Friendly fire in the war of position

by Carl Dyke

I’ve been doing very little blog reading lately – I think this is temporary, as I feel my way toward a workable relationship between media feeds and meatworld obligations – but I look in on Crooked Timber and Easily Distracted pretty regularly. The latter because I find myself agreeing with Tim Burke about almost everything (plus he and his brother wrote the book on Saturday morning cartoons, a tome I keep in my bathroom and nostalge over fondly from time to time). The former because of the general quality of the topics, the bloggers, and the commentariat; and the grim fascination of the fact that although I agree with or at least see the point of them too most of the time, the people there who most exactly express my thoughts are routinely hounded out of the conversation as scoundrels and trolls.

Even at these high standards there are two particularly interesting conversations unfolding at these blogs that I strongly recommend. At Easily Distracted, Tim popped up from one of his regular bouts of blog exhaustion with a great series of posts called “Grasping the Nettle”. He’s been interested pretty much all along in the way progressive activism works both for and against progressive values, especially in online and academic communities. Among other things, these posts are about targeting, ‘allies’, ‘political correctness’, and ‘privilege checking’. Who gets to be in that conversation, and how – the ways progressive discourses and practices assemble inclusions, exclusions, trajectories, and positions. How to fight the ‘war of position’, in Gramscian terms.

And at Crooked Timber, the always-pithy Belle Waring called a stand-down on the circular firing squad of progressive righteousness to create a safe space for everyone to say their “unpopular thoughts” about feminism and the left, without that fear of being hounded out of the conversation for missing a locked step. (Trigger warning: unpopular thoughts. Also, rape testimonies.) The resulting conversation is so much better than the doctrine-policed ones, so much friendlier, richer, more relaxed and inclusive and nuanced! Everyone is presumed to be speaking in good faith; lots of education is happening, without the customary shaming and shunning.

Still, other than ‘don’t be an asshole’ it all doesn’t really point at any particular programme for progressive practice; nor does Tim’s stuff.

10 Comments to “Friendly fire in the war of position”

  1. I’ll check out the conversations. This is something my wife and I have been talking a lot about lately.

    I also use blog reading/commenting as an online/meat balance. Work has been hard for the last year, and it gives me just enough structure to express some thoughts without the hard work of doing actual blog posts.

    Anyway, when I originally sought out blogs to frequent, I looked for ones that had active communities, were about stuff that interested me, and that were mostly non-political (since I get too wrapped up in that stuff and it affects my outlook too strongly). I found Freethought blogs, which I thought was a good fit because I’m interested in skepticism and atheism.

    To put it as nicely as possible, the type of “safe space” thing that you talked about happening on Crooked Timber is not possible there. I ended up feeling alienated, and even questioning whether it was even possible for me to be a proper ally (an “Adequate Man”, as Deadspin is now apparently calling it — without shutting down a lot of the thinking I would normally do on these issues that I care and think a lot about.

    That whole thing ended up being more depressing than politics. So now I hang out a lot a Massimo Pigliucci’s blog. I’m pretty much a minority group consisting of one person there, but it can be interesting sometimes.

  2. One thing that I find really interesting – and maybe it will show up in these conversations – is the idea of the priority of values and focus. Many times, policing takes the form of, “So this horrible thing X happened and here you are focusing on how feminists (or whoever) are dealing with it wrong”. If you are not part of an oppressed/disadvantaged group, you are probably not going to have the same focus, no matter how much you care emotionally. You are, in a sense, safer and have the leg-room to think about things analytically and be critical (this is sometimes called “JAQ-ing off”). Arguably, that leg-room is a manifestation of privilege. I’m always wondering whether that discrepancy in what people will be focused on or consider most important is intrinsic to progressivism.

  3. I think I’ve mentioned that I sometimes catch the traces of your blog commentary on the dashboard here, as readers follow you back to your home blog. It’s really fun to see that you’re in action, and sometimes I do the stalkback to gawk at what the folks are systematically misunderstanding you about this time. I agree that not getting shut down is sometimes a pretty good arrangement at the more ‘engaged’ sites, and that makes me sad. But, it’s their party. I don’t expect CT will learn anything long term from their wildly successful little experiment, and I can understand how the pressure of sustaining both dogmatic views and generosity toward those who don’t share them would be exhausting.

  4. … oh hey, missed your second comment! Yes, I like the leg-room metaphor. I’ll add that I also find fascinating how people who are not part of the o/d group will take solidarity to mean that they’re supposed to pull up their own legs into the same cramped position. Whereas I say, let a thousand postures bloom!

    But your remarks also get into the whole 'mansplaining' thing, which is of course a real thing, including in how some men will routinely deny that it's a real thing. So on the one hand that collective cramp that progressive politics of a certain sort seems to invite is pretty obnoxious, but on the other hand running around the hostages and taunting them that they should just get up and walk away is pretty obnoxious. And making a fetish of one's stuntings is pretty obnoxious, and so is kicking out other people's crutches. I thought Goffman covered all this pretty well in Stigma, but it’s getting admirably good treatment at the CT thread also.

