People who traffic in symbolic manipulation—and that’s most of us, these digital days—are typically inclined to overrate the importance of symbolic manipulation. It’s always tempting to think that to exercise control over symbols—like the Confederate battle flag, which, for the record, I have long despised—is to strike a blow for justice. Again, social media play a key role here: Jerry Gaus once wrote an article “On the Difficult Virtue of Minding One’s Own Business”, but given the hyperpublic character of the web services most of us rely on, and the difficulty of getting any of them to reliably provide intimacy gradients, everyone’s business now seems to be everyone else’s business. In such a environment, ABP—Always Be Policing—is the watchword. Survey and critique others, lest you make yourself subject to surveillance and critique. And use the proper Hashtags of Solidarity, or you might end up like that guy who was the first to stop applauding Stalin’s speech.
Minding your own business, on this commonly-held account of things, is a vice, not a virtue, and those who handle disagreement peaceably are ipso facto deficient in their commitment to justice. To restore a belief to the positive value of disagreement, here, would be a challenging task indeed. When Bernard Williams writes of disagreement as “an important and constitutive feature of our relations to others,” he is speaking a moral language that’s incomprehensible to those for whom free speech is so last century and for whom history is always a story of moral progress.
How might such people come to see, with Williams, the virtue of moral and epistemic humility? How might they be brought to see that it can be a positive good to belong to a society in which people with deep disagreements, even about sexuality and personal self-determination, can live in peace with one another and, just possibly, converse? I have absolutely no idea.
But boycotts are really one of the few ways for people to cause change, real change. You show your moral and ethical disagreement by refusing to support a business, regime, or conference with your money. There seems to be a basic free speech and association right by saying “I am not supporting this business or regime because of practices X, Y, and Z and I don’t think other people should either” or saying “Conference X invited this crank because of X, Y, and Z to speak and I think that is dangerous even if he or she is speaking on apolitical matters.” Then you have a fight or debate in the public sphere. The conference clearly saw that inviting Yarvin was a mistake and that many people thought he was odious.
This is why many people on the left see conservatism as being nothing more than a maintenance of privilege. The view is simply that liberals are not to do anything to voice their displeasure over anything because that means conservatives might have to do something.
So what are people supposed to do? Just boycott silently? Why shouldn’t they speak out?
In theory, that’s all fine. In practice, though, most of these “boycotts” are nothing more than public temper tantrums. Twitter tempests in a 24-hour news cycle teacup. They involve no discipline, no strategy, no commitment. Nothing more strenuous than signing an online petition, retweeting your friends and yelling at some strangers. The point is not to change things, the point is to be seen loudly demanding that things change. This is why many people, not just conservatives, see the social justice left as being nothing more than a narcissistic exercise in virtue signaling. The view is simply that we’re all supposed to run ourselves ragged responding to whichever irrelevant piece of infotainment has recently outraged them, even though their deficient attention spans will have long since fluttered elsewhere by the time we figure out what, if anything, can meaningfully be done. In many cases, there is nothing to do except punish individuals for voicing unpopular opinions, which strikes many people, not just conservatives, as petty spitefulness masquerading as high-minded principle. A focus on exiling “problematic” individuals from power and influence also incentivizes people to spend more time looking for trivial infractions to pounce upon, rather than working to create political coalitions to achieve more difficult structural goals, the kind which require a lot more than a judgmental attitude.
Now, lest you get the impression that I, like most people, am only angry when “they” use these tactics against “us”, let me offer up a conciliatory example. I have as little respect for Peezus Myers of FreethoughtBlogs fame as it is possible to have. The man embodies the absolute worst aspects of social justice radical chic while practicing and encouraging the most corrosive habits of Internet dialogue. But I have also seen opponents of his who have allowed their hatred of him to start working its rationalizing magic on their own minds. Ferzample, he once made a harmless joke on his blog about having a dream in which his classroom got flooded with seawater, all his female students turned into mermaids, and, he implied, they then had an orgy. I saw people work hard to convince themselves, in all seriousness, that this was evidence of sexual depravity that should be reported to administrators at his campus. I saw them discuss plans to boycott conferences at which he and his allies were scheduled to speak, even when they had no intention of actually attending anyway. I saw them openly acknowledge their desire to use financial leverage to get social-justice atheists ousted from political positions within atheist/skeptic organizations, even though their opponents had technically done nothing wrong to justify losing their jobs. There was no pretense of fairness or objectivity. It was a spiteful desire for petty revenge by whatever means available. Sometimes you can only nail Al Capone for tax evasion.
