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The Smarm of the Contrarian


Conor Friedersdorf has taken some time off from his complaints about how college students are coddled snowflakes to write a column about how horrible it is when people say unkind things about the arguments made by well-compensated newspaper columnists. I think I’ll just outsource my reply on this one:

In a related vein, Chait has a somewhat odd essay about Katie Roiphe’s latest incoherent “feminism has GONE TOO FAR” rant. The Chait who writes about “political correctness” clearly wants to like the essay and praises some of its weak arguments, but then it’s as if the Chait who writes about Paul Ryan acts as a superego and forces the other Chait to concede that she doesn’t actually have the goods:

The kinds of miscarriages of justice Yoffe collects are conspicuously absent from Roiphe’s argument. Possibly this is merely because there is so much low-hanging fruit available — decades of overdue reckoning with very bad actors like Weinstein, Mark Halperin, and so on — that the feminist police haven’t gotten around yet to tormenting the innocent. But I would say that on the whole, the #MeToo movement is acting in a measured and responsible fashion. The most culturally influential voices at the moment are feminist critics like Michelle Goldberg and my colleague Rebecca Traister, who take seriously the possibility of false accusations and the need for responses proportional to the offense.

Many a revolution has started off persecuting only the wicked, only to veer off track later. Perhaps the troubling signs Roiphe detects are portents of a dark future. Alas, her overwrought imagery makes no allowance for this possibility. Roiphe’s totalitarian imagery — they are “low-level secret policeman in a new totalitarian state,” she has a “feeling of not being able to speak” — makes barely any allowance for a debate that has very much been joined. It has not yet been lost. It may not be at all.

It strikes me that at this point the whole ballgame has been conceded. If in fact #metoo isn’t conflating minor and major forms of misconduct, and nobody is being sanctioned unfairly or without due process, what exactly is the complaint about? In Roiphe’s case, complaints about CALL-OUT CULTURE on Twitter that amount to an assertion that people who are being the opposite of silenced are being silenced. OK.

Roiphe, a tenured journalism professor taking to the pages of a prestigious magazine to claim that her arguments just can’t get a fair hearing, is a frequent practitioner of a particularly irritating move also evident in James Bennet’s pompous message to his staff and other complaints about people criticizing the arguments of his conservative affirmative action hires. These people want to have it both ways — to place a much higher value on whether arguments are PROVOCATIVE than whether they’re true/well-informed/well-reasoned, and then whine profusely when the audience is provoked. Sorry, but you have to pick a lane. If you want to troll your core readership by CHALLENGING THEIR ASSUMPTIONS — and not by hiring actual experts who might have some different priors, but with glib, uninformed high-school-forensics bullshit like “have you considered that all lives matter?” or “durr, how can wind power work when the wind doesn’t always blow, durr” — you can’t then complain when people take the bait. Guess what, people online might not react to having their intelligence insulted with perfect civility. This is the business you’ve chosen.

The key text to understand what’s going on here is Scocca’s “On Smarm.” There’s this whole series of bad faith performative gestures (“But your tone!” “Who are you to criticize a PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING COLUMNIST?” “You can’t criticize a movie unless you’ve made one!”) whose purpose is to 1)shield powerful institutions and/or privileged individuals from accountability and 2)preempt privileged individuals from being criticized on the merits. And the punchline — as is particularly evident in the cases of Stephens and Weiss — is how often these arguments-from-status are used to protect people with no discernible expertise about anything they write about, sometimes from criticism from actual experts. It’s a nice racket.

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