(Also on medium.)
Some people have blamed the astonishing election of Donald Trump to the Presidency on the over-stridence of broadly defined political correctness, like Robby Soave at Reason and Amanda Marcotte at Salon. In this, they basically agree with Jeff Greenfield, who in Politico blamed the election results on Democrats’ “wholesale embrace of identity politics,” with Yuval Levin, who wrote in Slate, “There’s a kind of descent into a really crude identity politics among some younger voices on the left that I think should worry people,” and with Andrew Sullivan, who wrote in New York:
[T]he left’s abandonment of empiricism and liberalism — its rapid descent into neo-Marxist dogma, its portrayal of American history as a long unending story of white supremacy, its coarse impugning of political compromise and incrementalism, its facile equation of disagreement with bigotry — has also played a part. Liberal democracy needs liberal norms and manners to survive. Which is why it is now on life-support.
What’s a good leftist to do? Must we choose between bigotry and big-heartedness? I have friends who say, particularly in the wake of the election, “I will never excuse bigotry, I will never coddle prejudice.” I agree, but is every Trump voter a bigot? Is every critic of Obama prejudiced?
If your answer is yes and yes, I beg to remind you of the congregants of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. They were able to forgive Dylaan Roof after he murdered nine of their brethren; they found the strength to forgive cold-blooded, pre-meditated murder.
Choosing between bigotry and big-heartedness makes for a false binary. Frank Bruni, who is gay and out, recently wrote in his column in the New York Times:
Political correctness has morphed into a moral purity that may feel exhilarating but isn’t remotely tactical. It’s a handmaiden to smugness and sanctimony, undermining its own goals.
I worry about my and my colleagues’ culpability along these lines. I plan to use greater care in how I talk to and about Americans more culturally conservative than I am. That’s not a surrender of principle or passion. It’s a grown-up acknowledgment that we’re a messy, imperfect species.
Bruni goes on:
Liberals miss this by being illiberal. They shame not just the racists and sexists who deserve it but all who disagree. A 64-year-old Southern woman not onboard with marriage equality finds herself characterized as a hateful boob. Never mind that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton weren’t themselves onboard just five short years ago.
Here, a gay man promises to be less strident about marriage equality. I believe we can all learn something from that.
I can think of another person who refuses to 100% agree with either the racists or the self-anointed “woke”: Barack Obama. Let me quote his remarks to Howard University’s Class of 2016:
So don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them. There’s been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally. Don’t do that — no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths. Because as my grandmother used to tell me, every time a fool speaks, they are just advertising their own ignorance. Let them talk. Let them talk. If you don’t, you just make them a victim, and then they can avoid accountability.
I believe President Obama recognizes that disinviting graduation speakers is symptomatic of the left during his presidency. There’s been a growing intolerance of dissent, a certain confidence that the country is moving left anyway, so why listen to anyone who disagrees? Is the goal to feel superior, or is the goal to slowly, painfully, eventually change minds, as was done in the case of same-sex marriage? I’d like to think the latter.
German Lopez writes in Vox, in the site’s most popular story of November 16, 2016, “Research says there are ways to reduce racial bias. Calling people racist isn’t one of them.” The long piece goes on to suggest that we need to live more among our brothers and sisters. That is absolutely true. But in the real world, we also spend a great deal of time in the non-real world, ahem, the online world, and I believe we need strategies to reduce bias there as well.
Audre Lorde wrote, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” I believe she meant to include people who don’t always agree with us. And if I’m right, then some of the left should try to modulate its speech, which is as Bruni says “not a surrender,” but simply an attempt to emulate Michelle Obama: “they go low, we go high.” Some people say they’re going to “make America great again.” I would hope the rest of us should work on trying to make Americans understand each other again.
But perhaps I’m wrong. For example, Lena Dunham recently wrote,
A lot of people have been talking about how we need to try to understand how this happened and what’s going on in the minds of the people who voted for Donald Trump. Maybe. Maybe. But maybe let’s leave that to the strategists, to the men in offices who need to run the numbers. It should not be the job of women, of people of color, of queer and trans Americans, to understand who does not consider them human and why, just as it’s not the job of the abused to understand their abuser. It’s quite enough work to know about and bear the hatred of so many. It’s quite enough work to go on living.
I do not ask Dunham or anyone else to understand someone who does not consider her human. However, I believe this is partly a straw-man argument; most bias is a little more subtle than that. I personally cannot walk away from half the country. Now more than ever, we need to build bridges, not walls. Below, I have several suggestions on how this works in practice.
I would hope my suggestions apply to real-life conversations, but the discussion points below are tailored to online discussions on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, YouTube, and the comment threads on news websites. After ten years of commenting in such places, you should know that directly calling someone “racist” or “sexist” will get you labeled as someone committing “ad hominem attacks.” It’s pretty much the same thing if you write, “you sound like Hitler.”
