Saturday, April 28, 2012

anti-racism as social sorting

You likely have encountered this piece by Lindy West about "hipster racism." It's pretty great, in many ways, and yet indicative of the problem with a particular flavor of Internet political discourse, and if I'm right, you encountered it in a particular context, and that context is the problem.

The post gets a lot of it right, and some of it deeply, proudly wrong, and sadly its character and its positioning suggest to me that what it gets right in content is less important than what it achieves for those who tweet, share, and endorse it. Its positioning, that is, in the broader consciousness of the Internet tastemakers who are responsible for so much of what crosses your browser.

If you're like me, with a lot of vaguely leftish friends, you likely will recognize what has become a daily encounter. Someone on Facebook will post an enjoyable, aggressive piece that gets it mostly right, about racism or sexism or various other shitty attitudes. Everybody will click like, people will post their various "right ons," and in general it will all be a little orgy of feeling good. And, more, feeling better than whoever the target of the piece is. What is unclear is the theory of change, how exactly the ideas being celebrated by the people on Facebook are supposed to spread. I suppose it's possible that some apolitical people read the links and are inspired. I worry that it's more likely that the self-congratulatory aspect of these daily spectacles confirms every bad stereotype about liberals said apolitical people have ever heard.

But perhaps there's a question that preempts one about a theory of change: is achieving change really the point? Or is what's being celebrated really the people doing the celebrating? Certainly, a common thread to pieces that the Twitterati self-aggrandizingly call "real talk" is a proud ambivalence towards actually achieving anything more than being righteous. It doesn't help that so many of the venues for this kind of aggressively enlightened writing are places generally dedicated to cultural competition-- competition over art and clothes and music and style and, in general, leading the kind of aspirational life that is at once validated by all the cool kids and yet conspicuously uninterested in being cool.

On the one hand, the wedding of egalitarian politics and websites devoted to aspirational culture has resulted in a lot of funny, aggressive and liberal-ish essays being passed around between connected (and therefore loud) people. On the other hand, there is a necessary and inevitable dilution of what politics means in such a context. It's no coincidence that this subgenre is almost exclusively devoted to feel-good identity politics and barely touches actual structural change, which is messy and requires greater conviction than that which can be expressed on a Facebook wall. Worse, websites like Jezebel (which is only a convenient placeholder, here, for a broader phenomenon) explicitly and unapologetically link the conviction one feels about bands and denim with the conviction one feels about slurs, street harassment, and Islamaphobia. The question is whether that latter shouldn't be a different kind of conviction altogether. I know that those who write for and enjoy these websites would say that they of course believe that. I'm just not so sure that they can so mingle pop culture nonsense with political righteousness and maintain such a distinction in effect.

The question that gnaws at me is simple: would so many people tweet and like and share those links, if not for the culturally competitive aspect? Is the point really anti-racism, or anti-sexism, or anti-homophobia, or is yet another example of people taking psychic pleasure in announcing on the Internet the ways in which they are better than others? If Lindy West got to keep her principled opposition to racism, but was forced to do so in a way that contributed nothing to her considerable self-regard, would she still invest the effort? I have my doubts.

Which is not to say that she doesn't understand many of the phenomena that she describes, or that she isn't perceptive, funny, or politically principled. In some measure, she's all three. But I worry that her stances on various flavors of hipster racism-- which, let's be clear, really means "racism as expressed by people I and others like me feel socially competitive with, racism I live with"-- are not ultimately different from her stances on the wrong shoes, or the wrong band, or whatever random piece of personal baggage people are magnifying online today to feel better about themselves.

This is a document designed not so much to solicit a response or provoke a change as to position the author. Consider the statement "Race is one of the least complicated issues that there is," an obvious absurdity that the writer patently does not believe. (Having just written hundreds of words on the subject and all.) Such a notion would certainly come as a surprise to the myriad thinkers, educators, philosophers, and activists who have labored on opposing racism for longer than West has been alive. But then, such rhetorical aggression is largely the point. Enlightenment without provocation has such little percentage in it. Part of the point of this sort of document is to achieve invulnerability: so much chest-pounding righteousness numbs you to the details, makes you stupider and reassures you that this stupidity is actually an expression of righteous passion. Meanwhile, West demonstrates AP-test level mastery of a profoundly important Internet skill, which is associating yourself and the value of your writing with the political effort itself. The unmistakable subtext of the post is that criticizing West would be tantamount to criticizing the anti-racist effort itself. (The problem is that this defense mechanism ensures that the post's fundamental character is more about Lindy West than about the problems she identifies.) And, indeed, the showy stupidity of calling race an uncomplicated phenomenon is really preemption, a way to dare people into criticizing her post and in so doing open themselves up to the charge that they oppose its intent and not its content.

