The unreal and the real

Ursula K. Le Guin is dead. I’m not totally okay with this.

Le Guin is usually glossed as a “big ideas” writer, with a focus on concepts and worldbuilding rather than memorable characters or dramatic scenes, and while this isn’t exactly wrong, it’s misleading in an important way. What continues to impress me about her work is her unflinching focus on the texture of life. She develops ideas by making people live through them, and she explores principles by creating physical locations and functioning institutions that embody them (or don’t). I’ve actually been going through some of her short stories recently and a lot of them aren’t even about anything. They’re just particular but unremarkable people living in particular but unremarkable circumstances and getting along with it, one way or another. Even “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” which is an explicit philosophical treatise, is told exclusively by describing a real society and then the actions of the people who live in it, in response to the way it is. She’s able to make stories like these not only compelling on a technical level (one of the downsides to her writing is the way that its effortless grace makes it painfully clear that you are never going to be good enough at anything to matter) but meaningful not despite but because of their complete lack of anything that would normally register as “meaning.”

Maybe this sounds like faint praise, like I’m just outlining the basic qualities that make someone a competent writer, but it’s not. It’s the most important thing. The only thing any of us actually has, ever, is the experience of lived reality (there’s nothing less “lived” about hearing about other people’s experiences or reading philosophical treatises). Fiction whose only purpose is to supplant this reality with a different one is properly called “escapist,” but so is fiction whose only purpose is to congeal reality into a nondescript mush of Ideas and Statements. In both cases you are ignoring the only thing that there actually is. Le Guin’s great achievement was the creation of worlds unlike our own that show us what our world is really like – unreality that makes the world more real. This is more than merely compelling or thought-provoking writing. It’s one of the secret keys to the truth.

This is also an important point about genre fiction in general. If Le Guin’s work counts as “genre fiction,” which it does, then the term doesn’t mean anything, which it doesn’t. Genre is not a property of a work but an after-the-fact critical appellation; it’s potential use is only as a tool, not a definition. Genre work often falls into the traps of getting lost in minutia or reverting to Big Moral Statements, but literary fiction has exactly the same problem: it’s often nothing but status-signalling lifestyle details coupled with half-baked pretension. The categorization isn’t the thing that matters; in fact, focusing on categorization is precisely a way of avoiding what actually matters, of pretending to do criticism when you’re really just doing bookkeeping. Nor is there anything wrong with the categorization itself; there certainly are comment elements and things that you can use to accurately (assuming you’re being honest about the endeavor and not just parroting received value statements) classify a story as “literary fiction” or “magic realism” or what have you. But if you’re doing this to say that literary fiction is “real” and genre fiction is “just for fun,” then you’re factually wrong, and Le Guin proves it.

Her feminism, for example, is significant not because of any particular big ideas or provocative analyses, but because she actually portrays the lived experiences of women, both in terms of their inner lives and the ways they navigate the social structures they exist in. This particular version of the double bind is that focusing only on “oppression” turns women into a homogeneous class of “oppressed people” who do nothing but reflect the pressures of their oppression, i.e. it makes women not people in exactly the way that patriarchy says they’re not. Whereas insisting on “agency” and “strong female characters” implicitly denies that oppression is a real thing: if overcoming oppression makes women superhuman, then oppression is actually a good thing, because it improves women. (Overgeneralization was the great failing of second-wave feminism, which was then overcorrected for in the third wave, and we’re still dealing with the fallout of that mistake.) These are the problems you run into when you try to talk about things abstractly, but the truth is pretty obvious: people are all kinds of fucked up in all different ways, and that includes social structures, which are made of people, but there are nevertheless recognizable patterns that recur in certain areas, and the combination of these things is what creates real-world behavior.

Le Guin transcends the dilemma by mastering both worlds: she puts believable people in understandable societies and lets us watch what happens. A simple example of how this works is the story “Semley’s Necklace,” where a fallen noble goes to ultimately self-destructive lengths to retrieve a priceless family heirloom. We understand this decision both in terms of who this person is and the pressures of the structure they inhabit (also, we understand who she is both as a product of and a reaction to the social structure she inhabits), and not in terms of handwaving ideological abstraction, a.k.a. magic. (I haven’t read a lot of her fantasy, but she understood that if magic were real, it would be rule-bound in the same way that everything else is; what she says about this is that, in fantasy writing, “you get to make it all up, even the rules of how things work, and then follow your rules absolutely.”)

This aspect of her work is why The Dispossessed is such an important book. The problem that all varieties of revolutionary politics share is that, because they are talking about a world that has never existed, they are necessarily completely abstract. The common complaint that they “only work on paper” is simply a failure of imagination; after all, actually-existing capitalism is precisely a system which sounds good in theory and is destroying the world in practice. The Dispossessed creates a believable anarchist society, and it does so by portraying the way that people actually live in such a society. The point isn’t that the book makes any particular political argument; the point is that reading it grants you the ability to imagine the world other than as it is, in practical terms.

In fact, the novel even has an explicit hero-character, Odo, the original leader of the anarchist revolution, who is revered and referenced as a source of wisdom and insight, but even in this case, her work is portrayed through people’s use of it in their own lives. That is, we see them reference and quote her as part of real-world in-the-moment arguments – we see how even explicit idolization unavoidably manifests itself as just another part of practical reality. Indeed, there’s even a separate story about Odo that portrays her as a confused old woman, puttering about and embarrassing herself and not accomplishing much of anything. Even when she creates explicit heroes, Le Guin insists on making them people. She denies everyone, including the reader, the ability to in any way “get out of” ordinary life.

And, of course, including herself. I don’t really know how she pulled this off, but she managed to become a famous writer without becoming a Famous Writer. She’s revered, sure, but not in the sense that people “praise but don’t read” her; she’s revered because people read the hell out of her. (On second thought, genre fiction might be more than categorization – it might be a mask. Maybe you have to embrace trivialization in order to avoid the greater danger of idolization.) Part of this can be ascribed to simple intellectual modesty. The Left Hand of Darkness, which is set on a planet whose inhabitants have only one gender that performs both human reproductive functions as needed, uses masculine pronouns to refer to them. At the time, Le Guin judged this to be the least bad of the available choices – as explained in the novel, “he” is, while not actually neutral, more neutral than “she” or any other alternative. But she didn’t insist on this choice as a matter of dogma; quite the opposite, she knowingly walked into one branch of a trap. For a later republication of “Winter’s King,” a short story set in the same world, she switched gears and used feminine pronouns, while preserving gendered titles, so the story features “Kings” and “Princes” who are referred to as “she.” This isn’t necessarily the “right” choice, either, but it gives the story a different subconscious color that reveals different aspects of it. So she ultimately did better than making the right choice; making both choices gave us both things to think about. And it also prevents her from being anyone’s hero on the subject. She was nowhere near dumb enough to think it was possible to be “neutral,” or to “just ask questions,” but the stands she took were impossible to piggyback off of, so the only available action was to take your own stand in response.

So the problem I’m having is that we really need this right now, because we’re falling into both holes. We’re suffocating in a flood of daily minutia that doesn’t connect to anything and vanishes as soon as it’s done stealing our oxygen, and we’re also falling back on vague generalizations and unexamined principles without instantiating them in real-world actions. We’re creating as many heroes and villains as we possibly can in attempt to understand the world, yet in every case we use them as an escape from understanding, as a simplistic substitute for reality. We need to make the connection the Le Guin was capable of; without her key, we’re locked in this room.

And yet, it is precisely here that she bequeaths us her final gift. Because she was never a hero, we always had to get along without her anyway. Nothing has changed. There’s really nothing to even complain about; we haven’t missed out on anything. She gave everything she had to the world, and she left what she didn’t have up to us. So now that we finally have to accept that we aren’t getting anything more from her, we have no remaining choice but to do what we should have been doing all along: we have to take what we’ve got and figure out what we’re going to do with it. We have always been on our own, and now, at the end, she forces us to confront that fact anew.

Still, on this particular subject it’s only polite to let her have the last word, so here’s a not entirely random passage from the story I happen to be reading at the moment:

Our daily life in the auntring was repetitive. On the ship, later, I learned that people who live in artificially complicated situations call such a life “simple.” I never knew anybody, anywhere I have been, who found life simple. I think a life or a time looks simple when you leave out the details, the way a planet looks smooth, from orbit.

Cry rape

Now would appear to be the opportune moment to discuss the rape-specific aspect of the general euphemism treadmill phenomenon. This pretty much always happens but it’s been especially difficult to avoid lately. Basically, rape-culture-related claims are always described as one level less severe than what they really are. Rape gets euphemised as sexual assault, assault becomes harassment, harassment becomes “inappropriate misconduct” or some shit, and everything else basically falls off the map.

There are a few reasons why this is more than typical bourgeois overpoliteness. The first is the general instinct to soften claims against powerful people. It’s not exactly news that society is built around flattering the prejudices of elites, but there’s an ideological tilt to it as well: pretty much everyone gives benefit of the doubt in proportion to how powerful the target already is. Naturally, this is backwards. Claims against powerful people are automatically going to be downplayed simply by virtue of that fact; that’s pretty much what being powerful means. So it’s much safer to err on the side of viciousness, since there’s basically no chance a powerful person is ever going to face consequences that are too severe relative to their behavior (especially since they should all just be killed a priori). For example, the Iraq War is usually described as a “mistake” or “quagmire” or something along those lines, when the truth is that even “catastrophe” is far too genteel – what it actually was, and still is, is a war crime. People have literally been executed for less. But calling it a war crime isn’t going to bring Bush any closer to a guillotine, so if anything the correct move is to overstate the case just to push the envelope further in that direction (assuming there’s actually a way to overstate “war of aggression”). Being skittish about this completely defeats the purpose of bringing up the issue in the first place. Just throw the punch.

But this type of euphemism also plays an important role in rape culture specifically. One of the key aspects of rape culture is an implicit denial of not just the severity of particular cases of abuse, but of sexual violence as a concept. People sometimes like to say that rape is the worst thing that can happen to a person, but once the issue actually comes up it’s clear that they don’t really believe it. Typical excuses are frequently things like “she was being a tease” or “he’s a guy, he couldn’t help himself” or “what did she expect, doing <insert literally any action>”, and in cases of obvious guilt the lines become things like “she was acting friendly with him afterwards, so it couldn’t have been that bad” or “it’s not worth ruining his life over.” What’s notable about these arguments is not just that they’re always bullshit, but that they’re extremely weak. Swap murder in for rape and even vaguely implying any of these things would make you look like a straight up sociopath. After all, if someone has an “instinctive desire” to say, kill people and eat them, and if the victim of such a person “brought it on themselves” by acting carelessly, we don’t consider that to be any kind of excuse – if anything it just makes the person even more condemnable. In fact, these claims are so weak that they are only comprehensible at all if you are operating under the assumption that rape is nothing more than a minor inconvenience. Even things like theft and adultery that are genuinely several orders of magnitude less harmful than rape don’t elicit these kinds of responses. We don’t always think they’re that big of a deal, but we address them with an appropriate level of seriousness.

So one of the functions of euphemisation is to uphold this order of values. This begins with the false distinction between “violent rape” (or, in Whoopi Goldberg’s famously idiotic formulation, “rape-rape”) and “date rape.” Since the entire thing about rape is that it’s physical coercion, a lack of injury doesn’t indicate a “less severe” type of rape any more than asphyxiation or poisoning are “less severe” types of murder. Rather, the fact that some rapes involve more bodily harm than others simply means that in those cases an additional crime is being committed – they’re cases of rape and also battery or murder. Euphemising some rapes as “sexual assaults” is one of the ways that people convince themselves that a distinction exists, when it doesn’t. From what I understand, Harvey Weinstein has been credibly accused of multiple counts of rape and attempted rape, so the term to use here is not “harasser” or “creep” or “asshole” or anything like that. Those things sound superficially condemnatory, but given the actual facts of the situation, they’re just letting him off the hook. The correct term is “rapist.”

Other distinctions do of course exist – the proper use of the term “sexual assault” is to indicate situations involving physical coercion but not intercourse. (There is some slipperiness here, but it’s a direct result of the slipperiness in what counts as “sex” in general; the assault part is straightforward by comparison.) In fact, groping, which often gets glossed as “harassment,” is actually worse than assault. Assault, legally, requires only a physical threat rather than actual contact – actual contact is called “battery,” hence the term “assault and battery,” because they’re different things, but when you punch someone you’re committing both of them. Groping is sexual battery. Louis C.K.’s actions – masturbating in front of people in situations they felt unable to exit due to intimidation – are correctly classified as sexual assault. Direct verbal intimidation – for example, walking up to someone on the street and telling them “what you’d like to do to them” – is not “creepy” but is in fact assault.

Continuing down the line, “harassment” means to impede someone by creating a hostile environment for them. For example, the extremely lame joke that that one Uber guy made during the Uber meeting about how Uber is totally going to start doing something about sexism was described as “sexist” and “inappropriate,” but what it actually was was harassment. The attitude that it expresses stifles women’s actions on the basis of their being women and creates an environment in which they cannot operate effectively. It wasn’t “tone-deaf” or “out of place,” it was actively harmful (or it would have been, had there been any non-extremely-rich women present).

It’s important to insist on the correct terms not just for the sake of conceptual accuracy, but because without them, the real issue drops out of the picture. The issue is not about sex; sex in these cases is the means by which dominance is exercised. This obviously results in a unique set of dynamics – sex is uniquely suitable for exercising dominance due to the fact the we conceptualize ordinary sex as dominance in the first place – but getting rid of the sex doesn’t get rid of the coercion. Precisely because the issue is not really about sex, men who “act appropriately” are nowhere near off the hook. Recognizing the conceptual gap between sex and dominance reveals the possibilities of being a filthy pervert who only gets off consensually, and also of being a prude whose ordinary non-sexual behavior oppresses women. The Mike Pence Strategy of not interacting with women in the first place is actually just as bad as the Harvey Weinstein Strategy of using women for your own gratification in the course of working on their careers, because both have the same practical effect of relegating women to second-class status and denying them access to power. (Honestly, while it’s not for me to say, the Weinstein approach could be considered the preferable alternative, because someone like that might actually end up helping your career in the course of otherwise being a shitbag, whereas someone like Pence simply has no role for you other than “Mother”.)

