All White Men Are White Men

If "white men" does not mean white men, how can "white men" hurt white men?

Categorical claims about people carry a certain amount of rhetorical force. They do so because we have a variety of psychological and political hang-ups about categories like race and gender, but also because categorical claims are, well, categorical - they do not permit exceptions. To be willing to say “yes, all X” seems extreme because we operate in a universe where there are exceptions to just about everything. (Indeed, this is why “yes, all X” is generally not a thing that smart people say.) Meanwhile people make exceptions to what would seem to be categorical thinking all the time, often in untoward ways. You would think therefore that those making categorical arguments for effect would make sure to speak carefully. Sadly….

There are a lot of complaints these days about white men, particularly online where confrontations are much less threatening. People make those complaints in lieu of gathering actual power, which is hard and takes time away from endlessly refreshing Twitter. These categorical claims about white men are existentially harmless no matter where they arise - who gives a shit? - but they are also quite weird when they come from white men. And boy, do woke white men love to complain about white men! Let’s check in with Dr. Grist.

Much could be said here! First and foremost is the fact that “ideas don’t arise from specific individual minds but from the flow of history and our contingent place within that history” is just a crude approximation of Marxism, a philosophy developed by a couple of white men and which famously has a lot of white male admirers. Or, if you squint a different way, you could maybe call this thinking a simplistic consequence of French poststructuralism, an intellectual tradition developed almost exclusively by white men. Etc. Honestly the entirety of 20th century philosophical development points squarely in the direction that Roberts is arguing, so his claim that it would appear deeply threatening to the vast population of white men seems a little odd. I am almost charmed by all of this, in the sense that Roberts has expressed a profoundly undergraduate vision of the history of ideas, one that ham-handedly mirrors more sophisticated and forceful versions developed by white men, and then posits it as both somehow novel and uniquely threatening to white men. Almost charmed, that is, because such a desperate play for the approval of other people (most of them white) dressed up as truth-telling can’t be genuinely charming.

It should go without saying that what Roberts is saying is utterly self-undermining. If Roberts believes that the opinions of white men are inherently suspect because they arise from a situated and contingent position within history, then his own position is inherently suspect because Dave Roberts is a white man. If, on the other hand, Roberts’s point is merely that white male opinions exist within the same contingent and uncertain epistemic status as everyone else’s, then that means that there is no reason to trust white men more but also no reason to trust us less. It’s just the interplay of different ideas, all arising from the inherent confusion of history. Which would mean that the ideas that should and will rule are those that arise from the interchange of ideas, from combat between them… in other words, from the processes of Reason1, which Roberts dismisses here with his usual mixture of confidence and confusion.

That’s all a bit more involved than what’s really going on here, though. Roberts does not really mean that all white men feel any particular way, even less that all white men are bad. After all, he is a white man and he is very nakedly trying to get people to like him more rather than less. (He who humbleth himself wishes to be exalted, always.) Roberts means some other white men, white men who do not share his magisterial political wisdom. He gets to speak about the origin of other white men’s feelings without thinking that his own feelings are similarly implicated because, well, he doesn’t really consider himself a white man. But this gives the whole game away, doesn’t it? Once you admit exceptions to the “white man” designator, you’re really just saying “conservative white men” or “unenlightened white men” or “white men who don’t think exactly like I do.” If you’ve done that, why bother with the categorical at all? Why not just restrict your critiques of believing stupid shit to people who believe stupid shit, which yes includes many white men but also includes Candace Owens and Dinesh D'Souza and those two Black Trumper ladies with the WWF tag team names I can never remember? I don’t understand why people make a big show of condemning entire classes of people while also making it very plain that they believe there are exceptions, most importantly themselves.

Well, I do know why: Roberts is trying to build his brand in a dying media industry, and no matter how many hundreds of white dudes desperately jockey to be the good white dudes of media there still seems to be some residual value in showily renouncing white maleness as a white male. People tend to get all weepy about this, but I don’t know how any honest observer could deny it. In the contemporary progressive marketplace for personal brands, there is still some value in being the kind of white man who gets it, despite the crowded field of guys trying to earn that designation and “getting it” often includes engaging in very showy criticism of the categories you yourself reside in. (It’s essential that this criticism somehow does not implicate you personally at all. Tricky!) If you think it’s untoward to ascribe ugly motives to people based on their group associations while ignoring their professed motives, then you should take it up with Dave Roberts, who is doing exactly that in this tweet storm.

I am kind of fascinated by the “I hate white dudes” white dudes. Take Will Stancil. I don’t really know what a Will Stancil is or does, other than that Will Stancil fucking loves to complain about white men on Twitter.

This is Will Stancil.

Hey, Will Stancil: you are a white man!

Or take Will Wilkinson, who turned on an absolute fucking dime from snide Cato Institute libertarian to weepy woke white man when the political wind changed direction. I don’t generally take cues on how to be progressive from guys whose lives were subsidized by the Koch brothers for years and years, but I especially don’t when it’s those who so obviously “read the room” and realized that a career in media was going to take a lot of performative sneering about white guys.

This is Will Wilkinson.

