Too Much Stigma, Not Enough Persuasion

The conflict over a liberal blogger’s criticism of the use of the term “white supremacy” provides a case study in how not to win friends and influence people.

Susan Walsh / AP

The coalition that opposes Donald Trump needs to get better at persuading fellow citizens and winning converts, rather than leaning so heavily on stigmatizing those who disagree with them. Chief among the problems with stigma as a political weapon?

It doesn’t work.

So I declared after election day. And today, to start exploring the subject more deeply, I offer a case study of stigma wielded both needlessly and counterproductively.

The backdrop is the intra-left debate about “identity politics.” Did they cost Democrats the 2016 election? Or not? Is that even the right question? The subject was on Bernie Sanders’s mind when a woman in the audience of a post-election speech he gave declared that she wanted to be the second Latina senator and asked for advice.

Sanders expressed agreement that the political process needs more people of color. Then, perhaps thinking of Hillary Clinton’s failed “I’m with her” campaign, he advised:

It is not good enough for somebody to say, “Hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me.” That is not good enough. I have to know whether that Latina is going to stand up with the working class of this country, and is going to take on the big money interests… This is where there is going to be division within the Democratic Party. It is not good enough for someone to say, “I’m a woman! Vote for me!’” No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.

Here’s where stigma begins to enter the picture. In The Washington Monthly, contributing writer Nancy LeTourneau argued that Sanders demeaned his Latina questioner.

“Sanders seems to assume that if a Latina wants to run for office, she comes with no agenda other than being a Latina ... That is remarkably insulting. And then he suggests that the only way they can become ‘good enough’ is if they embrace his agenda. That is precisely how white men have always attempted to dominate their spheres of influence,” she wrote. “If you are a woman or a person of color who has tried to have your voice heard, you’ve experienced that response regularly.”

To assume a Latina comes with no agenda other than her ethnic identity would be insulting and worthy of stigma. Of course, that distorts what Sanders said––the Vermont senator clearly presumed that a Latina candidate would have an agenda beyond being Latina, and argued that she must articulate it, in addition to her identity, if she hoped to win enough voters to gain election. That was his advice to the aspiring pol (advice that would be incoherent if he really presumed that she had no agenda).

LeTourneau went on say this:

It is true that in order to end racism and sexism we have to begin by giving women and people of color a seat at the table. But that accomplishes very little unless/until we listen to them and find a way to work with them in coalition. To the extent that Sanders wants to avoid doing that in order to foster division within the Democratic Party, he is merely defending white male supremacy.

I’m not suggesting that the senator’s agenda is necessarily white male supremacy. If he were to actually listen to what that woman wants to accomplish as the second Latina senator, he might find ways that their vision overlaps. But giving her a seat at the table means that first of all, you don’t assume that she has none, and second of all, you hear her out.

Again, this seems flagrantly uncharitable to Sanders—his motivation almost certainly isn’t “to foster division within the Democratic Party”—but what caught the attention of many in this intra-left debate was the writer’s use of “white male supremacy.”

For Kevin Drum, the longtime progressive blogger at Mother Jones, it typified what he sees as a “terrible fad” of defining “white supremacy” down and overusing the term. He believes overuse of that sort is both inaccurate––an incorrect usage of the term based on its denotation––and harms the ability of liberals to reach vast swaths of America.

“With the exception of actual neo-Nazis and a few others, there isn't anyone in America who's trying to promote the idea that whites are inherently superior to blacks or Latinos,” he argued. “Conversely, there are loads of Americans who display signs of overt racism—or unconscious bias or racial insensitivity or resentment over loss of status—in varying degrees. This isn't just pedantic. It matters. It's bad enough that liberals toss around charges of racism with more abandon than we should, but it's far worse if we start calling every sign of racial animus—big or small, accidental or deliberate—white supremacy. I can hardly imagine a better way of proving to the non-liberal community that we're all a bunch of out-of-touch nutbars who are going to label everyone and everything we don't like as racist.”

Urging his allies on the left to “save ‘white supremacy’ for the people who really deserve it,” like the several alt-right factions who are really dedicated to white supremacism, Drum concluded that “petty theft is not the same as robbing a bank. A lewd comment is not the same as rape. A possible lack of sensitivity is not a sign of latent support for apartheid. Bernie Sanders is not a white male supremacist.”

Without addressing the merit’s of Drum’s argument, notice that it is the sort of debate that must happen within any intellectual community that wants to retain any stigma––anyone who believes that a stigma against a given concept has value is invested in guarding against concept creep that would inevitably erode the attendant stigma.