In my own life, truly critical understanding has only ever come from self-indictment. That notion, that greater enlightenment comes first from criticizing the self, is totally alien to the culture of competition that hangs around the trendy Internet like a thick fog. The needy aggression that is the default state of the paradoxically passionate and disaffected digital class, cultivated and commodified so brilliantly by Gawker Media and its sundry imitators, cannot stand the loss of regard that might come from genuine self-criticism. These days, even those sentiments that take the form of self-criticism tend, with a moment's review, to collapse into a sidelong critique of others. (JD Daniels: "I have trouble talking about books because to me it feels like narcissistic display. I’m reading this great book because I’m so great." Don't worry, JD. That's only you.) So it is all directed outward, and so attitudes as righteous as anti-racism become just more fuel for the engine of self-promotion. In fact, they are better than all of the other insubstantial bullshit that people use to compete with each other, because while such wars have to be waged secretly (the worst loss possible comes from revealing that you are invested in the fight), purportedly enlightened political aggression contains the plausible deniability of self-aggrandizement.

What is left to be decided is if anti-racist and anti-sexist goals can survive being instrumentalized. I'm a pessimist. I'll tell the truth: I felt more hopeful for the end of racism when opposing racism was an end and not a means.

22 comments:

Zach said...

' Everybody will click like, people will post their various "right ons," and in general it will all be a little orgy of feeling good.'

This captures what eventually alienated me from the UU church. I don't know that many UU churches are that way; however, I was attending a lay led fellowship. It provided a good support system, but it did a lot of talking about how great we all were.

Greg Sanders said...

Based on my memory of political sciences classes, comments made about political candidates on a sports program could be far more influential than much more detailed information on a news program. Quite simply, the sports programs are where the people are.

Thus in response to your ending:
"What is left to be decided is if anti-racist and anti-sexist goals can survive being instrumentalized. I'm a pessimist. I'll tell the truth: I felt more hopeful for the end of racism when opposing racism was an end and not a means."

If anti-racist and anti-sexist goals cannot survive being instrumentalized, they will never be achieved. If people are not avoiding such behavior because it is wrong, then let them avoid it because it is gauche. Social norms are powerful things, they are certainly not unalloyed tools of good but they are key to establishing what is acceptable in a work or an informal environment.

In fact, I'd say an earlier point you make is quite revealing on this question: "If Lindy West got to keep her principled opposition to racism, but was forced to do so in a way that contributed nothing to her considerable self-regard, would she still invest the effort? I have my doubts."

I don't know the writer, so I won't comment on the applicability to this case. However, I'll grant it for the sake of argument. If you're right instrumentality has gotten her talking about anti-racism in a way that at least produces pieces with some good points. That's a success.

It would be a problem if people that previously treated anti-racism and anti-sexism as an end started primarily treating it as a means. It will similarly be a problem if new recruits that might treat anti-racism and anti-sexism as end get stuck at a stage of seeing it as a means and never go further. However, I don't think you've documented either of those phenomenon.

None of this invalidates your critique. I just think your big picture view is off. Using social status to forward egalitarian values is a powerful tool but it involves corruption. Pointing out where that corruption happens is important and probably critical to helping people who become alienated from popular discourse but don't know where to go next. But if the instrumental anti-racists or anti-sexists of the world abandoned their space in the popular discourse, there is any number of inegalitarian social norms that would be eager to take their place.

Freddie said...

If anti-racist and anti-sexist goals cannot survive being instrumentalized, they will never be achieved. If people are not avoiding such behavior because it is wrong, then let them avoid it because it is gauche. Social norms are powerful things, they are certainly not unalloyed tools of good but they are key to establishing what is acceptable in a work or an informal environment.

That's a great point.

Freddie said...

Incidentally, I have no idea why this comments box is suddenly so small and janky. Annoying.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Meanwhile, West demonstrates AP-test level mastery of a profoundly important Internet skill, which is associating yourself and the value of your writing with the political effort itself.

That's a terrific slam, but an even more terrific--incisive, meaning it cuts through the cant succinctly and gets me where my heart resides--point. I recognize that I do this constantly, and it's a lazy way to operate, one which the patterns of interaction on FB make so easy. Good catch, Freddie.

davidly said...

If people are not avoiding such behavior because it is wrong, then let them avoid it because it is gauche. Social norms are powerful things, they are certainly not unalloyed tools of good but they are key to establishing what is acceptable in a work or an informal environment.
Like the OP author, I think this is a good point, but in support of the OP. Racism as gaucheness does nothing to lessen its appeal. Racism has been obscured as rebellion against the norm for too long already.

