Turnabout Trash: An Exercise in Lowbrow Cryptonormativism

I spotted this short piece entitled Beware of Facts Man on the social media circuit about two weeks ago. It’s a salvo in the puttering online trench war between woke journalists and the male enemies of woke journalists, with a sneer density unusually high even for modern industrial strength ragebait.

It’s a character assassination of not a real person but a whole range of behaviors all rendered in unflattering shape and color. In a few paragraphs it treats an array of complex issues as if they had easy answers, known and established through the magic of Mean Girls-style sarcasm.

It’d probably have been best to just leave it alone, but it struck me that it could be suitable for a reversal — like the one I did with an article taking an anthropological perspective on nerds a couple of years ago. Could you flip it around and aim its techniques and phrasing straight in the other direction? Ideally sentence by sentence.

It was possible but required more rework than my last effort. Sentence by sentence didn’t quite work; it’s a lot heavier on fill-in-the-blanks insinuation than the more descriptive piece I had to work with last time. There were fewer outright equivalences to switch to and it was especially difficult to get the right tone in some places where the (insinuated) points were easy to criticize in a reasonable way but harder to reverse with a dumb cliché, which the format required.

I wrote most of the lengthy commentary that comes afterwards before I actually sat down to write the reversed version. When I’d finally finished it I was on the fence whether I was going to publish it at all. The whole experience made me a little sick. The last time I did this to a condescending but fundamentally well-intentioned article. This however… yikes.

I don’t want to be a peddler of this kind of stuff. I don’t want a piece of that turd pie (no matter how grotesquely big and succulent it seems to be in the click ecomony). I won’t do this sort of rant again. I did spend too much time on this one with commentary to have it all go down the drain, though. So, here goes, I guess.

Beware of Narrative Person

Wake up and raise your consciousness: It’s time to meet Narrative Person.

Or examine them, really. You have met Narrative Person before if you’ve ever spent time in reading, working or in education. They’re inescapable. They write for prestigious media outlets. They populate committees, HR departments, schools and NGO:s. They write op-eds, policy documents and codes of conducts. They design courses and give talks. And they love—love!—Twitter.

What do they serve up there? The Narrative. Straight from the pulpit, and as the church has always understood it: the overarching story that defines the proper moral order of the world. Narrative Person knows that it’s important to listen to authorities, and to the anecdotes lived experiences of those who confirm the Narrative. It is equally important to not use reason or evidence yourself. Narrative Person supports critical thinking though, which means adopting the critical thoughts handed to you.

They — and it’s disproportionately a “they” — is a young adult in possession of the epistemological power of a pure heart and the social credentials necessary to authoritatively sort good from bad and to put the definitive end to complex philosophical questions by pulling out just the right epithet from an extensive library of well-understood theoretical concepts.

Narrative Person educates you — although this is obviously not their job. With their liberal arts degree, top-quality résumé, impeccable personal anxieties, a background in Something-or-other Studies and thinking skills sharpened by an environment where everybody validated their feelings, it’s all so clear. This is the Narrative. It has been decided, by everyone who matters. It’s the current year and we’re on the right side of history.

Narrative person is about safety, and by “safety” Narrative Person means keeping everybody on message. They’re drawn inexorably to breaches, like moth to flame, magnet to steel. Narrative Person hates complexity and uncertainty. They hate the messy, hazy process of updating our understanding as new, often contradictory data come in, credibility is assessed and arguments are critically analyzed. How is that safe? How is this something that people with no personal stake in making the morally correct conclusion are allowed to do? Narrative Person is all about protecting the Narrative from dangerous confusion.

If Narrative Person is Political Narrative Person, they’d rather not see their politics as “political” at all. It’s just being a decent person. In fact, Narrative Person is easy to place on a political spectrum: they’re on the side of justice, against injustice! Considering how perfectly that describes the available political options, they know that if anybody won’t just pick a side and stick with it, it means they’re in favor of injustice but denies it.

If Narrative Person is Science Narrative Person, they don’t really know any science and have never studied any, but they know that good science supports the Narrative. That’s how you know it’s Science. Narrative Person gets their science from reputable sources, like other journalists, activists and NGO:s. Good Science even has the authority to answer moral and political questions, as well as supply the correct meanings of ordinary words. Science is amazing!

