Sunday, May 11, 2014

Pearls Before Swine

So, last week, Freddie made what I thought to be an obvious and straightforward observation — tribalism begets tribalism. The irrelevant scalp you take now will one day be your own. Once more, with feeling:

This is going to happen: sooner or later, some CEO or sports team owner or similar is going to get ousted because he or she supports a woman’s right to an abortion, or the cause of Palestinian statehood, or opposes the death penalty. It’s inevitable. I can easily see someone suggesting that, say, Israel is an apartheid state, and watching as the media whips itself into a frenzy. And when that happens, the notion that there is no such thing as a violation of free speech that isn’t the government literally sending men with guns to arrest you will be just as powerful, and powerfully destructive, as it is now.

The context in which this simple point was made provoked furious reactions from Balloon Juice and LG&M. Freddie updated his post to say that not one of his critics had attempted to explain how they would have any ground to stand on in the event of a hypothetical such as he described, which, again, was the whole point of the exercise. Blog comment sections continued to make a persuasive case for their retroactive abortions. Drama, drama everywhere, nor any thought to think. I shook my head at the spectacle and then got busy with work for several days.

I blame that overwork for not thinking of the obvious rejoinder at the time. So when I finally got a free minute this evening, I just did a simple search at each of the posts in question to see if anyone had thought to bring up the infamous example of the Dixie Chicks. Silly me, I thought that if anyone had, it would be as an admonishment to progressives — hey, remember how horribly unfair and cynical you thought it was when their career was threatened for simply voicing an opinion? Shouldn't that at least make you pause and reflect before jerking your knees and calling for someone's job the next time they offend you? Did you all shrug and agree with Bush's smirking response, which sounds so similar to the laissez-faire attitudes you hold now?

The Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind. They can say what they want to say…They shouldn’t have their feelings hurt just because some people don’t want to buy their records when they speak out. Freedom is a two-way street.

Like I said, silly me. One person at Freddie's and three at Balloon Juice mentioned it. A couple of them brought it up in a tit-for-tat manner, as if Freddie were a disingenuous right-winger who needed to be reminded that conservatives can be tribal too, and the other argued that public shaming was free speech in action, apparently happy to allow the occasional consumer boycott of progressive artists in return for the right to have trial by social media. All of this in response, remember, to an attempt to argue for an increasingly charitable spirit of free speech. It's not about the merits of Brendan Eich or Donald Sterling or the Dixie Chicks or anyone else in particular, but about trying to transcend the principles of "Mom, he started it!", and "But it's different when we do it!" It's a reminder that your opponents will one day disingenuously take advantage of the same loopholes and technicalities to gain a trivial bit of revenge on you, and for what? A race to the bottom. Whatever, so be it. Hatfields and McCoys forever; you deserve one another.

If I weren't going to be busy for at least a couple more days, it would sure be fun to hop in the wayback machine and go visit some of the progressive blogs circa 2003 to see what the reaction was at the time. Sanguine, I'm sure. I'll bet you a vast sum of imaginary money on it.

ADDENDUM: Let me approach this from another angle to hopefully clarify some things. It seems evident to me that Freddie often takes a more, shall we say, meta-perspective on the issue du jour than most other bloggers. (I like to think I do as well, but I think he does it better than me.) If online progressivism is a fishtank, most bloggers are just writing about the details of the other fish. Freddie is more likely to be writing about the pH level of the water, the condition of the filter, and the size and shape of the tank itself. He's more interested in the context in which these issues are being discussed. So, if I understand his general drift, he might ask, "What does it mean that all these people online are squawking about Brendan Eich or Donald Sterling or whothefuckever it is today?" A straightforward response might be, "It means that they oppose racism and homophobia and they think people who hold to such beliefs should pay a social penalty, duh. That's a good thing, obviously!" To which he might respond, "No no no — what does it mean that they're squawking about it in this particular environment?" Meaning, the incestuous environment of progressive social media.

