Over the past couple years, I’ve watched the rise of this new form of online performance art, where internet commenters make public sport of flagging potentially problematic language as insensitive, and gleefully flag authors as needing to check their privilege.
…Increasingly, I’ve started recognizing this kind of behavior for what it is: privilege-checking as a form of internet sport. It’s a kind of trolling, with all the politics I agree with, but motivations and execution that turns my stomach. It’s well-intended (SO well-intended), but when the motivations seem to be less about opening dialogue about the issues, and more about performance, righteousness, and intolerance for those who don’t agree with you… well, I’m not on-board.
This is the second time this year I’ve read a brilliant analysis of this kind of spectacle:
1. John Scalzi publishes the post, which has the explicit purpose of making it easier to convince white straight men of their privilege and, in doing so, perhaps reduce racism, sexism, and homophobia a little. You know. Improve social justice, that sort of thing.
2. Straight white men show up in the comments of the post and, as is frequently the case, say stupid, misguided stuff, about how they’re the real victims, sexism isn’t real, etc. In other words, they announce themselves as precisely the people who need educating about privilege.
3. Scalzi does not educate them. He mocks and dismisses them. His supportive commenters either lavish his post with praise, engage in the mockery themselves, or both. Scalzi publishes an entire post which has no function other than to mock the (admittedly ignorant and wrong) men who he claimed to want to educate. Given human nature, they are likely to be less willing than before to admit their privilege or to consider racism, sexism, and homophobia. Again, commenters sympathetic to Scalzi participate in mocking the rubes and fall over themselves praising him.
…There appear to be two rational explanations for this behavior. One is that Scalzi and the commenters who aped his behavior have a simply atrocious grasp on psychology, human behavior, and politics, and sincerely believed that mocking people would lead to their enlightenment. The other is that John Scalzi’s purpose was never to actually contribute to education and social justice, but rather to demonstrate his superiority to those people he claimed to want to educate, and in doing so show what a brilliant and enlightened guy he is to the liberals he is in cultural competition with.
The idiom that Scalzi has used to present his case is no doubt familiar to you. It’s the default language of many prominent liberal or leftist publication when the talk about racism, sexism, or homophobia: self-aggrandizing, pawing at a kind of witty derision, choked with condescension, and invoking a tribalism of the enlightened. That this kind of discourse is a profound rhetorical failure– that it is the kind of language that is never going to convince anyone of anything– appears to be of no consequence.
Of course, the race and/or gender of both authors can and will be used to dismiss the argument out of hand by anyone so inclined. So it goes. Comments on Ariel’s post accuse her of attempting to police the dialogue in such a way as to favor her privileged perspective, and the ace up the sleeve is the invocation of the righteous anger of the oppressed, which, of course, has no obligation to humble itself in order to cater to the comfortable norms of the oppressors. Really, it all just sadly reminds me of the postmodernist assertion that reason itself is a tool of Western heteronormative phallocentric white supremacist imperialism, and should therefore be abandoned in favor of analyzing social relations as a zero-sum power struggle, or some other such Foucauldian bullshit.
I’m sure there are people who genuinely want to have informative discussions about privilege. They just don’t seem to be the ones who dominate the commenting on posts where the topic comes up. It’s amazing how many of them claim to have no time or energy to address someone’s objections in detail, whereas they will gladly reiterate, dozens of times, how tired they are of having to read what they consider to be stupid objections that have long been refuted. Which makes perfect sense, if it’s understood as a performance for one’s in-group rather than an attempt to actually change anyone’s mind. The eye-roll, the exasperated sigh, the condescending derision are merely attempts to embarrass someone into silence. Understanding is less important than acquiescence.