If you are going to engage in internet-based conversations, I would hope you would attempt dialogue and not monologue. This absolutely does not mean agreeing with Milo Yiannopoulos or Michael Rectenwald when he says “this particular social-justice-warrior-left is producing the alt-right by virtue of its insanity.” It just means being more strategic about the way we disagree with such people.
One excellent way is to take a page from Nicholas Kristof, Pulitzer winner, Times columnist, and one of the most avid male feminists you can find. He heavily recommends the implicit.harvard.edu test. After taking it, you might comment with something like, “My results on this test proved to me that despite my best intentions, I have some racist inclinations that I’m not proud of. If you take the free online test, I think you’ll agree with me that bias is something we can all work on.”
If you start a conversation with a sexist by admitting that you harbor some sexist impulses yourself, I strongly feel that conversation is going be more productive than if you start by telling the person that he hates women. As a general rule, if you can say something that the other side has said, or would nod at, you’ve started in the way Barack Obama usually does.
Yes, it is true that rational discourse only goes so far. There are people online who are beyond deplorable; many of them live in other countries and are paid to be deplorable. If an online commenter says something ridiculous like “all ___ need to be deported” or “shut up bitch,” that person should either be ignored or promptly refuted. When Ann Coulter tweets nonsense about native grandparents and voting, the only two proper responses are to ignore her or shame her.
But the truth is, most biased online comments aren’t that extreme. Here is a more typical comment. It’s a biased, but not insane, tweet from a man named Tim Carney:
Low-income rural white voters in Pa. voted for Obama in 2008 and then Trump in 2016, and your explanation is white supremacy? Interesting.
Is Tim Carney racist? Maybe. Does it help to tell him that he is? Not really. Is responding without calling him racist the equivalent of, as Lena Dunham put it, the “abused trying to understand her abuser”? If you are certain that the answer is yes, this article is not really for you. I would hope you would stay off the internet and stop adding fuel to fires.
A better response to this tweet — granted, it might take several tweets, but you’ve read this far, you have time — might be “I acknowledge that some voters, perhaps even a decisive block of voters, vote based on their economic interests; after the bank bailouts of 2008, Obama may have seemed better; after 8 years of stagnant wages under Obama, Trump may have seemed better. That said, white supremacy wasn’t on the menu in 2008; neither Obama nor McCain divided voters that way, while Trump did, with about 100 examples. So how can you discount, or separate out, the voters who flocked to Trump because of what he offered in 2016 that no one offered 8 years before?”
Here’s another example from a tweet by Sohrab Ahmari:
The left pushed too far: identity politics, censoriousness and basing policy on the need of exotic sexual minorities. Now the backlash.
Is Ahmari prejudiced? Maybe. Does it help to tell him that he is? Probably not. Instead, a better response might be, “Not sure what you mean by ‘exotic sexual minorities’ — can you say that again with a synonym?” Or “Not agreeing with the ‘exotic’-izing, but what are some examples of ‘basing policy’? Haven’t seen Obama base policies on identity politics, please correct me.”
Or we can just give up. But I hope we don’t give up. Perhaps the temptation is to think: well, the worst already happened, so why adjust? Wrong. Much worse can happen.
We need to try “I see what you’re saying, but I feel…” or “I can agree with ____, but in my experience…” We’re talking about catching more flies with honey than with vinegar. We’re talking about out-Christian-ing the Christians. We’re talking about our common humanity going forward. We’re talking about not permitting a President Trump to keep the country divided.
Or if you still believe you’re better than Barack Obama, Audre Lorde, Frank Bruni, Nicholas Kristof, Amanda Marcotte, German Lopez, and the congregants of Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, fine. The rest of us will just work around your moral superiority.
What follows are 20 specific suggestions for “talking points” regarding issues that get identified with “identity politics.” These bits of rhetoric are not meant to be definitive or reductive; you are encouraged to come up with your own words that might address other aspects of these issues, or other issues. However, we are all exhausted, and in case you do not have the energy to invent something of your own, you are welcome to plagiarize these 20:
The beer summit. You might think America had forgotten about the accidental arrest of Henry Louis Gates, but it still comes up every time a talking head says something like, “Obama said he would heal race relations, but…” And then the interviewer asks, “When did he do that?” The response is, “Ever since the beer summit…” If an online commenter is specific that Obama’s failure to heal America’s racial wounds had something to do with the Beer Summit, you might say, “It was a mistake for Obama to say that ‘police acted stupidly.’ It may have been a mistake to bring the officer and the arrestee to the White House for drinks while no one apologized. However, it was also a mistake if anyone thought that America’s first black President could or would magically make America’s racial problems go away. If John McCain had won in 2008, would Gates have still been arrested in 2009 in front of his own house?” Yes. “Would McCain have somehow fixed something, so that future Gateses wouldn’t have been arrested, or shot, by cops?”