  5. “intrinsic to progressivism”

    Just thinking out loud here, the key to progressivism is a kind of compensatory empathy, a motivated taking the perspective of the other, usually with an equality-dominated image of justice in mind. Insofar as that’s right, I don’t see how the discrepancy of experiences, concerns, and values couldn’t create an inherent dis-ease. Or maybe the dis-ease is there already, and progressivism is the politics that fit it?

  6. In my admittedly naïve understanding of politics, it feels like it’s the former. The dis-ease is, to some extent, what we’re after, right? We seek the discomfort of empathizing with social injustice. But the seating layout is what it is. I worried about what kind of ally I was because I’m me and we’re all preoccupied with ourselves. But going in and saying, “I think you’re going about recruiting allies wrong” would be madness. It goes way beyond “concern trolling” or “wanting a cookie” (as they say at FtB). It is making one’s own needs the focus when the focus should be on others’ needs. But on the other hand, it’s that whole dynamic that inures a movement to internal criticism — which is something that movement may need.

    I don’t know what there is to do about that. Focus elsewhere and hope the movement gets around to criticizing itself, I guess.

    One thing that I found a little surprising is that my sense of alienation did almost nothing to change my views. I didn’t rebel against my previous ideas or sour on feminism. I soured on some people who seemed to want to fully control the terms of the relationship and the conversation. I don’t even resent the desire for control, because if I was in a situation where society was dis-empowering me, I’d want some control too. And I certainly wouldn’t want anyone telling me that the control/power I’d gained within a small sphere of the movement had turned me into one of Milgram’s guards.

    I find the urge to view this stuff in psychological terms almost irresistible, although it’s probably wrong ;).

  7. By the way – I didn’t realize that click-throughs on my handle at Scientia Salon would be visible to you. If people are clicking on my name, it must mean that they don’t think I’m a total nut-case, right?

    I would be really interested to hear why you are not tempted to comment over there (assuming you’re not, of course). Is the level of discourse there just too ridiculously bad?

  8. I would also read the clicks that way. You have friendly lurkers there. The discussions themselves were at a high level, but struck me, like so much philosophy, as erudite failures to communicate, serial monologues. You’ve written memorably about that here. It’s really weird about you that you actually read what other people write, think about it, and respond on point; it’s what makes you that minority in a setting like that. This is just an impression; the topics weren’t high on my personal engagement queue, so I just sort of sniff around every so often for the fun of seeing you at work.

    I have to say, the progressivism syndrome we’re discussing works the same way. If there isn’t a tracked precognition, the conversations have this sort of surreal haze of grumpy projective incomprehension. It’s better for the bloggers, because of course they get to be the masters of their own discourse in that setting; they look very good. But once the consensus starts to take hits in the commentary, it gets weird fast. One of the things the CT crew seem to have decided is that pouring effort into sustaining positive interactivity in a cognitively diverse conversation is not worth it. I’m not sure what else would be, but then I don’t do tribalism very well.

    “One thing that I found a little surprising is that my sense of alienation did almost nothing to change my views. I didn’t rebel against my previous ideas or sour on feminism. I soured on some people who seemed to want to fully control the terms of the relationship and the conversation. I don’t even resent the desire for control, because if I was in a situation where society was dis-empowering me, I’d want some control too. And I certainly wouldn’t want anyone telling me that the control/power I’d gained within a small sphere of the movement had turned me into one of Milgram’s guards.”

    Hear, hear.

  9. “I have to say, the progressivism syndrome we’re discussing works the same way.”

    Yes. Well, speaking of the pleasure of seeing someone at work, I have to say that I loved your comments over at ED on the most recent two pieces (which I thought were the best, as he kind of orbited closer to the Nettle). Hopefully you’ve been told this already, but you are one of the best intellectual riffers I have had the pleasure to read. You’re like a human Calder mobile of ideas (with all the metaphorical entailments that analogy spins off).

    Maybe this is loose thinking, but sometimes I think that most of my frustration in the progressivism/feminism thing (and maybe the philosophy thing too) comes from the constraints on discourse. In some ways, the “masters of their own discourse” thing is also extended into the commentary, where you get this sense of a series of weird, disconnected monologues (this sense is particularly strong at Scientia Salon, where some of the commenters are actual cranks). I, too, am a (amateur, apprentice) riffer, and so it’s not surprising that I’m going to find most of the comment threads frustrating.

    To be (again, probably unwarrantedly) psychological, what I often see when I see a man reacting strongly against feminism is someone who feels viscerally threatened — who feels as though he is being told that he, personally, is shit. That’s so far outside my cognitive wheelhouse that I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t know how to be threatened by ideas. Ideas are mostly not things to be threatened by, but rather things to play with and riff on (keeping in mind that the intellectual luxury to be playful is a kind of privilege).

