In defense of the term ‘Regressive Left’

Having been recently and increasingly galled by claims like ‘There is no such thing as the regressive left’, I am compelled to offer a brief  if impassioned defense…

Me: *writes detailed critical piece examining how damaging “regressive left” tendencies can arise from progressive thought.*

Internet commenters: There’s no such thing as the regressive left. Buying into it plays in to rightwing bigotries. Besides, no true leftist would refuse to condemn FGM. *dismiss piece unread, perfectly exemplifying regressive left*


Hello and take note and excuse my tone for I am flabbergasted by irony. Ahem.
1) someone talking about how there’s no such thing as the “regressive left” and/or
2) someone claiming that if we talk about a regressive left (in concept even if not in that name) we will play into the hands of rightwing bigotry
are themselves key examples of a tendency of the regressive left:
the tendency to obscure grave problems sub-marginalized groups are dealing with out of fear of contributing to bigotry against the marginalized group in some way or another.*
It feels like an infinite conversational regress (lol) sometimes I swear.
This is not the place where I argue that The Regressive Left Exists And Here Is How and Why–I’ve already done that! This is the place where, operating on the assumption that a phenomenon does in fact exist and the term ‘Regressive Left’ is sometimes used to describe that phenomenon, I mount a defense for widespread liberal adoption of the term.
There is so much at stake with this conversation, and the above type of dismissal is shortsighted and uncritical and, allow me this, so goddamn frustrating. I do feel some of it is due to a kneejerk reaction to the term Regressive Left, the implication that progressive thought can be so fallible as to undermine its very purpose–which I think partly explains reactions such as, for example, denial that anyone who wont condemn FGM because of their colonialist past can really be progressive (No True Leftist?)
…But! A move to defense against any identification with the problem is, well, part of the problem.
We can start from the premise that ‘Regressive Left’ may not be the best term to use here, and that’s fine– the argument I make for nonetheless adopting it is one of contingent utility that critiques the idealism of best term anyway. Here are some considerations:
‘Regressive Left’ is a ready term that refers to a concept people already can and do reference, and with the gravity and urgency of what we’re trying to communicate here, the utility of that is something we can ill afford to give up, precisely because it is our narratives (of violence done to Muslim women, honor crime, institutionalized hijab, normalized extremism and so on)  that face resistance and dismissal, while our attempts to address that dismissal are also dismissed.
It’s also, crucially, a useful term descriptively, one that neatly encapsulates the very thrust of the problem– it’s critical to recognize that the problem here doesn’t arise from anyone not being progressive enough, but the opposite— (lets be frank– it ain’t anyone in the Right unwilling to condemn a cultural practice because of their colonialist past)– it’s progressive values used uncritically or too zealously (this is an oversimplified shorthand of my radically more in-depth account of what I think is going on), losing sight of a larger picture and, even worse, running interference for already underrepresented problems. It’s liberal or leftist or progressive theories like choice feminism and critical race theory and anti-imperialism and, yes, even intersectionality***  that contribute to some of this (at the very least collateral) damage.
And while I fully acknowledge that from blank-slate, Regressive Left may not be the best term–I want to challenge the idealism of that conception of ‘best term’ to begin with. I want to challenge the reactionary ugliness birthed of a too-idealistic left that loves to forget the too-many inconvenient realities that imbue a non-theoretical human existence.
Regressive Left is a unified term now–and one not inextricably or irrevocably linked to individuals who have used it– one that can be fashioned to reflect a set of better conceptualizations, just like ‘feminism’ can and has. For example, feminism is not irredeemably tainted by or still theoretically bound to its former frankly racist and classist manifestations (if practically still has a long way to go) or the historical racism and classism within its movement, or indeed, all that is Problematic that still plagues the movement in general…
And we remember, again, that this is about the tools we use. Theoretical perspectives are not perfect descriptive or prescriptive models, but are useful tools that, crucially, retain their usefulness only insofar as they continue to develop. Perhaps we forget how few of our most treasured political and sociological terms had entirely savory beginnings.
I consider it to be a massive injustice to strip us of a powerful rhetorical tool for talking about a seriously damaging issue because rightwing bigots or antifeminists have used the same term, yes, even in associated contexts, yes, even as initial users of the term.
It makes me smile oh-so-wry, a bit, because once again the urge to protect and shield a marginalized population from A Problematic Thing ends up stripping us down and minimizing our resources instead. A small anecdote here– once, over dinner, I listened to a friend of a friend explain how and why Planned Parenthood has not always been there for women of color in the best ways, and thus plenty of women of color cannot support the organization and refuse to associate with it. And that is fine, except the framing was prescriptive rather than descriptive. Instead of a ‘and here is why some progressive pro-choice individuals nonetheless aren’t for Planned Parenthood’, I was given more of a ‘here is why it is problematic for women of color to support Planned Parenthood’.
Commence my not-very-patient explanation that the very issues underlying poor PP access and support for women of color are the exact reasons why far too many women of color can ill-afford to take a public stance against an organization that gives them the best semblance of a service they have been denied and desperately lack.
