Not Our Kind

The problem of book reviewing through tribal identification

Anders Carlson-Wee /
October 20, 2018

So, here's a story. You probably saw it in the news, in the dueling op-eds, in the outrage that swirled around it. But the story is still worth revisiting as a microcosm, a little diorama, of our cultural situation. This past July, The Nation published a poem by Anders Carlson-Wee called "How-To," narrated by a panhandler offering advice to other panhandlers, explaining how to gin up sympathy among the passers-by.

As a poem "How-To" was, meh, just about average: one of those not-particularly-good-but-not-particularly-bad productions by authors and editors well versed in the mechanisms taught by writing schools. We have a system for much of American poetry, as dominant and strict as the Academie Française ever was, and it dictates a liberal politics, an indulgence of sentimental situations while rejecting sentimental phrasings, the dominance of a theme, and a sense that a single good metaphor makes a poem. All of which adds up to a new formalism, even while it generally rejects the old formalism of meter and rhyme.

But the power of social-media outrage has not yet found its heights, and the fearfulness of those who respond to it has not yet found its depths. Complaints began to appear on Twitter about the poet's appropriation of a black narrator's voice and the language used to name disabilities. Which led others on Twitter to add their complaints. Which led yet others to add their complaints. It's a question whether many of these complainers were readers of poetry in any context other than going to Carlson-Wee's poem primed to be outraged. For that matter, it's a question whether many of these complainers were subscribers to The Nation. But within a few days, the editors had run through various deletions and apologies to arrive at leaving the poem online while attaching an editors' note, longer than the poem, that apologized for the "disparaging and ableist language that has given offense and caused harm to members of several communities."

Carlson-Wee eventually apologized as well, groveling that he had been insensitive and the Twitter objections were "eye-opening." Not that it did him much good. As Thomas Chatterton Williams notes in the New York Times, the very first reply to his contrite tweet lambasted him for yet more abuse of people with disabilities, since the phrase "eye-opening" offends those who cannot see.

I love this story—you should love this story—because it's a jewel, a perfect diamond, catching in its facets and unifying into a single brilliancy the light of many apparently different fires in our current cultural disputes. One thing the story shows, for example, is that we have no clear way back, no sufficiently defined penance, for those subjected to public shunning. Another aspect is the mimetic power, the increasing competition for outrage, that our Internet connections fuel—as though the Web had become a laboratory for testing René Girard's theories of social contagion.

An underappreciated aspect of the story, however, is the tribal identification allowed by the outrage over The Nation's minor poem. We know who we are by the upsets we share. Carlson-Wee is only an incidental victim; he clearly intended to write a poem empathizing with poor panhandlers and sneering at the middle-class Christians walking by. But he allowed an opening for complaint, and the complaint escalated—to the point at which the poet and his editors, the objects of the complaint, ended up joined the complainers—mostly since the outrage took on the shape of identity: Because the good are objecting to the poem, the poem must be bad.

The clearest analysis we've had of this phenomenon came last week in The Atlantic with a strong column called "The Idioms of Non-Argument" by Conor Friedersdorf. The analysis is not yet complete; this was just a magazine column that set out to examine a single book review. But Friedersdorf has pointed us down the road toward understanding the process of tribal identification that bedevils us.

Perhaps more immediately he helps us understand why so many book reviews these days grate on the reader's soul. Ever get the feeling that you don't have to read a book review to know its basic line—the argument predetermined by the reviewer's political identification, the political reputation of the publication, and the political stance presumed to be held by the book's authors? Everyone who reads book reviews suspects that the window for eccentricity is closing. We must like—or even engage in actual argument—only the books by our kind, feeding us talking points for our politics.

The book Friedersdorf takes up is The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff (which began as a 2015 article in The Atlantic). Looking at the ways in which the culture—especially the middle-class, college-educated elements—are overprotecting their children, the authors note the emergence of an entire generation of college students and young adults who are both overly fearful and far too easily offended.

"Whatever your identity, background, or political ideology," Haidt and Lukianoff suggest in what is, in essence, a self-help book and parenting guide, "you will be happier, healthier, stronger, and more likely to succeed in pursuing your own goals" if you (1) stop "eliminating or avoiding everything that 'feels unsafe,'" (2) stop "always trusting your initial feelings," and (3) stop "assuming the worst about people within a simplistic us-versus-them morality."

Friedersdorf notes that some of the recent reviews have commended The Coddling of the American Mind, while others have been more negative. But what caught his eye was a piece in the Guardian by Moira Weigel, praised on Twitter as the definitive review that "eviscerates with ease" and "systematically demolishes" the book. Unfortunately, as Friedersdorf discovered when he read the actual review, Weigel hardly engages the text of the book. Her review is, in essence, a long series of ad hominem attacks on the authors, rendering Haidt and Lukianoff sufficiently beyond the pale that the book they wrote, the arguments they make, should be rejected by readers.

Weigel is engaging in the "Idioms of Non-Argument," Friedersdorf suggests, observing her use of vilification, guilt by association, and misrepresentation through a kind of willful misunderstanding of the authors' prose. But the key comes when Friedersdorf identifies the rhetorical technique of "reduction to privilege anxiety."

It's generally thought a failure of literary interpretation to seek too deeply into, say, a novelist's motives for writing a particular novel. How is A Christmas Carol damaged by the knowledge that Dickens wrote it because he needed money for a good vacation? A common pattern in the corrupt modes of book-reviewing these days, however is to impute a politics to authors, deploy the names of the worst examples of those who hold vaguely similar politics, do a bit of socio-psychiatry to identify motives for those worst examples, and then declare such motives the reason that the authors wrote their book.

Thus, for example, Haidt and Lukianoff are defenders of free speech, and free speech has become (incredibly recently, as cultural trends are measured) a slogan on the conservative side of the political spectrum. So Haidt and Lukianoff must be conservatives, just as white supremacists are conservatives. And white supremacists are presumed to hold their psychotic views because of the anxiety they feel about their declining privilege, so that must be the reason that Haidt and Lukianoff wrote The Coddling of the American Mind. And the reason we don't have to read it.

With his description of the Idioms of Non-Argument, Friedersdorf has identified some of the techniques by which our cultural arguments are debased. But we need more, if we are to correct the problem. The point of Weigel's review isn't simply that the book's authors are bad guys so the book must be bad. The point is also that the book must be bad because the good guys are objecting to it—and, in the perfect circularity of such things, the good are objecting to the book, so the book must be bad.

In other words, there's a deep tribal purpose to reviews like Weigel's—and to many other book reviews these days, on both the left and the right. Like the Twitter users who gained both confirmation of tribal identity and increased rank within their tribe by deciding to be outraged by Anders Carlson-Wee's little poem in The Nation, so reviewers like this are both asking us to confirm them in our sociopolitical tribe and elevate them within the tribe for their demonstration of right feeling.

How could we not see the ground here for what René Girard called mimetic rivalry and social contagion? Poetry, book reviewing, and the literary life may form only a minor facet of the culture wars that are starting to spill into bloody encounters, but they remain a clear example—a microcosm, a little diorama—of all the trouble we face.

Published under: Book reviews