These activists are posers, not persuaded, by Tomiwa Owolade

A defaced painting of a former British statesman. A vandalised portrait of the King. Orange powder sprayed over an ancient monument. Holiday flights delayed. An investment firm with a tiny share in businesses associated with fossil fuels pressured to stop funding two of the biggest literary festivals in the country.

All of this has happened in the past few months, and all of it has been carried out by groups that claim to speak on behalf of justice.

But desecrating the painting of Arthur Balfour at Cambridge does not bring justice to the people of Gaza. Vandalising Jonathan Yeo’s magnificent portrait of Charles III is a useless defence of animal rights. Besmirching Stonehenge undermines the cause of climate change activism.

Inconveniencing travellers who want a much-needed break with friends and families is a poor way to win them to the necessity of better environmental policies. What book festivals need is more financial support not less, especially when sponsors like Baillie Gifford are few and far between.

The progressive left needs to be better at persuasion. From Just Stop Oil to Fossil Free Books, these activists and their supporters are not winning people to their goals; they are excluding and alienating anyone who might conceivably be sympathetic.

Such activists are good at expressing scorn. They are better at instigating discord. They are bad at understanding the point of view of anyone who deviates from their world view. Their actions are destructive, not constructive. And their default mode is not to listen to those they claim to speak on behalf of or who hold a different set of priorities; it is impatience with anyone who has the misfortune of being unfamiliar with their jargon and arguments.

I get it. I understand the special glow of self-righteousness that comes with thinking the subject matter to which you are devoted — justice for minority groups, protecting the environment, ending foreign conflict — is neglected by an indifferent status quo. I recognise the anger of knowing you are right when everyone else is wrong. The temptations of snideness are great.

Why is the mainstream media more interested in defending the rich and powerful than in standing up for the oppressed and marginalised? Why do these dupes support reactionary nonsense? Why are so many older writers so down on the young for caring about the future of the world and stopping a genocide in Gaza? But the condescending rage with which such views are expressed nullifies their persuasive impact.

To persuade is not to give up on your principles. It is the only democratic means by which your principles can be realised. Convincing other people of the rightness of your cause is an integral part of any activism that cares more about changing the world for the better than feeling good about oneself.

Whenever I see people advancing their causes by making the lives of most other people miserable, I don’t feel receptive to their arguments but anger at their arrogance. Because it is a form of arrogance to not bother making your case in a fair and consensual way, to sidestep the difficult but necessary steps of politics in favour of vandalism.

There is also something inhuman about the rhetoric of the progressive left. This is not the justified anger of those sensitive to human feeling, but a kind of cold and clinical rage. Whenever I am at a dinner party with someone dogmatically progressive, I always feel on edge. I watch what I say, even though I consider myself to be perfectly liberal on most things. And whenever I say the wrong thing, I notice a sinister shift in their voices, their faces twisting into a sneer. Such people are the worst company.

This is anathema to what progressivism claims to embody: openness, tolerance, a deep and abiding love of humanity. Instead they have a completely different set of attitudes.

To take one example, consider this viral social media post from last week by someone called Stella Cast: “Sorry to bang on, but two things happened yesterday: 1) UN finds Israel using starvation as weapon of war, trying to exterminate the Palestinian people 2) Protesters sprayed corn starch on some stones. Only one of those things brought demands for ‘the full force of the law’.”

There it is: the snark, the dismissal, the utter lack of any understanding for, or sympathy with, those who lament that a unique and ancient monument should be ruined by a political movement. On the issue of the climate, so many are making the perfect the enemy of the good rather than providing a fair-minded blueprint with which environmental policies can be pursued.

As the great data scientist Hannah Ritchie recently put it: “I want to see the world massively increase its investments in clean energy, and I want us to transition away from fossil fuels [but] the black-and-white ‘fossil fuels are evil’ narrative is not helping us to have grown-up conversations, and plays right into the hands of those that want straw-man arguments for how unreasonable us environmentalists are.”

I am not against activism. It is a foundation of modern societies. That people have the right to campaign for what they believe in is absolutely necessary. But those who claim the title of progressive should make their case better. Their views are not self-evidently correct but need to be substantiated.

They can’t afford to neglect those who do not share them. I am arguing for these activists to be progressive in word and deed


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