Thus, the net effect of this whole chain of expressions is to negate the part of each concept that relates to the actual problem. Rape folds into sex, assault folds into flirting, and harassment folds into jokes and banter, and in each case the true central dynamic – coercion and dominance – precipitates out of the solution. (By the way, there’s still room for umbrella terms such as “abuse” or “violence,” and in fact it’s important to these terms when grouping together behaviors like Weinstein’s and C.K.’s, so that you’re accurately generalizing rather than conflating distinct behaviors.) The importance of defining deviance upward is not just not respond to the issue with the appropriate ardency, but to respond to the part of the issue that is the actual issue.

Doing this requires arguing in terms that the Keepers of the Norms will dismiss as “extremist” and “hysterical” and “shrill” and “intemperate” and I could literally go on all day with this, also you should probably notice how many gatekeeping terms are simultaneously sexist insults. While we do, at long last, have a culture that actually talks about abuse, this should provide no comfort. In fact, it introduces a significant new danger: the conversation about abuse is being conducted on patriarchal terms, with the implicit goal of channeling outrage and placating anxiety without actually changing anything. Seeing yourself acting in accord with rich fucks is the number one red flag that your tactics are counterproductive.

It is therefore critical to draw a distinction between extremism, which is potentially justified depending on how big the problem in question really is, and inaccuracy, which is never justified by any amount of good intentions. Centrist op-ed assholes fucking love to conflate these things, but they’re entirely different. You can be a frothing ideologue while also being right, and you can be a polite even-hander who is wrong about literally everything. In the same sense, though, trying to overstate the issue as much as possible (such as if, hypothetically, you were trying to make yourself look good on some kind of public forum) is generally a good way to take a correct stance and make it wrong.

Specifically, current events have encouraged a number of people to back themselves into the following corner:

I really doubt you could find a lot of women outside of ethnic cleansing campaigns who would be willing to describe their life experiences in this way, and if we’re talking about the experiences of successful women in Hollywood, which we mostly are right now, then this is downright farcical. (Also, acting all shocked and aghast about basic information that you didn’t know because you’ve somehow failed to ever pick up a fucking book in your life while transparently begging for head-pats re: what a good sensitive boy you are is not an attractive look.) (Also, if you’re a man and you believe this, you are the movie monster, so you’re ethically obligated to kill yourself, which you aren’t going to, so stop lying.)

The problem with this isn’t that it’s overwrought (although still stop it please), it’s that it’s a factually incorrect description of the situation. While all men are complicit in patriarchy by virtue of the fact that their gender allocates privileges to them without their consent (and this is actually bad for men in the long run, which is why patriarchy hurts men too), very few men are actual abusers. Rape rates along the line of one-in-four are occasionally cited as ridiculous overestimates, but what a number like that actually says is that the vast majority of women go their whole lives without being raped. And because predators are predators, they usually attack multiple victims, which means the number of male assailants is even lower than that. None of this makes the issue less serious – indeed, the fact that a tiny minority of abusers is able to define what gender means for an entire society is properly horrifying – but it does mean that the issue operates differently than a simplistic conception in which all men are constantly out to get all women (also, plenty of women are collaborators, which is one of the problems with “believing women”). Inaccuracy in the advocacy of a just cause harms that cause, and should therefore be considered just as dangerous as outright opposition. Once you’ve got the dynamics, right, though, you should address them in the most extreme terms that you possibly can. Being extreme when you’re wrong makes your wrongness worse, but being extreme when you’re right makes your rightness better. So, you should get things right, and you should be an extremist about them, in that order.

For example, one of the classic radical feminist arguments is that, because patriarchal society does not take consent seriously as a concept and instead assumes that male sexuality is inherently predatory, “rape” in patriarchal terms is simply sex that violates certain social norms. Thus, patriarchal ideology does not draw a real conceptual distinction between sex and rape, making it accurate to assert that, from the patriarchal point of view, “all sex is rape.” (To be clear, since everyone constantly gets this backwards, it is sexists who believe this proposition, and feminists who reject it in favor of the proposition that men are people.) To insist on this interpretation of the situation while simultaneously insisting on the facts that few women experience rape and very few men are actual rapists (as opposed to unreflective rape-sympathizers) is to describe the true dynamics of the situation with maximum severity.

No matter what issue you’re working on, you’re eventually going to run into a “Rolling Stone campus rape article” situation that puts you on the wrong side of the consensus and threatens to discredit your approach. The correct response to these events is to ignore them – you shouldn’t even try to argue against them, because even if you win, it doesn’t actually help your case. That Rolling Stone article appropriately reflects on no one but the people who wrote and edited it, and the lie itself reflects on no one but the liar. The fact that one person lied and one magazine sucks provides zero evidence one way or the other about how rape operates in society. I mean, if you seriously thought that no women ever lied about rape, then yeah, that’s news for you, but nobody’s really operating under that assumption, and no similar belief is required for making sense of the issue. There’s all kinds of fucked up people in the world, and getting hung up on the details of this or that case is exactly how you fail to understand anything. Narratives can be useful tools, but narrative cannot be allowed to supersede analysis. If your analysis is actually correct and not merely convenient, then it’s correct even in the face of complicated real-world situations, and you should continue to advance it even as a response to those very situations. The correct response to a woman falsely crying rape is for women to continue to cry rape.

I’ll close with a personal example. Back when I first started reading about feminism on the internet, I was briefly stymied by frequent use of the term “rape culture.” I’d be reading an article and finding it persuasive, but that term always caused me to stop short, since it seemed so straightforwardly wrong. Rape is obviously officially proscribed by society, to the extent that you can ask pretty much anyone what the worst thing you can do to a person is and “rape” will almost always be right at the top of the list. So it seemed to clearly be “too much” to describe the problem as a pervasive cultural effect rather than specific areas that weren’t being accounted for or taken seriously enough. But I kept running into the term, so I kept having to think about it, and eventually I realized where the gap in my understanding was. First, “rape” as a term does not have a necessary mapping onto a particular category of physical behavior (because no term does), which means that the things people officially proscribe are only a tiny subset of what sexual violence actually is. Shifting standards from a general sense of impropriety to a specific technical definition of violation changes which things count as rape, and a lot of the things that count under the latter standard end up being things which most people condone. Second, just because people say they’re against rape doesn’t mean they’re going to do anything about it. (What cultural criticism does a lot of the time is just to get people to change the way they talk about things while continuing to take the same actions as they were before.) It’s easy to talk big in the abstract, but when an actual person is being accused of something, interested parties tend to revert to denial and excuse-making. And these problems aren’t personal idiosyncrasies, but rather general aspects of the way we define and discuss the issue as a society – they result in predictable behavior that has predictable effects. Ergo, rape culture.

In short, I learned something, and this only happened because the people I was reading were willing to describe the situation in extreme terms that were also accurate. If these writers had been describing the situation incorrectly, such as by saying that most men were rapists, I would have correctly concluded that they weren’t worth paying attention to, and I wouldn’t have learned anything. But if they had been accurate while also “to be fair”-ing themselves into oblivion, I would never have noticed that I was missing anything, and I would have considered myself enlightened without actually changing anything about my beliefs or behavior. Properly applied extremism is the thing that distinguishes empty talk from effectiveness.

If this really is a crisis, then it merits yelling loudly and unpleasantly enough to make people uncomfortable. Talking about “inappropriateness” or “misconduct” is not going to convince anyone of anything (because those terms are non-specific except for their built-in negative valence, they’re incapable of telling anyone anything they don’t already know). Correct analysis requires extremism, and actually doing something about it requires extreme actions. The best moderation can do is manage the danger, temporarily, until the day when it finally gets fed up with your bullshit and lunges.

Viva hypocrisy

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The Harvey Weinstein revelations have provided political operatives with a golden opportunity to do their absolute favorite thing in the whole wide world: accuse other people of hypocrisy. Accusations of hypocrisy are basically the coin of the realm in political discussions, so this isn’t exactly unexpected behavior. Given how impoverished such discussions almost always are, though, it’s worth considering whether the concept possesses any real value.

The idea behind hypocrisy is that identifying a contradiction between a person’s stated beliefs and evident actions demonstrates that the person does not actually believe what they say they believe. This is already a problem, because it means that the best we can get out of the concept is a one-time, surface-level, circumstantial criticism of a single person. It doesn’t penetrate through to the part that matters. In the classic example of the anti-gay crusader who secretly fucks men, one might presume that the recognition that gay behavior is naturally occurring would serve as an argument against the underlying ideology. But of course this never happens; the underlying ideology is not simply “gay sex is bad,” but is rather adherence to the entire patriarchal world order. If you believe that patriarchy is the correct way for the world to be, then the particular causes and details and distributions of gay behavior are of only instrumental importance. This is where “ex-gay” therapy comes from: the belief that, despite the state of the underlying reality, something must be done. This is the kind of response that hypocrisy actually generates, because hypocrisy does not target ideology.

It is inherent to the concept that hypocrisy is always an argument against a person and not against an idea. This is true at the most general level. Patriarchy supposedly requires exacting standards of behavior on the part of men. They’re supposed to be the moral, honorable law-givers; that’s why patriarchy is allegedly justified. But whenever a man sticks his dick somewhere he’s not supposed to, it always ends up being framed as some woman’s fault. The ideology endures the failures of its adherents.

Hypocrisy is different from incoherence. Hypocrisy is when an action you take conflicts with your stated values. Incoherence is when your stated values conflict with themselves. For example, if you complain about the Republicans obstructing Obama throughout his tenure and claim that they should have tried to compromise, but you also complain about people who try to compromise with Trump and claim that they should obstruct him instead, you’re being incoherent (assuming you actually believe that and aren’t just being tactically cynical). The problem with incoherence is that it’s impossible for anyone to take your advice, because you’re advocating two different incompatible courses of action in the same situation. When you state incoherent values, you’re actually saying nothing. Thus, pointing this out to people has, potentially, the useful effect of forcing them to pick a real side.

Still, it would seem that hypocrisy retains the limited value of arguing against certain in-the-moment courses of action. You should be able to use it to either get a sincere person to change their behavior to be more in line with their beliefs, or to expose a cynical professor of righteous-sounding beliefs as a fraud. In practice, though, its signal-to-noise ratio is pretty shit, and there’s probably an explanation for that.

The reason hypocrisy doesn’t help to change people’s behavior is that everyone is already trying to act out their values. That’s what having values means: they’re the things that you’re trying to do. If someone’s doing something that goes against their values, it’s because they don’t realize that it’s doing that. So what’s required here is a material explanation of how the relevant behavior counterindicates the relevant values. For example, if someone claims to be a feminist, but complains about women who act “slutty,” it’s probably because they’ve internalized ideas about women’s sexuality being a source of weakness and frivolousness. In other words, they think they’re helping, because they think women need to be less sexual in order for feminism to succeed. The truth, of course, is that the problem is not the particular types of sexual behavior that women engage in, but rather the idea that there is a “correct” type of behavior at all. Substituting one mandate for another continues to oppress women. While some behaviors are in fact immoral (anything that doesn’t involve consent, obviously; also particular behaviors are potentially open to aesthetic rather than moral criticism, but that’s a whole other topic), the mandating of specific behaviors for certain classes of people rather than the development of a general moral theory is in fact what oppression is. Calling the person a hypocrite, though, doesn’t clarify any of this for them. You have to give them a real explanation.

As for discreditization, that doesn’t have a great track record either. I’m getting pretty sick of the tendency to turn every political issue into a referendum on Donald Trump, but unfortunately that’s the move here, because Trump is the biggest possible hypocrite. As you may have read on the internet somewhere, the philosopher Harry Frankfurt draws a technical distinction between lies and bullshit. The liar is someone who wants to convince you that a particular fact is not in fact a fact. A criminal trying to create an alibi wants you to believe that they were in a certain place at a certain time, even though they weren’t; establishing that belief in contradiction to the facts is their goal. The bullshitter, however, doesn’t care about the truth or falsity of the relevant facts in the first place; their goal is to use the appearance of facts to establish something else entirely. Our primary vector for bullshit is advertising. An ad will make a claim like “American Moms’ #1 Choice” or something, which looks like a fact-based statement. Presumably there was some sort of survey of American moms and most of them chose the product in question. And the company may in fact have conducted such a survey and gotten such results, if only for the sake of legal plausibility, but conveying that factual information isn’t the point. The point is simply to associate the product with positive-valence terms such as “America” and “Mom” and “#1” and “Choice.” In other words, bullshit may very well be true, but it doesn’t matter, because the intent of the statement is something else entirely.

So, Trump, who only understands the world in terms of marketing, will say whatever gets a positive response at the time, and will take whatever action seems like it will inflate his brand. Because of this, and because he has no other motivations, his stated beliefs and actions are entirely disconnected; he is a perfect hypocrite. The times when his actions and beliefs do align are mere coincidences; some of his beliefs may in fact be “true,” but they’re bullshit either way, because he doesn’t believe them as facts, but rather as instrumental vectors for self-promotion. He never actually encountered evidence that his inauguration had the biggest crowd ever, that was just the thing he had to say in order to make himself seem more impressive (the fact that it had the opposite effect was lost on him, because, in addition to being full of shit, he’s not very bright). Even if he really had had the biggest crowd, he still would have been bullshitting.

Now, some people have recognized this dynamic and been confused by it, because it seems to sort people into one of two camps. Either you’re opposed to Trump’s stated beliefs, in which case you oppose him, or you’re in favor of his stated beliefs, in which case you should be opposed to his actions, because he’s a hypocrite and is therefore betraying your beliefs, meaning you should oppose him. Thus, his thoroughgoing hypocrisy should prevent him from having any base at all. But the opposite is the case: Trump has an extremely strong base of support that is pretty much guaranteed to stick with him to the particularly bitter end. So this already completely discredits the concept of hypocrisy on an empirical level, because if it doesn’t work in the most glaringly obvious case, it’s clearly never going to work at all.

