You Can't Just Say "Oh, That Doesn't Matter" About Every Single Political Question
is it really irrelevant, or would you rather just avoid talking about it?
If you want to see me and a couple other idiots drink and rate pumpkin beers in a generally-chaotic manner, check it out.
Back in the early-to-mid 2010s, I often wrote about developments in campus politics that concerned me. You know what I mean - the rise of illiberalism among college students, growing threats to free expression and academic freedom, an institutional assumption of profound emotional fragility among students and an associated paternalism towards them, the dominance of a certain identity-obsessed approach to left politics, the rise of an abstract and academic vocabulary that seemed destined to alienate regular people…. You don’t need me to reprosecute that case here.
To my considerable frustration, the most common response at the time was not to say “those politics that the college students at elite colleges express, they’re the right politics.” Most people, even most left-leaning people, did not defend campus politics on the merits; had they done so, we could have had a productive debate. No, most people, especially in the media, said some version of “they’re just college kids, it’s just crazy places like Yale, it doesn’t matter, why do you care?” Again and again and again, the arguments that defined the progressive consensus were arguments to irrelevancy. It wasn’t so much that I was wrong, it was more that I was focusing on the wrong thing, and also old man yells at cloud, and also it’s a little weird that you care about college kids so much, isn’t it Freddie? Not a good look! Such were the tactics of the time. Few people were saying that it was good when, say, students at an elite college tried to shutter the campus newspaper because they published a conservative editorial. Instead they were saying that it just didn’t matter.
You know what happened next. By 2020, the concepts, vocabulary, rhetorical strategies, and social norms that dictated campus politics had spread from the campuses and into the media, the nonprofit sector, certain aspects of government, and the front-facing parts of many corporations. The activist discourse so recently dismissed as irrelevant had become the basic terms under which politics were debated. Plenty of people rejected those politics, as the basic nature of partisanship and culture war hadn’t evaporated. But the language that was used to discuss politics, the topics of interest within politics, certain assumptions about what constitutes the core disagreements of politics, the purpose and goals of political organizing and elections, the scope of change that would be necessary to achieve real progress - all of these had changed radically over the course of the prior decade, and it was under those terms that the various sides debated. You might have been the kind of person to mock the way that “white supremacy” had replaced “racism” in our culture. But you had an opinion on that question because that was a change that had legitimately happened in our culture.
And campus politics, particularly the way they were brought from campus into media and nonprofit land and the corporate world, had everything to do with that shift. College students at elite colleges have a way of graduating and becoming highly overrepresented in important industries, and particularly in idea-generating and culture-creating industries like media, academia, Hollywood, government, or the nonprofit sector. And because they are both the class that aspires and the class that defines what our culture wants us to aspire to, they have a massively disproportionate impact on how our society tells its own story. In particular, they have great control over how we define our political problems, frame their potential solutions, and fix our place in the political spectrum relative to both. Such is the stuff of democracy. If you would like to get a sense of the shift that I’m talking about, I invite you to read presidential election coverage from 2012 and then from 2020. The issues and potential solutions are often fairly consistent. But the way they are framed within our society, and the communal understanding of that society’s history and what it means, could hardly be more different. The basic idiom of American politics had changed.
Did the people who had denied that these politics would ever be influential or important change their tune, apologize? No. Instead, in large measure they simply adopted those politics. They started using the vocabulary. They started quoting bell hooks and referencing James Baldwin. They took to the term BIPOC as if they had been using it their whole life. Because of the progressive tendency to act as though every political question has already long been settled and its answer obvious to all good people, idiot, they could not have framed this adoption as a conversion. So they acted like they had embraced academic forever. The past dismissal of the importance of campus politics was forgotten, and with no desire to admit that their politics had changed, there was no communal conversation on what exactly had happened. In particular, there was no acknowledgement that small but influential subcultures, like lefty students at small elite colleges, can have outsized impact on our democracy.
