an ongoing exchange between Jay Caspian Kang and Freddie deBoer about language on Twitter, solidarity within the left and the overall impact of online political discourse in 2015. This will update periodically (hopefully).
JAY: I am a fan of Freddie deBoer, the tireless academic/blogger who, I believe, has helped “Twitter” (and here I only mean the one slice of Twitter that cares passionately about online political discourse) disentangle and make sense of itself. As a former debate nerd, I don’t believe in ad hominem attacks. I always squirm whenever I read a blog take someone down purely based on the fact that they do not agree on one divisive belief or another. And I believe there is a discomforting quality about the exhibitionist ways in which white allies on the Internet try to outflank one another, all in the name of saving all of us poor, helpless people of color. These are all ideas deBoer has grappled with on his blog and through reading his work, I, and many others, have been able to clarify my own thoughts. He is a vital voice in this quickly evolving conversation.
Over the past month, however, deBoer has published two posts that I have taken issue with. The first, on “White-offs” and the blog The Toast, you can find here. The second, on Suey Park, you can find here. (The charm of deBoer’s strain of graphomania is that these two posts are embedded within a fortress of thousands of great thoughts about Mad Max and books and his own political beliefs, all of which deserve reading.)
Broadly, deBoer’s criticisms of what he oftentimes calls the “corrosive” left follow this formulation: He points out an instance where someone makes a facetious or ad hominem or logically inconsistent argument and then argues that this sort of divisive language ultimately fractures the progressive movement.
An example below, from deBoer’s piece on White-Offs:
Several of deBoer’ s favorite arguments can be found within these two paragraphs. He is taking on a popular outlet that most writers and pundits would shy away from criticizing, mostly out of fear of online backlash. More importantly, he is taking on the backlash (imagined, in this case), itself. We’ve reached a point in 2015 where many well-established white, liberal writers do not feel comfortable expressing their opinions online or even in their writing for fear of being pilloried by online “social justice warriors.” Jonathan Chait’s essay, “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say,” published in New York Magazine, set off an avalanche of online mockery and passionate counterpoints, but it was also clear that there was also a massive silent majority within the left, especially the demographic that Chait inhabits, who believed that he was right, (or that he was clumsily right) but simply didn’t state their support because they didn’t want to be mobbed.
DeBoer has argued on several occasions that this sort of fear has created a toxic environment within the left. I, who am politically to the right of deBoer, but still identify as a progressive, agree. Leftist discourse has been sectioned off and starved, and, as a result, the factions have turned on one another. And yet, within the paragraphs excerpted above, I see a similar method of attack, a similar desire to silence and a similar refusal to engage with what’s real.
Let’s go through it.
In the first sentence, deBoer says The Toast “has taken maximum advantage of this Teflon aspect of progressive argument.” This seems to ascribe motive where there may not be any, something that deBoer constantly decries, both in his blog and on his Twitter feed.
DeBoer provides no evidence here that The Toast willfully takes advantage of their Teflon status. By ascribing motive, deBoer is actually doing what he accuses the corrosive left of doing — he is projecting cynicism where there might not be any. Whether you agree with him or not is ultimately irrelevant — we are talking about the mechanics of language here, something I, like deBoer, believe should be taken very seriously. Absent more evidence, it’s irresponsible for DeBoer to assume that the editors and writers of The Toast are craven in this way — if he doesn’t like it when people assume all his arguments come from his privilege as a white male, he shouldn’t make similar assumptions about why and how the writers at The Toast run their blog.
(As an aside, when I wrote about the podcast Serial and how I felt it handled the lives of its immigrant characters, I received quite a bit of criticism from people on the left who argued that I had failed to prove that Serial was actually racist. My point was never to prove that Serial was racist — in fact, I never used that word — but rather to show how a series of “micro-agressions” (I hate that term, but it fits here) could be read by a Korean-American person listening to the story of the murder of Hae-Min Lee. One of my critics accused me of lacking “moral seriousness” and intimated that I had only written the piece in The Awl, of all places, to draw attention to myself. Another critic, Laura Miller of Salon, quite charmingly, attributed my wrongness to being ‘young’ and unedited. As a result, I do have some experience with the sort of condescending, ad hominem attacks that assume the worst about the writer and that silence any voice that doesn’t fit within the broad liberal consensus. I imagine that deBoer hates all this as much as I do. His impulse to criticize language on both sides of the rift he sees in the left, I believe, comes from his fear that if this isn’t fixed soon, both sides will devolve into reflexive, ad hominem garbage.)
Let’s skip forward to the start of the next paragraph. “Now comes the stock response: white male tears!”
DeBoer is arguing with himself. After reading through the list and through the hundreds of comments, I saw scant evidence of the “white male tears” response. What I saw instead, were hundreds of readers who were gleefully trying to add to the joke. It was what The Toast generally has been — a place where the readers can thumb their nose at the establishment, whatever that may be. And while I might agree with deBoer that the joke certainly could have been more subversive and accurate, I also know from years of online content creation that sometimes these sorts of posts are more so that your audience can chum around in the comment section.
But I’m ultimately confounded by the fact that deBoer felt the need to erect this particular straw man — why does he feel the need to justify his right to criticize “as a white dude?” When he looks around, doesn’t he see that the vast majority of people who are paid for the critical insight look a lot like him? Again, in whose direction is deBoer shaking his fist?
I do agree with deBoer that we shouldn’t dismiss corrosive leftist online discourse as frivolous; we should take it seriously and criticize it and argue with it. But I draw the line at projecting an insult where there is none; of assuming that one’s critics are capable of nothing but reductive attacks. Again, even if DeBoer is correctly predicting exactly what the readers of The Toast might say (and as a reader myself, I’d say he’s wrong…), by building up these straw man arguments and by assuming the worst of the people he’s criticizing, he is shouting out his own version of “white male tears.”
DeBoer’s post about Suey Park is here in its entirety.