Narrative Person of course knows how science is a social process and how scientific knowledge is socially constructed to serve dominant ideologies. Fortunately Narrative Person also possesses the expertise needed to know that this only applies to “science” that serves reactionary interests and thus knows exactly when to apply this understanding and when to not.

Narrative Person knows all about bias — it’s means deviation from what ought to be reality. Everybody and everything is biased, except the Narrative. Despite hating math, Narrative Person is also adept at statistics. They’re especially good at knowing how much, or how little, context and problematization is required to understand that a statistic supports the Narrative.

Narrative Person is about safety, and by “safety”, Narrative Person means discourse. They parachute in to rectify the discourse. They speak for some. They tell others to shut up. They’re not about silencing, but about creating safe spaces. They’re obsessed with social media, which is beneath them, though perhaps they spend more time there than anyone else. There’s no contradiction there.

Sometimes, Narrative Person is less about educating than starting conversations. We need to talk about this history and theory that establish the moral inferiority of people based on their genitals and skin color. We need to talk about your people’s crimes and how you defending yourself when attacked (it’s not an attack — promise! — it just sounds like it totally by accident) establishes your guilt. We need to talk about how problematic, fragile and hateful it is when people object to being saddled with collective moral debt that can only be discharged by writing a social, cultural and political blank check, valid indefinitely. Where’s the honest conversation? Why does Narrative Person have to pretend to respect people’s personal dignity and rights? Narrative Person doesn’t have personal dignity and rights! Narrative Person isn’t even a person, they’re a single cell whose personal qualities are assigned to them by interacting axes of oppression.

Narrative Person is all about institutions. Narrative Person improves these institutions from within by making sure they’re properly aligned with the Narrative, meaning they create a diverse administrative class who think just like them! People who take a stand against hate and exclusion. Only the not on board are fit to hate and exclude.

You get the sense that Narrative person wrote for the school paper. You get the sense that Narrative Person studied English Literature because it teaches you to think critically. Narrative Person eats healthy and works out but remains a little pudgy. Narrative Person at once respects the properly aligned authorities and resents the System for rewarding people with a bad dress sense and poor social etiquette over their betters. Narrative Person once considered getting a nose ring.

Narrative Person is a Person, if man, woman or whatever else. Narrative Person is already on their way to reporting this text to HR for being a man talking out of turn. Narrative Person is a mechanism of discourse, always there to make sure everyone, everywhere, is on message.

The Hangover

I feel dirty. Time to wash my hands.

I’ll make no secret of why the original irked me: it was just enough of a broadside to hit me, even though I only slightly fit the bill in a few ways. It seemed to me that the author went out of her way to be disdainful of not just a narrowly defined set of people with a specific behavior, but the essential sensibilities of male nerddom.

Well — as she unsubtly says — we all have some kind of identity, on whose behalf some lower part of our mind tirelessly works to defend, no matter the cost to integrity, truthfulness or rationality. “Male nerd” is mine. I didn’t choose it. There’s never been many seriously competing options for the No. 1 spot. The question is how much we let that part of our mind that feels like lashing out in retailation control us.

As I fished around in the cauldron of petty resentments I usually keep locked in the basement, my conscience kept interfering. No, that’s wrong, that’s unfair, that’s unjustified, those are different things, these contradict each other, I’m leaving something out here, that doesn’t follow, and this doesn’t even make sense![1]. But I kept telling myself that it’s supposed to be shit, to make a point about how shit the original was. That didn’t really help; throughout the week I spent writing and editing this piece I had a lump in my stomach. It was anxiety over indulging feelings I shouldn’t and taking a tone I don’t approve of, as well as an internalized fear of being — justly — called out for it.

Most likely I don’t have what it takes to be a propagandist. I can’t imagine picking fights for a living. Sure, I like disagreement, but that’s because I’m interested in how and why people think and feel differently. I want to explore it and understand it, not fight over it, and I hate it when others do. Also, I agonize enough over weaknesses in the stuff I write for work, and then I’m not even attacking anyone! Everybody’s on the same side and nobody is even interested in poking holes. Still, you don’t want anyone to be able to criticize you and be right. Right? Are culture-warriors all bleedin’ psychopaths or is it just me[2]?

Because my piece bothers me. It has a lot of things in it I can’t defend — its what the script dictated. It should be beneath me and every adult to push stuff like it.