We can still figure out why this is, though. In the case of political support, stated beliefs are what matter. The government is big and complicated, so you can never assign simple blame for any particular failure. During Obama’s term, liberals made excuses for everything he failed to do or did wrong, and conservatives are doing the same for Trump right now. This is actually reasonable behavior. The president’s actual function is mostly “setting the agenda,” and given the limited number of options, the only thing you can really do is support the person who’s mostly somewhere in the vicinity of what you’re after. Conservatives understand this perfectly well. As much as they like to grandstand about decorum and shit, they know that Trump’s their boy. He’s the one who’s going to give them their judges and agency appointments. As long as it benefits them, they’re going to keep supporting him until it becomes politically untenable. Among ordinary voters, it’s the same thing: Trump is the only person even pretending to speak to their concerns, and he actually is sort of moving the general political agenda in their direction, and since that’s all they’re going to get, they’re going to take it. This is hypocritical, but it’s also just a basic utilitarian calculation, which is the only sensible way to approach electoral politics. (Of course, this is also why electoral politics are not worth spending much time on.)

What’s actually wrong with both Obama and Trump is not the fact that they’re hypocrites, it’s the fact that they’re liars. Obama ran as an anti-war candidate knowing full well that he was never going to oppose imperialism or indeed do anything at all about foreign policy other than formalize and normalize everything that he made it seem like he was criticizing Bush for. He played the role of racial redeemer without ever intending to do anything to help black people. He presented himself as a populist in public while specifically telling bankers that he was going to protect them from the people they fucked over. These are not instances of hypocrisy, they are instances of immoral belief. Calling these things “hypocrisy” lets Obama off the hook; it implies that nothing was really his fault, like he was just trying his best and if only he had more power and the opposition wasn’t so mean he could have fixed everything. What actually went wrong with Obama’s presidency was the fact that he holds beliefs that are actively harmful to humanity.

Trump is a somewhat different case; as mentioned, his claims don’t generally rise to the point of qualifying as “lies.” But there is one exception: the claim that he ever intended to act as a public servant at all. This was actually at the core of his campaign: he stated many times that he used to be a freewheeling capitalist, but now he was going to buckle down and serve the people. This, augmented of course by his unwavering allegiance to whiteness and masculinity, was the key to establishing in many people the perception that Trump was “on their side” and “the only one looking out for people like me.” Calling Trump a “hypocrite” does not attack this perception. It reinforces it; it makes it sound like Trump is trying his best but being stifled, which is exactly the excuse that his supporters are currently making for him. Undoing this perception requires targeting not his stumbles and gaffes, but the true center of his image: the fact that he’s a rich fuck. This is the relevant quality that ensures that he is never going to help anyone other than himself, but this cannot be seen by those operating under the notion that rich people are the “winners” of society, the ones who are the smartest and the most qualified. Hypocrisy keeps the dividing line in the same place, but attempts to position Trump on the wrong side of it. This can’t work, due to the simple fact that Trump really is a rich fuck; he really is a representative of the upper class, even if they’re all embarrassed by him. Turning people away from Trump requires redrawing the line where it really belongs. It requires, yes, class consciousness.

To address the specific recent issue, liberals are being accused of hypocrisy for acting all aghast about sexual assault while harboring people like Weinstein and Bill Clinton on their midst. It’s true that liberals are in the wrong here: they’re wrong to harbor predators, and they don’t actually care about sexual assault like they say they do. But neither of these things is an example of hypocrisy. What’s actually happening is that establishment liberals a) don’t really want to end patriarchy and b) care more about schmoozing and power-grubbing than changing society in any case. It’s not that there’s a contradiction between their beliefs and actions, it’s that their beliefs and actions are both morally wrong on their own terms. This line of analysis applies to basically any possible accusation of hypocrisy: the problem is never the contradiction; it’s either that the beliefs are wrong or the actions are harmful, or both. Ignoring hypocrisy doesn’t mean that things are “okay,” it means the opposite. The things that are really wrong are the things that should really be argued against. If, hypothetically, someone who claimed to care about gay people were to pose with the people responsible for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act, it would make sense to call them out on that. But the reason it makes sense is not because it’s hypocritical. It’s because whitewashing history prevents us from understanding why things are wrong and therefore from being able to do anything about it, because fetishization of trendy causes harms those causes, and because making nice with evil people normalizes evil.

There isn’t actually anything wrong with liberals taking Weinstein’s money. The whole rejecting-the-tainted-donation pageant is actually really fucking annoying. Money is fungible, you dumb fucks! That’s like the entire point of the concept. There’s no such thing as “blood money”; money doesn’t change based on where it comes from. The money doesn’t magically “corrupt” you due to some kind of phantom influence from its source. In fact, it’s more virtuous to take bad money than it is to take good money. Bad people are probably going to use their money to do bad things, so taking that money and using it to do good things is doubly virtuous.1 Contrariwise, all those people donating $27 to Sanders’ campaign probably needed that money.

There is, of course, a real problem with having rich patrons, but it has nothing to do with hypocrisy. The problem is that having rich patrons is bad regardless of what you believe. Republicans also have rich patrons, but even though they aren’t hypocrites about this, because they believe that wealth itself has moral force, their situation is still just as bad. It’s still causing bad things to happen. The real problem is that establishing long-term relationships with rich fucks and relying on them as sources of support naturally entails adopting their values as your own. When you start thinking of rich fucks as your “us,” the question of “what’s good for the country?” becomes “what’s good for us rich fucks?” You start to see the world through their eyes, and to frame all problems in their terms. Hillary Clinton’s “no quid pro quo” defense against bribery was actually accurate: quid pro quo is not how the influence of wealth works in the modern world. Clinton’s problem wasn’t the money, it was the fact that she really was “one of them.” Her problem was that she wasn’t a hypocrite. Besides, the correct solution here is publicly funded elections paid for by progressive taxation, in which case it would in fact be rich people paying for political campaigns.

The ironic thing about hypocrisy is that it’s slung about like a vicious accusation, but it actually gives the target the maximum possible benefit of the doubt. Calling someone a hypocrite assumes that they’re not a liar or a con artist; it assumes that their beliefs are true and they’re making an honest attempt to live up to them, but that they just happen to be failing. Hypocrisy is always the weakest possible accusation you can make; there is always a better argument. Hypocrisy is like accusing a person of accidentally stubbing their toe, when the real problem is that they’re busy stabbing someone.

But it’s actually quite a bit worse than that, because there’s a real, vile reason why accusations of hypocrisy are the most common form of political discourse. They’re ubiquitous because they’re counterproductive. Conservatives obviously can’t argue against liberal sexism by being anti-sexist, because conservatives are also sexist. So, instead, they use accusations of hypocrisy to attack their enemies without actually engaging in any sort of discussion about ideas or behaviors. The goal is not to actually discuss sexual assault; in fact, it is to avoid discussing sexual assault in any real way. It is simply to take advantage of the opportunity to discredit one’s enemies while ignoring the real issue altogether. In other words, it’s bullshit. It pretends to be a political discussion, when it’s really nothing more than tribalistic sniping and noise-generation.

For us ordinary citizens, the problem is even worse. As people without power, we have no options other than to engage with society as it exists. This means that we are all necessarily complicit in whatever evils we are trying to destroy, no matter what they are. You can’t be against capitalism or sexism or racism without also engaging in capitalist and sexist and racist practices, because the entire thing about these things is that they’re social systems. They’re not mistakes that happen here and there, but are rather how the world we live in is constituted. So if non-hypocrisy is the condition for action, no action is possible. The concept of hypocrisy does not help us to distinguish between better and worse actions, because all actions are fatally contaminated in its eyes. The way to argue for or against actions is on the basis of material results, which can actually be analyzed rather than merely yelled about. This is the truly important reason we must jettison the concept of hypocrisy entirely. It forces us into a morass of fruitless defensiveness and scares us away from the real actions we’re capable of taking. It smothers us in self-righteous snobbery and prevents us from making real, bold arguments – the kind that might actually change something. One of the few genuinely important, non-bullshit functions of talking about politics as ordinary citizens is to get people to take stronger stances. Debating the merits of this or that policy is completely irrelevant for most of us, since we have no control over which specific policies actually get implemented. What we do have a non-zero amount of control over are our values and priorities, and it’s important to get these right.

This point might seem too simple to be worth making, but it is in fact the case that people use this line of attack all the time, against everything. If you use social media to criticize social media, you’re a hypocrite. If you buy a shirt with an anti-capitalist slogan on it, you’re a hypocrite. If you’re an anarchist, anywhere, ever, you’re a hypocrite. Again, there is potentially a real argument that can be made about the likely effects of certain actions; if there’s a readily available alternative to a company that uses sweatshop labor, or an easy vegan substitute for a meat dish, it can be helpful to point those things out. But they still exist in context: all consumption supports the economy that relies on sweatshop labor, and all food is part of the production chain that tortures animals. This is the difference between sincere progressiveness and reactionary accusations of hypocrisy: one aims at the best that can be done in this world, the only place where things can happen, and one is simply a shouting-down of any possible action at all.

Also, global warming.2 We all believe that the planet should continue to exist, and we’re all engaged in the behavior that’s destroying it. We’re all hypocrites. Like, seriously, we suck, okay? It’s great if you’re all self-actualized or whatever, except it’s actually not, because the world’s still being destroyed, which means you actualized yourself wrong (or at least prematurely). Quit trying to act cool.

These are the truly pernicious “purity politics.” They are the ones that come from the amoral center, striking against any possible alternative to the world as it happens to exist at this particular moment. If the problem is hypocrisy, then the solution is to stop expressing political beliefs – or, more dishonestly, to claim “nuance” and accuse your opponents of being “purists.” Hypocrisy motivates people to change in the wrong direction: away from proclaiming their values openly and honestly, and towards the most tepid and inoffensive actions. We want people to feel comfortable stating their beliefs as strongly as possible, because that’s the only way we can have a real conversation, and we want people to act like they mean it, because that’s the only way anything is ever going to change.

There is, then, a necessary solution, which is to be a hypocrite. You should say what you really believe and value, rather than saying that thing that makes you sound the most “reasonable.” You should then try to figure out what actions will be the most effective at advancing those beliefs, rather than which actions will expose you to the least criticism. Given the current state of the world, doing this will cause various people to hate you for various reasons, and it will leave you open to accusations of hypocrisy. The correct response is to not care. If someone has a real argument against you, that’s great, you should listen to them, but if it really is a real argument, hypocrisy won’t enter into it. In a world of ersatz rationality, where human potential is locked down by false certainty, the recklessness of hypocrisy is our best weapon against the worst future. The only worthwhile political stance is to be a first-world anarchist.

(It’s also a useful defense against taking yourself too seriously.)

Besides, it’s obvious that none of the people making accusations of hypocrisy care when the same accusations are leveled at them. If you don’t think accusations of hypocrisy are significant when they’re directed at you, then accusing others of hypocrisy as though such claims were significant is itself hypocritical. That’s not why it’s wrong, though. It’s wrong because it’s useless either way.

 


  1. So, yes, for the record, Lisa Simpson is a total moron in that one episode. 
  2. I’m starting to feel like this phrase should be mandatory in any article about anything. 

Get victimized

I’m going to suppress my instinctual reaction to the Taylor Swift trial on account of there’s a much more important implication lingering in the background which I’d prefer it if we could try to focus on. I mean, there’s nothing really interesting going on here otherwise; as though it’s at all impressive that one of the richest and most powerful people in the entertainment business was able to . . . er, no, right, I’m not doing that. Seriously, good for her. She was entirely in the right and she dealt with the whole thing as accurately and sincerely as possible. It was actually a just resolution of the situation, for once.

The problem is this:

This is exactly the opposite of what’s happening here. If Swift were really “refusing to be a victim,” she could do that very easily by simply ignoring the issue. From what I hear, she has some other stuff going on for her, so if she didn’t choose to make an issue out of this, it wouldn’t be an issue. (I’m aware that she was sued first, but she could have just let the lawyers wrap it up and it would have been washed away by the news cycle and completely forgotten in about 3 hours. I mean, that’s probably going to happen anyway, but now it’ll at least have a paragraph on her Wikipedia page.) On the contrary, by taking the stand and turning this into a media thing, she has made her status as a victim an indelible part of the public record. When she says things like this:

“I am critical of your client for sticking his hand under my skirt and grabbing my ass.”

“Gabe, this is a photo of him with his hand up my skirt — with his hand on my ass,” she said. “You can ask me a million questions — I’m never going to say anything different. I never have said anything different.”

“I am being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are a product of his decisions and not mine.”

what she is saying is precisely, “I am a victim.” She’s saying that this happened to her without her consent and she was completely powerless to do anything about it. If this is “badass,” it’s badass because she’s accepting her victimhood.

Now, the original feminist aversion to the “victim” concept resulted from a laudable motivation. Part of the way sexism works is that the things that disadvantage women are blamed on the individual women themselves. Rape is an especially salient example, because not only are women portrayed as “asking for it,” but even blameless victims are still considered to have been “damaged” by the experience. (And of course it’s the other way around for the perpetrators: raping someone is just one of those things that men do sometimes, so there’s no sense in ruining someone’s life over it.) So the counter-tactic here was to assert that, rather than being “victims,” people who have undergone sexual assault are instead “survivors.” This turns the negative into a positive: rather than being a “victim” who will never be able to escape their experiences, a “survivor” is someone whose accomplishments are all the more admirable due to having been achieved despite duress.

So that’s all well and good, far be it from me to tell anyone how to understand their own experiences, but this approach stops working when you try to apply it as a general prescription. The fact of the matter is that rape really does harm people severely, and sometimes you don’t get over it. Some people literally don’t survive rape, and many more fall into trauma, give up on themselves, curtail their ambitions, or simply slog through the rest of their lives latched to a dull, throbbing weight that never really goes away. If these things were not the case, rape would not be a real issue. That’s kind of the whole thing about oppression: it creates an environment in which being casually restrained and put-upon is normal. Furthermore, the people most harmed by rape are the people who are most in need of help – they’re the people that our theory has to be centered around. If our conceptualization of the issue tacitly abandons them, we’re not doing feminism very well.

