March 28, 2011
When Alexandra Wallace posted a YouTube video of herself complaining about the “hordes” of Asian students at UCLA and how their existence on campus interfered with her student performance (in the video Wallace mocks the way Asian students speak on their cell phones in the library. “Ching Chong, Ting Tong, Ling Long” she sneers, holding an imaginary phone up to her ear) the response was venomous. Tons of insulted students of all races, creeds and genders logged online to insult her back, oftentimes relying on racist and sexist stereotypes designed to insult and intimidate. Most of these insults drew attention to her cleavage and the fact that she was a “stupid, slutty little white girl”, rather than a bigot. Though the rage that Wallace provoked was certainly merited, as noted on blogs like Racialicious and Colorlines, the use of equally appalling slurs to shame her begs the question of what kind of dialogue we aim to promote in our current culture. Though there has been considerable backlash about what is politically correct and incorrect to say in our culture, the constant influx of these type of insult matches demonstrates how often discussions about racism, sexism, orany other “ism” end with piled on insults and relying on hurtful stereotypes in order to shame the other. This is the current landscape of 2011, a far cry from the days where politically correct labels were slapped on to anything in order to minimize conflict. These days, people want their conflicts right out there in the open. The question is, are these types of conversations actually working to minimize hate?
I am not surprised that people harbor racist or sexist opinions, or that people often use insults as a way to get attention. What is more interesting to me is that this type of technique is now commonly used as a way to “fight” racism or sexism. Several months ago a young woman fed up with increasingly sexist discussions and insults that were being leveraged against her online created the “Privilege Denying Dude” meme, with featured a smug looking young white man wearing a blazer, set against a background of pink and black stripes. You could fill in your own privilege denying slogans or phrases on this meme such as, “Your ideas sound so much better when I rephrase them.” Though the meme was promoted as being an amusing way to deal with trolls attempting to derail actual discussions on feminist message boards, the backlash was palpable, and, in my mind, understandable, for a few reasons. First, the fact is, with a meme like this, you are going to end up insulting a number of members of the opposite sex who may well have had your sympathies before. Second, the meme began flaring up anywhere someone posted a question or situation which was not dominant party-line, creating a new kind of privileged response system. Lastly, the trolls themselves actually seemed to welcome this kind of response. Many delighted in creating parodies of the privilege denying dude, such as their version of a “Feminist” meme with a picture of actress Ashley Judd wearing a “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” shirt, and making blanket statements that mock Feminist discourse, such as “A woman disagrees with you? She must have been brainwashed by the patriarchy.”
Clearly, this is not facilitating discussion, helping to maintain a safe space or minimizing sexist, patronizing comments. People often argue that in today’s world there is no place for debate, discussion and analysis, everyone huddled around their individual devices, rather than sitting at the table and having a conversation about ideas. But the problem in my eyes is less about whether or not people are having ideas and sharing them with other people, than the fact that the type of technological venues we often use for sharing our ideas effectively shut down discussions, rather than open them up. Read through the comments to an article on any reputable news site, Conservative or Liberal, and you will see a slew of comments that aim to derail the actual conversation. This is true for independent blogs as well, where trolls are consistently attempting to provoke and intimidate serious readers. This kind of bullying is especially dangerous for minority voices on the web. Hostile comments posted on any major news website are often racist and sexist in nature. The phenomenon is so commonplace that most Internet readers have simply become inured to it.As a twenty something who grew up reading this type of commentary I know I certainly am. When my mother calls up to express dismay that so many comments on her news sites are racist or Anti Semitic in nature, I shrug my shoulders and tell her she just needs to ignore the trolls. “They just want to get your goat,” I tell her. “The best policy is to ignore the ignorant in the hopes that they will go away.”
There seem to be two basic responses to hostility- fighting fire with fire and turning the other way. As a person who profoundly hates confrontation, I have generally put myself in the latter category. This is true for most highly politicized situations I see. When The Westboro Baptist Church came to both schools I teach at, my immediate response was, “Better not to pay attention to these guys. They are a fringe, extremist group asking for attention.” Ever since coming to live in DC, I’ve found myself wary of highly publicized, political movements. I fear groupthink even if it is a cause I feel committed to and I worry that the movements themselves often make the causes trendy, superficial blips within our culture, rather than meaty calls for change. I prefer balanced discussions to vitriolic slogans and was thus, very surprised at my own reaction at seeing students at American University come out in every color of the rainbow, in solidarity against the hateful Westboro Church. I was downright moved by the solidarity I saw and was proud that I taught at a University where students would stand up to unjust ideas with love, rather than hate. My response was heightened I think because I’ve come to accept the fact that political movements have a tendency to evolve into cliques and, in our world today, bratty behavior generally wins you more friends and converts than listening to other voices and increasing discussion.
