So this piece in Time by Jess Zimmerman, I think, is a pretty good example of why the internet can be such a uniquely useless place to try and play politics.
Zimmerman provides a brief history of the “not all men” meme, which is the new new hotness in the world of people who take their politics in social-media-ready form. The piece is written, as is the meme it describes, in the default code of today’s online social progressives, which I like to call We Are All Already Decided. This is the form of argument, and of comedy, that takes as its presumption that all good and decent people are already agreed on the issue in question. In fact, We Are All Already Decided presumes that the offense is not just in thinking the wrong thing you think but in not realizing that We Are All Already Decided that the thing you think is deeply ridiculous. And the embedded argument, such as it is, is not on the merits of whatever issue people are disagreeing about, but on the assumed social costs of being wrong about an issue on which We Are All Already Decided. Which is great, provided everybody you need to convince cares about being part of your little koffee klatsch. If not, well….
All of this, frankly, is politically ruinous. I meet and interact with a lot of young lefties who are just stunning rhetorically weak; they feel all of their politics very intensely but can’t articulate them to anyone who doesn’t share the same vocabulary, the same set of cultural and social signifiers that are used to demonstrate you’re one of the “right sort of people.” These kids are often great, they’re smart and passionate, I agree with them on most things, but they have no ability at all to express themselves to those who are not already in their tribe. They say terms like “privilege” or “mansplain” or “tone policing” and expect the conversation to somehow just stop, that if you say the magic words, you have won that round and the world is supposed to roll over to what you want. Zimmerman mocks the bingo-card nature of the sexism denialists and other assorted stupid creeps, but it’s hard to imagine a more formulaic political style than the kind she’s celebrating in her post. It’s a kind of faux-political parochialism where you have the same kind of lame in-jokes and worn-out slang that you did with the people you hung out with in high school, only instead of the topic being what Lorraine wore to the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance, it’s the most morally pressing issues of equal rights and social justice. But I can’t really blame them; that’s what they get rewarded for, online. They don’t get reblogs and likes and retweets for convincing people who aren’t already convinced. They get those digital strokes for making jokes. That’s what gets rewarded so that’s what gets repeated.
Unfortunately, those rewards are only social, not substantive. We have not, I’m sorry, moved to a “one zinger, one vote” system of government. And the self-same attitude that works great if you treat all of politics as a competition to see who can be the most clever does not work so hot if you treat politics as a way to get people to come around to your side. Not out of a desire to be nice; not because you want to make friends with them. Because that’s what politics is, trying to convince people of stuff. And you have to do that in a broken world. But the idiom of aggressive condescension and blank derision is not going to convince anybody, no matter how well trained people are to ape it.
Anyone who has argued about politics online in recent years can’t help but be familiar with the tone and idiom of We Are All Already Decided, the one which “not every man” is a part of. It’s a kind of showy superiority that just makes no sense to me in a world that is as fucked up as the people who display it say it is. What, exactly, do we have to condescend to people about, right now? It’s pretty weird to try to project this attitude like you’re on top of everything when we clearly are not on top of anything. Not in a world this broken. All of this would be fine if you think that we’re actually a majority, that we have things under control. Then, hey, go nuts. But we don’t have it under control, not racism or sexism or the exploitation of the weak by the powerful. And nobody does a better job of pointing that out than the self-same people who display this omnidirectional smugness. The schizophrenia of today’s social justice left is that it recounts all of the ways in which it is currently losing but does it with the belittling attitude of a team that’s running up the score.
But I guess that’s the point: if you think that the places you hang out online are indicative of the world, then you always are winning in your own mind. Zimmerman quotes Matt Lubchansky, who created a comic that was instrumental to spreading this meme, as saying, “I don’t recall a very specific instance so much as it was sort of everywhere, very suddenly!” But it was not everywhere. It was not even close to everywhere. It was barely anywhere, in fact, except for a very small sliver of a very small slice of the internet, one populated by people from a very narrow set of demographic and from one particular social strata– by The Right Kind of People, the kind of people you’d like to drink a bottle of wine with and talk about True Detective with, the kind of post-collegiate bobos who are the dominant majority within that world. Exactly the kind of people who are already convinced.
People who consider themselves dedicated to achieving political change have this fact to confront: it has never been easier to live in an intellectual cul-de-sac. I wrote a couple years back that the world was more the commenters at ESPN.com than at Jezebel. Some people accused me of having a masculinist mind-set– so the world is a sports site, not a feminist site! What was left out of their critique was the fact that ESPN.com pulls hundreds of millions of more pageviews in a month than Jezebel. That mistake– mistaking critiquing the person pointing out a discrepancy in power for doing something about the discrepancy– is precisely the problem. The formal systems of following and blocking online make it incredibly easy to filter out anyone that you don’t want to hear. And this makes it terribly easy to imagine that all you have to do to win is to let history take its course. Since the stakes of these issues are so terribly high, that’s a powerful risk. Feminism has to win for the world to be moral. The effort against racism has to win for the world to be moral. They don’t win through people telling jokes for favorites.
Zimmerman takes a stab at this question at the end of her piece, writing
The Not-All-Man hero and his minions are paralyzingly obsessed with protecting their own self-concept, to a degree that prevents them from engaging in sincere discussion. But this contrast — between “not all men” and earlier derailing tactics — suggests that maybe they also represent a small and subtle shift towards good-faith argumentation.
There are all different types of self-concept, and many different ways to define good-faith argumentation. I would argue that the type of jokes embedded in the not all men meme are terribly suited to good-faith argumentation, as they argue their point by preemptively excluding their targets from the realm of the good, the pure, the smart, and the cool. Of all types of political arguments, none is less likely to broaden your coalition than the one that makes your targets feel ridiculed. When people say that those who have been called out online should respond by apologizing and learning, they are betraying a profound ignorance about human psychology. That just is not how people work. Maybe they should. Maybe that’s what would be fair. But fair doesn’t count for much, does it?
If it’s just jokes for jokes sake, gallows humor, helping people deal with this bleak world, that’s fine. I do that too, I need it too. But know what you’re doing, and here, Zimmerman is explicitly saying that’s not what she wants. We’ve been telling jokes for a long time. I find patriarchy untroubled by them. I like Wesley Crusher as much as the next guy but if you think it matters politically that Wil Wheaton tweeted a thing then maybe you’ve been marinating in your own political juices a little too long.
The danger, of course, is the temptation to simply respond to critiques like this one with more We Are All Already Decided, to drag yourself deeper into the dull warmth of the people you already agree with. It’s a human temptation, I suppose. Just try to remember how small a “we” can really be.