One of America’s best attributes wasn’t fully real to me until I studied abroad in Seville, Spain, with Asian American classmates. Their answers to the question “Where are you from?” were often met with confusion by locals, who had trouble even conceiving of a nation without an ethnic conception of citizenship. As a Californian, I knew not only that people of Asian descent were as American as white people like me, but that many of their ancestors arrived before mine. And I saw why Americans who don’t grasp those truths offend.
Another of America’s best attributes concerns those who immigrate here. People who become U.S. citizens later in life—as did Albert Einstein, Desi Arnaz, and Patrick Ewing—are no less American, no more “other,” than the native born. In fact, when my friend Andrew Sullivan was finally granted U.S. citizenship, as well as when efforts began to secure legal protections for undocumented immigrants brought here as children, I realized that my own conception about what it means to be an American is even broader than the legal definition: I’d long considered people like Andrew as well as those kids to be “one of us.”
To reflect on these matters at length—as some immigrants and people of color are forced to do, and as I’ve done in part because my journalism has often contested the stances, assumptions, and double-standards of restrictionist politics—is to become highly attuned to the language used to talk about immigrants.
Had I been on Twitter, for example, I’d have noticed when the New York Times writer Bari Weiss celebrated Team U.S. Olympic ice skater Mirai Nagasu by tweeting, “Immigrants: they get the job done.” I’d have understood why that reference to the California-born skater, whose parents immigrated to the U.S., would strike some people as accurate shorthand, others as an inoffensive factual error, and still others as a microaggression against a marginalized group.
The writer Mark Joseph Stern, who had the last reaction, argued that “the original tweet—while not maliciously racist by any means—perpetuated the real and serious problem of the ‘perpetual foreigner’ stereotype that dogs so many Asian-Americans.” Agree or disagree, anyone can understand that critique. What I don’t understand—what I’d still like to understand—is the approach taken by the many people who treated the tweet as if it were malicious; or who attacked or “dragged” Weiss; or treated her with fierce hostility. I want to know if and why they believe their approach can plausibly advance social justice.
Said Jon E. Hecht, who may already have had his hackles up, “The level to which every single centrist opinion haver in the country now has a take defending Bari Weiss calling an American born athlete an immigrant is a reminder that in American etiquette, calling someone a racist is still more insulting than racism.” Leaving aside the merits of the charge, I think racism is much more insulting than calling someone a racist. I also think that excesses in call-out culture are undermining fights against racism, authoritarianism, and the forces that make it hard to see what is in front of our noses. I want to know why the adherents of that culture don’t.
After angry responses to Bari Weiss appeared on Twitter, Ashley Feinberg published a Huffington Post article entitled, “Leaked Chat Transcripts: New York Times Employees Are Pissed About Bari Weiss,” which I read with great interest.
People were outraged not only at the tweet―which referenced a line from a song from “Hamilton”―but also at Weiss’ refusal to acknowledge that perhaps she had been insensitive in placing an American citizen in the category of other.
I noticed that Feinberg’s language implies that an immigrant is in a category of “other,” and that being an immigrant and an American citizen are mutually exclusive.
Later in the piece, a New York Times staffer is quoted complaining about Bari Weiss in an internal Slack chat. “… I felt that Tweet denied Mirai her full citizenship just as the Internment did,” the staffer wrote. While some might take offense at drawing an equivalence between being the subject of a tweet and being forcibly imprisoned by one’s country, what struck me was the implication that dubbing someone an immigrant denies them full citizenship—as if a foreign-born, naturalized Team USA ice skater would not be a full citizen. Lack of clarity on that point matters: Although many of the Japanese Americans interned during World War II were born in this country, the internment was no less wrongheaded in those cases in which the internees were born in Japan and became naturalized citizens as new immigrants.
But I did not attack Bari Weiss, or Ashley Feinberg, or the anonymous New York Times staffer on Twitter, nor am I calling for any of them to apologize for their words, nor do I think that any of them should face stigma even if some took offense—and I wouldn’t dream of calling for any of them to be fired from their jobs.
Not because I agree with what their words imply. Not because I don’t see their connection to pernicious stereotypes. Not because I don’t care about the rights of immigrants, or believe that they and their children are anything less than full, equal members of the United States.
Rather, my reasons are grounded in three features of their comments:
- First, Weiss, Feinberg, and the anonymous Times staffer were all clearly attempting to celebrate or defend immigrants, not to upset or denigrate them.
- Second, although the words of all three people could be read in a way that implies agreement with pernicious serotypes that have done real harm to immigrants, it is overwhelmingly likely none of them held such beliefs or intended those implications. Weiss explained her tweet by saying that she was quoting Hamilton and using poetic license—that is, she does not believe that second-generation Americans are literally immigrants. Neither Ashley Feinberg nor the Times staffer has offered any additional explanation. Still, one needn’t be particularly charitable to surmise that they didn’t intend to imply, and do not believe, that immigrants are “others,” except in the eyes of wrongheaded nativists; nor that being an immigrant somehow implies that one is not additionally a full American citizen. Despite what they wrote, I knew what all three meant, and so did everyone else.
- Third, it is hard to believe any of the aforementioned comments caused anyone to embrace any of the wrongheaded positions they ostensibly implied. Imprecise diction is just not how such beliefs are adopted or spread. (Unlike Stern, I am skeptical that the perpetual-foreigner stereotype will be fueled by a person who doesn’t subscribe to the belief that Asian Americans are perpetually foreigners, but once tweeted something that could imply that if read uncharitably—as if borderline adherents are parsing tangentially related tweets like English majors at a liberal-arts school, then basing their beliefs on what’s arguably implied. Yes, of course, words matter, but there are limits, and this is a stretch.)
