It’s kind of thrilling to see a Donald Trump supporter vituperate the women’s magazine The Establishment on Twitter. She has mistaken one of our most relentlessly abstract concepts for something specific and real. Can we blame her? Trump, Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders, even Hillary Clinton—all the viable candidates for president rail against the establishment. No one can say exactly what it is, but we all hate it. So many of us have defined ourselves against the establishment that one can hardly believe it’s still established. The real estate tycoon who is the son of a real estate mogul isn’t part of it. Neither are the senators, nor even the former first lady. If the election continues on its present trajectory, the establishment won’t even include the president of the United States. So what is it? It’s the strategy that has ruled American marketing for decades.
Here’s a worst-outcome life: write a daily blog about things that aren’t actually sexist. When someone calls sexism on what appears to be innocuous, leaping to defend it is a low-percentage play. Part of the problem is that so many things really do turn out to be sexist, when you think about them. That’s the essence of the feminist critique. But pointing out what isn’t, in fact, sexist is also a bad risk because even when you’re right, the reward is small. You get the sweet feeling of proving someone wrong, but the person you proved wrong is invariably a defender of women. Even if logic and integrity are on your side, that sympathetic character is not. I mention this problem because Slate just said the Bernie vs. Hillary meme is sexist. By “the Bernie vs. Hillary meme,” I don’t mean the 2016 campaign for president. I mean what’s after the jump.
“I’m not politically correct,” says the person who is racially, sexually and anatomically correct. The 1990s’ favorite straw man is back, possibly for real but definitely as something to fret about. For the last several days, Yale has been embroiled in debate over an email professor Erika Christakis wrote suggesting campus administrators not supervise students’ Halloween costumes. Students were outraged, calling for Christakis’s resignation and demanding that Nicholas Christakis, her husband, apologize. “You should not sleep at night,” one student shouted at him. “You’re disgusting.” It is pretty disgusting when a man refuses to apologize for his wife saying kids should get to wear what they want. This seems like another troubling indicator that today’s college students are less interested in free speech and more interested in enforcing a simplistic ethos of identity. But what if they’re not?
I defy you to find the original in his published work, but Howard Zinn famously paraphrased Camus as saying that in history, “it is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.” Certainly, this principle has guided academia. Virtually all of the humanities are taught within the framework of historical injustices. We decry the liberal arts major for not knowing much, but he knows about oppression and the system of values it determines. He knows not to be on the side of the executioners. But what happens when two historically oppressed groups come into conflict? One becomes an executioner, and the other suffers oppression of the same kind as latinos in the United States. So runs the logic of the campus debate on divestment from Israel, which the Times reports is breaking the historic coalition between Jews and other minorities.
Yesterday, Fredrik deBoer posted this long and thoughtful essay on a phenomenon he calls “critique drift.” I assume the internet hates him now. You should read the whole piece, but deBoer nicely summarizes his own argument in this passage:
Critique drift is the phenomenon in which a particular critical political lens that correctly identifies a problem gets generalized and used less and less specifically over time. This in turn blunts the force of the critique and ultimately fuels a backlash against it. Critique drift is a way that good political arguments go bad.
DeBoer cites three concepts from the rhetoric of social justice/intersectionality that reflect critique drift: mansplaining, tone policing, and gaslighting. Note that he does not say these phenomena aren’t real—only that the lefty internet increasingly uses them in contexts where they don’t apply.