Sunday, September 17, 2017

Virtue signaling, identity politics, dishonest philosophy and all things bad

I recently came across this video, which is perhaps the video equivalent of the article I responded to a few months back.  The text surrounding it in my Facebook screen read as follows:

Title: Teen Activist OWNS Sen. Jeff Flake At Town Hall

Shared by: NowThis Politics
“I’m wondering…why it’s your right to take away my right to choose Planned Parenthood.” – This young woman absolutely schooled her Republican Senator.

This is an astounding video.  Every part of it – from the preparatory caption, to the source and its business model, to the mind-numbingly stupid question she actually asks, to the raucous applause she receives for it, to the blithe “you go girl!” euphoria with which it was shared tens of thousands of times – could stand alone as an ever-more depressing testament to the shitty-ness of our public discourse in this country. To borrow a phrase from the sort of people who shared the video, “let’s unpack this”, shall we?

First, let’s talk about what this “youth activist” actually says. The “schooling” of Senator Flake has two parts: the statement of facts, and then the actual question.  Interestingly, the facts have almost nothing to do with the question, so let’s start with the facts she chooses to state.  You can read them on the video subtitle, but here’s a convenient transcript for anyone who prefers plain sentences to five-word phrases that alternate between yellow and white:

“I just want to state some facts…um…so I’m a young woman, and you’re a middle-aged man; I’m a person of color, and you’re white; um, I come from a background of poverty and I didn’t always have parents to guide me through life.  You come from privilege.”

Leave aside for now that “you come from privilege” is far closer to opinion than anything objectively factual.  Also leave aside the matter of just what color she happens to be, if not white (which remains an eyebrow-raising question from this camera angle, and poses Turing-test questions about how much white privilege she retains herself).

What most warrants ridicule here is telling a United States Senator that you’re going to preface your question with a statement of facts, and then rather than presenting the sort of empirical, evidentiary “facts” that may actually have bearing on the matter at hand, choosing instead to highlight the contrasting physical descriptions of the Senator and yourself.  Yes – the age, gender and skin color of you and Senator Flake are technically “facts.”  But they are also instantly observable facts to anyone with eyes, readily apparent to everyone present, and consequently do not need to be pointed out.  And yet the audience’s cheers and applause make clear that from these “facts” they consider the argument already won.  The entire endeavor of stating those facts is purely performative; no engagement with Flake’s ideas or opinions was even attempted.

But that’s hardly surprising in today’s climate; on its own, it wouldn’t have warranted a rebuttal blog post. What got my blood pressure up was her actual question:

“So, I’m wondering…why it’s your right to take away my right to choose Planned Parenthood and to choose no-copay birth control? So if you could explain that to me, that would be great.”

Marvel at the temerity of that question.  Gawk at the astounding euphemism of “my right to choose no-copay birth control.”  Gape in wide wonder at how the “right to choose _____” became casually interchangeable with the “right to choose free _____” without anyone in the audience so much as blinking an eye.  Because make no mistake, free birth control on demand is precisely what this brat is so indignantly demanding.

No legislator in Arizona – nor anywhere else I know of – has proposed to take away Deja Foxx’s right to call up any insurance company that does business in her state, and purchase from them an insurance plan which includes no-copay coverage for birth control.  By any recognizable meaning of that phrase, her “right to choose no-copay birth control” remains entirely intact and unthreatened (as does her right to choose birth control generally, draconian prescription requirements notwithstanding).  Sadly, this is not what Deja Foxx actually wants.  She wants a “no-copay plan” in the sense that “someone besides me pays for the plan.”

In all likelihood, she doesn’t much care who that someone else is.  She’d probably prefer wealthy taxpayers pay, through Medicare or Medicaid or a directly socialized healthcare system that includes unlimited free birth control on demand.  But short of that, she’s content with her employer paying, or her parents’ employer paying, through force of government dictate.  What has her panties so up in a wad is not that Senator Jeff Flake and his cronies want to take away her right to choose anything; it’s that they want to give other people the right to choose NOT to give her free shit.

