The Party of the First Part

The tragic hilarity that results when people take the term “social contract” too literally

Civil War re-enactment by dfbphotos on Flickr

At the beginning of the month, Ross Douthat had a piece called “The Terms of Our Surrender” published in The New York Times — which meant that at least one other adult actually read it and decided it was worthy to publish in the nation’s most revered newspaper.

I’ve heard the term “poetry slam,” but this was more like a “poetry tantrum.” Like the best poetry, he makes vividly crystalline the most abstract of concepts, in this case, “staggering lack of self-awareness.” And like the finest tantrums, he describes the plight of the hundreds of millions of people completely unaffected by marriage equality, comparing their sorry fate to that of ex-Confederates suffering through the Reconstruction.

For at least a few years now, various bigots, assholes, and bigoted assholes have, when called out on their bigoted assholery, responded with increasingly tortured attempts at self-martyrdom. When Muslim-loving liberals insist on removing Christianity from public buildings and schools, isn’t that religious intolerance and a violation of the First Amendment? When a man is deprived of his God-given right to be paid for a speaking appearance in which he compares homosexuality to bestiality, isn’t he the real victim?

Last night, a throng of perfectly well-meaning and not at all hypocritical social activists, presumably dressed as firefighters holding fire hoses that shoot confetti, all climbed out of their tiny car and took to the internet to express their outrage over a joke on Stephen Colbert’s Twitter feed, one that was horribly offensive to all people of color.

As much fun as it is to point and laugh at the silly self-described conservatives, pretending that they have consciences and ideals not motivated purely by self-interest, it’s important to see how all these are related. It’s the result of emphasizing words over ideas, getting hung up on how things are said instead of what is being said.

What we’re seeing now is nothing more than a travesty of what many progressives have been doing for years, acting as if there’s an explicit list of rules that define acceptable behavior, a literal social contract. And for some people, whenever you present them with a contract, they’ll immediately start looking for a loophole.

Getting to Negotiate

It’s worth remembering that the religious persecution that Ross Douthat is lamenting is the case of a baker who’s so filled with the Holy Spirit and message of Christ that he refused to bake a cake for a gay couple. (The comparisons to Joan of Arc, Christians in the Roman Empire, and Puritans leaving for the New World are, I hope, obvious). Douthat chooses to call this “dissent” instead of “being an asshole,” and he worries that the new dogma of the Liberal Gay Agenda is making unreasonable demands on these dissenters, completely vindictive conditions of surrender such as “people who run businesses have an obligation to serve their customers.” As he describes it:

…now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.

Let’s completely ignore, as Douthat does, the actual principles at work here: this is a group of people who’ve spent the past two decades drawing a direct line between the love of two consenting adults and dog-fucking, but are now saying, “It’s just a cake. What’s the big deal?” So we won’t bring up some hysterical “slippery slope” example like a woman in a burkha being refused taxi service, even though we’ve seen tons of examples of actual religious persecution against Muslims in the US, such as refusing building permits to mosques.

But ignore all that, because it’s the word games that are interesting. The entire thing is such a marvel of cluelessness that you have to wonder whether Douthat deliberately chose terms like “negotiation” and “surrender” to align himself with the last few times that groups in the United States have had to surrender after losing a battle over the rights of minorities.

Part of the transcendent smarm of Douthat’s article is the way he comes right out of the gate trying to reframe the last couple of decades of gay rights issues. It hasn’t been a blatant case of a majority imposing its will on a minority, but an impassioned but reasoned debate between two equal and opposing viewpoints. The Supreme Court’s decisions against DOMA and Proposition 8 were completely arbitrary — “the logic of its own jurisprudence.” It’s not a question of inequality but of religious freedom. Opponents of marriage equality are not bigots, but a “dissenting subculture emphasizing gender differences and procreation.”

Now that the gays have won, says Douthat, it’s nothing more than petty vindictiveness for these “married” “couples” to be rubbing it in everybody’s faces. The Supreme Court says we have to pretend that these conscious couplings between homos are actual marriages, but they didn’t say we have to like it. That’s effectively thoughtcrime, and it’s surely not what Andrew Sullivan intended when he invented the concept of marriage equality. (No, seriously. Douthat actually calls Sullivan “gay marriage’s intellectual progenitor.” In the New York Times).

