I would forgive you if you didn’t remember the brief, bright flame that was the #smackcam Twitter controversy of 2013. The Twitter outrage cycle is now, quite literally, on a daily rotation. It’s amazing that anybody can keep up with it. As far as these things go, the #smackcam storm was minor, in scope though not in rhetoric. (There is no such thing as a low-key controversy in online politics, these days.) But it was an important object lesson that pretty much no one seemed to notice.
The #smackcam phenomenon is stupid. Really stupid. It involves people videotaping themselves or their friends sneaking up on other friends and smacking them in the face unexpectedly, often with some sort of additional prop like flour or eggs or whipped cream. This is usually preceded by saying “smack cam!” into the camera. Like I said: stupid, and though usually harmless, sometimes not. Mostly it’s a kind of reciprocal abuse that characterizes young male friendship. But sometimes it devolves into what appears to be real violence and legitimate abuse.
It was that capacity, for #smackcam videos to document real abuse or appear to, that brought them into the Sauron’s gaze that political Twitter has become. For a brief day or two, all of the usual suspects lamented and raged about #smackcam, using the typical potpourri of lefty terms and academic ideas ported clumsily into 140 characters. Very quickly the default argument became that #smackcam was inherently misogynistic. Some of the #smackcam videos featured women as the target, and some of these were very disturbing, and deserved to be censured as acts of violence against women. But it appeared and appears as though the vast majority of the videos featured men hitting other men; however accurate and fair the indictment of the uglier videos as misogynistic, the overwhelming maleness of the genre seemed to make misogyny an odd charge. But it didn’t matter: accusations of misogyny is one of the bullets that this particular gun was made to fire, and given that the ratchet of outrage in expression only goes one way, “misogynist” won the day.
None of this would be much different than the hundreds of other controversies that inflamed Twitter progressives last year. What was interesting was the mechanism of the hashtag. Because #smackcam, of course, started out not as a symbol of the shared disapproval of a certain slice of the educated and digitally inclined, but as a way to tag tweets that featured the videos. So when the debate was raging, and I clicked on the hashtag, I saw an amazing bifurcation: you had the kids posting their videos and tagging them, and you had the elder Twitterati clucking their tongues, and you had literally no overlap between the two. It was a perfect division. Sure, the hashtag was originally meant to allow people to follow some thread, but who actually uses it for that purpose now? In actual practice, hashtags are employed, usually ironically, to demonstrate your fidelity to the social mores of the closed sphere of your followers. It turns out that the groups “people who write for the elite publications” and “teenagers who are addicted to Vine” have precious little overlap. That’s what made #smackcam so amazing: the two groups literally could not see each other.
In the broader sense, this is not a Twitter problem or a social media or an internet problem. It’s a human problem, our basic tendency to restrict our interactions to those with whom we generally agree. The formal systems of affiliation on sites like Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook just make this phenomenon easier to observe. Still, the essential question remains: what was the point of the liberal Twitterati’s #smackcam freakout? I’m not asking that rhetorically. The purpose of political discourse, after all, is to contribute to political change. But how could anything have changed when the target of progressive Twitter’s ire was blissfully unaware of the controversy?
Unless, of course, promoting change was never the point. It makes perfect sense for people to operate this way if their actual intent is to demonstrate their position within a particular social group, one in which the habitual expression of outrage is a primary means for generating social currency. There really was a kind of perfection to the mutual lack of engagement: the rapidly-aging progressive squares got to engage in the competitive outrage that they enjoy so dearly, and the kids kept on making their stupid movies. It’s not that I condone them; like I said, they’re stupid, and sometimes, dangerous. But then, I’m 32 years old. I’m not supposed to get it.
When it comes to passing faddish idiocy, the stakes are low. But when it comes to the work that social liberalism is meant to perform– the fight against the structural oppression of marginalized groups– the stakes are very high indeed. And it is here that the collapse of politics into a meaningless series of status games is most damaging, most tragic.
I’m referring, you may have guessed, to Michelle Goldberg’s piece today on political Twitter storms. I won’t belabor the points about fairness or basic human empathy or any of the rest of it; I’m sure there will be plenty to read on those subjects in the near future. Nor will I bother to demonstrate how the reaction to Goldberg’s piece demonstrates its thesis better than the piece itself. I want merely to argue that, at the end of the day, these Twitter storms are ultimately neutered by the #smackcam problem. Those who can be moved are already convinced. Those who aren’t already convinced are ignored.
