What I hate about online debate

Everyone is so sure. Everyone has the formula. We already know, apparently, how to overcome racism. There is already a fully articulated, correct way to talk about transgender people and their experience. Solutions to complex problems like dealing with students’ experience of trauma in the classroom not only exist, but they are totally common sense. If you do not already know and subscribe to these well-known correct answers, you are must either not understand said solutions, in which case you get an exposition, or else, in a time-saving approach, are told that your view is obviously wrong without any guidance or detail — or, if you persist in your objections, you are probably a bad guy, or at least indifferent to providing aid and comfort to the bad guys. Because we already know what is to be done! All we need to do is present our answers in their crystaline perfection, in their uncanny combination of radicality and total obviousness, and everything will fall into place.

I don’t think this is a question of “political correctness,” but reflects a confluence of urgency (which is justified), good intentions (which are genuinely good), and heavy internet use. All of these obvious answers trace their origin to real-life experience of concrete communities, but they are propagated as memes. Whatever else they are, the “trigger warning” and “privilege checking,” for example, are memes. And that means that, in addition to the practical recommendations the terms encapsulate, they function to generate an in-group. The term itself is a shibboleth.

Let’s say that you support the practical recommendations associated with the term “trigger warning,” but worry that the concept of a “trigger” is distracting and misleading. The response is predictable — either you’ll be treated as though you oppose the entire idea of warning students about disturbing material, or you’ll be treated as though you must misunderstand the totally commonsensical and obvious concept of trigger warnings. Similarly, are you concerned that the term “privilege” is too broad a way to refer to the kinds of obliviousness that privilege-checking means to highlight, provoking highly predictable reactions of either defensiveness or exaggerated repentance in those privilege-checked? Only someone with privilege could object to the obviously necessary practice of privilege-checking!

This reaction is understandable, insofar as there are many bad-faith, hostile, or simply lazy interlocutors online. Why should you trust someone enough to risk spending your time on a discussion that may turn out to be a waste of time and an emotional drain? I sympathize — believe me, I sympathize deeply. But a couple summers ago, I responded sarcastically to someone I was sure (on the basis of nothing) was a bad-faith interlocutor, and the result was a coordinated right-wing harrassment campaign that lasted months, was hugely emotionally draining, affected my school as well as me, and still figures prominently in my Google search results. I think my life would be better on net if I had simply ignored that individual — what, after all, was my compulsion to engage in any form of dialogue if I was so certain this person would provide nothing of value? — or else, you know, asked what he meant.

I didn’t “deserve” what happened, but there was a certain poetic justice in the fact that my ill-considered knee-jerk reaction subjected me to months of ill-considered knee-jerk reactions. None of those people were actually interested in arguing with me about the (somewhat convoluted) point I was trying to make with my ill-considered sarcasm. All they wanted to do was punish and exclude. And I wonder — do we of the left really want to head down that road? Is that what we want to be like? I’m not in favor of unilaterally disarming and giving the right sole use of a powerful political tool, nor am I saying that it’s never justified. But I do suspect that they’re better at it at the end of the day and that indiscriminate overuse of shaming and exclusion may prove counterproductive given that the left can’t hope to make any progress without building coalitions and recruiting allies.

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