(micro) Chips On The Shoulders of the Collective and The Increasing Problem of the Moral High Ground
I’m on the Blue Line, heading downtown to get to Millennium Park. I’m tired — it’s been a long week so far — so I’m standing amongst the other commuters, my shades still on, staring blankly toward the floor. I’m not really focusing on anything at all and I’m sort of just drifting into my brain when I hear:
Not assuming it is directed at me, I stay focused on nothing in particular.
“Hey! They’re legs! Surely you’ve seen legs before! Stop staring at me, you creep!”
I look up and she is directing it at me.
Maybe 25 years old, wearing a skirt, and she has come to the conclusion that I was giving her the once over or the long stare at her uncovered gams. I’m caught slightly off guard (and I’m fucking tired) so I mumble, “…No. Sorry. Uhm, I wasn’t…”
“Do you know what it’s like to be a woman on the train? Do you even care?”
She goes into a tirade about being harassed every day by assholes like me. For 20 minutes she drones on and on about her level of discomfort and the toxic masculinity she has to endure. Because I’ve decided to just stay quiet — I could never even come close to explaining that I wasn’t even aware of her until she started barking at me let alone convince her otherwise — she gets angrier. I turn away.
“I’m talking to you! Don’t turn away from me!”
I turn back around to face her. “Don’t LOOK at me!” she yells. She’s now yelling.
According to her, this is yet one more brick in her #MeToo shithouse. She calls me a stalker. She calls me predatory.
The people in the closest range are all looking into their phones as if the fucking secret recipe to Popeye’s Chicken lies within and then it’s my stop. I walk past her without saying a word and head to the street.
I get it. We’re in what we call a “corrective phase” in society. The pendulum has been stuck in the Male Gaze is Normal and Women are Fodder for the Dick for so goddamned long that we are pushing things hard to the other side. While tired and kind of checked out on the ‘L’ I’m not dense. I’m also not one of those unicorns out there who miraculously changes his behavior because I was barked at about it on a train.
On that note, I’d love for anyone reading this who is one of those unicorns to chime in and tell me how and why because I legitimately don’t know how that works for someone.
From a recent Faceborg thread:
“Republicans are going to mop the floor with us if this keeps up... valuing anger-release over effectiveness & impact is toxic.”
“Right, right, it will be our fault. Your somewhat lazily-constructed, blanket statement encouraging us all to be quiet yet somehow effective little mice, betrays your desire to cower in the corner when they finally come to knock at *your* door looking to take your last crumble of cheese.”
“Anger is like fire - we can use it to burn ourselves, or we can use it to build. Stuff like this puts it in the wrong place & doesn’t work, so it’s a question of valuing real impact vs. cathartic screeching. I prefer effectiveness.There’s a huge space between hysteria & silence.”
“Couldn't agree less with you, sir. Unfortunately I don't have the time this afternoon to give you the history lesson you seem to so dearly need. The answer is to be loud about EVERYTHING. Until he is gone, and his swine fucking base sobers up.
Yes, be effective, but as soon as Tyranny reveals itself, there is no more discussion. Only resistance, and only at the top of your lungs. Trump has an end goal; your quiet efforts of compromise and bargaining are not only pointless, they serve him, as they divide us. There is no passive resistance to Tyranny.”
“Do what feels good or do what works - your call. And I’m happy to hear what you have to say at pretty much any time, as long as it’s well-reasoned. Even if I disagree with ideas, they can still be valuable, so feel free to write yours down at some point - I’d be curious.”
“Also, if you keep talking out your ass, I am going to embarrass you here, because people like you, that clearly don't know what the fuck they are talking about, yet act like they do, really, really get on my bad side. You clearly know nothing, or refuse to understand, the mechanics of Fascism and Tyranny. Your uneducated opinion on what our course of action should be, offered in vague platitudes I might add, are what will get us all killed.”
“hahaha ok, will do. As long as it’s not all nazi hitler nazi, it’s cool. Some hitler, ok, but maybe a Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, or something else thrown in there.”
“You're a monster, sir. Also, my apologies ahead of time, for what I may or may not say further on down this rabbit hole of a thread.”
