I’ve made a real effort in recent years to avoid getting into any political debates or arguments online, for what are probably obvious reasons to anyone who has ever engaged in them. So I was completely unprepared for the level to which online discussions had sunk in my absence.
I wouldn’t ordinarily write an entire blog post about a conversation I’d had on Facebook – certainly not one as deeply stupid as this conversation became – but I think there’s something important to be learned from this particular exchange. I see it as sort of a snapshot of what is going on all over the country right now. So I hope you’ll bear with me.
Here’s what happened: My friend (who I’ll call “Veronique”) wrote a post where she tried to explain the insensitivity of saying “all lives matter” in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, with an analogy to babies who have Down Syndrome:
“If I started a campaign/movement to save babies with DS from abortion and called it ‘Down Syndrome Lives Matter’ – would you be up in arms? Would you argue with me that all babies lives matter and try to negate my purpose in saving babies with Down Syndrome from the 92% selective abortion rate?”
I thought she made a good point, and I “liked” her post. I saw that someone else (I’ll call him “Pete”) had commented:
I responded with what I thought was a reasonable enough - and fairly innocuous - counterpoint. Here’s what happened:
In fact, I have read quite a bit about “white privilege”. I’ve even written a little about it. Here is why I think “privilege” is not a very good word to use in discussing racial (or gender, etc.) inequality:
“The word “privilege” connotes the possession not only of something one has not earned, but of something one really has no right to. It implies a benefit that has been granted by someone else and that can and perhaps should be revoked by someone else.
"There is something insidious about this. It is an upside-down way of looking at discrimination. Instead of seeing behavior that ends up marginalizing groups of people as the problem, it turns our attention to those who are not marginalized. To declare that they are thereby “privileged” is to hint that they are somehow culpable in the harm that has been done — whether or not any specific individuals ever actually engaged in discriminatory speech or actions themselves.
“Using the word in this way is also to accept bigotry as the default. To assert that not being harmed by discrimination is some kind of “privilege” is to assert that oppression is or should be the norm and suggests, in a manner reminiscent of PC’s Maoist roots, that those who do not suffer from discrimination ought to.
“To declare that non-oppression is a privilege is to lay the intellectual groundwork for bringing everyone down to the level of the oppressed. Wouldn’t empowering everyone be a more noble goal?”
But Pete is about to demonstrate another problem with the term: It has become little more than a bludgeon for shutting down opposing viewpoints or any kind of reasoned debate.
He has this down:
My friend – you remember my friend, the one who wrote the original post? – tries valiantly to defend me, and says she hopes we can all get along and be nice to each other. After this, Pete (still ignoring all of the points I have made thus far) decides to show some civility:
Julie agrees with Pete – which is a little strange to me, because I’m pretty sure I’ve never met Julie, and I’m pretty sure she doesn’t know who my “friends of color” are. I’d like to hear more from her about how my relationships with them aren’t “real”, but I’m kind of afraid to ask.
Meanwhile, I make a mental note to speak with my black friends and gently ask them if they could try to be better “friends of color” and talk with me about the things they are supposed to talk about, so that I can score more Sanctimonious White Person points with my white friends (or, as in this case, with a bunch of white total strangers.) I’ll also ask them to be sure they hold the right opinions on these topics, because as Pete knows, all people of color think exactly alike and have the same opinions on important issues.
So just to catch everyone up:
This entire vitriolic exchange is happening because I said that I don’t believe everyone who says “all lives matter” is an actual racist. Because of that, I am now guilty of “…stupidity, arrogance and hate.”
I am also now someone who doesn’t listen to black people, even though I think that I do. And never mind that there ARE NO ACTUAL BLACK PEOPLE PARTICIPATING IN THIS CONVERSATION. Pete has taken it upon himself to speak on their behalf, and anyone who thinks that some black people might think things other than what Pete says they think is… I don’t know. A racist?
My friend (remember?) once again tries to rescue me. But I fear it is too late:
To be clear: I think all “Julie” is accusing me of is excusing casual racism, by refusing to call everyone who says “all lives matter” a racist. She has not yet said that I am guilty of “casual racism.” What is interesting though, is that Julie actually “liked” my initial comment, where I expressed the view that she now refers to as “casual racism.” So now I’m starting to wonder about Julie.
Note that there is no room for discussion here. The question of whether or not everyone who utters the words “all lives matter” is a racist is not up for debate. They have been declared to be racists, and so they are. And anyone who disagrees with that assessment is not “expressing another viewpoint”, but is “excusing casual racism.” Do you see how this works?
