Last week, Brett Kavanaugh stood accused of sexual assault and gang rape. He insisted in Senate testimony that he was being smeared. In doing so, he showed anger. And the press sought to comment on that anger.
Many compared his approach before the Senate Judiciary Committee to that of Clarence Thomas, another Republican nominee to the Supreme Court who stood accused of sexual misconduct and lashed out at Democrats, angrily impugning their motives with a show of indignation. But despite those parallels—and prominent voices that preemptively urged Kavanaugh to draw on Thomas’s testimony as a model for getting confirmed—many other observers cast the anger that Kavanaugh displayed as a trait of the racial and gender groups to which he belongs.
Variations on the phrase white male rage were everywhere. Some meant only to suggest that Kavanaugh could get away with shouting and crying in a way that an African American or a woman never could. While anger would be a more accurate word than rage, I have no objections to folks who raised that hypothesis; indeed, I am convinced by the evidence for gender inequities in responses to male and female anger.
Many others, however, used white male rage to suggest a group characteristic, implying that white men manifest a kind of rage worth distinguishing from the familiar emotion known to humans of all races and genders. Had they carefully marshaled evidence for the proposition that white men are disproportionately “enraged,” rather than angry within normal parameters; that they are statistically more likely to manifest rage; or that their rage is different in kind from that of other groups, I’d have read their arguments with curiosity. But that isn’t what happened.
Around the turn of the century, when I began to study journalism as an aspiring reporter rather than as a dedicated newspaper reader, Keith M. Woods, then dean of faculty at the Poynter Institute, published an article, “The Language of Race,” that captured what most newspaper editors I would work with in the aughts regarded as enlightened best practices.
Until recently, he explained, publications overwhelmingly staffed by white people had selectively used racial identifiers “to call attention to the criminal, immoral, or threatening acts of other racial and ethnic groups to demonstrate that the stereotypes about those groups were true.” And people of color appeared so seldom in other coverage that their race would be flagged even when not relevant to compensate for the prejudicial assumption that a subject worthy of coverage was Caucasian.
“Put it all together and you get stereotypes, dangerous misinformation, half-truths,” he lamented. In urging change, he didn’t rely on appeals to justice or moral suasion. He rightly insisted that mere commitment to professional rigor demanded better. “Journalists are chained to habits that defy cornerstone principles of solid journalism,” he wrote, “and that’s the point. Journalists who can’t connect with the myriad moral reasons to reform how they write and report about race and race relations don’t have to look further for their motivation than some of the core values that undergird the profession: Accuracy. Precision. Context. Relevance.”
The illustrative examples aired in thought-provoking articles like his caused me and many of my peers to begin our first journalism jobs having already thought through a lot of the thorny issues we would otherwise have confronted for the first time in deadline situations, if we even noticed the fact that a consequential choice was before us at all.
Consider these sentences: The two suspects were described as black men in their 20s. One was about 5-7, the other between 5-8 and 5-10. “Here is an alternative,” Woods suggested. “If journalists told their audience that the suspect was about 5-foot-8, about 165 pounds, with caramel-brown skin, wavy, dark brown hair about an inch long, thick eyebrows, a narrow nose, thick lips, and a light mustache,” the public could better help catch a bad guy even as the newspaper avoided spreading a description that would put most young black men in town under generalized suspicion.
Of course, “all racial and ethnic groups do share some common physical characteristics,” he acknowledged, but as he correctly observed:
… we don’t see the phrase “Irish-looking man” in the newspaper, though red hair and pale skin are common Irish characteristics. Would a picture come to mind if a TV anchor said, “The suspect appeared to be Italian”? Couldn’t many of us conjure an image if the police said they were looking for a middle-aged man described as “Jewish-looking.” There are good reasons those descriptions never see the light of day. They generalize. They stereotype. And they require that everyone who hears the description has the same idea of what those folks look like. All Irish-Americans don’t look alike. Why, then, accept a description that says a suspect was African-American?