The whole thread (rabbit hole, indeed) was like this. It reminded me of when liberals go to Ben Shapiro or Dave Rubin lectures to ask him a question as a "gotcha" and look stupid for trying because, of course, stridency in the face of calm looks stupid.
Yes, she has a valid point that is worthy of a genuine conversation but she looks like a complete asshole in her angry attempt to school him. What I'm wondering is why? Why confront him at all? It isn't like her refusal to stop talking at him is going to change his mind. It isn't as if the women chanting is going to shut him up. What's the goal? What's the strategy?
The simple answer is that there isn't a strategy. It's moral posturing and wasted energy. It's an attempt to confront someone on the opposite ideological side of the questions and goad them into admitting some sort of hypocrisy. It's people barking "you lie" at President Obama in hopes that the moment will become a rally cry. It's someone throwing a shoe at George W. Bush. It's theater without a goal. It's a photo op in a YouTube world.
I remember the eighties. I mean, that decade was my Coming of Age time so I hope I still remember them.
One aspect of the eighties and specific to Wichita, KS, was Operation Rescue. As far as I can surmise, it is an extremely rare thing for a mentally stable human to wake up and shout out “Abortion is AWESOME!” The best we can do is to say abortion is a sometimes necessary thing and should be a right for women to utilize but, even then, I can’t imagine anyone adding it to their Disneyland trip as a lark. “Honey! Let’s go to Space Mountain and then go get that abortion — if we time it right, we’ll catch the fireworks!”
The thing is, Operation Rescue (with the help of the Ultimate Warrior in creating Moral Distinctions, the Church) decided that abortion was murder in the eighties in Wichita, KS. And they protested. And when that didn’t do the trick, they stood outside of clinics and screamed at people. And failing to effect the kind of change they sought, some took to shooting and blowing up doctors.
Can you blame them? Once you’ve assigned a legal activity as a morally reprehensible crime you don’t have a lot of wiggle room in terms of context. If you saw a government gunning down second graders like they were taking out the trash, you might protest, then scream, then get some guns and TNT.
From their ideological zealotry, that’s what they saw.
As we’ve seen, you really can’t reason or compromise with a zealot convinced they are on the moral high ground. It’s almost impossible.
From a note to a professor friend of mine:
“I felt the words you used to address me was infantilizing and I want to express my discomfort of you labeling me a “young lady” thus shaming me in front of my classmates.”
What fresh hell…?
How does someone navigate this? In order to avoid any sort of offense, the ability to read minds is required. I'm of a type of white, heterosexual male who is not looking to run around and offend random strangers in normal discourse. Yes, I believe that offense is subjective and I've spent time creating art designed to shake that tree a bit. That said, I'm not the kind of person who engages in shock value tactics (anymore) or shaming individuals because I believe shame to be a pernicious societal tool that mostly suppresses the bad shit rather than providing a pathway to change.
Catcalling guys are idiots. Stalkers and sexual predators are criminals. The 50-something professor who refers to a 20-something woman in his class as "young lady" isn't either. Infantilization is the process of assuming people are too fragile and inexperienced to handle anything but the least of what society has to offer. So, who, in this case is infantilizing her?
It is a failure of strategy.
#MeToo, that vast and disembodied and ongoing protest march, has been subject to similar dynamics: the big tent, flinging its flaps ever wider; the entropic impulse as both a matter of promise and a matter of peril. Does being about everything, though, mean that the movement runs the risk of being about nothing? Has #MeToo, reconfigured as a broad attempt to rectify a broad host of wrongs, lost the plot? Has it dilated to its detriment?
Tarana Burke says, emphatically, yes. At the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, Burke pointed back to Milano’s October tweet—which was not, Burke noted, about pay equity, or representation in the workplace, or power dynamics in a misogynistic culture … but about sexual violence, full stop. “Part of the challenge that we have right now,” Burke said, “is everybody trying to couch everything under #MeToo.”
It's as if, anytime there is a large gathering of eyeballs or people in the name of any progressive cause, everyone must have some equal time and must try to shift the focus to them. It is both narcissism and desperation to be heard. #MeToo was about victims of sexual violence until it became about Hollywood actors until it became about black women in Hollywood until it became about equal pay until it became about being offended at a teacher referring to someone as "young lady."
