David Smalley just published a blog post over on Patheos that is so pompous, so hackneyed, so insufferably wrapped in ego and bad argument that I almost feel inspired to start a Social Justice Nonfiction version of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest in order to pay tribute.
It’s called How the Left is Killing Language, and the title actually made me curious at first. I think that there’s a need for some intelligent, nuanced discussion about the left’s over-reliance on in-group language norms, catch-phrases, and a generally upper-class conception of language that can be very exclusionary to people who don’t know the vocabulary, or who don’t speak English as a first language.
Had Smalley written that essay, I would applaud him. It would by definition be incomplete because it would need to be only the beginning of a long, complicated conversation. But after reading this, I can only think that Smalley lacks the wit, nuance, and most of all, the humility to write such a piece.
He dives into self-parody with the very first graf:
I know, you saw the title and then started your “response blog.” You’ll come back here and pull quotes, but you won’t actually read the whole thing.
If people don’t read the whole thing, it’s because the rest of the post is as poorly-written as those two sentences. Not only does he lecture to his readers about what they’re doing wrong and what they need to do right, but he constantly seems to be glancing down at the beautiful pedestal that he’s placed himself atop, admiring the beauty of its craftwork and the sturdiness of the marble that holds him above the masses.
Standing in the Muck of Language
I’m sorry to go on at length about how Smalley writes, but in this case, I think that it’s important. Language is an intricate, ambiguous thing, and you can’t just stand on a pedestal and proclaim about it. One of the reasons that I think a lot about language but don’t write about it too much is that I usually find myself tying together a Gordian knot of conditional statements: “if….” “but sometimes….” “when….” Language is complicated.
You can’t stand on a pedestal when you write about language. It marks you as a bullshit artist from the very beginning.
Whenever we speak or write, every single one of us is hip deep in the gutter, surrounded by the muck of social contexts, history, and our own prejudices. There’s no such thing as plucking a single word out of that muck and holding it aloft as if it were pristine and separate from everything else in the gutter. To pretend that you’re not in the gutter covered with muck yourself is even worse.
The Argument (Such as It Is)
So what’s he actually saying? How is the Left ruining language? What Smalley has for us is little more than a re-hash of the “civility” argument tossed around by Dan Fincke and others like him. Specifically, Smalley thinks that lefties are ennabling “real Nazis” by referring to people on the far right as Nazis or fascists:
So when you call someone a “racist” for having a different interpretation on the Evergreen College issue with Brett Weinstein, or shut Jewish Professor Gad Saad down by calling him a Nazi, or saying that a black person is a “Token, White Supremacist” for supporting Trump, you’re just wasting the terms and making them meaningless.
With every Classical Liberal or Conservative or Libertarian that you call a Nazi, you’re diminishing the plight of every Jew who faced actual Nazis in the Holocaust.
To make this argument, Smalley has to strip everything of context and reduce it down to a matter of opinion. He has to clean off the muck.
But here’s the thing: to look at the clip above, you would think that Gad Saad is one of those people like the ACLU, who will stand up equally for anyone to defend the principle of free speech. Smalley’s version of Gad Saad will be there plugging for your right to free speech whether you’re a socialist queer feminist or an outright Nazi.
Unfortunately, that ain’t the version of Gad Saad that exists in real life. On his YouTube channel, Gad Saad regularly hosts all the icons of the extreme right, from Milo Yiannopolous to Gavin McInnes, and presents them not only as free speech martyrs but as visionaries. I’ve criticized my fellow lefties for using the tag “fascist” too loosely for years. But when you sit on video for forty-five minutes cheerfully kissing the ass of someone who sidesteps the “white supremacist” label by claiming that he’s a “Western chauvinist,” then you don’t get to complain about the pushback. If you lie down with dogs, don’t be surprised when you get up with fleas.
The rest of the piece is similar nonsense. One of the problems is that he doesn’t actually cite or link to any of the incidents that he claims are representative of leftist rhetoric. For instance, when he writes: “Ben Carson, Stacey Dash, and Sheriff Clark: all three of whom are black, were labeled as ‘White Supremacists’ for supporting Trump,” he neglects to mention that the “leftist” who made that comment was Chelsea Handler.
Here, I’d agree with Smalley on one thing: That was a completely inappropriate comment coming from Chelsea Handler. That’s not a judgement that a white person gets to make about a black person. But again, Chelsea Handler is hardly “the left”; she’s a rather obnoxious comedian who’s taken her share of heat from social justice activists for comments about gender and race.
But although Smalley may have gotten the basic facts right — and I even agree with his moral stance on the issue — stripping it of the specifics makes it dishonest. He presents it as if it’s generic; reading it, you’d think it was a thing that was said and picked up by the larger activist community. Thing is, it wasn’t.
Although you can find a lot of leftists who are willing to say very harsh things to say about Ben Carson, Stacey Dash, and Sherrif Clarke (and the harshest come from black activists) you’re going to find very few willing to defend an obnoxious white comedian making those comments about black people.
There’s a reason that Smalley doesn’t dare get specific. Once you dig into the specifics, it’s painfully obvious that he’s cherry-picking things that don’t represent progressive politics as a whole. From the first paragraph to the last, he’s not only shovelling bullshit, but a very old and familiar brand of bullshit.
