At the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf uses the Bari Weiss twitter attack as a vehicle to challenge the value of “call-out culture,” the social justice reaction to whatever is perceived as a violation of their orthodoxy.
The writer Mark Joseph Stern, who had the last reaction, argued that “the original tweet—while not maliciously racist by any means—perpetuated the real and serious problem of the ‘perpetual foreigner’ stereotype that dogs so many Asian-Americans.” Agree or disagree, anyone can understand that critique. What I don’t understand—what I’d still like to understand—is the approach taken by the many people who treated the tweet as if it were malicious; or who attacked or “dragged” Weiss; or treated her with fierce hostility. I want to know if and why they believe their approach can plausibly advance social justice.
Was Conor’s question, what purpose is served by attacking Bari Weiss even if one exists in the same neighborhood as Stern where everything must be scrutinized, twisted, rationalized, to find its inherent if unintentional heresy, itself a wrong? Enter Vox co-founder, Matty Yglesias.
I’m sometimes a little confused as to which side of the culture war is calling for safe spaces and which side is urging vigorous debate as the optimal way to run the marketplace or ideas. pic.twitter.com/ZelgQJMfbH
— Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) February 19, 2018
Curiously, Matty includes a screencap of the headline, but no link to Conor’s post. He thus gets to enjoy enough information to foster the intended outrage without the so much as to reveal the substance of what Conor wrote.
Just in case his snark was unclear, he followed up by twitting:
I guess the idea is that college students need to grow thicker skins while everyone else grows more attentive to the delicate feelings of prominent columnists.
It should be too obvious to require explanation for Matty’s attempt to analogize safe spaces to prevent exposure to evil ideas with the attacks on Bari Weiss for being racist and demands for her to be fired from the New York Times for her committing twitter violence against immigrants by committing a “microaggression against a marginalized group.” Is it?
Is it fair to compare the need for Play-Doh and puppies, Antifa violence and seizing a speaker’s notes, pulling out the plug for the sound system and shouting down a presenter so they can’t be heard, with a swarm of warriors on social media manufacturing offense and demanding a third party punish the speaker? Weiss attacked no one, even assuming you’re of the view that her twit promoted the “perpetual foreigner” microaggression.
On the one side, there is a group of people demanding that their right to not be exposed to speech and ideas they deem hateful be respected. To fulfill their demands, someone must be silenced.
On the other side, there is a group of people outraged by speech they deem offensive demanding that the person who uttered that hateful speech be punished.
And so Conor responds to Matty,
1) The piece is explicitly pro vigorous critique
2) It is critical of stigma & extreme vitriol against people for alleged micro transgressions.
3) Were that how safe spaces worked they’d be fine. Problem is when they’re invoked to protect against merely hearing ideas.
The subtlety of the reply provides an interesting juxtaposition to the silliness of the attack. This is one of the perpetual problems with trying to offer a deliberate, thoughtful reaction to inane snark; they play to very difference audiences and, sorry Conor, they usually fall short of making the point.
It’s not that Matty isn’t sufficiently intelligent, well-educated, to understand a subtle reply, but that Matty’s snark doesn’t reflect much of an interest in engaging in a calm, nuanced discussion. Matty was trying to make a point to people too stupid to grasp the fallacy of his analogy. Conor tried to stay above the fray.
More to the point, Conor’s response failed to make the distinctions necessary to demonstrate that Matty Yglesias was playing the crowd with a nonsensical analogy. In the scheme of social media, Matty won the argument not because he had the better point, or that his contention was grounded in reason. Matty’s point was absurdly wrong, and I suspect Matty was well aware of the idiocy of his analogy when he twitted it.
Rather, Matty knew damn well that he was playing the useful idiots, getting them riled up in defense of the college snowflakes who have taken a beating over the past few years by grown-ups who are disinclined to cry for their suffering ideas with which they disagree.
The nature of argumentation has changed in the social media universe. Whipping up a mob to attack one’s enemies and demand retribution has become a useful tool. Not an art form, mind you, as art requires a far greater degree of skill than the banal inciting of the unduly passionate, but a skill nonetheless. And it’s not just Matty who employs it. Feeding the mob is an arrow in every demagogue’s quiver.
In a very real sense, what happened between Matty and Conor reflects a problem with unfair fights. Matty rolled in the gutter while Conor replied from the tower. This isn’t a tribal issue, as there are people on all political sides who do the same. Hypocrisy knows no side.
For those people capable of seeing that Matty’s analogy was idiotic, there was no need for Conor to respond. For those people whom Matty’s twit confirmed their bias, there was nothing Conor could say that would change their minds. For those people who might be fooled, but might have their minds changed, Conor’s reply failed to do the job. Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.
If the point is to make a point, then it has to be made to its intended audience. Matty’s twit may have been stupid, but it served its purpose. Conor isn’t a street fighter, but a thoughtful and deliberate public intellectual. It’s a wonderful thing to be, except when you engage in a street fight. If you’re not prepared to win the fight, then best to stay out of it.