I also enjoyed Bruenig’s profile of Suey Park, someone whom I wrote about back in 2014, during the height of #CancelColbert, but one thing that I found strangely missing in the piece speaks to what I sometimes find frustrating in deBoer’s work. If we place Suey Park at the center of a field, the gaze upon her typically comes from the population of people who processed #CancelColbert as a political statement, or even a prank. It comes, in short, from white people who are trying to understand why Suey Park was so mean to an obvious ally like Steven Colbert. What all this ignores, however, is the visceral emotions felt by everyone on the far side of Suey Park, namely, the women and people of color who see Park and other online raconteur and agitators as an imperfect, yet ultimately redeemable iterations of what we wish we could say.
In the weeks after publishing my article on Suey Park, I had dozens of conversations with fellow Asians from across the political spectrum who all had a similar reaction. Namely: Fuck yes, someone actually said it. Most of these people wouldn’t be caught dead saying anything even mildly political on Twitter, and even more disagreed with Park’s methods, but all felt a sense of relief that a feeling that we had all been suppressing — that the left, when it needed to make a racist joke, would always pick on A sians— was out in the open. Lengthy conversations about identity began taking place on Facebook and through emails and in person, all of which would align much more closely with the platonic ideal of civil discourse. None of this would have happened without #CancelColbert.
That these conversations mostly took place behind closed doors, between Asian-Americans, doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. And if progressive discourse necessitates confidence in what one is saying and the refusal to allow one’s perspective to be marginalized, I know of dozens of Asian-Americans who quietly galvanized their beliefs during #CancelColbert. That, to me, seems to outweigh the “damage” that deBoer accuses Park of inflicting upon the solidarity of the left. (That claim, by the way, is not backed up in any way in deBoer’s post. Does anyone really think that #CancelColbert created a real rift in the left? More importantly, is deBoer’s claim, then, that the left would be better off if the people who found a new, more radicalized voice during #CancelColbert, or, say #SolidarityisforWhiteWomen, simply remained amenable to what the preominant leftist culture told them to think? I can’t imagine deBoer believes this, but his argumentation in this post leaves for little breathing room.)
By any measure, #CancelColbert was an important political statement to many Asian-Americans. DeBoer’s belief in its actual importance is certainly up to him, but my frustration with much of his writing comes from the sense I get that he believes that by constantly stating his own political beliefs, by stating his own allyship and his great concern for the future of the progressive left, he feels empowered to pass judgment on things he might not fully understand.
Here, let’s return to the first post I examined here and deBoer’s prediction of the “stock response” of “white male tears.” I won’t speak for deBoer, but from my own conversations with friends, both white and not, I’ve found that this impulse to predict the reactions of the radicalized, “Social Justice Warrior” left has lead to a great deal of frustration. People want to be able to express their opinions without hearing the warning sirens in their heads of how it could all go wrong, how something they wrote or said could be dissected and broken down into chaff for the perpetual outrage machine. I certainly have felt the same frustrations myself, and, as a result, I understand why someone might read a phrase like “things he might not fully understand” and jump to the punchline, “because he’s a white male.” But if racial discourse requires me, as a person of color, to explain myself, I cannot do so if the person on the other end assumes the worst about me.
My disagreement with deBoer takes place in the rhetorical space between “you don’t understand” and “white man.” I believe that every assumption made within that space is toxic to the left, both on deBoer’s part and on the part of the people who would go ahead and fuse the statements together. When I was first writing about Suey Park, the person who pushed me to find a more sympathetic stance was my editor, a white man who is about as privileged as one can be in America. I also believe there is a lot that deBoer doesn’t understand about Suey Park, but I don’t think this lack comes from deBoer’s whiteness or his privilege, but rather from a reflexive defensiveness and a sorting impulse that is continually trying to make sense of what is important and serious and what is not. The future of progressivism is going to land somewhere between today’s definitions of “you don’t understand” and “white man,” and to figure it out, we should curtail every reflexive, dismissive response.
DeBoer is uniquely qualified for the task of figuring out what all this online discourse means. He cares about political discourse and takes it all seriously, whether tweeted from an account with fifteen followers or published in the New Yorker— this alone should be seen as his best qualification. In the past, deBoer’s strength has come from his ability to truly consider all sides; to sympathize with the veterans in his classes as well as the activists. But as a fan of his writing, I hope he doesn’t wander too far down the path of straw men and assumptions of malice that would make it so easier for his critics to jump from “you don’t understand” to “white male”; that would turn his refreshing perspective into something we’ve all seen before.
Thanks for the opportunity to talk about this stuff.
I will cop to it: I too often meet a lack of nuance with the same, and I am frequently guilty of dividing the world into camps in a way that I recognize as unhelpful in others. The source is, as you well identified, my perpetual frustration with the refusal to draw distinctions between marginalized voices and their self-professed allies. Many people operate, more explicitly or less, under the premise that if we’re moral and progressive we have to adopt certain types of deference to those who come from oppressed groups. Despite what you might think, I don’t reject this idea out of hand, and I think that there are places and issues where this kind of deference is healthy. It’s a conversation that has to occur with nuance and specificity. Unfortunately, in my own work, that conversation is constantly co-opted by “allies.” That there are people online who come from backgrounds of relative privilege who want to lend support to marginalized voices is necessary and beneficial. That so many of them use that advocacy as an excuse for their own shitty behavior is gross and exploitative and in the long run makes material progress less likely.
I think this is a simple fact: there are many privileged white people who take part in the progressive conversation online, particularly on Twitter, who feel absolutely no guilt about putting on the role of the oppressed like a costume, in order to take advantage of the rhetorical advantage that confers without suffering from the material disadvantages that the oppressed undoubtedly suffer. I cannot tell you how many times I have been rebuked for supposedly criticizing marginalized voices when the person I actually criticized was, like, a white advertising executive with a degree from Oberlin. On Twitter, this equating of privileged white allies with marginalized people themselves is so common and reflexive that it passes without notice. That’s particularly bizarre given that we’ve become justly sensitive to appropriation. When someone who comes from privilege responds to criticism of their behavior by treating the role of ally as a bulletproof vest, that’s appropriation of a very ugly kind — a kind which contributes directly to the backlash that, whether we like it or not, is brewing in the background, as pieces like Chait’s demonstrate.