That is, marginalized groups are particularly situated to ill-afford an idealized sort of activism, are positioned to lose the most by being shielded from A Thing with Problematic Associations and gain the most by actually being given the proper license to adopt, engage with, and re-form that Thing.
In short, I find resistance to the term Regressive Left, as it has come to be used by progressive, justice-oriented ex-Muslims and reformist Muslims, to be just another iteration of this strange tendency of the left to reject prima facie any concept, tool, or resource that has problematic elements or associations (and oh what a conveniently vague term that is, problematic!)
–even when the stakes are this high
–even when we have so little else to work with
–even when we need a tool of roughly that shape and size
To conscientious objectors to the term Regressive Left, I say: you’d resist letting us have use of this tool because it’s broken, tainted, bent, or, heck, cuz someone somewhere used it to kill a man. And so it can never be anything else?
That is fucking insane to me.
And did you bother to take a good look at how empty our toolbox is and how monumental the work in front of us? Does that do anything to change the equation?
You know what that kind of stance tells me? It tells me that you don’t really think much of the agency of minorities, let alone minorities-within-minorities. That you put more stock and credit and attribute more legitimacy to how the right-wingers and the bigots use a term than to how the very people you are so protective of use it– you can’t conceive of our power to take it and engage with it in productive ways. You don’t give us enough credit. You have presumed that this is a toy too dangerous for us to play with without hurting ourselves– without even bothering to take stock of how that fits in with our needs and resources. Of what we have. Of what we lack. Of who we even fucking are. Of what actually hurts us.
That strikes me as, dare I say, paternalistic? Hmmm.
I understand that it’s not all about an urge to protect the Other–at least part of it is pure defensiveness, of the type that is so human and common, when our identifier, our in-group, is itself labeled with such criticism. And I get it… it is abrasive to attribute this problem (so vaguely) to the “left” and to imply that progressive thought has led to regression, but the urgent need for a massively more critical and in-touch attitude about the global state of Muslims and Islam simply cannot concede to what is essentially an argument about tone. 
There really is not much more to say than that.
We need to be able to have the frank language to characterize the nature of these issues– just like we need a term like “honor crime” instead of “domestic violence”***– we can’t only admit to there being a problem if we obscure its key elements.
We can’t misidentify or obscure the source of the problem… or else how else can we identify its mechanics and try to fix them?
There is too much at stake for progressives (the people we trust to make a difference) to continue to obscure their own failings and bigotries when it is only progressives who are able or willing to champion a more attuned humanism re: the Muslim issue, and only by doing the work of assessment, maintenance, repair. By taking a good long look at our selves and our biases and our blind spots and our prejudices.
So when I’ve gone hoarse trying to explicate a problem with as much patience and empathy as I can muster,
and in doing so setting aside my own anger and panic, that intolerable surging urgency I can’t help but feel when I am desperately trying to get the only people who would potentially be willing to help us to take seriously an invisible, hugely widespread problem they largely deny actually exists,
and I hear only a dismissal, only a ‘no such thing as the regressive left’ —
Well, then I can’t help but think, I hate to break it to you buddy, you are the regressive left. Look in the goddamn mirror.
*In case it’s lost on you, it’s not the caring about not furthering bigotry against Muslims that’s the issue
**This may be surprising among progressives as intersectionality doesn’t on the surface seem to risk obscuring important marginalized associations–I’m still articulating to myself the theoretical mechanics– but in short, I think the model doesn’t go far enough and dangerously oversimplifies while making rigid those oversimplifications. A case of ‘unforeseen serious side effects’ combined with normalization if you will that ends up creating a more global problem. I can talk more about this but don’t want to digress too much here– I’ve been working on an essay dealing with the failings of the intersectionality model and the devastating interference it runs, and that shall be its own piece. 
***One of my “favorite” (read: most infuriating) examples of regressive left rhetoric is a facile argument that using the term “honor crime” creates a false dichotomy between the comparable domestic violence numbers in the US and Pakistan, to argue there is disproportionate focus on the latter, and this is due to racism. And via this well-meaning conscientious objection to characterizing it as ‘honor violence’, my ‘allies’ have unwittingly erased reference to the literal most important social currency in most Muslim-majority societies, stripped us of legitimate claim to the proper language to discuss the nature of violence against women…while simultaneously implying that violence against Muslim women is focused too much on when the very opposite is true–it’s *referenced* a lot, sure, used as someone’s talking point a lot, sure, but it’s not being critically discussed or addressed. But what, because *other* people can’t stop exploiting the oppression of women in Muslim societies then that is conflated with ‘people focus on Muslim women’s oppression too much’. The end result? The women who experience violence etc themselves who try to talk about the issue are kind of thrown out with the bathwater, as it were. 
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  • Alex Harman

    I’ve come to suspect that “non-problematic” is not a category of things that exists in the real-world, and thus that refusing to use problematic tools, consume problematic media, etc. would force one never to do anything at all. Understanding how a thing is problematic, and whether and how it may be useful anyway, is more complicated, but necessary.