It would be a mistake, of course, to say that social justice vocabulary and philosophy made such remarkable progress in the 2010s simply because of college activists. The internet played a major role as well. In particular, the niche blogging-social media hybrid site Tumblr proved to be something of an organizing committee for the social justice turn. Academics and intellectuals shared concepts like unpacking the privilege backpack, intersectionality, and checking one’s privilege on Tumblr, where they spread mimetically. Tumblr’s user base was small compared to the heavy-hitter social networks, but again they were influential, made up of people who were far more likely to make art or write academic papers or fight to establish discourse norms on other platforms. (Tumblr is a little like that old saw about the Velvet Underground when they were still active - very few people listened to them, but everybody who did started their own bands.) In particular, Tumblr long acted as a sort of coming attractions for Twitter, with terms and arguments and memes and practices that began on Tumblr often go on to prominence on Twitter, such as the universal use of “y’all,” once largely confined to the Black and Southern communities. Much like college students, Tumblr users have often been dismissed and derided as a powerless fringe. And yet to a remarkable degree, the Tumblr style simply became the assumed form of engagement from the elite, spreading first to Twitter, then to the Twitter-obsessed media class, and from there to other elites. Tumblr d matter!If The New York Times matters, so must Tumblr. So must TikTok. The obstinacy over this point amazes me.
Having lived through the past decade, I am consistently amazed at how often I am told that I’m fixating too much on this or that niche, that I shouldn’t care about particular trends I see in social media, that nothing that happens on YouTube matters…. I just don’t understand how people can maintain that stance after the past several decades of American public life. Even if you think there are more factors involved in the social justice turn in contemporary left politics from the start of the second Obama administration to the start of the Biden administration, there’s no question that highly motivated subcultures played a huge role. People have talked about the academic humanities as a dying and impotent fringe for a long time, and yet ideas from that world became inescapable and powerful in a remarkably short amount of time. The alt-right was always numerically tiny, and yet its influence on the Republican party and our culture wars was massive. How can you tell me that subculture X just doesn’t matter, when American politics has become so mimetic and so defined by the most motivated 10% on any given issue?
I wrote a piece that (glancingly) discussed the cancellation of Halloween celebrations at public schools. A number of commenters and emailers fixated on that element and said, who cares, it’s just school Halloween parties. But of course the whole point of that essay was to explain why it matters far beyond school parties, to argue that our fixation on trying to make every opportunity available to every child is in fact quietly destructive. Maybe I made that point well, maybe I made the point poorly, but it is an argument, one that you have to actually argue with rather than simply dismissing as irrelevant. I have lately been complaining about safetyism and its embodiment in “trunk or treat,” where parents have replaced traditional house-to-house trick or treating with gathering in a parking lot and giving candy out from the trunk of a car. Why? Because, they say, ordinary trick or treating is just too dangerous! Except that trick or treating is not dangerous, not remotely. The number of violent incidents that children have historically faced while trick or treating, compared to their numbers, is infinitesimal. Parents can parent how they want, but they can’t promulgate a blatantly false narrative about stranger danger. You know what people say to me? Not “your statistics are wrong,” but “that doesn’t matter.” Who cares? Why do you care? But safetyism clearly has immense consequences for our society. It’s transformed American life. Yes, it matters!
