everything personal can’t be political

I’ve really been genuinely disturbed by #GamerGate. Obviously, some of that is just the threats and harassment of women online. But it’s also disturbing how successful they’ve been in pressuring advertisers, and in getting parts of the media to credulously accept much of their narrative. To me, it’s indicative of the problems that come about when there’s no limit to how much we politicize the personal.

We on the left have argued for ages that “the personal is political.” We’ve told people that they should look for political resonance in every aspect of their personal lives, in order to see the hand of various oppressions at play in microcosm. And we’ve incentivized that behavior in the way we always do, by treating the deployment of that kind of argument as a trump card against those who you’re arguing with. We have this magic words theory of argument where if you deploy certain terms like “tone policing,” the expectation is that you’ve won the argument and the other side has to stop arguing immediately. But those tactics don’t occur in a vacuum. Campus conservatives, for example, have succeeded in so many of their provocations because they have very deftly adopted the tactics and vocabulary of the academic left and employed them for their own purposes. And now we’re seeing the same thing from the GamerGate crew: this isn’t a fashion or hobby for me, it’s an identity. Your criticisms aren’t criticisms, they’re bullying. I’m not being blamed for bad behavior, I’m being oppressed.

So take microaggression theory. Being embedded in the academy for the last six years, and in the humanities particularly, I’m pretty intimately acquainted with how migroaggression arguments are deployed in real life. In a vacuum, I certainly recognize the capacity for people to express racist, sexist, or similar attitudes in passive aggressive, day-to-day behavior. There’s a lot of smart stuff that’s been written in this tradition. But due to the way these discourses operate in real life, the definition of microaggression has ballooned to the point where accusations can be deployed for literally any situation. I know people hate hearing this, but it’s just true: there are people in the academy, and now in the broader world, whose personal definition of microaggression seems to be “literally any behavior that I don’t like.” That makes the kind of disagreements that are necessary for academic and political debate impossible.

But how do you respond to that behavior? I’m sometimes tempted to say, “you know, I think that person might just be a jerk,” or “that was wrong, but she’s just having a bad day.” Worse is when people respond to perfectly legitimate political or academic disagreement by making accusations of microaggression. But I’m not sure how to go about registering that opinion. In the actually-existing discourse communities we have on the left, to ever express skepticism that a given incident constituted racism, sexism, homophobia, or similar means to many that you are “on the side” of the racists, the sexists, the homphobes. Look at the debate about affirmative consent; it’s occurring in a rhetorical environment of ambient threat, where the suggestion that people who question the wisdom or justice of affirmative consent laws are subject to innuendo or accusation of being insufficiently opposed to rape.

Under those conditions, the price of saying “you know, I just don’t think that this situation is a matter of political microaggression” is far higher than the potential rewards. The first person to allege discrimination wins, and the person on the other side of that equation loses. This is especially true because we’ve also decided that, once you identify yourself as arguing against political misbehavior, there are absolutely no standards on your own behavior. You are allowed to engage in brutal character assassination if you represent yourself as speaking out against racism or sexism or similar. Look at the odd condition of a Twitter storm: offenses that are often subtle or unintentional are treated as indicative of existential immorality, but the direct, utterly cruel overreactions against these offenses are treated as righteous political acts. Microaggressions breed macro-aggressive responses that are seemingly exempt from standards of fair behavior.

On a personal level, the limitless politicization of daily life actually ends up hurting the people who it ostensibly helps. The way that we deal with the parade of failures, indignities, and problems that make up adult life is by moving on. You often don’t get what you want in life, and it hurts. If you never get over these problems, you subject yourself to long-term unhappiness. So when friends are dealing with hardship we tend to tell them to move on, in time, to get past these feelings. But in a world where absolutely every personal problem is politicized, the attitude is the opposite. When someone alleges that a given problem is a matter of structural oppression, we tell them to hold onto that feeling and never forget about it. The suggestion that someone should move past those feelings is then represented as taking part in that oppression. And I know people, in real life, who seem incapable of moving past disappointments and failures because they’ve so internalized the notion that all of them are a matter of illegitimate discrimination. When every bad date is indicative not of a clash of personalities but of the hand of misogyny, when every rejected job application is a consequence of structural oppression, when every dirty look is racist rather than just shitty, I don’t know how you can make your way through life, which is hard enough as it is.

And on a systemic level, you get stuff like GamerGate. The notion that geek-loved media and genres are disrespected just doesn’t jibe with reality. But more, I don’t know what alternative people are asking for. What would victory look like– what would it mean for them to be respected in the way people want? There’s this weird notion of active respect for art forms that just doesn’t occur in real life. Like, I sometimes think the people making these complaints imagine the rest of us sit around going, “hey, you know what genre I really respect? Cop shows.” “Totally. I also really respect cop shows.” Nobody gets that level of active respect for the things they like. But when you’re operating in an environment where you’re told that absolutely every minor dissatisfaction in your life is a political issue, there’s every reason to adopt the stance of “oppressed minority” rather than “human being dealing with the same constant dissatisfaction that we all do.” Even if that self-identification as oppressed person is absurd. I mean I will give them this credit: they are playing the media and the companies that advertise very well. This may be an absurd campaign to justify threats against women and other awful behavior through facile discussions of ethics in journalism, but it is also a savvy piece of media manipulation, undertaken by people who have learned the lessons of left-wing political critique too well. We wrote the book for them.

Argument is like all other human behaviors: subject to conditioning through reward and punishment. And we’ve created these incentives on the left: always politicize; always escalate; always ridicule. We’re living with the consequences of those tendencies now. Unfortunately, I don’t know how we build a new left discourse, given that the two current modes of left-wing expression appear to be a) showily condescending ridicule and b) utter fury. I mean you can guess what the response by some will be to this essay: deBoer doesn’t think racism is real, he doesn’t think sexism is real, he wants people to just get over it when they’re the victims of sexism and racism. None of that is true. I write about the structural racism of our society constantly. I believe that we’re still a deeply, inherently sexist culture. (For example, you may have heard of #GamerGate.) And I absolutely believe that there are tons of daily encounters that demonstrate these problems, and that the victims of them should feel comfortable speaking out.

I just also think that we have to be able to say “you know, I don’t think that your particular political critique here is correct” without being accused of failing to oppose racism and sexism in general. And I think that we have to recognize that, by treating claims of oppression as immediate conversation winners, without the expectation that people actually have to defend and support those claims with evidence, we make the appropriation of these techniques that we’re seeing with GamerGate inevitable.

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