This is, of course, exactly what’s been happening. The modern mainstream conception of feminism is essentially a self-help program for rich white women based on a skin-deep conception of individual empowerfulmentness and manifested largely through bastardized pop-psych-sci-mythology and snake-oil saleswomanship. I mean, just so we’re clear, I’m not addressing what random Twitter morons are saying about this; I’m talking about the general conception of what feminism is right now. (Also, the real kind of feminism is still alive and well, it’s just that there are now two different things with the same name, and, as always, the bad one is more popular.) “Refusing to be a victim” is a perfect one-line description of this ideology: it’s an individual denialistic response to a society that is assumed to be unchangeable. Hence, among many examples, the current trend towards “advice” about how to properly mangle your own vocabulary to ensure that you aren’t saying anything that will “hold you back.” Rather than analyzing why it is that speech patterns characteristic of women are considered “flawed” in some way, or why we expect people to jump through ritualistic hoops unrelated to the actual work they’re doing in order to succeed (and certainly rather than suggesting that anything about men’s behavior ought to change), we simply assume all of that to be fixed and ask the only remaining question: how can each individual woman act so as to most effectively mitigate her own inherent disadvantages? It is in this sense that the correct response to sexual assault is understood to be “refusing to be a victim”: dealing with your specific personal complications on an individual level and ignoring any broader context.

There’s a reason things have turned out this way. Sexism has its own unique characteristics, but the general dynamic here is the same was what’s happening to everything. Our society has be de-politicized in general such that all problems are understood on the individual level. We see exactly the same dynamic when, for example, liberals respond to unemployment by advocating education and retraining. Rather than modifying society so that it works for everyone, we force each individual person to contort themselves into one of the few permissible shapes.

“Women’s issues” are at the heart of this problem, because the fundamental motivation for patriarchy is to force women into a limited set of socially necessary roles (child rearing, housework, emotional labor) so that these things can be assumed to be taken care of and men are free to do whatever else they want. (The fact that some men may very well want to do the things we’ve cordoned off for women is one of the reasons that patriarchy hurts men too.) As long as our society is organized on the basis of this dynamic, we will continue to see it replicated in different ways for different groups of people. We can’t solve this problem for anyone until we can solve it for women. This is among the many reasons that feminism is for everybody.

But the original impulse here is still valid: conceiving of patriarchy as a vast ineluctable darkness and woman as hopelessly downtrodden is equally fatalistic. Rewriting the script to give yourself a flashier role doesn’t change the fundamental problem, because the fundamental problem is the existence of the script. Creating a new model for how women are supposed to act will make women’s oppression look different while continuing to be oppression, and continuing to leave anyone who doesn’t fit the model out in the cold. “Refusing to be a victim” actually means buying in to the idea that victims have something wrong with them, that only by responding to a tragedy in the proper, socially-approved manner do you qualify as a human being. It is not incumbent upon oppressed people to respond to their oppression in a way that makes everyone else feel good about themselves. To insist on this is precisely to blame the victim. You have to accept how people feel and provide resources to help them regardless of whether they’re sassy sheroes or whether they’re useless losers. The society we want is a society that works for all women, one where even women who are complete stupid assholes are disadvantaged only by their own stupid assholeness and not by sexism. Making moral sympathy contingent on the ability to act in a way that makes other people feel good about themselves is deeply sick.

And it’s more than sick; it’s factually inaccurate. “Victories” make it seem like the current situation is okay, when of course the fact that these things happen at all unavoidably illustrates that it is not okay. Even someone like Taylor Swift, who is privileged enough to be immune to almost everything else, is not immune to the banal impulses of whatever rando she ends up standing next to. The significance of the case is not that Swift “won,” because she didn’t. She broke even: she took a bad thing that happened to her and fixed it (and she really didn’t even do that, because she still had to waste her time going to court and arguing with some asshole lawyer). The significance is that, hopefully, the next guy who gets it into his head to pull some shit will instead think twice. Victory isn’t winning a court case; victory is being treated like a person in the first place.

The state of being a victim is morally neutral. That is, the thing that happened was bad (meaning the state of being a victimizer is morally negative, obviously), but it can happen just as easily to a good person or an awful person, and the fact of it happening does not make the person any better or worse. What being a victim actually indicates is that someone else did something immoral. Not only does it not reflect badly on you, it doesn’t reflect on you at all; the whole point of the term is that the situation was outside of your control. If we accept this, we have to accept that how a victim responds to their victimization is absolutely irrelevant to the situation. It’s fine to prefer certain types of responses to others (especially since many possible responses are themselves immoral in different ways), and we might have advice about how to respond in a healthy manner, but none of that should have any effect on our evaluation of the initial violation. It’s either wrong or it’s not, and if it’s wrong, then we can’t excuse it in either direction: we can’t wave it away as “the way things are,” but we also can’t accept an “inspiring” resolution as a “happy ending.” Because it’s not an ending; the only ending will be when this actually ends, when the last page of the last book of the old order’s precepts is reduced to ashes and scattered to the four winds. Since that’s not going to happen anytime soon, it’s not a fantasy that we can reasonably console ourselves with. We must accept that we are doomed and also accept our responsibility to fight for the sake of the true future. Our only option is to continue to live as victims.

Sadly, the current conception of things hasn’t really been forced on us. It’s certainly something that the ruling class has promoted to their own advantage, but it’s only worked because people have gone along with it, and the reason they’ve gone along with it is because it’s easy. It’s comforting to imagine that any problem can be resolved by simply finding the secret code that turns it off. Actually, it’s more than just comforting; acknowledging that there are vast historical forces arrayed against you but imagining that you can overcome them through nothing but your own cleverness and determination doesn’t just make things okay, it makes it so you’re the hero. And since this rarely works out in practice, we instead find the few people privileged enough to make it work and experience the fantasy vicariously through them.

Neither being a queen nor slaying is a good thing. It isn’t “badass” to pretend like you’re perfect and nothing affects you. It isn’t badass to only pick fights that you’re sure you can win effortlessly. It is badass to admit your weaknesses, to be honest about your history and your emotions, and to confront things that are scary. It’s badass to fight things that you’re probably not going to be able to defeat, to choose just struggle over shallow success.

What this means in practice is that we must, all of us, refuse to refuse to be victims. We must insist on our own victimhood, and on the validity of our cause regardless. We aren’t right because we’re the coolest people with the best hair and the sassiest comebacks. We’re right because we’re right. Victorious or defeated, we remain victims; together or alone, we remain united in the cause of justice.

This is the thing that we all have in common. We all have different situations, but each of us is vulnerable to something. Each of us has been, in some important way, failed by our society. We have all had our potential stifled, our opportunities curtailed, our selves denigrated, and our dreams deferred. We all bear the scars of irretrievable losses; we are all less than we could have been. We’ve all run into walls; we’ve all encountered painfully decisive evidence that we are not equal to the task before us, and we’re all going to keep trying anyway. We’re all broken robots play-acting at personhood. It is this realization, not the cheap glamour of hero-worship, that creates the foundation for real solidarity.

You’re a victim. Admit it.

No more heroines

Shirley Manson:

“[Debbie Harry and I] are some of the few women left who do what we do in the way that we do it. We’re getting rarer and rarer. I think people understand that this breed is dying.”

This is right for the wrong reason. There are no female rock stars right now, but that’s becasue there are no rock stars right now. Rock isn’t mainstream anymore. The garage-rock boom of the early ’00s died out, and that was it. All of the top-billed, headline-making music right now is either hip-hop, R&B, electronica, or spectacle pop. Hell, even country’s made a comeback. The only exceptions are legacy acts like Radiohead and minor celebrities like Jack White. Looking for a Shirley Manson figure in this context is like looking for water on Mars.

However, the notion that women who “write their own music and aren’t chasing pop success,” constitute a “thinning bloodline” is as horrendously wrong as anything can possibly be. It’s important to make this distinction because the progress of this half of the dynamic has been overwhelmingly positive. Female rock stars may be a dying breed, but female rockers are almost literally everywhere. We’re getting shockingly close to the point where women being in rock bands is fully normal behavior – it would honestly be difficult for me to avoid them were I trying. Even when I go to see a typical boy-punk band like Wavves1 it’s a near guarantee that there will be women writing songs and playing instruments in the openers. I’m the last person who’s ever going to argue that “things are okay,” but even an inveterate hater like me has to admit that this is a hell of a lot better than it used to be. If Bikini Kill were around today, they wouldn’t be getting alternately harassed and patronized. They would seem like a normal rock band with normal politics. Again, this is not to minimize any of the very real shit that’s still happening, but the fact is this battle has largely been won. Women playing rock music is normal now. Deal with it.

It’s still valid to ask whether we’re missing something by not having heroes, though, because heroes serve different functions than regular artists. Actually, it kind of seems like the functions heroes serve are the only ones that matter. That is, if you’re already into music or you’re reading radical theory or whatever, you don’t need a lot of help. You’re in a position where you can figure things out for yourself; you know where you can look for answers. The person who does need help is the proverbial queer kid in a small religious town – someone who’s too far away from the truth to be reached by conventional means. The value of heroes is that they have this kind of reach. If you’re in a position where you actually need to be saved, a hero is the only option.

The problem with this is that it’s a coincidence. If society were generally just, the people with reach would be the people whose touch matters. This is not the case. In fact, it’s worse than just being a coincidence. The actual situation is fairly chaotic, but as a general rule, it’s more accurate to say that we live in a society that suppresses things that are worthwhile and promotes things that are useless, and indeed often actively harmful. The people with the means to do the talking are usually those with the least to say. For every one Garbage screaming out the truth, there are ten Limp Bizkits stinking up the airwaves and hundreds more Bratmobiles languishing in the shadows.

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with the fact that Garbage had a positive effect on people through being on MTV. I mean, I can vouch for this personally. Garbage was the only good band I liked before I liked music. And because I was a stupid kid back then, I never would have heard of them if they hadn’t been on MTV. They didn’t save me or anything, but I’d probably be worse off otherwise. They helped me, and they’ve helped millions of others even more. To the extent that they had to get popular in order to do this, their popularity was a good thing. But they didn’t get big because they had something worthwhile to say; if anything, they got big in spite of it. Which means that any “stardom” effect in play is ultimately just a matter of luck.

It’s important to draw a distinction here between popularity, the general concept describing a situation where lots of people like something, and fame, the specific thing that happens when popularity Ouroboroses itself. While they can occur together, they don’t have to, and the difference is not just a matter of numbers. Someone can have a large number of fans while remaining unknown outside that group and therefore not properly famous; this is what we refer to as a “cult following.” And we’re all familiar with the situation in which someone is famous without there being anything they’re actually known for doing; this can happen even when relatively few people are paying attention to them.

So what we can understand here is that fame is strictly bad: the specific thing it means is that lots of people are paying attention to you without caring about what you’re doing. Fame discriminates improperly. Bad things get famous just as easily as (or more easily than) good things, and fame occupies cultural breathing room that could otherwise be filled with more things that matter. There can’t be a good version of the Grammys; any awards show necessarily resolves itself into red carpet bullshit. Popularity, by contrast, is the enthusiasm without the awards. So it’s actually a good thing, but in the sense that heart surgery is a good thing. You don’t want it for its own sake, and if you can get along without it you’re probably better off. But in some situations it can help you do the thing that you actually want to do. I’d like to emphasize that this is neither an obscurantist nor an apologetic argument; things aren’t better or worse for being more or less popular. Being popular increases your chances of reaching people, but what’s important is the reaching, not the numbers. In fact, the problem with popularity is precisely that it leads to fame; it increases the chances that your bandwidth will start to get clogged up with people who don’t actually care.

The difference between a “rocker” and a “rock star” – and, more generally, the difference between an “artist” and a “hero” – is the difference between popularity and fame. Ergo, heroes are bad. This is kind of a hard point to focus on, because talking about “heroes” makes you think of your own heroes, who are obviously good, but it remains the case that the concept of heroes is bad, and the act of having heroes is bad. It’s natural to want to hype someone who does something that’s important to you, but promotion is different from idolization. You can’t idolize someone you actually know, because what idolization is is the filling in of the gaps you don’t know about with positive-valence generica. It’s taking one important thing and improperly extrapolating from it that someone is important in general, which no one actually is.

So, functionally, what hero worship does is not to shine a spotlight on worthwhile achievements. Worthwhile achievements are worthwhile on their own; they justify themselves simply by existing. That’s what it means for something to be worthwhile. Rather, what the spotlight of heroism brings into view is everything else, the things that don’t actually matter. Again, this seems harmless when the other things turn out to be good. It’s certainly nice that the person who happens to be Beyoncé happens to be a feminist, but that isn’t something you can rely on. In fact, people have made exactly this complaint about Taylor Swift: she’s supposedly “not political enough” and therefore not fulfilling her role as a hero. But the question isn’t why Taylor Swift isn’t political, the question is why do you care? Why do you have the expectation that someone who writes songs (or doesn’t) that go on the radio is going to share your personally favored political viewpoint? Are you not capable of making your own arguments? Do you really think progress can’t happen without the say-so of some rando pop star?

Worse, heroes generally “happen” to be more like, oh, I don’t know, Bill Cosby. The function of heroism is to make people like Cosby look good, and to make people like Dave Chappelle apologize for them. To be clear, Chappelle doesn’t deny Cosby’s rapism, but because he idolizes Cosby, he’s compelled to argue that it’s “not that simple,” and so he comes up with extenuating factors that aren’t actually true. And it isn’t just that Cosby doesn’t deserve the favor, it’s that it doesn’t matter. His work still exists on its own; whatever value it has is still there. And his crimes also exist on their own. The only reason to conflate2 them is if you feel some need to decide whether Cosby is a “good person” in general, which you shouldn’t, because “being a good person” is not a sensible concept when divorced from specific actions. Heroism attempts to square this circle, to draw bright lines of “good” and “bad”3 that paint over the actual facts on the ground.

There is a specifically feminist point to be made here. First of all, there’s a good reason why feminists are particularly susceptible to heroineism. One of the primary mechanics through which patriarchy operates is the casting of men as agents and women as assistants. Typically masculine roles are those such as the warrior, the lone genius, the statesman, or the explorer – people who do things, who are the source of their own achievements. Typically feminine roles are those such as the wife, the maid, the mother, or the muse – people who support or maintain things, who are factors in other people’s achievements.4 The way that these role-sets and their interactions work to promote male dominance is pretty straightforward. So the natural counter here is to point out situations in which women are undeniable creative forces in their own right. When you get wildly original artists like Patti Smith5 or Björk, women who can’t possibly be understood other than as self-possessed agents and originators, it is severely temping to turn them into heroes. Like, if Patti Smith gets inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, then that’s real official proof that women are just as good as men, right?