Nowhere does this represent itself more obviously than the Professional Male Feminist. This is the dude who has carved out a niche for himself, in the online writing economy, by being the last moral white dude. His rhetorical hallmark is excess: if a black woman writer loves Beyonce, he will love Beyonce more. If a writer of color is angry, he will be furious. If a woman launches a harsh critique against someone, he will take it to a whole other level of viciousness. This is a tried and true method for getting a regular paying gig in the politics and culture blogosphere. But that very commercial advantage — the fact that there is financial gain from adopting this identity, and the general identity of being the Good White People that so many political writers occupy — is the reason to mistrust this role. I don’t doubt the sincerity of these guys; they are nothing if not sincere. But when your professional self-interest becomes indistinguishable from yelling at other people for being less righteous than you, self-reform becomes impossible. And let me tell you: I grew up on a very left-wing campus, I’ve spent my life around commies and activists, I was a 30 hour a week antiwar activist, my career is in the liberal arts in academia. I have been around these guys my whole life, and I assure you that they are far from harmless.
I fully confess to excess in how I make this case. I am an imperfect critic. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I admit to it readily: I don’t understand how #CancelColbert may have felt for many Asian Americans, and I was too dismissive of its potential impact. Such questions are complicated; one of my great fears is that we assume a racially-universalized response to these controversies, which in turn results in essentialism. Some Asian Americans were among the harshest critics of Suey Park, such as in this notorious Deadspin piece. But, yes, you’re right: I was dismissive of a set of complex emotions felt by people in a position I will never understand, and for that I apologize. It’s not my place to say how Suey Park or #CancelColbert function in the Asian American imagination.
Where I will not relent, however, is in saying that controversies like #CancelColbert damage the coalition of the broad left-wing. Not #CancelColbert by itself, but rather the endless churn of controversies, Twitter storms, conflicts, and fights which leave people exhausted and disengaged. It’s not unreasonable for people witnessing such things to conclude that the left will never stop harming itself sufficiently to do the work of changing the world. Here, too, I speak from experience. None of this is new or unique to the online space; left-wing movements are always in the process of blowing themselves up. I am discouraged by seeing so many of the typical ugly interpersonal dynamics of the left play out on Twitter over and over again. Many decent people who want to help are afraid to weigh in publicly on issues of controversy for fear of being ground up in a Twitter storm. Maybe that’s ridiculous; maybe they should just get over it; maybe they should get tougher. Maybe so. But they probably won’t, and I think we should all be able to take a long, hard look at how to better integrate potential friends into our movement, without being accused of not being an ally. Because the left needs friends.
I am listening and I will endeavor to be better. I am trying to spend more time listening and less speaking. And I recognize the space you refer to: the space of my own misunderstanding. I will try to look for it more often when I can. I will remain ruthless, however, with the Good White People, with the people waging WhiteOffs, with the people who reduce progressive politics to a endless game of social positioning. But I will also try to mistrust my own instincts in that regard, more often, to stop seeing that condition around every corner. All I can do is what I’ve always tried to do: to remain present. My outsider shtick is annoying, I know, but it comes from a sincere desire to express my availability, my status as just another guy. I am not and will never be a “no fucks given” type. I give every fuck. I will try to remain available to be told that I’m wrong.
(I just might not always agree!)
I agree that movements oftentimes get co-opted, at least in part, by so-called “white saviors” who come zooming down from the mount. One great obstacle to real solidarity on the left is the gap between the work activists have done and the gate-crashers who glom onto a seemingly new idea and then congratulate themselves for being the most tolerant people in the world. That arrogance not only makes them complacent, but it also alienates the people who tirelessly pushed that idea into the mainstream.
But, as you said, these issues have been part of the left for generations. There’s no activist movement, whether Occupy, Occupy Hong Kong or Black Lives Matter, that does not fight bitterly amongst itself. And yes, some of these arguments come from fundamental disagreements over who can say what and to whom. I suppose I just don’t see it as a fatal problem in our discourse, but rather a persistent, yet expected annoyance.
A few months ago, I went to a community organizing meeting in St. Louis. (I should note here: I was only there as a reporter, not as an organizer or protestor) It was mostly filled with white people who were involved in the Ferguson protests. One thing I came away with realizing was that the neuroses and conflict over white allydom occurred entirely within the heads of the white allies.
At the protests, I saw the same dynamic. The majority of the people there were black and many of the white protestors were competing with one another to see who could be the best ally. I didn’t see this as corrosive or particularly damaging posturing, but rather earnest and ultimately necesarry. There was a group of white allies in Anonymous masks, of course, who acted a bit too fake-heroically and endangered the group by sitting in front of cars and preening for the media, but whenever they did this, black protestors would point out that they were exercising their “white privilege” (The police at the protests in St. Louis seemed much more hesitant to arrest white protestors) and order would be restored.
What I didn’t see was anything particularly destabilizing, endemic or awful. In fact, what was happening within some of the white allies could actually be described with that most odious of words: It was problematic, but nothing more than problematic. The protests continued despite the presence of “problematic” white people. The Black Lives Matter movement has spread nationwide and I haven’t seen one report or talked to one protestor who believes that the sort of white activist you’re talking about has had any effect on anything. These are real people in real activist spaces in the biggest movement against systemic racism we’ve had in this country in many years. Having spent five months with them, I’d say that a) yes, they do think about white allydom, but not as a fatal problem for the movement and b) a good number of white allies are actually just allies. Saying that the worst of these could derail the whole movement sounds incredibly alarmist to me. Maybe these people are the most annoying on Twitter (that much I’ll agree with) but let’s not give them power they don’t have. Let’s not fall into this thought trap.
Aggrieved Twitter User 1: Man, I read the most annoying exchange on Twitter today. Some SJW was purposefully misreading something and then sending in a mob to totally rip this dude to shreds.
