My Faults My Own

One's ponens is another's tollens.

False Flag Flyers

content warning: defense of satire of certain critiques of racism; critique of censorship of satire of certain critiques of racism; critique of certain critiques of racism

content note: As should go without saying, zero defense of racism intended.

socioepistemic status: white male ally


This post comes with a preface -- read it here before going further, at risk of missing the intended point.


The Harvard Crimson | Posters Parodying Advocacy Magazine Prompt Controversy

Posters that parodied a new campus arts and advocacy magazine that focuses on issues of race and diversity prompted criticism from students and administrators in Pforzheimer House this past weekend.


Official Renegade posters in Pfoho had white backgrounds with black text containing phrases about race and diversity, such as "because Mather owned slaves"... The apparent parody posters, however, were black with white text and included the messages "because all straight white men are racist" and "because anyone that disagrees with me is racist." The posters included the url of the magazine’s website and its launch date. (...)

note: After reading a few articles in Renegade, one of my friends needed to take a break so badly they left campus for an afternoon to be anywhere but here. I expect that the magazine has useful things to say, but here's an anecdatum suggesting they don't know how to pull their punches; take care of yourselves accordingly.

False-flag tactics in social advocacy are selfish, since they (1) erode a public expectation of frankness in favor of monotonous cynicism, and (2) prime people's minds with the most-polarizing views of conversational participants, instead of framing them in ways that induce exchange of ideas. The right reason to critique the satirists here is for their anti-conversational tactics -- not their demonstrated anti-anti-racism -- since we shouldn't be okay with the same tactics even were they used "for the right side".

(I would like very much to quote from Slate Star Codex | In Favor of Niceness, Community, and Civilization here in condemnation of those who use nasty tactics because they know they're in the right, but since it's zero percent clear to me that either side in this clash is in any way in favor of civility, I'm just going to make a sad face and not. Instead, I'm going to throw up a cheer for discursive charity in the middle of this depressingly uncharitable fight.)

That said, it's not a hundred percent clear to me that a reasonable reader of the fake posters would have interpreted them as anything other than biting satire. The satirists had the sense to invert the coloring of Renegade's posters (the Crimson article doesn't have pictures, but does mention that they were white-on-black instead of black-on-white), and I mean, yes, Poe's Law[1], but "because everyone who disagrees with me is racist"[2], really?

Then again, a friend forwarded me a thread on the Pforzheimer House open mailing list indicating that, in the wild, it was not obvious to many Pfoho residents that the white-on-black posters were fake, until it was pointed out by Renegade staff. Maybe they fail Poe's Test. But even so, it's difficult to argue that the satirists weren't trying to make it clear that the were satire -- after all, if they intended the posters as false-flag defamation, why bother inverting the color scheme?

I guess a reasonable reason to be critical of the posters in question, even to the point of tearing them down, is that they were insufficiently distinguished -- to a casual observer -- from true posters, and that things approximating false-flag defamation should also be restricted in discourse, since they induce the same harms. But I think it's important to remember that that's a critique of execution, not of intent. If that's enough for you -- open and shut this case, don't want to think about the general principle -- then that's fine, and the rest of the post won't be of much interest to you.

But I believe it's interesting and important to try to grapple with the principles at play, so I'm going to proceed by treating them as above-board, rather than false-flag, satire.


A second argument is that the posters are attacky and hurtful, and therefore not to be tolerated as discourse, false-flag or no -- in fact, this is the position that Pforzheimer House Masters Anne Harrington and John Durant actually took in defense of their decision to have the fake posters removed:

Whatever the intent behind these posters, their effect has been to potentially mislead our community about Renegade, and to personally hurt and undermine some members of that group who live here in Pfoho. That is absolutely unacceptable, and we intend to take those posters down immediately, (...)

But coming from the corner of an advocacy that actually hung posters saying "because of Sarah Siskind #neverforget"[3], the denouncement of speech which "personally hurt[s]...some...who live here in Pfoho"[4] rings a little hollow. Laying aside the fact that Renegade's own posters point fingers a lot more personally than the parodies, the demand for civility in criticism in general -- from an aggressively critical advocacy magazine -- smacks of an isolated demand for rigor charity, itself highly uncharitable.

It's also fascinating-to-me the way in which Anne and John's position represents a departure from that of their predecessors as Masters of Pforzheimer House, Erika and Nicholas Christakis, who wrote of a 2012 controversy involving mock advertisements for a new 'final club' (read: fraternity) which specified, in parody of the racism and exclusivity seen at real final clubs, "Jews need not apply. Seriously, no fucking Jews. Coloreds okay.":

We hear from a lot of students, but particularly from students of color and/or students from conservative religious traditions that the college just doesn't 'get' their experience of feeling on the margins of Harvard life.

Sometimes students who feel disempowered feel that our failure to speak out about issues that are important to them reflects an abandonment of them and their values. This makes us incredibly sad, needless to say. (We hope it's 'needless to say.')