The problem with this is that exceptions, as a rule, don’t disprove rules. You can just as well interpret the same situation the other way around: women have to be exceptional in order to qualify as creators. There’s nothing stopping anyone from recognizing the achievements of some particular handful of women and then remaining sexist about everything else. That’s exactly how it’s been throughout literally all of history, because there are always, in any context, going to be people who are exceptional in one way or another. You’re always going to see the occasional Queen Elizabeth, Commander Artemisia, or Hypatia of Alexandria – as well as the occasional Margaret Thatcher, Aileen Wuornos, or Leni Riefenstahl. By the same token, though, the overwhelming majority of women are just going to be normal people with normally-valuable abilities. We don’t need more exceptions; we need to start valuing ordinary women, to remove the requirement of exceptionality. Treating a tiny selection of women like superhumans (/”queens”/”goddesses”) does not absolve us of not treating normal women like normal humans. Women having to be exceptional in order to be considered on par with men is the exact thing that sexism is. The measure of progress in music, then, is not whether we have female superstars. That’s always been the case. It’s whether people of average talent and ordinary appeal are being given their fair shake. The glass ceiling that matters is not the highest one, but the lowest.

In short, it’s a trap. Idolization is how patriarchy handles the unavoidable existence of exceptional women while maintaining existing sexist structures. A social system that didn’t account for exceptions would be brittle; it would crack under pressure. The systems that become pervasive are the ones that are flexible, that can adapt themselves to whatever the conditions on the ground happen to be, that resolve problematic happenstances. They’re the ones that cause you to take a genuine feminist influence like Shirley Manson, call her a “grunge goddess” (which is an oxymoron all by itself), and portray her and a bunch of other important female creators as generic representatives of something called “women in rock.”

As you’ll recall, though, the catch is that heroism serves valuable functions, so the real question is: can we make do without it? Even if the concept sucks, it might act as a Wittgensteinian Ladder: we might need it now because things are fucked, even though we’re going to want to throw it away later. While I can’t speak for the past, I submit that, even if this is the case, the time has come. Instead of inflating heroes to shadow over everything, it is within our power to make smaller, more direct connections, where they’re needed.

Obviously, the internet is a big deal here. I’m sure I don’t have to explain the effect it’s had on music distribution. But this isn’t a technological problem. After all, the internet has had just as strong of an effect in the opposite direction. The vast majority of people use the internet to pay more attention to the things that are already the most popular.6 This has nothing to do with the technology itself; the problem is what people want. If you’re trying to connect things with the people who need them, you can find some way to do that at any level of technology. Back in the day there were things like zines and mail-order catalogs and good old fashioned word of mouth. The internet is potentially a huge help – rather, it has been, and it can be an even bigger help – but it can’t help you do anything until you want to do it.

The fundamental problem is that people want heroes. They prefer stars shining from afar to real people existing unglamorously in front of them.7 They aren’t comfortable valuing things on their own; they want to be told that the things they care about are “really” important, that they’re “right” to care. They want to outsource their humanity to someone else. But this can only ever be a lie, because importance comes from the personal interactions you have with something. Other people can acknowledge that those interactions happened, but they only ever belong to you. It’s simply factual to say that Garbage has had a strong influence on a lot of people, but that doesn’t merely add up to “stardom”; each influence retains its individual content, content that can’t simply be exchanged with that of any other equivalent “star,” precisely as those influenced by Garbage describe:

Screaming Females’ guitarist Marissa Paternoster, whose band went on tour with Garbage in 2013, agreed. “Shirley was the most honest in her darkness. Gwen Stefani was a great inspiration for me but she didn’t have that sharp edge that I was looking for. That’s what attracted me to Garbage: Shirley’s transparency and vulnerability.”

What’s really important is not just that this suffices, but that it’s better. I can also vouch for this personally, because, as ideologically disinclined as I am to admit this, I actually was saved. It’s really none of your fucking business, but the important thing is that I wasn’t saved by a hero; I was saved by a person. In my case, this was also luck, but it didn’t have to be. This is the part that’s fixable. It’s not fixable by finding the “right” heroes; it’s fixable by ceasing to lean on the crutch. As soon as you start caring about popularity, as soon as you go looking for “heroes,” you’re putting your finger on the scale and fucking up the balance. But even when something worthwhile gets famous – rather, when it gets popular, because fame is the part of popularity that isn’t justified – we can’t simply accept that as a fortunate coincidence. We have to move away from fame and towards meaning; we have to topple the statue in order to free the spirit inside. This is what it means to kill yr idols.

When I see a fancy photo shoot in a magazine, that makes me feel like whatever’s being talked about has nothing to do with me, like it’s taking place on another planet. When I see someone five feet in front of me plugging in a guitar and tuning up, that makes me feel like I can do things, like it’s possible for me to exist in this world. Maybe that’s just me, but I don’t think it is. Even when people engage in hero-worship, they aren’t really responding to the lights and the dresses. If they were, heroes would be completely interchangeable. But it’s the opposite: people cling only to their heroes, because they’ve found something specific there that has mattered to them. People like glitz because it makes the things they care about seem more important, more “real.” But this is mere reassurance, and it’s false reassurance. It’s cowardice, and we should be brave enough to reject it. We should accept the smallness of the truth. Shirley Manson is not a representative of some kind of general “women in music” category; she is a musician, which is better.8 There are specific things that people found in Garbage’s music and kept with them, and that’s the only thing that matters. The rest ought to be silence. Correspondingly, the answer to the question “who is there for little girls to look up to now?” is everyone. We just have to show them where to look.

This is, of course, a more challenging pursuit. It’s not as easy as getting a couple of good videos on MTV. You have to explore, you have to focus, you have to figure out how to get the right things to the right people. The task is harder now; it’s a little more involved. It requires more of us as individuals. We have to think more personally about the things that are important to us, and also think more broadly about how our actions contribute to creating the kind of world we’re going to have to live in. This is called “progress.” It gets us closer to, one day, maybe, getting things right. And what’s important to remember that progress isn’t natural. It’ll be just as easy to fuck this up, to go back to looking for heroes, create a new circumscribed, media-friendly class of “female rock stars,” and re-erect the wall that so much effort has been put into tearing down. I’m really not interested in letting this happen.

It is better to be a person than to be a hero. Even accounting for the fact that some people are going to accomplish a lot more than others, everyone can be valued for their contributions without anyone being turned to stone and stuck on a pedestal. (Recall the feminist insight that putting someone on a pedestal is a means of preventing them from moving.) This is also a more accurate depiction of reality; it prevents us from being bamboozled by people like Cosby. The real world is not narrow, and no one bestrides it like a Colossus. In truth, no one is any larger than life – or any smaller. Everyone is exactly the same size as life.

 


  1. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Actually, credit where it’s due: when I saw them recently Nathan Williams made a pretty serious comment about not groping the female crowdsurfers, so a lot of men have actually been doing a decent job of getting on the ball here. 
  2. Note that conflation is different from reassessing in the light of new evidence. But if you find something new as a result of this, it will be something that was there all along. 
  3. Villainy is the same thing as heroism, just in the opposite direction. 
  4. Note that the role of the “father” is primarily understood as a provider and a rule-maker, so it’s still a “doer” role. Similarly, female artists are often understood as mystics or “conduits of the spirits” or whatever, which recasts their creativity as passive midwifery of an external, agentive force. Consider further such dichotomies as doctor/nurse, playboy/slut, priest/nun, etc. It’s pretty much everywhere. Also, this goes all the way down to the level of basic biology. People used to have the idea that a sperm was an entire fully-formed person and the womb was basically just a big empty hole where it hung out and grew on its own. 
  5. Patti Smith is a fascinatingly ironic example here, like there’s seriously a book to be written about this, as she is herself an unabashed hero-worshipper with some pretty traditionally sexist ideas about men being creative geniuses and women being muses. As recounted in Just Kids, she originally tried to get Sam Shepard to save rock and roll before reluctantly accepting the fact that she was going to have to do it herself. 
  6. Note that the huge amount of social media noise during the 2016 election, which supposedly destroyed all sources of authority and turned politics into a mess of untethered subjectivity, did not make third parties any more viable, or indeed do anything at all to broaden the scope of debate beyond the usual popularity-contest bullshit – which is exactly how the person whose only ability is competing in popularity contests won. In fact, social media increased this effect: the election might otherwise not have been enough of a popularity contest to make the difference. 
  7. Believe it or not, Adam Smith has a pretty good bit about this: “This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages.” 
  8. Just in case it’s not clear, I’m very much not saying that gender doesn’t matter. It matters the same way everything else does. Being a feminist means neither reifying nor ignoring gender; it means accepting it as a subject of serious study. 

Bubble babble

I’m entirely certain you’re well-acquainted with the idea that “media bubbles” are a big problem right now, effecting disinformation and perverting ideology and generally destroying society in an orgy of postmodern technological mediation. Certainly, there is cause for concern; unlike in the past, when everyone had complete correct information that they used to make fully rational decisions, nowadays humans have somehow become closed-minded and parochial. The figure of the barely-informed loudmouth shouting his kneejerk opinions into the public square represents a truly new development in history. And now that bad things are happening in politics, which has never been the case before, it’s clear that something must have gone horribly wrong.

No, okay, so I’m super annoyed about all the hyperventilation, there’s nothing more obnoxious than small-minded arguments against small-mindedness, but there’s also a real issue here. The internet certainly is generating a world-historical amount of garbage data, and political polarization really has increased to an extreme degree. The fundamental dynamic at issue here is what pretentious people like to call “epistemic closure.” When one’s sources of information or methods for evaluating it are limited in some fundamental way, certain areas of knowledge become inaccessible – or, worse, only accessible in the wrong way, such that the formation of inaccurate ideas comes to be considered true knowledge. Fox News will never give a sympathetic hearing to an idea like universal single-payer health care, so if that’s where all your information comes from, you can never develop an informed opinion on this topic. It’s important to realize that this is an absolute constraint; it’s not that it becomes harder to get to the truth, it’s that it becomes impossible. This is the double-edge of the Enlightenment ideal: since there’s no such thing as divine wisdom or whatever, you cannot form correct ideas without accurate and comprehensive information, regardless of how smart or conscientious or committed you are.

Now, one of the few positive results of the 2016 election is that no one is any longer laboring under the delusion that there’s any kind of “unbiased” source that can be relied on for complete information. “Traditional” news sources simply represent one particular set of biases. There’s plenty of issues on which they’re incapable of informing you. Most obviously, an enforced centrist perspective will fail to understand a situation where the “center” is falling apart and all new growth is happening on the “extremes” (that is, it will understand the situation incorrectly, as a “breakdown of communication” or a “legitimacy crisis” or whatever). So the popular response to this is the idea of a “balanced media diet.” The worry is that the internet allows and/or forces people to self-sort into ever more polarized communities, so you have to make the effort to seek out sources that oppose your existing beliefs. The villains then become “algorithms” that deliver pre-polarized information, or “cult-like” communities that suppress dissent.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The most important source of epistemic closure is our finitude as physical beings. Simply put, there are only so many hours each day you can spend reading shit, so it’s more than a little odd to argue that people should be spending more of said hours reading things they believe to be more wrong. If you could really read everything, and also spend the requisite time to analyze and distill it all, then sure, that would solve the problem. In reality, though, you have to choose what you’re going to care about, and any choice you make is going to define a particular horizon. If you’re a feminist, for example, you could spend half of your time reading feminist sources and the other half reading anti-feminist sources, and this would give you a “balanced” perspective, in the sense that you’d understand what’s going on on both sides. But this understanding will necessarily be shallower than the one you’d get by focusing your time on one side; you’ll miss deeper arguments and distinctions and internal diversity. For one thing, you might come to believe that there are only “two sides,” which is not the case. Anyone who knows a second thing about feminism knows that its herstory is coated with blood spilled by many thousands of vicious internal disagreements. One way to get over feminist dogmatism is to read more anti-feminism, but an equally effective option is to read more feminism. There isn’t one choice that “works” and one choice that doesn’t. There are different choices that have different effects. Some bubbles are bigger than others, but you can’t not be in a bubble.

This is why blaming the internet or “algorithms” or whatever misses the mark. Like, I don’t enjoy defending tech assholes, but they really just aren’t relevant to this situation. There is a sort of consumer rights issue here; people should be able to find out how their feeds and things are being customized and change them if they want to. But arguing that search results should be more “responsible” is arguing the opposite: it’s arguing for non-transparent corporations to have more control over what people read. I mean, it’s pretty obvious that most people talking about this are only thinking things through from their side. They see lots of “bad” articles floating around, and they feel like “someone should do something,” so they imagine that Google can somehow code social responsibility for them. Practically speaking, though, you can’t make that kind of a distinction in general.1 “Misinformation” is a value judgment made by the end user. If you write an algorithm that adds more articles about global warming to the feeds of denialists, that same algorithm will necessarily also add more denialist articles to the feeds of people who believe in global warming. You can’t have it both ways. Rather, trying to have it both ways is exactly how things get fucked up. Someone at the New York Times gets it into their head that they have a “liberal bias” that needs to be corrected, so they hire an Islamophobic global warming denialist to write opinion columns. Problem solved.

People want to read things that accord with their beliefs, and – this is the important part – they have good reasons for doing so. The reason feminists, for example, disprefer reading misogynist diatribes isn’t because they’re offended or whatever, it’s because they believe feminism to be true, and they’re obviously more interested in reading things that are probably true than things that are probably false.

You don’t just automatically start understanding things once you’ve read broadly enough. You have to process the information, and how you do that – and why you’re doing it – is going to affect what conclusions you end up with. Like, there is a problem with certain types of feminists spending all of their time yelling at Bad Things and not actually developing their ideas. But if you’re one of these people, and you decide to “broaden your media diet,” all that’s going to happen is that you’re going to find more things to yell at. It’s going to strengthen your existing biases, and that’s going to happen regardless of what it is that you’re reading, and the reason for this is because it’s what you want. This isn’t even a bad thing, because the only way this is not the case is if you lack the ability to critically analyze information, which is, um, a somewhat worse situation to be in. If your goal is just to avoid being wrong, then you might as well not read anything. But if your reason for reading things and drawing conclusions is to do something with the information, then you can’t just wait around until you’re “sure,” because that’s never. In order to actually get somewhere, you have to take a stand somewhere and start moving, which will necessitate rejecting opposing ideas. Breathing underwater requires a bubble.