Hey, Will Wilkinson: you are a white man!

Of course there’s the OG, Noah Blatarsky. Unfortunately Blatarsky appears to have taken his Twitter private recently, but as someone who was the subject of an entire chapter of a book he wrote (yes, really) I can tell you that he sure does love to complain about white men, specifically, as white men and for being white men, based on the logic that the problems with white men stem explicitly from their white maleness.

This is Noah Blatarsky.

Hey, Noah Blatarsky: you are a white man!

There are many, many, many more white dudes like these ones. So, so many.

You guys, seriously - if criticizing white men can have any valence at all, it cannot admit exceptions; if you admit exceptions, you are necessarily not really critiquing white men. By the very nature of making these critiques publicly, you are inherently asking the people reading them to see you as the exception. You are, all of you, saying “I am the good white man,” which puts you in the company of literally millions of other aging white guys who have gotten very worried about their place in the world and see a market opportunity in making themselves out to be unlike other white men. Which, you know, fine. Hustle on, player. The problem is that the it renders the substance of your critique totally incoherent. Dave Roberts is asking us all, with a straight face, to take seriously that he has a very low opinion of white men in a way specifically designed to improve our opinion of him, a white man. And so is Will Stancil and Will Wilkinson and Noah Blatarsky and dozens upon dozens of other white dudes I could name. The want to earn credit for being willing to critique their own identity category but cannot help but exempt themselves from that critique!

I find this all untoward. I find it cynical and gross to go through the motions of pretending to indict yourself when doing so is really just a strategy to elevate yourselves above others. It’s like religious types who self-flagellate specifically to appear more holy than others, a pantomime of humility driven by hubris. It’s a special kind of hypocrisy. These are the kinds of guys who loudly mock “not all men,” but their entire careers amount to one long performance of “not all men.”

I understand that a lot of white men feel a little at sea right now and are kind of trying on different personalities in an effort to be cool people. I have a modicum of sympathy! What should white men do, in 2021? Comfortably and unapologetically occupy their space as white men and make conscious decisions to increase justice and reduce suffering in whatever ways they are able. I’d like white men, in other words, to be good people, as all of us have the capacity to be, and to leave the endless impotent posturing about one’s identity to others. If you’re a young white man and you’re trying to navigate evolving social mores, I think that the path forward is blissfully simple: do everything you can to be a good person and do not waste a single moment feeling guilty about being a white man. Such guilt never helped anyone, and besides, your concern is your integrity, and integrity is about choice. You didn’t choose to be white or male, so those things are not relevant to your integrity. Be kind. Be honest. Be gentle. Protect those weaker than you. Tell the truth. And don’t spend a day of your life apologizing for who you are. I promise, you’ll do more good for others that way than you will farming likes and retweets by complaining about white men on Twitter.

Look, there’s a dynamic that underlies so many of these weird liberal pathologies: the social justice movement has failed. A decade-plus of noise about a supposed social revolution has resulted in almost no tangible change whatsoever. When you get away from discourse, from symbol, from language, from social media… what has changed? How has the fundamental division of power in this country been altered at all? When you go out into this country’s ghettos, what material difference has any of it made? Seven years of BLM behind us and approaching a year and a half since George Floyd’s death, it’s truly remarkable just how little of substance has changed in race relations despite immense social unrest and media attention. And so in lieu of justice, we’ve arrived at this place where it’s just… a little embarrassing to be a white man? Sort of? In certain very narrow social contexts? People like Roberts go through the motions of these broad condemnations of white men because they feel that there’s nothing else; he fixates on how much white men supposedly hate to be called white men because that emotional affront is the only kind of “progress” he can imagine. But the point is not to make anyone feel bad. The point is liberation and equality. White men feeling bad about being white men will not bring us an inch closer to liberation and equality.

Personally, I don’t mind life as a white man in 2021, even living in Park Slope, as aggressively liberal of a space as you’ll find. Why would I? I don’t actually live on the internet, but in the real world. And I go out into the real world, and in general people out there (of whatever race or gender) want to get along and be kind to one another. They also conspicuously would prefer not to be judged by their broad identity categories, which they didn’t choose, but by their messy human particularity. It’s very uncool to insist on the preeminence of individual morality over group identity, in progressive spaces these days. But we have no alternative. In real life, away from Twitter, there’s only the effort to be the most moral being that you can be. That’s it. You are the things you do and nothing else. I would like to be part of a political movement that improves the lives of those who are not white men until they enjoy all the advantages we enjoy - to lift them up, that is, because it’s not zero sum, it’s never been zero sum, and when we ascend we will all go up together. Within a real “social justice” movement I will not matter as an individual and thus my white maleness will not matter. That is the very meaning of solidarity, the only hope for justice.

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This is one of the greatest misunderstandings about postmodernism: far from undermining the preeminence of discourses like science and reason, pomo thought ultimately strengthens those hoary old (white masculinist, according to cultural studies) ways of thinking because science and reason are best equipped to win against other ideas when we try to leave behind the biases of history. This is one reason among many that postmodernism has beguiled so many for so long and had essentially no influence on history whatsoever.