When Good Political Arguments Go Bad: On “Critique Drift”

It’s time to recognize that the injunction against criticizing those who self-identify as activists for social justice is a dead-end for our movement.

Freddie deBoer March 11, 2015

(Bruno Boutout / Flickr)

I have had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to meet a lot of engi­neers in my days attend­ing an engi­neer­ing school. A cou­ple years back, a friend of mine who is also an aca­d­e­m­ic was vis­it­ing from her insti­tu­tion. (I have got­ten her per­mis­sion to tell this sto­ry, with the caveat that I admit that I am a rogue and a né’er-do-well. So admit­ted.) We had a con­ver­sa­tion with a civ­il engi­neer who is a friend of a friend. A white male him­self, he told us of a recent eight-month trip he had tak­en to west­ern Africa, in which he had helped build a bridge. He spoke glow­ing­ly of his trip, and of the peo­ple he had seen and worked with and how grat­i­fied he was to help.

Many in the broad online left have adopted a norm where being an ally means that you never critique people who are presumed to be speaking from your side, and especially if they are seen as speaking from a position of greater oppression.

Lat­er on in the evening, my friend com­plained about him and his sto­ry. She rolled her eyes at his vol­un­tourism,” com­plained of all the impe­ri­al­ist over­tones, and com­pared him to white col­lege kids who take Face­book pro­file pics with beam­ing African chil­dren. Oth­er than to say that vol­un­tourism seemed like the wrong cri­tique, giv­en that he was paid for his efforts, I let it go. Though we were and are friends, I knew that there was lit­tle ben­e­fit to dis­put­ing her cri­tique, and high poten­tial risk.

Still, in my head, I did my own eye rolling. Yes, vol­un­tourism is a thing, and there was more than a lit­tle wince-induc­ing lan­guage in the way he told his sto­ry. It’s not like I didn’t under­stand where this was com­ing from at all. But… dude built a bridge. For a com­mu­ni­ty that had been try­ing to get it done for years. It made it eas­i­er for them to access hos­pi­tals and schools. It was a wor­thy project that gen­uine­ly helped a com­mu­ni­ty that had asked for some and, how­ev­er poor­ly he may have expressed him­self, he deserved to feel pride and to share that feeling.

What my friend was guilty of, in my esti­ma­tion, is a phe­nom­e­non I’ve seen more and more, which I call cri­tique drift. Cri­tique drift is the phe­nom­e­non in which a par­tic­u­lar crit­i­cal polit­i­cal lens that cor­rect­ly iden­ti­fies a prob­lem gets gen­er­al­ized and used less and less specif­i­cal­ly over time. This in turn blunts the force of the cri­tique and ulti­mate­ly fuels a back­lash against it. Cri­tique drift is a way that good polit­i­cal argu­ments go bad.

So my friend here used a term that reflects a real phe­nom­e­non (vol­un­tourism) which has been used to good effect in the past but which has, over time, become less effec­tive thanks to over­gen­er­al­iz­ing it and treat­ing it as a mag­ic word. This gen­er­al trend has become a remark­able prob­lem for the Left, par­tic­u­lar­ly in online spaces, where the sheer vol­ume of engage­ment threat­ens to pro­duce cri­tique drift even among those who use lan­guage carefully.

Very obvi­ous exam­ples of cri­tique drift include the term mansplain­ing,” tone polic­ing,” and gaslight­ing.” Each high­lights real phe­nom­e­na: men who con­de­scend­ing­ly explain things to women who know more than they do about the sub­ject at hand; peo­ple using cri­tiques of tone as a way to dis­miss or avoid the sub­stance of the argu­ment; the ten­den­cy to try to make some­one feel crazy as a way to win an argu­ment. All of those are real.

But the actu­al com­mu­nica­tive, rhetor­i­cal and ana­lyt­i­cal val­ue of each has been severe­ly under­mined, in my view, by the way in which they are now applied to more and more sit­u­a­tions, or to instances where the stan­dards for meet­ing these sim­ply haven’t been met. Polit­i­cal cri­tique draws pow­er from speci­fici­ty, but the pre­sumed social force of using cer­tain terms inevitably leads to their water­ing down. It’s a real problem.

Or con­sid­er the trig­ger warn­ing. Trig­ger warn­ings were ini­tial­ly endorsed specif­i­cal­ly for the good of those who suf­fer from post-trau­mat­ic stress dis­or­der, a spe­cif­ic and poten­tial­ly debil­i­tat­ing med­ical issue that afflicts a very small per­cent­age of peo­ple. Trig­gers were not broad cat­e­gories of poten­tial offense that pro­voked vague feel­ings of dis­com­fort, but very spe­cif­ic sit­u­a­tions that result­ed in deeply painful expe­ri­ences that stemmed from nar­row­ly-defined trau­mat­ic episodes.

