Dear Internet: Performative Ironic White Male Self-Hatred Will Not Fix It

This weekend, the concept “bro” finally ate itself. After years of less and less clear application, a word that once existed solely to help performatively slack but ultimately deeply status-conscious young men identify each other completed its transformation into a word by which those same young men separate themselves from other young men otherwise identical to themselves. “Bro” has traveled the same road as “hipster“: it is a putdown, but one used most enthusiastically by exactly people whose self- and image-consciousness is so refined that it places them directly in the category of people so calumniated.

Look, I don’t know Robinson Meyer from Yon Yonson. He’s probably a fine person. Some of his other articles look pretty good. The point isn’t even that “BernieBro” is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my life (though it’s in the running); or that the habits of mind capable of not just jokingly positing but seriously considering such a category are already, for that very reason, harming American political life far more than the most annoying Bernie Sanders supporter on the Internet; or that Sanders is clearly the most democratic Democrat in the race; or that his getting disrupted by Black Lives Matter was almost certainly not about some “problem” with Sanders himself that the media must prove itself relevant by finding but, instead, strategic, a case of pressuring precisely the most sympathetic, not the most problematic, potential inside ally. (And, on that basis, it was a sensible move for BLM to make.) The point is that this is so much of the Internet as many of us experience it these days, this almost neurasthenic fashion-consciousness applied to political and cultural life, this parsing of smaller and smaller types at the expense of, well, everything else.

Freddie DeBoer has been working this beat forever, and he’s written some great takedowns of these people. But I can’t share his anger at them, nor do I think it’s effective to respond to their stereotypes with another stereotype. His analysis of this kind of writing always comes down to some version of This person writes this way because he or she cares more about being cool than about material social improvement. That must be true in at least some of these cases. But when I read a left-leaning white man who argues about politics on the Internet complaining about how there are these left-leaning white men, see, who argue politics on the Internet; or when I read literature-obsessed DFW imitators attack other literature-obsessed DFW imitators as “litbros”; or when I see men who are the targets of jokes from the Toast frantically RTing those same jokes (I always picture the editors squinting at their @mentions and thinking, “No, don’t you get it? I hate you. I think you are cartoons and not people. I think your interior life is inherently laughable. How much fucking clearer can I be“), what I see is magical thinking: if I hate myself, loudly, using people similar to me as proxies, the world will become more just. White men will fall in status; others will rise. It’s our version of what white women do when they call themselves “basic bitches” or say, “I like Starbucks. I’m such a whitegirl!“, as if they could become five percent better people by switching to Folgers or Eight O’Clock or Chock-Full-O-Nuts. It’s not a brag. It’s not even a humblebrag. (A lot fewer people in the world are humblebragging than we assume.) It’s a confession of deep shame, deep embarrassment.

When I read, say, the Awl, I often picture a guy who, when his computer dies and he loses two weeks’ worth of work, he cries for half a moment, and then he thinks, God, what a first-world problem. Quit crying, you fucking baby. When he falls down the subway stairs and tears up his knee, and the tears get infected, and he needs stitches, and they give him an anesthetic but it doesn’t take so he feels each yanks of the thread, he yelps aloud and then grits his teeth and wonders why he isn’t crying but then notices a single hot tear on the end of his nose, of all places—how the fuck did it get to his nose???—this is what he thinks: I am such a whiteboy. If only I had some of that ironic-not-ironic old-fashioned masculinity we’re always talking about. Ron Swanson wouldn’t cry over shit like this. When he loves and is rejected and finds that he’s taking longer to mend than he had hoped, he thinks Who am I, a Nice Guy? Fuck me. I suck so bad. When, decades from now, he gets cancer, and they didn’t catch it soon enough so it’s already spread to his lymph nodes, and the chances aren’t great, he’ll probably think At least there’s one fewer white dude in Brooklyn. 

