race, gender, and sexual orientation are generally the least interesting things about them, and judging individuals based on their group membership seems awfully close to good old-fashioned bigotry, something I thought we were supposed to be against. But throughout the book, the author emphasizes the importance of group identities, even going so far to argue that denuclearization is a “queer issue.” This mindset is mysterious to me, as I would have thought the horrifying prospect of nuclear war would be sufficiently motivating without having to bring sexual orientation into it.
Similarly, I found I could only shake my head at the author’s characterization of capitalism (which she credits as a major cause of state violence, and advocates abolishing). My understanding of capitalism is simply free people voluntarily exchanging goods and services without interference from the state. For the most part, Acheson’s critiques of capitalism either involve heavy state intervention, which I would call corporatism or fascism (corporate bailouts), or else they take for granted that certain outcomes are obviously bad, when I generally consider them to be good (people making money). She claims capitalism makes people poor, while I would claim it has done more to lift people out of poverty than any other system.
We’ll probably never agree on individualism versus collectivism or the merits of capitalism, but we do agree on the abolition of state violence, and that ought to be enough. But in order for us to work together to pursue a common goal, we first have to learn how to talk to one another. I don’t mean for this piece to be an attack on Acheson’s book—I actually think it’s pretty good. I’m just using it as an example of some of the barriers that prevent people from different political tribes from listening to each other, and a roadmap for how we can do better.
For writers, I urge you to try to communicate without using the buzzwords particular to your in-group, and instead use more general language that will appeal to a broader audience. For readers, I advise picking up a few books from outside your comfort zone, and when reading them to let down your defenses and really focus on understanding the author’s intent. And for everyone else, recognize that just because someone else may have a different way of looking at the world, that does not necessarily make them your enemy. Search for common goals and areas of overlap, and realize that you can disagree without being disagreeable. Better communication is the only way to keep the country from fracturing into pieces, and our best chance at avoiding violence. Let’s all do our best to work towards actually hearing each other, instead of just shouting into our respective echo chambers.