Robin’s Zugzwang

July 19, 2020 Category: Domestic Politics

Epilogue 2

Robin DiAngelo’s success represents the extent to which the public discourse—nay, deliberative democracy itself—has degenerated.  Even the most stalwart Progressives now often find themselves treading water in a roiling caldron of contrived indignation.  Consequently, they are reticent to be candid lest they be castigated for breaching the latest speech codes…or, even worse, being guilty of impropriety.

At first blush, Robin’s prescriptions seem to be a good way to generate awareness amongst non-p.o.c.; until, that is, one realizes that all the H.R. departments in the world won’t make structural inequalities go away; as such departments are PART OF those dysfunctional structures.  We can censor speech ’til the cows come home; and systemic racism will persist behind all the pleasant smiles and token gestures.  We can meet diversity quotas ’til kingdom come; and systemic racism will persist even as we congratulate ourselves for using this or that member of this or that marginalized group as a prop.  Structural inequalities persist even when the optics are magnificent

Let’s consider an eventuality in which the executives at Wall Street Banks start saying: “Alright. Fine. We’ll do ‘sensitivity training’ and issue ingratiating press releases. No problem.” After saying this, they then congratulate themselves for being “woke”. When this occurs, yet structural inequalities persist, we can be quite sure that there is nothing substantive going on in the way of rectifying socio-economic injustices.

PR is, after all, just another name for “propaganda”. And when those most responsible for societal dysfunction are eager to embrace a program that promises to placate dissidents, we are right to be suspicious.

So long as we are fixated on caviling about micro-aggressions and “white fragility”, the status quo will persist indefinitely.  How so?  Because all the trigger warnings and “call outs” in the world will do nothing to erode structural inequality.  As it turns out, incessant pearl-clutching amounts to an elaborate distraction from society’s real problems…while providing us with the illusion that we might be accomplishing something worthwhile.

What does this have to do with Robin DiAngelo?  In her (ostensibly) anti-racist fervor, she seems not to understand is that being churlish precludes our ability to be empathic.  As discussed in the preceding essay, she purports to heal rifts along racial lines by concocting reasons to be resentful along those same lines.  Her aim is to attenuate racial inequality by conjuring race-based antagonisms; as if creating fissures somehow engendered solidarity.  The inverted logic would be laughable if it weren’t taken seriously by so many.

The untenable presumption is that a scourge of impropriety is primarily to blame for America’s socio-economic injustices–especially when those injustices fall along racial lines.  In the scheme that Robin puts forth, no matter what a white person says / does, it can be interpreted in SOME cynical way that enables her to ascribe nefarious intent…no matter how specious such ascription might be.  There is no viable way to extricate oneself from this crucible of (imputed) culpability; as all unsanctioned roads lead to accusations of bigotry. Acrimony reigns supreme; though it is sold as a regime of (obligatory) sensitivity.

It is plain to see, then, that the so-called “sensitivity” training Robin touts is a racket. In fact, these DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusivity) seminars have consistently been shown to do far more harm than good.  For such programs create racial tension where it would otherwise not exist; while also imposing a financial cost on the organizations that are duped into hiring race hustlers (to reiterate: purely for PR purposes).  Such an infelicitous result should not come as a surprise after one has fumigated a space with the semiotic equivalent of a nerve agent.  After all, drummed-up resentment invariably translates to hostility.  (It’s a small step from wallowing to simmering.)

With Robin’s workshops, the idea is that by contriving frivolous grievances, implicit biases might be exposed.  Such exposure will then–in a flourish of virtue-signaling splendor–make structural inequities vanish.  Or so we’re told.

This is nothing but a sham.  In each of Robin’s mendacious interventions, each individual is admonished to hold others in abeyance for even the most trivial breaches of etiquette.  Such persnicketiness, when widespread, can’t help but create a toxic atmosphere; and be off-putting to those who aren’t fans of being accused of bigotry simply for having been uncouth during a fleeting encounter.  One does not bring about social cohesion by sowing division…even if doing so is meant to generate “awareness”. 