Why Our Words (and Activism) Have to Match Reality
It’s not just that I disagree with Smalley. It’s that his entire thesis is so misguided, so completely ignorant of the reality that we live in, that his post is the very epitome of the old saying “not even wrong.” He talks as though he’s trying to advise us on how to build an effective political movement, but his advice is for us to act as though we are living in the clean, idealized environment of the textbook for a freshman class in formal logic.
When you immediately discount a video inside an ANTIFA rally, because it came from an ANTIFA Spoof account, you’ve stopped thinking critically. The video can still be true, even though the account is a parody. Just saying “it’s doctored!” without evidence, doesn’t make it so.
In other words, Smalley thinks that we should treat every piece of information with the same clinical neutrality, whether it comes from Stormfront or The New York Times. I wish I could do that. I wish I lived in a world where that were a practical possibility. Because technically, he’s right: Sometimes Stormfront will get facts right, and sometimes The New York Times will get them wrong, no matter what their intentions. The best propaganda keeps one foot in the truth.
But here’s the thing. I don’t live in that world, and although he doesn’t know it, neither does David Smalley. We can’t get out of this hole by saying “assume a ladder” and working our way up.
Here’s the world that we live in: Both Russian intelligence and homegrown trolls from sites like 4chan, Reddit, and the Slymepit regularly launch disinformation and propaganda campaigns aimed at discrediting social justice activists, from Antifa to NFL players who take a knee during the anthem. Within a few hours of Stephen Paddock opening fire on the crowd attending a concert in Las Vegas, they had already started to pump lies over the internet, including that the shooter was an anti-Trump Rachel Maddow fan.
Fake sites and social media accounts pretending to be antifa or Black Lives Matter groups are spreading doctored photos and videos meant to inflame people against those causes. Journalists and activists are identifying the fakes every day, but it’s a game of Information Age Whack-a-Mole. New ones keep springing up as soon as the old ones become useless or are shut down.
When someone lies to you again and again, when their purpose is not to add facts to the conversation, but to spread doubt and fear, they don’t get the presumption of truthfulness. They have tainted themselves, and the rational thing to do is treat their words as tainted until you can confirm them independently.
What really pisses me off is that I’m sure that this wouldn’t be controversial if we were talking about something else; if you asked Smalley whether we should assign the same credibility to Conservapedia’s information about evolution that we do to articles from Scientific American, he would almost certainly say no. But once you start talking about actual human beings, the rules change. Once we start talking about racism and white supremacy, it becomes essential that the devil be allowed to stand and be heard equally.
How David Smalley is Ruining Language (Or: “Words Mean Things — Sometimes.”)
I think the reason that David Smalley is so willing to give propaganda sites run by Russian intelligence and American white nationalists the benefit of the doubt is that he feels a certain kinship with them. His piece is a lie from beginning to end, and yet he wants to be treated as if he’s not only honest, but courageous.
If he were honest, if this weren’t a massive con job, then we wouldn’t arrive at this passage:
When someone says “I disagree with Nazis too, but maybe we shouldn’t punch people for talking,” and you label that person a Fascist, and then advocate for punching people, you’re actually displaying Fascism, which is the forcible suppression of opposition. Oh, the irony.
Remember: The point of everything that’s gone before is that the “screeching left” is destroying language by using words too loosely. When we frequently use words like “Nazi, Rapist, Sexual Predator, Token, Racist, Fascist, Bigot, White Supremacist,” we’re diminishing their power and demeaning the true victims of oppression.
But then he pulls out one of the most achingly tired — and wrong — ideas in politics today: People who advocate punching Nazis or White Supremacists are Fascists themselves.
First of all, in any real use of the word, Fascism is much more complicated and specific than “the forcible suppression of opposition.”1
Fascism is a very specific political philosophy, one that fetishizes national and ethnic identity over all and backs that up with extreme militarism. Racism and genocide are inscribed at the very core of fascist ideology. It’s more than someone being over-enthusiastic about their cause, or punching someone whose politics they oppose, or just being an asshole. To be a fascist is a declaration that you believe some people are by their nature are less worthy not only of civil rights, but of life.
And that’s what we’re standing against.
I’m more than willing to debate the role of violence in political protest at large, and the “punch nazis” question in particular. But to call people who advocate punching Nazis and Klansmen fascists is to diminish the meaning of the word, and demean the suffering of people who suffered at the hands of actual fascists in Italy, Germany, Spain, and elsewhere. No matter what you think of it as a tactic (and once again, there’s much legitimate criticism that could be said here, but David has neither the wit nor the nuance to execute it), there’s a difference between assaulting someone for what they say and doing it for what they are.
David Smalley is a liar: He says that he wants words to mean things, and to respect the victims of oppression by not using them glibly or innacurately. That’s a standard that clearly doesn’t apply to him. When he says that’s what’s important to him, he is lying. What he wants is for social justice activists to shut up about racism, sexism, and queer rights. He wants to be able to sit down and treat these discussions as if they are mere intellectual debates with no consequences. He wants to act as though no one will bleed or die depending upon the result.
None of these are options. I’m sorry, but they’re not. I deeply wish that I could live in David Smalley’s world.
“Fascist” is the right word to use for the things that are happening under Trump. So are “misogynist,” “racist” and “white supremacist.” To not use those words is not only to deny reality, but to deny our responsibility for making it better. I mean not just Americans, but white Americans in particular. We are the ones responsible for Trump and the extremist right who put him there, whether through our actions or our silence. It is far past time to stop being afraid of using the right words to describe the reality that we live in.