Mental health culture and disability issues have obvious consequences for me, personal and social and professional. I point out ways that our perception of mental illness has changed and lay out very real dangers associated with it. These observations stem in part from media and social media depictions of mental illness but also from personal experience within the system, my large network of people with mental health issues, and from connections with people involved in social work, advocacy, and treatment. A vocal portion of the response to these arguments, no matter how carefully I make them or how often I refer to books or essays that support my point of view, is to say “oh this is really just being annoyed at dumb teens on TikTok, who cares.” I refer to a spiraling problem with adolescent depression and a ton of evidence that social media is contributing to it? Old man yells at cloud, you’re just annoyed by teens, that doesn’t matter. The dominance of poptimism and the full-throated embrace of the lowbrow even in previously-highbrow publications, shutting out traditional artforms and contributing the the vast sameness that permeates our entire cultural industry? Who cares, doesn’t matter, why bother. Our entire educational system abandoning rigor and rejecting grades or any other form of assessment, so that we have no to inspire hard work and no way to know how our students are doing? Who cares, doesn’t matter, why bother. Activists and nonprofits are creating a false impression of mainstream left priorities and tactics? Who cares, doesn’t matter, why bother. Nothing means anything; nothing has consequences.
It’s a particularly senseless sort of response when you’re rea someone whose whole job is to look at cultural and political phenomena and explain their social consequences. It’s also very weird in a discursive culture in which we’ve decided that there’s nothing that’s not worth paying a great deal of attention to. Look at how long is Wikipedia entry is! This is a world in which people write 3500-word exegeses about Stiles, the best-friend character from the 1985 Michael J. Fox vehicle Teen Wolf. And thank god! That’s the only good thing about the internet. Yet as someone who’s done this for 15-plus years now, I more and more often find it impossible to escape hand-waving complaints that a given argument of mine might be right, but isn’t worth arguing and doesn’t matter. You’re not wrong, but this isn’t really worth talking about, is it? It’s a maddening tic, one that poisons conversations and makes critical analysis of the world we live in impossible. It also makes you look very, very weak, like you can’t actually argue the merits of anything and so are trying to simply sidestep the argument part. But that’s the whole game, isn’t it?
It’s important to front the actual motivations at play here, which so often is the desire to avoid occupying a given social role that’s uncomfortable. The campus protests of the 2010s are the prototypical example here. Many liberals knew that what was happening on college campuses was unhealthy, but they didn’t want to appear to be the kind of person who complains about college students. Conservatives complain about college students. Annoying free speech types complain about college students. Earnest centrists complain about college students. I don’t want to (appear to) be any of those things, but I can’t quite get onboard with starting a riot because the director of Boys Don’t Cry is supposedly transphobic. So I avoid. I avoid by saying “that doesn’t matter.” I’m both a savvy liberal who believes in following the science and trusting statistics, but I’m also a classically fretful helicopter parent who justifies their narcissism through overparenting. I don’t want Kaighleigh to go trick or treating because if I keep her from doing so out of safety concerns it will make my sister look like an irresponsible parent in contrast, but I also know that crimes by strangers against children are incredibly rare. I don’t want to confront this contradiction. So I avoid. I avoid by saying “that doesn’t matter.”
But things do matter. Our discursive environment matters. In particular, we live in a world in which the distributed opinions of many people who aren’t individually influential matter. I make my living in media. Recently, Twitter’s stranglehold on media culture has been seriously challenged. But there’s no question that since, say, the 2008 presidential election, Twitter has had more of an influence on professional media than any individual person or publication. And so how can you simply dismiss the importance of that network and what gets said on it? #MeToo was, before it was anything else, a social media campaign. (That’s why it starts with a hashtag!) Are you really going to say that had no effect on Hollywood in the past five years? Really? And yet any time I refer to anything that happens on Twitter, ever, I get a lot of performative eye-rolling from readers. If I speak in general terms, they say I haven’t provided evidence. If I screencap specific individual tweets, they say “oh those are just a few random people.” And it’s transparently the case that they do so because they don’t want to grapple with the specific point I’m making, or they don’t want to deal with the irrefutable power that distributed opinion has in our society, or both. But as Niels Bohr supposedly said about his lucky horseshoe, the power of cultural change works whether you believe in it or not.
It’s time to just argue what you think is good and true and to stop trying to hide in irrelevance. We don’t have that luxury, and I’m getting to the point where I’m going to issue bans for people in the comments who pull this whole tired routine. Everything matters.