Slightly Less Aggrieved Twitter User 2: Yeah, I hate that shit, but lets not blow this up too much out of proportion?
Aggrieved Twitter User 1: Slippery slope, man. (Or any number of similarly facetious arguments whipped up to put an impact to all this that might not actually be there.)
What I actually find much more damaging are what my friend Hari Kondabolu would call “American liberal cowards.”
These are the “if the left doesn’t go my way, I’m taking my ball and going home” liberals who sit on Twitter, read through heated conversations or hashtags, get turned off by the virulent language and decide that everything on the more extreme reaches of the left is completely devoid of value.
People like this dude.
Oh no! Someone said the word privilege and you’re now want to vote Republican? Please don’t abandon us M1EK Dahmus! You’re our only sensible hope!
There are a lot of people like this on the left who shut down discourse the very second it infringes on them, who, as you pointed out in your post on The Toast, refuse to consider any form of liberalism that doesn’t place them in a starring role as compassionate savior. How are they, whose commitment to progressive values can be derailed by a tweet they don’t like, any less corrosive to solidarity on the left than these “male feminists” you describe?
As for these sorts of people and the paid jobs in the media that await them, I think I’m going to need one or two examples. I cannot think of anyone who fits that bill. I can, however, come up with an entire list of names of lefties who start stumping for an unexpectedly right-wing opinion and magically begin appearing on every outlet to share their conversion story. I mean, Raven Symone just got hired on The View!
I have two questions for you:
If this all this infighting is business-as-usual within the left, than could we reasonably expect the left to be about as effective and splintered as it usually is? Or do you think the visibility of the conflicts has accelerated the effects?
Also, do you think there’s a possibility that the exhaustion that some people have felt over hashtag activism and Twitter mobs might actually end up being productive? Do you think that all that, by comparison, might open up people’s eyes to a more serious critique that also happens to exist online?
I’ll start by conceding that you’re right that, largely but not entirely, the issue of white-on-white allyship anxiety is a problem mainly for those self-same white allies. And I get that it’s precisely the sort of thing that we should be able to set aside without fanfare. But “should” is my least favorite word, when discussing politics. When people start talking about what should be, in a political debate, I get nervous. I think that we need to care about the conduct of white progressives and leftists towards each other, particularly in the online space, because I think that conduct genuinely impacts the political convictions and engagement of potential allies. Again, maybe it shouldn’t. But it just does. If I’m right, and many potential allies are scared off by what they see as the ruthlessness and lack of forgiveness of left-of-center Twitter, then we have to talk openly and freely about that perception. Because we do need to move more of the people who are inclined to support us but who are not yet battle hardened, who lack rhetorical courage.
This is a point that a lot of people will take very poorly, and I can’t blame anyone if they do because it really gets to the fundamental heart of what we’re attempting right now. But simply put: I don’t think long-term, meaningful political victory can be achieved for left-wing causes without an appeal to more white Americans. That’s true in terms of economic redistribution, criminal justice reform, ending the Drug War, addressing racial inequality in housing and employment, and so on. In a country where 63% of the population remains non-Hispanic white, and where 73% of the voting population is white, I don’t see any meaningful way that we address these issues without eroding conservatism’s advantage with white voters. And that’s particularly true given that white privilege is real, and thus white people have disproportionate political power in this country.
I get why that argument is inflammatory. I get why it would make people mad. It’s particularly ill-suited to a forum like Twitter, where the context and argument get stripped away. It seems perverse to me, too, to say that we need to make an appeal to the exact same people who have enjoyed a dominant portion of power in this country since its inception, many of whom support the conditions that we’re trying to change. I get why people would reject that, viscerally and loudly. I do. But I just don’t see any alternative. I’m not, at all, someone who thinks that only partisan politics are legitimate or useful. I in fact think that the only road forward for the left in this country is a hybrid approach combining the best parts of street activism, labor organizing, and partisan politics — which we can see in the promising early successes of the Fight for 15 movement. But each of these things ultimately call for engaging as many people as we can, and in this country, today, that means reaching out meaningfully to the white majority. That doesn’t mean moderating our stance or privileging their interests or downplaying our criticisms of white privilege. Not at all. But it does mean caring about how we express our central arguments, and taking care to be inclusive. Not to be nice. Not because I feel sorry for white people. Not because I think we should spare their feelings. But because that’s what politics demands, in the present moment, here today.
The right has two intrinsic advantages: one, because its preferences are largely a matter of maintaining the status quo, they don’t need to achieve change to win. And second, precisely because privilege is real and they speak for the already-empowered. Conservatism will always enjoy the advantage of the blessings of the moneyed and the powerful. It’s inherent to their project. Only people power can save the left. We have no alternative.
As for your questions: I think that the internecine fighting we’re talking about has always been a part of left-wing organizing, but never before has it been more visible and thus more potentially damaging. When I was an antiwar activist, I went through infighting that would shame the average Twitter storm. But it all happened in small groups having small meetings, quietly, out of sight of the public we were trying to move. Now, a #CancelColbert happens, and it’s national news, and the national media’s natural antagonism to genuinely left politics (as opposed to the soft social liberalism of much of the industry) makes it inevitable that such things will be represented as unhinged lefties going wild. And, yes, I have some hope that exhaustion can lead to an embrace of more productive, more forgiving, more coalition-building rhetorical tactics. But it can also lead to burnout, cynicism, and rejection. Which we get depends on how we recognize and understand and talk about that exhaustion.
I think often of growing up at Wesleyan University in the late 80s and early 90s. Wes is famously liberal, and was the inspiration for the 1990s campus parody PCU. (The screenwriter was a student of my father’s at one point.) Some of those radical students went on to long careers of activism and consistent left-wing engagement. A lot of them became squishy liberal Democrats. But even more seem to have drifted into a vague apoliticism, keeping the trappings of bohemianism in “arty” careers like advertising or graphic design or public relations, but dropping the actual core, material, economic politics that matter most. And some were part of the Gingrich revolution that undid so much progress. That’s my fear: that today’s white Twitter allies become tomorrow’sparents of privilege, abandoning their old ideals out of a sense that the left can’t build anything and through the justification of selfishness that some people find in parenthood. That’s the future I want to avoid. Because I sense and fear a backlash brewing, driven in part by how politics are engaged with online.
