online liberalism’s #smackcam problem

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.


  1. 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.

    I’ve seen that come up in some of the feminist blogs, and it seems really bizarre to me. If you don’t really feel comfortable talking about politics with other people, then don’t. But don’t pretend it’s somehow a righteous stance – it’s just an indifferent one, and expecting that the less correct will somehow find their way to the more correct stance without correction, criticism, and nudging seems to fly in the face of how privilege and the beneficiaries of injustice are often blind to injustices by default.

    I mean, I grew up in a super-white, conservative Mormon community. If no one had ever spoken up in discussions with me about race, or gender issues, I would have just gone on in ignorance for a much longer time, and possibly in some ways for most of my life up to now.

    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.

    As you said, it’s good to just straight out ask these people “What have you done?”, sort of like that Radney Balko post you brought up a long while back where you pointed out that he’s actually fought criminal injustices related to the drug war and police misconduct. If all you’ve done is criticize people on Twitter and blogs, then you haven’t done anything except getting a daily dose of Outrage of the Day anger.

    Ugh. This reminds me why I drop on and off of Twitter. That site is just corrosive to slow-thinking and reading patience.

  2. Thought about it more, and I wonder if it’s just Same Old, Same Old. The history of angry and often violent disputes over minute details of religious doctrine and whatever history make me suspect that there’s just a contingent of people out there who collect slights and love to attack other people for insufficient doctrinal purity, and who have always existed in every settled community. The only difference with the online communities is that, as with misogynists and trolls, they can now concentrate their forces and attack more people.

    1. The whole discussion is a trainwreck. Nobody cares about these internecine feuds in the real world. We/they are too busy actually (1) doing the real work and (2) surviving. Who cares what a bunch of, for the most part, academic wankers with hefty paychecks have to say about anything? It all reminds me of communist in-fighting in the 1930s–status and purity. Your actual accomplishments stand for zilch.

      I’m an adoptee rights activist. Adoption deform (as I call it) tears itself up over essentialism (every woman needs a baybee to be fulfilled–yeah, right!) and over what women should call themselves. Seriously Birthmother, first mother, mother of loss, natural mother, original blah blah blah. Self-definition is anathema. You must call yourself fill-in-the-blank or we’ll kick you out of the clubhouse. The current toxic Twitter wars in feminism is self-indulgent. Not that some important things could be said, but on Twitter? These people take themselves way too seriously. One has only to look at tiresome history of the Old and New Left to see where this is going.

  3. The phenomenon you’re failing to describe exists because white liberals/leftists like openly decorating their liberalism with the corpses of black people without meaningfully incorporating, grasping or sharing their structural place. You don’t share their stakes or their stresses, so the value of hearing political beliefs that come from vantage points that DO share those stakes and stresses consistently eludes you. It’s quite intriguing to me that the Fred Hampton leftist – who, suspiciously, is at no risk of getting murdered by the police and the FBI – doesn’t see value in the political expression of the marginalized unless someone-other-than-them perceptibly benefits. Black people aren’t accountable to your bafflement, and if it exists it’d be more productive for you to assume that it’s your fault instead of theirs.

    As an aside, how do you feel about the exclusion of context from the piece? The understated story of modern and historical white liberalism – particularly on the internet – is that abuse, exclusion and selective tokenism of people of color are implicit in both its existence and its perspective. Mainstream/white feminism is hardly separate from this dynamic. There’s a reason why the story smeared and castigated Big Bad Intersectionally Bullying Black Women and failed to mention Hugo Schwyzer. There’s a reason why it maligned how intersectionally minded womanism has been adopted and gave no critique to the mainstream white feminist establishment that gave him platforms on Jezebel, Feministe, The Atlantic, etc. There’s a reason why it described their often cogent responses to daily misogynistic/racist invective from erstwhile white liberals as “toxic bullying” while failing to account for the defense mechanisms that were forged under their unrelenting erasure, plagiarism (see: brownfemipower), abuse and the fact that, in order to defend whiteness, white feminists resorted to sending an institutionally empowered attempted murdering rapist to silence them (while using his academic placement to push white feminist work and exile the Angry Black Women from non-marginal feminist participation).

    Women of color are no longer reliant on the continually dismissive, abusive and condescending inadequacies of white liberalism/leftism to gain political attention or to prioritize topics that center those experiences. Reductive and inaccurate descriptions of their problems are no longer implicit in consuming material about topics they care about. Racism and racial misogyny are no longer inherent components of their social and political engagement with feminism. They can actually go to feminist spaces and see their issues, their problems, their bodies and their minds given political significance and eloquent articulation. They can go into those spaces and understand that wealth, academia and whiteness aren’t unspoken requirements for internalizing the gravity of their specific qualms nor are they preemptive requisites for defense and empathy.