That is the reality of what I’ve come to call “boycott culture”. There is no careful consideration of whether this or that outrage truly represents a clear and present danger rather than a minor annoyance, and if so, whether an economic embargo is the best tactic to use in opposition. Kneejerk anger quickly turns into disproportionate punishment which breeds more of the same. What are people supposed to do? Acting intelligently and fairly would be a good start.
In a game that never ends and has no final score, the only thing that matters is how you play. Politics — the means by which people figure out how to coexist in society — is a neverending game. This attitude is what motivates my opposition to all “ends justify the means” arguments.
Yuval Noah Harari talks a lot in his book Sapiens about what he calls “imagined orders”. He argues that the brute material facts of life, as far as we can tell, show that there is no inherent meaning in life beyond surviving and reproducing. Everything else, from art to morality to religion, is part of an imagined order, a story we tell to make our lives about something besides mere survival. He stresses that these orders aren’t mere delusions — they exist as long as we agree on their rules and behave as if they exist. For our purposes here, it suffices to say that an expansive conception of free speech is one of those imagined orders that I consider worth defending. The miserly argument which is currently popular on the social justice left says, hey, all the Constitution allows you is the right to say what you want without official government interference. It doesn’t say anything about you having the right to a mic, a stage, a P.A. system, or an audience. I say that this is true but unnecessarily stingy. I argue that we should strive to tolerate as much contrary speech as we can, even when it pains us, rather than seeking every available legal loophole to muzzle and exile our opponents. I am arguing for a shift of emphasis away from the paranoid, hypersensitive mindset which always takes the most uncharitable, restrictive view possible.
I recognize that many will see this as an impractical and naïve stance. In fact, the more observant among you will have noted that I am making a moralistic argument of my own to appeal to your conscience. I am even trying to shame you into agreeing that a more expansive conception of free speech is necessary. I make no apologies or excuses. Furthermore, I will intensify it by going all Old Testament prophet on you. If you are a supporter of this emotionally incontinent boycott culture, I say you are a stupid, shortsighted whore. Your cynicism has corroded one of the greatest imagined orders people have ever invented, and all for the cheap price of being allowed to claim the occasional meaningless, insignificant scalp of a tribal enemy. You can never “win” anything more than a temporary advantage with your disingenuous tactics. You have resigned yourself to the junk food equivalent of political activism, preferring the quick sugar high of judging and condemning “problematic” individuals to the long-term diet and discipline of working to create structural change.
Failings of personal character aside, there’s a more sinister aspect to this belief in value-imposition through the supposedly neutral qualities of currency. As other critics have noted, this tendency to let the market referee our moral disputes is pure neoliberal logic, which you would think the left would be wary of endorsing. You would expect them to object to a standard where the people willing to throw their money around most aggressively should get to set the terms of debate and the moral agenda. After all, aren’t we constantly being told that the rich are all right-wingers with more money than the rest of us put together? I’m sure they’ll be quite happy to let you “win” by forcing some celebrity to grovel on social media, or by getting some speaker removed from an unimportant conference lineup, as long as they get to use the same “I’m a paying customer and I demand my rights!” logic when it suits them.
Do we still have the capacity, as a political and intellectual movement, to argue in a way that’s not entirely based on associating with race or gender in a totally vague, unaccountable, and reductive way?
Magic 8-ball says…?
If you want us to stop being a mess, you have to be willing to criticize, and you have to accept that every criticism of an ostensibly progressive argument is not some terrible political betrayal. Not everyone who complains about white people has enlightened racial attitudes. Not everyone who constantly drops “mansplaining” or “gaslighting” into conversation actually helps fight sexism. One-liners don’t build a movement. Being clever doesn’t fix the world. Scoring points on Twitter doesn’t create justice. Jokes make nothing happen. We’re speeding for a brutal backlash and inevitable political destruction, if not in 2016 then 2018 or 2020. If you want to help avoid that, I suggest you invest less effort in trying to be the most clever person on the internet and more on being the hardest working person in real life. And stop mistaking yourself for the movement.