Racial signifiers remain tricky in countless journalistic situations–– often there is no consensus on the “right” answer. Historically marginalized groups are still sometimes subject to ignorant stereotypes or overly broad generalizations in coverage (as well as outright antagonism on social media and populist websites). And there are occasional lapses when publications err in ways that put political correctness before accuracy.
But overall the effort to root out lazy assumptions, to guard against confirmation bias, to write about group traits with extra care, and to foreground the individuality of all humans regardless of group membership reduced unjust coverage while improving journalistic rigor.
As a result, many still adhere to those journalistic norms. And yet, with the rise of digital journalism and social media, the mainstream consensus about best practices has evaporated. A commitment to avoiding unjust treatment of historically marginalized groups has thankfully survived. But a faction that wields disproportionate power in journalism no longer considers it unjust to publish sweeping, disparaging generalizations and stereotypes about historically privileged groups.
Indeed, those in this faction do so with regularity and relish, as though the fact that their coverage is not causing equivalent harm, when compared with traditional racism or sexism, somehow implies that what some among them characterize as “punching up” is therefore unobjectionable. An important, ongoing debate vehemently contests their moral conclusion.
But I do not write today to challenge their moral reasoning.
I write as a journalist painfully aware that the mission of mainstream publications is existentially threatened by the declining public trust in our profession. I want the subset of my peers who reject moral arguments against some stereotypes and derogatory generalizations to examine their output with regard to accuracy, precision, context, and relevance, for the sake of the Fourth Estate as well as the nation, which is helped by public discourse that surfaces truths while harmed by falsehoods.
Coverage of the “white male rage” thesis is illustrative. To restate the context: The Kavanaugh confirmation hearing caused many observers to note striking parallels to the bygone battle when Clarence Thomas displayed rage at allegations of sexual misconduct. The nominees both won over partisans with righteous indignation. Yet the Kavanaugh hearings also prompted many in the press to probe a phenomenon they dubbed “white male rage” with utter carelessness, as examples will show.
In the Esquire article “This Was the Hour of White Male Rage,” Charles Pierce wrote, “If Kavanaugh really is completely innocent, then his anger is somewhat justified. But, I don’t think he is, and, therefore, I think he looked like the guy you move to the other end of the bar to avoid.” Among the moments ostensibly illustrating Kavanaugh’s “white male rage,” he included what he characterized as the nominee’s “enraged” exchange with Senator Amy Klobuchar about the limits of his drinking.
Kavanaugh, whom I did not want confirmed, comes across as sneering and disrespectful. But bearing in mind that the definition of rage is “violent, uncontrollable anger,” ask yourself, even granting some metaphorical license, Do we really see evidence of an “enraged” man in this exchange?
In “Kavanaugh Is the Face of American Male Rage,” Jessica Valenti writes:
Incredulous male rage has snowballed recently, rolling alongside the #MeToo movement at a steady pace and picking up steam over the last month. Men accused of being abusers are demanding back their coveted spots as comedians, writers, radio hosts and more. How dare women take them away to begin with!
That first link is to a story about Louis C. K. doing a set at a comedy club. He was criticized for appearing and for failing to address his sexual misconduct. And he expressed no anger. Perhaps he is quietly seething with “incredulous male rage.” How does the cited story possibly support that thesis? Surely the mere attempt by a tiny subset of publicly disgraced males to return to previous careers is insufficient evidence of “rage,” let alone a generalized male rage that has been “snowballing.”
In a column titled “The Angry White Male Caucus,” Paul Krugman—a frequently angry white guy, I grant!—writes that “white male rage isn’t restricted to blue-collar guys in diners. It’s also present among people who’ve done very well in life’s lottery, whom you would normally consider very much part of the elite.” It is certainly true that anger, as well as rage, manifests across social classes. But that is not unique to white men.
