First they came for the trans people, and we said, "America is sick and tired of hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms."
Wait, no. That's not right, is it? Let's start over.
Dear The Left,
Let me put the situation in a pop culture reference so the gravity might be appreciated: The white walkers, and I do mean white, have breached The Wall and are now holding victory rallies in the heartland.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has reported nearly 900 hate incidents believed to have been inspired by Donald Trump's Electoral College win. Former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke has celebrated Trump's win as a great victory for the white people. Trump is crafting a Cabinet of deplorables who are not only economically elite, but who also hold white supremacist, anti-immigrant, misogynistic, and/or anti-LGBT views.
Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by about 2.5 million votes, which tells me that more people agreed with her message than with her opponent's. And, in light of this tragic and urgent state of affairs, I find it most curious and unfortunate that some of our white male friends on the left are critiquing what they call identity politics, political correctness, and what they have deemed the general failure of Hillary Clinton in particular, and the the left in general, to sufficiently consider the perspective of so-called ordinary (implied: white, straight, cis, male) Americans.
Now, it's hardly new to complain about how the scourge of political correctness has gone too far. Yet, if one paid no attention to politics, one would likely have no idea what this phrase "political correctness" could possibly mean. That's because it exists in a context where those who utter it nod and wink to one another because they all just somehow know it when they see it. Ah yes, they roll their eyes, this again.
As Moira Weigel observes in The Guardian, the phrase conjures "powerful forces determined to suppress inconvenient truths by policing language." But also, she adds, speaking specifically of Donald Trump, "There is an obvious contradiction involved in complaining at length, to an audience of hundreds of millions of people, that you are being silenced." It is the ultimate illogic: we are supposed to believe that the politically correct are at once immensely powerful and also the weakest of the weak.
In that illogic lies the second contradiction: The goal of those who decry political correctness is precisely to police what language is acceptable in society. Specifically, they seek to silence the truths of marginalized people's lives by delineating for marginalized people which instances of real bigotry are allowed to be named and with what tone of voice.
Writing for audiences of millions at The New York Times, Mother Jones, and The Atlantic, some liberal and progressive white men have recently offered their half of what is, in actuality, a common dialogue that happens around the clock on the Internet. The maintext of these white male monologues is that Trump supporters are right: PC has gone too far! An insidious subtext is that academia and social media have fostered a hostile, uncharitable, and truly unbecoming incivility against ordinary Americans in general, and white men in particular. It treats identity politics as the invention of women and minorities rather than, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie aptly notes, the white (male) invention that it is and the very basis of segregation.
For those of us conversant in these dialogues around language and tone, we know that the full conversation often goes more like this:
Person A: That's offensive!Observe.
Person B: You're wrong. Stop being so sensitive.
Person A: Wait, that's even more offensive!
Person B: Well you'll never convince anyone if you say it like that!
Person A: I shouldn't have to ask nice for you not be racist!
Person B: See, this is exactly what I'm talking about! I'm a NICE GUY!
In his recent Salon piece, Conor Friedersdorf presents a bizarre, convoluted telling of an Internet "case study" wherein he claims that some on the left have "uncharitably" stigmatized people as being "white male supremacist." His overall point is that gratuitously using loaded terms dilutes the power of the words and, besides that, is ineffective. He defends Bernie Sanders and Kevin Drum at great length.
Drum, for reference, just wrote a piece at Mother Jones, suggesting that Ta-Nehisi Coates has made it "fashionable" to use the term "white supremacy." So now people are apparently wantonly using the term where it doesn't apply. It is faddish, we are to believe. Popular. Easy and fun to do. As an analogy to why he deems this purported trend dangerous, Drum patronizingly instructs, "A lewd comment is not the same as rape."
Meanwhile, media outlets, including Mother Jones in a tweet they've since deleted, are literally glamorizing white nationalists, labeling them "dapper" and publishing cool-guy pics of white nationalists in sunglasses and suits. CNN tweeted over the weekend, "Hipster or hate-monger?" of one far rightist.
And it's like our white male brethren on the left have fallen into this warped Upside Down where we, women and minorities, as we defend ourselves from these assaults are the real problem here.
