On the Measures of Meaning

Well written, but heavy emphasis on the Cat Disclaimer for this one.


This post was inspired primarily by a liberal acquaintance–we’ll call her Juliet.

picture-6Since the election, Juliet has been suicidal. I don’t mean she’s actually tried to commit suicide; (suicidal women very rarely actually commit suicide, unlike suicidal men.) I just mean she’s posted a lot of angst-ridden things on the internet about how she wants to die because Trump is going to destroy everything in a giant fireball, and literally the only thing she has left to live for are her 3 dogs and 10 cats.

Juliet is one of those people who thinks that we are one heavy bootstep away from Holocaust 2.0 (despite such a thing never having happened in all of American history,) and that the US was an oppressive, horrible, quasi-genocidal place up until 4-8 years ago. (She’s the same age as me, so she has no youth excuse for not knowing what life was like…

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On Banter, Bonding, and Donald Trump

The goal of this blog is to talk about tribalism (as separate from rule based political systems), and that should mean linking articles that are critical of tribalism as much as positive ones, so long as they are really engaging with the topic. This essay about “locker room culture” by Debuk is a pretty good example of the former.

The transgressiveness of sexual banter–its tendency to report markedly offensive acts or desires in deliberately offensive (or in the media’s terms, ‘lewd’) language, is not just accidental, a case of men allowing the mask to slip when they think they’re alone. It’s deliberate, and it’s part of the bonding process. Like the sharing of secrets, the sharing of transgressive desires, acts and words is a token of intimacy and trust. It says, ‘I am showing that I trust you by saying things, and using words, that I wouldn’t want the whole world to hear’. It’s also an invitation to the hearer to reciprocate by offering some kind of affiliative response, whether a token of approval like appreciative laughter, or a matching transgressive comment. (‘I trust you, now show that you trust me’.)

When a private transgressive conversation becomes public, and the speaker who said something misogynist (or racist or homophobic) is publicly named and shamed, he often protests, as Trump did, that it was ‘just banter’, that he is not ‘really’ a bigot, and that his comments have been ‘taken out of context’. And the rest of us marvel at the barefaced cheek of these claims. How, we wonder, can this person disavow his obvious prejudice by insisting that what he said wasn’t, ‘in context’, what he meant?

What I’ve just said about the role of transgressive speech in male bonding suggests an answer (though as I’ll explain in a minute, that’s not the same as an excuse). Public exposure does literally take this kind of conversation out of its original context (the metaphorical ‘locker room’, a private, all-male space). And when the talk is removed from that context, critics will focus on its referential content rather than its interpersonal function. They won’t appreciate (or care) that what’s primarily motivating the boasting, the misogyny, the offensive language and the laughter isn’t so much the speakers’ hatred of women as their investment in their fraternal relationship with each other. They’re like fishermen telling tall tales about their catches, or old soldiers exaggerating their exploits on the battlefield: their goal is to impress their male peers, and the women they insult are just a means to that end.

As I said before, though, that’s not meant to be an excuse: I’m not suggesting that banter isn’t ‘really’ sexist or damaging to women. On the contrary, I’m trying to suggest that it’s more damaging than most critical discussions acknowledge. Banter is not just what commentators on the Trump tape have mostly treated it as–a window into the mind of an individual sexist or misogynist. It’s a ritualised social practice which contributes to the maintenance of structural sexual inequality. This effect does not depend on what the individuals involved ‘really think’ about women. (I have examples of both sexist and homophobic banter where I’m certain that what some speakers say is not what they really think, because they’re gay and everyone involved knows that.) It’s more a case of ‘all that’s needed for evil to flourish is for good men to go along with it for the lolz’.

Certainly the grosser, and more harmful downsides of tribal rituals are worthy of consideration.

My experience does disagree with Debuk in one way: the idea that the solution is for me to voice their objection when these sorts of lewd comments come out. Back when I was more socially and politically active, I used to do this quite a lot. It felt like it was being righteous against an offender to equality (and I was more than a little fond of confrontation). But in the long run, it did not really purge any latent sexism of society, or even people’s concerns that sexism was in the atmosphere. Once your ideology is looking for hidden sexism everywhere, no amount of visibly purging of it convinces people that it is removed.

You’d have to be craaazzy to trust us!

Okay this blog isn’t going to just be “Freddie deBoer’s sentiments plus Scott Alexander’s analyses”, but here’s one more Scott post that is a good example of why safe spaces are so often anti-rule: his post on the useful-but-offensive website Crazymeds.us:


But there’s also a part of me that accepts they probably have their reasons. I’m not sure it’s possible to make a site as good as crazymeds.us without it being as offensive as crazymeds.us. Remove every single flippant statement and optimize for complete unobjectionability, and you’re most of the way back to drugs.com. I mean, there are certainly some simple improvements that could be made on drugs.com, and there’s probably a market for a site like that, and maybe that site already exists and I just haven’t found it. But crazymeds is something special. It’s inspiring trust through countersignaling. In a field where almost everyone is a dry, scientific person who won’t give you a straight answer about anything or treat you like a human being, crazymeds’ business strategy is to make it super obvious they’re the exact opposite of that. They’re human, and I think that’s precisely why a demographic who wouldn’t trust anybody else trusts crazymeds.

One of the problems of making any norm that defines polite behavior, is that dropping that norm becomes an excellent way to communicate “I am being really serious here”. And once frankness, and later informality, become associated with talking impolitely, then you have a distinct difference between how we treat most of the world, and how we talk to the people who matter to us. And no amount of new norms around polite behavior and “treating people with respect” will change that fundamental drift.