Black Lives Matter: Some people say this is a terrorist group, but I don’t feel such people should be summarily ignored or shamed. Instead I would try, with them, “Jesus pretty much said ‘poor lives matter,’ I don’t think he hated everyone else.” (If someone gets persnickety, the exact quote is Matthew 5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdown of heaven.”) Another thing to say is, “the phrase only addresses African-Americans’ specific vulnerablities, like their vast, massive over-representation in the criminal justice system. Dallas Police Chief David Brown says that it’s possible to be pro-police and pro-Black Lives Matter, and we shouldn’t set up a false zero-sum competition between the two groups; what do you think?”
Kim Davis. She should not have a wikipedia page. Yes, she’s a Kentucky county clerk who sought to deny same-sex couples their marriage rights. But that doesn’t mean one should “like” posts or tweets that attack her. She’s going to lose anyway, and liberals should avoid “punching down” whenever possible. Sure, attack John Mayer for saying he has a “David Duke cock,” that’s fine; John Mayer is rich and he can take it. But Kim Davis is a nobody and you appear as a bully. I would say, “I don’t excuse the behavior of some of my fellow liberals in the case of Kim Davis, but I don’t excuse her violating the law, either. We all have to agree with the Supreme Court on these sorts of issues, right?”
Rachel Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner: Dolezal is not quite as intentionally private as Kim Davis; she was/is a civil-rights activist. One of the reasons that Rachel Dolezal became a household name for a couple of weeks was that the right wanted to compare her to Caitlyn Jenner and ask: if gender is so mutable, why not race? Of course, race and gender do not have the same structural biases, and a playing field leveled for one hardly guarantees a playing field leveled for another, as first-wave feminists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton learned to their great chagrin in the 1860s and 1870s. But anyway, if and when this comes up, say something like, “Ideally, I’d like to support anyone’s truth, anyone’s assertion of their own identity. For me, Dolezal crossed a line by lying, by pretending. But I think this is a valuable conversation and I welcome diverse views.”
Fat shaming and slut shaming: This is relatively easy. “Shaming anyone is a shame…on the shamer. But isn’t fat shaming or slut shaming really criticizing someone for excess, whether it’s ‘too much’ eating or sex? So let’s agree that excess is excessive, and that includes excess insults and excess insularity, right?”
Ghostbusters: of course doxxing Leslie Jones falls into the category of unacceptable. But is it possible to be less than enamored of Ghostbusters (2016) and yet not be sexist? One might also admit that this litmus test of enlightenment is newer than the Obama administration. That’s because one (you) said nothing, on Twitter or in a comment section or otherwise, when, in 2009, Entertainment Weekly speculated that Megan Fox could be “the sexpot” in a GB remake, and asked “wouldn’t we all love to see how she’d look in that brown jumpsuit?” If you didn’t say anything to EW then, you should not leap on people for being sexist now. The idea of telling people “it’s evolving” is itself evolving. I would confine myself to “Hollywood makes a lot of bad remakes, but doesn’t making distaff versions of films like Ghostbusters and Ocean’s Eleven suggest more potential creativity than we see in a typical multiplex?”
Colin Kaepernick. I would say something like, “He is very lucky to live in America, where people have fought and died for him to be able to protest that way. But there’s nothing wrong with his expressing his opinion. Athletes have been bringing up politics at least since Muhammed Ali; doesn’t change the games, does it?”
Marriage equality. You simply quote Donald Trump: “That’s already settled. It’s law.”
Microaggressions. Recently, Brandeis University did a display on potential microaggressions, only to remove it under protest because some students felt the display was itself a microaggression. As with most issues here, your goal is to present something other than the most strident possible leftist position. Try to find a microaggression that you would avoid speaking aloud, and one that you think is going too far. For me, saying “I’m color-blind! I don’t see race.” is an unnecessary microaggression. On the other hand, saying “you guys” is something I find acceptable. Your results may vary. But you will sound more like a normal human, like an Obama, if you can find one of each.
Muslim misogyny: many Muslim-hating comments are beyond civil discourse, but one that isn’t is: “why do liberals excuse Muslim misogyny?” In this case, you say, “I don’t know any liberal who specifically excuses woman-hating from Muslims; instead, the onus is on” whoever is making this charge “to find a feminist comment about misogyny that excludes Muslims.”
