There was recently a, um . . . I don’t even know what to call these things anymore; it doesn’t rise to the level of like “controversy” or “scandal” or anything, but it’s a “thing that people on the internet get offended about for ten minutes.” You know. Anyway it was about how The Simpsons is totally racist, and it was notable for its display of near-complete point-missing in all available directions.
So the usual thing happened where someone was expected to “respond” to something and they did a bad job of it, and this caused “outrage” and etc., but the thing about this is that nothing else was ever going to happen. The thing that is currently being called “The Simpsons” is not a good show, by which I mean it is not a worthwhile show, by which I mean it is not worth anyone’s while to see what it “has to say.” Paying attention to it right now is equivalent to huffing the fumes that it’s running on. By extension, there’s no point in criticizing the current iteration of the show, either, because there’s nothing there to criticize.
Of course, the original criticism about Apu being a racist caricature was mainly directed at the actual show back when it was an actual show, because that’s the part that people actually watch and therefore know the character from, so that’s an entirely worthwhile endeavor (I’m judiciously avoiding adjudicating the substance of the criticism itself here). But precisely because this endeavor is worthwhile, it’s also non-trivial. It’s not enough to merely point out that the character is a racist stereotype, because the fact that the show was well-written means that it did something with the stereotype (actually, pretty much the entire show can be described as “doing something with stereotypes.” Homer is also a stereotype, obviously), which means you have to go a step further: you have to argue against the thing that the show actually did. So a lot of people have responded to this by pointing out the ways in which Apu went against stereotype or was just a well-portrayed character in general, but this is only a valid defense against the simplistic (which is not to say incorrect) argument that Stereotypes Are Bad. It can be overcome by the stronger argument that a well-written and intentionally positive portrayal can nonetheless insidiously advance racism.
And succeeding in making this argument is a real achievement: it changes people’s understanding of the situation and refines the lens of analysis that we can then use going forward. (I mean, this is the only possible purpose. You can’t go back and un-write the show and reverse the influences it’s already had on people. You can only do better in the future.) But in the same sense, succeeding with the trivial version of the claim only results in a trivial achievement. You can successfully advance the proposition that Bad Thing Is Bad, but this doesn’t actually help anyone or change anything in any significant way.
This is why it’s crucially important to not merely attempt to position yourself on the right side of an obvious bright line, but to make an argument that’s actually worth making. For example, people have pointed to the fact the Apu was in an arranged marriage and had eight kids as examples of how he’s a reductive stereotype, but the reason these things happened is specifically because the show was out of ideas and therefore resorting to hackneyed bullshit to keep people attention. Of course they’re reductive, because the show was precisely being reductive at that point. This isn’t evidence of how racism works or anything like that, it’s just evidence that hacks are hacks. This is the furthest thing from aesthetic snobbishness; it’s a strong contrast with the argument against the good version of the show. If you have an argument against the show when it was good, you have an argument about how racism perpetuates itself even when people are doing a good job with things and even trying to be actively anti-racist, which means you have an argument that matters, because it can actually be used to help people do anti-racism better in the future.
In short, two things that initially look like slightly different versions of the same thing – the argument against Real Apu and the argument against Hack Apu – are in fact complete opposites. One of them maintains everyone’s existing understanding of the situation by arguing against something everyone already knows is an Official Bad Thing, and one of them advances the existing understanding by demonstrating that something people were assuming was good actually has practical negative consequences. Thus, choosing the wrong thing to argue against here does not merely weaken your position, it inverts it, such that your efforts end up having the opposite of their intended effect.
This is such a major problem that there’s actually a significant sense in which the internet has reduced the total amount of discourse happening. There’s plenty of talking going on, but so little of it is about anything relevant to anything that the net elucidation has been reduced. People think they’re arguing about things, when what they’re actually doing is preventing those issues from being argued about. I mean, it’s too much to claim that this always happens and that internet discussions never go anywhere, but it definitely is a real and serious problem that no one’s really trying to do anything about. And at any rate you can’t un-invent the genie, there’s no actual “anti-internet” argument to be made, which is why you – meaning you, personally – have to make a serious effort to talk about things that matter and ignore things that don’t, to eschew easy targets and make the effort to reach higher ones, and to cease to avail yourself of convenient arguments and accept the constraints of making correct ones. Only you can prevent garbage fires.
So let’s work an example. We’ve got a convenient one right now, because we’re right on the tail end (Eris willing) of a vomit cyclone exuded by one the true masters of the form: Kanye West. If you haven’t heard (in which case I envy you more than words can convey), it turns out that West is a supporter of the Bad Politics Person, which by extension makes him a Bad Politics Person, which means it is the solemn duty of all Good Politics People to respond with Stern Moral Denunciations. I can assure you that my dickishness here is sincere. What I just wrote is the actual substance of the event. There isn’t any “underlying meaning” or anything to “interpret” or “analyze” or “understand.” There’s a completely clueless person being completely clueless and a bunch of thirsty social-climbers building their Twitter brands in response.