    So hooray for the riffers and synthesizers. And so sad for us too.

  10. Awww, see, you’re doing it again. Because that’s the compliment of someone who’s been paying attention. It’s like you targeted that direct to my pleasure emitters. I’m rolling around like a kitty in nip.

    Re: ideas as play or threat, my first thought was guns. They work the same way, don’t they? For folks who are used to having them around and using them for various things, they just seem like a handy part of life. Sure, you can shoot people with them, but mostly that’s not what they’re for or how they’re used. But for people who don’t have that familiarity, they feel real scary, and that feeling gets confirmed all the time by the rare but still plentiful instances where killing does in fact occur. And if you’re of the sort of mind where things have an essence, it’s then got to be pretty easy to think that guns have that dangerous one. Just like ideas, and men, and corporations, etc.. But it turns out plenty of people who are all around guns actually have that essence idea about them, and defend it fiercely. And ‘just so’ it turns out people can be really good at one idea, but terrible at ideas.

    So this turns out to be one of our long-running themes here at DV – systematizers and improvisers, discipliners and interdiscipliners, planners and pantsers, builders and traders, farmers and cattlemen, orchestrators and riffers. (Not, of course, binaries at all, but fields marked out by these tendences.) JohnD and DtE did a number on some book about jazz that looked really interesting awhile back, talking about the repertoire that gets called into play pre-consciously in the flow of improvisation. And the sourdough post. And the fundamentalism post. And the Deacon / McGinn post. Etc., etc.

    What I’m noticing lately is that the riffing skills seem to require an ability to step sideways on one’s own thinking. To see double, in a sense. Which gets back to repertoire, although people can know a lot of stuff that would work as repertoire without it actually becoming useful to them as repertoire. So, the famous metacognition, but also, the decentering that comes from perspective shifting, and from thinking about a particular line of thinking as one among others. One really good diagnostic, as identified by a commenter at the CT thread, is the ability to laugh at oneself. Interestingly, she saw this in one parent but not the other, had learned how to recognize and value it, but wasn’t actually able to do it. Another diagnostic is the tendency to equate judgment with analysis. This then seems to be connected to the notion that there’s one right way to do and to think, against which everything else is to be measured for error.

    But, I don’t want to overgeneralize. I’m just riffing. Back when I was playing music, I discovered that I was a fine improvisor, but I wasn’t able to play my bass and sing at the same time. Laboriously I got to where I could do it for specific songs where I could get the rhythms lined up right. It wasn’t the notes that were the problem; I could do the harmony thing, or just autopilot the parts. But it turned out I had to pay attention to rhythm in a way that didn’t let me multitask it. I asked other people who could play and sing together, some of them way less accomplished than me in both dimensions, how they did it. But it turned out it wasn’t a how – they just did it, instantly.

    Over the weekend I caught a little bit of a radio show on OCD. They were interviewing a sufferer, and a therapist who’s had some success with treatment. The therapist remarked that the problem is that OCD folks are too conscientious, or ‘scrupulous’ I gather we might say, about ideas. So when one pops into their head, they think it is a very serious thing that needs to be attended to seriously. And so when they have that ‘did I shut off the stove’ thought or that ‘I wish I was dead’ thought or that ‘I’d like to throw that body down and have my way with it’ thought, IT’S WHAT THEY REALLY THINK, which makes them BAD PEOPLE, at which point they have to FIGHT THEIR BADNESS WITH ALL THEIR STRENGTH, by rejecting the bad idea, by focusing on it, at which point the feedback loop is closed and they’re hosed. So this guy treats them by putting them in the situation they fear is real because of the idea they have about it, and letting them gradually learn that the idea is actually separate from the situation – that they can be vividly visualizing stabbing him to death with the knife he just gave them, and yet not actually stabbing him to death or really having any particular inclination to do so. Which works, although the sufferer reported that it didn’t generalize very well for him.

    Which puts the whole ‘threatened by ideas’ thing in a different perspective, right? One of the commenters in the CT thread talked about how she liked her life a lot better sometimes when she shifted out of ‘feminism head’. Sexists can turn out to be perfectly relatable when you’re not filtering them through a doctrine. I have a friend who’s said the same thing, and of course I shift in and out of heads all the time. Rhythms, no. But if feminism isn’t a head but The Truth, this strategy is not only not available but actively inimical. The badness has to be fought with all our strength. I think Martin Luther King said something along these lines, and he was right about everything.

    But then also, in one of my classes we were talking about perspective shifting as a kind of sine qua non of decent historical analysis, and somehow that got to one of the students connecting to hallucinations – in Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” – and being able to recognize them as not real, as interesting instead, which outside the movies is pretty much the difference between a good trip and a bad trip. And I’ve seen plenty of people turn their lives into bad trips by nothing more than being unable to see them any other way, which gets back to that sad moment we started with where you see the people speeding straight for the cliff, and you want to say, just slow down and hang a left here alright?

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