A few years ago, it still seemed natural that there were lots of social or cultural controversies on which people with broadly similar politics might disagree. While there were some questions that neatly divided liberals from conservatives, there were others on which there was a lot of debate within the liberal camp. To find out what a particular writer thought about Charlie Hebdo or Django Unchained, you needed to wait until they made up their mind, and hope that they would publish an article about it.
But with the rise of social media and the election of Donald Trump, it now feels as though this is less and less the case. To be liberal is not only to oppose the cruel policies of the Trump administration or the Republican Party; it is also to pay allegiance to a whole set of predetermined positions on social and cultural issues.
So when the New York Times appointed Sarah Jeong to its editorial board last week, and her history of racially incendiary comments spread across the internet like wildfire, everybody could have guessed what the lines of battle would turn out to be. While conservatives like David French and Andrew Sullivan said that Jeong should keep her job, they slammed her for tweets in which she, as they saw it, denigrated “white people.” (“#CancelWhitePeople,” Jeong demanded in one tweet. “Oh man,” she wrote in another, “it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men.”) So did less thoughtful outlets like Fox News, which devoted multiple segments to the controversy. Even Donald Trump got in on the game, retweeting an article that condemned Jeong.
Liberals, by contrast, rose to Jeong’s defense. “Her journalism and the fact that she is a young Asian woman,” the New York Times wrote in its explanation for why Jeong should keep her job, “have made her a subject of frequent online harassment. For a period of time she responded to that harassment by imitating the rhetoric of her harassers. She sees now that this approach only served to feed the vitriol that we too often see on social media.”
Many liberal writers went far further than that: Jeong, they suggested, should be celebrated for her tweets. The Times’ defense of her, Inkoo Kang argued here at Slate, amounted to a Trumpian “bigotry-on-many sides explanation.” Instead of portraying Jeong’s tweets as youthful failings, the Times should have been supportive of the “writers of color [who] have forged communities on Twitter and other social media platforms where we can communicate in languages that don’t necessitate cultural or linguistic code-switching.”
One of the problems with the extent to which we are now all batting for our own team is that it hides many considerations that don’t neatly fit into one side or another. In particular, the seemingly clean lines of battle between liberals and conservatives have concealed that there are plenty of liberal reasons to be wary of the kind of rhetoric in which Jeong engaged—and which, as her defenders point out, is becoming increasingly common on parts of the left.
Let’s start with what many on both sides of our vast cultural divide got right: The New York Times should not fire Jeong. In fact, her tweets are an excellent illustration of why we should, in general, be much less willing to ostracize people from the public sphere due to manufactured outrage over things they once said or wrote.
Those who call for somebody’s firing usually make highly performative claims about how offended they were by what the person in question wrote. But as in many other cases, it is a little hard to believe that the people who went to the great effort of digging through Jeong’s Twitter history in the hope of finding examples of offensive rhetoric were in fact offended—much less emotionally harmed—when they succeeded in their endeavor. And while I personally find some of her tweets distasteful, I haven’t seen anybody make a credible argument for why they invalidate her ability to write with verve or insight about her primary field, technology.
More broadly, it is only if we are willing to forgive past mistakes that we will cultivate writers who are capable of challenging received wisdom. If we want to preserve a vibrant public sphere, it isn’t in anybody’s interest to judge people—on the left or the right—by the heat for which they were responsible yesterday rather than the light they are capable of generating today.
But while I do not think that Jeong should be fired for her tweets, I am depressed by the extent to which they are now being celebrated. This is true both because the content of her tweets is, from a liberal perspective, much worse than her defenders want to admit and because the kind of rhetoric in which she engaged is detrimental to the prospect of building a just society.
The core of the Times’ defense of Jeong is that she “responded to … harassment by imitating the rhetoric of her harassers.” In the most obvious reading of the statement, this is simply untrue. If Jeong had been imitating the rhetoric of her harassers, we would expect most instances of it to come in direct response to trolls. But in reality, she took aim at “white people” in standalone tweets on a wide range of subjects, from food to television.
The only tenable interpretation of the Times’ statement is therefore much broader: Because Jeong has frequently encountered abuse from white social media users—something that is, sadly, beyond doubt—she imitated their style and rhetoric when tweeting about white people in general, even when unprompted by any specific incident of harassment. The question then becomes whether this justifies the kind of rhetoric in which Jeong engaged. Is it a morally defensible, and politically constructive, strategy for those who often suffer vile abuse to treat a whole group to a taste of its own medicine because of the behavior of some of its members?
Everybody’s experience of harassment is different, and some are no doubt more persistent and perturbing than others. But as someone who grew up Jewish in Germany and has gotten my fair share of threats from the far right—I’ve even been profiled, without much affection, in the Daily Stormer—I’ve had plenty of occasion to reflect on this question. And my answer is no.
Writing in Vox, Zack Beauchamp argued that it would be a mistake to think that Jeong is prejudiced against all white people: “To anyone who’s even passingly familiar with the way the social justice left talks, this is just clearly untrue. ‘White people’ is a shorthand in these communities, one that’s used to capture the way that many whites still act in clueless and/or racist ways.”
