Public shaming as a political strategy

In the social media age, the prospect of being socially shamed has become a real site of anxiety for mainstream culture. Jon Ronson has written a book on the topic, and columnists routinely meet their wordcount by repeating cliches about the dangers of Twitter hordes. The primary anxiety seems to be centered on social media storms coming from the Left, which seem to represent a new weaponized form of Political Correctness. And there are many on the left, particularly in campus activism circles, who are understandably intrigued by the potential power of shaming as a tool.

Tim Burke has already thoroughly addressed the potentials and pitfalls of public shaming. Arguably his most salient point is that “stigma is a dangerous tool generally, and has far more often been a tool of oppression or domination than the other way around.” While he is quick to clarify that this observation “doesn’t necessarily mean that it has no purpose or legitimacy as a goal,” he encourages activists to be more cautious and realistic in their deployment of shame.

As the victim of public shaming, I want to amplify what Burke is saying. Even though people are most worried about shaming from the left, it’s the right that is really mobilized to carry out this kind of thing. They are absolutely relentless and merciless. Literally everything you say in response becomes more fodder for harrassment — above all the claim that you are being harrassed, which indicates your intolerance of criticism and unwillingness to consider other views. Here as elsewhere, whatever you do, however you respond, it proves that your harrassers are the real victims, who are thoroughly justified in defending themselves against you by any means necessary.

This is only one of many repeated rhetorical strategies. Indeed, what is striking about right-wing harrassment mobs is their crushing tedium. The same phrases and talking points are repeated over and over and over — and all with the clear presumption that you have never heard it before. It’s like they workshopped it ahead of time, and in a sense they did. Becoming a movement conservative (or aligning even further right) consists largely in learning the strategies of shaming and silencing, of drowning out and driving out opposing views. For us it might seem like a useful tool, but it’s their native language.

Hence I would like to add my own small point to Burke’s analysis: one danger of using shaming as a tool is that the right is way better at it. In fact, I think there’s a case to be made that they are especially prone to mobilize a shaming campaign precisely when they detect an attempt to shame them. And when it comes to a head-to-head shaming battle, there’s just no way we can win. Given the huge number of divisions and constituencies operating on the left, there’s no way we can generate that kind of lockstep relentless campaign. Nor, in the end, do I think we really want to — certainly not as an end in itself.

Diminishing returns

Yesterday afternoon, the harrassment campaign against me seemed to have reached a low ebb, and I felt confident that this particular storm had passed. Yesterday evening, however, it kicked back into high gear and I started receiving so many hateful Twitter messages that I literally could not keep up with blocking all of them. Since then, it has continued to ebb and flow — a few hours of quiet will be followed by a burst of activity. The Daily Caller and Washington Times have both picked up on the breaking news that I tweeted, though thankfully they have focused their ire on my claim of white complicity with slavery rather than the ludicrous smokescreen of their outrage at my obviously sarcastic call for “mass suicide.”

After last night’s outbreak, I woke up this morning ready to take my Twitter account private. I talked myself down after there were only a handful of people to block, but since then I’ve learned of further harrassment directed toward Shimer College and the people who work there. This particular case is probably out of my control at this point, but now I’m clearly on some people’s radar. It seems to me that there is no way to be sure that this won’t happen again unless I take my Twitter private and carefully choose who can follow me — or else just quit altogether. This incident and the Charlie Hebdo blow-up are probably going to be with me forever at this point, but why provide more fodder? Shimer has been very supportive, but what if I need to find another job?

In short, I’m seeing a lot of downside to continued Twitter participation. Much of the upside could be replicated if my regular dialogue partners followed my private account, but my ability to make new connections would be severely limited in that case. Plus it would completely destroy Twitter’s potential as a promotional forum for my work. I’d still have the blog, which would probably benefit if I were deprived of Twitter — and it seems like blogposts aren’t as vulnerable to this kind of thing.

I know the high-minded thing would be to say that I’m not going to let these bastards silence my voice — but screw that. Is my voice really making this huge contribution? Am I doing anything other than making an ass of myself at best, or exposing myself and my school to systematic harrassment at worst? The dog has pretty much healed up, which resolves the outstanding loose ends of my Twitter saga.

