I was talking with someone the idea about the use of “incel” as an insult. The purported meaning of the insult is that the person is a particular misogynist. However I argued this isn’t why the incel insult can be so funny when done right. Like almost all the funniest insults, it doesn’t just accuse the target of being vicious and bad it implies that they are low status, weak, ugly and lacking in charisma. Thus while leftists ostensibly use it to mean “bad misogynist” its become so popular because it’s an acceptable way, within a left wing framework, to make fun of someone for their appearance, lack of charm, poor hygiene etc. To a certain extent then it reproduces graduations of power and status that the left opposes. On the basis of this I said that I found the use of the insult troubling.
My friend responded that this seemed a bit moralistic. Why try to stop an insult directed at a manifestly horrible social movement? My friend had assumed that since I found something troubling, I must therefore want it stamped out. But this wasn’t true- I find plenty of things ‘troubling’ without thinking that we need to make an effort to get rid of them. It’s okay to be a little troubled sometimes, and I’d be opposed to any attempt to eradicate the use of “Incel” as an insult.
To the extent that there is an epidemic of moralism on the left, I think this is at the root of it. People have come to assume that if something is troubling or, dare I say the word, “problematic”, it must therefore be cut out of the left using the sharpest and most immediate methods.
Lest I be accused of being willing to let troubling things go only when they are aimed at enemies as in my “incel” example I’ll give another case. I’m a passionate homosexualist and was recently asked what I think of left-wing podcasts like Cum Town that use light homophobia as a tool of comedy. My response was that it’s troubling that so many of the easiest, and sometimes bitingly effective, tropes for humour in our society are at least mildly homophobic. Does that mean I think we need to organise around stopping this? Fuck no, it sounds like a wank. I obviously don’t want kids in the play ground calling each other gay and targeting each other homophobically, but some of the Cum Town bits are really fucking funny, and nothing useful would be achieved by getting worked up trying to “cancel” it.
Now let me be clear here that every caveat in the book applies. First of all I’m not saying it’s good that some of this comedy dips into homophobia instinctively- as stated above I think it’s troubling. Also this also has to be seen with a fistful of context, for example, many of these lightly homophobic jokes used by sections of the dirt-bag left work because they’re targeted at people who are homophobes and thus make fun of the homophobia of their targets, and the palpable fear and discomfort these people feel about gay sex. Hence paradoxically these jokes are at once a bit homophobic and a bit anti-homophobic. What is needed, rather than outrage, is a balanced assessment of strengths and weaknesses- exploration rather than automatic censure due to moral-political objection.
Social policing is hard. It takes resources away from other things. Fairly or unfairly It makes you look joyless. Every new rule creates a new barrier to entry- a new thing you have to learn before you can get involved. Sometimes it’s necessary, sometimes it’s not necessary. You’ve got to weigh it up, not on the basis of moralistic principles, but on the basis of what works and what doesn’t. No points are awarded for purity of language or behaviour in themselves. Sometimes the calculus is worth it- for example, the harm that would be caused if we tolerated individuals in our movement wilfully misgendering trans comrades would be immense. Sometimes it’s simply not worth it. There’s no point in straining out a gnat if you swallow a camel.
There’s a lot of thought terminating cliches around this, for example “The personal is the political”. In truth, the personal is shaped by the political, but the relationship is asymmetric. Your personal choices are shaped by politics and political economy, but politics and political economy are fairly robust against your choices. . We’re run through with a fundamentally capitalist and hierarchical culture. That culture is reinforced by, and reinforces, larger social structures. One of the most fundamental lies of that system is that it’s simply the natural result of everyone’s spontaneous individual behaviour, unconditioned by the system as a whole. Thus the idea that disciplining our own behaviour and language is the golden road to fixing things is a reflection of capitalist ideology, specifically of liberalism. It’s impossible to ‘be the change you want to see in the world’ when the change you want to see in the world is structural rather than personal. Bad attitudes aren’t a sort of miasma that we’re all equally responsible for, they reflect embedded interests and power relations that go far beyond the beliefs in individuals heads- and even further again than particular turns of phrase.
The moralistic tendency becomes especially dangerous in the contemporary left given that around half of us have arts degrees, and are therefore primed with a kind of interrogative/interpretive capacity to locate real or imagined sites of contaminated culture. If you try hard enough, you can find anything problematic.
There is a way to escape narky introspection and pointless struggle sessions. Rather than modelling ourselves on censorious high priests, we should aim for balance, pragmatism, and a focus on an ethics of caring and positive outcomes, rather than rule enforcement for its own sake.