Racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, disablism and xenophobia are forms of existential aggression. Existential aggression is behaviour that indicates that people don’t deserve to live or must be second-class citizens by virtue of what they are. Note that I said what they are, rather than who they are; this kind of aggression is based entirely on categorical groupings and not on individual traits.
Existential aggression is a term I’ve coined to refer to patterns I’ve seen repeated over and over again, but with no clear, agreed-upon name to describe the interrelationships between these forms of ostracism. Bigotry and prejudice don’t seem to capture the suffocating, annihilating force that is existential aggression. Eliminationism comes close, but not all existential aggressors necessarily want their victims to die. (One could argue, though, that they want their victims’ self-concept to be altered to fit their criteria for being a Real Person, which is possibly a form of death.)
Existential aggression is rooted in essentialist thinking. Essentialism, at least within a social context, is the idea that everyone exhibits transcendent, immutable traits that define their personhood, value and position within society. Authoritarians tend towards essentialist thought to define who should rule and who should serve…or be eliminated, for that matter. These attitudes result in a Manichaean worldview in which the forces of good must defeat the forces of evil, and goodness and evil are defined by people’s existence, rather than by their behaviour. I’ve discussed the relationships between Platonism, essentialism and authoritarianism in “The Problems with Closed Systems.”
Examples of existential aggression on an interpersonal scale include
- Deliberately refusing to use names, pronouns and forms of address that a trans person has asked others to use
- Referring to immigrants, especially undocumented ones, as ‘aliens’ or ‘illegal aliens’, in casual speech
Larger-scale versions of this phenomenon include
- Refusing to grant legal recognition to LGBTQ people’s identities or relationships with other consenting adults
- Directly allowing employers to fire people because of their race, gender, sexual orientation or disability
- Xenophobic or disablist immigration laws
- Eugenics, especially negative eugenics
Far-rightists and their radical centrist enablers have their particular hobby horses of hate: religious fanatics’ fulmination about gay marriage and trans people using public bathrooms; so-called men’s rights activists’ rants about their inability to assault women with impunity; and white nationalists’ ardent desire to cleanse western countries of non-white people. That said, however, I suspect that the correlation coefficients between one form of existential aggression and another are not zero. Time and time again I see white nationalists expressing misogynistic, disablist, homophobic and transphobic views. Right-wing Christian fundamentalists may focus their ire on anyone who falls outside their idealised gender roles, but it’s not uncommon to see them haranguing about Muslims and undocumented immigrants. When you believe that there are some people who are less human than others, it’s likely that you may extend this reasoning to other groups, too. Websites where alt-righters and other hatemongers congregate are brimming with vitriolic attacks on all manner of people, from feminists to trans people to members of ‘weird’ subcultures.
These tendencies are not limited to the right, though I do think existential aggression is primarily the province of the right. I’ve noticed people on the left acting as though members of traditionally privileged groups are essentially bigoted, regardless of their own personal beliefs. A random white person may or may not be an ideological racist. European ancestry doesn’t make people automatically hateful. Having ancestors from continents other than Europe doesn’t make you automatically more credible or ‘woke’, either. Yes, white people benefit from systemic racism in the west, but it’s important to distinguish between social pressure and individual people’s behaviour and feelings. I’ve seen countless articles, tweets and Facebook statuses that imply that having a marginalised status makes you more enlightened. It doesn’t take much countervailing evidence to show this isn’t true. Ben Carson and Herman Cain wouldn’t be Republicans, anti-feminist women would be complete non-entities, and Milo Yiannopoulos wouldn’t have made a brief career out of terrorising other marginalised people. I’ll even make this personal and say that this applies to my own mother. My mother is a black Trinidadian immigrant who moved to the US in the late 1960s and spent the remainder of her childhood and adolescence in Queens. You would think that these demographic markers would make her an enthusiastic Democrat, right? Wrong: she hasn’t supported the Democrats in twenty years and is a Trump supporter. She likes Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly just as much as any other hardcore conservative Republican does. When my parents became evangelical Christians, they also became Republicans. I don’t think the assumptions made by people on the left about race and ideology are nearly as dangerous as those espoused on the right, but they’re still traps worth avoiding. People’s awareness of systemic oppression is dependent on their self-awareness, curiosity and attention to current affairs. Some people may sense that they’re being treated unfairly, but may not be able to articulate exactly why. Because they don’t have an explicit framework, either self-created, acquired or both, to explain their mistreatment, they may not use the correct ‘woke’ language du jour.
Existential aggression is dangerous because it focusses on people’s presence rather than their treatment of others. Simply existing is not a threat; mistreating others is. Be wary of any belief system that promotes existential aggression over good works.