A Small Note on the Uses of Derision

Kneel before Chapo! Photo: Warner Bros

The New Republic’s Jeet Heer articulates a rule that most political commentators on right and left alike tend to follow implicitly: “Derision is useful for one half of politics — defeating the opposing party — but has nothing to say to the crucial other half of forming alliances that can govern effectively for the people.” It’s a bad rule.

Heer is writing about Chapo Trap House, a left-wing podcast that ridicules liberals. For all the bitter disagreements between the far left and the center left, Heer argues, they ultimately have a common political interest in a two-party system. A Chapo host recently demanded of liberals, “You must bend the knee to us” — to which Heer points out that, even in a world in which the far left has conquered the Democratic Party, they would need votes from the center left, so abusing your (prospective) fellow partisans tends to be counterproductive.

As a political matter, Heer has this right. But a podcast does not have to abide the logic of political coalition-building. Indeed, too many commentators do consciously or unconsciously internalize the logic of politicians and political activists by treating their own side with politeness and reserving derision for people associated with the opposing party. Journalists and critics are supposed to be independent. Certainly rules of fair play ought to apply. (I suggested some a few years ago.) Identify the subject of your disagreement and characterize their argument accurately. Don’t violate your own standards without acknowledging a change of mind. Cross-check your arguments for bias. I think mockery and abuse are fine — your mileage my vary — but only as a complement to, rather than as a substitute for, substantive argument.

The main point here is not the composition of rules themselves but that, whatever rules you follow, you ought to apply across the ideological spectrum without prejudice. While the temptation to go easy on a person who you think of as a political coalition partner is obvious — and I can’t claim immunity — it is ultimately corrosive to discourse. If there is one demand progressive commentators have made of conservative ones, it is that they stop tiptoeing around the deranged lies on their own side and attack it forcefully. You can’t very well demand that from the other side if you’re not willing to do it yourself.

A Small Note on the Uses of Derision