Why would I attack any of those people or want them stigmatized, as if on behalf of immigrants, or people of color, or Asian Americans, when all wrote with the intention of celebrating or defending one of those very same groups, and almost certainly don’t hold the substantive views that their language could be taken to imply?
I haven’t seen either Feinberg or the Times staffer being criticized for unwittingly implying beliefs about immigrants that have been used to undermine their rights in the past and the present, even as their words were being read by people sensitive to language on this topic. But Weiss has been forcefully criticized, including by Ashley Feinberg and the group of her colleagues who participated in the leaked Slack chat. And on Twitter she was positively savaged.
The least charitable critics of the social-justice left will say that I am being naive; that what I am noticing is not a mysterious double standard, but a deliberate effort to weaponize social-justice critiques against right-leaning voices in the mainstream media in a conscious attempt to delegitimize them in an ideological power grab; or alternatively, that this is all rooted in virtue-signaling, whereby a member of the out-group like Weiss is savaged by members of an in-group not for any rational project, but because it raises their own status.
To be sure, power grabs and virtue-signaling exist in all ideologies, and on Twitter especially, there is always a percentage of folks who are acting on suspect motives. (Russian trolls even!) And I do get suspicious about ideological double standards, perhaps subconscious or unwitting, when folks whose readers seem to care intensely about microaggressions or stereotypes historically directed at marginalized groups can repeatedly transgress such boundaries without objection, depending on their target.
james bennet fire bret stephens and then retire bitch— Ashley Feinberg (@ashleyfeinberg) February 10, 2018
But I’ve interviewed, studied, and interacted with enough adherents of social-justice ideology to know that a great many are in earnest, even if they operate among others who are less scrupulous in their conduct. And those earnest participants are the people I still do not understand.
I don’t understand why they believe that extreme anger and stigma should be directed at people whose intentions and substantive beliefs are so close to their own.
I don’t understand why they dedicate so much energy and focus to what even they call microaggressions at a time when an ascendant coalition in American politics is bent on deporting as many immigrants as possible, vilifying Mexicans, Muslims, and others, and cheering figures like Joe Arpaio, who flagrantly violated the civil rights of so many. I don’t understand inhabiting that country, and still making Weiss the prime object of your attacks.
I don’t understand how they think they can defeat that nativist faction if their own pro-immigrant coalition engages in divisive infighting over transgressions as inevitable as clumsy wording (in this case, in a tweet intended to extol immigrants). At current sensitivity settings, literally everyone is problematic, most often for beliefs that they neither hold nor are aware of implying.
I don’t understand whether they don’t see that policing language so strictly will invariably cause a backlash, or don’t care, or believe that their coalition is so obviously ascendant and powerful and likely to prevail that a backlash doesn’t matter.
Even if every object of dragging deserved it, I don’t understand how the outcome could be anything other than punishing an infinitesimal percentage of bad actors while turning off so many with the excesses that it provokes a backlash.
And I don’t understand how so many on the left can dismiss concerns about overzealous policing of language as fragile cis-white men trying to repress the voices of marginalized people when these divisive fights most often break out among or are directed at people in historically marginalized groups. Reputable opinion surveys keep showing that majorities of every racial group share the belief that language in America today is sometimes policed too zealously, even as scores of journalists, academics, and comedians encompassing every race and ethnicity have publicly articulated variations on the same theme.
James Bennet of The New York Times recently sent an internal memo to staff laying out his theory of public discourse and the role the New York Times op-ed page ought to play in it, even as some progressives continue to criticize Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens, as well as the aborted hiring of Quinn Norton. Whether one agrees with Bennet’s vision, or disagrees with it, or probes whether or not it is being executed, or whether his particular hires are likely to execute it, he puts forth a theory of the case that can be constructively engaged.
His particular case, and the classical liberal notion of a marketplace of ideas, would certainly encompass forceful, substantive criticism directed at Bari Weiss.
But what is the theory of the case for the call-out mode of responding to her tweet, where stigma and vilification are predominant themes, and a seemingly inevitable undercurrent features people who ostensibly believe microaggressions are wrong responding with macro-aggressions like calling Weiss “human trash,” to quote one of the more printable insults aimed in her direction?
Why the zeal to pile on that particular alleged misstep, as if it ranks anywhere near the top of objectionable, condemnation worthy stuff that happened that day?
As common as the extreme insults were, I don’t imagine I’ll get many defenses of them. But I really do want to understand the logic behind the stigmatize-and-vilify approach. Emails from people who actually believe in it are encouraged: firstname.lastname@example.org is the address. I promise to read them twice and engage in good faith.
Meanwhile, I’m inclined to agree with my colleague Julia Ioffe, who is exhausted by “roving bands of echo-chamber outrage” on both sides (who, after all, is a more prominent practitioner of bitter, abusive call-outs than Donald Trump?) and who writes:
We live in a time where our dialogue and our politics and our news have been Twitter-ized. We have forgotten what it means to disagree with each other without annihilating each other. We have forgotten what it means to cut people slack, and to forgive their mistakes. I have felt this many times on my own skin, have watched people get furious at me for a comment and then refused to listen to the apology or the explanation. Twitter's wrath is devastating. It is cruel. It is disproportionate.
Leave the Twitter mob. Think for yourself. Listen for yourself. Turn of your political bloodlust. Learn how to disagree as a civilized adult. Stop bullying people.
Just stop it.
Indeed, what good could possibly come of it?