This is the danger in making jokes rooted in ironic offensiveness, even when you’re a master of the form […] At a certain point, somebody is always laughing right alongside you and taking from the joke the message that racism is okay if it’s funny, or that provoking a reaction from someone by joking about rape is funnier than the joke itself.

Ironic offensiveness is far too easy to twist into the idea that nothing is worth caring about, and that getting those who do care to lash out is the funniest thing possible. That idea is now the basis of an entire internet culture that kept splintering, with one of those splinters becoming dedicated to trolling above all else. It eventually got to a point where nobody was sure who was serious and who was joking, or if there was even a difference.


The core argument of Gamergate, and of the alt-right more generally, has always been that caring is hypocritical. Deep down, both movements believe that everybody is racist and sexist and homophobic, that the left, especially, is simply trying to lord a moral superiority over everybody else when, in secret cabals, they kidnap babies and run child molestation rings out of the basements of pizza restaurants. This idea is referred to as “virtue signaling,” meaning that there is no such thing as real virtue, only a pretend virtue that people deploy to try to win points with mainstream society, when everybody would be better off dropping the pretense and letting their most offensive freak flags fly.

Todd VanDerWerff on the culture war.

I think the (ironically) ironic thing is that, in a sense, the alt-right is correct; deep down, everyone is at least some value of *ist, if only because the cultures we’ve all been raised in are, and it’s impossible not to internalise at least some of those messages some of the time.

What the “Social Justice Warriors” teach, then, is not to pretend we don’t have those internalised bigotries, but to not let them rule us. If you’re raised in a sexist society then, yeah, your first thought after hearing about a women’s sexual assault probably will be to idly wonder how she was “asking for it”. Ditto for the varied manifestations of the other axes of oppression and marginalisation our cultural messages have instilled in us since birth. We have very little control over our immediate, deepest id-arising thoughts. But the “SJW Way” is to see those thoughts for what they are, and to catch them before they can bubble up from the deep. To interrogate them, to unpick their origins and, ultimately, to reject them and to refuse to allow them entry into the world through our words or our actions.

Eventually, after a lot of time and effort and practice, those toxic belches from the id die down, but I don’t know of anyone who’s managed to eradicate them entirely. Maybe that person exists and they’re, like, I don’t know. Social Justice Buddha or something, waiting with infinite benevolent patience to welcome us all into Safe Space Nirvana. That place sounds pretty awesome, actually, but we aren’t there yet, and until we are, we’re all just the same species of flawed animal, bumbling along the best we can.

I’ve mentioned before that I really dislike the tendency in some progressive spaces towards a kind of performative purity politics. This is all that dogpiling and calling-out over small “sins” that can go on in places and— okay. I’ll just say Tumblr. It’s mostly notorious on Tumblr. It’s hard to talk about this sometimes because the alt-right’s shrieking about “virtual signalling” is basically this criticism through a glass darkly—to the point where there’s not even a name for this that hasn’t been co-opted—but I think not acknowledging it helps bigoted reactionaries more than it serves to further inclusion and progression.

What I mean by this is that I think progressive spaces are not good at—and are, in fact, getting worse at—acknowledging that, actually, it’s okay to not be “pure”.1 It’s okay to have “bad” thoughts. It’s okay to mess up, to sometimes not use “perfect” language, or even to second-guess concepts that are otherwise taken as progressive orthodoxy. It really is—or, rather, it really should be—okay. We’re all pilgrims on the road to India, to continue the actually-now-that-I’m-thinking-about-it-potentially-in-itself-appropriative-Buddhist-pop-culture-metaphor.

The problem is I think progressive spaces are… not always good at being welcoming to people at different stages of “wokeness”. There are a variety of legitimate reasons for this, harm reduction being the main one. Someone’s random un-woke, off-hand comment about [marginalised group] might be, yanno. Actually harmful to real-life [marginalised group] people, and minimising those impacts isn’t just important, it’s the primary purpose of safe(r) space concepts.

The problem is that the failure mode of these intentions ends up looking… well. It ends up looking exactly like the hypocritical caricature of progressive spaces the alt-right likes to bleat about. It turns otherwise well-intentioned progressive communities into toxic cesspits of hollow “virtue signalling”, lead by the loudest and most unforgiving and extreme personality cults, constantly vigilant for the next “impure” victim to destroy. It makes them look, in other words, exactly like the alt-right, just with different branding. It’s all just about ethics in slash shipping, dontcha know?

Because everything is garbage right now, I need to mention I’m not bemoaning any sort of lack of “civility” here, or doing any hand-wringing bothsiderist “maybe if you were just nicer” bullshit; punch all the Nazis and Gators you want. And demanding emotional labour from marginalised communities to educate even the most well-intentioned un-woke individual is shitty and not appropriate. But I do think there’s space for, for example, people not impacted by a particular axes of microaggression to do that quiet educative work, rather than the immediate rushing to appear the most publicly offended “on behalf of” the aggressed community that sometimes seems to be the reaction du jour. What I mean is: men, be the one to disapprove of the sexism of fellow men. White people, do the same with racism. The cis and the straight, disavowing trans- and homophobia is on us/you. The abled and the neurotypical to distance themselves from ableism. Hell, even the upper- and middle-classes to disavow the self-serving dumping on the working class, lest we forget the modern left’s Marxist roots. That—along with the ability to provide comforting spaces for the aggressed—is the work that I think is, in a lot of ways, more important that all the public call-outs and pile-ons.

The key here is, I think, the ability to operate in good faith. The modern conservative right sometimes seems like it’s built entirely on bad faith, and its cause is heavily invested in trying to convince everyone else to operate the same. It’s this, I think, that progressives need to reject; violently, if necessary. Because I don’t think “operating in good faith” requires, say, eternal pacifism, or eternal compromise. In fact, I think trying to convince everyone that it does is a core part of the right’s bad-faith strategy.

Operating in good faith means being honest, with ourselves and others, and being open. It doesn’t mean needing to constantly engage with those of bad faith,2 or to be the one to be seen to proselytise the cause the most loudly. It means both a level of self-responsibility and -care, but also the ability to prove tools and spaces for other people to engage in the same. I means acknowledging that, sometimes, there are no “right” outcomes, only different versions of less-wrong.

When progressive spaces do these things, I think they do them really well and, critically, they do them where and in ways the bad-faith components of the right just straight-up can’t. But all of this is dirty work, and quiet work, and doesn’t get all the outrage retweets on Twitter, and because of that I think it’s always in danger of withering. But it’s also work that I think, if progressives are to “win” in a way that makes sense for them, and not on terms dictated by the fascist right, I think we absolutely cannot lose sight of.

Fundamentally, what the alt-right is extremely good at is pointing to the worst excesses of the progressive left and saying, “See? You had a Bad Thought once and they know it. They know it and they’ll never let you forget it, or move past it, or beyond it. Sure, you’ve been trying. But it’s not enough. It’ll never be enough for them. So why even bother?” This is the alt-right’s Recruiting 101 and, the worst part is… it’s something they’re kind of not even wrong about. Even if only sometimes.

But it is something that can be addressed. And, the best part is, doing so will strengthen progressive spaces even more than it weakens their opponents.

We don’t have to be nice, in other words. But we should always remember to be kind.

  1. And, speaking of: when have progressives even been worried about “purity” anyway? The fact that the very concept seems like it’s cribbed off some kind of hyper-patriarchal white nationalist theocrat’s playbook should be a giveaway in-and-of-itself. But I digress.
  2. And, ugh. Loaded term, how I dislike thee.