Matt Taibbi once offered a hypothesis about the psychology of this self-defeating tendency:
That’s why their conversations and their media are so completely dominated by implacable bogeymen… Their faith both in God and in their political convictions is too weak to survive without an unceasing string of real and imaginary confrontations with those people — and for those confrontations, they are constantly assembling evidence and facts to make their case.
But here’s the twist. They are not looking for facts with which to defeat opponents. They are looking for facts that ensure them an ever-expanding roster of opponents. They can be correct facts, incorrect facts, irrelevant facts, it doesn’t matter. The point is not to win the argument, the point is to make sure the argument never stops. Permanent war isn’t a policy imposed from above; it’s an emotional imperative that rises from the bottom. In a way, it actually helps if the fact is dubious or untrue (like the Swift-boat business), because that guarantees an argument. You’re arguing the particulars, where you’re right, while they’re arguing the underlying generalities, where they are.
Of course, as you may have noticed by the references to God and swiftboating, the original context had Taibbi attributing this mentality to fundamentalist Christians in particular and Republicans in general. If you leave that partisan bias aside, you can’t help but notice that “making sure the argument never stops” is also the emotional imperative driving the online dynamics among progressives that Freddie has been criticizing in vain lo these many years. The point of all their sound and fury is not to end misogyny or racism; the point is to keep finding new sources and hiding places of those social ills in order to ensure that the fun of denouncing and posturing never has to stop. The web is not a place for serious political action. It’s a kennel full of baying hounds, desperate to be let loose after the scent of social injustice. The thrill of the hunt is what they live for.
The bad news is that today advocacy and scholarship both face serious threats. As for social activism, while the Internet has made it cheaper and easier than ever to organize and agitate, it also produces distraction and false senses of success. People tweet, blog, post messages on walls, and sign online petitions, thinking somehow that noise is change. Meanwhile, the people in power just wait it out, knowing that the attention deficit caused by Internet overload will mean the mob will move on to the next house in the morning. And the economic collapse of the investigative press caused by that noisy Internet means no one on the outside will follow through to sort it out, to tell us what is real and what is illusory.
…Perhaps most troubling is the tendency within some branches of the humanities to portray scholarly quests to understand reality as quaint or naive, even colonialist and dangerous. Sure, I know: Objectivity is easily desired and impossible to perfectly achieve, and some forms of scholarship will feed oppression, but to treat those who seek a more objective understanding of a problem as fools or de facto criminals is to betray the very idea of an academy of learners. When I run into such academics — people who will ignore and, if necessary, outright reject any fact that might challenge their ideology, who declare scientific methodologies “just another way of knowing” — I feel this crazy desire to institute a purge. It smells like fungal rot in the hoof of a plow horse we can’t afford to lose. Call me ideological for wanting us all to share a belief in the importance of seeking reliable, verifiable knowledge, but surely that is supposed to be the common value of the learned.
Nevertheless, I knew many of my colleagues in the humanities would disagree. I could practically hear them arguing against me, as if they were seated all around me in those cramped fake-leather seats, yelling to be heard above the churning propellers. We have to use our privilege to advance the rights of the marginalized. We can’t let people like Bailey and Palmer say what is true about the world. We have to give voice and power to the oppressed and let them say what is true. Science is as biased as all human endeavors, and so we have to empower the disempowered, and speak always with them.
Involuntarily shaking my head, I argued back: “Justice cannot be determined merely by social position. Justice cannot be advanced by letting ‘truth’ be determined by political goals. Only people like us, with insane amounts of privilege, could ever think it was a good idea to decide what is right before we even know what is true. Only insanely privileged people like us, who never fear the knock of a corrupt police, could think guilt or innocence should be determined by identity rather than by facts.”
Brian alerts me to a sucka M.C. bitin’ on one of my routines:
IRL, almost nothing is ever so simple. Almost no situations that ever exist have heroes and villains, victims and victimizers. Most stuff is just people doing their own things, and most of that consists of behaviors that are orthogonal to the entire paradigm of victims, heroes, and villains. Worldviews–and they are many–that attempt to break down all of history and human life to exploitation, war, and struggle are being disingenuous in an effort to use the injustice-hack for themselves.
