bingo cards go both ways

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.

31 Comments

  1. You’re correct, of course, Fredrik, but your own post perhaps comes supplied with your own petard. The tone of being “deeply aggrieved at the foolishness of others” is no more rhetorically effective than making jokes at those others’ expense, really. In my experience, the only way I have found to advance an argument that a potential opponent may find a way to agree with is to leave space within that argument for his or her agreement– that is, to not make one’s opponent wrong from the outset. There’s no cheap way to do it. You have to listen first, and find some points in common first, before you can craft an argument that that other can hear. For all the sense of your position, you don’t seem to be leaving a lot of that kind of room in it.

  2. Love this. So many activists have adopted the strategy of the moral exemplar: one person stands up for what’s right and everyone is so inspired by her unshakeable conviction that they rally to the cause. They are the light of the world, so of course the most important task is not to persuade, but to make that light shine brighter by fortifying their convictions. The mistake is that this assumes they’ve already won, that everyone already acknowledges the moral superiority of their position and simply lack the discipline or courage to put it into practice.

    I’m particularly fascinated by the whole category of the “derail”. One would think that the presence of non-believer would trigger an avalanche of well-honed arguments, but this is somehow viewed as unimportant and distracting from critical work.

    1. “I’m particularly fascinated by the whole category of the ‘derail’”.

      Back in the old Usenet days the catch-all term for the intellectually lazy was “troll.” When I first got online it was one of the first concepts I was introduced to, and I quickly figured out how laughably absurd it was, or perhaps I should say how absurdly it was being used. Dealing with “trolls” was ridiculously easy: either act as a functioning free agent and engage them, or ignore them. The latter is usually the best decision in my experience. The former is work, but if you feel your position is important and you’ve made the decision to defend it then do the work; there was no more pointless post in the Usenet world than the “oh my god you’re nothing but a troll!”

      No “troll” ever had even the tiniest capability of making me do something I didn’t want to, the worst they could possibly do was add a few seconds of scrolling to my day.

      Usenet is largely dead, in part because people abandoned it in favor of social networking sites which make it easier to avoid “trolls.” But the concept of “troll” was too useful as an intellectual cudgel, so it’s been repurposed for the post-Usenet age.

  3. So, some people are indoctrinated. True believers, intolerant of any deviation from the dogma, from the party line. What else is new? Leave them alone, they are already lost, gone, let them stew in their own juice.

  4. Let’s be clear here– several times you invoke the “social justice left” but what you really mean is the Twitter/Facebook/Blogosphere left. The social justice left as actually constituted: unions, community organizations, anti-fracking activists, Moral Mondays, anti-eviction groups, BDS, etc., comprises a decent (although too small) chunk of our population, and their modes of argumentation are sharpened by on-the-ground conflicts with plenty of people who disagree with them, many of whom have the power to wield state and/or economic violence against them. They are also convincing family members, neighbors, and co-workers who don’t agree a priori.

    Perhaps you might think of turning the mirror back on yourself. You feel that this We Are Already Decided mindset is so hegemonic because you are pretty saturated with the Online Left. Not meant to be an attack, I confess to being that way sometimes too. I think your critique of the online left is valid, but lets keep that in its proper context.

    1. It’s a fair point. Perhaps it all seems so acute to me precisely because I was over exposed to day-to-day street level activism and now am not.

      1. Yeah, as a current union member and activist, one of my constant preoccupations is how to talk to people who don’t already agree with me.

        The online left dynamics that you describe are kind of like a vanguard that’s focused only on itself, and thus loses the whole point of a vanguard (excuse the vulgar marxism, it’s just the easiest terminology here)

      2. The distinction between the internet meme, “social justice warrior”, and the social justice worker who works in the world is crucial. I want to think anyone would realize a “warrior” for peace is an ironic term, but alas, it’s the internet, where Poe’s Law rules.

  5. Have you seen ‘The real Seebs’? That author often engages in just these arguments with people on tumblr, which is apparently a hotbed of We Are All Already Decided. As examples of effective argument, I find those posts pretty unparalleled. I could not be so clear and patient.