This kind of self-flagellation is more or less how I spent my twenties. (More accurately, it’s where my twenties went.) The labels were different, and the politics pointed slightly different directions in some cases. But when I was verbally and emotionally abused by my girlfriend, I told myself, Well, men are really terrible to women, so you probably have this coming, right? It all balances out. (It didn’t help that I encountered versions of feminism that basically said as much. They do exist.) When I wondered, silently, whether I would make it to 27, and it wasn’t a cry for help but just a sober assessment, like the way you wonder how many miles the car’s got left, I told myself, You are such a stereotypical male intellectual, look at you introspecting too much. the world’ll be better off without you. When I woke up, regularly, in the middle of the night, struggling to breathe, I thought, God, who are you to have trouble breathing? You know who probably has real trouble breathing? Victims of US imperialism. When I didn’t see doctors for years on end, not only because I couldn’t afford to but because just the thought of being told again, “There’s not really anything I can do for you; you should reduce the stress in your life” made me sicker, I’d think Why should the doctors take time away from people with real problems to listen to you whine, you nerd? 

This went on till the pastor of the church I was attending asked me, with an intent facial expression, whether I was doing OK, and I actually said, “My petit-bourgeois spiritual angst is probably not worth worrying about.” She shut me the hell down: “Your petit-bourgeois spiritual angst is my job.” (And that is reason #2342342 why I will knife-fight for women’s ordination.) The resulting conversation probably saved my life. It led to me finally seeing a doctor, finally talking to a therapist, finally recognizing that I was not an outline of a person with the words “overeducated white male” written from a sign hanging around his neck but a person and therefore someone needing the sorts of things people need, including medical care when he’s sick and advice when he’s confused. It led to me taking myself seriously enough that I could finally be of some earthly use to other people, including, I hope, the people in my life who don’t benefit from the privileges I’ve had as a white straight guy, and also, I hope, the people in my life who’ve benefited from those privileges and others I don’t even have, because they are also people.

But all that mental self-cutting I was doing all those years, those “automatic thoughts” (as my therapist called them) that were so label-filled and judgmental you could get a year’s worth of Gawker posts out of them? I didn’t do that to get other peoples’ political approval. (Indeed, a lot of that stuff I never verbalized. If I had, someone might have noticed that I was crazy and saved me a couple of years.) And the phrase “It’s not about you” (which is sometimes intended as something other than a putdown but always received as one) wouldn’t have done a thing to help. It would simply have—it did—set off more self-flagellation: Yeah, it isn’t about you. You white male narcissist. You’re worse than Norman Mailer. You should just stab yourself with a penknife. I did this to myself because, again, as I hadn’t yet realized in those days, I was a person, and one thing we know people do is that, when they know things are profoundly wrong, perhaps unfixable, they look for something valuable to sacrifice, some really fat really cute cows to slaughter. It is human nature, and it runs through our history from Moloch to nationalist wars to austerity budgets that don’t actually work. We find something we really like or enjoy and we fling it on the fire.

The Internet—by which I really only mean the snarky, US left-liberal young white peoples’ internet—sucks as badly as it does not because the writers are stupid or untalented. They’re really not. (I dissed the Toast earlier. I had to stop reading it because I don’t like being insulted. I also think Mallory Ortberg is one of the most talented humorists I’ve ever read. I’m glad her misandry didn’t go as far as Wodehouse, because she’s done some great riffs on him.) And it doesn’t suck because of peoples’ explicit politics, the principles they actually claim to believe in when they’re being even half-serious. If this post gets read at all, I’m pretty sure that at least some few people will, because I’ve attacked performative white-male self-hatred, think that I’m attacking feminism, or discussions of privilege. But I, like exactly the sorts of writers I’m critiquing here, strongly believe in feminism, racial diversity in the workplace, and reparations. I think the existence of white and male privilege are no more to be questioned than the existence of bicycles. I believe in getting rid of them because I am a humanist; I think humans ought to be in the habit of valuing each other. For the exact same reason, I hate to see gifted people dedicate their gifts so thoroughly to the project of punishing people almost exactly like themselves, for transgressions so minor (using the hashtag #FeelTheBern, for example) that they can’t really be said to exist. I don’t think they’re doing it because they are the terminal narcissists that Freddie DeBoer accuses them of being. I think they know exactly how fucked up the world is, and they want to stab at somebody, at themselves or those like them, till it gets better. It’s human. But also, grow up. Stop it. Not one rape is prevented because you found a new noun to attach “bro” to. Not one ripped-off family gets a reparations check because you invented a new stereotype and called it “problematic.” Black Lives Matter won’t become a powerful movement because you sacrifice the Bernie-loving parts of yourself to it. You are only hurting yourself and wasting other peoples’ time.

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