    I have no idea how people are supposed to believe that some place, somewhere, white people are capable of being argued into basic moral positions when their definition of “good” and “progress” implicitly excludes the above. Perhaps, instead of caring about the well-meaning but clumsy white kid, you can show more care to the black girl who’s never heard liberals discuss her problems, has never heard liberals speak in her language, has never heard liberals understand her culture or influences and has felt totally disengaged from the things they claim are for her benefit until she found the places where actual black women make a point of prioritizing them.

    That’s the feminism Goldberg decided to frame as problematic – and even damaging (and lied about their approach, methods and complaints to do it). That’s the feminism that apparently ruined the Golden Age Of Internet-Feminist Comity when white women only had to notice the opinions of other white women who agreed with them without any dissent, pushback, challenge or correction. In your efforts to amplify the sense that there’s a loud-but-small section of fanatic and sensitive Twitterati VS normal people, you’ve totally dismissed the visibility, the influence and the NEED for the kind of feminism Mikki Kendall has been pushing for and how the political movements you identify with have been continually premised on erasing the voices she’s loudly and boldly speaking with. You’re making the typically white mistake of assuming that because you don’t see it, it doesn’t exist and because you don’t value and experience the political efficacy, it’s not there. That’s no longer a valid complaint.

    The value of movements is no longer established by how effectively they provoke conversations with college professors. It’s no longer premised on being belatedly deemed “important” by white people. Its existence is based on the increasingly radical notion that white affirmation isn’t the factor that determines political relevance, and Goldberg’s piece exists because white liberalism (from mainstream feminism to gay activism to modern Democratic politics to leftism) is openly threatened by what that means, even as they’re uncomprehending about the ramifications of their nonexistent support. They’ve thrown away the master’s tools and people are assuming that because they have, they’re not building anything. Keep thinking that.

    1. What is the goal of the practice you describe, how does the practice move us closer to that goal, and how close are we to achieving it?

      As I said in the piece: Goldberg actually indicted white allies as much as she did any women of color. That has been systematically read out of the piece by precisely those white allies. And here, your comment does not engage with my critique of them at all. This is a central and important failure within this genre, and as I’ve suggested, it demonstrates the way in which being a white ally is ultimately a method to avoid blame and self-implication.

      1. “As I said in the piece: Goldberg actually indicted white allies as much as she did any women of color. That has been systematically read out of the piece by precisely those white allies. And here, your comment does not engage with my critique of them at all. This is a central and important failure within this genre, and as I’ve suggested, it demonstrates the way in which being a white ally is ultimately a method to avoid blame and self-implication.”

        If she wanted to make a conversation about the hollowness of most white allyship, she should have made the article about that. Instead, she decided to build her article on a problematically racist edifice and pepper it with contextual omissions, misrepresentations, dismissive belittling of WOC effort all rooted in a suffocating sympathy for the same white feminism that’s policed non-white and non-cis women out of respectful inclusion into the aegis of both womanhood and feminism. And because we no longer have to these discussions under their rules, we can not only refuse to ignore the racism and the racist implications of the piece, we can make them central to why it doesn’t warrant the respectful, non-critical engagement you just gave it. White people aren’t the only people who exist, white concerns aren’t the only ones that get talked about when an article contains other things.

        Some enterprising soul may deign to call this progress.

  4. If white liberalism no longer matters, if conversations with institutions marked or led by white privilege no longer matter, if the master’s tools have been thrown away and something is being built elsewhere…

    Why did anyone react at all to Goldberg’s piece? Just ignore it, if all that’s so: the alternative space is by this account laid out and under construction, the white liberal and his/her institutions have been dispensed with, etc. If it’s all unimportant and unnecessary–or only important as oppressive force to be demolished–don’t engage. And if there is only a binary–white liberals are allies only if they wholly subsume their own subjectivities and critical practices and never challenge or dissent, and enemies or oppressors otherwise–once again, why engage? Because in that context there is nothing to motivate dialogic engagement, no possible outcome from it, unless one imagines dialogic engagement as a sort of subversive move that undercuts white opposition or institutional authority, valued not for its own premises but for some collateral instrumental usefulness.