If you've read even half of the links I've made to him, then you're probably aware that he frequently revisits a theme, one that I find perceptive and rarely broached elsewhere. He frequently describes the way progressives behave online as being primarily concerned with an elaborate display of signaling, sorting, and other forms of jockeying for social status within the in-group. Numerous studies have shown what your own eyes have probably told you as well: the sheer volume of information available to anyone browsing the web, contrary to many of the early, rosy prognostications, has often tended to reduce people's openness to new facts and perspectives. People cling more tightly to their beliefs for fear of losing their identity, with the added bonus that the web's design allows them to customize their filters to an extent that they rarely, if ever, have to encounter any news or opinions that might seriously rattle their worldview. "Internet silos" is as good a name as any for this phenomenon. Political progressives may often be smug and self-satisfied about how tolerant and reality-based and culturally sophisticated they are, but they're just as prone to this as any other group of humans who spend too much time inhaling their own fumes.

Another recurring theme of his that I like, one that he just revisited the other day, is that politics, if it's intended to actually make a difference in the world, is about trying to convince people who don't already agree with you. Simple, obvious, yet still almost radically powerful, because when you think about it, you realize that most "political" blogging is actually just preaching (or ranting) to the converted. If you're a reader and a commenter, how much time do you spend at sites that actually challenge what you think, engaging people in thoughtful conversations, possibly changing your mind in the process? And how many do you go to where you can be sure that you'll be surrounded by people who already agree with you on everything of substance? If you're a blogger, how many times are your links either of the "Yeah, me too, +1," or the "Ha ha, hey everybody, look at this stupid clown saying something stupid" variety? And how many times do you link to people who, even when you think they're wrong, are still worth grappling with because doing so forces you to think more deeply about your own priors and assumptions?

If you're at all typical, you probably go for the reinforced conventional wisdom and cheap laughs. Which is fine, but gossiping about political issues on a blog is not politics. It's not activism. Like Freddie said, it's a coffee klatsch. It's a way to gather with like-minded people and reassure yourselves that you're on the side of the angels, unlike all those benighted heathens over there. It's a mutual admiration and handjob society. If someone from "the other side" actually did show up to attempt to argue a point, you or your comrades would almost certainly shout at him to scare him off, or you'd insist on reducing him to a cartoonish caricature, making it into a competition to see who could get in the most clever jab before running him off. Freddie likes to call this We Are All Already Decided, or something to that effect. We're not trying to convince any undecided bystanders or question any assumptions; we've long since made up our minds on everything important, and now we're just preening and grooming one another while we wait for the world to come around and recognize our obvious brilliance. Again, everybody needs to enjoy some form of entertainment, and I'm all for people wasting the company's time while pretending to work. But this seems to be a form of entertainment with delusions of grandeur.

My personal take on the Sterling drama, ferzample, should you need it spelled out in so many words, is pretty much the exact same as that of the Ruthless Reviews article I linked to: I don't care. So, some mummified old rich fuck who will be dead in a few years anyway said something racist on tape. Apparently, people familiar with this corner of the sports world had known the guy was racist for quite a while, but until the revelation got presented in a bite-sized, chocolate-coated, sugar morsel format that the subliterate Twittards could absorb, no one else cared much either. But viral attention suddenly meant everyone had to publicly present the appearance of caring, so there was much joy and cheer as the bad man was forced to sell his team at a huge profit and retire before the grim reaper himself could show up to escort him away. Do I have that about right? If so, then again, this isn't news. This is useless drama. This is soap opera gossip. This is irrelevant fluff masquerading as something culturally significant. This changes nothing. So what does it mean that so many people online devote so much attention to it?

It is in this absurd context that people like Freddie and myself start to notice, hey, you know what, it seems like this incestuous little environment is starting to get a little too enamored of the idea that political activism amounts to little more than baying like a hound at the first sniff of a naughty word or a reactionary attitude, a little too complacent in thinking that justice has been served by getting someone fired. Granted, that's a judgment call, a vague perception, and yours may differ. But if you're waiting until Barack Obama, the Congressional Democrats, Paul Krugman and all the A-list bloggers all come out together and say in so many words that anyone found holding certain verboten opinions should be fired from their job before you decide to take seriously the idea that the spirit of free speech should be a bit more generous than the letter of the law, it's probably too late at that point.

And again, if I haven't made it already clear, I think that if there is to be any chance of such a charitable attitude gaining favor, it won't begin online. I think that the dynamics I'm complaining about are exactly what the system is set up to produce, and I have no realistic hope that it could be any other way. Cement-headed idiots screaming at each other in sentence fragments. 500 people all trying to talk at once in the same enclosed space, reacting instead of thinking, trying to be the first to fire off a snarky one-liner. The kinds of conversations worth having are simply not going to happen in this environment. Everything is structured against it.