Muslims’ supposed “silence” on violence. A common canard on the right is: why don’t Muslims condemn violence? “Many do. I would hope that anyone asking this has a record of condemning violence from their particular ‘group,’ for example white people in the cases of Dylaan Roof and Adam Lanza. But yes, there is a problem of clerics and leaders ‘looking the other way’ when it comes to violence supposedly committed in the name of Islam. I acknowledge that frustrating weakness at the same time that I marvel at the remarkable strength and assimilation of 99% of Muslims in America, who are almost all testaments to the power of living the American Dream.”
Obama opposition does not equal racism. The problem with this issue is that it’s not easy to explain in a tweet. Ideally you’re in a comment section where you can say something more like, “Opposition to all of Obama’s policies is not in itself racist. However, there is a deep resentment toward Obama which was not seen toward Bill Clinton or George W. Bush or other Presidents, for example the demand to see his birth certificate, and this resentment does reflect a certain unconscious bias. I feel that bias may be related to the sort of bias that keeps people with black names from being hired as easily as people without them — even by well-meaning liberals like myself.”
#oscarssowhite and Asians in movies. Both of these are real ongoing problems, but conservatives tend not to say inflammatory things on threads about them, preferring to watch liberals fight each other. So you don’t really need a talking point, other than to agree that Hollywood needs to expand the kind of roles it offers. If you would like to surprise an online discussion of Hollywood’s lack of Asians, you might mention that Keanu Reeves is of Chinese-Hawaiian descent.
Rape culture. If anyone still doubts this exists in America after the year of Brock Turner and Donald Trump and Kelly Oxford, wow. But trying to take the high road, you might say, “Sure, #notallmen. But what are men doing about symptoms like victim blaming, sexual objectification, trivializing rape, or denial of widespread rape and sexual slavery? We all have mothers, daughters, sisters; we all have a very direct investment in making sure that the very notion of rape is stigmatized and not normalized, right?”
Safe spaces. Again, the idea is to be diplomatic. You might say, “I recognize that when one space is designated as safe, that unfortunately implies that other spaces are unsafe. I also recognize that when outdoor areas are made into safe spaces to exclude journalists or others, that can be considered ‘safe-baiting,’ trying to trick someone into making you a victim. All that said, power relations in America are now and have always been asymmetrical. What were the 19th-century abolitionists and feminists doing but meeting in safe spaces? If they had had to share space — or God forbid, online access — with their Congressmen at the time, I think it’s fair to say that neither the 13th or 19th amendments would have ever passed. And there are still struggles for freedom today.”
Surfeits of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation simply can’t be wrong in every single case, and if you want to help online discussions of it, you’ll think of two cases where you feel it was fine, one by a white person and one by a clearly non-white person, and two cases where you feel it went too far, one by a white person and one by a clearly non-white person. Mine would perhaps be something like, “Puff Daddy did a great remake of Sting’s ‘Every Breath You Take,’ and Eminem had at least two great hip-hop albums. But Miley Cyrus should have learned more about twerking before objectifying black bodies on MTV, and Kanye West wearing the Confederate flag is just ridiculous.”
Taking down Confederate flags. I would say something like “Did you know Confederate flags were basically unseen in the public in the South for almost a century, from about 1865 to about 1960?” Or I would say “I feel those flags support sedition and slavery, neither of which have to be racial; they’re just objectionable ideas.” Or, “Look, if someone wants to display a traitor flag in their house or in a parade, in some ways I appreciate them telling me who they are. But I don’t support a Confederate flag on official government property, say a state-house, for the same reason I wouldn’t want a Canadian or Mexican flag there. Our taxes aren’t paying to support Canada or Mexico.” I might add, “I don’t object to Don’t Tread On Me flags.” Half a loaf.
Tearing down statues of Confederate soldiers. Don’t go there. Just walk away, unless and until you’re ready to blow up Mount Rushmore. You should be ready to rename the capital and the state of Washington, because George Washington owned slaves. (Got your replacement names picked out? “Columbia” won’t exactly help your case.) If you want to be that strident, okay, but you’re putting yourself on the lunatic fringe.
Trans-friendly bathrooms. I agree that North Carolina shouldn’t restrict its bathrooms to people born of a given gender. But can my friends on the left take a page from Frank Bruni (above) and please be a tiny bit slower to name as bigots anyone who doesn’t agree with this sentiment? Please understand that this idea was only just imposed on North Carolinians in the last two years; give them time to internalize what you internalized in five minutes. I would say, “We’ve all been using porta-potties for years without worrying what gender they were for. As for larger bathrooms, I have to think that businesses can choose how to set them up; I would just hope they could do that without demonizing any particular group, right?”
Trigger warnings. I would say something like, “I don’t believe in mandatory trigger warnings, but suggested warnings are often a good idea. I know people who have been traumatized by sexual assault, and I don’t know of any reason to increase their pain. But I also respect a teacher’s right to run her own class, so I would recommend, but not demand, trigger warnings. What do you think?”