Bigotry, language, and apologies: building solidarity across social divides

There’s a bit of a debate, on the left, over how to deal with the history of language as a tool for marginalization. There’s been an effort to change how people speak about each other, and to reduce the casual dehumanization that has often been part of the systematic oppression of all marginalized groups within society. I think this is a good thing. Any effort toward solidarity is undermined by behaviors that constantly tell some people that they are, in one way or another, “less than”. At the same time, I’m aware that efforts to change our language are difficult for some people to get their heads around. Telling someone that they way they speak is hurtful to others is often taken as a personal attack, and there are a great many bigots out there who actively work to cultivate that reaction. They work to convince as many people as possible that being asked to respect pronouns, or to avoid racist or ableist language is anything from disingenuous “virtue signalling” designed to instill a different form of social hierarchy, to an outright evil plot to overthrow “western civilization”.

And there are absolutely people who use the effort to change the rules of acceptable discourse for less than noble purposes. The discussion of “cancel culture” is largely overblown, in my opinion, but like all effective propaganda, there’s a grain of truth there – there are those who view any transgression, past or present, as evidence of some essential and unchangeable personal failing on the part of the “transgressor”, that should result in them never being listened to or accepted again. Others use language as a form of gate-keeping activity to gain social capital and elevate themselves at the expense of others. It seems clear to me that such activities undermine efforts at solidarity.

At the same time, I think those people are in the minority, just as the so-called “Bernie Bros” are a small minority of those who support Bernie Sanders. The opposite reaction is also a problem. To declare that all “PC” language, and all efforts at creating a left movement that’s welcoming to people marginalized by the mainstream works against the development of class politics is wrong. The point of working class solidarity is not to tell everyone who’s not a white, cis, man to shut up until socialism or communism has been achieved. That would be a way to guarantee that solidarity never really forms. The goal should be to relate to each other as equals, to treat each other with respect by default, and to be willing to learn and adapt.

Those of us on the left should be fighting for global working class solidarity. That means overcoming the barriers formed by national and cultural differences, and by disputes in acceptable behavior and language. It does mean working with people who disagree with us, and who don’t share all of our values. It also means that in working with them, while asserting the validity and humanity of all, we work to mainstream everybody who has been forced out and disempowered.

That’s why the whole thing with Joe Rogan’s endorsement of Sanders was frustrating to me. While there are very real problems with Rogan and his bigoted language, part of the negative reaction to that was clearly disingenuous. This has been made obvious by the ways in which the clamor over Rogan’s bigotry has been largely absent when it comes to Biden, who has almost certainly done far more harm in his career. I think there’s a general recognition that if we want to build enough power, through mass movement politics, to stand against the aristocrats and oligarchs of the world, we will have to work with people who don’t share all of our values. I think most people are aware of how social and cultural issues have been used, over history, as wedges to drive apart various segments of the working class. That doesn’t mean those disagreements aren’t real, but it does mean that they can be used to get people to go against their own interests.

The reason I saw the Rogan endorsement, and Sanders’ embrace of it, as a good thing, was that the Sanders campaign did not weaken their support for black or trans people to get the support of Rogan and his followers. They appealed to a common set of interests, while being unashamed in demanding racial justice, and that Medicare for All should cover all expenses related to transition. Rather than taking the “mainstream” approach of sacrificing left-wing ideals and policies to appeal to conservatives, they used those ideals and policies to convince conservatives to embrace a pro-social justice campaign, for the sake of its economic agenda. From what I can tell, that situation creates more opportunities to change minds about race, gender, and sexuality than denouncing Rogan, and rejecting his support. I get that not everybody agrees with me.

I would never tell people not to voice their discomfort with someone like Rogan, any more than I would tell someone to shut up about Biden’s many problems. Working together toward common interests does not require that we make room to accommodate bigotry. It’s more that we allow bigots to occupy a station in the bucket brigade, while we’re all working to put out a fire, rather than rejecting their help entirely. And while they’re there, we require them not to undermine the collective effort by attacking the other people working to full and move the buckets.