An interlocutor eager to persuade Kevin Drum that he is wrong or refute his ideas might offer any number of counterarguments. He or she might narrowly defend invoking “white supremacy” against Bernie Sanders in this particular instance; or challenge the proposition that misuse of the term is on the rise; or argue that correctly labeling white supremacy wherever it appears is more important than avoiding false positives or retaining stigma by reserving the term for the most extreme cases; or argue that there are times when the press is too reluctant to use harsh labels.

Whether one is intent on accurately describing American politics or winning converts within it, eschewing stigma and striving for constructive engagement is vital.

Now consider how Angus Johnston, a City University of New York history professor, responded to Drum’s plea to “be careful with the label ‘white supremacy.’” His mix of substance and stigma unfolded over a number of Tweets:

  • Kind of astonishing that a person would write a whole article about the term "white supremacy" without knowing what the term means.
  • "White supremacy" doesn't refer to the belief "that whites are inherently superior." It refers to support for white POLITICAL supremacy.
  • Support for electoral disenfranchisement of people of color, for instance, is support for white supremacy.
  • Support for gerrymandering legislative districts in order to disproportionately empower white voters is support for white supremacy.
  • White supremacy isn't about what is in somebody's heart. It's about who wields political power.
  • As always, I blame an educational system and a culture that would rather talk about segregated water fountains than legal lynching.
  • And no, "astonishing" isn't the right word. "Embarrassing" is. Mortifying. Cringeworthy.
  • Belief in white racial superiority and support for white political supremacy have typically gone hand in hand, of course.

Next he offered four Tweets with screenshots of passages that purport to show that the definition of white supremacy that he’s using dates back to the 19th century. He concluded that “the term ‘white supremacy’ was for the first century of its existence used exclusively to refer to political subordination. It's recently come to be used more loosely, but—particularly in scholarly contexts—retains the original meaning as a core component. In understanding contemporary American racism, ‘white supremacy,’ understood as an ideology of legal racial subordination, remains crucial. And of course one cannot understand contemporary GOP electoral strategy without addressing systematic disenfranchisement of people of color. Given that, naming elements of the contemporary American right as white supremacist isn't just appropriate, it's essential.”

This critique, as well, is weirdly, uncharitably unresponsive to its target’s actual argument. Drum criticized calling Sanders, who does not want to politically subordinate non-whites, a white male supremacist. And he warned more broadly against “calling every sign of racial animus—big or small, accidental or deliberate—white supremacy.” So even though Drum used the shorthand definition, “trying to promote the idea that whites are inherently superior to blacks or Latinos,” it’s far from clear that he would actually object to a liberal writer using “white supremacy” to describe “support for electoral disenfranchisement of people of color.”

Of course, there is nothing wrong with raising or engaging in a substantive debate about whether “white supremacy” should be reserved for “the idea that whites are inherently superior” or extend to efforts to subordinate blacks and Hispanics to whites politically, even by folks who do not believe that the white race is inherently superior. But even if that debate was responsive to the critique Drum offered, rather than a distraction from it, consider how heavily this critic, who had substantive points to offer and historic evidence to marshal, chose to lean on stigmatization.

His tweetstorm began by remarking how astonishingly ignorant Drum supposedly is. Later, in a more-sorrow-than-anger tone, he indicts the whole of American education and culture, and then, in the most gratuitous tweet of all, he amends his characterization of Drum as astonishingly ignorant. “And no, ‘astonishing’ isn't the right word,” Johnston wrote. "Embarrassing is. Mortifying. Cringeworthy.”

Substantive criticism gives way to pure stigmatization.

An approach to disagreement narrower in its appeal, or more alienating in its tone, is hard to imagine. Rhetoric of this sort makes it much less likely that the target of the critique or others who start off with the same position will read the counterargument with an open mind (though knowing Kevin Drum, he may in fact be the unusually analytic and dispassionate sort who manages to do exactly that).

Regardless, what I find especially absurd about this performative shaming of Drum, ostensibly for daring to write about white supremacy without knowing what the word means, is that Drum’s definition matches the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines “white supremacy” as “the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society.”

Is it now mortifying to use the common meaning of words?

Here is’s definition: white supremacy is “the belief, theory, or doctrine that white people are inherently superior to people from all other racial groups, especially black people, and are therefore rightfully the dominant group in any society.”

Merriam Webster’s main online entry is on the term “white supremacist,” which the dictionary defines as, “a person who believes that the white race is inherently superior to other races and that white people should have control over people of other races.”

Those dictionary definitions square with my understanding of the term’s meaning, the way I’ve always used it, and the way it is typically used in American newspapers, magazines, and books. As it happens, I am writing this post while visiting New York City, while sitting in a cafe that is literally on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and along with a few strange looks from fellow breakfast patrons, six of them just offered me definitions that similarly adhered to the dictionary meaning.