I’m not just applying this to my own side, either. The fact that people believe all kinds of weird conspiracy theories about the Clintons makes perfect sense, because the Clintons really are classic amoral political schemers, so if you’re opposed to them, it’s more accurate than not to assume that they’re up to some shady shit. Besides, liberals believe whatever nonsense people come up with about Trump, too. It’s the same thing. This is the normal way human communication works.

It does remain the case that the normal way human communication works is badly, and that real lies have real consequences. If you believe that Planned Parenthood is literally dismembering infants and selling their body parts to, uh, somebody (I’m not deep enough into this to know whence the nationwide demand for baby torsos supposedly originates), your advocacy on the subject is going to be somewhat more zealous. But learning the actual fact that only X% of Planned Parenthood’s expenditures go towards abortion-related services doesn’t change the moral calculus of the situation. If abortion is evil, then a little bit of it is still evil. It’s certainly worthwhile to correct lies, but you can’t fact-check your way around morality. If abortion is actually moral, then Planned Parenthood’s particular operating details don’t matter. An organization that spent 100% of its funds on abortion and sold the remains for ice cream money would be a moral organization. Focusing on the nuts and bolts here means dodging the real issue, and this is generally the case in political discussions. Even if Clinton really did use her secret email server to help the Illuminati plan Benghazi, the actual question at hand remains which policies we prefer to advance as a society. In general, misinformation does not add a unique problem to our existing difficulties in figuring out how to talk to each other. It makes things worse, but it’s not itself a crisis.

What is a crisis is when these sorts of discussions become impossible, when an enforced “healthy diet” drains the flavor from the world. When you’re stuck reading nothing but “respectable” media sources, that’s when you have a real problem, and extremism is the solution to that problem. It’s what makes new things possible. Which means that, yes, even the recent explosive growth of rightist extremism has to be understood as a positive development. InfoWars may be maximally false, but if you don’t have InfoWars, you also don’t have the truth. The fact that people have these beliefs is a bad thing, of course, but given that they do, it’s better for them to be out in the open. I mean, their agenda hasn’t actually changed, right? Reagan talked pretty on the TV, but his whole cut-services-and-fellate-corporations deal was exactly the same thing as what the current government’s up to right now. People lately have been praising Bush Jr. for talking nice about Islam, but he was doing this at the same time that his administration was turning Muslims into America’s new Great Civilizational Enemy; Trump is just picking up where he left off. Those situations were worse than the one we’re in now – rather, those situations are why we’re now in our current situation – because there was more obfuscatory rhetoric that had to be disentangled before you could get at what was really going on. This is now less of a problem; we’re getting closer to the point where people actually know what the stakes are.

It’s comforting to imagine that there’s a “middle ground” where we can all get along peaceably, but there’s not. Extremism doesn’t create disagreements, it reveals the disagreements that were already there, because people have real disagreements. Pretending this is not the case prevents anything worthwhile from ever happening. We don’t want a society where there’s “reasonable debate” about sexism, where half the time the Hyde Amendment is in place and half the time it isn’t. We want a society where sexism doesn’t exist. We want everyone trapped inside the feminism bubble, permanently.

This is the truth that must be acknowledged. All the things that people are so concerned about these days – political polarization, ideological extremism, the speed and diversity of information, the dethronement of traditionally respected sources of various kinds of authority – are the things that are, in spite of everything, going well. There’s no way to “fix” this, because it’s not broken. What was broken was the “end of history” bullshit that convinced people there were no fights left to be had, and that situation is now better. We are more confused now because we are closer to the truth – we have, in at least some sense, stopped lying. This is what has to happen. Getting the ocean without the roar of its many waters is not a real option. The real options are: retreat or advance.

 


  1. From a technical perspective, the reason this can’t work is that you have to write the code before you know what data it’s going to be run against, so you would have to be able to predict what information is going to be true or false before that information has actually been generated, meaning you can’t rely on the details of the information itself, meaning you can’t actually be making a real judgment as to whether it’s “disinformation” or not; you can only be relying on contextual coincidence. And if you try to get around this by using human intervention, all you’ve done is appointed an arbitrary, unaccountable person to act as an arbiter of truth, which is obviously several steps backwards. 

Nothing comes from nothing

Master of None isn’t so much a show about Millennials as it is HEY EVERYBODY THIS IS A SHOW ABOUT MILLENNIALS. The opening is basically a New York Times columnist’s fever dream: two attractive young people who just met are having casual sex; when their contraception fails, they both simultaneously use their phones to look up whether it’s possible to get pregnant from the state they were in; they find conflicting information, argue about it, and ultimately decide to play it safe by using a ride-sharing app to go to the pharmacy and buy emergency contraception. There’s nothing wrong with doing something like this, necessarily, it’s just that there happen to be a bunch of things wrong with it.

The show takes a modern, realist approach to the typical young-people-in-New-York setup, which is to say it’s the bizarro-world Friends, which is to say it’s the real-world Friends, since Friends already takes place in the bizarro world. The characters hang out in crowded bars and on the street instead of in brightly-lit coffee shops and on inexplicably large couches. The scripting is low on zaniness and high on mundanity; the number of big laughs in one season can be counted on one hand, but incidental conversations are suffused with constant, low-level humor. Which, indeed, is much closer to the sort of experience that most of us have of real life, which tends to be lacking in elaborate setpieces and explicit punchlines. This isn’t to say that the show is always finesseful; its good intentions occasionally manifest themselves as cringe-inducing bluntness. At one point, Dev tracks down the “best” taco truck in town by spending half an hour on Google and Yelp (which itself is already overwrought NYT op-ed fodder, literally), only to find it closed, at which point he exclaims, “what am I supposed to do, go find the second best taco truck?” This is both verisimilitude-destroyingly blatant and embarrassingly zeitgeist-baiting. (It’s actually even worse than that. When Dev gets to the truck, he asks the guy about what he should get and what kind of meat is popular – as though he’d never eaten a taco before, despite his zeal in trying to find the “best” taco place. The writing here is so tryhard that it’s not even internally consistent.) In general, though, Master of None is calmly relatable where Friends is nakedly escapist.

It isn’t just a matter of style, though. Master of None takes an explicit anti-Friends stance in order to make a political point. Escapism is in fact sinister; the glib whiteness and soap-opera-lite saccharinity of Friends make it an inherently reactionary show, regardless of intentions (if any). In Master of None, by contrast, people have problems that aren’t cute, the world is grinding and unforgiving rather than enjoyably dramatic, and things generally don’t work out. This point is not unrelated to racism. Part of what racism does is shift the burdens of reality onto oppressed groups, such that white people get to live in a comfortable bubble of cluelessness. This is sickeningly blatant in the case of things like slavery and sweatshops, but even within modern America it is mostly not white people doing care work, maintenance work, and farm work, and it is mostly white people writing opinion columns1 and getting media awards2. Unfortunately, this specific intersection forms one of Master of None‘s more significant stumbles. Money basically doesn’t exist in the show, which means that, even though issues of oppression are directly addressed at times, they always come across as matters of convenience rather than matters of life and death. I believe this is what the kids these days like to refer to as “privilege.” In this sense, while Master of None‘s efforts are admirable, it ultimately fails to escape the Friends-zone.

Still, one does not wish to be overly demanding, and Master of None does have its points to make. Dev’s core friend group is meticulously constructed to defy stereotypes: the normal/boring one is Indian, the cheerful, attractive one is an Asian man, the calm, level-headed one is a black lesbian, and the weirdo is the token white guy. Dev’s centrality to the show is particularly important. Presenting an Indian man as an everyman is an explicit political statement – it frames Dev’s experiences as the experiences of normal people. For example, when Dev learns about the experiences his immigrant parents had in India and the racism they faced upon moving to America, this is framed as a typical getting-to-know-your-parents story – the episode is called “Parents,” not “Immigrants.” Because this sort of thing is a typical story; lots and lots of families have experiences like this. In short, Dev is presented as an ordinary guy without the practical reality of his ethnicity being elided. The show not only makes the point but performs the work of constructing people like this as “normal.”

That thing about money is still a problem, though. Dev’s parents are conventionally successful, so their experiences don’t seem to have really disadvantaged them in any way, and they’ve apparently passed quite a lot of privilege along to Dev, who lives pretty blithely, especially for a working actor in NYC. Dev’s reaction to his parents’ story is not the occasion for any kind of revelation, but rather a general “wow, how about that.” This isn’t wrong by itself. It’s still a real story that really has happened to people. It would be equally wrong to portray all immigrants as hopelessly beaten down and never successful, because that isn’t true either. You can’t portray everything at once. How do you get around this? You don’t; you go through it. You portray one specific thing, making it relatable though specificity rather than overgeneralization. Master of None is a perfect test case for understanding this distinction, because it gets this exactly right as often as it gets it exactly wrong.

The show does well when it sticks to what it knows. “Indians on TV” is about exactly what it says: one specific aspect of racism. Indians specifically are still way behind in terms of cultural representation, despite being one of the largest ethnic groups on the planet, as well as one that is becoming increasingly central to everyday American life (random example: a number of “Indianisms” have arisen out of Indian English thanks to everyone’s favorite ongoing world-historical crisis, globalization). Another instance of this same story just came up recently: the actor Kal Penn posted a bunch of racist casting calls that tasked him with playing the same goofy Indian stereotype over and over again. What’s really interesting about this is one particular comment: when Penn was asked to do “the accent,” he was was specifically instructed to make it more “authentic.” Naturally, this is as absurd as it gets; an actual Indian man was told to act like a cartoon character for the sake of “authenticity.” But that’s the thing: because this one aspect of media representation is so unbelievably shitty, this is what Americans actually think Indians are like. That’s why this is a real issue and not just a matter of demographic parochialism, and it’s why the episode’s opening montage of popular TV stereotypes, seen through a child’s eyes, hits unexpectedly hard.

The episode develops this critique in a number of ways. A sympathetic studio head tries to explain to Dev that a show with multiple distinct Indian characters wouldn’t be marketable; it would be understood as an “Indian show” (unfortunately, this same criticism applies to Master of None itself: the only episode where Dev hangs out with his Indian friends is the “Indian episode”). Which is in fact the situation we are currently in; Black-ish is “the black sitcom” and Fresh off the Boat is “the Asian sitcom.” So while this is an excuse, it’s a real excuse. Dev counters that this is an obvious double standard; no show is considered a “white show,” even those that actually are “white shows” in every possible way. So what we can understand here is that the current situation is wrong in a way that makes rational sense; understanding how the parts fit together makes claims of racism plausible. Indeed, the specific reason why such claims are so often blown off is that white people lack this understanding; they don’t understand how racism works. The specific incident that triggers the discussion of racism in the episode is unbelievably minor – it’s literally nothing more than a dumb joke in an email thread. But because the episode takes the situation seriously and follows through with it, it helps us understand how the little things are connected to the big things. It not only addresses a specific, underserved grievance, but also points to a broader understanding of the relevant social dynamics, and it does this simply by addressing its grievance well.

Interestingly, this episode also contains a subtle misstep that illustrates the gap between doing this right and doing it wrong. When Dev and Denise are discussing the situation, Dev tries to claim that black people at least have the advantage of visibility and advocacy via major celebrities, whereas Indian people have nothing. Denise naturally pushes back, but in doing so she refers to Oprah and Beyoncé, and she immediately recognizes this as an own goal: black people really do have top-tier media representation. As a casual conversation, this is all perfectly realistic and entertaining, but the way it’s situated in the episode, it comes across as an actual argument. I don’t think this is intentional, simply because nobody could possibly be clueless enough to argue that the existence of Beyoncé somehow mitigates the effects of racism on black people. In fact, this dynamic is what defines the present situation: black people are very well-represented in popular culture, and they are simultaneously being casually murdered and jailed in unconscionable numbers. The problem here is that the episode has to this point been trying to deal with one aspect of racism – media representation – but is now trying to make a claim about racism in general, and this does not work. While media representation is connected to other issues, that doesn’t mean you can understand everything in those terms. Most of life does not happen on the TV. This is the important difference between generalization and overgeneralization. The concept of the episode being about media representation of Indians is unavoidably a generalization – not every Indian person will have had these same experiences or understand them in the same way – it’s just that, if done well, it’s a valid generalization.

This is something you really have to be conscious of when you’re trying to do things like this. If you’re just doing a story about a particular character, you don’t have this problem so much, since you’re necessarily confined to that perspective. But when you start making episodes that are explicitly about Serious Issues and you start trying to Make Statements about them, you have to mind this gap, or you will fall into it. And, as it happens, the episode that deals with sexism locates this exact gap and proceeds to use it for skydiving practice. The bluntness of the episode titles makes them useful evidence as to intentions – the sexism episode is called “Ladies and Gentlemen,” an empty reference that signifies nothing. This provides a lamentably clear indication that the episode is going to try to address sexism despite not really having anything to say about it other than “it exists” and “it’s bad”.

The episode opens with a contrast between Dev’s night out at a bar, where he fusses constantly over trivial annoyances, and the same night as experienced by a woman, who gets creeped on the whole time and eventually followed home. This is somewhat heavy-handed, with overwrought musical cues that make it difficult to really take seriously, but in terms of content it’s all well and good. It makes the important point that, even though men and women exist in all the same social situations, women nevertheless experience the world as a phantom zone, haunted by ghosts that men can’t see.