Capturing Krugman’s logic is no easy thing. Trump voters were motivated by racial resentment “driven not by actual economic losses” but by “fear of losing status in a changing country,” he begins, “in which the privilege of being a white man isn’t what it used to be.” It’s possible to lead an enviable life, he continues, yet be consumed with bitterness and status anxiety. “You might think that this is impossible, that having a good job and a comfortable life would inoculate someone against envy and hatred,” he writes. “That is, you might think that if you knew nothing of human nature and the world.” He is sufficiently worldly to enlighten us:
I’ve spent my whole adult life in rarefied academic circles, where everyone has a good income and excellent working conditions. Yet I know many people in that world who are seething with resentment because they aren’t at Harvard or Yale, or who actually are at Harvard or Yale but are seething all the same because they haven’t received a Nobel Prize.
Krugman first asserted that white male rage springs from fear of declining status. Then he tells us he’s spent his life witnessing seething resentment that springs from a failure to attain new, unusual markers of prestige.
And that’s all before he gets to Kavanaugh.
He begins by asserting that “the angry face Kavanaugh presented to the world last week wasn’t something new, brought on by the charges of past abuse. Classmates from his Yale days describe him as a belligerent heavy drinker even then. His memo to Ken Starr as he helped harass Bill Clinton—in which he declared that ‘it is our job to make his pattern of revolting behavior clear’—shows rage as well as cynicism.”
So young Kavanaugh had white male rage. Got it.
The columnist next notes that Kavanagh said he got into Yale without “connections” even though his grandfather went there. “Indeed, my guess is that his privileged roots are precisely why he’s so angry,” Krugman writes. “I very much ran with the nerds during my own time at Yale, but I did encounter people like Kavanaugh—hard-partying sons of privilege who counted on their connections to insulate them from any consequences from their actions, up to and including abusive behavior toward women.” In this telling, Kavanaugh’s “white male rage” is rooted in extreme privilege that utterly insulates men like him from consequences.
But it’s privilege under siege. An increasingly diverse society no longer accepts the God-given right of white males from the right families to run things, and a society with many empowered, educated women is finally rejecting the droit de seigneur once granted to powerful men.
And nothing makes a man accustomed to privilege angrier than the prospect of losing some of that privilege, especially if it comes with the suggestion that people like him are subject to the same rules as the rest of us.
The columnist doesn’t ever manage an internally consistent theory of “white male rage.” He is unbothered by the contradiction of attributing the phenomenon to Kavanaugh’s supreme confidence in an unchecked, insulating privilege ... and to the fallout from a psychologically discomfiting loss of that insulating privilege. Nor does Krugman notice that both of his unfalsifiable, inconsistent theories of what ostensibly enraged Kavanaugh are undercut, not bolstered, by Kavanaugh’s explicit call to expose the behavior of Bill Clinton, who was, after all, an anomalously powerful, privileged, white male graduate of Oxford and Yale Law who stood credibly accused of sexual misconduct against multiple women.
In Krugman’s telling, Kavanaugh’s statement that Ken Starr’s team was charged with exposing the “revolting behavior” of a privileged white man accused of sexual misconduct is somehow further evidence of “white male rage.” Is there any behavior this thesis can’t be twisted to encompass?
One could plumb digital journalism and social media almost endlessly for additional examples of how treatment of the “white male rage” thesis is marked by imprecision, glaring internal contradictions, conflicting understandings of what the term means, and confirmation bias.
For brevity’s sake, I’ll skip to the apotheosis of this ascendant trend in the mass media: an article published in a storied magazine that typically holds itself to much higher standards. “A Modest Video Artwork About White-Male Rage Filmed at Yale’s DKE Chapter” appears in The New Yorker. It features a video of fraternity boys screaming into a camera. But is the video really “about white-male rage”?
Here is the author’s description of how he created it as a Yale art student in 2007:
At the time, I knocked on the door of the DKE house and was welcomed in by a fraternity member. I asked whether they would be willing to participate in a shouting competition, to help me make a video artwork. The winner, I explained, would be given a keg of beer. I chose beer because it seemed like the obvious prize for any frat-house game, and because it could be shared with all participants. They kindly agreed to collaborate.
