I am — or strive to be — a devotee of anti-catastrophism. In a discourse environment given over to hyperbolic outrage, in a takes landscape that professionally incentivizes inflating minor concerns into emblems of decadence, I maintain faith in the pre-internet folkways of Not Thinking That This New Thing Is The End Of Civilization.
I am an evangelist for my cause: I want to convince others to be anti-catastrophists too. My partner-in-crime Nicholas Grossman is also one. Arc is the way it is because we are the way we are.
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One of my warnings is that, if we don’t commit to the creed of anti-apocalyptism, we will never depolarize. Meaningfully sharing an epistemological commons depends on it.
The major hurdle, though, is anti-catastrophism runs counter to our programming: the allure of finding that one instance of misbehavior and then using it to paint a broad-brush characterization of the opposition is exhilarating, while the restraint required to forego these tribalist gains, by interpreting the episode in a more measured way, is daunting.
But anti-catastrophism has its limitations. It is not an orientation; it is not an all-encompassing framework. It is a skeptical posture toward our discourse environment’s current configuration, toward its incapacity to cultivate measured reactions.
Of course, there are times when the only legitimate interpretation is that this is a catastrophe. But there are other times — and this is when commentators free from the constraints of total ideological capture can really shine — when an episode ought to be recognized as being neither a catastrophe, nor a non-catastrophe, but merely bad enough to warrant denunciation now in the hopes that it doesn’t become a catastrophe later.
I was disappointed, though not surprised, to see criticism of the San Francisco board of education’s decision to rename a bunch of schools receive pushback. (Some of the figures they voted to remove include: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, John Muir, and many more.) Disappointed because, I mean, canceling Abraham Lincoln is preposterous, right? We should be free and clear to denounce, with all the rhetorical forcefulness we can muster, any attempted cancellation of Honest Abe.
Why would people downplay this?
Inevitably, this requires me to psychologize a bit, but I believe it’s because some of the loudest critics of the school board’s decision, some of the people just railing on San Francisco’s “woke” elites for doing what they did, are among the worst discourse offenders around. Unfortunately, our takes ecosystem contains lots of bad actors who cynically seize on episodes like this to further their brand of mindless alarmism. These are the catastrophists that people like me usually worry about.
But allowing the catastrophists to determine your reaction is to cede too much to them. The fact that some reactionary chud painted this episode as “a sign of the end” doesn’t mean criticism of the school board’s decision is bad, it just means his criticism is bad. And, sure, it’s worth pointing out when people go too far in their criticisms. But allow me to suggest that if that’s the extent of your reaction to this episode, it might be perversely indicative of the outsize role bad-faith actors are playing in shaping your engagement with matters of public interest.
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The board’s decision to eliminate historical figures like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and others from featuring in the names of San Francisco schools is historically illiterate, morally disturbing, and portentous of future trends. That right there is all you need in order to justify criticism.
You don’t need any other condition to obtain: you don’t need to live in San Francisco yourself; you don’t need to weigh this decision against other decisions the school board has taken in order to determine whether they have been good on net; you don’t need to establish that other places are imminently considering taking similar decisions — you don’t need any of it. You just need the decision to be an atrocity of historical and moral reasoning, one that you are concerned could plausibly catch on more widely. That’s it.
The San Francisco school board’s decision easily meets this standard.
But I would go even further. Not only is criticism of the school board justified, it is the only justified position to take; that is, failing to think of the board’s decision as worthy of criticism is indefensible. (Which is not the same as saying that failing to criticize them is indefensible; this Oliver Traldi piece critically analyzing the discourse vice of “complicity” is good on this point.) The board has staked out a historico-ethical position that is risible, and meh-ing away all criticisms of them suggests that, contra the critics, what the school board has done is basically fine.
A counterargument someone could mount is that the school board’s decision is anomalous, and thus unworthy of comment. Let me reiterate: I am not suggesting it is morally obligatory to comment. I’ve participated in way too many “Fuming mad that Taylor Swift hasn’t commented on x” memes to make this mistake now. My position is simply that (a) criticizing the school board is justified, so long as the criticism is measured, and (b) downplaying the board’s actions is unjustified.