What do you think, dear readers? I know a certain number of you are going to say I should lead by example and commit suicide, and your comments will of course be deleted — I’m more asking the actual worthwhile human beings who know and care about me. What’s the upside of not letting myself be silenced?

What does it mean to be complicit with social injustice?

The term social justice has become almost a cliche, so it can be hard to step back and ask what it actually means. One way to read it is as an attempt to include “social issues” within the sphere of justice. Another way, which I think is more interesting and productive, is as an attempt to think of justice itself differently.

Conventional notions of justice are deeply individualistic. They are about individual guilt and the punishment that accrues to it. That individualistic sense of justice seems to be behind the objections to my claim that all white Americans are complicit with slavery. Many of them point out that in criminal law, complicity is a very narrowly defined concept that could not possibly incorporate crimes committed before one was born. This is true, because criminal law is overwhelmingly individualistic in its approach — hence the difficulty it has had in prosecuting things like organized crime.

Within their individualistic framework, it sounds like I am calling for some kind of collective punishment for the sins of one’s ancestors. That’s why I reached for “committing mass suicide” as a sarcastic response — from the individualistic perspective, which is centered on guilt and punishment, that’s the reductio ad absurdam of my claim. It’s likely that if I had chosen to engage in dialogue rather than gotten impatient, one of my interlocutors would have volunteered the “mass suicide” consequence themselves. I decided to head them off at the pass, which in retrospect was a bad choice.

In any case, a more social concept of justice recognizes that individual choices are not the only relevant factors. We all move within social systems that we did not choose and that we cannot significantly change through individual effort alone. One of the most powerful systems is that of race, which in America grows directly out of the experience of slavery. People of “white” races may have been enslaved in the past, but the fact that they are now recognized as “white” means that the disadvantage that might have accrued from that history is no longer very relevant. The consequences of the enslavement of Africans in America, by contrast, are ongoing and massively relevant. Every white person benefits to some degree from the differential treatment of blacks. Sometimes, as in cases of extreme poverty or social marginalization, that benefit is negligible. In most cases, however, it is significant, constituting advantages in wealth, education, social status, and vulnerability to police violence.

The individualistic model of justice has a hard time dealing with that form of complicity. It results in frustrated questions about what the individual can or should do — or dismissive rhetorical questions about what the person pointing out the social injustice has individually done. The underlying assumption, that it is impossible for any one individual to change such social systems, is true. What is not true, from a social justice perspective, is that such systems are therefore morally irrelevant. Systems can be changed through collective action, and complicity with social injustice creates an obligation to join into that collective action in some way. It means that black problems, for instance, are not only black problems — they are white problems, too. Blacks should take the lead in defining what it would mean to solve them, but whites also have a moral responsibility to help them reach their goal.

Several of my new interlocutors have objected that if we’re complicit in slavery, that also means that we’re complicit in all other ongoing injustices. Again, from the individualistic standpoint, this is a reductio ad absurdam — if we’re responsible for everything, we’re responsible for nothing. But from a social justice perspective, that is no counter-argument: it’s the whole point. Absolute individual moral purity is not available to any of us given the unjust social systems that shape our lives. That means that individual moral purity is also not a relevant point of reference. If it were the standard, then we would once again be on the road to mass suicide as the only possible response. In a social model of justice that is not focused primarily on individual guilt and punishment, however, the point is not to condemn people to deprivation and death — it is to find ways to live together.

Should white Americans commit mass suicide? If not, why not?

Today I found myself swirling around in the right-wing toilet of the Internet yet again. Last time, the whole controversy centered around tweets that I quickly realized were based on a profound misunderstanding of the situation and just as quickly deleted — but the fact that they were “hidden” seemed to make them all the more tantalizing and revealing in the eyes of the people who screencapped and published them, resulting in a week of constant online harrassment and some unfavorable Google search results. This time, the crack investigative reporters of the right have uncovered an even more damning quote from me, calling for all whites to commit mass suicide out of guilt for slavery! Can you believe anyone would hold such a view?!

