Why You Can't Shame The Shameless

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2020-09-20 12:00:00 No comments

Someone on Twitter pointed out recently that it makes no sense to try and shame reactionaries for being hypocrites, because the charge carries no weight with those who matter. I agree with this, and I think the reasons why are at the heart of the largely ineffectual ways we've grappled with the corruption of public morals.

When a reactionary behaves in a hypocritical way, they do so as a way to both consolidate power and to signal to others of like minds that they, too, can be part of the same power-grab. The whole premise of reactionary politics is, as someone else once put it, that there is an in-group that the law protects but does not bind, and an out-group that the law binds but does not protect. One's mission is to remain firmly in the first category. Talk of "values" in reactionary circles is not about what conduct we should all have, but about what conduct we need to accuse others of not having, so they can be pushed into the out-group if their behavior threatens our consolidation of the in-group.

Accusing such people of hypocrisy never works, because the accusation no longer means the same thing to them, or their peers, that it does to others. It has become a signifier, not a stigma. Those of us who throw the charge of hypocrisy are dupes for thinking things could be fair; those who embrace hypocrisy as a standard are just smarter players of the game. What matters is not how consistent you are, but how well you can use accusations of inconsistency against those who are dumb enough to believe such things really matter. Talk of decency is for suckers.

This asymmetry is, I think, at the heart of how public ideals have been ruined. On one side you have people who still believe in a fair fight and a level playing field, and on the other you have people who don't. A public sphere is not possible under such circumstances, unless the first side wises up and realizes no amount of yammering about rules changes anything. At some point in the challenges to the democratic life there comes a moment when it means little to be merely upstanding for its own sake, when so many others are not. (The trick is to not have to get to that point, but rather that Rubicon was crossed a long time ago; now we have to wade back, and there is no staying dry while doing so.)

The way I've come to think about this is, you can't shame the shameless, and you shouldn't try. You need to bring the fight in other ways. This came to be not long after the 2016 election, when I realized no amount of shame would embarrass the reactionaries out of power. All it did was embolden them, make them all the more mutually immune to being shamed. It came to me that shaming them for being immoral creatures who would put children in cages only resonated with people whose moral wells were not already polluted. (Yes, they put kids in cages, the logic goes, but they were those brown kids, not our nice white ones. And this is not inconsistent in the slightest, not when the real underlying consistency is how one can protect one's own turf at any cost.)

The most effective attacks against such people, at least with those who are susceptible to such messaging, are no longer moral ones, because of the way the whole language of morals has been co-opted and made into a signaling gesture. Talking about morals is no longer about what applies to all of us. It's about what can be applied to others while excluding ourselves. It's a gerrymander every bit as craven and divisive as the ones that carve up counties along preposterously convoluted jigsaw lines. The shameless are no more interested in a real discussion of the role of morals in public life than creationists are interested in real discussions about evolutionary science. It's all show-trial theater to them, and they go out of their way to prove it.

Best to not give them the bait. Quit wasting time and energy on moral attacks that just get brushed off by those who just long for a little of that same immunity for themselves. Focus on their incompetence, on their ineptitude to deliver even the simplest things. Focus on their idiotic impulsiveness, on the way they stumble into a good idea only to pick themselves up and trundle on over it, on the pathetic shoddiness of their promises, on how easily they get played by mutual enemies, on the ways your trust in them to deliver the simplest quotidian results has failed, on the ways they offer you more concrete harm than theoretical good. Make it personal in a way that matters to them, not only to us.

Tags: politics sociology

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This page contains a single post by Serdar Yegulalp, in the category Uncategorized / General, published on 2020-09-20 12:00:00.

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