As you probably already know, Justin Timberlake said something “tone-deaf” about the BET awards, and everyone on twitter decided to “drag” him, and this is the least interesting news imaginable.
Cosmo magazine, that bedrock of diversity (ha ha! jk! it’s actually the worst magazine ever to exist, beating out Maxim and the NAMBLA Quarterly for that title), was of the opinion that “Justin Timberlake Deserved to Be Dragged for His Jesse Williams Tweets” — not, as you might have expected, because he hashtagged the word “inspired,” but because “he has not spoken out about Black Lives Matter”
(Cosmo changed the headline to “Justin Timberlake Has Gotten Away With Cultural Appropriation for Years Now” the next day.)
Some complaints were Timberlake specific (viz. the ones about Janet Jackson) but many were just assertions that Timberlake had violated protocol. He had “whitesplained” and he was “perfectly on script” and “straight from the handbook” and he had made an “all lives matter statement” (I’m just pulling random phrases from tweets here; all are good signalling phrases), and that was enough to signal that he was of an outgroup demographic. Once that happened, any statement he made could be dissected and criticized: See for example here where apparently conciliatory tweets are labeled as “plays at being the victim” or censured for being an inadequately “sincere display of humility.”
The strange thing is that Timberlake pulled his tweets from the Big Book of Safe and Innocuous Statements for Celebrities, where they were nestled between “Stay in school” and “Have a nice day.” Unfortunately he had an older edition that hadn’t been updated with what pablum nonsense was still innocuous and what pablum nonsense was a trigger.
I’m not here to defend Timberlake, who will still be sleeping on the same pile of money after this blows over that he was before, nor to damn him. The issues at stake are more complicated than I can do justice to in a post about twitterstorms; they are of course, more complicated than can be summed up in any 140-character zing. The amount of (our hobbyhorses here, the links the internet will never stop making relevant) demographic signaling and self-righteous schadenfreude in all these tweets, and the subsequent “reportage,” is obvious. So here we had a big, exciting blowup where almost all anyone said was, “This celebrity signaled the wrong demographic.”
Shibboleth is one of my favorite words, in part because it sounds like a Mythos creature, but in part because it adumbrated so many of our online conflicts. “Get woke” signals one demographic, but the semantically identical “Wake up, sheeple” signals a separate and rival demographic.
Navigating what you are “allowed” to signal as part of a demographic can be complicated. For some demographics, “tone policing” is bad, but policing people who are “tone deaf” is good; saying “all lives matter” is taboo, but interrupting talk about a tragedy in Europe to point out no one’s talking about tragedies in Africa is virtuous. The point is not that these shibboleths are wrong or hypocritical (I try hard not to call people hypocritical) — there are justifications for all of them, and some may not actually be arbitrary. The point is that these shibboleths have become so important that we cannot have a conversation because whatever our rival demographic says, however bland and supposedly uncontroversial, will be perceived first as a statement of solidarity with a hostile group and only after, if at all, as an attempt to fashion an argument. A demographic argument follows: no substance, just a series of attacks against the “enemy” demographic.
(Anil Dash successfully signaled his demographic when he tweeted to Timberlake, “As a fan: all you have to do is listen. Don’t get defensive. Just listen. Hear what folks are saying.” Notice his use of the word “folks.” Using “folks” in this way has become a shibboleth of that demographic that includes “Black Twitter” — a fairly recent event, as the word used to signal “salt of the earth red tribe,” and eight years ago Daily Kos was lamenting its use as a legacy of the second Bush administration. “Shut up and listen” has become a cliche, as well, (Dash is more civil about it) that signals one demographic as much as “all lives matter” signals a different one; neither is designed to be persuasive, of course; both are designed to signal.)
The end result, intentional or not, is that we cannot have a conversation about several of the fundamental problems in America today. We are stuck having a conversation about who gets to have the conversation. We would rather engage in a series of power plays designed to “go team!” boost our demographic or score personal self-righteous points by harming anyone different from us than…well, than anything else at all, actually.
Race in America, let alone all the other kyriarchal structures, is very complicated, and I’m pretty pessimistic about our achieving anything when our actual goals are just bids for power.
Look, here’s a woman being shamed on the internet today. She called a reporter “the N-word,” and the local news station put it on the air. I don’t pretend to know all the details — nobody does, the narrative has been framed entirely by the people with the cameras — but the woman’s son had just been killed by police, and the reporter was outside her house, perhaps not harassing her “grief-vulture” style. But look at the people involved. What are the social classes of the two participants? They’re signalling them all over the place. One is lower class, and although I assume her son was killed because of his own choices and actions, his social class obviously informed all of that; the other is at least an upper-middle class professional. There are many ways to frame this story and the power dynamics it embodies, but the “reporting” side of the internet can only see the racism of the poor and the aplomb of the rich. Social media has been both more horrified and more self-righteous (than HuffPo, which is saying something). Everyone decided not to consider any complications; everyone decided the story was about race and started signalling the same way they have every other time.
Her son just died! Let’s shame her! Is there another way for our demographic to even look at this story?
And we’ll keep doing the same thing again and again.