Freddie deBoer has posted two new essays since the one I replied to the other day. The first was a flawed but interesting discussion of the sometimes destructive role of overzealous allies in discussions of identity.
The second, posted this morning, is a reiteration of, and deeper exploration of, the themes he explored in the first. In it, he expresses frustration about his lack of solutions to the problems he identified earlier, and about his critics’ supposed failure to help him in finding them.
The frustrations he’s expressing are ones I’ve heard before. The questions he’s asking are ones that have answers. So in the service of intra-left dialogue, here are some answers:
“If I’m at an activist meeting of some sort or another, and I believe the kind of unfortunate behavior is taking place that I described, how can I intervene without being guilty of invoking privilege in precisely the way people who defend political correctness have inveighed against?”
My first suggestion would be to not conflate “being guilty of” with “being accused of.” You may be accused of it, or you may not. But being accused of invoking privilege isn’t fatal, and the possibility that you may be accused of it doesn’t preclude you from speaking. If you’re looking for a way to intervene without the possibility that you might be yelled at, I’d encourage you to consider that that’s an unreasonable request.
And yes, I know you said that this isn’t about you. But you wrote this passage in the first person singular. “How can I intervene?” was the question you asked. Not “How can someone with a thinner skin than me intervene?” So my short answer is that you intervene by intervening.
“You can imagine if I said, in the middle of an activist meeting, that a particular charge of racism or ableism or sexism was unwarranted or being expressed too harshly.”
Yes, I can imagine it. I can imagine it because I’ve lived it. I’ve been that guy. I’ve said stuff like, “I think James has heard everyone’s critiques and is taking them to heart. Let’s give him some space to chew on what’s been said.” I’ve said stuff like, “I just want to say that not everyone is coming from the same place in terms of their understanding of language, and I’d like to encourage us to be gentle with people who may step on toes unintentionally.”
I’ve said stuff like that lots of times, and I’ve heard other people do it, and in my experience it generally goes pretty well.
“The whole point is that there is currently no theoretical or practical shared understanding on the left about when and how to intervene in a situation where you believe that the intensity of political criticism is unfair and not constructive.”
Not universally shared, no. But universally shared understandings are rare in any context.
I have, however, been to a lot of left meetings in recent years that began with a collaborative articulation of principles of engagement — with an attempt to establish exactly the consensus you seek around what kinds of speech are welcome in the space, and around how to respond when someone violates those norms. The student activists I know, in particular, spend a lot of time talking and thinking about this stuff, and a lot of what they’ve come up with is really exciting. You may not be aware of these trends, and they may not be visible in the organizing circles you’re engaged with, but it’s happening, and it’s available for you to access as a resource if you like.
“I see a lot of sneering; I see very little in terms of principles and guidelines.”
I did some sneering in my response to your original post, but I also spent a lot of time and energy proposing principles, guidelines, and examples — in the post itself, in a lengthy update, and in a huge, sprawling comments thread which I explicitly invited you to participate in. I’m not saying you needed to accept my invitation, but come on.
And again, I’m not the only one offering this stuff. A Google search on “activist conflict resolution” spews out an ocean of resources. If you don’t like what’s out there, say why. Engage with it. Critique it. Offer suggestions to improve it, even. But don’t act like it doesn’t exist.
“I hate to invoke the classroom again, but I have had students in the past ask me privately: how do I know when I’m mansplaining? How do I know when I’m tone policing? Well, I believe both of those phenomena are real and bad. I think they happen all the time and it sucks. But as far as what to tell these kids in answer to that question? I have no idea. I have no idea what the consistent, mutually-intelligible definition of mansplaining is.”
There is literally an entire Wikipedia article devoted to this topic, one whose second sentence provides a lucid, concise, specific definition of the term: “explaining without regard to the fact that the explainee knows more than the explainer, often done by a man to a woman.”
Is there absolute consensus on the definition? No. But so what? There’s no consensus on how to define racism either, but I bet if one of your students asked you that question, you’d have an answer.
“If you think that the answer is to say that any accusation of this kind is necessarily true simply by virtue of being voiced, then you don’t exist in the real world, and you don’t much care if this stuff actually works.”
I don’t see anyone taking this position. I can see people saying that any accusation of this kind deserves to be taken seriously, but that’s not at all the same thing.
“And so the liberal and left criticisms of my piece just reaffirm the annoyance that led to it in the first place: professional writers lecturing from a stance of political purity they can enjoy because none of this comes home to their real lives. If your work spaces consists of a Macbook and your interlocutors consist of digital avatars, I’m sorry: you are not in a position to lecture me. Sorry. You’re not.”
I’m kind of taking this personally, Freddie, and it kind of strikes me as preposterous. I mean, I know I’m not the only person who wrote in response to your piece, but I was one of the first, and most of the others have linked back to mine approvingly. So it doesn’t seem completely narcissistic of me to say this:
My primary workplace is the New York City community college where I teach history. My secondary workplace is the many college campuses around the country where I’m asked to speak, and the many student conferences where I’m asked to lend a hand. I communicate by phone, email, text, and/or in person with the precise community of young activists you’re referring to on a nearly daily basis. So where in the hell is this coming from?
“So: anybody got any actual, no-bullshit constructive ideas for how to build norms of fairness and empathy without being dismissed as someone invoking privilege?”
Yes. I gave you a bunch in my first piece, and I’ve given you a bunch more here. I’ve got lots more on tap if you’re interested. You interested?
“I’ll answer that question for you all: nope.”
Dang. So much for dialogue, I guess.
Update | deBoer has posted a lengthy addendum to this morning’s post accusing me of all sorts of sins. Along the way, he says that I haven’t “said a single word about how to actually respond to political issues of social, moral, and emotional complexity, which is what I explicitly have been asking for.”
I swear to god I don’t know what to do with this.
Second Update | It’s become clear that Freddie is the kind of person who says “Give me an answer!” when he means “Admit that there are no answers!” But like I said in the post, the questions he’s asking aren’t new or unique to him. So to lend a hand to people who do want answers, I’m collecting links and resources in comments. Feel free to add to the pile.