The problem is that it doesn’t do the thing that the racism episode does to make its point felt. That is, the woman gets followed home, and . . . that’s it. Nothing really happens, and the situation is not connected to anything broader. There’s no attempt to argue that this amounts to anything more than a bad night out. In fact, when Dev discusses the issue with Rachel and Denise, they simply reiterate additional versions of the same story, which makes it seem even more like a random annoyance and less like a real issue. So the contrast that the episode tries to establish falls flat: a man had a bad night at a bar, and a woman had a worse night at a bar. You and I might understand the issue more broadly, but anyone who doesn’t is just going to see an overreaction to an everyday, if unfortunate, occurrence. In that situation, the conservative advice to just suck it up and defend yourself would actually be valid, because that would actually resolve things. The reason sexism is a real problem is that it goes beyond the individual case, which is to say that it goes beyond you. In the racism episode, we see Dev getting frustrated with the limitations of the roles he’s offered and pushing back; we see him discussing the situation with a friend who’s had similar experiences; we see him fail to make headway when explaining his case to the executives. Through this, we understand that this is a pervasive issue with substantive effects on real people. By contrast, all the sexism episode gives us is “creeps exist,” which everyone outside of Reddit already understands. Because the episode lacks a perspective through which we could come to understand the situation, it is reduced to simply mouthing truisms without connecting them to reality.

In fact, the perspective that the episode offers us is Dev’s – the man’s perspective on sexism. This . . . isn’t the worst possible thing. There are stories to be told about men coming to terms with the effects of sexism and their own unintentional (or otherwise) complicity and soforth. It’s just that this isn’t what happens. As mentioned, Dev’s big revelation in the episode is “creeps exist.” After that he just starts rattling off feminist talking points. This is deeply cringeworthy on its own; as someone who has spent rather a lot of time reading about this type of stuff, I find it personally embarrassing. But in fact it’s significantly worse than that, because what actually happens is that Dev makes these speeches in a bar, surrounded by a crowd of women who cheer him on as he does so. In fact, it’s significantly worse than that, because later on Dev’s female coworkers buy him a cake out of appreciation for him being the most basic feminist imaginable. I guess the bakery was all out of Meets Basic Standards of Human Decency cookies. Y’know, I’m conscious of the limitations of my position here. I try not to pretend like I’m any kind of expert or anything. But I’m pretty sure that a crowd of women cheering on a man while he impresses himself by spouting off a bunch of obvious shit is the exact opposite of what feminism is.

Comparing the resolutions of the racism and sexism episodes is instructive. In the racism episode, Dev ends up working with a new, younger producer who claims to be more “enlightened” than the old one, but who, in her ignorance (slash whiteness), ends up proposing a show with an even more racist premise – and once again requiring Dev to play an Indian stereotype. As mentioned, this elucidates the general dynamics of the situation. It illustrates the fact that racism is a non-trivial problem that can persist despite good intentions. Because few people hew to any kind of principled anti-racist theory, and because everyone’s job compels them to move product, racist stuff keeps happening, and ideology replicates itself despite surface-level opposition. This has been said countless times before, but the fact that the internet has everyone all super up to date on proper anti-racist practice and yet nothing’s actually changing is how you can tell that racism is a structural problem that does not depend on people’s individual attitudes to operate.

In the sexism episode, the exact same situation comes up, and what happens is exactly the opposite. Dev raises the issue of gender imbalance on the commercial he’s working on: all the women are in the background and all the speaking roles go to men. As soon as this is brought up, the director and the company all immediately agree to completely reverse the situation, such that women now get all the prominent roles. This time around, there is somehow nobody making the argument that this would be confusing and alienating, despite the fact that it’s a commercial, and therefore has much less leeway to be unfamiliar than a new TV show. There’s no structural pressure preventing a sexist premise from immediately being swept away at a whim. In other words, what the show portrays is exactly how sexism doesn’t work. Worse, it reifies the conservative argument that it is traditionally-oppressed groups who now have the real advantages, since they can win automatically by merely raising the issue of their identity. Of course, this is not at all the case. If simply raising the issue were enough, there would be no problem. In the racism episode, the issue is raised and addressed sympathetically, but the problem remains intractable. In the sexism episode, as soon as the problem is named, it vanishes into the air like a conjurer’s trick, like it never really existed in the first place. The whole significance of racism and sexism as cultural institutions is that they have their own internal logics and practices, such that, when you push against them, they push back.

Now, there’s still somewhere for the episode to go after all of this happens. Dev’s all proud of himself for getting a B+ in Remedial Women’s Studies 101, so the correct feminist action to take here is to kick him in the dick. That is, he needs to come to the realization that he has only scratched the surface, and that there remain real foundational problems that he has not yet begun to understand. He also needs to realize his own complicity in the situation, that sexism is not perpetuated solely by “creeps” but also by well-intentioned nice guys of the type that he himself is. More specifically, he needs to come to understand that he can’t fully understand the situation, that without the lived experience of sexism, he requires women’s perspectives (that’s plural) to make real sense of things. It is very annoying how close this comes to happening.

At the end of the episode, Rachel and Denise receive a minor social slight from some douchebag – the kind of thing the kids these days like to refer to as a “microaggression.” They complain, Dev blows them off, and they get pissed, which sparks a fight between Dev and Rachel. What needs to happen here is for Dev to come to understand that not all issues are as obvious as creepers or the pay gap – that even when something seems to him to be stupid and trivial, he still needs to respect women’s subjectivity instead of trying to argue over them. The episode gets right up next to the place where it needs to go, and then immediately falls over backwards. The instant the fight begins, the substance of the issues the episode has been trying to raise disappears completely, and we’re left with a completely generic Sitcom Couple Fight, which is resolved by Dev issuing a completely generic Sitcom Boyfriend Apology. This setup is the perfect opportunity for the show to get out of the standard relationship-drama mold and make the point that fights like this are often the result of real conflicts, that the “war of the sexes” is actually oppression, and it totally whiffs it. The only point that the episode needed to make goes unmade. Explicating the problems with reducing feminism to its effects on heterosexual romantic relationships is left as an exercise to the reader.

This is actually why “writing what you know” is not the right way out of this: it prevents you from ever getting out of your own perspective. The basic intent of this episode is correct: men really do need to be able to understand what the world looks like from a woman’s perspective, even if they can never really see it for themselves. But this isn’t a matter of disinterested anthropological investigation; it’s a matter of blood. Reciting the appropriate talking points does not do the thing that needs to be done. In order to do this right, the show would have had to make somebody bleed.

Indeed, the mere fact that there is a “racism episode” and a “sexism episode” is itself what the kids these days like to call “problematic.”3 Racism and sexism precisely do not resolve themselves into isolated, easy-to-understand occurrences; they are always present, baked into ordinary, everyday events, slithering through normality like snakes in the grass, striking when you least suspect. Bungling the sexism episode so badly only exacerbates this effect; again, it reifies the conservative argument that these things are lifestyle choices and not real political problems. And given the show’s blatant thirst for Millennial trends, it further implies that these concerns are only trends, that they’re the kind of things that overzealous young people will eventually grow out of. It presents these issues – the foundational issues of all human societies that have ever existed – as buffet items, from which one can pick and choose what one wishes to sample. The truth, of course, is the opposite: in reality, these things are forced down people’s throats, and the taste lingers.

Far worse, then, than the fact that the show handles its sexism episode poorly is the fact that there is a “sexism episode” at all, that this concern is raised and addressed once in complete isolation (like, I think there’s a term for this). To wit, Master of None does an absolutely atrocious job of handling its female characters. The only well-portrayed one is Denise, who is in fact the most interesting character on the show by a fair margin, but she gets no plot focus and relatively little screen time, and most of it is just her talking to Dev about Dev’s problems (again, I’m pretty sure there’s a term for the notion that women are only there to act as sounding boards for men). Similarly, while Dev’s father is the dark-horse star of the show, his mother barely exists. The real problem, though, is Rachel, a.k.a. “Dev’s girlfriend,” who is the focus of about half the season and whose characterization never advances beyond “Dev’s girlfriend” (this is especially disorienting due to the fact that she’s the best-acted character).

There’s a particularly jarring example of the show dropping the ball on this, hard, like bowling-ball-on-toe hard. There’s a scene where Dev takes Rachel to a barbecue restaurant, only for her to reveal upon ordering that she’s a vegetarian. Rachel is so accustomed to suppressing her own desires that she doesn’t even mention the issue until she’s forced to, and Dev is so self-involved that he doesn’t even notice there’s a problem until it flies in his face (in case it’s not obvious, this is exactly the kind of thing that demonstrates why confining the feminism-related content to its own single episode is hugely damaging to not only the show’s moral standing, but also to its thematic integrity). She gives him the “It’s Fine” deflection, and Dev has a delicious meal while Rachel basically subsists on cornbread. This is actually a really great treatment of a common, emotionally fraught situation – exactly the kind of thing that a show like Friends would either ignore or inflate into zany antics. It subtly raises a number of pertinent issues: Rachel is accustomed to having her desires casually ignored, such that she barely even registers them as desires anymore (she very unconvincingly avers that she “loves sides”), Dev tries to act nice but ultimately doesn’t care and is basically just focused on his own enjoyment, and of course society in general does not do a particularly good job of accounting for the fact that people are different and have truly divergent desires and convictions. But none of this is ever followed up on. The vegetarian thing is referenced like once, and the obvious problem this creates for Rachel and Dev’s relationship dynamic is never addressed even as their relationship is portrayed as being in serious trouble. Hence, this extremely provocative scene exists in total isolation from the rest of the show and absolutely nothing comes of it.

Indeed, Rachel barely does anything at all other than interact romantically with Dev. She complains about her job sometimes and there’s a subplot where she buys a couch. That’s about it. Even in the episode where she visits her grandmother, she bails almost immediately so that the rest of the episode can continue to be The Dev Show. And, I mean, this show actually is The Dev Show, but that’s exactly the thing: people don’t exist in isolation. When you don’t portray others as real subjects, what you have is not just exclusion, but shallowness. You don’t even need to go as far as arguing that Rachel should have had her own story – the weaknesses in Rachel’s characterization weaken Dev’s story. Patriarchy hurts men too.

In fact, the problems in Rachel and Dev’s relationship end up being the show’s primary focus, which means that this dynamic not only weakens the show overall, but cripples its conclusion. As they start getting serious, the stars in their eyes start to fade, and Dev begins to feel that he doesn’t have enough confidence in their relationship to commit to it. So the first problem is that we have no real understanding of why this is; the two of them only ever have generic Couple Fights about things like Rachel being too attached to her job or Dev being a neat freak.4 Indeed, this is the same problem the sexism episode has: by trying to address sexism as a general concept, without a perspective to hook into, it can’t actually get a grip on anything.

The racism episode isn’t about racism per se. It’s about one specific type of interaction in one specific circumstance. And it is because of this that it is valuable: racism against Indians is not a particularly visible subject, so the episode helps highlight something that most people don’t think about. It’s for this same reason that the sexism episode falls flat. Without a specific viewpoint, all it can do is fall back on vague handwaving in the direction of “creepy guys.” Nothing in the episode is capable of helping anybody, because all of it is just the same general noise that everyone hears constantly. In the same way, then, by trying to talk about “Millennials” in general, by assuming that there is such a thing to be talked about, the show fails to be about the thing that it thinks it is about.

So I suppose we can stop beating around the bush now. The only reason I have been using the term “Millennial” in this post has been to fool you. There is no such thing as a Millennial. I mean, this is pretty straightforward, right? There’s obviously nothing that every person born during an arbitrarily-selected twenty-year period has in common. But there’s a reason this type of analysis has currency, and it’s because it’s close to something that is actually valid. As the link explains, there is no such thing as a “generation,” but there is such a thing as a cohort: a group of people with a specific shared experience. And there have indeed been a number of significant social and technological changes recently around which have coalesced cohorts. For example, there are people who have grown up with texting, such that they see it as a normal means of communication. But there are also people who grew up before texting blew up, and only came to it as adults, meaning they see it as something different from normal communication. Similarly, there are people for whom Facebook was a major part of their high school socialization, people who have always been precariously employed and have never known what having a stable office job is like, and people who use ridesharing services every time they go out anywhere. But in no case does any of these groups comprise “everyone” within a particular “generation.” Estimates for the size of the “gig economy” are somewhat divergent, but they seem to max out at around 30% or so – in short, not a majority. These workers are a cohort and not a generation. Each of the individual things that we talk about when we talk about “generations” is actually a cohort; they can of course potentially overlap in meaningful ways, but in no sense are they simply various aspects of the same group. And they’re not even just different groups of “young people” either. Some young people get married right out of high school or college; some middle-aged people get divorced and then have to relearn to navigate the dating world using apps and texting. Some young people actually do get office jobs; some older people have to take ridesharing work to stay afloat.

So whenever you say anything about “Millennials,” you are ignoring these issues. To reiterate: these are real issues, but they can only be understood by addressing them as themselves and not as interchangeable pieces of a general trend. For example, another cohort is people who regularly read social-justice-oriented stuff on the internet, and therefore have a tacit understanding of the norms and terminology used thereby. Meaning all those times when I talked about terminology being used by “kids these days” were also lies, because it is in fact relatively few modern young people who understand or even recognize terms like “microaggression” or “privilege,” and of course older people are just as capable of reading the same sources and acquiring the same habitus. If you assume that these things are simply a property of “young people,” you are failing to understand what is actually going on. Significant example: one of the big thinkpiece panics recently is about something called “trigger warnings” and the fact that they’re coddling young people and failing to equip them for facing the real world and whatever. Except only 15% of college professors have actually encountered such a demand, so it is in fact the case that the vast majority of current college students are not facing this issue in any way (and that’s even if you assume that it is a real issue). It is only those of us embedded in the relevant social-justice-friendly media circles who understand these things; this is not a property of our generation, but of our cohort.

So it’s pretty easy to work out the rest of this. People will pick a couple of these effects and then try to explain that young people are “narcissistic” or “idealistic” or whatever, and we can see now why this is necessarily wrong. It is an overgeneralization: it takes things that don’t actually have the same causes or effects and don’t actually concern the same groups of people and assumes that they do, and is therefore bad analysis. Of course, not all generalizations are overgeneralizations. The condition for a valid generalization is the same as the condition for a valid cohort: when you have a distinct group of people who share a particular experience. Indians living in America and watching television during the same era form a valid cohort in that they all grew up seeing the same stereotypes represented; ergo, one can convincingly generalize on this basis. Women dealing with “creeps” do not form a valid cohort, because different women in different positions in society experience harassment and assault differently. But there exist plenty of valid cohorts through which these experiences can be analyzed: if you look at the specific experience of women in major urban areas being followed home from bars, then you might have something. Or you might look at female professionals being spoken over in meetings, or women who try to report acquaintance rapes to the police. It would be defeatist to insist that all experiences are unique and can’t be aggregated in any way, and understanding where the lines are is what allows us to do real analysis. When you don’t do this, when you simply throw a blanket over what you assume to be a homogeneous area of experience, what you are actually covering is nothing, and what you can justifiably conclude is therefore also nothing.

