offended, on offense

Last Friday, New York Times Opinion columnist Bret Stephens wrote a very bad column. This will come as no surprise, as Bret Stephens — who’s made his name at the Times as a climate science skeptic — often writes very bad columns. But this one is so bad, in so many intersecting ways, that I hesitated to tackle it here: why waste my time or yours on so much willful wrongheadedness? I just spent the weekend ignoring the internet and eating green chile in Santa Fe; why do this to myself on the plane ride back?

The problem, though, is that Stephens’ piece — which reads like a machine-generated list of grievances against millennials — channels a popular (if largely unspoken in public forums) and stubbornly persistent point of view: that millennials, and the social justice causes we’ve adopted, have not only gone too far, but that we’re ungrateful, weak, self-indulgent, self-pitying, and just need to buck the fuck up. That Stephens ties all of these observations to a larger meditation on Joe Biden is telling.

What Stephens is mad about — and using his bully pulpit at the New York Times to argue, poorly, about — is millennials’ persistent argument that things don’t have to be this way. Not just that, but maybe that things should not be this way.

But let’s start with some excerpts from the piece:

Earlier this month, a video of Joe Biden saying he had “no empathy” for “the younger generation” that “tells me how tough things are” resurfaced on social media. The video was over a year old, but it elicited predictable howls from members of the dissed demographic. “Nothing says ‘perfect candidate to lead the most powerful nation in the world’ like ‘I have no empathy,’” wrote someone with the Twitter handle @anarchopriapism.

First: I’m going to avoid going after Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bret Stephens’ word choices here, but I’m first going to flag “dissed demographic.” Second: the tweet that Stephens cites is from an account based in Northern Ireland with 852 followers. Stephens does not follow this person. So how did he find this tweet? Perhaps by searching Twitter with key words for evidence that millennials are reacting the way he thinks they react! I didn’t go to journalism school, but even I know that you make arguments based on existing evidence; you don’t make an argument and then find a tweet from one random account to prove your argument is correct.

In this election cycle, no faction on the Democratic side more richly deserves rebuking than the one Biden singled out — which is not, of course, anywhere close to the entire millennial generation (roughly 80 million strong), or their younger siblings in Gen Z. But it is that part of these younger generations that specializes in histrionic self-pity and moral self-righteousness, usually communicated via social media with maximum snark. Gawker spawn and HuffPo twerps: This especially means you.

Everyone knows that the easiest way to delegitimize an argument is to feminize it — and associate it with the emotional, as opposed to the supposedly rational. “Histrionic’ it is. “Hysteria,” as any person with an hour of reading in a gender studies textbook can tell you, was a diagnosis given to women in the 19th and early 20th century with acute reactions to life as it was expected for them to live. Sometimes they understood what afflicted them (trenchant and restrictive gender roles); sometimes it was the modern era’s version of “the problem that has no name.” Point is: most of the time they weren’t mentally ill. They were sickened by society as it was, and what it asked of them. And they were called: hysterical, histrionic. As for the “Gawker spawn, HuffPo twerps: few organizations have assailed Stephens’ arguments with the rigor of Gawker spawn in particular. And again: the best way to delegitimize their arguments is to infantilize them (Twerp!)

It also means all those who recklessly participate in the search-and-destroy missions of the call-out culture. These are the Harvard students who demanded, and last week obtained, the dismissal of law professor Ronald Sullivan and his wife Stephanie Robinson as faculty deans at an undergrad dorm because Sullivan had the temerity to join Harvey Weinstein’s defense team.

This argument is particularly frustrating, because it’s an extension of an argument implicitly made in the Times Opinion Section earlier this week: that Harvard students were overreacting to news that a house dean would be serving on Harvey Weinstein’s defense team, and did not understand the principle that all accused deserve a defense. But as elucidated in a viral thread from earlier this week — one that Stephens did not opt to include — the students did not insist on Sullivan’s dismissal. They insisted that the college consider that reporting sexual misconduct — a process already strongly disincentivized — would be even further disincentivized if the person to whom you report had defended Harvey Weinstein. Their argument suggests a conflict of interest, whereas Stephens and company argue the students wish to dismantle the justice system.

Of course, the defender could put those anxieties to rest in myriad ways. That was not, according to students, the route he chose to pursue. These students aren’t on a “search-and-destroy mission.” They’re methodically attempting to change an ossified culture in which sexual misconduct has not be taken seriously, or has not been reported at all.

All of these struggle sessions play to the sound of chortling twenty-somethings, who have figured out that, in today’s culture, the quickest way to acquire and exercise power is to take offense. This is easy to do, because the list of sins to which one may take offense grows with each passing year, from the culturally appropriated sombrero to the traditionally gendered pronoun.

This paragraph makes me very sad. To misinterpret the fight towards equality as one of “taking offense” signals a profound misunderstanding of the fight and its goals. I am offended by Stephens’ arguments, for example, and what they communicate about his understanding of the world and what social justice is and wants. To be offended is to be on the offense: taking action, voicing dissatisfaction, instead of letting the status quo roll over you.

