Sunday, February 04, 2018

The Good, the Bad, and the rest

It's becoming something of a truism, even among those who support it, that #MeToo needs to make room for nuance. Once the question moved beyond whether Harvey Weinstein was the worst (I mean, clearly?), it started to be clear that the way ahead couldn't be declaring half the population equally the worst, let alone extending that worst-ness assessment to all women who fail to get it right on a proper schedule.

Unfortunately, there's a pronounced lack of nuance on the ostensibly pro-nuance side. Not always, but... often. Arguments against purity politics have this way of overstating exactly what happens when otherwise progressive types disagree on one point or other. The reality is bad enough; there's no need to claim it's worse than it is. (Unless that claim has become your brand; more on that in a moment.)

Witness this, one of the good (if not Good) parts of Katie Roiphe's notorious Harper's essay*:

Part of what bothers many of the people I talked to is the tone of moral purity. As a culture, we seem to be in the midst of dividing ourselves into the flawless and the fallen, the morally correct and the damned.
Yes. Also yes:
To hold a lot of opposites in our minds seems to be what the moment calls for, to tolerate and be honest about the ambiguities. If we are going through a true reckoning, there should be space for more authentically diverging points of view, a full range of feelings, space to hash through what is and is not sexual misconduct, which is an important and genuinely confusing question about which reasonable people can and will disagree.
And yet, where's the nuance in this pro-nuance manifesto? Roiphe dwells on "thought policing," and tends towards hyperbole, to put it mildly. (A New Republic article guilty at most of being a bit of-the-moment and preaching-to-the-converted has, to Roiphe's ears, "the friendly yet threatening tone of a low-level secret policeman in a new totalitarian state.") She leads with the refusal of her sources to speak on the record, concluding that this is because questioning conventional feminist wisdom on #MeToo leads to banishment. Which... how could it, when so many high-profile backlash pieces have appeared?

How could Roiphe conclude anything greater from the reticence of her sources, when as she herself acknowledges, hers was an unusual case: Justified concern that her piece would be outing the identity of the "Shitty Media Men" document's creator, along with widespread knowledge of where Roiphe stands on this issue, meant that she wasn't simply a reporter looking to see which opinions were out there. To speak to Roiphe on the record meant something beyond the usual risk of having one's words quoted out of context. Nuance here, I should think, would require proportionate annoyance or anger at male misbehavior as well as a proportionate response to progressive sanctimony, which is not in fact totalitarianism.

And yet, and yet, while witch-hunt rhetoric overstates the case; confuses matters; and has this way of presenting the very powerful as the only real victims... there is an expected stance on everything (and everyone) these days, and if you don't agree to it, you risk something. But what, exactly? 

That's where it gets tricky. The fear of being ostracized often exceeds the reality of that threat. The pain caused by being called garbage on Twitter - and please please please read Katie Herzog on this phenomenon - can exceed the power of the 20 people who've just declared you the worst. 

There's a psychic toll from a culture where you're Good or Bad, and forever at the risk of slipping into the wrong category. Yes, even if you're someone who in theory stands to gain clicks or book sales from causing controversy, but goodness knows, especially if you're not. Also! Given what writing pays, it's, not a long shot that someone who stands to gain clicks, even book sales, from controversy could also lose their livelihood from the same.

As I see it, the goal here shouldn't be praising nuance for its own sake. It's that a Good vs Bad framework leaves a vacuum for the (genuinely) Bad, as well as for qualm-less profiteers prepared to embrace Unapologetic The Worst status in exchange for such things as Patreon income or the US presidency.

*My other, sleepily-expressed thoughts on the piece:

-Yes, it's odd that someone not used to using Twitter is claiming expertise on Twitter, and yes, it's possible to read too much into individual tweets, but no, it's not inherently bad journalism to treat public tweets by professional writers as writing they have done, and to quote it and respond to it.

-Why couldn't the piece have been what it at first seemed like it would be about, namely about how women somehow wind up the ones held accountable (in this case, via purity-politics demands) for men's misbehavior? (Already - I promise - a somewhat controversial stance.) Why the men-are-the-real-victims direction?

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

The reason for the lack of pro-nuance/anti-#metoo tweets/pieces from "venerable sources", while at the same time, the existence of so many "backlash" pieces is because they are literally described as "backlash" pieces.****

Consider the people who have written anti-#metoo things: Sullivan, Roiphe, Flanagan, Bari Weiss, Bret Stephens. All of these folks are conservatives or are known for being controversial--and opposed to the liberal zeitgeist. This is their brand. They are not risking their reputations by taking contrary points of view or appearing unsympathetic to important causes; that is why they have their reputations altogether. If Andrew Sullivan wrote about how #metoo was the best movement in twenty years or Katie Roiphe said the campus protests at Yale were the most important protests of racism in the country--they wouldn't be Andrew Sullivan and Katie Roiphe. And no one would want to listen to them anymore.

For most writers with more "nuanced" positions, they have nothing to gain by making their nuanced views public. They'll lose the respect of their peers on the left (and become #problematic), and they won't become a hero of the right (which is not what they want! Also, the rewards of being the mirror image of say, David Frum--the proven conservative who hates other conservatives--is not the same for liberals. The "liberal" who is beloved by Fox News viewers is a liberal who can't pay their mortgage.). Additionally, it's not as if criticism of them will be fully fact-based and surgical, with a rebuttal existing point-by-point; it'll be enough to cite some examples of horrible treatment and then call them a name and say that they don't care about worthy causes.

For most writers, taking out a publicly nuanced position is wading into a war they have nothing to gain from. What does, say...Jenji Kohan (or some other notable feminist media figure) have to gain from saying "MeToo has gone too far". Or...Ariel Levy from saying "Sexual harassment Is a Problem but so is having people wrongly fired". In what world is this a good idea? Not ours.
The benefits of telling the truth are never worth the cost of having your reputation tarnished.

**It's important to note that surely, part of this is due to the intense divide between the extremely progressive views, especially on issues of identity, that widespread in media/Hollywood/Silicon Valley, but are not in the rest of the country. This is important since anyone defending the liberal zeitgeist can make simple claims to be going against the majority--i.e., TRUMP IS PRESIDENT--but writers afraid of "pc backlash" are mostly afraid of the approbation of their peers. And so the NYTimes and other outlets feel an obligation to air both sides of the story (since those opinions are out there), but few want to claim them (since it's considered revanchist in professional circles).

cwoelz said...

Perfect