It will win few friends and lose many to refuse the tribalism implicit in adopting one victim group or another, but if we are interested in stopping the damage caused by these sorts of conflicts, we must forgo the natural highs of responding to an injustice with more injustice. We must maintain that the same ethics apply to defense as offense, because as long as we let them differ in practice, we will just keep up the constant wars, cultural and physical, until that really is all we do…commit new injustices as get-backs for old injustices.
The same phenomenon occurs going forward in time as well. Self-proclaimed grandmasters of multi-dimensional chess will assure you that the ends will justify the means, that this action, despite appearing unethical and counterproductive by itself, will actually produce a beneficial result in the long run. The obvious problem is, trying to envision what “the long run” will look like is as fraught with error, bias and distortion as attempting to find causes in the past. The valence effect describes our tendency to imagine the best-case scenario resulting from our intended action, and then make the unwarranted logical leap to assuming that this is also the most likely result. Few people have the patience to make a serious effort to ponder all the alternative scenarios in which things don’t go so swimmingly.
But where is the prescriptive element? I mean, I get that Ramsey wants white Americans to rise up and work to fix things. But how does he propose that we actually inspire them to do so? Sure, it should be enough to show them the reality to provoke them to fight for change. But should is a word of remarkably little relevance in the real world. 50 years after the most important Civil Rights legislation, it seems obvious that just pointing out that our society is unjust is not enough to provoke the white majority to create change.
In other words, the piece recounts in exacting detail a political problem but does nothing to establish a political solution. It begs for a next step– “here’s what I would do to convince white Americans to get on board with a political movement against racial inequality”– that it never takes. And in not taking that next step, it falls perfectly into line with the general, bizarre trend, the trend to say “it’s not the job of oppressed people to educate you.” Really? Then whose job, exactly, is it? I hear that all the time, and I find it such a bizarre attitude for self-described activists to take. To call yourself an activist is precisely to say “It is my job to educate you.” Change is active by its nature. The status quo doesn’t need activists. Change requires that you make it your job. So where’s the political strategy? I don’t pretend that it would be obvious or easy– in fact I think it’ll be incredibly hard– but, well, 200 years ago you could buy people, and the ability to do so was deeply embedded in the economy. Things can change, but you’ve got to make them happen and you have to motivate people who aren’t inherently predisposed to be motivated in order to do so.
Freddie is asking rhetorical questions, of course. He’s patiently trying to lead some incredibly stupid horses to water. I, on the other hand, don’t believe that these particular horses actually want to drink. That bumper sticker image up above (courtesy of Tom Tomorrow) perfectly encapsulates what they’re all about. The “political” twitosphere is nothing more than a bunch of people complaining that “somebody should do something about this, that and the other fucked-up thing!” Not them, of course. They’ve already done their part by writing a multi-part tweet that went viral, dintjasee? They’re the “ideas” crew. They just want to heave the ball of their righteous wisdom down the online lane and watch all the opponents of progress scatter like pins.
That’s why I put “political” in scare quotes. These people are not activists, they just play them online. They’re the political equivalent of Monday-morning quarterbacks. Real activists are far too busy with the never-ending, thankless hard work required to make actual political change happen in a world where, honest to God, believe it or don’t, three-quarters of the inhabitants don’t even use Twitter, let alone know that some celebrity totally won the Internet with their post about gun control in the wake of another mass shooting (which continue apace despite near-unanimous opposition on social media, strangely enough). They don’t have time to waste on social media posturing and performing for several hours a day.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not condemning a tabloid site like Gawker for failing to draft intelligent policy proposals, as if they’re capable or willing. They’re only playing their role as the cool kids’ table in the social media cafeteria, just as they were designed. I’m merely underlining the point that the “political” web exists almost entirely for signaling and venting, nothing more. It’s a way for people to yell at their TV in public. As Freddie keeps saying, if you want to win enough support for unpopular ideas to turn them into policies and laws, it’s suicidal to act as if the truth and righteousness of your position is self-evident, and if your opponents can’t see that, well, it sucks to be as stupid as them. And yet, that’s the attitude you see displayed time and again. Even at a more intellectual site devoted to the history of ideas, where you might reasonably expect a post titled What Is The Left, Anyway? to offer up a more substantial vision of what it even means to be a leftist today, you get this kind of vapid rambling, where empty snark is about as close to a serious point as you come.
