The Perils of Retro-activism

We’ve seen it more and more. Past behaviors revived and skeletons being dragged out of the closet. At one point, we used to only see this around election time. Every few years, politicians would have to explain and apologize for any action, that was regarded as unseemly for political office: affairs, drug use, etc. ‘Crimes’ fell into the moral category, peccadilloes that brought into question an individual’s character and judgement, two traits that are apparently key in attaining public office.

In recent years, Jimmy Fallon, Jason Aldean, Jimmy Kimmel and Jenna Marbles, among others, have all had to come to terms with past behavior that no longer agrees with modern taste. Retro-activism is the new force fighting to bring past crimes to present-day justice all in the name of holding people accountable…and it fails miserably. Why?

  1. Most have long since stopped doing whatever they’re being called out for. Which means their sense has adapted to the times. So the ‘lesson’ has already been learned, making the fault finding needless.
  2. Shame is not an effective tool for change. What retro-activists are trying to recreate is a sense of guilt. They want people to feel bad for what they have done and then connect that to a meaningful act of contrition, but it never works. To genuinely feel guilt, you have to believe that what you did what was wrong, which is hard when at the time that you did it, it wasn’t. That’s why so many of the apologies that come after these ‘finds’ end up being as criticized as the action itself. What is really happening is the targets feel shame. Much of the complaints go after a person’s character rather than the behavior. They feel bad because they are being accused of being a bad person. That’s why so many seek out absolution from groups/individuals who can give them a stamp of approval (i.e, talks with a respected individual(s) from offended group), so others will know that they are good people.
  3. Digging into a person’s past is an unsustainable activity because no one will past the test. We are asking people to behave in a way that ensures that future generations will not find their behavior offensive or problematic. How hard is this task? Well, few of us are visionary and even less are perfect.
  4. It takes a certain amount of arrogance to assume that the standards of 2020 are appropriate to judge people by. Retro-activism is a power trip. Like it’s sister, micro-activism, it is the wolf of oppressive judgement wrapped up in the lamb’s wool of accountability. It creates cowards and coverts: people who will be too afraid to say or do anything meaningful at all and others, who will just do it in the dark.