Monday, October 29, 2012

critical practice doesn't feel good

Alyssa Rosenberg has written an interesting response to John Scalzi's "letter from a rapist" satire, and to a criticism of that piece from Kristin McFarland, who takes Scalzi to task for appropriating women's issues from women. It's all interesting, in part because Scalzi has built a side career for himself as a celebrated voice of socially liberal boilerplate. I don't think he's used to being criticized from this direction, and that tells us a lot about the state of online social liberalism.

With McFarland's piece, I'm disarmed. I seem almost nothing to disagree with directly, and yet I can't help but suspect that, were she to get her way, she would find the world less conducive to her own political preferences. It's a pretty classic theory/practice split, and one I have no business trying to resolve. The reality of power is that those with it are the most likely to be able to redistribute it, to stop its abuse. Poor people are more likely to be liberated from poverty with the help of rich people. Black people are more likely to become empowered with the help of white people. And sexism is more likely to be truly defeated with the help of men. I don't intend to suggest any tactics, here; that's beyond my purview. And whether you see this as a hopeful statement of human interconnectedness or a profoundly unhappy threat to truly revolutionary politics is up to you.

I'm more interested, myself, in what this all says about the "feeling good" school of online social liberalism, the gated community aspect. By that I mean the propensity of many popular social liberals, Scalzi included, to write for an audience that celebrates the writer and themselves for their political righteousness, without engaging in the uncomfortable and ugly work of self-implication. When I read posts by Scalzi or others, such as Lindy West, I see a lot of people feeling good about themselves for being better than their targets, and I worry that nothing is improving.

Part of the point of my criticisms of Gawker and its relationship to CreepShots was that Gawker derives a lot of revenue from content that is of similar prurience to the photos published on Reddit in CreepShots. This is just true: Gawker has hosted or linked to many, many pictures of naked or nearly naked women who did not consent to having those pictures made public. (Some insist that this is different because those women are public figures; I think that people maintain the right to privacy as it pertains to their naked bodies even after they become famous.) They do it constantly, and I'm told by those who know that those posts do very big numbers, meaning that they rake in a lot of revenue. Worse still is the very fact that Gawker presents this kind of content to a group of people who would never think of themselves as similar to the CreepShots crowd. By showing nearly-nude and fully-nude pictures of nonconsenting people to a population that considers itself above such things, and building in the kind of ironic metatheatrics that helps such people excuse their behavior, Gawker perpetuates the very rape culture that they claimed to be fighting in outing ViolentAcrez. I wouldn't be surprised if the whole thing was a net positive for the fight against that rape culture, and if so I'm grateful Adrian Chen did what he did. But the unanimous celebration and self-celebration from both Gawker and its audience suggested that there was nothing untoward or unfortunate to be discovered at all. The more that people trade praise to one another for their superior social liberalism, the harder genuine reform becomes.

When people ask me why I am such an asshole, I typically say that I have an inductive understanding of positive social change: real moral progress, it seems to me, always comes from discomfort, anger, and ugliness. That's what history teaches me. You should be profoundly skeptical of the hype that emanates from blog posts or magazine articles where the reaction is overwhelmingly positive. For that positivity to develop, such essays must be free of content that is challenging to most people who belong to the loose confederacy of web-savvy social liberalism. Given my take on the current state of human affairs, I don't believe that any writing that fails to challenge in this way is likely to prod anyone in a positive direction. When people criticize Andrea Dworkin, for example, for alienating people with her exploration of the proximity of consensual heterosexual sex to rape, they mistake a feature for a bug. If she wasn't alienating people, she couldn't possibly be honestly expressing how she saw the world and its profound misogyny. The opposite is true: if we live in a culture that tacitly permits rape and other horrors, it stands to reason that any minimally worthwhile work of social critique will leave a significant majority of the people reading it angered and unhappy.

It's for this reason that I am willing to toe the edge of sociopathy in my desire for online independence, why I so frequently feel compelled to start fights with people I respect and admire, and why I have such little use for most of what John Scalzi or Lindy West write: because I believe that truly constructive political discourse will inevitably leave many or most people (usually including me) feeling threatened and accused. If feeling good about yourself produced positive social change, the world would be in much better shape.

