posted at 7:01 pm on November 30, 2016 by John Sexton
Writing at the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf has an interesting piece today titled “Too much stigma, not enough persuasion,” which points to a problem problem Democrats seem to have developed on social media, i.e. an eagerness to shame and humiliate anyone who fails to be sufficiently in line with their own understanding of a given social issue. The problem isn’t disagreement, it’s the immediate resort to public ridicule at the slightest provocation.
The subject of the piece is stigma but the plot, if you will, involves a recent brouhaha over a piece by Kevin Drum at progressive outlet Mother Jones. Over the weekend, Drum argued that an attack on Bernie Sanders as “white male supremacy” was out of line. He went on to say the phrase “white supremacy” was being overused on the left and suggested this was a fad which would only serve to limit progressives ability to reach anyone not already in agreement with them. Drum even named names, suggested the person at fault for this fad might be Ta-Nehisi Coates:
I was listening in on a listserv conversation the other day, and someone asked how and when it became fashionable to use the term “white supremacy” as a substitute for ordinary racism. Good question. I don’t know the answer, but my guess is that it started with Ta-Nehisi Coates, who began using it frequently a little while ago. Anyone have a better idea?
For what it’s worth, this is a terrible fad. With the exception of actual neo-Nazis and a few others, there isn’t anyone in America who’s trying to promote the idea that whites are inherently superior to blacks or Latinos. Conversely, there are loads of Americans who display signs of overt racism—or unconscious bias or racial insensitivity or resentment over loss of status—in varying degrees.
This isn’t just pedantic. It matters. It’s bad enough that liberals toss around charges of racism with more abandon than we should, but it’s far worse if we start calling every sign of racial animus—big or small, accidental or deliberate—white supremacy. I can hardly imagine a better way of proving to the non-liberal community that we’re all a bunch of out-of-touch nutbars who are going to label everyone and everything we don’t like as racist.
As Friedersdorf recounts, a CUNY professor named Angus Johnson then went on a Twitter rant about what an incredible dunce Drum was. I won’t include the whole string of tweets but here is the point Friedersdorf makes about it:
His tweetstorm began by remarking how astonishingly ignorant Drum supposedly is. Later, in a more-sorrow-than-anger tone, he indicts the whole of American education and culture, and then, in the most gratuitous tweet of all, he amends his characterization of Drum as astonishingly ignorant. “And no, ‘astonishing’ isn’t the right word,” Johnston wrote. “Embarrassing is. Mortifying. Cringeworthy.”
Substantive criticism gives way to pure stigmatization.
An approach to disagreement narrower in its appeal, or more alienating in its tone, is hard to imagine.
Friedersdorf goes on to show that the Dictionary and Wikipedia definitions of the term “white supremacy” accord well with Drum’s use of the term. That doesn’t mean the CUNY professor was wrong, only that he was arguing from his own academic background, a background not shared by the overwhelming majority of Americans. In any case, the argument Drum was making was merely that referring to Bernie Sanders as a promoter of “white male supremacy” is pretty out there and not very convincing to the vast majority of people. Friedersdorf concludes with this:
On social media, there are often greater incentives for stigmatizing others as insufficiently enlightened than for earnest efforts at constructive, nuanced engagement.
Those incentives threaten the liberal project.
This struck me as a very good point. Social media seems designed to foster this kind of public shaming. That’s not a problem limited to the left of course. There is plenty of public shaming happening on the right as well. But it is the left that has strongly encouraged emotional and performative shaming to reject and silence other voices, especially on campus and online. In fact, if I have any problem with Friedersdorf’s piece it’s that the particular disagreement he cites seems far from the worst one he might have chosen to make his point, i.e. there are a lot of rude, insular voices on the left demanding everyone adopt their point of view or risk a public humiliation.