The terms we use to describe a concept can, over time, change the way we think about the concept. That’s something that Douthat and other proponents of genitalia-based marriage have learned over the years. Right-wingers spent years publicly decrying The Liberals’ absurd “political correctness,” while surreptitiously taking notes to take back to their volcano lair.

So, over time, they began to spin themselves as free-thinkers who could see through spin. They took one of the three fundamental branches of American government and tried to make it sound un-Democratic and un-American: “activist judges.” And they tried to make blatantly unfair discrimination sound like rational counter-argument by calling it “traditional marriage.”

Incidentally, recent attempts to change up the term “traditional marriage” are as good a sign as any that the fight for marriage equality in the US is mostly over, and all that’s left is an unnecessarily long and complicated process of cleaning up. (The people who were unaffected are still every bit as unaffected. They’re now free to whine about how their religious freedom is in danger, while leaving the actual clean-up work to the people who are still being kept from having their relationships recognized by a majority of the states). Some of the most outspoken opponents — mostly the ones who believe that the central tenet of Christianity is “#nohomo” — have started to use the term “natural marriage.” At that point, it’s clear that they’ve abandoned even their feeble attempts at pretending to have a rational objection. They’re simply falling back on the old standby: “Nope. Don’t like it. ‘Tain’t natural.”

I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

The problem, of course, is that these self-described conservatives don’t understand that the terminology isn’t arbitrary. It’s not a secret list compiled and maintained by a shadowy cabal of liberals, designed solely to manufacture outrage by catching them using the non-preferred term.

In our actual reality, the terms that get traction are the ones that are either more accurate or more inclusive. For people who lack the empathy to understand why some terms are preferable to others, using “Native American” instead of “Indian” or “Asian” instead of “Chinese” seems just as absurd and arbitrary as using “womyn.”

In the case of marriage equality, there’s a history of changing terminology. Proponents started using “same sex marriage” to draw attention to the fact that civil laws never take love or even attraction into account, but instead attempt to define marriage strictly in terms of gender. And “marriage equality” itself gets to the heart of the matter; it’s not some new concept (invented by Andrew Sullivan), but simply people demanding to have exactly the same entitlements that their peers have. Opponents, on the other hand, have used “gay marriage” and “traditional marriage” and now, “natural marriage.” Those aren’t designed to be more accurate or more inclusive; they’re just a bunch of variations on the same idea: this is bad because it’s not normal.

To a person who’s motivated by self-interest — for convenience, let’s call him “Phil” — he doesn’t understand that you’d use the term “African American” instead of “black” to acknowledge that someone else’s cultural heritage is more relevant than skin color. To Phil, it’s just some arbitrary term that some liberals made up so that they can yell at Phil and call him a racist. It’s all but completely irrelevant what the black person (or Latino-instead-of-Mexican, or Asian-instead-of-Chinese) thinks; all that matters is how it affects Phil.

It’s right there in the term “politically correct.” People couldn’t possibly be saying this stuff out of actual sensitivity, or because it’s actually correct. They have to be saying it to get some kind of political power.

One of the best recent developments in video games is the list of “social justice warriors to avoid,” compiled by frightened and angry message board posters and Tumblrers who are fed up with people suggesting that games be inclusive. The reason it’s got me happy is that people who are bothered by inclusivity always use the rationalization that they’re not bigots but free-thinkers: they’re just saying the things that everyone else is thinking but are too afraid to say out loud. Forming a list of enemies is digging their own grave; as the list grows and grows, it’ll become clearer that bigotry and fear of inclusivity isn’t representative of the audience at large, but nothing more than the desperate panic of a backwards minority.

I’m unlikely to get labeled a “social justice warrior,” unfortunately, but I did once get accused of being a “white knight,” and it was glorious. In real life, we so rarely get those climax-of-Perry-Mason moments, where someone just freaks out and reveals exactly what an asshole he is. Telling a gay guy that he’s only speaking out against misogyny in an effort to get women to sleep with him is the purest expression of gross selfishness. The only reason a dude would possibly call somebody out for harassing a woman is to make himself look good. He must be as sexually frustrated and intimidated as I am. There’s no other possible explanation.

