Or, how Marx predicted tenderqueers and the whole Lockheed Martin thing in 1843 lol.
By now the scenario is so familiar that it has several names—the cancel-obsessed left, tenderqueers, identitarians. People (including me) complain of the feeling of always being one wrong phrase away from being told they are ableist or transphobic. The phenomenon exists everywhere—in activist circles, meetings are ruined when someone declares not only that they disagree with a certain proposal or line of thinking, but that it is “problematic” or “misogynist.” In classes I taught at SUNY Purchase last year, the students, mostly People of Color, and most from low-income backgrounds, told me they were afraid to say anything, or ask questions about material they did not understand, because they feared they would be called racist (even if they were POC), or transphobic, or chastised for their lack of knowledge. The people they most feared they’d be “called out” by were primarily white, “progressive” students.
This is the conundrum we are in: there seems to be a constantly shifting set of rules and norms we must follow, and oppressions we must acknowledge being perpetrators of, lest we be punished for our misdeeds. No book tells us how to follow or acknowledge these things, we simply must learn by being repeatedly told we are bad, wrong, hate disabled people or trans people, over and over again, ad infinitum, until we learn. Learn what, exactly? Again, no one seems to know.
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The absurdity of this method of thought was perfectly encapsulated recently when a Twitter account known for “canceling” people for supposedly being ableist, transphobic, or simply writing things that made them uncomfortable, was discovered to be an employee at weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin.
Much debate ensued. I do not feel like getting into that debate, but you can read about it here if you wish.
To me, what is more interesting, and less discussed, about the entire situation, is the psychology behind how someone could see themselves as an officer of morality while also being complicit in a very morally compromised life (working for a company that helps bomb innocent people across the globe). While the disparity between words and actions in this case was particularly shocking, it was nothing out of the ordinary. Rather, it was simply a sign of this larger phenomenon: people have figured out how to absolve themselves of all responsibility for their lives, while simultaneously presenting themselves as authorities over other people’s. This has been called many things (cancel culture, identity politics, tenderqueerness). I like to call it Secular Puritanism, a quasi-religion in which your adherence to rules and norms endows you with moral authority over others, a religion in which any misstep from these rules and norms is viciously punished.
And, unfortunately, it has become endemic, infecting every space of discourse, and ensuring that actual progress, actual mutual understanding between people and cultures, never happens. We have sacrificed a focus on material betterment for moral purity.
It should come as no surprise that a country founded on the values of a radical, white, Christian sect would be rife with this kind of purity-minded thinking. But it’s perhaps surprising that these values have found hosts who on the surface seem interested in anti-capitalism, social justice, and anti-racism. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. A Puritan behind a trans flag.
As some have rightly pointed out, this phenomenon has been mostly talked about by the far-right, and thus we must reclaim it from them, and be specific in our language as we battle it. To only use phrases like “cancel culture” is to lump in all criticism of people, movements, or ideas with this kind of Puritanical thinking. We are not witnessing a rise of some kind of leftist “wokeism,” but the continuation of a white, hyper-individualized system of identity politics that is primarily conservative in nature.
But what makes this problem so insidious is that we are not dealing with honest people; we are not even dealing with people who have an honest relationship to their own psyches, who realize that what they want more than justice is purity. The combination of this stringent yet ever-shifting morality, and the self-denial required by those who enforce it, leads to (to borrow a phrase from their ilk) a “toxic environment” wherever discourse, argument, or community-building happens, whether at a school, in a union meeting, or online.
This dualism—a search for moral cleanness and simplicity, and a refusal to examine one’s desire for it, has been common in Western, white thinking forever.
The German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm explored this contradiction in his 1962 book Beyond the Chains of Illusion:
In all these instances the underlying and unconscious desire is so well rationalized by a moral consideration that the desire is not only covered up, but also aided and abetted by the very rationalization the person has invented. In the normal course of his life, such a person will never discover the contradiction between the reality of his desires and the fiction of his rationalizations, and hence he will go on acting according to his desire. If anyone would tell him the truth, that is to say, mention to him that behind his sanctimonious rationalizations are the very desires which he bitterly disapproves of, he would sincerely feel indignant or misunderstood and falsely accused.
