This is the story of the past three years of my life. It’s romance in a way, but it’s also a breakup story. It begins sometime in 2015, a year during which my life was coming apart in various ways. In addition to the unraveling of my marriage, I began to sense some fraying around the edges of my social circles. Both online and in real life, people who’d once shared a common set of assumptions about the realities of the world and the nature of human behavior now seemed oddly divided. Questions that had once been treated as complicated inquiries requiring scrutiny and nuance were increasingly being reduced to moral absolutes, especially as far as liberal types were concerned.
I first noticed it with issues pertaining to feminism. If, for instance, you suggested that (or even wondered aloud if) the gender wage gap might not be due entirely to systemic sexism but also to women’s interests, choices, and the inconvenient but unavoidable realities of pregnancy and young-child rearing, you were likely to be labeled an internalized misogynist. This same dynamic played out in other spheres of public debate, of course: gun control, immigration, and due process in campus sexual assault cases, to name a few. If you more or less toed the requisite liberal line but thought there were some gray areas that warranted consideration, you were quite possibly on the wrong side of history. If you called for nuance, you were part of the problem.
That was three years ago.
This summer, amid a roiling debate (largely taking place on Twitter, but roiling nonetheless) between what you might call the civility camp versus the outrage camp of the Trump resistance, nuance became a kind of fighting word. For civility types, who fear that displays of indiscriminate and unfettered rage against the Trump regime are as strategically misguided as they are viscerally satisfying, nuance is what’s sorely lacking. In the outrage camp, the call for nuance is sometimes seen as a form of tone policing, a dog whistle for centrist and right-leaning scolds whose privilege blinds them to the severity of the crisis before them. Both sides have a point (naturally).
This state of cultural cognitive dissonance bears a striking resemblance to the developing situation inside my brain over the past few years: a situation best described as a maddening toggle between what I felt versus what I thought I was supposed to feel. On both counts, it’s been an uncomfortable sensation.
What I thought I was supposed to feel probably has its roots in one of my earliest political memories: seeing the devastation on my parents’ faces as Walter Cronkite showed an electoral map that blazed red with Ronald Reagan’s landslide win in the 1980 presidential election. My parents, pro-union liberals who’d been raised in coal country and later shaped by the values and sensibilities of academia, weren’t especially political. But they’d instilled in me the standard set of middle-class Democratic Party values: Public safety nets were a force for good, corporate greed was a real threat, civil and reproductive rights were paramount.
I carried these values with me to college, where they blended right in with just about everyone else’s. When George H.W. Bush was elected president in 1988, students wrote “moving to Canada” in thick magic marker on their bedsheets and hung them from dorm windows. In 1989, I and dozens of my classmates boarded buses to Washington, DC, to march in an abortion rights rally organized by NOW. There were hundreds of thousands of marchers that day, and I remember how good it felt to stand with my friends in our matching college sweatshirts shouting “never again!” and “my body, my choice!”
I did not fully board the bus of the first wave of political correctness in the early 1990s. When the conversation about the campus date-rape epidemic rolled around, I was glad to see that date rape was finally being recognized as a real thing but was a bit peevish about the word epidemic, which seemed to me to demand an expanded definition of rape that felt potentially counterproductive. This peevishness would crop up again here and there over the years.
Beginning in 2005, I spent more than a decade as an opinion columnist for the Los Angeles Times, writing about culture and social politics and my penchant for devil’s advocacy (hey, why shouldn’t Sarah Palin call herself a feminist?) brought angry letters from liberals as well as conservatives. For the most part, though, I spent most of my adulthood fairly aligned with the kinds of people I’d gone to college with. That we were all on the same team was simply a given. We all read the New York Times, listened to NPR, and voted for Democrats. We would all go to the mat for women’s rights, gay rights, or pretty much any rights other than gun rights. We lived, for the most part, in big cities in blue states. When Barack Obama came into the picture, we loved him with the delirium of crushed-out teenagers, perhaps less for his policies than for being the kind of person who also listens to NPR. We loved Hillary Clinton with the fraught resignation of a daughter’s love for her mother. We loved her even if we didn’t like her. We were liberals, after all. We were family.
Maybe it was the impending loss of Obama that caused us to begin this unconscious process of detachment — from one another as well as from him. Maybe we knew we’d never be in love like this again, so we started looking for problems, picking fights, finding the dissatisfaction that had apparently been hiding deep inside our contentment. It wasn’t hard, since injustices large and small were in the foreground of our daily lives like never before. Cellphone cameras, now ubiquitous, left no public altercation undocumented. Screenshots left no ill-advised text or tweet permanently forgotten. The social justice warrior, a moniker used mainly by detractors and often reduced to “SJW,” emerged on the scene with a self-proclaimed utopian vision that sometimes sounded a lot like authoritarianism. Social media, the narcotic we were already all addicted to, now did double duty as an outrage amplifier and disseminator of half-truths spoken by well-meaning but unreliable narrators.
Some of my best friends were such narrators. On Facebook and Twitter, their posts rang out with equal measure of passion and paranoia. For all their sophistication and critical thinking skills — these were people with advanced degrees and New Yorker subscriptions — more than a few of them were coming across as disturbingly closed-minded and credulous. A link to a dubiously sourced article about sex trafficking in the United States would set off a cascade of Facebook comments about how American women are hardly any better off than women in the developing world. A comment expressing even mild sympathy for the obvious psychological troubles of someone like Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who was publicly shamed for pretending to be black, would be smacked down as an example of unchecked white privilege or even unabashed white supremacy.
Social media, the narcotic we were already all addicted to, now did double duty as an outrage amplifier and disseminator of half-truths.
Words like “mansplaining” and “gaslighting” were suddenly in heavy rotation, often invoked with such elasticity as to render them nearly meaningless. Similarly, the term “woke,” which originated in black activism, was being now used to draw a bright line between those on the right side of things and those on the wrong side of things. The parlance of wokeness was being used online so frequently that it began to strike me as disingenuous, even a little desperate. After all, these weren’t just meme-crazed youngsters flouting their newly minted critical studies degrees. Many were in their forties and fifties, posting photos from their kids’ middle school graduations along with rage-filled jeremiads about toxic masculinity. One minute they were asking for recommendations for gastroenterologists in their area. The next, they were adopting the vocabulary of Tumblr, typing things like I.Just.Cant.With.This., and This is some fucked, patriarchal bullshit, amiright?
Granted, I was primed to be maximally annoyed, since, after decades of paying little attention to the interests of the generations that followed my own, I was suddenly consumed by the political activism of a very vocal minority of younger people, mostly millennials. The values of this minority were more or less in sync with my own. Still, there was something about the tone in which they espoused them, their very inflection, that made me feel like I was simultaneously being sent to my room by my mother and banned from a lunch table by the mean girls.
To my ears, every utterance was a scold, every reaction an eye roll, every policy idea (no matter how impractical) shot through with disgusted disbelief that no one had thought of it before. “Problematic,” that all-purpose recrimination for any person, place, or thing deemed insufficiently inclusive of all people, places, and things, was more weapon than word. Another operative word was “exhausted.” So intractable and unreasonable were their opponents that it was exhausting to have to keep repeating themselves. So persecuted were those whose identities veered outside the margins of white, heteronormative capitalist society that daily life itself amounted to a series of “violences” in which they were forced to “explain their humanity.” My very smart friends seemed to be lapping it up.