In a way, Mark Zuckerberg’s initial stance that you could only be yourself online has proven true in a way he might not have anticipated — since we put ourselves online and read what we read and vote how we vote in increasingly (and worryingly) predictable ways, the expression of some identity politics in this particular environment has begun to follow what looks to be a two-fold path: on the one hand, we have seen the agitation for and broadening of equality; but we’ve also seen something that seems to aspire to slow the movement of progressivism down to the seemingly excruciating crawl born out through the implicit decision to pick a fight with every inch of the earth.
It’s worth taking a moment to make one particular point here exceedingly explicit: the noise and reaction to the agitation for and broadening of equality frequently does not align with the data — just because you can hashtag #HollywoodSoWhite and have a subsequent set of opinions about it does not mean that casting (and pay) will soon start to shift towards parity (though — as charts might indicate — it should) — but the decision to go after some statues when the ranks of tenants unions could instead be growing, the decision to go after Amy Schumer for employing someone who opted to victim-blame the entire comedy community when there are still untested rape kits in Arizona and San Diego and who knows where else, the fact that we’re focusing on the legalization of marijuana while ignoring the fact that we seem to be whitewashing it as well, or the decision to focus our attention on Colin Kirkpatrick just about when Black Lives Matter was showing some early signs of success in focusing their attention on DA races strikes me as something of an underchallenged and underappreciated point. Go for points both big and small, but — as an outsider, I have to ask — please demonstrate a better ability to toggle between the two.
Again: I don’t disagree with the decision to challenge the history of a controversial statue or the decision to challenge Amy Schumer, but liberalism needs more tools in its tool belt in this current moment, one of which must be a certain kind of empathetic dexterity, because — as President Obama pointed out at Howard University when he asked students of color to empathize with white workers who’d lost their jobs — there is something to be said for an argument that does the work of winning people and institutions and history to its side, something that has the potential and capacity to bring potential reactionaries along, especially given the way in which the national narrative landscape is structured in this country: in 2015, 29% of the country believed that the President was a Muslim. That isn’t simply something to gawk at alone; it isn’t something to relentlessly marginalize through as blunt a means as possible; it’s also a simple, naked illustration of a failure of our ability to educate. (Looking at and deleting old tweets has also made me wonder what role the narrative capacity of different online environments has had in relation to all this, especially when Ira Glass spoke with his uncle at the beginning of a recent episode of This American Life and spoke about post-truth politics and I thought about all the things I still don’t know — if social networks make a demand of us to explicitly contribute to the textual narrative of our civic life and even the best among us are always in a position where we feel like we have more to learn, then how can we make sure everyone has a fair shot in the nature of the explicit story told?)
There is something to be said in the ability of deploying empathy with its eye on history to preemptively diffuse reactionary behavior. Far-right parties in Europe were made all but illegal after World War II, and that lack of institutional civic knowledge as to what a far-right party represents has made them all the more potently dangerous today.
Consider Molly Ball in recent conversation with Ezra Klein. “This is not an election about policy,” she began.
Possibly none of them have been, and we’ve all been fooling ourselves our whole lives. I feel like that’s been one of my learning experiences — that elections were, maybe, never about ideas. Maybe they were always about issues of identity and tribe and people’s sense of where the interests of their group lie and who they identify with.
I think this is the identity politics election and I think it is true that a lot of it is reactionary. It’s reactionary in the sense that it’s a reaction to the rising identity politics of the left and of minorities.
… And so a lot of the anti-political correctness sentiment Trump is tapping into, and the tribalism in his followers, is a reaction to what they see as the tribal assertions of their opponents.
The Trump supporters I’ve spoken to, that’s a lot of what they talk about. I’ve talked to Trump supporters right after he declined, briefly, to disavow the Ku Klux Klan. They said they didn’t understand why Trump should denounce the Klan if Obama doesn’t have to denounce Black Lives Matter.
To these Trump supporters, those were equivalent racist movements. So there’s a feeling — I’m not saying it’s correct, of course — but in terms of understanding how people feel, identity is a very powerful force. And a lot of white people feel they don’t have an outlet to express their identity the ways others do.
And that’s why I’m arguing for some sort of dexterity — why I found the extraordinarily dismissive reaction to Ana Marie Cox offering to fundraise for a bombed out GOP headquarters in North Carolina baffling (small sample of tweets: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven) — because if you keep making it about the little things again and again and again, you get Donald Trump.