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The People Using ‘Leftism’ to Mask Shitty Behavior

It’s become a viral phenomenon: partners who co-opt social justice and anti-capitalism to justify cheating, emotional abuse and plain-weird relationship shit

Callie, a 23-year-old school adviser in North Carolina, will never forget her 21st-birthday party. It was at the house of her then-partner Alex, a nonbinary communist Callie met at college whose deep conviction and self-assurance immediately attracted her. “They made national headlines for participating in a week-long sit-in to protest the treatment of campus workers and demand that a racist administrator be fired,” Callie explains by Twitter DM (all names have been changed for privacy). “When we started dating, they did things like give me their copy of Why Marx Was Right. I really admired how they always seemed to act on their convictions in the most radical way possible.”

Callie’s birthday party died down around 10 p.m. and nearly everyone had left when she went to use the toilet in Alex’s en suite — where she found, to her great surprise, a strange man. “I yelled, ‘There’s a man in here!’ and Alex goes, ‘That’s Brendon,’” Callie explains. “And suddenly I realized Alex had been living with a man they also slept with for months.”

It was within the terms of Callie and Alex’s open relationship for Alex to have casual sex with other people, but Callie was shocked to discover Alex had a live-in boyfriend they’d totally neglected to mention (they’d been together about six months by this point). But instead of apologizing, Alex explained how the whole situation was really all due to them being such a good leftist. “I somehow allowed myself to be talked into continuing the relationship for several more months because Alex said they ‘don’t view their partners within a hierarchy’ and were just ‘so overwhelmed with organizing’ that they forgot to tell me,” Callie says. “It’s so dumb now, but I really believed it at the time.”

On social media, users who post far-fetched “leftist” justifications to cover what looks like shitty interpersonal conduct are frequently ratioed within an inch of their lives — a phenomenon that seems to be on the rise as young people move leftward and nuclear leftist takes proliferate more generally. For example, when a large anarchist account tweeted on Christmas Day that gift-giving rituals are “hyper hierarchical sites of vicious jockeying in social capital and negative-sum interactions,” he became the main character on Twitter, with the most popular quote retweet (sadly now deleted) poking fun at him for probably just neglecting to buy his girlfriend anything for Christmas. This may or may not be true of this particular guy, but the maneuver is notorious enough that it’s become the subject of its own Reductress article: “Clever! Man Co-opting Social Justice Language to Emotionally Abuse You.”

But these strained justifications do crop up in real-life relationships, too. “Anti-capitalism” and “anti-materialism” are godsend concepts for people who don’t want to buy their partners gifts or contribute financially to the relationship; “relationship anarchy” works similarly well for cheaters and ghosters; and anyone who doesn’t want to help with the housework or meet their partner’s loved ones can appeal to vague notions like “non-conformity” and “transgression.” (One notorious example on the 2014 feminist blogosphere was the guy who refused to clean up shards of broken glass because that would be succumbing to a “default social norm.”)

If all else fails, you can simply call anything you don’t want to do “bourgeois.” “My ex used to not buy underwear or socks when he desperately needed them and absolutely could afford them, because of the stupidest rants about capitalism and privilege,” says Mary, a 23-year-old filmmaker in L.A. “The details were always super-illogical, but ultimately, I think he was so paralyzed and burdened by the idea that he was a tall, able-bodied, straight white male that he felt everything he did with his time and money carried deep and tedious moral implications.”

The problem with this particular take on “anti-capitalism” is that it often leaves partners footing the bill. Jane, a 34-year-old lawyer from New Zealand, also had a partner who refused to contribute money toward basic household items (a bed, for example) on the grounds that he wasn’t “materialistic enough to worry about that kind of thing.” So Jane paid for “literally everything except his drugs,” but instead of being grateful for the free ride, he’d suggest she “wasn’t committed enough to anticapitalism.” “I’m so burned out by the number of straight men who use that lifestyle to signify virtue while taking advantage of women’s labor,” Jane says. “Leftist men in hetero relationships really owe it to their partners to do some deep thinking about who bears the social burden of ‘opting out.’”

Of course, it’s not just leftists who freeload off their partners because they’re too “enlightened” for a 9-to-5, and contra the dishonest and cynical Bernie Bro narrative, leftists aren’t more likely than centrists or conservatives to be shitty on an interpersonal level. But it’s always worth examining the ways people justify and excuse their own bad behavior, especially when that behavior rises to the level of abuse — and the growing popularity of previously fringe left concepts like “mutual aid,” “relationship anarchy” and “transformative justice” provide a useful case example, because abusers can twist these ideas to maintain a high moral self-concept even though they’re causing their partners harm.

This was unfortunately the case for Lynn, a 28-year-old teacher in Kansas City who was sexually assaulted by his ex-girlfriend and another man, who we’ll call Jade and Mike respectively, during an encounter that started as a consensual threesome. “The ‘leftist’ judo maneuver was using the language of transformative justice and relationship anarchy to explain why they wouldn’t apologize for the assault and that it would be emotional labor for them to offer one,” Lynn explains. “I remember her saying, ‘As an act of radical self-love, I will not apologize for my sexuality,’ and other lines like this — very much using the intersection of ‘leftist’ and therapeutic language to obscure a very specific and straightforward harm.” All of this, Lynn adds, was despite his ex also characterizing what happened as an assault.

People on the receiving end of this leftist obscurantism report finding it especially unsettling because they often share the very same values and convictions as their partners, meaning they can be more easily manipulated. After Lynn’s assault, he ended his relationship with Mike and asked Jade to do the same — but she refused, saying she wanted to “deepen and grow [her] friendship” with Mike, even going as far as saying she’d “like him to be at [their] wedding.” “The way relationship anarchy figured in was, to be blunt, clearly language coming directly from podcasts about polyamory they were getting really into at the time,” Lynn recalls. “The line of reasoning was, ‘You have the right to end contact with the person who assaulted you, but you don’t have the right to make me do the same.’ This was so frustrating because, in that language of values, I don’t disagree — but like, come the fuck on, you’re my partner of eight years and I need you to be in my corner for this.”

Because certain insults or insinuations are radioactive in leftist communities — You’re not a real leftist, you’re a secret bigot, you’re being abusive — they can be used as argumentative atom bombs by shitty partners. People familiar with abusive dynamics will recognize this as a form of DARVO, but for partners on the receiving end, it can be bewildering and deeply hurtful. Jet, a nonbinary 22-year-old from Chicago, was in a relationship with a prominent anarchist who would constantly push Jet to be non-monogamous using “really manipulative explanations of mutual aid,” and when Jet didn’t agree, she’d post nudes and details of their sex life on her public social media accounts anyway.

When Jet said this made them uncomfortable, she’d “go off on” them, calling them a “swerf” and a “piece of shit” who wasn’t a real feminist, leftist or member of the queer community. “Those were some of the most hurtful things she ever said,” Jet says, adding that it made them feel like a “terrible person.” “Being accused of slut-shaming and told that I wasn’t a true leftist was the thing that finally broke my mind.”

Partners of these leftists often feel surprised at the disconnect between their admirable political convictions and their manipulative and unkind behavior. But holding lofty political ideals doesn’t preclude a person from sucking on an interpersonal level, something these people had to figure out the hard way.

“It took me a long time to learn that just because someone cares a lot about people in the world and works hard to benefit others, it doesn’t mean they care about me specifically or that they’ll do a good job of supporting me,” Callie concludes. “That was an important lesson.”