In "Nuance: A Love Story," Meghan Daum reflects on her three year slide into the Intellectual Dark Web cadre of political commentary, and how much of it was a coping mechanism due to her impending divorce. It's a riveting, interesting account, and its final conclusion -- that much of her obsession stemmed from the loneliness of her real life -- is a pretty self-aware and brave thing to admit. Yet still, it both highlights and seems to overlook the role basic social clique mechanics played in her excursion. Throughout her story, Daum is harbors outward grievance toward people with harsher personal opinons; somehow takes it as a personal affront to her identity; relishes in the counter-cultural highs of joining the outgroup; and ultimately leaves it for hipster-esque reasons.
Daum, who self-identifies as an Obama Democrat, describes her early priming for the IDW as a falling out with the left. As her social circle moves increasingly left toward positions she feels unprepared to follow, her reaction is to be annoyed with their sameness, their adoption of terminology, and the way their passion is incompatible with her concept of adulthood. Finally she writes:
Still, there was something about the tone in which they espoused them, their very inflection, that made me feel like I was simultaneously being sent to my room by my mother and banned from a lunch table by the mean girls.
It's human nature to feel uncomfortable about radical political stances (that's why they're radical) but how we deal with them reveals much about the true north of our political compass. Daum chooses Mean Girl and Nagging Mom metaphors to describe the stress she feels about the wave of woke political opinions, because of course she does -- to her, these are social stakes. She's invested in the real world consequences, sure, but the social aspect of it takes primacy. We know this because it's what finally drives her out.
Even the most ardent activists on Twitter will have some areas where they are not as radical as other ardent activists on Twitter. But their reaction isn't to seek out YouTube contrarians and form a new grievance culture. There's a tacit understanding that just because we're not always on the exact same page, for whatever reason, doesn't mean it's a personal attack on your identity. Maybe I don't know enough, maybe it's a genuine disagreement, maybe I haven't encountered the right argument. I can just not talk about it with you. Most people, especially millennials who are still developing the norms in this loud, raucous online world, would simply think to themselves, "That's a hot take. I don't think I'm retweeting that," and the world moves on. Contrast that with Daum and others of her type, who feel the existence of these opinions is a threat to her liberal self-image. If people online aren't affirming her good liberal identity, then it becomes a crisis and her vision of liberal identity must be protected, reinforced or made into some new tribe altogether.
Once she finds a tribe of right-leaning YouTubers with the same grievance, she is comfortable once again. It's exciting, the way any counter culture is exciting, because it puts one in the position of outsider that secretly knows more than the insiders, but only other smart outsiders can recognize this. Of course, who's outside and who's inside is totally relative here.
It's clear that the social thrill of being part of this club of people feeling aggrieved by the emerging left is just as important to Daum as the free speech principles she portrays as her guiding light:
Still, I was invigorated, even electrified, by their willingness to ask (if not ever totally answer) questions that had lately been deemed too messy somehow to deal with in mainstream public discourse ... I just got the sense that many of them came to their positions after feeling just as out of step with their peers as I did.
In these free speech warriors, people dedicated to kicking up dust about the excesses of college students, she found her people. Because they're "out of step" too. Another approach is to reject the concept of in-step and out-of-step in total. It is true that liberalism has its orthodoxy (as any political ideology does) but it doesn't mean that select deviance from it should make someone feel lonely. That's a self-inflicted wound. It comes from perceiving Facebook posts as the erosion of your personal liberal identity, from being unable to cope with your friend's radical opinions, and taking angry social media replies to heart.
Daum goes on to explain why she became focused on attacking the excesses of progressives in the age of Trump:
I would have taken equal if not more delight in criticizing the political right if there was anything remotely interesting or surprising about doing so. But bashing the right, especially in the age of Trumpism, was easy and boring, the conversational equivalent of playing “Chopsticks” on the piano. Inspecting your own house for hypocrisy was a far meatier assignment.