I think we’re talking about two different things here and want to re-focus the conversation. The first, which I agree with you completely, is that the long-term success of any progressive social movement depends on the support of the middle left. That’s where political power, money and media attention all reside. Most, although not all, of the activists I spoke to in the Black Lives Matter movement acknowledge that this is true. Yesterday, for example, we saw small pockets of protest break out in Cleveland, but no real swell of public outrage; no real shutting down of the city. On a national level, the movement still needs people of all backgrounds to actually get out in the streets and protest so that you don’t see a different response in Baltimore than you would see in Cleveland. A broad coalition is needed.
But I don’t think this vision of solidarity has much of anything to do with the toxic discourse you find online. People who say they are progressive until they see a tweet they don’t like aren’t actually progressive at all. They cling, instead, to whatever political ideology is most convenient at the time. I just don’t buy that guys like @mdahmus, the Twitter user I cited in my last entry, would be on the frontlines of the protests in Ferguson or in Cleveland if it weren’t for all the SJWs in their feed. And I certainly don’t think social justice organizations should tailor their message to cater to fairweather, NIMBY liberals. (I also think your call for a less toxic, but still firmly on-message and unrelenting language, is actually impossible. The definition of toxicity is too squishy to build against. The further back you pull the focus, the more compromise will be necessary.)
The backlash you’re talking about seems to only be happening in two places: The academy, where you reside, and the middle-left media world, where I reside. Now, it’s worth arguing that much of the ‘ideology’ the country receives comes from these two sources, but I think that’s why its actually more incumbent upon people within the media and the academy to have a reasoned, proportional, and, most important, non-hierarchical response to online political discourse. We shouldn’t take the troll with 30,000 Twitter followers more seriously than the protestor with 350. We shouldn’t be drawn into despair traps in which we conflate online discord with real discord. And we certainly shouldn’t look at a few outliers and conclude that the entire left has become rotten with aimless, destructive angst.
Social media has undeniably given a political voice to thousands of marginalized people. It’s also true that all the conversations that are happening on Twitter aren’t new: If they feel new, it’s just because you’ve never had an honest conversation with a person of that background before. This cacaphony is bound to produce some sour notes, but I think any attempts at policing what people can and can’t say will ultimately lead to more bad than good, especially since there is no actual way to elect a good arbiter of all this. You said you hadn’t considered how #CancelColbert might have positively impacted people within the Asian community. Shouldn’t this, alone, be enough reason to just let these things happen without worrying about the broad coalition of the left? Given the vast number of people who are broadcasting their perspectives for the first time, the last thing we should do is package all this speeching for the mainstream. Shouldn’t the progressive response instead be to push ideas out to their limits so that when they inevitably get checked back, they’ll be a bit further along a progressive path than they were before?
Since we’re talking about voting power and broad coalitions, how many people do you actually think would betray a more progressive, activist life because of some tweets they read? (First, you’d have to figure out how many of these potential converts are on Twitter for reasons outside of sports, celebrities and comedy)
And for what it’s worth, I only see the backlash in private conversations with media friends here in New York. For the most part, it’s a pretty wimpy backlash. How do you see this backlash forming? Who, specifically, will be the backlashers and the backlashees?
I want to pull out this statement and consider its irony, for a moment.I think any attempts at policing what people can and can’t say will ultimately lead to more bad than good
Take it out of its context — a context where you are defending a type of online political engagement that has been called “language policing” in the past — and most people would assume that this is the opposite. They would assume, that is, that it’s an argument of the type that I’ve been associated with, rather than a critique of the same. That’s in keeping with a general belief in today’s progressive circles that people from different demographic backgrounds (from different levels of privilege) should have unequal freedom in what they say politically. That is, that the person with less privilege should enjoy greater freedom of political expression thanks to historical inequality. Sounds OK to me; I don’t personally have a problem with it. But that’s precisely the kind of presumed cultural attitude common to the online left that will never, ever be broadly popular. It’s simply too contrary to crude notions of fairness and proportionality, and for most people of privilege, it’s just too threatening. Again: I’m not making any claims about what should be true. I’m making a claim about what I think is true.
You ask: “Shouldn’t this, alone, be enough reason to just let these things happen without worrying about the broad coalition of the left?” To which I say, who are we talking about, here? Me, specifically? If it were just me, you’d have no problems, I’d get on board. But the people who have to be moved are not like me, and likely won’t be receptive to these forms of practice in the near future, so I think we should indeed worry about the broad coalition of the left.
And I think that all of this gets to the central analytical question: are we winning, or are we losing? Part of my fundamental difficulty in these kinds of conversations stems from a deep and seemingly uncrossable divide on that issue. That we are losing, and losing badly, seems to me to be the most obvious statement of contemporary politics today, but people who defend hashtag activism and related forms of engagement seem to think business as usual is sufficient to secure a better future. Just look at our country and its trends. As I’ve said many times, racial inequality is significantly worse than when I was born. The Democrats have slid further and further into the embrace of pure corporatism, with the Obama presidency giving way to the Clinton candidacy, both of whom are inarguably pro-corporate Democrats. This reveals itself in TPP, a trade deal that is both neoliberal and pro-corporate in its content and totally hierarchical and power-laden in its nature, as regular people can’t even read it. The labor movement has never been weaker since there has been such a thing in this country. Various problems with Obamacare have caused sharp declines in the polling numbers for the concept of universal health care, a popular advantage we enjoyed for a generation. We have broad popularity on issues like national marijuana decriminalization but lack the guts to try and achieve it. The Supreme Court is rapaciously pro-business and pro-power. Gay marriage seems inevitable, which is great, but abortion rights are eroded day after day. And while I think Hillary Clinton will likely capture the presidency in 2016, she’s already a moderate who will likely tack right to win the general election, and whether it’s 2016 or 2020 or 2024, another Republican presidency is coming, and I fear for that future.