A slight aside: my problem with “wokeness” isn’t that I think it’s all wrong. I think the anti-woke who act as if there’s nothing of value there are making a big mistake by overstating their case[3] and thus making themselves easy to dismiss. These ideas are partial narratives par excellence, and in my view they range from 5% to 50% valid (insofar as you can put a number on how valid you think a narrative is[4]). It’s its totalizing tendency that’s the big problem: the insistence that this particular metanarrative belongs everywhere and applies to everything and any dissent or moderation is illegitimate. It’d be a fine member of a menagerie of diverse ideological perspectives, but it’s a terrible orthodoxy. It’s unfortunate that it seems to have set its mind to being one.

Mockery, the lowbrow cryptonormativism

Facts Man collapses a diverse set of behaviors the author disapproves of into a tool allies in the social media trenches can use to dismiss reasonable disagreement along with unreasonable. Once you’ve anchored a concept by focusing on the badly behaved and easily dismissible, you’re vaccinated against stronger and harder-to-refute strains of similar ideas. It’s social construction by intelligent design[5].

There’s impressive skill behind it, in a morbid sense — the way there’s skill in the way a successful con artist works, or the way a ruthless politician or business leader might maneuver themselves to the top by trading favors, bullying, and screwing over whoever stops being useful. The piece is a weapon, carefully designed to be as broadly effective as possible while still only targeting the people supposed to be targeted.

Note that it doesn’t actually make any criticisms. Nothing specific is discussed, evaluated or countered. There’s nothing but derision, all the way down[6]. It makes me think of this blog post by the philosopher Joseph Heath, referencing Jürgen Habermas on the habits of “cryptonormativity” in critical theory:

[W]e have “critical” legal studies, “critical” race studies, “critical” aboriginal studies, and so on.) Most of these books were also profoundly cringe-inducing. They were, to put it mildly, bad. Forced to read a dozen of them, however, I began to notice certain patterns in the badness.

Earlier on, I said that the ambition for “critical social science” was to have, not just social science guided by normative commitments, but for those normative commitments to be made explicit. The biggest problem with the books I read is that they almost invariably failed on the second half of this. It was obvious that the authors – with the exception of a few law professors – had no idea at all how to make a normative argument. Indeed, they seem incredibly averse even to stating clearly what sort of normative standards they were employing. The result was entire books aimed at bolstering resistance to things like ‘neoliberalism’, none of which ever stated explicitly what ‘neoliberalism’ is, much less what is wrong with it.

A long time ago, Habermas wrote a critical essay on Foucault, in which he accused him of ‘cryptonormativism.’ The accusation was that, although Foucault’s work was clearly animated by a set of moral concerns, he refused to state clearly what his moral commitments were, and instead just used normatively loaded vocabulary, like ‘power’, or ‘regime’, as rhetorical devices, to induce the reader to share his normative assessments, while officially denying that he was doing any such thing. The problem, in other words, is that Foucault was smuggling in his values, while pretending he didn’t have any. A genuinely critical theory, Habermas argued, has no need for this subterfuge, it should introduce its normative principles explicitly, and provide a rational defence of them.

/—/

In any case, it seems to me fairly obvious why these books are written in the way they are. The authors feel a passionate moral commitment to the improvement of society – this is what animates their entire project, compels them to write a book – but they have no idea how to defend these commitments intellectually, and they have also read a great deal of once-fashionable theory that is essentially skeptical about the foundations of these moral commitments (i.e. Foucault, Bourdieu). As a result, they are basically moral noncognitivists, and perhaps even skeptics. So they turn to using rhetoric and techniques of social control, such as audience limitation, as a way of securing agreement on their normative agenda.

This is – perhaps needless to say – not how critical theory was supposed to be done.

Heath complains that a lot of critical theory he reads, and whose goals he’s often sympathetic to, doesn’t actually state and argue for its moral vision. Instead it just describes things in unflattering ways. Pieces like Facts Man is the lowbrow version of this, and the results are the same: those who already agree harden in their convictions because they consider the unflattering description plainly true, and those who disagree harden in their disagreement because they notice how little real argumentation there is, how unreliable the writer is, and how weak their position must be if they don’t have anything stronger to serve up[7]. It solidifies division, and thus contributes to making public debate less about semi-cooperative idea evaluation and more about pure power politics.