(This is actually sort of a major thing in feminist history. Second-wave feminism was largely based on the assumption that all women had a shared experience of “womanhood,” and this assumption was challenged in various ways, most notably by black women. The main historical precedent for this argument is Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, where she points out that her experience of womanhood is completely different from that of upper-class white women, and therefore from what upper-class white people in general assume it meant to be a “woman.” So it’s extra ironic that a race-conscious show like Master of None completely misses this point.)

Consider, as a simpler example, this article, which claims that the recent rap beef between Remy Ma and Nicki Minaj constitutes evidence that “hip-hop is dead.” This angle proceeds from the assumption that, because Minaj is a extremely famous hip-hop artist, her values and behavior are representative of the genre in general.5 In fact, the opposite is true: it is precisely because Minaj is super famous that she does not form a cohort with hip-hop artists in general. Rather, her cohort is just that: super famous artists, i.e. cultural capitalists. So of course her beef ends up being based on who’s the most famous and who sells the most records; that’s exactly where the valid generalization is for someone like her.

Furthermore, the fact that there is a famous rap beef happening right now is actually indirect evidence that hip-hop as the writer of the article understands it is alive and well. That is, the fact that there exist super famous hip-hop artists means that hip-hop is a popular genre, which means that there must necessarily be lots and lots of non-famous people doing interesting and original work in it – which would include preserving and expanding the traditions of the past as well as creating new ones. The writer, who presumably knows something about modern hip-hop, knows this, and I know that he knows this, because I know the same thing despite not knowing anything about hip-hop. Rock music, you see, actually is dead in the popular sense. There are literally no non-legacy rock bands that are famous right now. There is, however, plenty of new work being done in the genre by people who are not famous. This includes those who are bringing back cool stuff from the past, those who are synthesizing old influences with new sounds, those who are presently ahead of their time, and those who are fully idiosyncratic weirdos. So if hip-hop is currently more popular than rock, this must necessarily be even more the case for the genre that more people are into.

The problem is that the writer has gotten his cohorts mixed up. He assumes famous hip-hop artists and non-famous hip-hop artists are all the same type of people working in the same situation. They’re not; they might be making similar types of music, but they occupy different territories. But working hip-hop artists do occupy the same situation as working musicians of other types. For example, the explosion of music sharing caused by the internet has meant that artists without major corporate/advertising support can draw from a wider variety of traditions, make more diverse and less immediately appealing music, and still find an audience and income (potentially). This applies to all artists in this situation; thus, they form a valid cohort. Surely, there are plenty of further distinctions that can be made (and I could also be wrong about this; there could be other factors at work which cause this cohort to not cohere), but understanding this dynamic and applying it with the correct level of specificity allows us to make a valid generalization. It is by knowing something (barely anything, honestly) about working rock musicians that I know that working hip-hop musicians must be in the same type of situation. As Nietzsche puts it, “In the mountains the shortest way is from peak to peak: but for that one must have long legs.” He leaves unspoken the obvious prerequisite: in order to get anywhere, you must first climb one mountain. This is why Friends, which attempts to be a fully general show about people living in society, is actually about nothing (Seinfeld is of course the nihilistic embrace of this dynamic). This is what the concept of “escapist entertainment” properly refers to: the situation in which the thing you are experiencing has fundamentally no connection to the rest of the world.

So back to that TV show we were talking about, there’s a scene where Dev causes Rachel to miss an important flight because he wants to take a side trip and Waze assures him that he’ll be able to make it in time. The intrusive name-dropping here implies strongly that this sort of behavior is a “Millennial” thing; kids these days are impatient and reckless and they just rely on their phones to tell them what to do, blah blah blah. But none of that has anything to do with what actually happens here. Anyone could have made that same decision with or without Waze (P.S. Waze sucks). Furthermore, Dev knows that making that flight is important to Rachel, she explained it to him and they planned their itinerary around it, so even before he takes out his phone, he’s already being an asshole. Glossing this scene over with a kids-these-days veneer obscures the fact that the one and only issue here is that Dev is a notably selfish and thoughtless person. As a result, this issue is never addressed, despite it being a constant theme throughout the season. Everything that happens is treated as just “how things are these days,” when in fact much of it derives from Dev’s specific personality and is specifically his fault.

A contrasting example makes this even clearer. One of the events leading up to the climax is Dev getting fucked out of a movie role that he invested a lot of time and emotional energy into. This is a genuine fucking-over, his own actions had nothing to do with it, and it is correctly portrayed as a consequence of a garbage-producing society that doesn’t care about people and a necessary hazard of precarious employment. In other words, it is a completely different type of thing than Dev’s other problems, but they’re all lumped together in a general “life sucks” fashion. And this is why that generalization is an overgeneralization: because these are different problems, different things can be done about each of them. Some things really are your fault specifically, such that the solution really is for you to quit being such an asshole. Some things are interpersonal problems that aren’t necessarily anyone’s fault, but have to be worked out anyway through compassion and sacrifice. Some things are social problems that can only be addressed through political action. And then there’s the pitiless march of time itself, which is genuinely implacable and can only be accepted.

So the specific failure of Master of None is that it doesn’t climb a mountain. It gazes thoughtfully at various outcroppings, but it never puts its hands on any of them. And it is precisely this that becomes the show’s final conclusion. When Dev’s life appears to be going nowhere, his father advises him that potential by itself is worthless: it doesn’t matter what you can do unless you actually do something. It’s comforting to keep all of your options open, to imagine that they’re all real possibilities, to stay in the pleasingly abstract realm of generalization, but there are in the final analysis two options only: you either put pen to paper and commit a permanent, indelible mark, or you continue to stare at a blank page.

It should be noted that the idea of “committing” here is to be understood broadly; deciding to commit to one or more half-measures is (or at least can be) entirely reasonable. You can decide to use a particular talent of yours to pay the bills while you focus on other things, or you can choose to let’s say learn an instrument just for the experience, without imagining that you’re ever going to get good at it. Assuming that you have to go “all the way” with something or it doesn’t “count” is its own form of constriction – it privileges the idea of achieving something over the actual experience of doing it. And this is exactly the problem that Dev ends up having: he can’t be satisfied with anything unless it’s “at 100%”. What finally precipitates Rachel and Dev’s relationship crisis is Dev’s insistence that they each estimate the “probability” that their relationship will work out. The joke is supposed to be that this is the worst possible idea, but the numbers they come up with are 80% and 70%, which are extremely high. Having a minimum 70% assurance that something is going to work out should in no way be disappointing; it’s actually unrealistically optimistic. So what we understand here is that Dev is not actually after the goal of having a good relationship; what he is after is the 100% assurance itself. And this makes no sense, because a 100% assurance means nothing except in terms of what it is an assurance of. He thinks that being completely certain about his relationship would make it meaningful, but it’s the other way around: finding meaning in his relationship would make him certain that it was worthwhile.

This is, of course, meant to be a critique of “Millennials” and how they “want everything” and they can’t just “settle down” and be “responsible.” But, as we’ve discussed, this framing is not justified, because, to the extent that this sort of behavior exists at all, what it is is not a generational trend, but a cohort effect. And the specific cohort in question is one whose cohortness is based on privilege. It is not “Millennials” who are capable of and desire such things; it is specifically young people who a) can afford to, b) have no other responsibilities, and c) have no principles or convictions guiding their choices of action. In fact, there’s even a cohort that exists in direct opposition to this framework. One of the big trends in “new media” companies right now is unionization. This means that there is a cohort of modern young people who: want stable jobs, are politically engaged (in practical rather than symbolic terms), learn from history, and have chosen ground on which to stand and fight. This is the exact opposite of everything that thinkpiece writers imagine that “Millennials” are about. And these people also do not represent their “generation.” They are another, separate cohort.

I mean, you get that I’m annoyed as hell about all of this, right? Motherfuckers are constantly writing dumbass articles about “Millennials,” thinking they’re being all insightful, when what they’re actually producing is actual garbage on the level of third-rate fanfiction. And the people who try to argue against this are just as bad, because they make the same assumption, that there is such a creature as a “Millennial” and it has the same traits X, Y, and Z, they just argue that these are actually good things. The very basic and very obvious fact of the matter is that this whole framework is empty charlatanry and the only remotely reasonable thing to do is to fucking stop it.

So, uh, anyway, the show contrasts Dev’s situation with that of an older married coworker, Benjamin,6 who admits that there are plenty of days when his own relationship is barely at 20%. The reason this works for him is that he has chosen his relationship, so, as long as it’s still something, he has something. Dev, by contrast, has never made any such choice, so regardless of whether or not each specific thing in his life works out for him, he ultimately has nothing.

So what finally happens is that Dev makes a choice. The show misdirects us into thinking that Dev’s final decision is to pursue Rachel, priming us to expect the standard love-conquers-all ending. By subverting this possibility, the show frames Dev’s flight of fancy as the new thing that kids these days are now doing in lieu of pursing “traditional” goals. Rachel makes the same decision, but we have no idea why, because, again, Rachel has no personality. So rather than this action emerging from who these people are, it is imposed on them by the demands of the show’s intended messaging. Rather than Dev figuring out something he wants to commit to, he picks something to want on the basis of his ability to commit to it. In other words, the reason Dev chooses to fuck off to another country is that it is the easiest thing he can possibly do. It doesn’t require him to address any of his real problems; on the contrary, it is the one thing that allows him to avoid them completely. (It’s also a particularly American form of egoism to assume that the world is basically just a shopping mall of cultures for you to choose from.)

But while the season ends in the air, the show is grounded enough to allow us to put the pieces together. There’s one relatively subtle clue that provides unexpected illumination: Dev is a terrible actor. Like, totally atrocious. This makes sense, because he’s just a moderately attractive guy who got into acting entirely on accident, but this is never brought up in the show. In fact, Dev is fairly successful, as far as being a working actor in New York goes: he’s praised by casting directors and coworkers, and he almost lands a leading role in a new sitcom. I don’t think this is a mistake; on the contrary, Ansari seems to be intentionally bad-acting, and he does a pretty good job of portraying Dev’s acting as coming from someone making an earnest attempt at it while fundamentally not understanding the concept (a D-list Tom Cruise, basically). The situation, then, is that Dev is completely adrift and clueless, and so is everyone else, including the people who are actually presenting themselves as experts and professionals. Deskilling is more than just an economic problem. It makes people feel helpless, like there’s nothing they can actually do other than slot in to a socially-defined role. It naturally results in a desperate yearning for things like “adventure” or “true love” or, indeed, “meaning” itself – things that really do exist, but not as generalities: as particular experiences. Meaning is not something that is given to you by your surroundings, it’s something within you that you give to the world. But this isn’t just a matter of being “sincere” or “passionate” or “chasing your dreams” or whatever, it’s a matter of engaging with reality, going through facticity to get to a new place – a different physical situation. A society that doesn’t allow for this possibility robs people of their specificity, which, given that specificity is the only thing that makes a person exist as a person rather than an empty abstraction, is the one true crime.

Dev is just some guy; he isn’t fighting any kind of moral crusade, and he shouldn’t have to be. The world ought to work for people like him, people who are just doing what they can and aren’t after anything extraordinary. But it doesn’t. So, actually, Master of None‘s general glibness conceals a profound criticism: the world is fundamentally wrong. And this isn’t like Kafka or anything; remember, what’s characteristic about this show is that it portrays everything about young people these days in the most conventional New York Times-friendly manner possible. So if even that portrayal, the least incisive way of understanding the situation, is still fundamentally broken and riddled with contradictions, then the truth can only be far, far worse. The issue isn’t that we’ve got problems, it’s that we’ve got nothing.

So when Dev finally does make a decision about what he wants to do with his life, he doesn’t have anything to hold on to. He considers all the things he’s been doing so far, and concludes that none of them are any good, so his only option is to just completely fuck off and start over in another country. If we take this seriously as criticism, it’s rather unsettling: it suggests that our society is so fucked up that, when one seriously considers how to deal with it, the only possible answer is abdication. The only intellectually and morally honest course of action is to wash one’s hands of everything.

But you’ll note that this is only the case if we ignore Benjamin’s advice. That is, if the fundamentally broken nature of our world causes us to despair, this can only be because we are expecting perfection, and we come to realize that it is impossible. But if we look at things from that other side, we can ask a much more pertinent question: so what? Why should a lack of magic be considered a defect in reality? Why should the fact that things generally don’t work out prevent us from taking them as far as they’ll go? There are plenty of things that are going to slow us down, but until one of them stops us, we’re still moving. Since we can’t get to “100%” anyway, since the concept doesn’t even make sense, a lack of certainty should appropriately have no effect on us whatsoever. There’s no use mourning the death of a god that never existed in the first place. The antidote to meaninglessness is not requiring yourself to be at 100%, it’s accepting yourself at 1%. Rather than everything, anything.

It is of course precisely this criterion that Master of None actually does meet. It’s above 20% when it’s good and below 20% when it’s bad, but either way, it eclipses the Friendses of the world in the one way that matters: it’s not nothing.


  1. Guilty. 
  2. I’m clear of this danger for the foreseeable future. 
  3. I’d like to clarify that I don’t endorse this use of this word. Problematizing is a good thing. 
  4. The couples stuff is in fact completely insufferable. There’s one bit where Dev and Rachel are quirkily bantering in public and some guy gets really mad at how cute they’re being; it’s pretty funny, except that I don’t think that guy was intended to function as a audience stand-in. 
  5. So hey did you notice that the concept of a “genre” is also an overgeneralization, in that it lumps together a bunch of things that don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other, and that anyone making blanket statements about what a genre “means” or whether it’s “dead” or not is therefore necessarily full of shit? Just checking. 
  6. H. Jon Benjamin, in fact – as a Home Movies fan, I find his role here as the voice of reason deeply unsettling.