I think you are simply naive to so underestimate the power of the backlash brewing. For while these discussions may all seem very centered on abstract discourse communities and small niches within our broader culture, we have direct historical evidence of the importance of such things. I will again bring up the Gingrich revolution: a popular Democratic president’s agenda was derailed by a massive, sweeping victory in the Congressional elections, one which took on an explicitly reactionary character, in response to what they saw as “feminism run amok” or “the welfare state gone wild.” It led to such terrible consequences as welfare reform. (With Clinton’s enthusiastic help, of course.) So the consequences were economic and structural. But the campaign was largely cultural. I can’t stress this enough: the Gingrich Republicans of 1994, the “Republican Revolution” which gained 8 Senate seats and 54 seats in the House of Representatives, were brought to power in part through a campaign that focused again and again on cultural issues. The Contract with America was an economic platform, true. But the rhetoric and politicking of that election was delivered with an anti-feminist, crypto-racist, pro-”traditional values” focus that played to profound anxieties among the upper- and middle-class white people that drove the election. Obscure academics like Andrea Dworkin were discussed and quoted for maximum culture war effect. Complaints about “political correctness run amok,” as dumb as I find them, have penetrated the national media and fanned the flames. I just disagree with you: the right is very, very good at exploiting this kind of thing for electoral gain. It’s what they do best. Do we have to abandon our core convictions to oppose them? Of course not. Should we be very careful about how we present our movement to avoid playing into conservative stereotypes? I think we should.
Has social media “given a voice” to people, as you and many others have said? Sure: a purely linguistic victory. Not nothing. But a voice is what you give people when you can’t or won’t give them power. In the political scientist and activist Adolph Reed’s essay “Nothing Left,” he warns of “the likelihood that we will find ourselves with no critical politics other than a desiccated leftism capable only of counting, parsing, hand-wringing, administering, and making up ‘Just So’ stories about dispossession and exploitation recast in the evocative but politically sterile language of disparity and diversity.” The fear, then, is not so much that the online practices that have given people a voice will die, but that they will prove to be all we have at all — that we can very effectively police the kind of terminology that people use on Twitter, and socially punish those who violate those norms, but achieve essentially no real structural reforms. Getting Justine Sacco fired did nothing for people suffering with HIV in South Africa. (And she didn’t even stay fired.) I don’t think it’s at all being a bad ally for me to ask: how does this kind of engagement actually help create a better world? How does it spread from the linguistic domain to the real one? How does it help us prevent another Freddie Gray or to help the destitute people of Baltimore? I have no idea how that’s supposed to work. I’m into Black Lives Matter, not #BlackLivesMatter. Street activism, grassroots political movements, labor organizing: those things can cause change. Yelling on Twitter? No.
As Reed says, “The crucial tasks for a committed left in the United States now are to admit that no politically effective force exists and to begin trying to create one.”
I want to start by talking about this passage from your last entry.
That’s in keeping with a general belief in today’s progressive circles that people from different demographic backgrounds (from different levels of privilege) should have unequal freedom in what they say politically. That is, that the person with less privilege should enjoy greater freedom of political expression thanks to historical inequality. Sounds OK to me; I don’t personally have a problem with it. But that’s precisely the kind of presumed cultural attitude common to the online left that will never, ever be broadly popular. It’s simply too contrary to crude notions of fairness and proportionality, and for most people of privilege, it’s just too threatening.
I’d like to contest this idea that it is now a rule in progressivism that the most oppressed gets to speak the loudest, or that there is some sort of inversely proportionate sliding scale to determine who gets to talk and when. Because when I look at the progressivism in America today, I see a whole lot of white people who feel completely empowered to say a whole lot about social and racial injustice in this country. The dynamic you’re talking about is specific to activist spaces and the academy — it’s how organizers, and, I imagine, professors, ensure that the people who are actually suffering the social ill get a chance to express themselves. That this sensible practice has made it online doesn’t mean that it’s suddenly toxic. Are you really saying that your average progressive white person will be turned off by such a simple show of respect? If it really is that fragile, the midde-left is already lost.
More importantly — and here’s where I really want you to be specific — are you arguing that we should abandon such practices so that white people feel fully empowered to walk into whatever space they want, say whatever they want and hijack movements? Because that’s the end result here, and, ironically enough, exactly what you bemoaned in your first post. Wouldn’t nerfing language and activist practice so that it appeals to a middle left progressive-who-would-be-in-the-movement-were-it-perfectly-catered-to-his-needs-and-comforts actually be more destructive to the left? You’ve gone to some great lengths to say that this is not what you want, but you haven’t yet produced an alternative.
You’re missing an internal link in your backlash scenario. How do we get from some combative tweets to mass political change? You can’t detail the devastating effects of a second Gingrich revolution without first telling us how it could happen — saying, “it happened before” isn’t good enough. I’ve spent the past 15 months or so researching and reporting on online political language and the only evidence I’ve found of a real backlash is amongst white liberals who claim to not be backlashing for themselves, but out of grave concern for the future of the left.
The backlash is you, Freddie.
I also wanted to address this passage:
Getting Justine Sacco fired did nothing for people suffering with HIV in South Africa. (And she didn’t even stay fired.) I don’t think it’s at all being a bad ally for me to ask: how does this kind of engagement actually help create a better world? How does it spread from the linguistic domain to the real one? How does it help us prevent another Freddie Gray or to help the destitute people of Baltimore?
Come on… You’ve cherrypicked a bad example here. The shaming of Justine Sacco didn’t come from the extreme left and activists, it came from middle left journalists and media-affiliated Twitter personalities. Do you really think Justine Sacco is somehow analogous to the activist left? She works in PR! Are you saying that what happened to Justine Sacco has any bearing over how bona fide lefties conduct their business?