    Here’s an example: http://the-real-seebs.tumblr.com/post/83496027271/i-am-not-offended-by-generalizations-about-white-people
    (For those not used to reading tumblrs, Seebs is quoting another tumblr in the indented section and then replying in the non-indented section).

    1. There’s a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder peculiar to Catholics known as scrupulosity, in which the sufferer obsesses over every possible violation of doctrine. Many of these people will go to confession with huge lists of sins that will take them an hour to go through. Drives priests crazy. (It’s fascinating, actually. Look it up)

      Reading the posts on that Tumblr you linked to made me realize that the academic, social justice liberalism that Freddie describes has morphed into a kind of religion, and the people Seebs has responded to seem to be suffering from their own form of scrupulosity.

    2. OMG, seebs! I haven’t spoken to him in years, since certain online hangouts blew up.

      Seebs is awesome. Occasionally annoying as hell, but awesome nonetheless.

  6. I find the whole thing crazy.

    Generally, any solution anyone on the left has that doesn’t require growth of government, more laws and regulations, to improve things, I support.

    Government creates pollution.

    And it’s not carbon dioxide style pollution, it’s far far worse, it’s Mad Men family leaves picnic trash on grass, it’s crying Indian 1970’s pollution, lead paint stuff – the VERY BASIC kind of low hanging fruit tech solutions can radically reduce government pollution without doing anything radical to change what government does and is meant to do.

    So before I get into arguments about privilege and mansplaining, everybody at the table has to FIRST agree Government pollution is real, because all I hear is “let’s go have another picnic!” and “let’s put lead in children’s toys!”

    THESE TECH TOYS we gave everybody to play with, and organize into sorted personalities and whatnot, they are THE REASON for all this change.

    The Internet gave us gay marriage and legalized / decriminalized drugs and is professionalizing sex work and has conservatives now screaming about a police state over reach.

    AND TECH, via data darwinsim is going to help the left grow far more comfortable with conservative notions about hard work and responsibility.

    It’s crazy that everyone is pretending political rhetoric is the lever here. The medium is the message. The solution is always and forever: technology and invention.

  7. “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.”

    This is what’s most incredible to me. Presumably the Twittersphere Left would like to actually, you know, win over the general public. Yet they have a knack for voicing their arguments in the most condescending, smarmy, self-righteous way possible. Are the Tweeps ‘right’? Probably. But who cares if you ‘win’ the argument if you come across as a pretentious, self-absorbed douche?

    1. This gets into the very essence of Rhetoric. Any debate phenom, any young kid who I’ve met that mastered the art of winning every debate they are in, has a identity crisis – knowing what “you” actually believe disappears. You start off getting off on making others feel small, and eventually you are desperate to hold onto a few things you actually believe.

      Start here: Tweeps are not right. And it is obvious they aren’t. They are not real debaters.

      Real debaters don’t need “kritik” to win, they LITERALLY craft a policy that their opponent will accept. It is not about choosing the right words, it is about actually policy mechanics. Being right means policy that works.

      See: Freddie adopting / accepting my Guaranteed Income / Choose Your Boss plan.

      Rhetoric has its place, but it is about what not to do, more than a framework for influence.

  8. Yeah those kind of hipster activists are a clique, and cliques divide us. These activists seem to get the set menu of ideas from their group but as Freddie says, they can’t argue for what they believe in, and they too often merely ‘know’ what they believe in. In my experience people just shut down debate as though conversation has moved into a taboo area, though what that usually means is they haven’t asked if what they themselves believe applies in all situations, or that there aren’t undiscovered nuances to the debate.

    Debate trumps belief, right?

  9. There is certainly something to what you’re saying, but I’m completely baffled by your choice of example and am not even sure I understand how it applies. In the case of “not all men,” what exactly is the position on which “We Are All Already Decided”?

    1. In my experience, We Are All Already Decided that when somebody has complained about ‘men,’ any attempt to point out that not all men do what they are complaining about is an illegitimate attempt to divert the conversation to reassuring the complainer.

