So this is deeply related to the post yesterday, but it reflects on the online version of things. It’s complex and so I have to write at length, so if you don’t feel like reading a couple thousand words, please exercise your privilege not to read it.
As with my post yesterday, I want to take a second and say that I think the basic dynamics of “political correctness”/ social justice politics/ social media activism/ language policing/ etc are misrepresented by all sides. Discussion of the frequently toxic environment in which social justice politics occur tends to assume certain camps. One of those camps is liberal/left critics of these politics who criticize them on grounds of fairness, political strategy, and compassion. The other camp is perceived as activists who defend these politics on grounds of respect, recognition of massive inequalities in privilege and voice, and the right of oppressed groups to dictate the conversation. The thing to understand, and I think a big part of the problem, is that these are tactical differences that are frequently misrepresented as ideological and demographic.
One of Chait’s biggest problems is that he defines political correctness as a marker of extremity, but in fact radicals are often the most committed critics of language policing. Meanwhile, some of the people who defend political correctness are fairly moderate Democrats. Casting this debate as one of ideological extremity simply confuses things and makes it harder to parse. But the real misunderstanding, in my view, is the demographic assumptions. Typically, these debates are represented as a matter of white, middle class-to-affluent journalists lecturing activists of color who are working class or come from working class backgrounds. So, for example, Michelle Goldberg’s essays about these issues are frequently criticized on those grounds, that she is an established white journalist who attacks marginalized women of color activists. That situation is often used to define the broader debate.
As with my post about real-world debates of this kind yesterday, I simply do not recognize that as the world of Twitter storms and online trashing. Very frequently, both the loudest voices and the ones who seem most intent on creating personal strife are in fact white and from affluent backgrounds themselves. That’s not to take away prominence from the large and growing body of passionate, committed activists of color online. Instead, it’s to say that I think there is in fact a third camp, one that has huge impact on these various battles but almost never gets discussed. And I think they’re the problem.
First, let me say this about anger. Perhaps the first thing that any critic of vicious social justice politics must do is recognize the perfect legitimacy of rage as a reaction to structural oppression. When you have been born in a racist and sexist world, and you grow into adulthood to find that world has improved very little, rage is a profoundly understandable, human reaction. While I disagree tactically with people who defend angrier online political engagement, my criticism is never about anger as such. Anger is a necessary political impulse. And while I will continue to argue that this form of engagement is counterproductive, I will also take care to recognize that it’s really easy for me to say so. It is easy for me, who lives outside of structural oppression, to counsel others to be tactically reserved in the face of an unjust world. I still will counsel them to do so because I see no alternative to growing the coalition. But such talk is cheap coming from me, isn’t it? This is something that many critics of political correctness (including some who enthusiastically shared my last post) will never recognize: the fundamental legitimacy of the anger and frustration that causes the nastiness in online politics. Oppressed peoples who express that anger are the victims of it, not the progenitors of it. The responsibility for it lies with injustice and inequality.
However, while white leftists like myself have a responsibility to recognize that our tactical emotional remove is a luxury not shared by everyone in our coalition, that responsibility cuts the other way as well. We have a responsibility to recognize that we have the ability to inject more anger into the situation without having the same personal stakes as members of outgroups. And that responsibility really is profound, because too often these days, self-professed white allies inject emotion into inter-left debates in a way that is an artifact of their privilege, without considering the inherent superior need of the oppressed for political victory. This is my problem with the third camp.
I have come to calling the third camp the accelerants.
Last semester, I started to develop an academic research project on #CancelColbert. I had to abandon it, as I just had too much on my plate. But I did a bunch of initial data gathering, and in that period I looked at literally thousands of Tweets from that controversy. It was there that I really got a sense that the typical conception that toxic online politics emerge from people of color, women, or the working class is wrong. Again and again, I found that the people who really caused the deepest nastiness appeared to be self-style white allies. Given the anonymity of Twitter, it wasn’t always possible to ascertain these things, and I will admit that this is more of an anecdotal impression than a systematic review. But so often, the people who raised the rhetorical stakes, the people who got really nasty, the people who made it all personal, were not the activists of color but the white allies. And I found this slice of people to be a really strange phenomenon. Often, they did not have any particular markers of being activists away from Twitter. They typically didn’t have their own writing careers. They seemed to only engage in that space. And they seemed only to engage in that way. I can’t tell you how many accounts I found that seemed simply to pinball from one online controversy to another, raising the stakes wherever they could, making progress impossible. They don’t do the organizing and advocacy that the actual activists do, and they don’t perform the necessary function of internal criticism that all healthy political movements need. They just exacerbate conflict and slander people.