Here are some other rhetorical questions for you: Should Emma Sulkowitz stop her mattress protest at Columbia because it’s freaking out the middle left? Should Johnetta Elzie and DeRay Mckesson stop broadcasting the ongoing protests against police violence because they’re afraid of triggering a sea change in the middle left that will sweep Republicans into office? What does this careful language sound like? What compromises does it make and for what reason? And how does one conclude after reading this exchange that you’re arguing for something other than shoehorning all progressive politics so that it appeals to the white, middle left?
You’ve also dismissed the importance of how social media gives people of color a voice by saying “but a voice is what you give people when you can’t or won’t give them power.” Again, I’m stuck a bit here — are you arguing that white people ‘gave’ people of color a voice via social media? This seems like an immensely wrong assumption to make. More importantly, your entire thesis seems to be that we have to monitor things like #CancelColbert because they could potentially usher in a new era of right-wing repression. But here you say that those voices are also powerless. Which one is it? This contradiction isn’t some silly debate trick — it’s an inconsistency that lies at the heart of your entire argument.
Here’s my last point: I think you’re vastly underestimating the ability of women and people of color in 2015 to build their own coalitions that will eventually draw in the middle left. These groups have started to use social media in formidable ways that go well beyond Twitter shaming and activism, as a result, has changed — there is no divide between Black Lives Matter, the grassroots movement, and #BlackLivesMatter. They are one and the same. (And do you really not support #BlackLivesMatter? Do you think that the hashtag is just “yelling on Twitter?” I would argue that it’s way more than that — it’s essentially a broadcast network for people to spread information, and, on the other end, to express their sincere feelings of despair and inspiration. Dismissing the importance of all that seems like an extreme position to take for someone who claims to have no problem with this sort of discourse, but only worries about how it might change the minds of the apocryphal middle left-who-votes-based-on-what-happens-on-social-justice-Twitter.)
I do agree that the left is losing right now and there’s no disputing the data you cited that shows that racial inequality has steadily gotten worse in our lifetimes. The current liberal coalition, as you pointed out, has sold out pretty much every progressive cause in favor of corporate interests. These are all the reasons why I think it’s dangerous for activist movements to appease the middle left in any sort of way, to risk any form of co-option by tsk-tsking Suey Park or Mikki Kendall or any of the hashtag activists who have kicked up online shitstorms. Perhaps some influential writers who would describe themselves as “serious,” or, more hilariously, “morally serious,” will write lengthy take-downs, but if the future of progressive politics requires young, passionate people to appease old lefty hacks and NIMBY liberals, we’re probably going to end up with a pretty shitty progressive politics. And what’s the point of that?
To answer your questions in turn:
Are you really saying that your average progressive white person will be turned off by such a simple show of respect?
No, but I am saying that it is a norm that will never be adopted by the broader populace at large, so we need to know how to argue without it.
Are you arguing that we should abandon such practices so that white people feel fully empowered to walk into whatever space they want, say whatever they want and hijack movements?
No, but I am saying that a movement that cannot convince people of the correctness of its positions without resorting to that sort of rhetoric of deference is a movement that cannot possibly secure long-term political victory. Fair or unfair.
Do you really think Justine Sacco is somehow analogous to the activist left?
I think Justine Sacco is one of the only times in the history of Twitter outrage that anyone can point to a real-world consequence wrought from that outrage, and it was not in any meaningful sense a victory for the left.
Should Emma Sulkowitz stop her mattress protest at Columbia because it’s freaking out the middle left?
No, but we as people committed to ending campus sexual assault are obligated to ask how we get beyond art projects and towards a sustainable, non-carceral, progressive response. There’s no contradiction in supporting her right to undertake symbolic protest and also asking what we need to do to make protests like hers unnecessary.
What does this careful language sound like?
It sounds like something other than the typical idiom of today’s left, which is a series of code words and dog whistles, and never-ending jokey cleverness, the absolutely ubiquitous vocabulary of zingers and petty insults that we’ve substituted for an actual expression of what our ideals are and why. It sounds like something other than an eye-rolling, smug, judgmental put down that skewers people for not already believing what we want them to believe.
What compromises does it make and for what reason?
It does not compromise on substance. It compromises on cliquishness, on being self-impressed, on jokes at the expense of progress, on the collapse of the distinction between being part of a political movement and being part of an elite educated social strata that treats politics as just another way to be cool. It compromises on the pleasure that people clearly take from that kind of engagement in order to achieve more progress.
And how does one conclude after reading this exchange that you’re arguing for something other than shoehorning all progressive politics so that it appeals to the white, middle left?
I would conclude that there are worlds of space between becoming beholden to the white middle left and letting your movement become a series of cultural codes and social signifiers that obscure more than they explain and that exclude potential allies by design, rather than by accident. I am asking for change by degrees.
Are you arguing that white people ‘gave’ people of color a voice via social media?
No; merely that giving people a voice does not free them of oppression. Twitter’s been around for years now. I find establishment power still intact.
What is an activist? An activist is someone who wants to make something happen. That is the very basic definition of the term. And so by that logic the burden of proof falls on those who would make action happen to prove that they are in fact doing so. I’m no activist; I gave that up. I only observe. And my observation is that examples of how this type of engagement is actually creating change — material, economic, real-world change — are very thin on the ground. I have no problem with implausible political goals. Almost known of my political goals will be achieved in my lifetime. But you have to have a theory of politics, a plausible notion about how you’ll change the minds you have to change.
You cast my criticisms as a lonely set of complaints. But you started this conversation by noting that, in fact, there is a growing chorus of essays being written about the downsides of this kind of engagement. You mock the people writing them for their “moral seriousness,” but here you mistake their lack of social capital in the world of Cool Kid Elite Media with a lack of real-world access and influence. I have been arguing with Jon Chait for years now, and despite constant claims to the contrary, our politics are vastly different. But I cannot deny that, as little cachet as he may hold with trendy Twitter power users, he is both influential himself and part of a group of people like him who are also influential. Twitter rewards the cool, but politics rewards the influential, and there’s a big difference. Does that mean I think we should adopt his politics? Of course not. But you minimize the influence of people like him at your own peril.