Now, trig­gers are every­where, lurk­ing behind every cor­ner, endorsed by peo­ple in all man­ner of sit­u­a­tions for all man­ner of rea­sons, and sub­ject to appro­pri­a­tion by those who would use them for cyn­i­cal ends — such as the stu­dents at oth­er insti­tu­tions my aca­d­e­m­ic friends tell me about, who use talk of trig­gers as an all-encom­pass­ing excuse to get out of doing work or expe­ri­enc­ing view­points they don’t like. Some of the most priv­i­leged col­lege stu­dents in the world now feel no com­punc­tion against invok­ing trig­gers at any time they find it con­ve­nient. Any­one who ques­tions whether they actu­al­ly deserve to invoke that claim, mean­while, is regard­ed as inher­ent­ly a bad ally and bad per­son. This, in turn, com­pels some peo­ple to think that all talk of trig­gers and trig­ger warn­ings is aca­d­e­m­ic lefty bull­shit that leaves us unable to edu­cate, unable to ever bring stu­dents to encounter any remote­ly chal­leng­ing or con­tro­ver­sial opin­ions, and makes con­ser­v­a­tive back­lash that much more like­ly. This is clas­sic cri­tique drift.

I have occa­sion­al­ly been sur­prised to meet peo­ple who think that I don’t believe, for exam­ple, that mansplain­ing or tone polic­ing are real, or even worse that I don’t think priv­i­lege is real. Of course I think those things are real. They’re real and per­ni­cious and have to be account­ed for. But I find myself argu­ing against their par­tic­u­lar use in so many instances because they’re often employed in a slop­py, unhelp­ful, or dis­hon­est way. Worse, even point­ing out that they’ve been employed in a slop­py, unhelp­ful or dis­hon­est way is treat­ed as absolute­ly anath­e­ma by a very vocal and influ­en­tial part of the online left. That’s bad in and of itself, and it fuels backlash.

It also ham­pers our abil­i­ty to mean­ing­ful­ly spread the cri­tique. I’ve been asked point blank on many occa­sions how one can know when a dis­agree­ment com­ing from a man becomes mansplain­ing. On an intel­lec­tu­al, the­o­ret­i­cal lev­el, I absolute­ly believe there’s an impor­tant dif­fer­ence. In the realm of actu­al prac­tice? At this point, I’m not sure there is any such def­i­n­i­tion, because the term is so often used as a mean­ing­less inten­si­fi­er or pet­ty insult. Like­wise, I absolute­ly believe that tone polic­ing is a real and trou­bling phe­nom­e­non, and that there’s a space between doing that and doing the kind of inevitable and nec­es­sary crit­i­cism of tac­tics and lan­guage that any polit­i­cal move­ment needs. But in the actu­al scrum of online polit­i­cal argu­ment, tone polic­ing” now seems to mean noth­ing but crit­i­cism of my argu­ment that I don’t like.” That’s cri­tique drift.

As Dou­glas Williams of the South Lawn has point­ed out, even the terms of social jus­tice pol­i­tics that seem to be employed in the most unhelp­ful ways often spring from smart, per­cep­tive places. Priv­i­lege the­o­ry and inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty are the per­fect exam­ple. Both con­tain tren­chant cri­tiques, but also a com­plex and care­ful set of lim­i­ta­tions and guide­lines that agi­tate against using those cri­tiques friv­o­lous­ly. But only the acid­i­ty of the cri­tique tends to be pre­served, not the care or lim­i­ta­tion. In think­pieces about priv­i­lege, I find, peo­ple are quick to say that you can enjoy priv­i­leges and still be oppressed, or impov­er­ished, or oth­er­wise suf­fer. But those caveats tend to drain away in the actu­al argu­men­ta­tive forum.

Take this piece on straight white male as being the low­est dif­fi­cul­ty set­ting” in the video game of life by John Scalzi, a sci-fi writer who has earned a lot of atten­tion as a cham­pi­on of social jus­tice. It’s fun­ny and effec­tive, and the anal­o­gy strikes me as large­ly cor­rect. And Scalzi includes the nec­es­sary caveat that you can choose the low­est dif­fi­cul­ty set­ting and still get unlucky and still suf­fer and still deserve help.

