Op-Ed Pundits Take on Young Activists: Is There No Common Ground?

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Few souls who labor in the media world — from the most app-friendly millennial to the newspaper-clutching boomer, from the most radical critic to the most equivocating pundit — can be unaware at this point of what sometimes happens on Twitter (call it “The Way We Tweet Now”): legitimate critique occasionally whips itself around at ever-increasing speeds until it creates a tornado of overblown outrage and shaming in the name of social justice principles.

Where many of us diverge is in treating this issue as either the scariest of our time — a chilling, free speech-killing online equivalent of the KGB — or a frustrating stumbling block on the way to a better world. The thing is, sometimes youthful-seeming Twitter outrage has an undeniably positive effect. To prove this, we need look no further than the fact that many people and outlets are rapidly learning how to properly attribute pronouns to trans-identified individuals; surely, fear of reprisal from “the masses” combined with positive reinforcement contributed to this exponential growth in understanding and acceptance.

And yes, sometimes the effect is equally negative — eliminating nuances, disabling conversations that could be productive, and making them oppositional or even inimical. Investigating the actual pedagogy of trigger warnings, for instance, revealed to me that the pro vs. con debate taking place about them online, sometimes with sweeping vitriol and dismissiveness, was extremely reductive. As it turns out, you can be an incredibly sensitive teacher and eschew the warnings, or a freedom-of-expression advocate who chooses to use them. The lines on many of these issues are much more blurred than easy punditry would have us believe.

Unfortunately, the problem is amplified when influential pundits cast aspersions widely and clumsily in an attempt to dissuade younger activists, whose Tumblr-bred tactics and language are crossing into the classroom, from doing the very same thing. This morning, both David Brooks in The New York Times and Meghan Daum in the LA Times took on the topic of younger campus and online activists and their alleged propensity to see things in black and white. Said Brooks:

Today’s campus activists are not only going after actual acts of discrimination — which is admirable. They are also going after incorrect thought — impiety and blasphemy. They are going after people for simply failing to show sufficient deference to and respect for the etiquette they hold dear. They sometimes conflate ideas with actions and regard controversial ideas as forms of violence.

Daum argued along similar lines, noting that the same problem plagues the online sphere: “too much time is being spent looking for a fight about these issues and not enough in having a conversation about them.” Her column responds to the backlash she received after another, rather ill-considered column about campus rape activism, and she claims she herself is a victim of something called the “Jezebel Effect” (Jezebel, it should be noted, weighed in not at all about the original column and has only promoted Daum’s writing). Although she admits she should have been clearer in her first piece, she feels the criticism she received went overboard: “One Twitter user told me I was ‘on the wrong side of history.’ Another accused me of ‘mansplaining.'” Indeed, welcome to the internet in 2015, where originally useful terms like “privileged” and “mansplaining” are often deployed with inaccurate frequency, in place of real arguments.

So why is it, if I agree with several of the points both these columnists make, that their pieces frustrate me in the same way as Jonathan Chait’s attempted takedown of PC culture? Because, despite a few of what Daum calls “to be sures” on both sides, they position themselves as utterly uninterested in further dialogue. Not one campus or Twitter activist is consulted or interviewed in either column, and there’s no exploration of the root causes of some of these outbursts (you know, the usual: centuries of oppression and silencing, indifferent institutions, genuine trauma). Brooks casually conflates being triggered with being upset, while Daum doesn’t go far enough in acknowledging that her previous column oddly called out campus rape victims for not being globally minded. That piece went beyond a simple lack of clarity, to a larger statement that felt genuinely provocative. Furthermore, both writers cherry-pick incidents of oversensitivity to make their point, ignoring a lot of authentic, thoughtful work that has been done on issues ranging from campus safety to Black Lives Matter.

Writers and activists have different toolboxes. Activists leverage moments of outrage and deliberately simple framing to effect change, whether it’s in campus disciplinary codes or police tactics. Writers have the privilege to be able to encompass a broader view, with tools at their disposal like calling up the other side or at least trying to actively consider their position. The least they can do is try to empathize with the pain of younger folks, beyond a mere rhetorical aside. Pundits are not contributing to the discourse when they get on soapboxes and yell at the kids and ladybloggers of today for being too obsessed with racism and sexism — causing their own legion of commenters and fans to pile on against said kids with the same fervor they claim is the realm of angry tweeters and campus poster-board carriers.

If writers want to have a dialogue with young activists and demand rigor and compassion from them, we have to model the same rigor and compassion when we investigate activist ire. Yes, sometimes what we find might be outlandish ideas and mean observations dressed in the raiments of social justice, but more often we might discover a point worth considering.