I want to make sure we all understand what’s really happening here in technical terms. Politics matters. It is a supremely practical subject that directly impacts the daily lives of everyone who’s alive. So the fact of Donald Trump being president is among the most important of our current issues – it is perhaps the defining intellectual challenge of our time, and its resolution may well determine the future course of human history (if any). So what paying attention to the wrong thing here does is prevent this challenge from being met.
If, by promoting certain types of stories and advancing a certain narrative, we understand Trump as, for example, a Russian plant, then that’s necessarily going to lead to actions that respond to that understanding – for example, starting a new Cold War. So the thing about this is that a lot of the Russia claims are probably true; just given the facts of who Trump is, he’s more likely than not in hock to Russian gangsters (and of course the claim that Russia “interfered” with the election is trivially true; every large country does this all the time). But mere fact that a fact is true isn’t actually enough of a justification for saying it, because saying something is an action, so the question necessarily has to be: what are the results of your actions going to be? (This also includes the opportunity costs of not taking different actions.) And the more prominent of a platform you have, the more salient of a question this is, and the more variables you have to consider in order to answer it correctly.
The more important an issue is, the less effective it is to throw the kitchen sink at it. The kitchen sink approach works fine for trivial issues precisely because they’re trivial: you only need the one good hit to knock them out. But hard targets require more than that: they require focused effort against their specific vulnerabilities. Any effort that isn’t correctly targeted is effort that isn’t being applied where it’s needed. Worse, hard targets are complex, which means feedback effects: something that seems like it ought to be effective can easily trigger counterproductive responses. So the more hardened the target is, the more important is is to attack from all correct angles, and from only those angles which are correct.
If there actually was anything at all going on with West’s politics (that is, if he actually had politics), then that would be worth addressing: it would be among the correct angles. But the problem with West is not that he’s getting involved in politics, it’s that he isn’t. He isn’t actually talking about Trump or the underlying political situation or history or America or race or anything. He’s talking about dragon energy. So the practical consequence that transpires from talking about Kanye West talking about dragon energy is that attention and energy that would otherwise be spent on addressing the most important issues of our time are otherwise being spent on nothing.
It is also not the case that West has “lost his way” or gotten “confused” or anything along those lines. The fact of the matter is that West said one sort of on-point thing one time and has just been a provocative jackass the entire rest of the time.1 Statistically, the only rational conclusion is that the one good thing was a fluke. And what really mandates this conclusion is the fact that the one good thing wasn’t even any good. It’s actually a shame that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” is such a classic line, because it’s entirely beside the point. What George Bush does or doesn’t care about has nothing to do with what happened in New Orleans or with anything else. I mean, Barack Obama presumably does care about black people, and his administration oversaw a massive destruction of black wealth. That’s not how any of this works. Talking about things in this manner specifically means understanding things wrong.
This is not a call for naive intellectualization. Sometimes the stupidest explanation really is the real explanation, and figuring it out requires you to look at and properly analyze the stupidest available evidence. Maybe Trump supporters have thoroughly-considered grievances against globalization and modern liberalism, or maybe they’re a bunch of racists who fell for history’s most obvious con. (The real explanation generally requires taking a little bit of everything into account. It’s a big world out there.) What being a real intellectual means is not picking the explanation that seems the “smartest,” but figuring out which one is actually real. Either way, though, West is the absolute least representative person to look to for insight on this issue. One could, in theory, figure out what West actually believes and why he believes it, but precisely because West is an “exceptional” person, this information has no bearing on anything besides West himself. This is the part where the “real Americans” cliche actually has its merit: if a person is a clueless sucker, but is also a representative example of a large number of clueless suckers, then the question of why that person is a clueless sucker matters, because answering it tells us something we can do about the situation. Paying attention to people like West takes us further away from this goal: what we learn from his situation, if anything, is incorrect when applied to almost any other situation. It’s a test graded with the wrong answer key.
This also doesn’t mean that the only valid response is stone-faced just-the-facts asceticism – in fact, that’s almost always a version of the wrong response. It’s worth shaming someone for their opinion on an issue when that opinion is actually based on a particular understanding of the issue and they’re actually capable of shame, neither of which applies to West. It’s even, on occasion, worth issuing a Stern Moral Denunciation when there’s actually a substantive issue on which moral clarity is useful, which is not the kind of thing that West has ever engaged with. And there are plenty of times when cultural or aesthetic events point the way to deeper understanding of important issues. Arguing about the portrayal of Apu during the good episodes of The Simpsons really is useful anti-racist praxis. Indeed, there are also plenty of times when stern discussions of policy and economics function precisely as means of avoiding real discussion. The entire Hillary Clinton campaign, for example, was about “qualifications” and “pragmatism” and was in precisely this way not about any actual issues. Talking much about policy can also be a means to conceal policy. The point is simply that there are useful things to talk about and there are useless things to talk about, and picking the useless thing isn’t a simple inefficiency or a matter of preference. It’s a serious error that causes real harm.