What’s going on here?

It is perhaps easiest to quote the hive-mind at Wikipedia to clear things up. Here’s how it defines white supremacy:

White supremacy or white supremacism is a racist ideology centered upon the belief, and promotion of the belief, that white people are superior in certain characteristics, traits, and attributes to people of other racial backgrounds and that therefore white people should politically, economically and socially rule non-white people. The term is also typically used to describe a political ideology that perpetuates and maintains the social, political, historical and/or industrial domination by white people (as evidenced by historical and contemporary sociopolitical structures such as the Atlantic slave trade, Jim Crow laws in the United States, and apartheid in South Africa). Different forms of white supremacism put forth different conceptions of who is considered white...

Next is this crucial-for-our-purposes addition:

In academic usage, particularly in usage drawing on critical race theory, the term "white supremacy" can also refer to a political or socio-economic system where white people enjoy a structural advantage (privilege) over other ethnic groups, both at a collective and an individual level.

The subsection on the academic usage adds:

The term white supremacy is used in academic studies of racial power to denote a system of structural or societal racism which privileges white people over others, regardless of the presence or absence of racial hatred. White racial advantages occur both at a collective and an individual level. Legal scholar Frances Lee Ansley explains this definition as follows: “By ‘white supremacy’ I do not mean to allude only to the self-conscious racism of white supremacist hate groups. I refer instead to a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.”

This and similar definitions are adopted or proposed by Charles Mills, bell hooks, David Gillborn, Jessie Daniels and Neely Fuller Jr, and are widely used in critical race theory and intersectional feminism. ...Academic users of the term sometimes prefer it to racism because it allows for a disconnection between racist feelings and white racial advantage or privilege.

Readers will be unsurprised that a term has a common meaning and many diverging academic meanings as members of the academy contest it across fields of scholarship. Adjudicating the best definition within an academic field is not our concern.

Rather, this small, obscure exchange illustrates a larger point: It is awful to stigmatize people as cringeworthy for failing to speak in the vernacular of a tiny, insular subculture. Neither journalists nor academics speaking to a general audience can insist a term’s only meaning is a contested usage so little known that it confounds a longtime employee of Mother Jones and many residents of the Upper West Side. And it is deeply counterproductive to stigmatize those who use the common meaning of a well-known term with words like “embarrassing,” and “mortifying.”

The insularity and biases at work here are a significant reason that the academy, and growing parts of the press who mistake its subculture for conventional wisdom, are increasingly unable to reach anyone that doesn’t share an educational background many intellectuals now think of as normal but that is, in fact, unusual even among college students in the U.S., never mind the rest of the world. Why does this insular subculture think stigmatization of this sort will succeed beyond it?

In the weeks since Donald Trump’s election, many journalists and close observers of mainstream journalism have been grappling with how best to cover the president-elect, and furiously critiquing headlines in the New York Times and Washington Post that allegedly engage in “false equivalence,” or fail to adequately call out misinformation that is verifiably false. I have no objection to that sort of media criticism. Hashing these matters out in open debate is a strength, not a weakness.

Nevertheless, I am struck by how much attention is being paid to alleged failures of headlines seen by readers of mainstream newspapers and magazines when the much larger, more consequential problem is that mainstream journalism is not reaching large swaths of Trump voters at all. This is not entirely the fault of intellectuals in academia and journalism. Many do good work that is dismissed out of a refusal to engage with any charge of racism, or that is wrongly disparaged or lumped in with bad work in overbroad critiques of “the media” that make as much sense as someone eating a bad meal and saying, “the restaurants are awful.”

But the left has got to see its own culpability more clearly.

Insofar as the definition of “white supremacist” includes Bernie Sanders, the term is not going to retain significant stigma, or even be understood by most of America. Insofar as attempts to point that out are met, by academics on social media or opinion journalists at left-of-center outlets, with the most uncharitable, dubiously accurate construals possible, followed by disparaging insults and performative stigmatization––well, if you’re a progressive who is incapable of constructively engaging with a Mother Jones staffer, what possible hope do you have of reaching the swing voters who will decide the outcome of the 2018 midterms?

On social media, there are often greater incentives for stigmatizing others as insufficiently enlightened than for earnest efforts at constructive, nuanced engagement.

Those incentives threaten the liberal project.

The coalition that opposes Trump needs to get better at persuading its fellow citizens and winning converts, rather than leaning so heavily on stigmatizing those who disagree with them. Among other problems with wielding stigma, it doesn’t work.