Friday, March 13, 2015

Squandered credibility

A worthwhile effort to get at a prevalent issue in modern discourse, Critique Drift by Fredrik DeBoer.

DeBoer is slapping a new term, Critique Drift onto a melange of erroneous thinking (Straw Man Fallacy, Red Herring Argument, Reductio ad Absurdum, Category Error, Failure to Elucidate, Too Broad Definition Fallacy, etc.). He defines Critique Drift as
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.
Also known as scope creep in a different context.

DeBoer offers several examples but avoids some of the most obvious such as accusations of Racism or Privilege or Bias. All real issues in particular circumstances under defined conditions. Yet the barrage of "racist" or "check your privilege" or "assault" are deployed with the itchiest of trigger fingers and far beyond meaningfulness.

Or, in DeBoer's terms
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.


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, ever 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.


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.
Here is DeBoer's powerful conclusion.
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.
I agree. I think that the Left too often chooses to battle chimerical foes with false arguments, in an attempt to solve vestigial problems. For all that, there remain real and intransient problems that do need to be solved. Solutions can only be developed through vigorously reasoned and reasonable dispute. The Left, having squandered their credibility, leave the field to the forces of intransience who then remain unassailed.

No comments:

Post a Comment