Kurt said...

Freddie - thanks for this post, very interesting. The Jezebel piece makes some good points. It may be that you and I object to this sort of thing for same reason. We don't believe that the writers have paid their dues. It's one thing to be upper class and proud of your race-neutral views. It's another to have needed that job at the fire department or to have had a confrontation in a restricted area with a person who wishes you harm. And lacking the communication skills to write a witty post,

paul h. said...

Freddie; exactly right, this gets to what always bothered me about the phenomenon

jpmeyer said...

You know where this gets REALLY bad? Fandom communities and Tumblr.

J. Otto Pohl said...

I also think the fact that the fact that certain political positions such as 'anti-racism' become basically social fashion accessories is a problem. It means that the position really is just rhetoric often times.

For instance, how many, "progressive" whites are willing to work in predominantly black environments? My experience of living in Ghana is not all that many. There are a lot of openings at the history department here and yet we receive almost no applications from white Americans. This is despite the fact that there are a lot of unemployed and underemployed American history PhDs out there. They simply just do not want to work in Africa. So the 'anti-racist' rhetoric does not translate into action. A lot of "progressives" love black people only as long as they are far away.

seize said...

Freddie, great article. I liked Lindy's original piece but there was definitely something missing.

Otto, I will share that news with my unemployed liberal-arts-PhD friends. :)

matt said...

This is fair, but I also think there's something else behind the flurries of 'right-on' to these sorts of things. People believe that racism, eg, is wrong, but they don't exactly know why, and aren't even clear on what exactly racism is, and this ignorance bothers them, not least because if they don't know what it is, then how can they justify their belief that it's wrong? So alot of the feverish interest in these pieces is coming from a submerged desire to know.

bcg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jesse M said...

At a certain level of meta-discourse, the appeal of logic is hard to separate from the appeal of logic's appearance, and the passion for truth is hard to separate from the passion of self-reinforcement. It's tough.

However, I don't know exactly what kind of discursive world you're advocating. Is it the pure rationalist public sphere that Habermas and Rawls fantasized about? Is it one where everybody's own interests and self-images are obscured, so people can only talk disinterestedly? So that all social progress is perfectly neutral and principled and abstract, never integrated with fashion or the ongoing forces of cultural drift? Whatever that future looks like, it's one I have trouble envisioning.

For me, the bottom line: when we talk about social tensions, we're talking about peoples' interests and identities, and whether they're in harmony or in conflict. Lindy West is trying to realign some of those interests -- challenging some peoples' entrenched self-righteousness (casually racist hipsters) and asserting a different kind of social self-regard. This is necessary and proper, because social conflict will always be a question of self-interest and self-image and identity.

I agree with Greg Sanders, above: identity politics goals are always already instrumentalized. You have to find a way to hold out hope for progress, despite having to work within the constraints of human beings' masturbatory self-esteem.

Also, it should be pointed out... I found this blog post reposted by a liberal Facebook friend, talking about how important this point is to make. Your criticisms are abstract enough that they can, and should, be applied to your own blog post, as well.

Freddie said...

Your criticisms are abstract enough that they can, and should, be applied to your own blog post, as well.

Oh, for sure.

michael simpkins said...

Great post, I think you need to tug on that string a little more though. More troubling to me than the positioning aspect is that West seems most bothered by being confronted with racism. She admits as much in the second paragraph, "people benefit from racism—hell, I benefit from it every day." In other words, there is racism, but keep that shit where it belongs, in the judicial courts and human resource offices where I can ignore it. God forbid one of her hipster friends ironically remind her of the racist society she lives in.

Anonymous said...

Steve Sailer's comment on the Jezebel post: "What we're seeing over the last couple of weeks are the unfunny, unsuccessful, uncool white girls in the media (e.g., Jezebel writers) waging war using charges of racism on the funny, successful, cool white girls in the media (e.g., Dunham, Arfin, Deschanel)."

jult52

Will Shetterly said...

"I felt more hopeful for the end of racism when opposing racism was an end and not a means."

I am generally suspicious of the social justice crowd's constant quibbling with language, because they tend to ignore context, but I have my own bit of language obsession regarding them: As "anti-X" rather than "pro-Y", they define themselves by what they oppose rather than what they love, so they must perpetuate what they oppose to have purpose. Or, at the very least, they must find it, even if they have to invent it, so they see racism where another evil may be at work.

kilian francis said...

I am generally suspicious of the social justice crowd's constant quibbling with language, because they tend to ignore context

You, sir, are a genius.

Spencer said...

Jup as someone already pointed out. Lindy´s post was great but this one has exactly that thing the Lindy´s version was missing.

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