We are now nearly six years out from worst crisis of capitalism in 80 years. That crisis, and subsequent lack of recovery, is an ongoing confirmation of the Left’s critique of unrestrained capitalism: that it is prone to crisis, that most of its benefits accrue to a tiny minority, and that it undermines democracy, the rule of law, and the social cohesion on which a decent society depends. Yet the Left’s response, almost across the world, has been weak and ineffectual.
Mike Konczal put it fairly well: “leftists continue to seem lost, unable to turn the middle of the plate pitch of a global financial crisis to their advantage.”
I think this is due, in part, to what has become the default mode of leftist cultural operation. Leftists (by which I mean, broadly speaking, people to the left of mainstream liberals) have scored some tremendous victories by shaming prejudice: the fact that there is now gay marriage in Utah ought to be proof enough of that.
But I think this style of operation is reaching the limit of its usefulness as a political tactic. What works well against explicit prejudice is manifestly not working against more subtle forms, is having quite serious side effects on the communities most dedicated to it, and is deeply weak when it comes to issues of class.
Let me start with how prejudice itself has evolved. Very crudely, up until fairly recently (and still to some degree) American culture has been saturated with overt prejudice: racism, sexism, homophobia, the works. Left and minority cultural critics got their start pointing that out and demanding it be stopped. Mass organizing combined with Southern sheriffs obliterating the reputation of racists, and the worst stereotyping was quickly scrubbed from the mass culture.
Of course, the prejudice wasn’t gone, it merely manifested in a more subtle way. Instead of blatantly racist black caricatures in movies, for instance, we got things like noble, completely harmless black cardboard cutouts—not full characters, but a dehumanizing instrumentalization of a clumsy white anti-racism.
But as prejudice has become more subtle, the rhetoric of anti-prejudice has become correspondingly sophisticated and elaborate. So when someone is accused of prejudice these days, it tends to be for something that’s not very obvious to the uninitiated, or is ostensibly in the service of anti-prejudice, but is still attacked with all the force of someone using racial slurs, and still carries the same stigma. People hate and fear being called racist, or sexist, or homophobic, etc, and tend to get incredibly defensive about it. Being prejudiced means you’re Bull Connor.
I find that the reaction to being accused of prejudice takes two forms: people who are have already completely subscribed to the anti-racist project prostrate themselves and beg for forgiveness. Those who haven't roll up into a protective ball to avoid the subject forever, or lash out angrily and turn Right. On the other hand, someone who’s wise to the increasingly Byzantine norms of anti-oppressive rhetoric can weave around them to their own advantage, or ignore them altogether if they so choose.
What all these have in common is that I’m pretty damn sure all of them are, at bottom, driven by the same process that creates black cardboard cutouts: an overwhelming desire to not be seen as prejudiced.
Indeed, for all its success at breaking down systems of overt oppression, this strategy has not met with nearly the same success in bringing down indicators of implicit oppression. Employers, the police, the courts, practically the whole of society is measurably prejudiced. But that prejudice mostly (though not exclusively) doesn’t come anymore in the form of laws saying things like “black people can’t vote,” they come through implicit, plausibly deniable bias on the level of individuals and institutions. Just look at the increasing racism as drug crime cases are processed: blacks represent roughly 12 percent of the US population and use drugs at a similar rate to whites, but represent 39 percent of people arrested for drug crimes and 59 percent of those in state prisons for the same. Or take Donald Sterling, whose concretely effective racism was totally ignored until he expressed it in a gauche and un-elegant way.
Again, I’m not blaming social justice activists for that situation. Obviously, the fault lies with the racist system. I’m saying they might be using better tactics.
Second, and arguably worse, often social justice activists end up argument-proofing their rhetoric. Dispute an interpretation and you’re [your highest-status identity]-splaining and you need to check your privilege. Ask for an explanation and you’re demanding unpaid labor, which is unjust. And as I’ve said, social justice theory is complex, and much of it relies on interpretation and subtext, so when someone doesn’t like an argument it’s easy to frame it as prejudiced and oppressive. Refuting such a charge takes time, lots of words, and most of all an opponent who is willing to argue in good faith. With weapons like that, it’s easy to set up a hermetically sealed argumentative fortress, only tossing out the occasional “take a seat” when necessary.
Now, all these individual steps are often justified. X-splaining really is a thing. Some trolls attack by constantly demanding more explanation. Social justice theory is necessarily complex. But taken together, the overall effect can be to create a rhetorical position which can’t be refuted. And that is a dangerous thing.
Why? Partly because I highly doubt it ever moves anyone who isn’t already convinced, but much more importantly, because it is vulnerable to abuse.
If we look for unambiguous damage aside from the broader cultural effects I’m postulating here you find it not among white men, but among marginalized communities. Radical game critics had a remarkable series of pieces on this phenomenon earlier this year (I, II, III, IV, V, just for starters). Due to argument-proofing, it can be impossible to stop people with personal grievances from turning the artillery of social justice on people who don’t deserve it, or worse, their own peer group:
It’s a contest to see who can best appropriate the language of social justice to legitimize their status as victim and their rival’s as oppressor. Suddenly, the other imperceptibly more privileged queer person is as deserving of cruelty as the sickest oppressor and the shift will happen so fast you’re drawn and quartered by both ends of your community before you can blink because two people can’t get along and they don’t know how to resolve arguments without turning the vast machinery of social justice onto each other as if marginalized individuals were as logical a target for this rhetoric as the vast hegemonies they were invented to dismantle.This is an old story.