So I’ve come to think that the battle is not really, or not just, between (largely white and established) critics of political correctness and (largely people of color and working class) activists for political correctness, but a matter of those two groups getting pulled into deeper and nastier and more destructive conflicts by a third camp that largely goes unnoticed. And they have this built-in defense that is highly effective and incredibly cynical: when you criticize them, the accelerants, they attack you for criticizing the activist camp. When you say “you’re just being nasty and unhelpful,” they say “why are you lecturing women of color from your position of privilege,” even though they themselves aren’t women of color. They treat traditionally oppressed groups as a defensive device. I have had confrontations where I have said “look, this behavior sucks,” and gotten the reply “don’t criticize activists of color,” and had to say “I’m not criticizing activists of color, I’m criticizing you.” That method of instrumentalizing people of color is deeply, deeply ugly.
As I have gotten older, I have grown more and more convinced that the most important element of politics is stakes. Stakes. Skin in the game. And the accelerants demonstrates how a difference in stakes can render the most ardent allies into a part of the problem. For the urge to simply intensify every conflict demonstrates an indifference to political progress that can only emerge from privilege, from a lack of stakes. Why not throw gas on every fire, when you know you’re never going to get burned? Chait discusses the way in which burnout develops from these kinds of conflicts, the way people end up giving up out of exhaustion. And, indeed, I have observed in my life some of the more vituperative political voices I know grow jaded by the nastiness they themselves have helped create. But this is where stakes comes in most directly: because these people are white and educated and financially comfortable, they could withdraw from politics in a way that people of color and the working class simply can’t. A woman of color activist can cease to take part in activism, but the reality of racism and sexism will follow her wherever she goes. This is what I mean by stakes, the difference whether politics is a choice or an enforced condition. And it’s what I find most cynical about the accelerants; they have the luxury of engaging with maximum anger and ugliness, and then withdrawing when they run out of steam. For them, and for me, withdrawal is possible, and so the urge to engage in a vicious way comes without as many consequences. No such release valve really exists for the activists of color in whose name the accelerants trash others. This is what we mean when we talk about privilege.
In darker moments, I sometimes wondered whether the accelerants I was observing around #CancelColbert were plants, fakes, forces of establishment power who are deliberately undermining the left. But the reality is probably a lot more mundane and, in a sense, sadder. Some of these people really do just want to cause chaos and start shit for its own sake. But most of them, I think, probably think that they’re really helping, that they’re really being good allies. They’re motivated by self-aggrandizing impulses and they can be impossibly cruel, but many of them have deluded themselves into think that, by turning every conflict into a mudfight, they somehow are speaking truth to power.
And I have to learn to be more forgiving of them, at least to the degree possible. Some of them are responsible for situations that I can’t forgive, like the disgraceful smear campaign against Amber Frost and Megan Kilpatrick. But many of them are just thoughtless and clumsy, not really noticing or caring whether they are actually doing good rather than being good, convinced that their good intentions are all that matter. And just as I ask that we all be more understanding and forgiving to good people who sometimes say dopey things, I have to counsel myself to be more forgiving of these people too.
So to them I say: don’t be an accelerant. Be a passionate advocate when necessary. Speak truth to power when you feel it’s right. But train your powerful tools of criticism of others on yourselves, and be ruthless when it comes to your own good intentions. Ask yourself: when I intensify this conflict, when I beat my chest and declare someone evil, when I throw fuel on the fire, am I really helping the people of color and women I claim to speak for? When I go for the jugular again and again, am I actually helping to solve injustice? Is this kind of engagement from me an instrument of political progress? If not, why am I doing it? How am I contributing to this cause?
Because if you don’t do this kind of self-analysis, if you don’t subject your own behavior to harsh scrutiny, if you allow yourself to wear the mantel of white progressive righteousness as a bulletproof vest, if you always trust your good intentions rather than consider your actual impact on the world, you’re guilty of a profound abuse of privilege.