If you’re a reasonable person, the answer is no. In reality, I do not hold that view, nor does anyone else in the entire damn world. Why did I say it, then? I was in dialogue with an obviously bad-faith interlocutor on the subject of race, who clearly wanted to bait me into saying something “offensive,” and out of frustration, I decided I’d give them something to cry about and say something really “offensive” — scare quotes intended. My assumption was that the claim was so obviously hyperbolic that the sarcasm would be immediately evident.

Apparently not, though. Apparently there is a critical mass of delusional and paranoid people on the internet who are willing and eager to (a) believe the absolute worst of a total stranger, (b) track that person down, and (c) direct insulting messages toward them. This time, I seem to have hit on the deeper dregs of the #Gamergate crowd, which has now decided that ethics in gaming journalism consists in openly embracing white supremacy and castigating “beta” men for their lack of manliness. Indeed, I learned today that in such circles, there is a well-known insult (“cuck”) that refers to white “beta” men who are so self-loathing — presumably their wimpiness made them especially susceptible to the siren call of the White Privilege Movement, another thing of whose existence I just learned today — that they solicit members of ethnic minorities to cuckold them as they watch. I’ll simply remark that it’s weird that that scenario comes so readily to mind for our “alpha” males.

This has also been an opportunity to learn a lot of racist talking points. Apparently Africans are also complicit with slavery, because the African slaves were sold by other Africans. The Irish, meanwhile, are immune to any complicity with slavery due to white privilege, because the Irish themselves were once enslaved. The same goes for anyone with Slavic ancestry, as an etymological dictionary will reveal. And of course, there’s always everyone’s favorite: Other Cultures Had Slavery Too. And We Abolished It. Boy, do I feel pwned, bro.

Last time I found the whole thing upsetting, but this time it’s more hilarious to me. Aside from the fact that so many people can’t detect the most obvious sarcasm in the history of sarcasm, I find it amazingly hilarious that their damning evidence of me going so far as to “defend” my views was to quote someone responding “no” and me responding “yes.” It’s also becoming more evident to me, this second time through the wringer, that there are people who desperately need someone to actually state the exaggerated liberal views they fear — indeed, that they get off on performing their indignation and outrage. They’ve invested so much libidinal energy in their opposition to views that no one actually has held or would ever hold, and the occasion to release it no doubt comes as a great relief.

As before, people have been e-mailing Shimer trying to get me fired (and also responding to Shimer’s Twitter, surely the greatest power center in any school). I informed the president and communication head of the situation, and they of course support me completely. Shortly after that exchange, I got an e-mail from development soliciting some last donations before the close of our fiscal year — and I got an idea. I tweeted the link, claiming that it was to a Kickstarter to get me fired from Shimer. And at least one person retweeted with a note about how we have to get this idiot fired. I’m well aware that I may be falling victim to my own critique here and not recognizing obvious sarcasm — but I think I’ve earned it.

Progress report

This is the first summer I’ve had in a long time that didn’t feel like a state of emergency in some way — both financially and in terms of my self-imposed academic work. I’ve submitted my translation of The Use of Bodies to Stanford and got some very positive feedback from Agamben. This provided a boost to my liquidity as well as my ego, and in general it cleared the decks of a project that I had been expecting to take up much of the summer.

As for the devil book, I’m also ahead of schedule on that, and I now expect to have a full manuscript ready before the fall semester begins. It’s perhaps not surprising that it should be going fast, given that I’ve written, lectured, and taught over most of the material multiple times over the last several years. What has shocked me is how weirdly leisurely the process feels. I spend 3-4 hours writing or revising most days, and it is steadily coming together. Some days I even feel like I haven’t done much, but then I think, “Oh right, I wrote that section.” The whole atmosphere seems very out of keeping with the objective importance of the project.

All of this makes me glad that I didn’t wind up taking a leave for the fall, because I don’t think I could have made very good use of the time. Even assuming I went slower on the book, I’m not sure I would have been able to keep up the momentum necessary to get started on a whole new project. As it stands, I’m looking forward to focusing on teaching and on my new administrative role as associate dean next semester, without taking on any major new research or translation work. I may go to AAR, but I definitely won’t be presenting.

