The Lie of Intellectual Labour

“Not everyone deserves your intellectual labour.”

It’s a sentence I’ve heard many times in activist circles, and it’s a concept that has gained more and more traction in light of current events. The specific argument I take issue with goes something like this: we only have a finite amount of intellectual resources that we can devote to educating and debating people. Why waste said resources debating Nazis when they’ll never change their minds anyway? The problem with this argument is twofold: on the one hand, its proponents often categorize impossibly large swathes of people as “Nazis”, and on the other, the claim that said “Nazis” will never change their mind is empirically incorrect.

Let’s approach this from a practical sense first: let’s assume — as many supporters of this argument do — that all Trump supporters are a lost cause. If you can vote for someone who blatantly demonstrates so many levels of bigotry, the logic goes, you’ll never be convinced to change your views. If all efforts to educate and mobilize people are targeted exclusively at those who didn’t support Trump, then such efforts are inevitably doomed to fail. If every Trump supporter is a waste of your time, then that dismisses almost half of America (and a growing portion of Canada) as Nazis who will always think of minorities as second class, women as objects, Muslims as terrorists, and hold a whole host of other deplorable views. Accepting that has disastrous consequences for activism and social justice movements. If half of our population will always hold racist beliefs, then racism is impossible to eliminate at any level of society. How can institutional racism be defeated if half of employers, police officers, and educators are racist? How can justice be achieved for the indigenous population if half of lawmakers gained office by appealing to racists?

As tempting as it may be to retreat and isolate the segment of our population that disagrees with us, we have reached the point where said segment is too large to be ignored. 51% of Canadians prefer Trump’s national security policies to Trudeau’s — are we to dismiss them all as a waste of our intellectual labor? If no effort is made to lower that number through inclusive dialogue and open debate, it will only grow.

The problem with this entire movement is that it assumes societies can be changed exclusively through mobilization towards political lobbying and protests. Yet no society has ever changed without people first changing. If half of Canada never changes their belief that Syria should be “carpet bombed”, how will discrimination against Muslims ever disappear?

So dismissing large swathes of our population as not worth our time is ineffective on a practical level, but there’s an even better reason to reject the “intellectual labor” argument: it’s patently false.

Ten years ago, was the racist vitriol spewed by Trump and co. anywhere near as widespread? Intuitively, most of us would say no, and statistics affirm our intuition. Implicit anti-black sentiments were found in 56% of the population in 2012, up from 49% in 2008. The number of Americans who said racism was a “big problem” in society was 28% in 2011. By 2015, it was 49%. And hate crimes against Muslims in Canada more than tripled between 2012 and 2015. By every measure, racism and bigotry are spreading in society.

So where were these people ten years ago? If we can all agree that racism is increasing, then the increase in such sentiments and behaviours must be coming from somewhere. In other words, people must be changing their minds. People who wouldn’t have supported Trump 10 years ago are supporting him now. People who wouldn’t have committed a hate crime against a Muslim are doing so now. People who wouldn’t have scored highly on implicit discrimination tests are doing so now. So if these people can have their opinions shift towards racist beliefs, why can’t they shift back? They can, just as people have in every major societal shift in history. These people are not hopeless — their experiences made them change their beliefs, and different experiences can change them back.

So what does this all mean? There is no doubt that there are some people whose minds will change, and often any attempt to engage them will be a waste of time. But it is impossible for us to know who these people are based on a single impression, and lazily dismissing entire segments of society as a waste of time is both ineffective and inaccurate. So we must reject the view that our “intellectual labor” is only worthy of those who agree with us. If no effort is made to engage those who hold opinions contrary to ours, those opinions will never change. And racism will only continue to grow.

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ISNA Canada is an Islamic organization committed to the mission and movement of Islam: nurturing a way of life in the light of the guidance from the Qur’an and Sunnah for establishing a vibrant presence of Muslims in Canada. ISNA exists as a platform for all Muslims who share its mission and are dedicated to serving the needs of Muslims and Muslim communities.

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