People who register offense gain power not because they’re whiny bitches, but because others recognize the legitimacy of their complaints: It IS fucked up to wear another person’s culture as a frat party costume, just like it IS fucked up to refuse to learn to use they/them pronouns because it entails personal struggle. Every time I flub up a pronoun, I ask myself: what’s harder, really trying to be better at this, or living your life as a non-binary or trans person in a world that inflicts psychological and physical violence on gender non-conforming people at nearly every point in their lives? But that difficulty is illegible, or inconsequential, to Stephens: nothing compared to his own inconvenience at being asked to reconsider the way things are.

So who’s offended here? Clearly, Stephens — and from his perch at the New York Times, he’s amassing far more power than any of the people he accuses of improperly wielding their own offense. Stephens’ piece is a masterclass at punching down — the polar opposite of speaking truth to power.

Which brings me back to Biden […] he refused to beg forgiveness last month for being a tad too touchy-kissy. Maybe he should keep his hands in his pockets, but at least it means he isn’t prepared to capitulate to the icy codes of personal decorum written by people who don’t know the difference between exuberant human warmth and unwarranted sexual advances.

To which one can only say: Keep it up, Joe! 

Icy codes of personal decorum!!! Written by people who don’t know the difference between exuberant human warmth and unwarranted sexual advances!!! For decades, there have been no codes: women (and men and non-binary people) simply accepted the way others wanted to touch us. It wasn’t just inappropriate to complain or argue otherwise — to put forth an “icy code” would be to risk one’s job.

What Stephens is reacting to here isn’t necessarily the “iciness” but the idea that anyone besides him (or Biden!) should be able to decide how they’re able to touch another person’s body. Put differently, that the vulnerable, or less powerful person in the interaction, should be able to put limits on a relationship, on where hands can go during a hug, on how someone should address you during a business meeting or in the gas station….a dramatic shift from the previously limitless actions that accompanied being a white straight man in American society.

[Biden] could make a virtue of the defect by emphasizing his distance from everything that defines the worst aspects of millennial culture — the coddled minds and censorious manner and inability to understand the way the world works. Does it ever occur to some of our more militant millennials that the pitiless standards they apply to others will someday be applied pitilessly to them?

The sensible center of America — that is, the people who choose presidents in this country — wants to see Donald Trump lose next year, but not if it means empowering the junior totalitarians of the left. Now is Biden’s chance to make it clear he’s just the man to fulfill that hope.

Here, Stephens gets to what he’s been aching to say: that millennials simply don’t understand the way the world works. But here’s the thing: we do. And we think it’s fucked. But not unsalvageable. The status quo can change, but only through the work of people on offense: asking, demanding, arguing, voting, and legislating in a way to make it better.

When Stephens invokes the “sensible center of America,” he’s largely invoking a class of people whose lives have not changed much in the last forty years (see: the portion of the upper middle class that was able to benefit from a dotcom boom and weather a financial crisis without much turmoil). They were born into a paradigm in which their country was undoubtedly the best in the world, in which their economic fates would undoubtedly be better than their parents’ before them. This is a class of people whose lives have not been demonstrably altered by Trump, but likely feel embarrassed about him and the dark vision he represents of contemporary American conservativism. But even if they voted for Obama in 2008 or 2012, they do not actually want change. (Or, within the context of the 2008 election, they wanted a change back to their economic privilege before the recession, but that’s not change so much as reversion to form).

This “sensible center” wants things to remain demonstrably the same, otherwise they would not be so offended by those asking for a dramatically different world. They are “sensible” because they are not furious about the wage gap, or racial disparities in police brutality, or violence against trans people, or unlawful detainments of those seeking asylum, by the rise in anti-Semitism, by virulent Islamophobia, or the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women. They are not furious about an entire generation drowning in student debt, or utter inaction on gun control, or the fact that the planet they are inheriting is in crisis.

They are not furious because they lack the thing that liberals are often mocked for attempting to cultivate when it comes to conservative viewpoints: empathy. Put differently, the fact that just because it doesn’t happen to you — or someone you love — doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t care about it, and what it does to the health of our society as a whole, not just people who look and earn like you.

Stephens is ungenerous, incurious, and contradicts nearly every piece of advice he gave a Gawker writer who’d criticized him earlier this year (To wit: “don’t presume that people whose views you don’t like are “dumb.”) It’s not unfamiliar; it fact, its familiarity is part of what makes it so noxious. But it’s also a losing idea in the marketplace of ideas — but when it loses, Stephens (and others with losing ideas) calls it “thought police” or “persecution” or “attacks on free speech.” No one is attacking Stephens’ right to articulate this idea, after all. But the ease with which I and so many others have been able to disassemble it does not constitute an attack. It evidences bad, lazy thinking.

Some would argue that that’s why it’s important to have a voice like Stephens’ in the New York Times: so that it can be countered, publicly and loudly. But I’d argue that its placement in the Times legitimizes a bad faith argument, and legitimizes the grievances of those who, too, feel that they’ve been “censored” into not articulating their own.

Stephens has long mistaken having a wrong, regressive, defensive opinion for having a provocative and secretly right one. But Stephens, and those who cosign his thinking, aren’t brave. They’re scared. Of the flimsiness of their arguments, but also of something truly terrifying: actual change, that actually compromises their position in the societal order. That’s the crux of Stephens’ grievance: not that millennials have power, but that he and others like him have less of it.

Some Things I Read and Loved This Week:

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