A funny thing happens when a lot of the wrong kinds of people criticize something: Suddenly, for many of the right kind of people, that fact alone seems to impose a new requirement that the criticisms meet the most rigorous, demanding set of qualifications for being taken seriously, a kind of Criticism Protocol that somewhat suspiciously gets applied ad hoc rather than systematically.
For example, when we find an instance of someone famous violating a progressive norm, someone perhaps saying the wrong word, that seems to be worthy of noting. It’s something we should call out. It’s only one instance and it doesn’t seem to portend future harms but that doesn’t matter — it needs to be addressed.
But, curiously, when the San Francisco school board came up for criticism, I saw lots of people I respect grade the criticism on extrinsic considerations: whether other school boards were also doing it, whether the school board had done other things that are valuable, whether this discomfort with Washington and Lincoln was manifesting itself at other types of institutions — with the insinuation these are boxes we need to tick before being given the all-clear to denounce the board’s actions. That’s a strange standard.
It’s strange because the criticism doesn’t need to involve suggesting that Ladies and Gentlemen: This Is The Left. The criticism doesn’t need to imply that in Joe Biden’s America, there is no room for George Washington. The criticism can simply stand on its own merits: that it is monumentally moronic to remove these names from schools for the reasons given.
Some of the reasons are worse than others, but none appear to be the product of an intellectually serious process: George Washington is simply characterized as a “slaveowner, colonizer,” as if a complete moral analysis of his life can be clinched with a two-word dismissal; Lincoln is dinged for, among other things, facilitating railroad construction, which required use of <gasp> land to achieve; John Muir, the “father of the National Parks,” is designated a “racist” who stole “Native lands”; not even current U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein escapes the blade, her crime being to “repeatedly” protect and fly the Confederate flag, an accusation that is unproven—but, hey, why should that spoil the thrill of getting to cancel her, right?
All that I need, if I am to be justified in criticizing the school board’s actions, is a solid case for thinking their actions are bad. I don’t need anything else. If I read a story about a person in the U.K. having his or her speech criminalized, a violation of free speech protections we hold dear over here, I don’t need to first statistically document a high probability of their laws migrating over here in order to forcefully denounce what’s happening over there. The actions themselves are bad, and thus justify criticism all on their own. Requiring I run my critiques through a filter of personal impact and say, “Welp. Since I don’t live in England, I oughtn’t criticize” is silly.
One of the ways I try to guard against apocalyptism is to insist on targeting trends and not unrepresentative instances of misbehavior. The importance of this should be clear: In a world of billions, a country of hundreds of millions, a world omniconnected via technologies facilitating an infinite flow of user-generated content, you will always be able to find some example or other of misbehavior perpetrated by a member of an “out group.” But if the behavior is unrepresentative of the broader group, or if the offense is distorted and amplified in ways that lead to a mischaracterization of the group, that’s a big problem. Because that fundamentally misleads people.
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What I am preaching on this occasion, though, is that the fix for this potential worry is not to withhold criticism from people who deserve it — it’s to criticize more thoughtfully, more judiciously. It’s to beat back exaggerated criticisms, sure, but to not forget to model what a more measured criticism might look like. Minimally, in this case, that would mean not using the San Francisco school board’s decision as an opportunity to make grand pronouncements about the evils of The Left, but instead to denounce the school board as agents in their own right, to denounce their decision on its own terms.
By the same token, to act as though their decision has arisen spontaneously in San Francisco, unbeckoned by progressivist assumptions, unprompted by a particular way of looking at the world, by a moral zealotry unaccountable to the exigencies of human nature, is to commit the same ahistorical sin the school board has.
I think there are lots of conceptual problems with the way “woke” gets tossed around in our online discussions, but something like what people have in mind when they use that word is clearly playing a motivating role in the decision to remove Lincoln and Washington. Tons of liberals and leftists have denounced the school board’s actions, that is true. So if you need me to hashtag #NotAllLiberals or #NotAllLeftists, here, I’m happy to do that. But another way to put the point is that the school board’s actions were manifestly not the product of right-wing thinking, that’s for sure.
The creed of anti-catastrophism is right. More than that, it is urgently necessary. But it ought never demotivate criticizing what needs to be criticized.