I have, at times, been at the center of online anger that is similar to that which is generated in Twitter storms. And I have often been asked by sympathetic people, “How do you stand it? How do you deal with the viciousness?” I usually just sent them this gif. The honest answer, though, was simple: I went outside. I interacted with people who aren’t internet-obsessed. I reminded myself that the vast majority of the human species was utterly ignorant about whatever particular fight I happened to be in. The internet is a series of big fish in small ponds. That isn’t an insult to anyone. My own pond is so small that I can’t even be big within it. But the danger is always to overestimate the reach of your own community. Stick the words “slut” or “bitch” or any racial slurs into the Twitter search bar and be educated on the reach of this movement.
As Goldberg says, merely to ask whether a particular type of argument is politically effective has become anathema to this type of online politics. I’ve had people say to me explicitly: why should the more correct people be responsible for educating the less correct? I just find this baffling, utterly baffling. Because the world is broken, and most people would prefer it stay broken, and only effort will change that. That’s why. Maybe in some purely theoretical space we can point out that this is fucked up. But declaring that the righteous have no responsibility to education others isn’t politics. It’s capitulation.
I would hope that even those who are most committed to the Twitter storms would develop more skepticism of those who are participating along with them. The phenomenon of the white liberal who is very publicly aligned with women of color is often, in my estimation, a matter of that white liberal instrumentalizing his or her “allies” to advance a particular vision of him or herself. Goldberg quotes Anna Holmes: “There are these Olympian attempts on the part of white feminists to underscore and display their ally-ship in a way that feels gross and dishonest and, yes, patronizing.” Indeed. Look around during a Twitter storm, and you’ll find a version of fake left-wing practice that has become ubiquitous: the tendency of affluent white liberals to use people of color as the rhetorical tool through which they bludgeon other affluent white liberals, in an effort to avoid being themselves implicated in a discourse of racism which has power that they simultaneously covet and fear.
Goldberg’s piece indicted these white allies, quite accurately, in my estimation. But search on Twitter right now, and you’ll find that those self-same allies are not considering that charge or defending themselves against it. They are, on the contrary, asserting that Goldberg’s piece is only an indictment of women of color. This is flatly dishonest, but is an extremely useful tack to take; it obviates their need to engage in self-criticism. The self-criticism that does exist is very, very public. Goldberg mentions a woman named Sarah Milstein who “confessed” online to being overly friendly to black people at parties. It’s good if this woman wants to work through her racial baggage, but it’s self-defeating to do that publicly. Why do I know she’s doing that? If the Twitter storm is unflinchingly critical towards everyone, it is also weirdly credulous to white people’s self-positioning as allies. What is desperately needed is a kind of implication of white allies that they cannot wiggle out of.
If you’re merely annoyed or angered by the Twitter storms, then you may be comforted to know that they will prove to be a self-destroying phenomenon. The constant acceleration of the rhetorical violence employed, and the increasing sense in which these are circular firing squads, ensures that whatever communities have grown will shake themselves apart. Human beings are emotional creatures, and the constant inflation of the pressures they bring against each other can only lead to an ugly resolution. As I said before, this is not a phenomenon used to the online space. If you read Susan Faludi’s brilliant profile of Shulamith Firestone, you’ll see the way in which this is a cyclical phenomenon. It destroyed second wave feminism, and it crushed a woman of impeccable feminist credentials like Firestone. All the while, outside of the feminist group meetings in New York where these smaller storms raged, patriarchy ruled.
For myself, though, I take no pleasure in this state of affairs. Because the world desperately needs feminism. The world desperately needs a feminism that can win.
However people may now choose to believe that questions of political efficacy are inherently wicked, the question will and must remain: what good are you doing? What progress is being made? When people react to a trending topic as if that represents effective politics, something has gone deeply wrong. R Kelly still lives a very comfortable life, and I find Justine Sacco’s unemployment quite irrelevant to the question of AIDS in Africa. What is the best case scenario for political talk? That someone who is amenable to hearing the right message hears it, becomes engaged, and becomes involved. If Michelle Goldberg now lacks the requisite purity to even be listened to without becoming the subject of a Two Minutes Hate, what hope does some well-intentioned but clumsy kid have of navigating these waters? And if such a kid makes it in, they will learn to engage with these politics not in the spirit of growth and exploration, but in a self-defensive shell. No real movement for social justice can emerge from fear.
Gandhi said, “Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man you have seen, and ask yourself if this step you contemplate is going to be any use to him.” I think when it comes to ostensibly progressive politics, the inverse advice is also useful: think of the most privileged man you have any seen, and ask yourself if this step you contemplate is going to be of any threat. At the country club, if the notion of feminist Twitter wars ever crossed the mind of one of the rich old men who rule our world, it might, briefly, prompt a chuckle between puffs on his cigar.