But when some­one learns about priv­i­lege from this fram­ing, do they then turn around and remem­ber that key ele­ment? My expe­ri­ence tells me that they don’t; when peo­ple argue pol­i­tics with these terms, they very rarely hold on to the qual­i­fi­ca­tions and instead use only the weaponized cri­tique. Indeed, Scalzi him­self rarely seems to stop to remind peo­ple of those qual­i­fi­ca­tions when he is wag­ing polit­i­cal war online. And why would he? He is reward­ed for being as acid in his cri­tique as pos­si­ble, not by being under­stand­ing and mag­nan­i­mous. In these online spaces, vicious­ness trumps speci­fici­ty and care.

This all large­ly descends from a relat­ed con­di­tion: many in the broad online left have adopt­ed a norm where being an ally means that you nev­er cri­tique peo­ple who are pre­sumed to be speak­ing from your side, and espe­cial­ly if they are seen as speak­ing from a posi­tion of greater oppres­sion. I under­stand the need for sol­i­dar­i­ty, I under­stand the prob­lem of under­min­ing and derail­ing, and I rec­og­nize why peo­ple feel strong­ly that those who have tra­di­tion­al­ly been silenced should be giv­en a posi­tion of priv­i­lege in our con­ver­sa­tions. But cri­tique drift demon­strates why a healthy, func­tion­ing polit­i­cal move­ment can’t for­bid tac­ti­cal crit­i­cism of those with whom you large­ly agree. Because crit­i­cal vocab­u­lary and polit­i­cal argu­ments are com­mon intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty which gain or lose pow­er based on their com­mu­nal use, nev­er crit­i­ciz­ing those who mis­use them ulti­mate­ly dis­arms the Left. Refus­ing to say this is a real thing, but you are not being fair or help­ful in mak­ing that accu­sa­tion right now” alien­ates poten­tial allies, con­tributes to the bur­geon­ing back­lash against social jus­tice pol­i­tics, and pre­vents us from mak­ing the most accu­rate, cogent cri­tique possible.

I find myself, more and more often, in the use­less posi­tion of defend­ing par­tic­u­lar cri­tiques in the gen­er­al while hav­ing to admit that a par­tic­u­lar instance of it is cheap or unfair or just wrong. I also find myself con­stant­ly hav­ing to tell peo­ple that I do in fact believe in a giv­en cri­tique, because deny­ing that a par­tic­u­lar appli­ca­tion of that cri­tique is cor­rect does not in any way mean that I deny its salience in gen­er­al. Both of these things amount to wast­ed time and ener­gy, pre­cise­ly the kind of wast­ed time and ener­gy that the online left appears to be drown­ing in right now. Like so many oth­ers, I am exhaust­ed by the need to con­stant­ly assert the sin­cer­i­ty of my views because I refuse to engage in the use­less sig­nal­ing that is so much a part of cur­rent social jus­tice culture.

And you can imag­ine the imme­di­ate rejoin­der to this post: just more of the same of what I’m crit­i­ciz­ing. You’re mansplain­ing pol­i­tics, you’re tone polic­ing, you’re gaslight­ing.” That’s exact­ly the prob­lem: Every cri­tique of this type of engage­ment can sim­ply be ground up in more of the same.

I am far from alone in think­ing that the way in which we are pros­e­cut­ing this immense­ly impor­tant set of argu­ments is unhealthy and unhelp­ful. As some­one who has been mak­ing this type of argu­ment for a long time, I attract a lot of com­mu­ni­ca­tions from peo­ple who feel strong­ly about the need to pur­sue social jus­tice but who feel that the social jus­tice move­ment has lost its way. (A lot of peo­ple.) These peo­ple are not ene­mies of the fight for equal­i­ty and jus­tice; in fact, they reach out pre­cise­ly because they think cur­rent tac­tics are imped­i­ment to the achieve­ment of actu­al equal­i­ty and jus­tice. Many of them are afraid to be pub­lic with those feel­ings, because they fear reprisals from those who enforce a very nar­row, cliquey vision of pro­gres­sive politics.

Well: we have been talk­ing about priv­i­lege for 30 years. We’ve been talk­ing about inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty for 25. We’re still here in this unjust world. It’s time to rec­og­nize that the injunc­tion against crit­i­ciz­ing those who self-iden­ti­fy as activists for social jus­tice is a dead-end for our move­ment. While the work of coun­sel­ing oth­ers to be more spe­cif­ic, fair and self-crit­i­cal in their engage­ment is uncom­fort­able, fraught work, it is also pro­found­ly nec­es­sary, and I see no pos­si­ble alter­na­tive if the Left is to wage a cam­paign against injus­tice that can actu­al­ly win.

Fred­die deBoer is a grad­u­ate stu­dent at Pur­due Uni­ver­si­ty. He blogs at fredrikde​boer​.com.
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