Outside the Asylum
Once, when I saw women take on roles they had not occupied before, it looked like victory to me. I felt that way regardless of whether it was happening in fiction or fact. Women in the real world achieving things they had not done before, things which, perhaps, tradition asserted that they could not or should not do, were achieving victories, not just for themselves, but for all women. Stories which showed women empowered, stories which troubled people’s assumptions about what women could and could not do—these also struck me as victories. I was seeking a cultural change, an expanded sense of possibility that would enable women to self-realize more completely, and humans, in general, to relate to each other more holistically--and more honestly.
That was true for more than three decades. From the time I was an adolescent, I believed in that kind of individualistic, opportunity-centered feminism (I also believed in other kinds of feminism, with a much more structural, much more radical bent, but that’s a story for another time). Two weeks ago, I wondered why I no longer cared about such things. Two weeks ago, I asked myself in this thread why I didn’t care that Dr. Who was now a woman.
The events of the past week have demonstrated half the reason why.
It should be clear to everyone by now that feminism, like all the various fights against bigotry, is regularly employed these days as little more than a vehicle for character assassination. Character assassination is now the primary currency of our politics, and is even beginning to affect how ordinary people converse with one another. It’s a serious disease for a culture to have. As a scholar and cultural critic, I would be extremely worried about it if I weren’t spending all my time worrying about climate change and nuclear war.
Social justice movements, ironically, provide the perfect resources for character assassination. The moral aim of the movement confers unquestioned credibility on anyone claiming membership. In other words, it’s assumed that supporters of the movement are moral because the aim of the movement is moral. And these days, the only thing you need to do to claim membership in a social justice movement is to say some words on social media. Repeat a few truisms and then accuse someone else of bigotry.
If a charge of racism or sexism is made against someone, disagreeing with that charge tends to lay one open to the same charge. You can’t have a problem with calling someone a racist or sexist unless you yourself are one. You can’t ask the question of whether the charge is true or not. It’s like discursive quicksand. Looking for evidence, using logic, or trying to establish the truth have no place here.
Of course, character attacks themselves are inherently quicksand-like: a person who attempts to defend the victim of a character attack has always been vulnerable to being attacked in the same way themselves. Defend someone from charges of Communism and you’re likely to be called a fellow traveler. But adding the language of social justice movements to a character attack makes that quicksand quality worse, partly because people speaking for these movements are assumed to be moral, and partly because these movements have historically had a habit of taking people’s word for the fact that bigotry is happening.
Now sometimes, bigotry is obvious. A police checkpoint is set up near a predominantly African American polling place, and every black person on the way to vote is stopped and questioned. A woman gets paid 60 cents for a job, and her male colleague makes a dollar for the same work. Sometimes bigotry is blatant. However, sometimes, (most often in cases of rape or abuse) it comes down to who you believe, and you have to ask yourself which person is a liar. And other times, people don’t even know that they are saying or doing something racist, or something sexist, even though everyone in the room subject to that racism or sexism can see that they are. Cultural conditioning can work like that. Sometimes being privileged means that you don’t know you’re doing someone an injury.
Because cultural conditioning does work like that, and because it was necessary to address severe injustice like rape and abuse even when it’s a he said/she said situation, social justice movements adopted the practice of giving those who had been culturally injured (disadvantaged is too mild a term) the benefit of the doubt. It was an imperfect practice, sometimes abused by the unscrupulous. Yet for a very long time, it worked. Most of the time, the people accused of bigotry and abuse actually had done something wrong.
This was not simple chance. Few alleged victims of rape or abuse (or other forms of bigotry) were lying, simply because the cost of accusation was very high. Even if the victim eventually “won,” there would always be those that didn’t believe them, and their reputation would suffer, in ways that could have serious consequences. (For that matter, sometimes even the people who believed the victim would treat them as if they were the ones who had done something wrong, and were tainted or tarnished.) I have (obviously) not experienced this phenomenon in regard to racism, but I have no doubt that accusing a white person of committing an act of racist abuse used to put people at serious risk (and maybe still does). When you live in a country comfortable even with extrajudicial killing of black people, the risk of retribution can be very real.
So social justice movements adopted the practice of giving the benefit of the doubt to people of color when they made accusations of racism, and to women when they made accusations of sexism, and the very existence of racism and sexism served to prevent that practice from being abused. Only rarely did an unscrupulous person consider the game of false accusation worth the candle.
But what if the culture changed?
What if accusing someone no longer carried such a high cost?
Then, suddenly, you occupy a world in which a person is a bigot if someone black or female (or Latino, or LGBT, or Jewish) says so. And once they say so, anyone who questions or criticizes or disagrees with them is also confirmed as racist or sexist. Even (unbelievably) if the critic or dissident is also a black person, a woman, Latino, etc.
That is the second reason that social justice movements are the perfect ground for character attacks. As long as you have a few people, or even one person, from a perennially injured social group to deliver the attack, you have created a foolproof way to destroy credibility, whether that of a person, a practice, or even an idea. When Obama was attempting to cut Social Security, I had a problem with it. People online responded by calling me racist. Their argument went as follows: Social Security, at its inception, had not been open to black people. Therefore Social Security is racist and wanting to protect it is racist and I am racist. (The fact that women of color now depend on Social Security more than anyone else didn’t even register.) I have had people call me racist for opposing drone strikes, for opposing NSA surveillance, and for asking them why they were calling Bernie Sanders racist.
Long ago, I read an article about Maxine Waters fighting for the soul of the Congressional Black Caucus. The article described how Wall St lobbyists sought out members of the CBC, because they knew liberals could not effectively oppose those legislators if the liberals were white—and sometimes even if they were not. Critics of the CBC would be considered racists. Therefore, if Wall St lobbyists could get a member of the CBC on their side, they need fear no opposition. They and their clients could hide behind the black legislator, using his or her moral credibility to essentially launder their repute. This practice seems to have been expanded so that it is now arguably the primary modus operandi of the elite.
In the Obama era, the rich and powerful have adopted the language of liberal reform and social justice to protect themselves from criticism. Meanwhile, they contain any dissident or troublesome element of society by raining accusations of bigotry upon them. Social justice movements thus occupy an uneasy ground between authoritarian puppet theater and genuine pain. And most of the time, they are far better at character attacks than they are at improving the lives of people of color and white women.
This is only half the reason I don’t care that Dr. Who is a woman. Or whether the President of the United States is a woman. I’ll write about the other half next week.
But, seriously. Have we no sense of decency?