If you want to put your politics into action, put the computer to sleep and go find some activist groups in your area to get involved with. Spend your free time and weekends working with them. Or go find people who don’t already agree with you, but are at least reasonable enough to converse with, and try to sway them to your way of thinking. Any of those things would be more meaningful than sitting on your ass reading yet another post about how awful and stupid your opponents are. What are you going to do with that information? Vote for Democrats? You were doing that already! Vote even harder for Democrats? Please. The “political” web is just another form of entertainment for people who are too status-conscious to be seen keeping up with the Kardashians.
The Huffington Post picked up on this and reported that the pizza place “publicly vow(ed)” to “reject gay weddings.” This entirely inaccurate description of what actually transpired was seized upon by countless folks all around the Interwebs. The pizza shop’s Yelp page was spammed with eight pages negative reviews, most of them quite obviously from people who had never been there. Their phone rang off the hook with fake orders. Someone on Twitter threatened to burn the shop down. The folks at Memories Pizza temporarily closed their restaurant.
In balancing a systematic critique on a single person’s story, Erdely essentially used a rightwing strategy to make a leftist point. The trouble is only that the right is skilled at this game, and correctly deduced that undoing Jackie’s story would go a long way to endangering Erdely’s larger structural point. It’s an opportunity they never should have been given, both for Jackie’s sake, and for the sake of the victims who really do find themselves struggling for protection within a hostile justice system.
In case you were wondering how the Rolling Stone rape story debacle was still somehow the right-wing’s fault, Stoker-Bruenig is here to bolster your faith. Amidst all the obfuscatory hand-waving, though, there’s a noticeable lack of two simple points. One, for deep-rooted psychological reasons, people will always grasp lessons better when they’re couched in compelling narratives as opposed to dry statistical analysis. (Progressives usually understand this, as evidenced by their almost-religious levels of faith in the dubious idea that reading novels makes you a better, more emotionally-intelligent person.) Rather than bemoaning that fact, perhaps you should simply make a stronger effort to tell the truth in your own narratives. Which leads us to the second point: fudging factual details in service to a “higher” truth is a bipartisan phenomenon, regardless of what partisan hacks will tell you to the contrary.
(Bonus third point: this post of Scott Alexander’s is a far more penetrating look at why partisans reliably choose the most sketchy stories to go to war over.)
I have no opinion on whether he’s racist or not. I’m not nearly educated enough to follow his posts about genetics. I certainly recognize that there’s enough circumstantial evidence to construct the sort of guilt-by-association hit piece that Gawker used to get the NYT to drop him like a hot potato, but I also note a distinct lack of any direct, damning quotes from the man himself. I certainly recognize that he has clearly signaled either his openness to taboo thoughts about race and biology, or his sheer refusal to play politics when it comes to science. The real point is, I don’t care. I have enough faith in my own thinking ability to not get tricked into believing in some kind of malevolent “race science”, even if he were trying to subtly indoctrinate his readers with it, and there’s too much good stuff on his blog to avoid it for the sake of appearances. More importantly, I’m just sick of the shrieking and the demands for collective shunning that dominate online discussions.
It almost surprises me to admit that. At this point, I would prefer a conversation with a mild reactionary to one with a self-righteous progressive who only knows enough to master the dynamics of high-school cafeteria politics. Too many people assume they already know everything they need to know, and the only thing left to do is make a big public display of which team you’re on. To hell with that.
In the midst of this otherwise disheartening fracas, I did snicker at this comment:
The left argues that while no governmental law is explicitly racist, governmental and societal institutions have racism built into them. So this is what enables leftists to decry racism even though there are no governmental laws explicitly permitting it. The left calls this “institutionalized racism.”
The same argument applies to free speech. While it’s true that there is no governmental law explicitly preventing Razib from expressing his views, governmental and societal institutions have built into them mechanisms that prevent Razib from expressing his views. Perhaps we should call this institutionalized censorship.