I was a Slack group for gender critical academics in the UK started by a UK feminist who has become known over the past 18 months for her critique of gender identity. The inception of this group seemed promising. Or rather, that is until this individual and several others within the group took it upon themselves to malign women who were doing political activism in the US whereafter I wrote an article here about the toxicity and elitist politics taking place in the heart of feminist circles. The defamation was astonishing to witness as it put into the crosshairs feminists who were not operating from the safety of academic tenure and enacted gross misrepresentations of these women who felt the fallout of these attacks for months. And since this attack took place largely on Twitter, the pile-on effect was pronounced as the shit was stirred for weeks even if the posh feminists quickly pretended they had nothing to do with the ensuing political goulash they alone concocted. In response to having written the article, I was kicked out of the group as I was informed via email. So much for academic discussions that allow for diverse, even non-woke, positions.
Over the past year, I have seen this kind of dynamic repeated hundreds of times spiral out of control within Facebook groups and Twitter. Indeed, it seems in 2020 that it far better to bring to discussions a witty one-liner rather than take your interlocutor seriously and engage in calm and respectful debate. Instead of listening and agreeing disagreeably as the saying goes, social media is awash in individuals attempting to one-up the next person through either engaging in woke or privilege politics. While these two are inter-related, they do function independently as well.
Privilege politics functions like this: you act in bad faith with your interlocutor claiming that the fact that this person is male, white, married, or heterosexual, for instance, he cannot possibly be anything other than a caricature of something you have alone created. Are males really incapable of grasping sexism because they are inherently engineered to grope women? Are light-skinned people really unable to understand the experiences of immigration and are themselves always and forever racist? And are feminists who do not kowtow to a another form of gender wokeism necessarily part of the far-right, thus deserving of maligning?
Such tactics have become a “thing” of the left in recent years. Assuming your interlocutor shouldn’t be allowed to express herself because you disagree with her position is the beginning and end of totalitarian dogma whereby only those who parrot your every thought are welcome to participate in critical reflection. The bad news is that the wokerati are everywhere on the left—from environmentalists to feminists to anti-racist activists—and they are reminding us every second of the day that someone, somewhere is wrong and should be stopped, fired, kicked out of a group and worse. It’s almost as if the wokerati are a new band of right-wing intolerants recycled from the era of the Moral Majority. Instead of preaching about the “evil” of Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic representations of of black and white bodies in the 1980’s, the new generation of the morally woke is here to point out every wrong move and utterance that oppositional voices offer. The high church of what “is a bad look” is inevitably measured against the larger barometer of how evil your interlocutor is based on sex, ethnicity, class and any other paradigm that can be pulled out of a hat to spin into that individual’s fundamental nefariousness. Hell, just accuse your interlocutor of having a Tommy Robinson avatar despite any truth to the claim or call someone a “thick feck.” Argument “won,” right?
Between the maligning of the other based on mischaracterization or their perceived privilege and the simultaneous slewing of woke narrative of what is wrong and right while maintaining that no other positions are worthy of being heard least we redeem Nazism, we are living in an era of neo-puritanism. While we have seen a plethora of op-eds critiquing woke and purity culture in recent weeks, little light has been shed upon how the leftist politics of privilege and wokeness operate to create a hermetic political culture which very much replicates much of the rhetoric of the right from years earlier.
Privilege politics operates through the constant attempt to undermine any kind of meaningful political dialogue through delegitimizing the other, because of their sex, skin color, class, and so forth, rendering their person as part of the problem. Enter wokeness stage left where privilege posturing segues into the narrative of the moral observer: this subject who has taken down the other personally then assails their interlocutor by assuming an unattainable ideal of wokeness by arguing that others cannot possibly attain this level of clarity given their moral standing on X subject. It’s the perfect formula to silence debate, to maintain the speakers virtue and in the end to inflame Twitter wars over issues that most are reacting to without having invested the time and energy to verify facts and separate them from the innumerable orbiting fictions.
Now, I have to confess that I have been without a solid source of internet for months and as a result I have spent far less time on social media which has lent me some healthy perspective on how social media functions to feed the ego (like my comment) while sanitizing the terrain of those who object with our ideas (block and mute are the BFFs to most). It’s a great micro-world where we allow ourselves to obsess over our every political ideal while we bask in the likes and mute anyone who disagrees with us. It almost perfection—a type of virtual life insurance plan against the fast-approaching winds of dissent. Except it’s anything but perfect as virtuality is merely a mutation of the real world where people actually do disagree without calling up the employers of their dissenters to demand that they be fired. In the real world we are forced to sit with disagreement even if we choose to remain silent. The stuff of reality that is increasingly evident in its important to our collective social sanity is the part about accepting the disorder and contentiousness of reality. Virtuality is a fake space where can superficiality turn off all white noise and label this superficial calm as consensus.
Who would have imagined a time where social messaging would have gained a momentum of lightening speed where millions of political and social messages can be posted daily all thanks to the speed of fibre optic cable together with more recent tech innovations such as SD-WAN (software-defined wide-area networks)? According to one political commentator, “Twitter is where the people who care the most spend their time” and “where cultural kingmakers congregate” all through the microbursts of public commentary which is overwhelmingly instantaneous, even misinformed. In this era of king-makers where every social media bubble is cause to fawn over one’s latest social media hero, wit, one-liners and sarcasm are key to being able to deftly avoid any sort of dialogue. Rarely do we witness people hashing out differences on Twitter with most interactions ending acrimoniously. Still, the technological speed of the internet is not the guilty party behind the ills of how humans have utilized this technology to create tribes within an ostensibly open forum. We enter into this space of endless possibilities and we block everyone we disagree with out resulting in a virtual world of where connectivity uniquely depends upon agreement, never dissent. How anti-democratic can we aspire to be?
With the recent tumult over American Dirt, the novel by Jeanine Cummins which has been attacked on Twitter for “cultural appropriation,” we are witnessing the dangerous ground where surveillance of fictional authenticity is weighted against the skin color and background of a writer. Forget that novelists like Sandra Cisneros and Ann Patchett along with celebrities Gina Rodriguez and Salma Hayek support this literary work or that Oprah Winfrey praises this novel which she has included in her book club. Does the ethnic heritage of Cummins’ work merit such vituperation given that the work ought to be at the focus of literary appraisal, not the writer’s ethnicity?
And on the other side of the Atlantic you have the Laurence Fox debacle where—sit down for this one—Bonnie Greer dared to meet with Fox to discuss the events of the past fortnight in the UK. Not missing a beat, Greer took to Twitter to thank Fox for meeting up in the British Museum to which many critics responded, one accusing Greer of effectively being an Uncle Tom: “The disrespect you have shown the Black British arts community with this. Enough. Don’t know who you think you are helping here but it is not us. Maybe yourself and the platforms you are given by white middle class liberals who use you to feel better about themselves.” Certainly, the person who tweeted, “The idea that black people have to talk and educate (white) people that we have a right to be treated equally in society is exhausting” is correct. But unless we sit down and discuss with those on the other side of the aisle, we will never progress our humanity and remain hermetically sealed in the bubble of adoration and sycophantism.
There is only one way out of this political black hole the use of such weak political devices to avoid actual dialogue is the surrogate to having actual discussions with those on the other side of the aisle from us. We will get nowhere by pretending that everyone who disagrees with us is “cosying up to the conservative right.” We need to change our tactics and how we interact in the world politically and this change must begin with having good faith discussions that are not steeped in wokeism or privilege games.