Again, all we have here are school clique mechanics. The stakes of the very real threat of racism and bigotry are too popular, and the counter cultural thrill is what matters. It's as if they're saying, If the popular kids won't have me, I'll dye my hair and say I never wanted to be part of the normies anyway, but on an internet-broken-brain level.
Most interesting to me is her assessment of her still-progressive peers and their virtue signaling:
Amid this crisis, virtue signaling went from a kind of youthful fashion statement to the default mode of public and private expression. ... If they’d had enough to drink, people confessed the truth: They were getting sick of the term “gaslighting.” They thought the pussy hats at the Women’s March were a little silly. They didn’t love Ta-Nahisi Coates’ book as much as they knew they should.
Here, Daum describes what I'm sure is a very real phenomenon in her Generation X social circles: fealty to the youth movement of the day while resenting the way it drags them along. It is interesting that, for all their anger toward virtue signaling, what actually bothers them is that their preferred virtue signaling no longer works. It used to be that you could just be in favor of reproductive rights and everyone would lavish you with liberal cred. Now the kids want me to do all this extra homework? How about I just pick & choose what I like from YouTube videos?
Millenial narcissism gets played up a lot in the media, but this is a purely Generation X strand of narcissism: the inability to handle the fact that the reigns of political passion may no longer be in your hands. I have no doubt this will happen to me some day and I hope this is how I will react: That may not be where I'll stake my flag, but if I truly believe that my positions are better arguments, then I don't have to police where other people are. I understand that some Online People will yell at me, but that's just life in the 21st century. People are always mad online. I've learned to hear them without having to punch back at them, especially if they're people speaking from a place of hurt. I know where I'm comfortable politically, but I'll keep reading and maybe something clicks, maybe not.
Eventually, after an underwhelming real life meet up with her peers and a difficult self-examination, Daum finds herself falling out of love with IDW fandom. She writes:
For me, it was as if the obscure indie rock band I’d been following for years suddenly hit it big. I was excited but also a little worried. ... I was growing weary of the self-conscious clubbiness of the whole thing. It’s as if some of them were having the experience of high school geeks who’d suddenly been let into the popular club. They couldn’t quite believe their luck, so they got matching T-shirts and wear them every day.
Again, she uses extremely appropriate High School similes. Daum even deploys the foundational hipster cliche of indie bands going mainstream to describe one of the reasons she fell out. The outgroup was no longer as "out" as it used to be. It all started to seem very uncool. Nary a word is spent on the principles, on realizing that there are legitimate critiques of her YouTube heroes, on how some of these people are just laundering right wing talking points. The diminishing returns of the social thrill that gets her off the bandwagon.
Politics in the social media age is for sure a special, uncharted form of hell. The millennial generation is still figuring out how to deal with it. Even the most radical leftist, card-carrying DSA member with an ironic Twitter account can attest to this. There are too many topics, too many positions we haven't even heard of, and moral consistency in political and pop culture opinions will always have some irreconcilable gray areas. In a new world where every voice can be heard, we're all still trying to learn how to keep all these voices in our head without the crushing weight of the world on us at all times.
It will not be solved overnight. But my feeling is that after these growing pains, we'll settle into a place where we understand that the nature of politics online means that we don't always have to respond to every call-out, that we can hold our milquetoast opinions to ourselves and be fine, and if we choose to air it out we just know that means someone's going to clap back. And that's just how things work in conversation with millions of people. It doesn't have to be a crisis of culture, a decline of political movements, or a call to arms and to form another tribe.
I'm a millennial. I have always heard from people 10 to 20 years older than I say that the things I believe are unrealistic, or a bridge too far, or unhelpful in the grand scheme of things. Maybe time will reveal that they are. But they rarely ask why we are this way, and to that I would answer: because we feel that your generation has deferred a better world. Woke is in fashion, even cynically wielded, because it has become clear to a generation of young Americans that you didn't do enough. Boomers take pride in incremental progress and celebrate the appearance of centrist wins. They have faith that this is the plan, that the arc of time is long and bends toward justice. We look the world you've created thus far, and we have no such faith.