Self-awareness (and being vigilant of one’s own biases) is crucial to fighting racism. But indiscriminately leveling a raft of spurious indictments across racial lines only succeeds in amplifying alterity.  It creates a dynamic that leads to acrimony rather than to comity.  Recrimination is invariably reciprocal; and leads to a vicious cycle. (Again: Robin seems not to be aware of how positive feedback loops work; or that they even exist.)

Alas.  These “interventions” are extremely lucrative for the charlatans who orchestrate them.  Robin isn’t alone.  Many have been hired to serve as proctors for these hallowed “anti-racism” sessions.  As is often the case with scams, we find that charismatic speakers are compensated handsomely for their cupidity; and the rubes who fall for their schtick walk away feeling enlightened.

When we put trepidation over vigilance, walls go up, not down.  Yet as Robin would have it, we bring about comity by stoking anxiety.  It’s as if we could combat bigotry by walking on eggshells…while casting aspersions whenever we feel unsettled.  Alas.  Robin is convinced that being insufferably captious is the best way to engender compassion; when all it is, really, is an opportunity to virtue signal.

Any so-called “call-out” is tantamount to “Hey, look at me!”  Such guileful pageantry works well for people who want to take credit for doing absolutely nothing…other than perform a few token gestures (and occasionally give lip-service for image-burnishing purposes).

In Robin’s guilt-mongering campaign, there is something oddly reminiscent of the Puritans’ demand to “REPENT”.  And after repenting, be sure to truckle…and then pander to the whim of anyone (in the aggrieved demographic group) irrespective of merit.  It’s as if solidarity between members of a privileged group (racially defined) and a marginalized group (racially defined) could be forged by the former being CONDESCENDING toward the latter (based sheerly on racial distinctions). But that’s not how cosmopolitanism works. That’s not even how HUMANISM works.

When it comes to promoting socio-economic justice, the sine qua non is neither faux amity nor artificially-stoked acrimony. Rather, it is fellowship.  Such fellowship is based not on honoring formalities; it is based on our shared humanity.

One does not persuade ACTUAL racists to stop being racist by chiding them for being racists.  Racism can’t be tsk-tsk-tsk-ed into oblivion.  And, at best, finger-wagging accomplishes nothing; and more often than not exacerbates the very problem it purports to address.  Moreover, one only succeeds in vitiating the ballast of an indictment by indiscriminately leveling it at anyone who fails to sufficiently hew to a regimen of etiquette that the latest self-proclaimed “anti-racist” popinjay has mandated.

Being chronically preoccupied with breaches of etiquette guarantees that empathy will continue to be sacrificed on the altar of political correctness.  By participating in the fatuous charade that is “call-out culture”, we find ourselves in a constant state of anxiety: more focused on policing everyone’s adherence to newfangled–often inane–formalities than on doing what’s necessary to effect structural change.

So what’s to be done with the vestiges of Jim Crow?  There’s no simple answer; but we can be quite sure of one thing: Being peevish is incompatible with being empathetic, so can not possibly be part of the solution. When seeking to promote civil rights, being self-deprecating is not productive. Posturing is not a form of activism.

And if empathy is really what we’re after, Robin’s approach to trans-ethnic interaction is the opposite of what we should be doing.  What she seems not to grasp is that the things that truly matter are those things that transcend demographic categories.  Being a good person is about embracing our nascent humanity, not about whiteness or blackness…or any other divisive demographic categorization scheme.

Yet there is no evidence that those who think like Robin are sincerely interested in forging genuine human connections; they are only interested in virtue signaling.  So far as Robin is concerned, the solution to racial problems is POSTURING.  Though, like all posturing, the posturer does not admit that all he’s doing is, well, posturing.  Posturing often works because it is passed off as NOT JUST posturing, but as some sort of intrepidity.  This is just theatrics; as one simply pretends to take a bold stand without actually having to stand up (and then publicly congratulating oneself for the gesture).  It’s as if we could empower ethnic minorities by PATRONIZING them.

As we all know, it is easier to proclaim that one is against racism than to do the hard work to address the underpinnings of racial inequity.  And it is much easier to pat oneself on the back when one isn’t busy doing anything that challenges incumbent power structures.  Why go to the trouble of addressing government policy when all one needs to do is talk the talk?  For in Robin’s world, lip service is all we need; no dissidence required.