I showed up a few days later with my video camera, tripod, and the beer keg. Each participant tried to scream as long and as loud as possible for the video camera. They were excellent performers, and I thanked them for helping me make the video. One participant was particularly outstanding. He was so good at shouting that I worried he might burst a brain vessel. He won the prize, and the beer was shared around.
It was a fun evening.
What’s the relevance of a video portraying “kindly,” welcoming Yale frat boys who willingly indulged an art student’s request to yell into a camera? Surely they exhibited an absence of “white male rage,” not the thing itself.
Had the author argued that Kavanaugh was performing anger in his confirmation hearing, citing his video as evidence that frat boys can summon what looks like anger on command when given a prize for doing so, I’d have questioned the piece’s epistemic worth but followed its logic.
In fact, the author went on to explain, “The reason I am returning to this modest art-school video ... is because I find this performance resonant with certain aspects of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination … He was angry that the career advancement that he felt entitled to might be taken from him.” So Kavanaugh possessed actual anger in this telling.
The author goes on:
I feel that the performance of masculinity (not the individuals themselves, who must be understood as actors) depicted in this simple video resonates with Kavanaugh’s entitled, defensive rage, as well as that of the angry Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee who also lashed out. I hope the video gives viewers pause to consider how, sometimes, the toxic forms of masculinity that are fostered in élite school systems are not simply allowed to exist at the highest levels of government but seem almost required.
By extension, I feel that the video resonates with the defensive anger of an entire population of voters, many of whom are white men, who elected Donald Trump to office. Those men may not be from the élite, like Kavanaugh, but, like him, they fear losing their privilege in a changing society. Trump, who is a showman, is an expert at exploiting the spectacle of their fear and manipulating their anger for cynical political opportunity. Kavanaugh has chosen to channel the same rage.
The artist is entitled to his feelings and notions of interesting resonances. It is, however, appalling to have them presented as evidence bolstering the fashionable “white male rage” thesis as it peaks in the national discourse. If there is such a phenomenon, its existence ought to be persuasively demonstrated to readers, rigorously defined, and detailed with the precision appropriate to a subject that matters.
Instead, The New Yorker resurfaced an 11-year-old video of not-at-all angry frat boys—bribed with beer to yell for as long as they could into a camera, not to “perform masculinity”—as if that bolsters the feeling of the artist who created the video that the emotional state he intentionally fabricated is widespread among governing elites and white males.
That is the degree of rigor one of the most esteemed magazines in the world found sufficient for bolstering a sweeping, generalized, disparaging stereotype about an identity group. Imagine the mocking disdain its editorial staff would have for a pitch that suggested a methodology as thin for illustrating a phenomenon they were even mildly inclined to doubt—or their horror if a conservative magazine marshaled a similar video as if it showed the truth of another group stereotype.
Efforts to probe uncomfortable truths should not be verboten. Maybe white men are more full of rage on average than other groups; maybe the nature of their rage is distinct in a way that justifies a racial designation; or (this is my guess) maybe their rage is indistinguishable from the emotions of other men, yet is received by majorities in distinct ways worth studying.
I’m open to any careful, rigorous argument. But the prevailing approach fails that standard. Many journalists are producing articles that presume rather than show the truth of a poorly defined thesis that much of the audience rightly regards as unproven at best; they are defining rage down at times to mean mere discernible anger; and their work shows no evidence of seeking critical feedback from skeptics.
What’s more, their current approach undermines long-standing, hard-won norms against casually attributing to an entire race or gender behavior pegged to an individual or displayed by some percentage of its members.
A renewal of journalistic values is overdue. When we treat the “white male rage” thesis and other faddish, ideologically driven frameworks with such little regard for accuracy, precision, context, and relevance, we risk losing credibility and influence with readers who still value professional rigor.
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