Quick, to the Free Speech Fuhrerbunker!
(OR: Confessions Of A Former First Amendment Ideologue)
BROTHERS! I come bearing troubling news! Reddit, our last bastion of nuanced, rational discourse predicated upon the open exchange of ideas has fallen to the mad whims of a crazed lynch mob! To arms!
Earlier this week, I wrote an admittedly polemical piece attacking one of the most pervasive, ignorant, and corrosive ideals forming the bedrock of modern passive-aggressive white supremacy: The belief that only the individual accused of racism, and not the people they’re attacking, are allowed to say whether or not their words, actions, or overall mentality is racist.
This takes many forms, one of more prevalent being a childlike reliance on flimsy semantic loopholes as some bulletproof defense, followed by shock and outrage when they invariably fail. You know, the whole “I’m not racist, but…” magic wand, or the shameless dogwhistles from clueless Boomers who helpfully inform us that there’s nothing racist about their public murder fantasies.
Which is, of course, predictably self-serving bullshit from habitual self-serving bullshitters. A person can’t sexually assault their coworker and then say it “doesn’t count” because they only groped their victim over their clothes. The belief that our entire social code of conduct can be decided by you and only you, regardless of how your words or actions affect others, is the apex of clueless entitlement. If you want people to treat you with respect, start earning it instead of whining about what second-class citizens Nazis are. Pretty straightforward.
If I’m being totally honest, while I don’t regret anything I said, there are several massive caveats that I left out for no other reason than simple pacing considerations, which is what I want to talk about here. Yes, I am going to write a rebuttal of myself.
One major complication is that online hate groups love to appropriate rational-sounding counterarguments that would be reasonable if not for the context and the person invoking them. One of the most common examples is the appeal to “unpopular free speech”, which reframes 4chan trolls as French rationalists debating humanist ideals in Parisian salons and not middle-aged Incels regurgitating crying Wojak comics back and forth into each others’ mouths for all eternity. They’re not white supremacists, they’re question-asking free thinkers! Sexy question-askers!
Except we’re not idiots, so in this case, we immediately know that “free speech” is just another dog whistle and shut it down without debate. Which is great! That’s exactly what we should do!
…but what if it wasn’t?
What if the person actually meant “free speech” and nothing more? What if he wasn’t railing against shutting down hate sites in principle, but rather the cynical corporate motivations behind hollow, symbolic gestures meant to appease us while changing absolutely nothing about the rotten underlying structure that continues to perpetuate injustice and oppression?
And what if, exhausted from calling out so many of these ideological cowards, you became so acclimated to expecting codes and innuendos that when a person uses those phrases sincerely, you reflexively assume he’s just one more bigot?
This would be an honest, understandable mistake. But it’s not your fault that you’ve been so inundated with ignorance and hate speech online that you naturally assume more is around the corner.
You’re human. Miscommunications really do happen. Just because “I’m sorry my words were misinterpreted” has become a hallmark of insincere, forced apologies by Karens nationwide does not change that. Does it mean the speaker is off the hook? Of course not. We all have a responsibility to choose our words carefully and try to contextualize them as best we can, and oftentimes the blame for miscommunication falls squarely on the writer for not being properly educated about the secondary meaning their words can carry. But that’s nowhere near as bad as actually perpetuating racist narratives.
Okay, accidents happen. Thanks for taking six paragraphs to say that, Aaron. You should build a time machine, travel back ten years, kill your younger self, steal his identity, and get a job writing for Mad Men so you can amaze the writer’s room by taking eight years to say “Money doesn’t buy happiness.” That’s how sarcastic I’m being right now. My inner monologue is golf clapping. But unlike Mad Men, I’m actually building up to something.
One of the most common passive-aggressive racial narratives you’ll encounter online — usually from Boomers, bless them — stems from the racist assuming that white allies can only perceive people of color as these perfect, angelic beings incapable of sin. Basic empathy is so alien for these people that the simple concept of supporting someone in trouble because it’s the right thing to do, regardless of their past mistakes or imperfections, eludes them.
Instead, they assume the white person must be hypnotized by propaganda, so whenever a tragedy like Trayvon Martin or Ahmed Arbery strikes, these heroic truth-tellers’ first instinct is to launch a smear campaign against the murder victim so they can proudly inform us that “He’s no angel”.
I’ll give you a moment to swallow the bile that just rose up.
The obvious interpretation here is that, in their mind, whatever stupid, trivial “dirt” they found on George Floyd is the unspoken bridge that links the actual complex, flawed, three-dimensional human being to the world of lazy stereotyping. Incapable of appreciating the nuance and ambiguity of an entire human life, they’re satisfied with “black+crime=dangerous=kill”, and assume you will be too.
Except to any normal human with basic social skills, “people of color are people” isn’t a revelation, it’s the most obvious statement on planet earth. No shit they’re people. I don’t look at a BLM protest and think a bunch of sea anemones escaped the aquarium. This isn’t Virtue Signaling or Performative Wokeness or whatever we’re calling it today. It’s the bare minimum requirement for being human: Acknowledge others exist. Sure, race plays a huge, if not undefined, role in shaping most people’s worldview and personality, but at no point is anyone’s basic humanity in question.
Which means that sometimes they can be wrong about things. Like a person.
You cannot respect another person’s humanity without also accepting their flaws. Period. Because our limitations and imperfections aren’t some negligible aspect of our personhood you can casually ignore, they’re among the defining factors of who we are. But if there’s one frequent criticism of Leftist activists that I actually agree with, because I’ve witnessed it firsthand many, many times, it’s that overzealous (and almost always white) activists can be far too eager to default to calling someone racist over minor disagreements.
