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COMMENTARY: Organized outrage: Progressives and perpetual protest

When does political protest seem to become an end in itself?

Climate firebrand Greta Thunberg, 21, seems to raise that question when looking at photos of her arrest last month outside the Eurovision Song Contest in Malmo, Sweden.

Wearing a black-and-white keffiyeh scarf and shouting, “Shame on you,” in a show of solidarity with the pro-Palestinian cause, the famous climate warrior was protesting the participation of Israeli singer Eden Golan. I was not familiar with Ms. Golan or her actual position on the war that has ravaged Gaza, but I immediately felt sympathy for her, which was hardly what the protesters seemed to have in mind.

What does Thunberg have to do with the war in Gaza? She certainly has the right to object to any cause she chooses. But, after decades of witnessing similar displays of organized outrage around causes of the moment, I felt drawn to conclude that what mattered most to these protesters was the protest itself.

“Welcome to the Omnicause,” wrote Andy Kessler, a Wall Street Journal opinion columnist, borrowing a term that has gone viral on X, formerly Twitter. “If you protest one thing, you protest everything — intersectional inanity.”

Omnicause? Welcome to the ever-changing vocabulary of today’s social and political activism.

Coined by Alysia Ames, an Iowa accountant who writes for Ordinary Times, Omnicause is an alternative label for intersectionality. That’s the social theory credited to Kimberle Crenshaw, a leading legal scholar of critical race theory, which in today’s political arenas has become a widely known term to many more people than those who actually understand it.

Put simply, Crenshaw points out that one identity is not enough for many people when one examines systems of oppression. For example, a woman of color may face obstacles that a white woman or man of color might not.

But the risks inherent in a theory such as that include whether and how one is supposed to measure and compare levels of oppression felt by various sorts of victims.

Protest signs such as “Queers for Palestine” and “Palestine is a climate justice issue” illustrate the tangle of competing interests or victim groups that various causes can raise. The hazard of fighting for too many worthy causes at once is a confusing and often counterproductive victimization competition. The result can be a competition for sympathy and prioritization.

That’s why, as a strong and longtime believer in equal opportunity, I am troubled by the more arguable quest for “equity,” which employs a variety of controversial yardsticks for measuring who deserves compensation or reparation for historical abuses.

Advocates argue that, if you try to tackle only one part of the pattern of abuses, you often reinforce existing inequalities. Yet efforts to repair only one part of the abuses can create animosity between different races, genders or other marginalized identity groups.

By then, one can find the world of theory collides with a reality that means you lose more supporters than you gain for your efforts, especially when one group feels their problems are being overlooked or minimized in favor of others. Such theories also provide fodder to opponents who point to such conflicts and contradictions in order to deride progressives as practitioners of “reverse racism” or “reverse sexism” and other allegations to which overzealous activists are vulnerable.

That’s not to say, of course, that such excesses don’t arise just as ferociously on the political and social right, as we have seen in disputes among conservatives over how far bans against abortion or in-vitro fertilization should go before they kick up a backlash.

In other words, politics and social policy are complicated.

“Pretending every cause is every other cause gives fuel to the view that there’s a left-wing conspiracy to take over your life,” Ames said in a recent interview on the Symposium YouTube stream, “even if several Omnicause positions are technically popular.”

As Hadley Freeman writes in The Jewish Chronicle, Omnicause is “the Fatberg of activism,” referring to the label given to a rock-like mass of unprocessed waste matter that can clog sewer systems.

Instead of fighting for the Omnicause, activists are better advised to think small. By taking the time and effort to understand the views and experiences of the marginalized communities they are trying to reach, they can make progress on real problems and sidestep the fatbergs.

Contact Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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