And so it goes: The “anti-whiteness” crusader makes things all about the decorum of non-p.o.c. rather than about the power structures that actually perpetuate racial injustices.  As far as exponents of this approach are concerned, institutional dysfunction will eventually vanish if we all fixate enough on personal impressions.

And there’s an added perk.  Pretending to care about racial injustice by “calling out” (read: shunning) purported transgressors is sure to earn one waves of validation on social media.  The incentive, then, is to put on airs. The trick is to maintain one’s sanctimony while picking fights that will never actually move anything forward.  But here’s the thing: Leveling accusations that are based on contrived grievances–that is: on illusory “problems”–is not only unhelpful, it is counterproductive.  Not only does it divert attention away from the crux of the problem, it stirs resentments that weren’t there to begin with.

No person in the history of the world has ever achieved enlightenment by being scolded by an officious schoolmarm. Bigotry can’t be attributed to bad PR. Contrary to Robin’s prescriptions, civil rights aren’t about better optics; they’re about rectitude.

More to the point: We don’t generate awareness by being obsequious and petty.  Want to eliminate racial inequities?  Advocate for universal public healthcare and universal public education–nay, for equal access to ALL public goods–while working to reduce structural inequalities.  That means ending any and all systems of oppression / exploitation / marginalization.  None of this has anything to do with good manners.  Power structures don’t care about how polite you are.

And what about the need to “call out” objectionable speech / conduct?  Being reflexively–and gratuitously–antagonistic the moment any bystander happens to experience discomfiture can only succeed in undermining endeavors to foster comity across racial boundaries.  The world is festooned with micro-aggressions–both actual and chimerical. Maturity is about being able to handle such things without getting bent out of shape–which is simply to say: maturity is–among other things–about not being narcissistic.

Pandering plays no role in forging human bonds. (Helpful hint: If one finds that one has to pander to another person in order to maintain good relations, that person is not one’s friend.) In trying to be neighborly, the key is not to coddle every bystander; it’s to treat them as fellow humans. Civility is not based on nicety.

When we obsess over OPTICS, we miss what’s going on beneath the surface. And imposing obligations / restrictions on EVERYONE due to any given person’s subjective state is a recipe for histrionic anarchy.  Making not offending anyone the prime directive is not the way to go.  It is no secret that when one spends all one’s time and energy jumping through hoops, good will–which should be the ENTIRE POINT–eventually gets shunted aside.

It may behoove Robin to note: Trans-ethnic comity starts with being able to laugh WITH each other ABOUT each other.  One need only look at any healthy inter-racial relationship–romantic or platonic–that has ever existed if one wishes to corroborate this indubitable fact.  (One wonders if Robin has ever been acquainted with a well-adjusted inter-racial couple.  She seems heedless of what makes human interaction work.)  Comity, then, is a matter of celebrating–not weaponizing–our differences.  At the end of the day, our shared humanity trumps everything else; and it doesn’t require us to go through the motions, as stipulated by this or that social choreographer.

Being tetchy is never the best way to forge human bonds.  And approaching complicated interactions with a chip on one’s shoulder is unlikely to ever yield positive outcomes.  What to improve the relationship between black and white Americans?  Step one is to ignore virtually everything Robin DiAngelo has ever said on the matter.

Is this hyperbole?  No.  The notion that racial biases can be ameliorated via a regimen of ad hoc PROPRIETY is bonkers.  Propriety is not probity.  Good manners do not make one a good person; they only make one APPEAR TO BE a good person.  Indeed, rectitude has nothing to do with keeping up appearances; as principles only truly matter when no one else is looking.

Yet the way Robin would have it, non-racism is ALL ABOUT keeping up appearances.  For her, morality is primarily performative in nature.  According to her worldview: Discomfiture–in anyone for any reason–is the primary way to gauge culpability in societal dysfunction.  But a dearth of congeniality is no metric for racism.  (Put another way: The problem with racism isn’t poor manners.  Plenty of racists RADIATE charm, and never once wind up in trouble.)