If you are the change you want to see in the world, then lowbrow cryptonormativism is a wish for public discourse to resemble a middle school cafeteria by encouraging the substitution of social pwnage for substantive criticism[8]. It’s the world of “ok [descriptor]” retorts (you can put anything at all between the brackets because virtually any position or characteristic can be reduced to an unflattering cliché). It destroys the commons. It’s pissing in the pool and it’s licking all the candy.

Everybody is responding to something

So maybe I shouldn’t have published the reversal. No matter how much I disavow it afterwards I did still put it out there. I know that. I’m trying to justify it by saying that I didn’t start anything. To me the article feels offensive — in the sense of “on the offense” rather than “on the defense”. It’s an unprovoked attack, and thus a counterattack in the form of Beware Narrative Person felt, in principle, justified.

I doubt the author thinks of it like that. I try to keep in mind the rule that when somebody is rude to you, it’s probably because in their mind you’ve already been rude to them. I assume she can point to plenty of negative experiences with people a lot like what she describes. I’m sure they’re there, even if I don’t notice them particularly much. It’s a big world after all. That, plus a normal dose of outgroup homogeneity bias, and voilà, this bouquet of dislikes becomes a single type.

I described it as a cynical piece of conceptual engineering, but I doubt it feels like that to the author. She probably considers her characterization fair, as I expect some to find my reversed hit job fair. This is the work of our inner subconscious strategist, who feeds us interpretations that make sure that what’s in our own interest feels like the right thing to do. If you’ve been attacked and are only defending yourself, then peddling dirt feels justified. Tit-for-tat is cool, right?

If only we were on the same page about who shit first. That was hard enough when blood feuds were between families and clans. When it’s between online social groups loosely defined by shared beliefs, temperaments, sensibilities and resentments it’s outright impossible. And thus everyone considers themselves under fire and totally entitled to return it in the general direction of the enemy.

Maybe the Narrative Person story isn’t new at all. Maybe it already exists and the author wanted to respond to it? Yeah, sure it does. It’s more or less what bluecheck means when used as a pejorative: not just anybody with a verified Twitter account, but a disliked stereotype of a journalist-slash-activist who projects a sanctimonious smugness, inflated opinon of their own intellectual virtue and a position- and vocation-driven sense of entitlement to playing a leading role in The Conversation.

This reducing-everybody-to-negative-stereotypes shit emerges between when people aren’t forced to depend on each other. There’s little to no cost and often even a benefit to making enemies, which is a disaster for social trust. I wish we’d reach a common understanding that the more humble, reflective and well-behaved versions of Bluecheck and Facts Man both serve important functions[9] — at least if our collective brain is going to be a competent thinker instead of staying in a state of drunken, disoriented belligerence forever. We need a new buddy-cop show where the two are forced to work together and each learn to appreciate the other[10].

 

• • •

 

Notes

[1]
You can object that by doing it this way I’m trying to have my cake and eat it too: vent bile while taking the high-road by then criticizing the result. Sure, well spotted. Some penance for me this evening.

[2]
For probably not quite the same reasons, I share the authors’s distaste for debate clubs and the people who come out of them. If you learn to argue both sides of something, well, then you can’t really argue for one side any more without sacrificing your integrity. Then it’s your duty to be better, to go up a level and argue about how to understand the relationship between the two and how they can be fruitfully combined. Mercenaryism is objectionable.

[3]
More accurately I think it’s wrong and bad, whether it’s a mistake in a purely strategic sense is another story. Being too reductive makes it extremely clear about which side you’re on, which makes it easier to build coalitions even if it at the same time makes it harder to reach across the aisle. When the first is more advantageous than the second, the angels weep and entropy laughs.

[4]
And I think you can in the sense that you probably understand what I mean by it.

[5]
I suppose there’s one or a whole set of rhetorical terms for this. Unfortunately, to the extent such terms exist, they’re not broadly known (“propaganda” is not specific enough) the way, say, logos/pathos/ethos and a bunch of logical fallacies are. This is a problem.

[6]
Being able to do this effectvely is a sign that you have (excuse the phrase) local ideological privilege. Basically, when you’re in power you don’t really have to argue.

[7]
This last thing is a slight mistake. You can’t necessarily say weak-looking rhetoric betrays a weak position because it isn’t designed to make a position look strong to a critical reader, but to fire up and arm “the base” by setting up a rallying flag for them.