Finally, there's the issue of class. Matt Bruenig has written the best stuff on this: unlike any other identity, the solution to class prejudice is the eliminate the existence of poverty; people too often forget that poor whites remain by far the largest sub-group of the poor; and though class is supposed to be part of the identitarian analysis, in reality it is actually marginalized. This latter point—that poor people are almost completely absent from these kinds of conversations, due to lack of education, money, connections, or a dozen other things, and what few manage to claw their way into them tend to quickly find at least some money, thus removing their poor status—makes class an identity particularly vulnerable to delegitimization.
I posted the Jeff Foxworthy video above mainly as a shorthand half-ironic illustration for the Platonic redneck, but thinking a little more I think his material actually speaks to this point. Foxworthy is not a very original comic in terms of material or joke structure; he's a very skilled presenter but not innovative. I think what accounts for his enormous success (apparently the best-selling comedian of all time) is the way his comedic ethos assuages some of the enormous class anxiety that poor whites have developed in a society that is at best leaving them behind, and at worst has little but open contempt.
Much of this happens on Twitter these days, and what I won’t say is that Twitter is poisoning the discourse by itself. I love Twitter, and it has enriched my life in a million ways, especially by empowering a lot of women and minority folks who I probably never would have seen otherwise. I do think it makes pointless fighting a lot more likely and common, but I can’t say with confidence that it’s any worse than previous ages. Left organizations have been ripping themselves apart since time immemorial.
I further won’t say that Twitter is pointless or a waste of time. On the contrary, the tragedy that I see is that social justice Twitter has become incredibly good at getting tremendous amounts of attention, but tends to get it for things which are absolutely baffling to most people.
In any case, here's a couple things I might change. The first is to take some of the sting out of implicit prejudice. I will out and say this: I don’t think having prejudice is, in itself, that morally bad. Why? Because ~100% of people have it. That’s what happens when you grow up in a prejudiced society. Racist acts and words are despicable. Racist thoughts or instincts are, I fear, unavoidable. I’ve got them, no question. I think the Left would do well to cut back on some of the aggressiveness with which they confront implicit racism. Intent matters, and I think it’s unreasonable to expect people to have swallowed an entire critical theory book before they say anything at all about race.
Jay Smooth is where I picked this up. It's a two-way street of course, it matters more for people holding prejudice than it does for people voicing a critique of prejudice acts, but drawing the sting somewhat is a key part of the approach:
Because what society needs, desperately, is a way to get the white power structure to confront its biases in a way which they cannot squirm out of through the instrumentalizing process described above. Shaming people paid a lot of dividends and has established some important norms (which shouldn’t be abandoned, I’d say, overt prejudice still deserves both barrels). But I think a more positive approach, concerned with building relationships and attempting to persuade people, ought to be given equal billing with shaming when it comes to implicit prejudice.
And I also think leftists often don’t appreciate that well-honed logic and reasoning can be a great source of power, and one which is less brittle or prone to backfiring. Yes, the mainstream media will distort things, white pundits can be dense, and it’s unfair to expect people to extend graciousness which is too often denied them. But simply basking in one’s own righteousness is a luxury which the Left can ill-afford. History is full to bursting with people who correctly identified prejudice and died with nothing changed.
Of course, some would just forget about whites altogether. Suey Park, perhaps the most prominent practitioner of this style of activism, says straight-up that “I don’t want [white people] on our side,” adding “they won’t be the majority for long.” And that’s fair enough, like Malcolm X she is free to organize as she sees fit. For my part I don’t think the biosphere has time to wait until 2050 when whites are projected to lose their demographic majority, and in any case it seems more likely that up and coming demographics will be co-opted by the current race structure rather than the other way around.
Second is building the economic and political power of oppressed groups, preferably through simple, brute force techniques. The value of that ought to be obvious.
And this brings me, finally, to vision of the future. I imagine a Left whose primary aesthetic is cheerful comradeship: one which is as concerned with bringing fellow human beings into the light as it is with determining who is right and who is wrong, or who has the right to have which opinions; one which regards prejudice and oppression as terrible realities but not absolutely insurmountable barriers; one which recognizes that pissed-off bitterness is not the same thing as radicalism; one which recognizes the inherent value of reasoned debate, both as a tactic and as bullshit-antibodies; and one which is more willing to forgive than it is to purge.
A Left that could welcome and educate even Jeff Foxworthy's archetypal redneck, if he came in with an open mind and an open heart.
Let me emphasize again finally that I’m not blaming social justice communities for current conditions. Clearly, the vast bulk of the responsibility for our current terrible situation belongs to those who have directly caused it: broadly speaking, the people with money and power. I’m saying -- or hoping -- that the Left might better marshal its forces. It’s a speculative case, but I think that, say, outright Socialists once manage to sign up a fifth of the population of Oklahoma lends some credence to the case.