In other words, the people who have adopted this kind of newfangled religious obsession with perceived moral offense are in denial of what they actually want. And when the contradictions in their thinking are pointed out, they lash out, because it challenges the foundations of their thinking. To realize that one’s desire is not for social change, but to reify a kind of conservative Christian morality, would be to shake the foundations of one’s own identity, one’s own life and purpose. Fromm writes:
One answer lies in the fact that his sense of identity is linked with [the] images [one has of oneself]. If they are not “true”—then who is he? What is true? Where does he stand in the world? Once these questions arise, the person feels deeply threatened. He has lost his familiar frame of orientation and with it his security. The anxiety aroused is not only a fear of something specific as Freud saw it, like a threat to the genitals, or to life, etc.; but it is also caused by the threat to one’s identity. Resistance is an attempt to protect oneself from a fright, which is comparable to the fright, caused by even a small earthquake—nothing is secure, everything is shaky; I don’t know who I am nor where I am. In fact, this experience feels like a small dose of insanity which for the moment, even though it may last only for seconds, feels more than uncomfortable.
The tenderqueers, the cancel-obsessed, whatever you want to call them, must constantly reaffirm their own moral goodness and authority over other people’s moral goodness. To give up on this project would be to admit that theirs is in contradiction with what they state they want. They do not want material progress, they do not want an effective antiracism or anti-transphobia, they want authority. But when this is made obvious to them, they feel their entire identities threatened.
As Fromm points out, Marx identified this contradiction early on. When Marx wrote on the topic in 1843, organized religion (Catholicism, etc.) was the method through which people practiced denial of their material reality. Today, while many people have left organized religion behind, they’ve found a replacement in the form of a corrupted “social justice” culture, a Secular Puritanism in which people are Good or Bad, issues black or white, the moral position always clear, and who has the authority over that moral position always clear as well. Marx writes:
Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of men, is a demand for their real happiness. The call to abandon their illusions is a call to abandon a condition which requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, the embryonic criticism of this vale of tears of which religion is the halo. Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain, not in order that man shall bear the chain without caprice or consolation but so that he shall cast off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man so that he will think, act and fashion his reality as a man who has lost his illusions and regained his reason; so that he will revolve about himself as his own true sun. Religion is only the illusory sun about which man revolves so long as he does not revolve about himself.
To Marx, organized religion was a salve for a scary world, but one which prevented people from seeing the true complex darkness of reality, and working to actually change it. The Secular Puritans of today (or tenderqueers, or whatever you want to call them) operate in a similar manner—they are more concerned with the creation and furtherance of their own system of moral order than with the reality of the world, which is scary, complicated, and often contains contradictions that cannot be resolved via call outs and cancelations.
As many have noticed, when a modern Secular Puritan is challenged—as was the case with Ana Mardoll—they lash out, because to admit their complicity, their reliance on self-denial of their desire for moral purity, would be to forfeit the identity and community they’ve built through their “religion.”
The herd is so vitally important for the individual that their views, beliefs, feelings, constitute reality for him, more so than what his senses and his reason tell him. Just as in the hypnotic state of dissociation the hypnotist’s voice and words take the place of reality, so the social pattern constitutes reality for most people. What man considers true, real, sane, are the clichés accepted by his society, and much that does not fit in with these clichés is excluded from awareness, is unconscious. There is almost nothing a man will not believe—or repress—when he is threatened with the explicit or implicit threat of ostracism.
Fromm also writes that the worse the world gets, the more these people cling to their own denial. The farther away we get from the focus of social justice being material change, the more people must reinforce their own fantasies in order to keep themselves unaware of how far away we are from that material change:
If a society or a social class has no chance to make any use of its insight because there is objectively no hope for a change for the better, the chances are that everybody in such a society would stick to the fictions since the awareness of the truth would only make them feel worse. Decaying societies and classes are usually those which hold most fiercely to their fictions since they have nothing to gain by the truth.
So what we get is constant failure, which is the point. When the cancel-obsessed, fake social justice warriors tear people down, insist that everything is ableist or transphobic, or that everyone except themselves is morally flawed, they torpedo any chance of real progress, which, subconsciously, (and this is critical) is what they want. It is easier to live in a morally clear world in which no actual change happens, as long as you have moral authority in that world, than it is to commit to the messiness of true radicalism. Which, not coincidentally, is what tenderqueers have in common with the more explicit fascists—their political project is one in which failure is the end-goal.
“This is also why fascism is appealing,” the theorist Todd McGowan writes. “It relies on repeated failure. But for fascism, failure is the point whereas for us, failure is the process.”
This is an important distinction. Failure is inevitable—failure to be the best person you can be, to not err and offend, to not alienate others. But for those serious about material progress, failure is necessary to the building of a larger political project. For the Secular Puritans, the tenderqueers, and their ilk, failure is their goal.
Using the example of the anorexic, McGowan argues that what many enjoy is this constant repetition of loss, masquerading as perfectionism, a constant repetition of call outs and cancellations, masquerading as progressivism.