My frustration at the Privilege Denying Dude meme, and the fact that so many of my fellow liberal, feminist bloggers jumped on the bandwagon stems from the fact that it seemed like a petty, immature response that would serve to further isolate the community and make it the target of more attacks. You can’t fight stereotypes by endorsing others, even if you are angry, and by adopting a white man as a negative symbol, you end up playing in to the very stereotype you were resisting in the first place- that feminists are man-hating, that white men are responsible for anti-women sentiments and that the patriarchy is symbolized by an affluent white man . These trends meet the psychological need of insulating us from attacks (which come too often) but also serve to alienate potential allies and thus end up hurting the movements themselves. They also mark our actions as hypocritical- if I’m unable to accept that there may be white men who have more in line with my beliefs than white women (and that people of other race and ethnic backgrounds don’t even come up on the radar often, except when we speak specifically about what it means to be a diverse community) than I am being just as self involved and disinterested in listening to other voices, as my belligerent adversaries.
Some may argue that these types of tactics are necessary in a brutal world. But that seems to me to be a band-aid solution to explosive, violent, thoughtless discourse. People can blame the anonymity of technology all they want, but the truth is we constantly reward bad behavior in our culture- the more inflammatory a statement, the more likely it is to get published, the more reasoned and metered the voice, the more likely it is to disappear from view. Is it possible for writers and readers to question ideas, without endorsing the same tactics of our opponents? To be honest, I’m not sure. Cultural change takes time and I am consistently surprised that people who are educated don’t seem to think there is a problem with resorting to tactics that serve to further polarize ideas and shut down discussion. This is because the internet is not actually a wild west of ideas (as many have claimed), where nothing is monitored or regulated. Instead, popular websites feed into polarization by forming a bunch of highly regulated cliques. This paradoxically increases a kind of marginalization, by portraying a seemingly right and undisputed way of looking at any topic.
I think this is the real reason why people are so afraid of “political correctness”. On the tense battleground of ideas, party lines mean protection- from scorn, from shame, from being outed as someone whose ideas diverge from the mainstream. No wonder anonymous posters use their anonymity to say the most distressingly bigoted and offensive comments and no wonder people take a strange sense of pleasure from saying things that are not PC. Our culture is becoming more and more invested in shaming individuals whose ideas differ from their own and these reputational scarlet letters really can force people into hiding. It also makes people less likely to “stray from the herd” for fear of not having the herd’s protection.
At a time when we need new ideas, this type of culture is particularly hurtful, since it shuts down discourse and encourages a kind of cynicism and distrust of any and all ideas. I’m not saying we should go back to a time when news was seemingly unbiased, as opposed to presenting a host of different perspectives. I’m saying the perspectives we are getting aren’t all that different from one another because we are still, as a culture, highly suspicious of ideas and highly invested in regulating public opinion and discourse. This type of regulation (through shaming those with different views) isn’t controlled by any one force in particular, but is born of a kind of fear of the other, a fear that is complicated primarily because it is not displaced. We live in a world where we are right to be afraid of being shamed in a public view. It isn’t all that uncommon and it sure as hell is a lot easier to hide behind a particular brand of ideas than come out and say, “I endorse this particular idea, but am not really in line with this other one.”
As a writer and teacher, I feel a great deal of responsibility in shifting this culture. Writers and intellectuals often lament the fact that people today are just not all that intelligent; that that is why reality TV shows are so popular, and people just aren’t interested in thinking outside of the box. But I don’t think it’s true. Every day I am impressed by my students and peers, by my teachers and colleagues and friends for having really interesting insights on a host of issues in the world today. That’s not what is getting noticed and that is not what is taking center stage, because only the most inflammatory comments and perspectives end up taking hold and becoming well known ideas and memes. I know I’m as responsible for this culture, as many other people who click on a well-known inflammatory piece, just to balk at how ridiculous, outmoded and offensive the ideas the author presents are. I’m not saying we should shut out these ideas, but we should question the extent to which extremism is allowed to dominate discourse and the sense that in an increasingly unregulated journalistic world, its not always the cream which is rising to the top.