of course, there’s the backchannel

Couple years ago I got myself into one of these mini-controversies I’m always stepping in. The New York Times had put together this David Carr Fellowship. Ostensibly, the purpose of this fellowship was to bring a young, early-career journalist with an outsider’s pedigree to the pages of the Times. Carr having recently died, and himself being an outsider (at least, as much of an outsider as the Times is capable of conceiving of), it seemed fitting. I figured that they’d select some kid right out of undergrad with a strong portfolio from their student paper, someone who had lit some fires and caused some havoc on campus but was otherwise unknown. Or maybe some low-traffic, high-quality young blogger I had never heard of.

I was surprised, then, when the Times selected three writers who I had not only heard of but had read many times, in big-deal places. All three of them were well established at national publications and could boast of an audience of millions in that capacity. Gawker’s short blurb announcing the winners described them as “John Herrman of The Awl, Amanda Hess of Slate, and Greg Howard of Deadspin.” Which to me provoked a simple question: if you could describe the winners as already being “of [national publication],” in what sense was the spirit of the fellowship being honored at all? Hess, in particular, had a list of bylines longer than my arm. I didn’t apply for the fellowship because I figured I already had credits at major newspapers and magazines (and was too old), and even so I didn’t have a national presence the way the three winners did. In fact, all three of them had already been published by The Times! Their commitment to looking for outsiders apparently did not compel them to look beyond their own masthead. It just didn’t make sense to me.

So I said so, on my blog and on Twitter. I said, simply, that if you were going to set up a fellowship to give money and exposure to outsider voices, they should be actual outsiders. In particular, they shouldn’t be the kind of people who could certainly get other jobs at prominent publications, and with their impressive resumes, Hess, Hermann, and Howard absolutely could. What’s the point of that? Why bother? I thought it was a question worth raising publicly.

It did not go over well.

A lot of the response was the journalist social circle operating at its most naked. A majority of the responses were some version of “I like them, and I don’t like you, so your argument is wrong.” But I had never said a single insulting word about any of the three of them. My critique was and remains of The Times. I of course got the “you’re just jealous” response, as well as empty “you’re mad on the internet” jeers that didn’t even attempt to engage with the actual substance of what I was saying. Most absurdly, some people accused me of saying that Hess, Howard, and Hermann were unqualified for the fellowship. But that’s the exact opposite of what I had argued, which is that they were overqualified given the intent of the fellowship. This tendency within media — to treat every discussion of structural problems as though it is instead a matter of personalities, to make everything about whose table you sit at during lunch — is part of why journalists are so terrible at correctly identifying what’s happening in their own industry. When all you care about is your standing in a social circle, you can’t take a real hard look at the economic structures on which that social circle is built. I was frustrated that people refused to see my actual point instead of getting mad about personal insults that I wasn’t actually making.

But that incident was also a high tide, for me, of the media backchannel — that second line of communication, the private counterpart to the public face of the internet that is social media. There’s the person you perform publicly, online, and the person you are privately. I’ve always gotten a healthy dose of that, this second face, since the very beginning, and this situation really brought people out of the woodwork. I got what you were actually arguing, they would say, and I think you’re right. Often this was packaged with the insistence that the person writing loved the recipients of the fellowship, which was a bit of a bummer but was understandable. I hadn’t said one insulting word about the three of them, but I understand the urge to stake out personal affection for the recipients while agreeing with my point. But that was a common attitude: I love their work, and I’m glad they won this position, and also you’re right that the Times is on some bullshit. But they couldn’t risk being seen to support me or my position publicly.

People love to make fun of me, when I say this stuff. All I’m saying is that people say different things privately about their peers and colleagues than they’re willing to say publicly. Is that so hard to believe?