      In the link I posted above, Seebs posts the commonest argument of this sort and critiques it.

  10. I was reminded of something like this today when I read a post on The Dish where Sully wrote that in his life he had only witnessed two real acts of racism, and couldn’t comprehend why people would feel that way.

    And I thought, only two? You encounter this all the time amongst the college set, that they just don’t understand that racism isn’t just structural, that the only racists out there are not just those evil Republicans, but that many, many white people in this country really do have a deep-seated loathing of blacks. And it’s not just bad people who are shamed on TV, it’s your uncle, and your cousin, and it’s in Rhode Island just like in Alabama. My uncle once told me about an interracial couple he saw on the TV news. The husband had beat up the wife. “That’s what you get for marrying a n*gger,” he said. My uncle isn’t some Cliven Bundy cartoon. He’s just another white guy without a college degree. When I lived in the South, I heard people talk like this every day. One of my best friends from down there, a liberal who voted for Obama, lectured me several times on the difference “between black people and n*ggers.”

    And none of these college educated internet justice warriors realize that nearly 60% of Americans don’t have a degree. That while their intentions are great, they are a very clear minority. I mean, do any of them even know people who haven’t been to college?

    1. “One of my best friends from down there, a liberal who voted for Obama, lectured me several times on the difference “between black people and n*ggers.””

      So? Why essentialize words, their meanings change all the time.

      I had a girlfriend who used the word ‘kike’ (in Russian) as a verb, meaning “being stingy”. I said: ‘please don’t use this word.’ She couldn’t understand. This was the word she learned from the beginning of her life; everyone in her environment was using it. And it had nothing whatsoever to do with Jews, real people. It was just a word.

      So, perhaps your uncle wanted to say something like ‘brute’, and he used a different word, the word he knew. And, as your liberal friend explained, it’s not directed at the black people in general. So, where’s the tragedy here?

      1. The problem with people that say that is they only think a small minority of black people are respectable enough for them. They will pick apart everything a given black person does to show why they aren’t worthy of respect, then claim “oh I’m not racist, I only hate n******.” It’s an excuse to be racist in public, like the old “I have black friends” ploy.

        As an example, Sarah Palin’s teenage daughter can get pregnant, Miley Cyrus can shake her ass, and Justin Bieber can sag his pants, and racists don’t pay these things any attention. At most, it reflects on the character of those individuals alone. But God forbid a black person do any of those things. Then it’s taken as some revelation of essential truth about “n******.”

        The problem with claiming the uncle is innocent is that saying the n-word is a big taboo in US society and has been since probably the 1970s. I would be very surprised if the uncle didn’t know this. Using it at your job, or even in private, could get you reprimanded or fired. For example, look at what happened to Paula Deen and Donald Sterling when they said it.

        Regarding your anecdote about your Russian girlfriend, doesn’t that say less about her than Russian society as a whole? That its anti-semitism is so ingrained that it’s seen as normal.

  11. “The problem with people that say that is they only think a small minority of black people are respectable enough for them.”

    This word does not necessarily reference black people as a group, or even a subgroup of them, it describes something else. It describes a person whose behavior and character lie outside the acceptable range of bourgeois norms; it describes a lumpenproletarian. They observe this behavior mostly among blacks, many of whom are impoverished and unemployed, but also among those identified as “white trash”, “hillbillies”, etc. To quote senator Byrd: “There are white niggers. I’ve seen a lot of white niggers in my time, if you want to use that word.”

    “anti-semitism is so ingrained that it’s seen as normal”

    My point is that the antisemitic connotation has been lost completely, at least in her case. And I think it’s pretty common. It’s just a word. What is important here: that a person is uttering certain sounds, or the meaning he or she wants to convey by uttering them?

  12. Very interesting thank you.
    Well, the “We Are All Already Decided” is pretty much summed up and pined as a warning in Jess Zimmerman twitter bio: “Unless otherwise noted, I don’t care what you think.”

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