Guys. We’re all friends here. I’m not Ben Shapiro disguising himself with Groucho Marx glasses. Let’s just admit it. Those people exist. I’m not saying there’s a lot of them, or that they represent the movement, but there’s enough of them to warrant me saying all this, because these people can be loud and they can be toxic. And the Right feeds off them. They fuel the counternarrative that “everything and everyone is ‘racist’ nowadays” and the struggle for civil rights is just a lot of trivial whining.
But wait…didn’t I just do this big long spiel about how other people, not you, get to decide if you’re racist? Doesn’t this completely undo my entire thesis?
Sort of but not really. At this point we’ve officially reached one of the murkiest, least-defined regions of our social and political discourse: To what extent,on issues of race and policy, are whites and nonwhites allowed to disagree without their difference of opinion being driven by race and upbringing? On one hand, we can’t just let sheltered white Boomers with zero interest in the outside world dictate what does and what doesn’t constitute ignorance. On the other, if accusations of racism are tossed around carelessly and the accused isn’t given a chance to explain themselves, we trivialize and dilute an extremely powerful and necessary idea.
I’m not about to go down the philosophical subterranean rabbit megapolis of racial essentialism and biological determinism. Fuck that. And to just say “Well, I guess we gotta just go on a case-by-case basis” is obvious and anticlimactic, even though SPOILER ALERT that’s pretty much where we’re headed.
Instead, let’s focus less on the specifics of what the person says and more on the general approach. Let’s say someone calls you a racist — what’s your gut reaction? (Let’s also assume you’re not a public figure or doing any form of PR damage control.) Even if you think the accusation is ridiculous, it should bother you for a second because, even if it really is an honest misunderstanding, you still don’t want to be spreading that sort of negativity around. Nobody needs that right now, so a quick apology could clear a lot of things up. Now, regardless of whatever the person says, the fact that their first instinct was to engage is a major indicator of where they’re coming from and can completely recontextualize whatever comes next.
Contrast this with what actually happens in real life: lmao. Lol. rofl. Sweet Jesus do Nazis love to lmao. Every. Single. Sentence. Begins with fake laughter. Does it even matter what they say next?
I spoke earlier about how using certain words or phrases that have been co-opted by the Right can lead to misunderstandings, but in this case, it’s not the specific word that’s the problem, it’s the fact that their first instinct is to laugh and then tell you with a straight face they’re not racist. I think what they’re going for is “I am so Not Racist that to claim the contrary causes me to explode with insane Joker laughter”, except nobody in the history of the world has ever reacted like this and racists are just really, really bad at scripting natural-sounding human interactions.
Once again, I know this sounds obvious to the point of being patronizing, but this trope is so beloved by the exact same people that bitch about being “wrongly” labeled white supremacists just because they had “an unpopular but widely held opinion” that you really can’t ignore it.
So setting aside blatant malice and a handful of bland non-statements about how people are people, are there any firm guidelines beyond our personal judgement that we can agree on? Theoretically.Will we ever establish them? Nope! Because as lovely as it would be for us to finally have that Conversation About Race we’ve been putting off for about 400 years, getting disparate groups of people to come together and agree upon a common, unified message that accounts for nuance and vagary is virtually impossible under the best possible conditions, and these sure as hell aren’t that. The signal-to-noise ratio of modern journalism and social media, coupled with the 80 or so other simultaneous fires we’re trying to put out at the moment, have all but guaranteed that, absent the calm, adult discussion we wish we could have, our only other option is to fall back on the fundamentals of human interaction.
As much as I hate to say it, maybe the best thing to do as the world burns around us is to remember how we built it in the first place, and I’m not talking about exploitation and subjugation. I’m talking about something far more ancient and powerful, a part of us that’s beyond history, beyond politics. That primordial urge that lead the first of our ancestors to cooperate and lay the foundations of what we would later call “civilization.” They had no roadmaps, no past, no frame of reference with which to draw upon, yet some innate drive, not unlike the procreative urge, compelled them to work together.
I’m talking about that part of us that wants to do good.
Right now, there are an infinite number of things to be miserable and nihilistic about, so if you want to fire off an email about what a naive idiot I am because X, Y, and Z is going on right now, and the fact that I didn’t even mention W is offensive beyond words, knock yourself out. You’ve probably got a point. But just as COVID-19 has forced us to radically reevaluate our fundamental relationship with society by abruptly simplifying it, maybe there’s something to be said about simplifying the way we interact with others in an increasingly diverse and complicated world, too.
Yes, if we really wanted to, we could come up with a 1,000-page manual that flatly lays out, in excruciating detail, all the major guidelines for how Group A should interact with Group B, including all the unspoken subtext and implications for every conceivable scenario. No one would read it. Hell, this is only five pages long and I’m so confident nobody will read this I’m going to end this by calling the entire planet gay.
Getting people to follow their instincts, on the other hand, is significantly easier. Just think of all the ways a moron like Trump, who let me stress is too stupid to operate a glass of water, is able to bring out the worst in people without even knowing what he’s doing. Where is it written that people will only gravitate towards the bad? Aren’t billions of families, bonded by love, growing together every day? Is the entire concept of friendship somehow disintegrating? Do we all hate puppies now?
I’m not saying any of this to trivialize or disregard the very real problems millions of people are struggling with right now. I’m saying this to offer some perspective, and as someone that slept on the streets for six months, I know a lot about perspective. You’re not going to solve Coronavirus, global warming, and racial injustice. But you can do your part, and the simplest, lowest-effort way to contribute is just drop the politics and try, as best you can, to remind this gay earth that no matter what fresh Hell it tosses at us, we’re not going down without a fight.