I really like Lindsey Ellis. I don’t always keep track of her videos, but when I do, they’re always incredibly well thought out and thought-provoking. So, when I heard there was a major controversy around her, my first reaction was to wonder how anyone serious could have a problem with her.
I think my gut feeling has broadly proven true. Her recent video handling the harassment campaign against her was brilliant and insightful. She demonstrated a level of vulnerability and grace I don’t think I’ll ever be capable of. It is intense and stressful; It actually hurts to watch at points.
Even though I think everyone who cares about this sort of thing should watch her video, I will summarize the controversy here. Basically, she made a comparison between two Asian-inspired properties and some people found it offensive. People started dragging up stuff from her past, and it turned into a cacophony of criticism and calls for her to be “cancelled”. Ellis deleted her Twitter account, and her name started trending. A few weeks later, she made a video where she addressed the accusations against her in excruciating detail. Because of an old controversy around her “rape rap” video, this involves her describing her experience being raped.
There are some obvious thoughts that come up while watching this video. Isn’t this disgusting? No one should feel compelled to describe the most traumatic moment of their life to cruel strangers. To steal a thought from one of my readers, what happened to the presumption of innocence? How can we claim to care about restorative justice and fighting the cruelty of the American criminal “justice” system when our own communities fail to meet its most minimal standards?
Ellis’ video essay is a critical work because it brings up these questions in an incisive and poignant way. I want to address some of these questions.
The first and most important point in my view is the conflation of ends and means. Basically, the method we use to bring about change will determine the actual result of that change. In this case, it’s odd that people who I assume are in favor of justice reform, given that’s the priority in racial justice activism right now, are using similar excuses to justify the harassment of Ellis as other commentators have used to justify the killing of black people. She’s no angel, she should have used better judgement, if only she had complied, and so on.
I agree with conservatives on one main point. It is irresponsible to perform large scale social experiments when we cannot implement them successfully on a smaller scale. I do not believe that Twitter mob activity in any way negates the need for a fundamental restructuring of our justice system. However, we cannot expect community policing to be effective if we ourselves are incapable of forgiveness and justice in our everyday lives. Restorative justice is a worthwhile goal, so we might as well practice it in our own communities first.
The second point is that there is a great deal of complexity in the act of prioritizing specific voices. We should listen to people of color. We should defer to the experience of people who are directly affected by and have an intimate connection with these issues. This is especially true when these people have traditionally been marginalized. It contributes more to the conversation to affirmatively platform these voices, and it severely detracts from our knowledge of the world when we talk over them.
However, Candace Owens is a person of color. Does that mean we should blindly accept all of the disgusting things she says about George Floyd? No, of course not. People of color are just as universal as white people, which means they are just as prone to having contemptible and stupid opinions. The right loves to abuse this tendency; they have no shortage of loathsome commentators with marginalized group identities.
This extends beyond identity politics. I have seen people argue for authoritarian regimes like the USSR and PRC on the grounds that they have spoken with people who lived there or visited these places themselves and thought it was great. Of course, if you have not physically been to these countries, your viewpoint has limited validity and cannot be taken seriously. They usually move on from this to downplay criticisms as western propaganda or CIA psychological operations and so on.
Recently, an individual reached out to me to write articles for his publication. He started his political writing in the Polish People’s Republic and his experiences have driven to him to favor limited-government, pro-capitalist policies. My former diachronic linguistics professor is also Polish. I don’t know his political views, but he wrote a book about growing up in Soviet Ukraine after fleeing the Nazi invasion and holocaust. His dad was imprisoned and forced to work in Siberia, so I imagine his views on the USSR are at least mixed. A friend of mine lives in Czechia. He has a portrait of Lenin in his home and supports the downfall of the United States, which is distressing because I live there. One of my favorite commentators, Slavoj Zizek, grew up in Yugoslavia. He rejects Leninism but still holds on to some vague notion of communism or at least anti-capitalism.
Which one of these people holds the definitive view on the USSR? Who should we be listening to, and who should we ignore? It’s almost as if the injunction is not to listen, but to shut up.
Now, my final point is a bit of speculative psychological analysis. I believe that Twitter harassment is an example of the Just-World Phenomenon in action. The Just-World Phenomenon is a tendency for people to blame victims as a way to preserve their belief that the world is inherently fair. If bad things happen to people who did nothing to deserve them, that means that the world is chaotic and unfair. It also means that everyone is vulnerable to those bad things, regardless of what they do to prevent them.
The most prominent example of this is the culture around discussions of sexual assault, otherwise known as rape culture. Victims are portrayed as being culpable in their own victimization. They didn’t wear the right clothes, they drank too much, they hung out with the wrong people, whatever.
These moralizing arguments are obviously ridiculous. Nobody deserves sexual assault under any circumstances. The point is something else. Maybe you need to separate yourself from the victim in a way that lets you still feel safe and in control. Maybe the current system benefits you in some way and you need to delegitimize any calls for change. Maybe you’re not comfortable with the idea that the system does not protect people from arbitrary terror. Maybe you want to hold on to some innocent concept of a pure and fundamentally good world.
People want to rationalize your mistakes and list them and label them not because it has anything ultimately to do with you, but because they want to reassure themselves that it will never happen to them.
Twitter harassment is obviously a fundamentally different beast, but I think Ellis points out the similarities near the end of her video. People needed a reason for her to deserve the harassment, because otherwise they’d have to admit that no one is safe from being “cancelled”, and that the culture of rabid ideological puritanism on the left is making life worse for everyone.
I think the tactics to counter this trend are fairly obvious. We need to do a better job living up to our own ideals. We need to build a culture that is hostile towards harassment, more tolerant of cultural and ideological differences, and more forgiving of people who make mistakes. We should give people the benefit of a doubt and try our best to operate in good faith.
As it stands right now, leftist twitter is extremely fraught and undesirable for anyone who is not some sort of emotional masochist. Leftists are doing more than shooting themselves in the foot with this. Since the right holds the institutional wealth and power in our society, wholesome communities and person to person contact should be the backbone of any leftist movement. Instead, the left seems to want to isolate itself. Let’s not. Seriously.