When Donald Trump was elected president, I tried to console myself with the idea that at least we were living in interesting times. Things might be discombobulating and, for some, downright terrifying, but they would hardly be boring, right?
The last year has proved me wrong. We’ve never lived in less interesting times. In order for something to be interesting it has to be at least marginally graspable. Even if you can’t see the big picture, you have to be able to back up and see past your nose. And trying to grasp the full scope of the political climate right now is a bit like trying to view a Hieronymus Bosch triptych that’s been hung inside a small, dark closet. We have no idea what we’re really looking at. All we know is that it’s overwhelming and often grotesque.
That’s part of the reason I mostly kept my opinions to myself in 2017. My taste for counterintuitive rumination and occasional devil’s advocacy felt inappropriate to the occasion. I could have spent the year clucking about unhelpful hyperbole and tiresome performative wokeness, about the perils of labeling every political opponent a fascist, and all the ways in which the “nasty woman” trope was becoming, well, a little trop. But given the magnitude of the political earthquake and the justifiability of people’s outrage, it seemed better to step back and let more visceral responses set the tone.
Still, as we come up on the anniversary of Trump’s inauguration, the awe-inspiring Women’s March and the beginning of the mass nervous breakdown among liberals, I can’t help but think we’ve also reached the end of a certain grace period, one in which we pretended that wokeness was an acceptable substitute for an actual personality, not to mention for actual activism.
During this period, virtue signaling has become blue states’ own sort of opioid addiction. Post something about toxic masculinity, white privilege or, of course, President Trump (whose name is shorthand for both) and the likes and affirmations will mete out just enough dopamine to keep you going until the next fix.
Better yet, if you want to promote your movie, your book, your economic theory or your crowdfunded business venture, wrap it in the cloak of Trump-resistance and you are suddenly part of a mighty and magically unassailable franchise. Approval will be freely bestowed and favors exchanged. Important people are likely to endorse you and important media to cover you. In fact, this might be the only way to get important media coverage because “life in the age of Trump” is pretty much the only story in the news cycle.
But if you start to feel less than sincere every time you join a #MeToo chorus, you do what humans have done for thousands of years: Get together and admit privately to feeling conflicted.
Such gatherings are now referred to as “back channeling.” And they don’t just happen after a few too many drinks at media industry cocktail parties. They happen when college professors feel they have to whisper their support to colleagues embroiled in campus identity politics scandals. They take the form of direct messages on social media that start with “I didn’t want to say this in the comment thread, but ...” They’re what we professional opinionators sometimes do after holding forth with righteous certainty: turn to our closest confidants and confess to a level of cognitive dissonance and confusion we fear would alienate our followers and possibly kill our careers if we tried to put it into words.
All this messiness makes back-channel conversations the most interesting ones going on right now. It’s time they came out of the shadows.
Bit by bit, it’s starting to happen. The #MeToo movement is infused with obtuse rhetoric like “zero tolerance,” but it has also led to a handful of more nuanced analyses about the slippery nature of sexual consent and the dangers of failing (or refusing) to distinguish male clumsiness from dangerous aggression. Sure, some of the woke-iscenti dismissed these articles out of hand. I even saw someone refer to “nuance” as though it were a form of conservative trolling or rape apology. But I also noted rumblings of relief.
So with that, I’m going to drag myself out of hibernation. I won’t be on this page every week, but I’m going to check in from time to time with a report from the trenches of a burgeoning movement: #ResistanceToGroupthink. Call me a cognitive dissident. Chances are, you’re one, too.