Thoughtslime, as usual, has made a video that is worth considering when thinking about all this.

We should all be open to changing our minds and behavior, particularly when doing so will improve the lives of others at little to no cost to ourselves. Acknowledging that we’ve made a mistake, or that we’ve done something hurtful, while unpleasant, is not a high price to pay for making the spaces we inhabit more comfortable for people who aren’t exactly like us, and most people will respond well to a sincere effort in that direction. Not everyone will, of course, but living in a community has always meant working with people who we know will never like us, for one reason or another. Universal agreement, acceptance, and affection is not required for a community to function, or for people to work together, but it’s those people who are willing to work to bridge gaps, own their mistakes or transgressions, and publicly work to change that make it possible for a group of people to be a community. That doesn’t mean refusing to call people out for use of bigoted language, or refusing to try to get them to understand why their words or actions are bad. It just means that when we’re forming a bucket brigade to put out a fire, we’ll take the bucket handed to us by an asshole, and throw it on the fire, rather than in their face.

It means that if someone says that WE are being an asshole, we work to overcome our initial rejection of that possibility, and consider whether they have a point. We talk to other people, like the social species we are, and try to assess where we’re at. Not everybody who makes a callout does so in good faith. Not everybody who is called out will take it in good faith. It’s on us, as people who want greater solidarity, and a society that’s welcoming to all sort of people, to actually put in the effort discern the truth of any given case. There’s no easy solution, and trying to find one will always create problems. This should not be a call-and-answer activity.

And we apologize when we decide we’ve done wrong in some way, because doing so creates a behavior pattern people can follow if they want to improve, and in the end, that’s a pretty small sacrifice to make.

Hey everybody, I am once again asking for your assistance. I really need help paying my bills and keeping a roof over my head. is a way for you to help with that, even if it’s just a little bit, and get some perks and extra content in return. You control how much you give, and how long you give it, and every little bit really does help. When lots of people pitch in, it can make a huge difference. Please help if you’re able, and share my work with others. Thank you!


  1. StevoR says

    PS. The start of the “Let’s talk about last week” video there? I can so relate to that and know what’s it’s like when you don’t accept the reality that you’ve been and are being a douche and dig ever deeper and deeper and deeper till its really hard to climb back out. Been there many years agao and ended up saying a lot of things I now know where appalling wrong and deeply regret saying and being – deservedly – banned from a couple of blogs I now wish I could participate in.

    Its hard to apologise and admit you got things to toally wrong. It takes more work and more thought to do that than the alternative where people insist on winning the argument / not backing down. I guess most good Humans learn that at some stage in life whlst a lot of bad ones (exhibit A :Trump) just never do.

  2. says

    Well, and it seems there are some sub-cultures that actively train people NOT develop in that way. The one Trump grew up in is one of those.

  3. Marja Erwin says


    It drives me up the wall. Just got an email from Public Citizen using a eugenicist slur to describe Trump’s medical advice. Unsubscribed.

    I’m neurologically disabled. I can get blinded, other sensory issues, migraines, and nausea from flashing lights, certain common animations, loud noises, etc. I often get sick because of this, I can’t drive, bike, or take the bus, I often have to take long detours when walking, I was once denied medical care because of this, I sometimes get hit by cars, and I don’t feel like I’ll be able to live a decent life unless attitudes towards disabled people change, accessibility standards improve, and dangerous safety signals are phased out.

    So I don’t feel like I can shrug off these slurs. And even if I could, they’re still hurting other people, so I don’t think I should.

  4. says

    @Marja Erwin

    Thanks for your comment.

    I think you’re absolutely right. If we want to reshape society around solidarity and human wellbeing, that can’t be done by telling some members of our species that their wellbeing must be discarded until we’ve “achieved our goals”.

    If we’re building a better world for everyone, that requires actually building it FOR EVERYONE, not building it for some people, and then trying to find ways to cram everyone else in where we can find space.

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