And yet: we hold firm in our defense of an open society where potentially offensive statements can be debated in the marketplace of ideas. There are, of course, limits to free speech (such as explicit threats to cause harm). But we think that the words of authority figures like professors and administrators carry great weight; they should be used judiciously. We worry a great deal that the speech environment on American college campuses is gradually becoming the opposite of educational. Although intentions are good (to create harmony and opportunity for all), we worry that Harvard is becoming a place where students may actually fear to express their ideas or think that they don’t have the strength and judgment to have their own ideas -- or the strength and judgment to resist the ideas of others. We worry that in the name of 'safety,' we are training our students to feel vulnerable -- too vulnerable -- to the slings and arrows of life. (emphasis mine)

Then again, the Christakises were among the few Harvard administrators to respond to the Pigeon flyers in any way other than "These are offensive, and that puts their value as speech beside the point." (see: Dean Evelynn Hammond's comments in the Crimson.)

Now, there's a difference between the cases -- instead of the satire coming from the left* (in the guise of being from the right), it's coming from the right** (in the guise of being from the left).

* The social {left, right}, not the fiscal {left, right}.

** But really, who's not to the right of Renegade?

But what difference should that make? Our critique of misrepresentative parody should appeal to discursive principles, not political ones, lest we license it for our own use. And on that axis, I don't think that Renegade has a particularly strong leg to stand on.


Another student on the Pforzheimer House open list wrote:

I think it's unfortunate that you read that email and think the message was that the decisions of the current house leadership to act and take down the posters is an infringement on free speech. When I read it, I find two people struggling to maintain a safe and comforting environment where people can live while also allowing students to engage in debate over issues that are important to them. I would wager that most everyone who is a part of house leadership feels the difficulty of that task.

I'm personally glad the posters were taken down. There's a place for the exchange of ideas, but I don't think there's a compelling reason for that place to be on the way to my bedroom, especially as multiple students voiced concerns or felt threatened by the posters. The posters were not informative, just provocative, and given that Pfoho is not an academic building (used primarily for the exchange of ideas) but a residential one (used primarily for living) it is reasonable to strive for comfort over intellectual growth at least sometimes. (emphasis mine; source: private email)

And you know what? I agree. Not every space need be political, and the erosion of spaces where students can feel safe from provocative speech -- even passive speech -- that makes them feel attacked for their race (even were that not the speaker's intent) is antithetical to a culture of open political discourse.

Renegade was the first offender here.

"because mather owned slaves." is a provocative statement which, intentionally or not, makes students at this school feel attacked for their race. I believe that, as discourse, it and "because agassiz measured our skulls." are antithetical to a culture of open political discourse, all the more so when they appear on strikingly designed posters placed between my bedroom and the dining hall.

This is, of course, not grounds to censor Renegade's posters -- people with views different from mine are of the belief that the necessity of this sort of provocative speech outweighs its harms. And I'll accept that it's improper for me to dictate to activists, experiencing axes of oppression with which I'm unfamiliar, just how necessary their activism is. If the staff of Renegade believe that their efforts to right the wrongs of racial oppression are more important than my peace of mind in my own home, fine. I'll accept that.

But I think it's bad activism, I know that it's ableist, and I'm going to keep saying so.

One of the things that we got out of December's "Comment 171", ensuing Twitterstorm, and following wave of blog posts, counterposts, and hurt feelings was a pair of essays by Rob Bessinger, of Nothing is Mere, and Ozy Frantz, of Thing of Things, which laid out an important issue I hadn't known how to think about before: That activist rhetoric designed to pierce the thick skulls of the most obstinate bigots can be unbearably anxiety-inducing to the non-neurotypical, or those otherwise inclined toward scrupulosity.[5] Which, to me, was entirely obvious-in-hindsight, but just not something I could have coherently voiced beforehand. Activism which hurts people -- activism which hurts potential allies -- is bad activism. By way of example:

Vigorous condemnation of rape culture and objectification of women? Awesome.

Vigorous condemnation of rape culture and objectification of women which (completely unintentionally) induces gender dysphoria and suicidal ideation in so much as one ally who despite that would later go on to be sympathetic to the cause? Not awesome. Profoundly troubling. Potentially the sort of thing that makes you wonder if, decades from now, we'll conclude that it was the thing that sounded the death-knell of the movement. Scrupulosity regarding race is not the same as scrupulosity regarding gender and sexuality, of course, and different people are differently sensitive to each, but there's an obvious parallel here, I think.

You can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, but if you don't even stop to notice that you are breaking eggs in the process, you are probably not going to make a tasty omelet.


I probably should try to restate the thing that I mean to say, since I inevitably bungled it the first time.

Entering into political discourse and refusing to meet the opposition is counterproductive to social-justice activism, especially if your chosen modes of discourse are (I can only assume unintentionally) harmful to other marginalized members of the community. Ex cathedris censorship in place of principled counterspeech represents the loss of an opportunity for productive dialogue on weighing the necessity and harms of intentionally-provocative discourse, and our entire community is weaker for it.

There is a real world after college, and in that real world, we're going to need to talk to people who disagree with us (or risk our activism convincing exactly no one). If we approach every critical fight as an exercise in annihilation, then every cause we fight for will be a long time coming. We can do better than that. And the four years we have right now are the best -- and possibly only -- chance we're going to get to practice doing it right.

We're going to be imperfect. It's going to hurt. But we can get better, and we can go into the world stronger activists for being able to change the minds of those who disagree with us, rather than appeal to friendly figures of authority to demand their silence.

I don't know how to engage in full-throated productive discourse on serious -- and to some, personal -- issues of race that gets through to everyone without alienating allies and the otherwise-marginalized. All that I know is that we, as a community, conspired to exchange no useful ideas this time around, and that there are things everyone involved could have done differently, such that it might have been otherwise.

I hope we do better next time.