Rosenberg says "I’d rather have Scalzi and company in the conversation than not." And so would I. If the alternative to Scalzi writing as he typically does is for his ideas not to be voiced at all, I take him as he is, and West too, and others like them. If the alternative to Gawker outing ViolentAcrez and casting negative attention on CreepShots is that that negative attention never gets focused at all, I'll gladly take the Gawker version. (Despite what some with low reading comprehension have said, I have no sympathy for ViolentAcrez and I believe his outing was justified.) But I think that they could be doing more if they were more distrustful of the tendency of their writing to invite so many people to feel righteous and validated. The question for Scalzi is, if he could keep the critique but had to give up all the fawning commenters, would he keep doing it? And what are the odds that truly constructive discourse would always end up making him and his fans feel good?

Update: Scalzi has replied thoughtfully and at length in the comments to this post and you should read it.

6 comments:

John Scalzi said...

"The question for Scalzi is, if he could keep the critique but had to give up all the fawning commenters, would he keep doing it? And what are the odds that truly constructive discourse would always end up making him and his fans feel good?"

Since you asked...

The first several years of Whatever the site had hand-rolled html code, so comments weren't possible, and before that I had a syndicated newspaper column, which (this being the early 90s, before the presence of newspaper Web sites) mean no avenue for immediate comment. So the answer would be: Yes, I would do it, and I know I would because I did it before.

One thing to bear in mind about commenters -- which I think has bearing on your point -- is that in a general sense is that they are not necessarily representative of total readership. Whatever gets up to 50,000 readers a day (on average), but the number of "regular commenters" is a group of a few dozen at most, and the universe of total commenters is less than 1% of all readers.

Commenters in a general sense do tend to self-select for sites that are congenial to their point of view (or alternately will allow them to express their point of view even if it not congenial). To some extent any web site that has regular commenters is going to have a t least a little bit of self-regard to it, because in general people don't hang around places where they aren't liked and don't feel comfortable.

Likewise, that people have blind spots in the shape of themselves is not entirely surprising, although I suspect you may be generally selling people short; in my own experience my commenters seem to be fairly self aware and also, aware of their own flaws and foibles. No one is perfectly self-critical but I think no one thinks they are perfect.

I enjoy the back and forth with commenters on my site and think it's a valuable part of the site for all the readers, which is one reason why I put the effort into it. But I'm also aware that putting the commenters first would be letting the tail wag the dog, as it were. I do also try to be aware of my own limitations and inherent assumptions, but again, you know, one does not see one's self perfectly.

As for whether "constructive discourse" would make me feel good, I don't know, but I do know that constructive discourse is difficult and a lot of people do it poorly. Moreover, I disagree that "real moral progress, it seems to me, always comes from discomfort, anger, and ugliness," personally. I think discomfort, anger and ugliness have their role and should not be avoided when necessary, but in my own experience I've also found that people who can be persuaded to one's point of view may also be alienated from it if they feel attacked. One rhetorical size does not fit all.

Again, for my part, when I'm writing I'm not just looking at the 1% who comment, I'm also looking at the 99% who are not, who are reading the posts, and the comments, silently.

cian said...

I have no sympathy for ViolentAcrez and I believe his outing was justified.

I'm not so sure that it was. If the original story was 100% accurate, then yes. But it wasn't.

While I haven't had time to work out what was and wasn't accurate, I find the fact that Chen destroyed this guy's life without verifying every last fact deeply troubling.

paul h. said...

I'm always a little mystified as to how the unborn child is the last thing under consideration here.

Anyway, yes, Gawker etc

Jeffrey S. said...

"real moral progress, it seems to me, always comes from discomfort, anger, and ugliness."

Hmmm. John already had a good response to this, but I wonder how you apply this to your own feelings about social conservatives? After all, I'm sure this post makes you angry and/or uncomfortable, but in my experience when it comes to moral truths, Vox is more often right than wrong:

http://voxday.blogspot.com/2012/10/john-scalzi-squicked-me-out-too.html

matt said...

"I believe that truly constructive political discourse will inevitably leave many or most people (usually including me) feeling threatened and accused."

But surely you have some other standard or index besides this one? Some more important, more essential standard?

Freddie said...

Of course. But it emerges from the flux of argument itself.