Justin Timberlake Is Tone Deaf. Also, the Pope Is Catholic

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 13495305_505126979685072_3218340283617428556_ninteresting 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 Social Network

In happier times, while appearing in a movie that was only a hate crime against “spectrum kids.”

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 demog13516498_505131723017931_7220178523973930367_n.jpgraphic.

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 usedtumblr_inline_mpofacoutv1qz4rgp 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 Untitleddetails — 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.



  1. NAMBLA’s actual magazine is the NAMBLA Bulletin. Despite a NAMBLA cofounder criticizing the magazine by saying, “The Bulletin is turning into a semi-pornographic jerk-off mag for pedophiles” (a condemnation, not an endorsement, it can be difficult to tell, I know.), the first issue I could fine online (at https://www.nambla.org/B25-3.pdf ) seems pretty reasonable to me. It’s about 80% news and opinion regarding statutory rape laws and the rights of pedophiles and 20% Tiger Beat. I suspect there’s less in it I disagree with than in Out or The Advocate. And if one really wants to condemn a stroke magazine for pedophiles, one need look no further than Tiger Beat, which I assume has a reader base composed entirely of middle aged men; I’m surprised Rogaine doesn’t place ads in it.

    In fact, looking at the NAMBLA Bulletin, it’s funny to think that not so long ago, all gay activism was relegated to a similar place outside of the Overton window. It’s like in high school, when one of the nerds gets his driver’s license before everyone else and all of a sudden all the popular kids want to be friends with him, so he abandons his former friends. NAMBLA is stuck eating lunch at the dork table while all of its former friends are out marching for pride with the cool kids.

    Anyhow, it appears the kerfluffle you’re talking about involves cultural appropriation, which to me carries about the same weight as a middle school student calling someone a poseur. “Oh no, the wrong kind of person likes something I like! However will I signal my demographic now?”

    I also find it funny that cultural appropriation is a one way street. When whites listen to or perform black music, it is appropriation. When blacks use a computer, take penicillin or drive a car, the race and ethnicity of creators suddenly becomes unimportant.


    1. I’ll admit I have never read the NAMBLA Bulletin. To be fair, I have read many, many issues of Tiger Beat, although perhaps not for the reasons you insinuate.

      Obviously I do not thing cultural appropriation is, on the face of it, a…well, a thing. But I would argue (and probably have) that most people do not have an ideology (opposition to CA, e.g.), they just have free-floating animus towards others, especially those of rival demographics, and need a casus belli for their attacks.

      But look at it not in a prescriptive “who should be punished” way, but a “who is ripe for parody” way. If you met someone who thought doing yoga at the Y would let her tap into the occult forces of the East, and perform feats of Hindu magic as she raced towards enlightenment…that’s a pretty funny person, right? She’s ripe for parody. I can see why she would be annoying and at the same time hilarious.

      Of course, someone who thinks that every soccer mom at the Y is “stealing” yoga from a billion Indians is also ripe for parody.

      Here’s a thing people on social media are passing around.
      And sometime the writer just seems silly. And then sometimes the people he meet seem hilariously ridiculous. The woman who was “actually black despite her ‘cursed’ white skin,” for example.

      I don’t know if we have a different word for these ridiculous people or what they’re doing, but if that’s cultural appropriation, it is some ludicrous stuff.

      Some people picked on Timberlake for appropriation, and some people picked on him for not using his platform to advocate for their demographic, and some people just thought he was using the wrong shibboleths. But hatred for Justin Timberlake drew them all together.

      Building bridges in the community.


    2. One last thing about CA: any influx of outsiders or noobs flocking yo your stuff (the so-called Fake Geek Girl phenomenon) imperils your culture or at least your fun. You can think of it as just a justification for gatekeeping (which is, of course, just a special case of purifying your demographic identity).

      Imagine how annoyed you’d be if Justin Timberlake, or some analogous artist, started popularizing your kind of music among tweens, and every time you wore a Swans T-shirt, everyone said “Oh, you must be into Twilight, too” and Devendra Banhart concerts were full of nascent fratboys shouting “play the hits” before they vomited down the back of your shirt.

      “Boyd Rice? He’s that guy from Sassy, right?”


      1. I’d probably be annoyed and I might even start using different shibboleths when signaling, but I’d hope I have enough self awareness to realize that it was not a form of oppression.

        Just to be clear, I do think a lot of behavior described as cultural appropriation is worthy of criticism, but that doesn’t mean I approve of the cultural appropriation critique. It is fine to say westerners doing yoga for health and generic spirituality is a shallow and silly interpretation of a religion that has more to offer. It is fine to say a creative work is derivative of other creative works and also not as good, so people who like whites performing black music, should try investigating authentic black music. It seems silly to say that different ethnic groups should not be able to learn from or borrow things from each others’ cultures. It seems crazy to say that this rule should only apply to certain groups, which just happen to be the groups the rule proposer already didn’t like. I tend to be a lot more sympathetic to critiques that are along the lines of ‘x is silly’ than ones along the lines of ‘x victimizes me’, and have no sympathy for rules which only apply to one’s opponents.

        I agree that most of the arguments we’re discussing aren’t the result of ideology but rather of signaling, But when confronted with such an argument, what can you do (other than counter signaling) but take it at face value and discuss why it is wrong? Arguments about ideas can change people’s minds, arguments about what people’s true motivations seem unlikely to be productive.

        And the woman who was actually black in the inside is hilarious, but it is worth noting that if it were her body’s gender and not her race that didn’t match up with her true self, the party line is that she would not be ridiculous but a hero.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. All your words are true (in this last comment only, I should specify).

        Precisely because there is the danger that arguments can change people’s minds have we decided to rig things so that conversation is impossible and in fact forbidden.


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