It’s also important to understand that we’re talking specifically about public discourse here – that is, we’re talking about The Media. Obviously, chatting with your friends about whatever random bullshit you happen to find enjoyable is entirely laudable behavior. The problem is the bullshitting on the internet looks like a casual conversation, but it’s actually not – it’s actually what The Media is now. When you have a platform – when a certain number of people are guaranteed to read what you’re writing simply because of where you’re writing it (this is the specific things that it means for something to be part of “the media”: it mediates) – you have a responsibility, because what you’re writing creates the context in which other people have discussions. Any media piece that claims to be “responding” to what “the media” is doing is fundamentally lying: said piece is itself doing the thing that it’s pretending to respond to.
For example, the only reason anyone thinks that there’s a “campus free speech” issue is that a bunch of prominent columnists keep writing about it – it is the columnists and not the protesters who create the issue. You also see this any time anyone claims that something is happening “on Twitter.” What actually happens is that writing about Twitter is itself the thing that draws attention to and frames a certain sector of activity and therefore creates the event that is claimed to be happening “on Twitter.”
Of course, none of this happens in a vacuum. A lot of people would argue that they have to “respond” when someone like West starts mouthing off, simply because he commands attention; that is, even though what he’s saying isn’t at all relevant, the fact of him saying it is. This isn’t totally a defeatist argument. It’s true that if the situation is such that people are already engaging in a bunch of useless gibbering about something, or if you can accurately predict that that’s going to happen, then ignoring it doesn’t accomplish anything, so you might as well try to up the average by saying something slightly more useful. But the thing about this is that it doesn’t justify just any response. It justifies exactly one response: to convince everyone else to stop paying any attention to Kanye West, and in so doing redivert attention onto the real issue. Trying to explain what he’s saying or argue against him has the opposite of the desired effect: it doesn’t elucidate anything, because there’s not actually anything being talked about, and it draws more attention to West and to what he’s saying, and therefore necessarily diverts attention away from the actual substance of the issues that are supposedly so important that they must be responded to immediately.
The real reason this is important is that the media’s power to create issues can also be used positively: it can create real issues. A strong example of this is the opioid crisis. Because this is largely a regional phenomenon, a lot of people don’t have direct experience with it. Also, the people who do have experience with it are generally not in much of a position to raise the issue themselves. It actually is the media’s job here to create this issue: to inform people that something as bad as the AIDS crisis is happening right now, and to insist that they care about it. So hyping trivial bullshit isn’t just a foible or an annoyance: it has the total opportunity cost of the difference between the negative value of the useless vector of discussed and the potential positive value that could be realized by discussing the same thing along a worthwhile vector. For example, every time you read an article about some dumbass thing Trump says about North Korea, you’re both damaging your brain in the amount of how dumb it is and missing out on learning something about what’s really going on with the Korean conflict.
You can obviously go on all day with this; to take just the most obvious examples, global warming and nuclear weapons are our two main civilization-level threats right now, and they get almost no accurate coverage. Nuclear weapons coverage is always about what might happen if those bad people over there start building nukes, and not about the people who actually possess and are potentially willing to use world-destroying amounts of them – such as, for example, any of the times the United States itself has almost blown up the world, and how our constant warmongering is making nuclear accidents more likely. And all of the stentorian prattling about “accepting the facts” of global warming doesn’t really help as long as any discussion of anything serious that could actually be done about it is preemptively removed from the table (not being a denialist doesn’t really count if you’re still in denial about any way to solve the problem). So this isn’t, y’know, “media criticism.” This is fucking serious. It’s not just that it’s within your abilities to avoid falling face-down into the mud at every opportunity, it’s that you could be saving the world, and instead you’re choosing to eat garbage.
Going after easy targets is one thing. It’s dishonorable, but we’re only human, and in a situation like that it’s at least possible to make worthwhile arguments. But going after inaccurate targets is another thing entirely – it’s actively counterproductive. The only person you’re clowning in that situation is yourself.
- Also, it’s highly likely that West’s behavior is not the result of him being “provocative” or even being an out-of-touch rich fuck, but is in fact the result of serious mental illness, which isn’t being treated because everyone thinks he’s a wacky savant or whatever. So in this case specifically there’s actually a whole other level of harm that this is causing: everyone treating West like a provocateur is preventing him from getting the help he needs, and also preventing us as a society from treating metal illness with the seriousness it deserves. ↩