[8]
In the past dueling was sometimes used to settle disputes. This had the problem that being better at dueling was not the same thing as being right. The contemporary practice of leveraging social power to get snide insults to stick is perhaps a step up — if nothing else there’s less blood involved — but the fundamental problem is the same, and we can do better.

[9]
God, this well-behaved earnestness of mine is sickening sometimes.

[10]
By pure coincidence the wife and I tried watching the British crime show McDonald & Dodds just a few days before publishing, and it’s actually a little bit like this. A little. It fails because it’s lopsided: nerdy Dodds, the supposed balance to the bluecheck-ish McDonald, is too wimpy to stand up for himself when his counterpart gives him shit. If the show were to fit the bill (which I kind of doubt they’re really trying to go for) he’d have to grow a spine and at least 4-6 balls. Ideally the plots would grow less crappy as well.

11 thoughts on “Turnabout Trash: An Exercise in Lowbrow Cryptonormativism

  1. Good bad example. When united by a common enemy, both truth-oriented liberals and power-oriented progressives are engaged in reckless a fight. However, we are all narrative people. I have more sympathy for those who feel threatened by nerds animated by science fiction and united by a science narrative that was honed by violence, than those who feel threatened by scared and angry young people. Have you written about the prospect of scientific pluralism facilitated by a nonviolent political contest?

    Like

  2. I bet this becomes your most popular post ever in terms of hit count. It’s the best culture-war-porn I’ve seen in the blogosphere in a while, in an era when Slate Star Codex has thrown in the towel and Wait But Why is taking forever to finish the last part of its magnum-opus post series.

    Like

  3. Supurb. You don’t need a mirror JN.

    Mask on, hands washed after this.

    Mirror sorely needed by PF. Stupid isnas stupid does.

    Example #2 from a prof! of econ at lse, after not winning corvid kill all the oldies via theory. See prior posts. And bonus free speech ok for me but no you. Stupid is word 2466**

    “There are several victim groups that one would think make strongly emotive cases against the lock downs and social distancing measures”

    “paul frijters says:
    August 10, 2020 at 5:40 pm
    “please do not use such words as “stupid”. We keep discussions civil here on Troppo. It’s the only way for people to have a real exchange of views. Personally derogatory attacks merely gets egos and aggression involved, which crowd out thoughtful deliberation.

    So even though we often vehemently disagree with each other and might secretly think all kinds of unkind things about the position of the other, we venture to keep it civil on Troppo.

    You should apologise.”
    https://clubtroppo.com.au/2020/08/07/how-can-the-covid-policies-be-countered-with-the-help-of-big-money/#comments

    ** Stupid
    2462 splash
    2463 squeeze
    2464 stands
    2465 strict
    2466 stupid
    2467 surfing
    2468 thin
    2469 thump
    2470 trolls
    https://www.oxfordwordlist.com/pages/report.asp

    Like

  4. As I read your turnabout excercise, at first I was revolted, then I started nobbing along and getting a kick out of it.

    In the end, I think your postmortem analysis redeemed you and redeemed me of the sin of enjoying it.

    A good post.

    —-

    On a different note. I’ve been wondering lately if “culture war” is a helpful term or an unhelpful term.

    I’ve gotten into the habit of using it a lot over the last few years. I do so because I think and worry and talk about the cluster of issues/problems/behaviors that the term is trying to point towards a lot.

    But it’s not an actually war, right? So, is that the term the most useful token we can use on our mental map?

    It’s pretty inflammatory. Maybe that’s appropriate. The “culture war” is all about inflammation. But I’d suggest that most people who frequently use the term would like that that inflammation to die down. They’d like people to feel *less* like they’re locked in zero-sum combat with an enemy army.

    Are there any better terms available? If not, what term would you like to become chic?

    I don’t have answers, but this seems like the perfect place to ask.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think using the “war” metaphor (and it’s a pretty good metaphor, considering it involves laying claim to social contexts and resources of discourse production) is used specifically by people who don’t like it, because they/we want to draw attention to 1) that both sides are to blame, and 2) the destructiveness of it. It’s generally accepted that wars are bad and should end (as opposed to a struggle for justice or a fight to preserve civilization), so that’s the desired implication. So yes, war implies combat, but it’s generally recognized as negative-sum and something you want to get out of.

      Like

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