Pete has more to say. This time, it’s in the form of a weapon he’s been holding back the whole time: Words from an actual black person:
And I have to say, I’m taken aback. I truly hadn’t realized that failing to call people who say “all lives matter” racist could be so deeply upsetting to someone. I am really astonished at this man’s depth of feeling over this issue…
…Oh wait! He’s not actually talking about this issue at all, but about the recent demonstrations in Charlottesville where actual white supremacists marched in public and spewed actual racist rhetoric:
I make another mental note to ask my friends of color to please provide me with a sampling of quotes that I can pull out in situations like this. The quotes don’t need to be about anything in particular, as long as they are heartfelt. I can use them anywhere. And if my friends of color are “real” friends, they’ll do it for me, right?
I do see Pete’s point though. Shouting “racist” at everyone who sees the world differently than you do is probably a more effective way of getting through to them than is engaging them in a discussion as if they are reasonable human beings. I make another mental note about that.
It occurs to me that what is happening here, between Pete and Julie and me, is almost a kind of communication. It is of course not rational discourse – that would involve at least a pretense of listening to what the other person had said and responding to it. But nobody has responded to any of my arguments, other than to shout at me to check my privilege. And yet some form of communication is going on here. If not rational discourse, then what?
It seems to me that what is going on here is pure signaling. In the same way that ants signal to each other through pheromones, that they belong either to the same nest or to a different (enemy) nest, there is a kind of “communication” that happens in human society that consists of little more than sending signals to alert others as to whose side you are on.
I think I’m starting to get it now. I see what Pete is doing, and I think to myself, “OK, I can play this game too!”
So I try:
I fear my comment might be a little ambiguous, so I elaborate:
Another commenter (I’ll call her Brunhilde) jumps in:
Ladies, take note: Calling out a man on his sexist ways only counts if a lot of other women agree with you.
But I can see what Brunhilde is up to, and I’m going to “call her out” on it:
I’m starting to like this game!
Brunhilde doesn’t though:
So here’s another funny thing: Brunhilde ALSO “liked” my initial comment where I said that not everyone who says “all lives matter” is racist. But now she says I’ve been “called out” for my “casual racism”. I’m not sure where this happened, but it had to be somewhere between my initial comment and this last one. Yet I can’t find it. Looking back over the conversation, I see a lot of vaguely worded non-sequitors about “white people” and “racism”, but nothing about anything I’ve said or done being racist. Which only leaves my initial comments. Which Brunhilde “liked”. So now I’m starting to wonder about Brunhilde too…
Notice that Brunhilde has not been bothered by any of the vitriol directed at me throughout this conversation. I wonder why that is. Notice also that she stops just short of saying that she will pray for me. Wow, Brunhilde’s not enjoying this game at all!
But Pete’s back:
And now I truly am floored. I’m not sure how I expected Pete to react to my attempt to take the crazy up a notch in an already batshit conversation. I thought maybe he’d be angry at me for making fun of him. But this… I am tempted to feel bad for what I’ve said.
But then I realize that all he’s doing is more signaling. He’s Saying the Right Things when “called out” because it is literally the only thing he knows to do. And he has no choice but to Say the Right Things, because not to do so would blow the whole “calling out” game out of the water. I have no idea what Pete really thinks about what I’ve said, and he probably doesn’t either.
I realize then that my mistake lay in trying to satirize something that had already gone well beyond the limits of satire.
So why does this matter? Why have I just spent nearly 2,000 words, and why have you spent whatever time you’ve just spent, re-hashing one of the most unbelievably stupid conversations in the history of humankind?
Here’s why: Because what happened in this conversation is happening all over the country. It’s in the news, it’s on university campuses, it’s probably in a lot of the conversations you and I engage in every day. And I think it’s important for people to understand what’s going on. As I wrote above, it is a kind of “communication”, but more akin to the communication that occurs between insects than the kind that is required to build and maintain human civilization.
So here’s what happened in this conversation: I was a newcomer here. I only knew one other person, my friend who had written the original post. And when I joined in, I failed to send out the proper signals to let the others know whose “side” I was on. I also didn’t back down from my position and even argued with some of them, and I think, in a very base, very primitive part of the brain, that made me seem like some kind of threat.
So at some point in the conversation – pretty early on, I think – the substance of what I said no longer mattered. What mattered was that I wasn’t making the right noises, or sending out the proper tribal signals, to reassure everyone that I was a part of their larger “tribe” of “right-thinking people.” And without those reassurances, that base part of their brains concluded that I must be the enemy.
This is what tribal behavior looks like. It is what mob behavior looks like. It is groupthink at its ugliest, it is “us vs. them”, it is the rejection of reason in favor of base tribal allegiances and signaling. It is base, it is divisive, and it is destructive of human relationships and civilized coexistence.
There is a word for this kind of thinking. And Pete and Julie (probably also Brunhilde) wouldn’t like it.