The Naughtiest Swear

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So it’s been fascinating to watch as people whose entire philosophy is based on self-interest take the tactics of progressives and try to use them against progressives. It’s a lot like watching children learn to swear: They don’t understand what they’re saying, because they have no context for any of it. They just repeat the things they’ve heard before, testing again and again to see what kind of reaction they can provoke.

It’s resulted in all kinds of Bizarro World situations. For instance, all the desperately confused people treating the word “intolerance” the same way I treat the word “nonplussed:” using it to mean the exact opposite of what it actually means.

If I’m driven by self-interest, “tolerance” has nothing to do with you getting to live your life without interference, and everything to do with my getting to decide whether or not your life is acceptable. And if you take someone who doesn’t actually understand the concept of tolerance, and spend several years calling them out on their intolerance, they’ll start to believe that the word doesn’t have an actual meaning. It’s just a name you yell at people when you’re not getting your way. Shout “no” enough times and you can train a dog to stay off the couch, even if he has no idea why it’s bad for him to be on the couch in the first place.

When you see the world as a selfish struggle for power, then you’re always under attack. It’s never the case that we all win; if there’s a winner, there has to be a loser. Saying “Happy Holidays” isn’t an attempt to be inclusive of other religions or the non-religious; it’s an attack on your religion. We have to remind people that “it’s Freedom of Religion, not Freedom from Religion!” because there are atheists out there who actually believe that I’m as wrong as I know that they are! Bilingual signs aren’t an opportunity to learn a new language; they’re a threat because it implies there’s something wrong with me for only speaking English!

And in the case of marriage equality, much time has been wasted over the years trying to get opponents comfortable with the concept, by reminding them that they don’t lose anything if gay people get married. It was time wasted because in the opponents’ minds, they are losing something: the ability to say I don’t approve of this. If a homophobe has to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding, his problem isn’t having to bake the cake. His problem is not getting to express his disapproval. (This isn’t even a particularly insightful observation on my part; several times, opponents of marriage equality explicitly said they wanted it to be up to a popular vote so that they could say they don’t condone it).

Which leads to last night’s ridiculous mockery of progressivism, the “CancelColbert” hashtag. It would’ve been laughably absurd if it weren’t so transparently manipulative. It’s offensive to see something so crass use the language of racial sensitivity, and it’s depressing to see how many well-meaning people took the bait.

You’d think that there’d be absolutely no doubt that it had nothing to do with actual racial sensitivity, as soon as perpetually clumsy opportunist and professional disappointment to the human race Michelle Malkin jumped on the bandwagon.

But even if that were somehow not enough, it should’ve become incontrovertibly clear after you read just a handful of the messages, not to mention the instigator’s desperate grab for attention full explanation. Count the number of times the term “white liberal” is used. The only truthful thing in that entire post is that there’s no point trying to explain satire to these people. They obviously understand satire enough to recognize that Colbert is a liberal comedian, and that’s all that matters. Finally a chance to beat the liberals at their own game!

It has everything to do with political power, and nothing to do with race, tolerance, inclusivity, or even the nature of humor.

Which is a drag, because some of those tweets would’ve been hilarious. One said “I DON’T NEED A WHITE LIBERAL MAN TO TEACH ME ABOUT SATIRE,” which is like a perfect diamond. But made of irony instead of carbon.

Always Punching Up

Unfortunately, that’s not the end of it. When a kid drops an F-bomb, you can’t just suppress a laugh and then go on about your business. You have to ask, “where did you learn that word?” And in this case, the answer is, “From you, all right? I learned it by watching you!”

It’s still tragicomic to see self-described conservatives thinking they’ve finally hit upon the right combination of words and outrage to outwit the liberal menace once and for all, only to have it fizzle once it becomes clear they don’t understand the actual concepts behind the words. But when progressives do the exact same thing, it’s not funny at all. It’s unsettling.

My go-to example is an article on a couple of years ago, in which writer Lindy West tried to describe “How to Make a Rape Joke.” (Which I’m not linking to, because Gawker). Shockingly, the post was longer than just the word “Don’t.” Instead, it was a depressingly belabored attempt at a wry explanation of why Daniel Tosh is just offensive while comedians like Louis CK are actually transgressive and genuinely funny.