There was another sentiment that was expressed to me both publicly and privately. I should read between the lines, they said, and look at this from the point of view of a paper with an uncertain economic future. By calling it a fellowship, they had the ability to hire these three without actually having to commit contracts to them in the way they ordinarily would. That sounds convincing to me. But in terms of the behavior of the Times, that’s worse. If they devised a way to skirt making a real commitment to writers and then plastered David Carr’s face all over it, it’s even more cynical and unfair. If they wanted to sign people to some sort of short-term contract for financial reasons, they should have just come out and said so. That’s healthier for everyone involved

My position was unpopular, but I was right then, and I’m right now. The situation made no sense. And while I appreciated that people were willing to reach out privately, the failure to speak up publicly can have high stakes. Increasingly I am concerned, in various worlds, with the distance between the public and private. Increasingly I wish that people were willing to say publicly what they now reserve only for all the backchannels out there.

*****

The infamous Rolling Stone article on the fabricated University of Virginia rape case is a perfect example of where the failure to publicly voice private concerns can have real consequences. As many have said, one of the unfortunate consequences of that whole situation lies in the backlash; now, those who are committed to denying the problem of campus rape in general have another example to point to again and again to undermine legitimate concerns, just as happened with the Duke lacrosse case. Rolling Stone handed ammunition to a very vocal and ugly set of people. That’s true, that is an unfortunate consequence. It was also thoroughly preventable, if only people had been willing to make public the concerns they had raised in the backchannel.

Because what you’ll hear, privately, is that before the story began to publicly fall apart, many people — decent, progressive people who recognize sexual assault on campus as a real and pressing issue and are dedicated to fighting it — had reservations about it. No, not just conservatives, and not just men. Many people of all kinds privately thought that the story sounded made up, that its lurid details and extremity (a forcible gang rape committed by an entire fraternity as part of a bonding ritual or initiation ceremony) made it seem far fetched. Feminist women were saying “this isn’t how sexual assault usually happens at college.” But they were saying so privately, I imagine out of a desire to be good soldiers for a cause, and out of fear of appearing to stand with rape denial. And of course when doubts began to emerge publicly, they emerged from conservative sources like Reason magazine. Which meant that when the whole thing blew up, it was conservatives who got to crow and claim victory. They owned the story, now, and the progressive people who had rushed to defend the Rolling Stone article lost face, which meant that in the public realm the conservative attitude towards rape on campus got stronger and the progressive one got weaker. And that’s a bad thing indeed.

This is the problem with the backchannel. When within-group criticism is only voiced privately, there’s no opportunity for the group to evolve, to shore up its weakness, to evaluate its own problems, to correct its own course. And political movements have to evolve or die. It’s a classic cause of political self-destruction, when a group’s inner dynamics become so ossified and conformist that no one is willing to point out the group’s problems. That’s the condition in far too many left spaces today: a near-total inability to point out the cracks in the foundation for fear of being shamed yourself.

*****

I thought of all that as I read this piece on the absurd, infuriating, ongoing situation with Rebecca Tuvel and her not-at-all transphobic article. That controversy lays bare all of contemporary academia’s entrenched pathology, the pervasive culture of fear that has settled into the humanities and social sciences, especially in elite environs. For every one of these controversies that goes public, there are vastly more situations where someone self-censors, or is quietly bullied into acquiescing. For every odd example that goes viral, there is no doubt dozens more that occur behind closed doors.

I read the following from the Kelly Oliver piece linked above and couldn’t help laughing. Welcome to my world.

The split between what people wrote to both Rebecca Tuvel and to me in private, and what they felt compelled to say in public is one indication that the explosion of personal insults and vicious attacks on social media is symptomatic of something much bigger than the actual issues discussed in Tuvel’s article.

My life, as a academic who also writes about politics and culture, and as someone who is willing to publicly critique the absurdities and excesses of social justice politics, functions as proof of what Oliver is saying. For years now I’ve been the recipient of just that kind of private expression of fear and unhappiness from those who are similarly unwilling to speak out publicly. Since the beginning of my graduate education, I have been someone who other academics feel that they can come to in order to voice their shock and dismay at just how toxic the culture within academia has become. They tell stories about petty witch hunts and show trials within their departments. They share their fear about objecting to arguments they find unfair or unsupported. They say they feel compelled to follow current academic fads for fear of being labeled. They are convinced that stepping out of line with the constant search for offense will render them permanently unemployable, even though they are themselves progressive people. You’ve heard the litany before. They share it with me.