Overall, I’m a little creeped out by how calm and settled I feel. But not so creeped out that I’m not enjoying it.

A feature, not a bug: Agamben on Heidegger and Schmitt

This utterly phoned-in article on the continuing hand-wringing about Heidegger reminds me of a theory I’ve been developing about Agamben’s use of Heidegger and Schmitt — namely, that he’s not using them despite their Nazism, but because of it. After all, one of the key theses of his project in the Homo Sacer series was that the West was always bound to wind up producing something like the concentration camp. For thinking through the internal logic of that move, it helps to have two interlocutors who are absolutely steeped in the Western tradition, who are creative and brilliant, and who embraced Nazism.

I haven’t systematically gone through the works to verify this, but my sense is that the two are treated differently. Schmitt is more or less treated purely as the Nazi archetype. Schmitt features hugely in the critical portions of the Homo Sacer series but completely drops out in the constructive portion. (I am delighted to share that his name does not appear a single time in The Use of Bodies, for instance.) His postwar work does not really figure in, and to the extent that it does, Agamben is dismissing it as an evasion — most notably in his claim that the concentration camp, which Schmitt utterly ignores, is the true “nomos of the earth.”

Heidegger’s role is more ambivalent, because Agamben acknowledges that he was drawn into the Nazi endpoint of the West but also gives him at least some credit for trying to think past that impasse. That attempt is not fully successful, and it seems clear to me that Agamben attributes a good deal of that to the inertia of the paradigm that led him to Nazism. Agamben is always oblique about it, but sometimes it’s very obvious, as in a passage in The Use of Bodies where he says that Heidegger may have been able to make more progress if only he had ever seriously engaged with Spinoza — and then all but nudges the reader to say, “But we all know why he wouldn’t go there, don’t we?”

The problem with “consent”

As colleges and universities try to get on-campus sexual assault under control, the dominant framework for educating college students on the issue centers on the concept of “consent.” I obviously understand why this framing suggested itself, and as a practical matter, I don’t know what if anything could replace it. Yet I think it has pitfalls that have perhaps not been fully addressed.

In a typical conversation about this issue, students will tend to object to the idea of “obtaining consent” on the grounds that it seems like it will kill the vibe, ruin the mood, etc., etc. To some degree, this response is naive, but I think if we have ears to hear, they’re objecting to the use of legalistic language in the context of sex. It seems artificial and inorganic to the situation, like you have to bring a notary with you to the bedroom.

Clearly no one involved intends that (unless you’re into that kind of thing, I guess), and it’s easy enough to clear up the fact that you need to make sure the other person actually wants to be involved in what you’re doing, including when the nature of the activity significantly changes.

That’s all well and good, except that a shadow of legalism persists. Think of the way some men object to the idea that women can withdraw consent at any time. The way they talk about it, you begin to suspect that they believe that when a woman gives them sexual consent, it effectively means that the woman is their property until such time as they have ejaculated. That’s a horrible, destructive attitude — and it’s one that the legalistic language of “consent” could actually encourage.

If you frame the sexual encounter as a contract, then you’re framing it as a situation in which at least one of the participants is giving up their free agency and subordinating themselves to another person’s needs. This is how contracts always work everywhere else in society. You consent to be bound to an agreement in which someone else will have rights over you. And if you violate the contract, there are negative consequences.

In The Sexual Contract, Carole Pateman points out how destructively this works in connection with the marriage contract, and from that perspective, it’s a bitter irony that the same kind of legalistic language that has so often been used to subordinate and dominate women is being deployed in an effort to protect them.

As I said in the opening paragraph, though, I don’t have a ready alternative. The emerging idea of “enthusiastic consent” may be the least bad option. Switching to something like “make sure they really want to” seems to open up all kinds of destructive doors, such as the idea that you can know what someone wants better than they do, etc. And in the end, the problem can’t be solved at the level of rhetoric. In a sexist society, anything involving sex is going to be at least potentially distorted and destructive — especially at institutions that up to a few decades ago were completely male-dominated and that still function to perpetuate male privilege in virtually everything they do.


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