And it isn’t just the Jon Chaits. Trust me: many, many prominent writers and pundits quietly share my misgivings about the rhetorical and communicative habits of the online left. People tell me things, things that they wouldn’t tell other people or say publicly, because they know what I’ve written publicly and they know I would never reveal what they’ve told me. Deep, deep concern over the current state of online political speech is so much more common than you’d think, thanks to the professional and social risk people see in speaking out.
And despite what some might assume, most of them are not white straight men. You would be amazed at the people who reach out to me in despair, and where they come from. But why would that surprise us? None of the most trenchant critics of online activism are straight white men. I’ve already mentioned Adolph Reed, the single most perceptive and incisive political commentator we have today. I could also mention Glen Ford, or Judith Shulevitz, or Mat Johnson, or Yasmin Nair, or Michelle Goldberg, or Laura Kipnis, or Dan Savage, or a dozen other writers and thinkers who aren’t straight white men. I don’t speak for any of those people, and I won’t pretend they’d all like to be included in my list. Nor do they share the same perspectives on all of these issues. The point is that this bubbling discontent is not nearly as uncommon, or as demographically-inflected, as you imagine.
You seem confident that there is no retrenchment coming, that reactionary power is not massing its forces. I dearly hope you’re right. But I don’t think so. The backlash isn’t me. The backlash is the untold millions of Americans who are wrong, about almost everything, but who enjoy the lion’s share of power in this country. Your opinion seems to me to epitomize a strange, common tension: simultaneously of the (correct) opinion that the world is filled with injustice and oppression, and yet constantly underestimating the people and movements that produce them. The backlash doesn’t take the form of thinkpieces or cranky tweets. It takes the form of a daily drip of petty resentments and unspoken grievance, the kind that created the Reagan Democrats. The essays, the tweets, are merely the early warning signs.
I live in Lafayette, Indiana. Despite what the average professional writer living in DC or New York might imagine, Indiana is not some pit of darkest conservatism. It’s in fact quite a purple state. But even so, being out here I often find the difference between the world around me and the world that lefty Twitter imagines to be impossibly stark. On Twitter, people say that we should “shut abortion opponents out of every arena,” but here, outside of Brooklyn, outside of the liberal arts campus, harsh restrictions on abortion are being implemented, as they have been all over the country. On Twitter, people meticulously comb through the language of others, looking for anything that might even hint at bad behavior, but here, in the real world, street harassment is ubiquitous and frightening. On Twitter, people presume that all decent people are opposed to respectability politics and bootstraps mythology. But in the real world, they are profoundly popular, including in much of the black community. On Twitter, everyone seems to like the same things, to talk the same way, and to share the same goals. But in the real world, things are different. Yes, Twitter allows people who weren’t once seen to be seen, and I celebrate that. But it also allows people to not see what they don’t want to see, and I fear those unseen people will soon enough shake our little house.
That’s my spiel; I could be wrong, as always. Time will tell. I greatly appreciate the opportunity, Jay, it’s been very useful for me. I’ll leave you with the last word if you’d like it.
Thanks, Freddie. I’ve enjoyed this immensely and feel as if a few things that have been swirling around in my head for the past couple of years have been clarified.
I only have two points to make before we wrap this up. In the past two weeks, Obama has curtailed the militarization of the police (albeit incompletely) and a grand jury in Baltimore has indicted the six police officers who were involved in the death of Freddie Gray. Both of these actions were heavily influenced by protests, much of which took place online. Justine Sacco is far from the only example of something happening via “Twitter outrage,” as you put it. The scope of what gets characterized as just “Twitter outrage” seems to be expanding each week and I, like you, worry each time I hear someone dismiss substantive progressive campaigns by bringing up Justine Sacco.
(For what it’s worth, I was repulsed by Justine Sacco’s shaming and had I known of your writing back then, I probably would have been one of the many people who wrote to you, in private, about its destructive absurdity. My interest in having this exchange comes from the fact that I, mostly, agree with you, but think we need to find a solution that doesn’t involve battering down a disproportionate response with another one.)
Ultimately, however, I don’t think there’s any way to play arbiter between what is Justine Sacco and what is justifiable, broadcast-worthy outrage. Nothing about this exchange has convinced me otherwise.
Last thing: A couple years ago, I worked on a feature on the Title IX activists. This was well before they had achieved many of their very public victories: before the “It’s On Us” campaign, before the speeches by Biden and Obama and the multiple investigations by the Department of Education. Some of the campus sexual assault activists would occasionally engage in the sort of attacks that you, and many others, find so destructive. For a while, I was troubled by the sense of constant outrage; especially because it seemed like it was too adversarial for the mainstream. But after a few months, I realized that it was a temporary release valve — some of these women spent 12, 15 hours a day talking to survivors of rape and sexual assault. When they were patrolling online spaces, they would sometimes respond to the numerous threats they received by going on the offensive. That didn’t end up compromising the broad appeal of the Title IX movement, which ultimately reached the White House.
If we’re going to have a proportional response, we should try our best to engage with these things for what they are. I agree, the actual political situation in this country and the thing you describe as “Twitter” bear little resemblance to one another. But if the fear is that small happenings on that platform will be excised by the right and blown up into outrage campaigns about “PC Gone Wild,” the last thing progressives should do is do the work in advance.
The one thing that happened in the last half decade that most fueled the backlash did not come from online Twitter outrage, but rather from middle-left journalism. Rolling Stone did more to stoke paranoia about the far left than Justine Sacco, #CancelColbert and #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen combined. We still haven’t come close to calculating the damage that one story inflicted upon activism and the progressive left. Perhaps, instead of worrying about what’s happening on the far reaches of Twitter, us “cool media kids” should focus on the potential toxicity of our own work.