So people keep sending me this Choire Sicha review of Jon Ronson’s recent book on public shaming, I guess because I’ve been something of a critic of those tactics. Several emailers have represented Sicha’s review to me as a kind of silver bullet argument against criticisms like mine, and in effect a strong argument for shaming politics. I find that very strange; it’s not at all clear to me that this is even Sicha’s intent. SIcha is a great writer, so his words are persuasive, and he radiates kindness, so he has credibility on this subject. But like many others, his point about the relative power of public shaming amounts to an argument for its toothlessness, and thus its abandonment by left-wing activists.
As Sicha points out, oftentimes the victims of public shaming end up just fine. And as I have done in the past, he also notes that women frequently bear the brunt of public shaming themselves. He loses me however when he digresses into a discussion of online harassment. His point that the harassment and threats women receive online are far worse than the consequences of public shaming is perfectly right and perfectly useless in context. What use is public shaming against the hordes of angry men who shame women online? In order for public shaming to be effective, two things must be true: those who deserve it must be public and they must have shame. Neither is true of the vast majority of people who threaten and harass women online. Indeed online harassment strikes me as the kind of problem that can and will never be solved by public shaming. So Choire’s review, which like most of his work is at heart a call for treating each other better, is not wrong to call harassment and threats the bigger problem with the internet. But it’s at best an accurate non sequitur.
When people point out that the victims of outrage politics and Twitter storms survive and rarely suffer too intensely or too long, they’re right. But that’s an argument against outrage politics. It’s a demonstration of their utter ineffectiveness. Yes, Justine Sacco has a job again. Whether you believe she should or not is between you and your own conscience. But the fact is that she does. So if you think her losing her job represented political progress, then public shaming has failed to give you what you want. And if you think that hurting her was besides the point, that there are deeper issues concerning racism and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, then I’m afraid the news is also bleak, because the great internet destruction of Justine Sacco did precisely nothing for people afflicted with HIV in South Africa. Likewise, if you point out that Adria Richards has suffered more than the men she publicly shamed at that conference, and that this says something about the nature of sexism and male privilege, I am inclined to agree. I also am inclined to point out that this is an argument against shaming as a tactic. In none of these prominent cases has it seemed to have given activists what they want.
I don’t know what an ally is. I know what solidarity is. I know what a bloc is. I know what recognizing congruent political purpose is. But this word “ally,” at this point, it seems irredeemable to me. In my experience, it is associated with nothing so much as a kind of deeply insulting, head-patting condescension. What does it say when so many adults — so many of them white dudes posturing as “the good ones” — join your political project without seeming to care whether it’s true, good, or effective? The praise of allies is the participation ribbon of modern politics, substituting real political support for a brainless, aggressive associationism that seems to have more to do with ensuring that the ally in question appears to be on the right side than in actually achieving anything at all. Judgment is an indispensable quality in supportive human relationships. It’s judgment that compels your friends to tell you, out of concern and support, that your current way of doing things isn’t working. What use is a human relationship that has been drained of the willingness to judge and to disagree? Who wants that kind of “friendship?”
I grew up around activists; I was an activist; I have had a relationship to activists and activism for far longer than Twitter has existed. And the way that I show respect to activists is to give them my honest appraisal of how well their political tactics seem to be working. That’s not about enforcing a vision of which political ends are realistic; I won’t get most things that I want, politically, in my lifetime. It’s about noting what an activist wants and whether you think their current tactics can actually achieve it. That’s respect. Not “allyship.” Not the warm milk of people who start throwing hashtags around the second they’re trending. But respect. Respect isn’t the pop psychology bullshit emotional nourishment that we now so associate with left-wing politics in a world of microaggression theory. It’s an adult quality that requires actual critical review if it’s to have any meaning. So I respect activists by telling them if I think their tactics are effective and their analysis is right, just like I respect political writers by telling them if I think their arguments are sound, like I respect researchers by telling them if I think their conclusions are correct, like I respect artists by telling them if I think their work is any good.
How do you fucking show respect?