False Equivalencies and Liberal Concern Trolling

[Content Note: Homophobia; racism. "DoNotLink" used throughout this piece for example pieces.]

There are a lot of white guys who are prominently spilling a lot of digital ink on liberal concern trolling lately. Jonathan Chait's white liberal concern trolling in "The Color of His Presidency." Jon Lovett's free speech concern trolling in "The Culture of Shut Up." Kevin Drum's splaining concern trolling in "Can We Please Ditch the Splaining Meme?" And King of the Liberal Concern Trolls Will Saletan's "Brendan Eich and the New Moral Majority."

The key feature of this brand of liberal concern trolling is asserting that liberals are "going too far," chiefly with concerns about marginalized communities.

"If you...set out to write a social history of the Obama years, one that captured the day-to-day experience of political life, you would find that race has saturated everything as perhaps never before. Hardly a day goes by without a volley and counter-volley of accusations of racial insensitivity and racial hypersensitivity," writes Chait.

"Yes, [criticizing language is] in some ways a natural response to being more connected to one another; we're just in each other's faces. But it's also dangerous. It narrows the visible spectrum of ideas. It encourages people to be safe and cautious and circumspect when we don't want people to be safe. We don't want people to be afraid of saying something interesting on the off chance it's taken the wrong way. ...I'll be honest: In my own small way I feel the chilling effect," writes Lovett.

"Hey there. Is there any chance that we could deep six the splaining meme? You know, mansplaining, straightsplaining, whitesplaining, and all their myriad offshoots. I get that it's a useful term, but it's gotten out of hand," writes Drum.

Another key feature is to passingly note that you are basically totally wrong for an obvious reason, but then blow right by it like it doesn't matter.

"Look, obviously there's an important counter-argument here. It is natural and healthy that as a society we have deemed certain ideas off-limits. ...And it's also true that hurtful words about, say, gay people have a disproportionate impact on the vulnerable; it's easy for me to say bring on the homophobia, but what about the kid in the closet in a conservative neighborhood worried his mom will stumble onto his browser history?" writes Lovett, then quickly breezes on past.

"I get that it's a useful term, but," writes Drum, who then substitutes "it's gotten out of hand" for the more honest "it's starting to inconvenience me."

Saletan, whose piece is about how the campaign that culminated in the resignation of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich is just like employers firing gay employees, writes, in the second to last paragraph of his piece: "Losing your job for being gay is different from losing your job for opposing gay marriage. Unlike homosexuality, opposition to same-sex marriage is a choice, and it directly limits the rights of other people. But the rationales for getting rid of Eich bear a disturbing resemblance to the rationales for getting rid of gay managers and employees."

Being gay and being homophobic are nothing alike, but he hears "a disturbing resemblance" in the rationales for getting rid of gay employees and getting rid of homophobic CEOs, so that's good enough for casually eliding not one but two false equivalencies: Gay/homophobic and employee/employer.

These pieces were published in New York Magazine (Chait), The Atlantic (Lovett), Mother Jones (Drum), and Slate (Saletan). This liberal concern trolling filled with false equivalencies and perfunctory nods to legitimate criticism only to discredit its validity is what passes for serious intellectual discourse in major publications, as long as it's white dudes who are sniffing sagely at how out of control all the social justice is getting around here.

These are privileged guys who look at a changing world and decide that expecting more is unreasonable, and use their rarefied platforms to exhort us to expect less.

If only I were given to such apathy.

The problem is that I am not. Not constitutionally, and not politically. It is not in my best interests to expect less, which really underscores why this dynamic is so objectionable. The men writing these articles are writing about their semantic preferences and what they define as the health of public dialogue; the marginalized people reading them are reading about language and practices that harm us.

Liberal concern trolls pen sophisticated, verbose versions of: "You're too sensitive." And my response is the same when it's a drive-by troublemaker who doesn't have the wit or cowardice to hide the accusation but states it in plain words. No, this is not about marginalized people being too sensitive; it is about privileged people failing to be sensitive enough.

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