Even if the use of this verbal register—let’s call it the “defensive inversion of bigotry”—is meant to be subversive in the way Beauchamp suggests, it inevitably mirrors other undesirable aspects of the speech on which it is modelled. As a result, we ourselves will start to engage in speech that is stupid, hateful, or both. One characteristic aspect of discriminatory speech is to hold all people who belong to a particular group responsible for the behavior of some of its members. Another characteristic aspect is to advocate cruelty against a whole group of people. If we start to imitate the harassers, we will quickly fall into the same trap: We will talk as though it’s fine to treat all members of a group poorly because some of them have acted badly, or even rejoice at the prospect of making “old white men,” in general, suffer. And it should be obvious that, in doing so, even ironically, we will violate two of the most fundamental principles to which liberals subscribe: that individuals should not encounter prejudiced treatment due to the group to which they happen to belong and that we should try to alleviate and oppose rather than to inflict and celebrate harm and cruelty.
For the same reason, it’s not very convincing to point out that defensive inversions of bigotry are often meant to be humorous. While humor was clearly the intent of some—though certainly not all—of Jeong’s tweets, this line of argument conveniently elides what is supposed to make these jokes funny in the first place. If Jeong had tweeted that she gets a lot of joy out of being cruel to little babies, the comedy would have turned on the implicit absurdity, since we presume that nobody has a reason to wish them ill. But as everybody understands, that emphatically was not the nature of the jokes she did make: the reason why it was supposed to be funny when she tweeted that she gets a lot of joy out of being cruel to old white men is that her implied audience does in fact think that they kinda have it coming. So, yes, many of Jeong’s worst tweets were supposed to be funny, but what was supposed to make them funny was the fantasy of inflicting indiscriminate cruelty on a whole group of people—something to which, as liberals and leftists, we have good reason to object.
If the first problem with Jeong’s style is moral, the second is strategic. It is, after all, hardly a coincidence that everybody from Donald Trump to Steve Bannon has jumped on this controversy over the past days: A lot of very loathsome figures are deeply convinced that publicizing uses of the defensive inversion of bigotry will serve their cause.
They aren’t wrong: For one, this style gives people on the far right a lot of ammunition in the great national game of whatabouttery, allowing them to defend their own rhetoric by pointing to that of the left. For another, a lot of dominant groups are, as social scientists have extensively chronicled, very worried about what will happen to them as their power declines. The idea that white men are now a persecuted group in America is plainly ridiculous. But that is why it’s all the more important for liberals not to gratuitously give credence to a belief that is already worryingly widespread: To give the impression that there will be no space left for old, white men in the America we want to build, or that cruelty to them should somehow cheer us, is an extremely effective way of exacerbating those fears and the very dangerous political backlash they feed.
In short, the defensive inversion of bigotry may indeed grant minority groups temporary solace. But it is also a massive gift to the very people who are most intent on doing harm to them. Unfair though this may be, anybody who is genuinely interested in taking away power from the alt-right, or in ensuring that Donald Trump can’t victimize minority groups for a second term, has a very good reason not to say things that serve the cause of the bigots who are out to hurt them.
I understand why many readers will be reluctant to change how they talk under duress. Just as it is admirable for a prisoner to speak truth to a tyrant even though it will result in swift and brutal punishment, there is dignity in refusing to let what one says, writes, or tweets be shaped by its likely consequences. All the more reason to point out a third reason to steer clear of the defensive inversion of bigotry: neither moral nor strategic, this final reason might perhaps best be called aspirational.
As I have already noted, the kind of rhetoric in which Jeong engaged is likely to delay, rather than to accelerate, the political ascendancy of people of color. But as NBC political analyst Anand Giridharadas pointed out when he was a guest on my podcast, The Good Fight, there is even reason to avoid this kind of talk if you are convinced that the victory of the “inevitable demographic majority” is imminent:
We are going to become a country that is majority-minority. This is going to be a country no longer run by white men. In certain fields, you see that faster than in others, but the train is moving. So part of the difficult thing here is to ask those in “Woke America” who are still on the wrong end of many power equations right now, but who are moving into a country that is more favorable to them, to start preparing for how they’re going to act as victors.
It’s a tough thing to ask people to be gracious and magnanimous in victory before they have won. The process of their victory, which is going to take place over decades in millions of little moments—in workplaces and at water fountains, in schools and on streets—is going to provoke so much fear and anxiety and racism and chauvinism and sexism that if the partisans of the new America are not magnanimous in victory, the victory may turn out to be a pyrrhic one. And it’s important to make sure we don’t lose the country right at the moment that it’s passing into new hands.
If the left imitates the inflammatory rhetoric of the right, the best possible future is one in which today’s minority groups take over the reins of power but our social divisions grow even more poisonous. Since we will still have to live alongside each other, this would mean that minority groups, even once they are in power, would face the hostility of an extremely resentful bloc of what Jeong might call “old white men.”
The defensive inversion of bigotry, in other words, is a disastrous recipe for building the kind of society to which the left itself should, given its own values and the interests of its own members, aspire: one in which there is more rather than less friendship and affection across racial lines, and one in which society is more rather than less peaceful. And that is why any liberal or leftist who shares an aspirational vision of what a racially just America might one day look like has very good reason to reject the kind of rhetoric of which Jeong’s tweets are but a particularly controversial example.