And again, shockingly, the answer was more involved than just “Because Tosh is a hack.” Instead, it dragged in the topic of free speech, the old claim that it’s okay to punch up but never okay to punch down, the relative horror of sexual assault vs. accidents with farming equipment, and CDC statistics on the frequency of sexual assault. As if decent human beings need to consult actuarial tables to determine whether or not something is offensive.

Few of the ideas in the article were particularly new; for as long as there’s been a “counter-culture,” there’s been the same cycle:

  1. Somebody who considers himself or herself “politically incorrect” says something offensive.
  2. Outrage ensues.
  3. After the inevitable, flaccid arguments about freedom of speech and censorship, someone asks a question like: “How come it’s okay when Sarah Silverman says something racist or misogynist or anti-Semitic, but not when we do?”
  4. Instead of giving the correct answer to that question, there’s instead a tortured explanation about the transgressive nature of comedy and positions of power and being the social underdog and okay it’s because Silverman is a Jewish woman.

But the actual correct answer is “it’s okay because Sarah Silverman is saying racist or misogynist or anti-Semitic words, but isn’t expressing racist or misogynist or anti-Semitic ideas.”

To West’s credit, she doesn’t focus on gender or race, like so many others have. (It’s always depressing when you see someone who’s progressive in so many other ways still insist that there are certain jokes and certain words that only black people are allowed to use, and some that only women are allowed to use). But her post still overwhelmingly suggests that there does exist a set of rules describing who can say what without impunity, or as she words it, “feedback.” There’s a definite structure of oppressors and oppressed, and we must scrutinize our exchanges with other people to take into account not just what’s being said but who’s saying it.

The most telling part, I think, is her defense of Louis CK. He gets a pass because he’s spent years building a library of material in which the oppressors are always the butt of the joke, never the oppressed. Which I’m assuming doesn’t include the bits in which Louis CK calls his daughters “assholes.” But wait, she covers that too: “The point is, only a fucking psychopath would think like that, and the simplicity of the joke lays that bare.” Which I’m assuming doesn’t take into account that it would more accurately be a sociopath who thinks that way and that there’s a very real problem of judging the mentally ill instead of getting them the help that they need.

Gold is Fine, Thanks

That’s not (just) me trying to one-up politically correct speech. The point is that treating it in terms of a social hierarchy is what turns it into “politically correct” instead of just being “correct.” There isn’t a complex set of rules governing how we show basic human decency to each other. The rule is simply “be inclusive and empathetic.”

The feeble idea behind Tosh’s schtick is that you’d have to be a sociopath to think the things that he says, too. And he doesn’t need to have been working in comedy for decades to be given the benefit of the doubt; “not a sociopath” should be our baseline assumption about everyone until they prove us wrong. Tosh’s material isn’t funny because he doesn’t do anything with it. It’s just one example after the next of saying the most shocking thing he can think of and then grinning at his own naughtiness. It’s not transgressive because there’s no thought behind it. It’s just words.

Take that to its most absurd extreme and you end up with the “Cancel Colbert” nonsense. The instigators hoped that we’re gullible enough to believe that the context was irrelevant. The very act of a white male uttering the unspeakable words is horribly offensive.

The motivation for that, obviously, was a cynical power play. But I see no difference between that and the way that many actual progressives treat the exchange of ideas as if it were a perpetual game of Taboo. Whenever you find yourself saying, “You’re not allowed to say…” or “Intent doesn’t matter,” that’s a sure sign that you’re doing inclusivity wrong. You’re focusing on the speaker instead of what’s being said. If you focus on social inequality instead of making the baseline assumption that we’re all equal partners in a conversation, then you’re doomed to just keep repeating the same power struggle over and over again.

A couple of years ago at a Game Developer’s Conference, a few people were pleased with themselves for coming up with “The Platinum Rule.” The idea was that it’s not good enough to treat other people as you want to be treated; it’s much better to treat other people as they want to be treated.

I was alarmed that more people didn’t instantly see how horrible an idea that was, much less that they’d promote it as a feel-good symbol of inclusivity. It’s the opposite of inclusivity. It consigns us to always see each other for our differences, instead of acknowledging that no matter what our background, we all want the same things.