To be fair, what constitutes meaningful “choice” in a world where many people cannot afford everything they’d like to have has long been a matter of philosophical dispute.  Some hold that choice exists so long as it is not constrained by human violence or the threat thereof, whereas others contend it is only possible when coupled with the means to acquire – or “access to” – the desired choice.  But traditionally, responsible leftists have at least distinguished between those two conceptions.  “Pro-choice” people have not typically argued that abortion must be free – only that it must be legal.  When drug war opponents argue that people should be free to choose what to put in their own bodies, they are not arguing that marijuana must also be accessible free of charge.  The popular “woman’s body, woman’s choice” refrain has always been used to agitate for bodily autonomy – not universal healthcare.

The “right to choose X” is one thing, and the “right to free X,” is a step further. Calling for a “right to choose free X,” is a bait and switch deliberately conflating two separate philosophical claims, and deceitfully hijacking the verbiage of the common in service of the much more radical.

Now, let’s talk about “rights,” and how completely meaningless the word has become by the end of her sentence.  Even if people did have a right to “choose free” birth control, the question “why is it your right to take away my right to ____” is maddeningly stupid for at least three reasons.

First, it’s stupid because it begs the question.  Rights are exclusive; by definition, they end where another person’s rights begin.  It can never be one person’s right to take away another person’s right by definition, and we all intuitively understand this.  So to frame any question as “why do you have the right to take away my right” is to presuppose one’s own contention that their actions infringe upon one’s rights (and thereby render the entire question deliberately unanswerable – rhetorical and unserious).

Second, it’s stupid because she’s using the word “rights” interchangeably with “my values.” Rights aren’t just things it would be nice if everyone could have; traditionally, they’re things we already have from birth, which can either be protected or taken away.  She’s basically saying “why is it your right to take away this thing I really want,” without any coherent litmus test for determining which wants count as rights and which do not.

Finally, it’s stupid because of the preamble.  By preempting a question on what rights we have with a “statement of facts” regarding what privilege we have, she strongly implies that that’s relevant to the question  – that is, that our rights are dependent or conditional on how much privilege we do or do not have. This runs directly contrary to both the constitution and the egalitarian principle of “equal rights” to which the left typically appeals.

The final thing I want to talk about here is NowThis.  We could also talk about AJ+, or, or BuzzFeed, or Salon, or any of the equivalent ““““““““““““““news outlets”””””””””””””” that churn out 20-90 second videos designed for social media, because all their videos follow the same predictable formula. 

The first part of the formula is brevity.  The videos must be short enough not to lose the attention of halfhearted social media slacktivists pretending they actually care.

The second part of the formula is subtitles.  The videos are always overlaid in boldfaced white and yellow text, in case the viewer is at work or in class and can’t turn the sound up (for risk they are caught slacking off on whatever they’re supposed to be doing instead).

The third part of the formula is the illusion of news.  The videos always pretend to be “reporting” on an important and developing story, instead of what they’re really doing, which is selling emotions that left-wing people want to feel.  This is crucial because it allows the viewer to believe they are being responsible citizens by educating themselves on worldly issues, instead of just seeking out an echo chamber affirming their own brilliance and empathy.

The fourth part of the formula is a clickbaity title and caption, which is always some variation of the same sentence:

“Watch (*insert figure sympathetic to the left here) SLAY/SCHOOL/OWN (*or equivalent hip verb for “use rhetoric left-wing people find appealing” here) this (*insert demonized right wing archetype here).”

I mourn for the days when this formula would have been called out for the lazy, arrogant, feel-good, remind-me-how-right-I-am bullshit it is, instead of just blending into an ever more cacophonous fake-news background.  A generation of thinkers is being eagerly reassured that these videos constitute responsible social awareness.  A generation of college students consider themselves informed on the issues because they have watched them.  One of them is Deja Foxx, and fake news is as responsible for creating her dumb question as it is for publicizing it.

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