Because they know that they can trust that I won’t ever betray their confidence, and because of my (self-aggrandizing, I admit) indifference to my professional reputation, they email me. They find me at conferences. And they always say the same thing: I could never say this publicly, but…. The Tuvel situation is just one example of a pervasive culture of fear, a feeling that even when one has the strong sense that an injustice is being done, academia is not a place where such reservations can be freely voiced.

Some will insist that this is just the secretly conservative saying what they truly believe, that this is all white men decrying a changing academic world. I suppose on balance the backchannel to me is paler and maler than the academy writ large. But the truth is that all kinds of people discuss this stuff with me: white and black, male and female, trans and cis. And the people who approach me aren’t mostly those rare academic conservatives, who barely exist these days, but rather liberals and leftists who believe in the movement for equality but find that the way that movement operates in the contemporary university has become toxic and unjust.

And that all comes down to a broader reality: on campus and off, even many or most of those who are deeply committed to the cause of social justice and its expression in feminism, anti-racism, and the fight for LGBTQ rights recognize that the culture of social justice is deeply unhealthy. You’ve heard all that from me before. I have been attempting to address that simple fact for years: that there is a difference between a commitment to fighting bigotry and accepting uncritically every argument that is made in the name of that fight. Many people join me in feeling that something has gone deeply wrong in how we prosecute the movement for social justice, but precisely because of the unhealthy conditions of that movement, they feel they can’t say so publicly.

*****

This seems like another one of those moments where what I’m saying is completely obvious, and would be barely worth mentioning if people didn’t react so negatively to actually spelling it out. (All it takes to be a media critic is a willingness to state the obvious.) I mean, it’s not exactly breaking news, right: people say different things privately than they are willing to say publicly. But the very nature of the backchannel makes it impossible to draw out these threads. Some will respond to this post by saying I’m making it all up, and they will be right to object to talking about a phenomenon for which I can’t present specific examples and proof. That’s a constraint I operate under because my very position as a locus of the backchannel requires me to honor the commitment to privacy. (And I always will, don’t worry.) But if you’re in my position, how do you help convince a bunch of disparate, disconnected voices to speak out, when the consequences seem so dire?

The fact remains that I am not making this up. And it remains even if you think I am personally an asshole. What good, progressive, feminist, antiracist people need to be willing to do, if they want to grow this movement so that we can stop losing elections and start acquiring the power to actually make tangible change, is to be willing to say when you think that movement has gone wrong. You must be willing to say, publicly, I am with the cause, but I am not with this. You have to be willing to say, yes, the world is full of offensive things, and yes, I stand with you when someone does something offensive, but this particular claim to offense is not credible. You have to be willing to fight for social justice loudly and passionately and then, when someone takes the language of social justice applies it to ridiculous and illegitimate ends, be one of the people willing to say “enough.”

You have to be willing to say, “I am absolutely dedicated to protecting trans people and their rights, and also this campaign against Rebecca Tuvel is wrong.” That’s not hard to do. Easiest thing in the world.

We are not going to build a better world with these tactics. The naming-and-shaming tendency, the witch hunts, the show trials, and in particular, the refusal to ever admit that there are times when it is fair and appropriate to disagree with those invoking the language of social justice… these are not how we win. We will not build a mass movement by turning our groups into a never-ending production of The Crucible. That tendency is almost uniquely destructive to our efforts to spread our beliefs through persuasion, which, you know, is the whole fucking point of all this — to convince those who are amenable to being convinced, so as to build a majority party that can win. Remember that idea? Persuading people who aren’t already on your side to join your cause?

I’ve said it for years: there’s a backlash brewing, against these tactics. People are fed up. Those who live and operate in left discursive spaces are numb and exhausted from living in the constant fear of saying the wrong thing and stepping on a landmine. Over-the-top wokeness is now obligatory in media and academia, which means that much of it is performed in bad faith, with the cynical and the opportunistic now adopting that language and those tactics for their own selfish ends. Meanwhile, decent people who are sincerely committed to the actual ideals that underlie that language are forced to self-censor or else to drop out entirely. This is no way to advance the cause.