Friedersdof, in his piece, assumes the role of Person B, that common white male "devil's advocate" protagonist in a conversation about race or gender who whips out his Merriam-Webster, jabs his finger at the page, and lectures the "uncharitable" women and people of color what words like feminism and racism mean. In a most decadent-of-decadent argumentum ad populums, he adds that he even asked six random people at the writing cafe for their definitions and they agreed with him, so seeeee, that's exactly what he's talking about! These are all nice ordinary people!
Even as he concedes that, yes, words might have different meanings in different, academic contexts, he instructs that the proper way to deal with ordinary Americans is to..... well, I'll just note that it's almost like there are powerful forces at work determined to suppress inconvenient truths by asking marginalized people to police their language.
Meanwhile, Mark Lilla, in The New York Times, quoted at the top referencing how hard it is for him to have to hear about bathrooms, claims that "the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life."
That we are ostensibly the same "unaware" liberals and progressives who somehow know about, and object to, pretty much everything Donald Trump stands for seems to be of little consequence to our white male scolds. That many people of color, queers, and trans folks are also in the group "liberals and progressives," and that we literally spend our lives tip-toeing around the delicate feelings of "ordinary Americans" seems ..... like it, too, might be a thing that they are, dare I say, unaware (and, unlike Lilla, I'll hold off on the mental illness judgment).
What strikes me most about these monologues is that they read as instructions from white men to other white men. The pieces are permission slips. Now now, they tell themselves. Of course we'll be the KKK's "worst nightmare" if it comes to that, but we can't focus on "identity stuff" that is less than that. Trans people have to pee? How self-involved!
When coupled with the related articles being shared on social media citing research that shows that having "nonconfrontational conversations," rather than calling people bigots, is a more productive way to address bigotry, we see white people everywhere letting themselves off the hook, whispering, It's true you know, if only marginalized people were more thoughtful about this stuff...
Jennifer Finney Boylan wrote in The New York Times of this tendency to think of "identity politics" as an insular, faddish issue. She asks, "Is this what my fellow Americans had thought of my fight for dignity all along?"
And, I'm with her. It's as though treating people who have marginalized identities with basic dignity is so "boutique" that it's something our allies think can be withheld if we don't pay the proper currency for it. (Meanwhile, if Richard Dawkins has a little jar of honey taken away from him at airport security it is a human rights violation of the first order. Never forget.)
So, The Left, I offer for your consideration:
- Please consider that many marginalized people already know that it is considered uncivil if we do not ask nicely to be treated decently. We know this from lived experience. Many people have no idea the daily accommodations that people with marginalized identities engage in to keep our/themselves safe. We are the black mother teaching her son a hundred lessons on how to stay under the radar of potentially-hostile white strangers who could, in an instant, bring the full force of the police state upon them. We are the women who bite our tongues when we hear sexist jokes at work, because we cannot afford to be seen as troublesome. And yes, we are the trans person navigating a public space while inhabiting a body that, like most human bodies, requires the expelling of wastes at regular intervals.
- On that basis please consider that if you don't know that marginalized people dance around calling out bigotry all the time in our daily lives, you either aren't in much contact with marginalized people, you are completely oblivious, or we/they don't trust you enough to share this experience with you.
- Please also consider, white men, that while these conversations are difficult for you, I can assure you that they are also difficult for marginalized people, let alone to have repeatedly in a sufficiently-nice manner. These conversations often mean being directly confronted with people's patronizing "just telling it like it is" opinions that we are sinful, lesser-than, mentally-ill, or otherwise faulty beings.
- On that basis, please consider that when you instruct marginalized people to have these conversations in a way that you deem to be civil or "more accurate," it might be empathetic on your part to also add that you acknowledge that the marginalized person will likely be in at least a fair amount of discomfort while having these conversations. Stop shoving dictionary passages in our faces as though we're unaware and illiterate. Stop trying to win all the conversations. Stop telling people what is and isn't real bigotry against us, worthy of the collective attention. Stop acting as though empathy is women's work and marginalized people's work, but definitely not ordinary white people's work. Don't tell us you're a good guy, show us that you are. A little, "Hey, I know these times and these conversations are hard for you, how can I help?" could go a long way.
- For all of these reasons, these conversations could be great for allies to actively engage in. Are you a white man? Awesome. Get to talking to other white men. Talk less about how you agree that PC culture has gone too far, and instead about how maybe, just maybe, we all harbor beliefs that are probably at least a little bit racist, sexist, homophobic, and bigoted and we, The Left, must keep working on that.