These days half the posts I read on the Internet seem just as nasty and tendentious as the trolls’ comments that unscroll beneath them. Salon’s Britney Cooper cast herself as a victim of over-weaning white male privilege when, “buoyed by his own entitlement, his own sense of white male somebodiness,” a passenger moved her bag off an empty seat on a crowded train, because manhandling a black Rutgers professor’s computer bag is just one short step away from extra-judicial execution. Jezebel’s Anna Merlan peremptorily dismissed Richard Bradley’s early concerns about the Rolling Stone gang-rape story as a “giant ball of shit” (to her credit, she went on the record a few days later and admitted that she had been “dead fucking wrong,” which is something it’s hard to imagine a Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly doing under the same circumstances). But still….These people are supposed to be on my side, which is to say, members of the reality-based community. Why so quick with the ad hominems? Why so ready to demonize? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be fighting against?
Of course their words weren’t journalism, rough first drafts of history, but real-time advocacy. Advocacy can be high-minded, but as often as not it’s opportunistically prosecutorial. At its worst, it’s sloganeering, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for any of the shades of gray that reality is always colored in.
When a mentally ill misogynist easily obtains an arsenal and uses it to kill a random bunch of men and women in California, one side seizes on it as the apotheosis of rape culture, a continuum that begins with catcalls and ends with rape and murder. When a mentally ill black man easily obtains a handgun and uses it to shoot his girlfriend in Baltimore and then two cops in New York City as revenge for Eric Garner, the other side seizes on it as the end of a slippery slope that begins with voting for Barack Obama (cf Rudy Giuliani).
Of course spree killers often do have ideas and write manifestos about them (Anders Behring Breivik’s was a veritable encyclopedia of The New Hate), but mass murderers are hardly the most useful frame of reference for a discussion of politics, anymore than Hitler are Stalin are. It’s a little like Godwin’s Law: whoever brings them up effectively loses the argument.
Still, both sides do it, and I suppose it’s not an altogether terrible thing. Complacency is a kind of complicity and they both thrive in silence. If the backlash depends on rancor and disruption, progressivism demands a certain amount of creative destruction as well. If you want to change the world, you can’t be diffident; if you want to make an omelet, you’ve got to break a few eggs.
But it’s not my thing, and I feel less and less inclined to engage in it. I’m not good at catchphrases anyway; my preferred mode is the run-on sentence.
My New Year’s resolution for 2015 is to hold my tongue in public until I’m sure I have something to say.