We’ve already seen the political backlash; look at the conditions of this country. Soon, I think, there will be a social and cultural backlash as well. You might imagine that I’d welcome such a thing, but I lived through the 90s and the Gingrich revolution and the anti-PC movement and I assure you, I’m not eager to go through that again. Backlashes have a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Despite what some will tell you, I think the growing understanding of the pervasiveness of racism, sexism, and injustice is a good thing, and that our deepening communal commitment to fighting them is a healthy development. What I want is a movement for social justice that has the honesty and the confidence to continuing that fight without constantly grinding up innocent victims in its wake, to maintain both a commitment to fighting for equality AND a commitment to treating people with basic fairness. I want a movement that matches its passion with understanding and a willingness to forgive.

If you’re one of the many people who agrees with me but is afraid to come forward publicly, I urge you to speak out. You just have to be willing to risk being perceived as arguing against people who are in some sense “on your side.” Is that so bad? I do it all the time, and my commitment to the causes that I identify with remains as strong as ever. The basic requirement of being a critical, useful political voice lies in a willingness to say when you think your own side has gone wrong. The left does not need more loyal soldiers. Quite the contrary: what the left needs is people who are committed to acknowledging complexity and nuance. You can help to change the culture of these movements, to make them healthier and fairer and, in doing so, strengthen them. All you have to do is have the guts to say how you feel.

*****

Living in New York has given me the opportunity to meet a lot of people IRL who I had previously only known online. Awhile back I met a guy for drinks who I had known through his pseudonymous presence in the culture you might call left Twitter or Weird Twitter or whatever. He DM’d me and we got beers in Brooklyn.

I had a pretty good time. There’s always an initial awkwardness when you meet people in real life that you had previously only known online, but it fades fast. He was a little schlubby and a little sad and very smart. We got to talking about how Twitter had changed. Like some other people I know, he agreed with me that the world he was in, the Weird/Left Twitter space, had changed and for the worse. Like I have, he lamented the way that lefties on Twitter seem to fixate doggedly on minor political or media figures of seemingly little importance, while there’s a whole vast world of terrible conservatives that would be better targets. And he agreed with my basic take: that that culture had once seemed like a friendlier, freer, less rigid alternative to Yelling Woke Twitter, but had now come to adopt many of those ugly dynamics — the endless pile-ons, the search for heretics, the never-ending string of petty controversies that revolve around finding someone Bad and “dragging” them, for no purpose and to no meaningful political end. As often happens, discussing this with him privately made me feel a little less crazy, like I’m not the only one who has noticed these things, like I’m not just making it all up.

I pressed him, though. His feed never seems to betray a hint of these reservations. Indeed, like most in that world, his feed never betrays reservations of any kind. Central to the culture of Weird/Left Twitter is the absolute rejection of any insecurity or self-doubt whatsoever. It’s perhaps the most obvious shared trope within that discursive space: you treat everything in politics as laughably obvious, as though the entire world unfolds itself in predigested moral scenarios where there is always a hero and a villain and where anyone who does not immediately identify the correct position is a shill or a fool. Here, face to face, in the grubby real world, he seemed far less sure, far less aggressive, far less draped in irony. Here he seemed willing to betray doubt.

I asked him, gently — if you agree with me that things have gotten toxic in that space, why not say so? Why not break character for a minute and say how you feel? Why not try to fix things? He laughed it off, for a bit. But eventually he said, into his beer, “Because I’m scared.” I didn’t have the heart to ask him… scared of what?

A week or so later, I got a Facebook message from somebody else. Someone’s talking shit about you on Twitter again, she said. (That version of petty gossip is probably the backchannel in its purest form.) I had just published a piece that had, among other things, mentioned some of the dynamics in the left Twitter space we had discussed, the ones he had nodded along to in person. Someone within that world was now engaging in the typical “Freddie is on his bullshit again” complaint, not in those words but similarly empty of actual content. I’m used to that too.

I was not at all surprised, when I investigated, to find that it was him.