The anorexic doesn’t simply refuse to eat but eats nothing, the nothing that is the lost object. While all positive forms of food fail to address the subject’s lack, nothing does speak to the subject’s desire and allows that desire to sustain itself. The anorexic starves not because she can’t find…any food that would satisfy her but because she has found a satisfying food, a food that nourishes the desiring subject rather than the living being. The logic of anorexia lays bare the hidden workings of desire that operate within every subject.
So perhaps another term for these people are Political Anorexics—those who have found the pursuit of a corrupted moral perfectionism (much in the same way that an anorexic pursues a corrupted form of bodily perfectionism) more satisfying than progress. They are addicted to failure. It feels good to them. It gives them authority over themselves and others. It serves a (subconscious) purpose.
Another example from McGowan is how the figure of the Jew has been used as a method for fascists to excuse their addiction to failure.
The enduring nature of the figure of the Jew — its persistence even after the eradication of actual Jews — testifies to the role that this figure plays in the subject’s enjoyment. The Fascist subject sees the figure of the Jew as the ultimate barrier to its own enjoyment, which creates the exigency behind the project of eliminating this figure. What psychoanalysis makes clear is that, as in the case of the neurotic, the Fascist actually derives enjoyment from this barrier. Rather than blocking enjoyment, the figure of the Jew enables it. As the symptom of capitalism, the excess point in the structure, the figure of the Jew embodies the enjoyment of the system itself. By pursuing the destruction of this figure, the Fascist is actually accessing this enjoyment and taking part in it. The only reason that the destruction of the figure of the Jew provides enjoyment for Fascists is the position that this figure occupies as a symptom of capitalism. But like neurotics, Fascists take an indirect route to their enjoyment. They are unable to see the figure of the Jew as the source of their enjoyment rather than as an obstacle to it.
In other words, the fascist uses the Jew as a kind of mental roadblock to realizing that it is the fascists themselves who want to fail, who enjoy their cyclical and cynical attachment to a society of defeat and repression. To be clear, I am not necessarily calling tenderqueers antisemites, but I do think that they have adopted a similar “other” as a way of denying their own desire. As they see it, it is not that they want a conservative, morality-obsessed culture of suburban, white perfectionism, it is The Other, the “ableist,” the “transphobe,” or simply the person who makes them uncomfortable (see: the attacks on Isabell Fall), that is preventing them from being happier, from fulfilling their desire.
What, then, is the solution to this infection of Secular Puritanism? Fromm writes:
We are determined by forces outside of our conscious selves, and by passions and interests which direct us behind our backs. Inasmuch as this is the case, we are not free. But we can emerge from this bondage and enlarge the realm of freedom by becoming fully aware of reality, and hence of necessity, by giving up illusions, and by transforming ourselves from somnambulistic, unfree, determined, dependent, passive persons into awakened, aware, active, independent ones.
If we want to move past this unfortunate era of the tenderqueer, the canceler, or whatever, to start with we must give up the illusions of moral purity in favor of mutual understanding. We must give up on self-denialism, we must admit the reality of the world as a messy place, one in which offense, complexity, diverging interests and ideas are inherent. Only by refusing to figure ourselves moral authorities over others’ ideas and lives, and refusing to live in denial of our own desires, can we make actual, material progress. The Secular Puritan cannot go away fast enough. The future depends on it.
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I've been trying to figure out how to think about this for a while so I very much appreciate your analysis of the individual and group psychological architecture. Another place my mind goes to is how/why/what in our culture/politics produces/contributes to this dynamic. It seems to me that the ultra-moralistic, hyper-individualized worldview has (de?)-evolved among our generation (millennial/gen-Z) because we are profoundly disempowered and politically unepresented. In a very real and very felt sense, we cannot (yet) affect material change through our vote or mass organizing; instead we are led by a hollowed out civil infrastructure and a sclerotic gerontocracy that operates in a brazenly cynical fashion. I think of Colombia's first leftwing president or Chile's young, millennial leftwing presdient, or even Ukraine's Zelensky, a young-ish guy who is very effective at using the media and has created super compelling pro-Ukraine propaganda. I wonder about the young-ish people in these countries where there is actual dynamic movement, where the horizon appears wide open and not so determined, where it feels like they're part of a project that is actually building a future rather than conducting an exhausting daily psychic maintenence to cope with an awful present. Are the young people in other places also taking this "toxic" turn inward that cuts off mutual-understanding?
I like to call it carceral culture, because it is also derived from our need to punish ostracize those we think are Bad and Wrong.