It’s as if structural inequality could be eradicated by weaponizing etiquette.  In effect, Robin and her ilk think activism is about PIETY.  As far as they’re concerned, those who are most pious help the world the most—a worldview shared by religious fundamentalists of all stripes.  Indeed, Robin’s exhortations to self-indict are indicative of the shaming mechanism indicative of the Roman Catholic Church during its most draconian epoch, whereby purifying the world was primarily about calling out blasphemy (whenever and wherever one thinks one might have seen it).

And so it goes: Robin’s prescription is to rectify racial injustices by being simultaneously CRAVEN and CHURLISH.  (The two often go hand in hand.)  She seems not to realize that the basis of mindfulness is neither servility nor irritability; rather, it is level-headedness and integrity.  The suggestion that mandating a raft of semiotic adjustments is the best way to attenuate structural inequalities is preposterous.

The problem with racism isn’t flawed etiquette; it is hubris.  The problem with political correctness is, not coincidentally, also hubris. Robin’s boondoggle is successful, in part, because she is adept at passing off her hubris as humility. Her adoring fans misconstrue her mendacity as beneficence. So they assume she MUST be on to something.

For those duped into playing along with Robin’s game, paying lip service to a cause is seen as fighting the good fight.  The trick is to feign concern for socio-economic injustice even as one does nothing about it.  White people are urged to recognize their inborn privilege as white people–as if one could make structural inequalities vanish by slapping oneself on the wrist.

Normal interaction between fellow human beings does not require self-deprecation; it simply involves common courtesy…which is, after all, just a matter of common sense.  Not being a douchebag is hardly rocket science.

The problems we must focus on are the (formidable) STRUCTURAL ones, none of which cannot be traced to the speech / conduct of any particular person.  This requires change on a grand scale, which means passing certain kinds of legislation…which, in turn, means supporting certain kinds of political figures (i.e. genuine Progressives).

Talk is cheap.  And hollow gestures are–at best–acts of self-ingratiation.  This does nothing to address power asymmetries–in terms of privilege or anything else.  Those who are disadvantaged are not helped by being patronized.

Cosmopolitanism rejects tribalistic thinking rather than encouraging it.  It ALLAYS social anxieties rather than stoking them.  What those engaged in “identity politics” don’t seem to understand is that generating awareness requires neither tribalism nor shame.  Recriminations do nothing to advance civil rights.

Robin’s superciliousness is not a sign of sapience; it is the sign of a grift. Racism is not something that can be curbed by a litany of semantic tweaks, let alone by a prescribed routine of unctuous glad-handing.  While they may be ingratiating, token gestures are typically hollow gestures; and do nothing to address the root of societal dysfunction.  Civil society is realized by everyone recognizing that we’re all in this together; that we ALL suffer when we allow ANYONE to be oppressed / exploited / marginalized.

Hopefully, those supporting the likes of Robin DiAngelo will soon learn: We do not foster global human solidarity by being tendentious.  Captious-ness and obsequious-ness are not virtues. And caricaturing entire demographic groups does nothing to advance the cause of either racial equality or socio-economic justice.

Finding solutions that work for humans requires understanding how humans work.  Robin fails abysmally on this score.  Instead of reverse-engineering a problem to figure out how it came to be in the first place (and thereby how best to solve it), Robin engineers an entirely new problem on top of the old problem.  In urging hasty, unfounded generalizations about vast swaths of people based solely on their race, prejudice is MANDATED rather than mitigated.  It’s as if she believes tetchy-ness might serve as a surrogate for compassion.

Robin proceeds as if prejudices leveled in opposite directions somehow cancelled each other out.  In reality, alterity is not zero-sum.  Counter-bigotry compounds rather than ameliorates the original bigotry.  Far from forging solidarity, Robin’s approach is certain to alienate the very people to whom civil rights activists most need to get through.  Regarding those whom it is difficult “to get through to” yet who are open to persuasion, inroads are entirely shut off.  For instead of paving the way to conciliation, she sets up a reticulation of incendiary trip-wires along the way.

And so it goes: Robin prescribes a regime of endless recrimination—as if we could somehow SCOLD our way out of society’s variegated inequities.  The grift is strikingly straight forward: The more suspicious and resentful people are, the more attention Robin gets; and the higher the balance of her bank account goes.

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