Opportunistic critiques

Here’s a dynamic that I’ve seen play out dozens of times in my life.

There’s a “project” (an organization, political campaign, piece of software, or just a group of people — it could be anything) that I find “very promising”. Because I’m me, anything that I consider very promising is going to be a threat to the status quo, and the powerful people who benefit from it.

The project, in every case, is not perfect: this is because the people who power it aren’t themselves perfect (nobody is!), and their personal blind spots and biases will affect their work. The project will almost always have problems with one or more of race/ethnicity, disability, misogyny, queerphobia, or class, because this society is particularly terrible about all of these things — and existing in such a society has made its mark on all of us.

Eventually, well-meaning people will call out these issues in good faith. These people are being brave and kind (even if they just seem angry!), and are doing the project a favor by sharing their concerns. They are giving it a chance to be something better: a greater threat to the status quo!

However, those powerful people — the ones who benefit from the status quo — are listening. They hate the project, not because it’s not perfect about race, etc., but because it’s a threat to them and their power. However, because we live with the thorny contradictions of liberal modernity, they can’t actually say why they hate the project; they have to pretend that they’re not so powerful or benefiting so much from a status quo that is so bad. Once they catch wind of legitimate critiques of the project, they pounce on them. It doesn’t matter if the system that benefits them is significantly more racist (etc.) than the project, because they’re already fully committed to ignoring those flaws. So they echo and amplify the critiques, acting opportunistically and in bad faith.

So what do you do in this position? In my experience, many projects don’t survive these attacks, and those that do never fully recover from them. These failures have all been painful (in most cases, the projects are started by people who are in some way marginalized themselves), but I think I can pull together a couple lessons that might be useful:

Good luck out there. We have nothing to lose but our chains.