Memories are short nowadays, so it might be worthwhile to remind everyone that five short years ago, the term white supremacy referred explicitly to the fringe beliefs of neo-Nazis, the Klan, and maybe some militia groups. At some point in the last five years the meaning changed and now white supremacy is popularly used, at least on the internet, to refer to the status quo; to anything that supports it; to a matrix in which even unwitting actions end up perpetuating an unjust society. I’m not going to whine “that’s not what it means,” because whining like that is silly. The term means what everyone uses it to mean; a road is made by walking on it, as Chuang Tzu says. Language changes.
But we should always remember that language does not just change. People change it. We might take a moment to ponder why someone would make such an extreme change: conflating a belief that lies far outside the Overton window with a host of mainstream beliefs. But we don’t have time to ponder that right now. We are instead going to talk about this Medium article.
I’m not saying you should follow the link, necessarily; I mean, I feel like a jerk when I critique something without giving people to opportunity to look it over themselves, but I also feel like a jerk when I ask people to read Medium. Here, I think, is the bread and butter of the article:
The article makes an argument, which I think comes down to “let’s pretend there are no such things as short people,” but which is doubtless more nuanced than that. Set it aside for a moment, because obviously the article does not exist to nitpick a meme featuring short people. Why does the article exist?
This is a good article, by which I mean it skillfully achieves its goals. Look at the signaling coup going on here! Remember, the easiest way to prove you’re solidly “inside” a demographic is to contrast yourself with people who are outside. All your friends (the article claims) who thought they were doing a good job signaling their progressive credentials by sharing the depicted “Equality vs. Equity” meme are shown to be patsies at best and white supremacists at worst. They thought they were insiders, and you have shown them to be outsiders. You are the insider!
The situation is particularly choice because the “Equality vs. Equity” meme under discussion was designed to do the exact same thing. Remember, equality has been a progressive buzzword for over two centuries. Equality is literally one third of the French Revolution! And along we come, ~230 years later, and say, “Whoa! It turns out ‘equality,’ that thing you’ve been fighting for, is bad! Me, I’ve been fighting for a good thing, which I call ‘equity,’ and put that in your pipe and smoke it.” Then we sat back, smugly, and basked in a halo of our own election, never thinking that someone might come along and pull the same trick on us…
This is good signaling. Share this article and tell the world: “Not only are progressives less progressive than I am, but also progressives who are more progressive than those progressives are less progressive than I am.”
I’m always a little nervous about writing in this way about human behavior. There’s a danger of sounding bitter: “How dare anyone change the meaning of equality ad hoc! How dare someone else come along and complain about a meme I’d be more than happy to complain about if I’d thought of complaining first!” Let me make this clear: I think quibbling over the meaning of equity and equality is a little silly, in an angels-dancing-on-a-pin way, but it’s not the kind of thing I want to spend time complaining about. The article does have problems—some people really are short, and if your worldview cannot accommodate that fact, you’re going to have a hard time of it—but it may help you look at things in a different way, or it may have other virtues. I’m interested only in the way that the article participates so overtly in one-upmanship. I want to talk about the article neutrally and dispassionately, as an exemplum of a common phenomenon, and surely we can all reflect on our discourse in a civil manner.
There’s a whole internet subgenre of articles in the format of: “If you look at a text a certain way it might mean x and now I insist it can only mean x.” I’ve discussed before an article arguing that if we pretend the Indians in Kipling’s Jungle Books are white Englishmen, and the animals are Indians, then the text is racist, and I can’t help bringing it up again because it’s so funny. But this is a conventional hot take, and people who read “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” as a “date-rape anthem” play the same game…as do, for that matter, the slightly more insider people who insist that the act of complaining about “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” can only be a conservative false-flag complaint. It is possible to interpret the act of helping a short person look over a fence as an acknowledgment that short people have a “pathology”…therefore it is the only way to interpret that act…therefore it is the only way to interpret this cartoon…therefore…
And here we get to the exerting power. “Don’t do this, do what I want you to do.” Why? Because if you don’t do what I want you to, you are a Nazi. It’s right in the headline. You are doing “white supremacy…work” when you go against my will interpret this cartoon in any way other than my chosen way.
Here we see the benefit of conflating all sorts of actions under the rubric “white supremacy.” It makes it easier to label people the functional equivalent of a Nazi. And what do we get to do with Nazis? We get to punch them!
Please note that I’m not suggesting a conspiracy. No one sat in a smoke-filled room and brainstormed a way to punch people who are marginally less progressive than they are. But people react to incentives. If you can say, “Even people who openly proclaim themselves to be left of the French Revolution are so far right compared to me that they may as well be Nazis”—that’s great signaling! If you can say, “Violence is justified against even the smallest divergence from my chosen reading”—that’s great power!
Of course, this is why we can’t, in fact, be civil. The incentive to be civil is simply much smaller than the incentives to signal and exert power.
(I am not unaware that the use of the word “civil” is a shibboleth that brands me as a right-winger. Ditto for the word “signaling.” I do not think this branding is very accurate, but the goal is to regulate discourse, and what better way to regulate discourse than to insist that a critic, by dint of his language alone, is automatically beneath the people who are beneath the people who are just like Nazis?)
Is there a way to say this stuff without sounding paranoid?