Yesterday, two prominent centrist luminaries, Joy Reid and Kos of Daily Kos, took to Twitter to blame low voter turnout among minorities for Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio. This is a disturbing example of victim blaming, not least because Trump actually lost the popular vote by a resounding margin. It is only the most explicit version of an increasingly popular trope in mainstream commentary, which I would call the backlash argument. If we denounce Nazis too much, then people will dig in their heels and identify as Nazis. If we use physical force in protest settings, then they will unleash even more force. If we attend too closely to the needs of racial minorities, then we will alienate white people. Etc., etc., etc.
The problem with this type of argument is that it treats reactionary opinions and actions as an immutable force of nature. Only our side has moral agency and responsibility — they are machine-like creatures of instinct, who decide what to do purely based on what we do. The underlying logic is identical to the public discourse on police shootings, which I critique in the opening of The Prince of This World: the victim always could have acted differently, always “had a choice,” whereas the police officer “just reacted.” In this type of victim-blaming rhetoric, the tendency of police officers to murder black people in cold blood is held constant as a brute fact that the victim is responsible for navigating.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t attempt to anticipate the probable effects of our actions. But if people choose to join the alt-right, it’s not the fault of people who are annoying on left-wing Tumblr — it’s their own fault. If people support Trump, it’s not the Democrats’ fault for hurting their feelings by taking identity politics seriously — it’s their own fault. The upshot of this observation is not to properly distribute blame as an end in itself, but to recognize that they are free responsible human agents who have chosen to take sides against us. They are not automatons to be manipulated through carefully calibrating our messaging to avoid triggering their poor pathetic hurt feelings, but enemies who must be defeated or, failing that, contained. Conservatives are constantly complaining that liberals are patronizing, so let’s take them seriously as fellow human beings and hold them responsible for their actions by depriving them of power.
One thought on “The problem with “backlash” arguments”
Great point. I’ve been observing something similar recently. The extreme center has been victim blaming in just this way for a long time. This was the centerpiece to most of the you-must-vote-for-Clinton logic. The central premise of representative democracy, that politicians are held accountable to the sovereign public, was reversed: voters were held responsible for their support of a politician. Rather than shaming Clinton for not going out and getting the votes she needed to earn (whether you’re talking about Green voters, or swing-voters in the upper Midwest), third-party voters were blamed for not supporting the presidential candidate other people patronizingly said they should have supported.
“…the tendency of police officers to murder black people in cold blood is held constant as a brute fact that the victim is responsible for navigating.” In the same way, the tendency for Clinton to espouse imperialistic, neoliberal, corrupt politics is held constant as a brute fact that the voter is responsible for navigating. Voters were shamed even to the point of being told that their free choice to vote for who they wanted to vote for was a privilege that more oppressed voters didn’t have. This turning of privilege discourse on to the act of free-choice voting–which must be held up as a right–was particularly galling.
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