    It might be worth asking whether separatist or autonomist political strategies have recurrent internal problems or contradictions independent from the kind of oppressive reaction they tend to inspire from dominant institutions and social classes.

  5. I think Freddie’s post contains a seed of very important truth, but that truth speaks to the inherent limits of Twitter and social media more generally as modes of political organization. However, Goldberg’s piece is strewn with a lot of ugly tropes: pitting “reasonable” black feminists against “unreasonable” ones, mistaking the desire to have a constantly self-critical feminist practice as a “purity test”, and mislabeling “bullying.” Let’s be honest, white liberal middle-class feminists would not be interested in having conversations about intersectionality or about addressing the concerns of non-white, non-cisgendered, non-middle class feminists unless some rhetorical force is applied to that conversation.

    All that said, Twitter just sucks generally and is no substitute for long-term organizing and the application of real social pressure. It’s just misguided to single out radical feminism as particularly bad in this context.

  6. rnelson521:

    I have a problem with the way you read Twitter-focused rhetorical politics, even though you also argue that they’re not important. Partly because if they’re not important, it’s hard to see why emotional or political energies of any kind are being poured into Twitter-space, as they are being. It’s always weird to step into a conversation and say, “This is much ado about nothing, but let me make a bit of ado”.

    But let’s say it’s not very important and leave it at that. There is a problem with setting up the white liberal middle-class straight feminist (or other similarly constructed hegemonic object) as a thing which will not respond unless it’s kicked with sufficient rhetorical force. Both because no one then imagines what’s good about that formerly inert object now “being interested in having conversations about intersectionality” nor imagines a “conversation” that is different from the eternal return to the kicking of the inert and unresponsive white liberal middle-class cisgendered object. What does that conversation sound like if one is convinced that the inert hegemon would never have engaged in it but for having rhetorical force applied to them? Do hegemons normally keep going with a conversation they were forced into after the force is no longer applied? But then if rhetorical force needs continual reapplication, what kind of “conversation” is it anyway?

    What this ends up feeling to me like is a preemptive license to make any rhetorical move at all and never having to justify it ethically or strategically–that by definition, whatever rhetorical moves are made, they’re justified by an axiomatic incapacity of the targeted group to ever voluntarily enter into whatever unimportant Twitter conversation they should be participating in.

    1. to answer your first point, saying that twitter politics are not effective is different from saying that they aren’t important in their own right, since the ways that humans speak (digitally or otherwise) to each other is obviously something that will generate intense human emotion.

      Your larger, substantial point is a little buried in your language, but a couple thoughts: just because something is portrayed as hegemonic doesn’t mean that it’s inert. “Kicking” isn’t the proper metaphor, maybe “herding” or “channeling” the discourse might be more apt. Also, a think that a conversation where rhetorical force needs to be constantly applied is generally referred to as politics

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  8. A think that a conversation where rhetorical force needs to be constantly applied to an object where there is no conception of what happens afterwards isn’t politics–and here I agree with Fredrik–because it has no vision of what happens afterwards. It’s just turtles all the way down, just We Have Always Been at War With Eastasia.

  9. “It destroyed second wave feminism, and it crushed a woman of impeccable feminist credentials like Firestone.”


    Bullshit it ‘destroyed second wave feminism’ (it did plenty of harm), bullshit did Firestone have ‘impeccable feminist credentials’. I say this as a fan of hers, but there’s a whole lot of racism in the Dialectic, as you should know full well. Don’t accept some white-washed New Yorker version of the world, where the universalisation of certain strands of radical (white) feminism did not have awful consequences.

    You love sweeping statements like this, and it’s fucking annoying. One second you’re denouncing people for doing stuff because it feels nice, the next you come out with lines like this. I’m sure it felt satisfying to tap out, but it’s obviously wrong.

    In-fighting was a massive problem for the development of radical feminism (which was one part of the second wave), but if you imagine that feminism was ever not going to elicit a backlash from misogynists, and that it’s “destruction” was something that resulted solely from an endogenous factor like bickering/trashing, you have a re-think to do. The second wave failed for a bunch of reasons, but for it to have succeeded is practically inconceivable.

    Also, late onset schizophrenia is a fucker. A rare, brutalising fucker. I’m not saying the experience of 2nd Wave would have left Firestone just fine and dandy without it, it would have been harrowing for anyone, but I’m not convinced that her experience with trashing was caused solely by it.

  10. The Twitter outrage cycle is now, quite literally, on a daily rotation. It’s amazing that anybody can keep up with it.

    How do you keep up with it, as a non-Twitter user??

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