Moral high ground and the assignation of labels like “monster,” “human garbage,” and, with the court of public opinion’s scorched earth approach, “racist,” “Nazi,” and “misogynist,” it all starts to feel strangely like religious fervor and more in tune with Operation Rescue than Civil Rights protestors. A witch hunt, at it's core, was about scaring the shit out of anyone who decided to live a different way from the norm and was ultimately about establishing an agreed upon morality. The Puritans believed that by singling out and "trying" women who didn't fit their moral narrative (and the trial killed the innocent ones) the rest of the flock would fall in line.
The McCarthy Anti-Communist hearings were the same. Any affiliation and any lack of sincere and enthusiastic repudiation was met by wholesale destruction. And protests without strategy don't effect these sorts of cyclical trends.
Conservative witch hunts are well documented against drug users, women, gays, transgender persons, blacks, pretty much anyone not in the white male club. These witch hunts are almost always marked by the moral righteous inherent in the hunt and the moral depravity of those being hunted. As they try to weed out (and scare the shit out of) their targets, others with less patience and less to lose take up the cause and, like the extremes of Operation Rescue, turn to violence.
The protests of old that were most effective (or effective at all, arguably) were non-violent and strategic. In a time when we equate hateful words as real violence, we’ve painted ourselves into a corner in that there is no longer the possibility of non-violent protest. If calling our opponents names is violence, society is as blocked as a colon filled with cheddar cheese.
When everyone is scrambling to claim the moral high ground, there is none left to claim because morality, in order to exist, has to be founded on common understandings of behavior. We don't have that anymore.
“There is no passive resistance to Tyranny.”
So many assumptions made in seven words. That avoiding a moral argument, reasoning with those on the sidelines of the process and resisting by example rather than reaction is passive. That a legally elected asshole who has a very different worldview than you is a tyrant. That his actions will inevitably lead to Nazism. That tyranny only comes in one form. That by labeling something tyrannical makes it so and the need to demonstrate the aspects of tyranny is erased by the charge.
It makes sense, though. In the most Operation Rescue sense, if you have decided that Trump is Hitler and distrust the rest of the country so completely to not see it, of course it makes perfect sense. I mean, if you throw them in the well and they float, they’re guilty, right?
Ask a strident anti-abortion activist to defend their position. If you don’t immediately agree that it is murder, the sparks of obstinence fly, the labels of “evil” and “monster” are thrown out and the barking becomes indecipherable.
“Let's be clear: "Innocent until proven guilty" is for a court of law to decide, if that's where this story eventually goes. The court of public opinion operates under no such constraints, and in the post-Harvey Weinstein days of 2018 we believe the accuser.”
The internet is an extraordinary tool. It has provided us with almost limitless communicating possibilities. I can see what friends thousands of miles away are up to and call my mother face to face. We can promote our ideas to more humans in one message than at any time in history. Can you imagine what havoc would have wreaked if Faceborg had been around in the eighties in Wichita, KS? Holy fuck!
I believe we need both the Malcoms and The Martins, the Magnetos and the Professor Xs. It’s just that right now, this magnificent technology has given the truly hysterical and morally righteous a louder megaphone than ever in history. It’s difficult to hear anything else when 10% of the population is screaming their own version of bloody murder and condemnation and it's 5% of morally outraged Trump Supporters vs 5% of morally outraged Identity Politicians leaving the rest of us to run, covering our ears.
The democracy is in rough shape but it is far from over, broken, or destroyed by a single president. Our flailing about is due to the fact that those who do not believe the way we do control all three arms of the federal government and protests aren't doing anything to stop it. Like Operation Rescue, we are doubling down on escalation and it will not go well for us.
Speaking again of Operation Rescue, once it became apparent to them that their protests were wholly ineffective, they changed their strategy. They started running anti-abortion candidates for local office, then state office, then Congress. And, what do you know? Not only have many states placed unconstitutional barriers to abortion over the past ten years but it looks like they're going to get Roe v. Wade overturned.
I’m on the Blue line. Headed to the park. I’m wide awake and in a great mood. I see across from me a genuinely beautiful woman. I take a look — not a stare but a healthy look. She sees me looking and she smiles.