When I think of the Waverly Diner on 6th Avenue and Waverly Place in Greenwich Village, I am moved by romantic nostalgia. By that I only mean that when I think of the Waverly I feel, in some way, what it was like to be young and in the rush of the conversation. The conversation was everything. It flowed all around us, in the subways and the streets, in the diners and the high-rise apartments, and if you could master it, it could take you anywhere. You could still smoke inside of diners back then and sometimes we spent whole days around an ashtray and a plate of disco fries, getting refills on the coffee. I’m not saying all the arguments were good, but sometimes it was thrilling.
Perhaps that’s a uniquely New York thing, to place so much faith in talking. But it once felt very American, too; the diner-booth yapper animated by argument, one version of the big city fast talker who reflected an aspect of the national character right there alongside the taciturn cowboy, the trapper frontiersman, and the Puritan. American because, if you could think it and you could argue it, then maybe you could be it, too. It was at least possible. And it was democratic in the best sense. You could talk to anyone, butt into any stranger’s conversation, as long as you had something interesting to say.
I don’t know how to argue in America anymore, or whether it’s even worth it. For someone like me, that is a real tragedy and so I would like to understand how this new reality came about.
There are distinct and deep-rooted traditions of rational empiricism and religious sermonizing in American history. But these two modes seem to have become fused together in a new form of argumentation that is validated by elite institutions like the universities, The New York Times, Gracie Mansion, and especially on the new technology platforms where battles over the discourse are now waged. The new mode is argument by commandment: It borrows the form to game the discourse of rational argumentation in order to issue moral commandments. No official doctrine yet exists for this syncretic belief system but its features have been on display in all of the major debates over political morality of the past decade. Marrying the technical nomenclature of rational proof to the soaring eschatology of the sermon, it releases adherents from the normal bounds of reason. The arguer-commander is animated by a vision of secular hell—unremitting racial oppression that never improves despite myths about progress; society as a ceaseless subjection to rape and sexual assault; Trump himself, arriving to inaugurate a Luciferean reign of torture. Those in possession of this vision do not offer the possibility of redemption or transcendence, they come to deliver justice. In possession of justice, the arguer-commander is free at any moment to throw off the cloak of reason and proclaim you a bigot—racist, sexist, transphobe—who must be fired from your job and socially shunned.
Practitioners of the new argument bolster their rationalist veneer with constant appeals to forms of authority that come in equal parts from biology and elite credentialing. Have you noticed how many people, especially online, start their statements by telling you their profession or their identity group: As a privileged white woman; as a doctoral student in applied linguistics; as a progressive Jewish BIPOC paleontologist—and so on? These are military salutes, which are used to establish rank between fellow “az-uhs” while distinguishing them as a class from the civilian population. You must always listen to the experts, the new form of argument insists, and to the science. Anything else would be invalid; science denialism; not rational; immoral.
Because of the way it toggles back and forth between rationalism and religiosity, switching categories by taking recourse to one when the other is questioned, the new form of argument-commandment, rather than invalidating itself or foundering on its own contradictions, becomes, somehow, rhetorically invincible—through the demonstration of power relations that the arguer denies exist, but are plainly manifest in the progress of the argument.
The group of historians who submitted their letter of dissent to The New York Times, objecting to the historical claims in the paper’s flagship 1619 project provided a nice demonstration of this point. They questioned the project’s scholarship and in response, were accused of being old white men, as indeed most of them were, and antique reactionaries. When they pleaded that they were not abettors of white supremacy but objected to the project’s historical claims, they were told their history was in error. In the end the historians, however distinguished their careers were beforehand, appeared confused and defeated, complaining solicitously in their allotted column inches in the paper’s letters section.
The 1619 project, meanwhile, having essentially conceded the historians’ central point, lost nothing at all. It marches on unscathed toward becoming the official curriculum in the nation’s public school system, replacing the products of the American historical profession as a whole, which must either adapt or suffer a similar humiliation. The outcome proved that whether or not the historians were right about the facts of history, they had made a fundamental error in judging where power lies. At best, they are dopes who thought they were smarter, which is to say more powerful, than they are. At worst, they are professionally self-destructive, and—who knows—maybe even racists.
Argument itself requires that certain fundamental questions are settled and beyond dispute. In order to argue over whether the sky is blue, we’ll have to agree on what the sky is. The new argumentation has not only vastly expanded the number of subjects that are supposed to be beyond argumentation, it has, by a sleight of hand, reversed the nature of the matters that cannot be questioned. Now, it is precisely the most contentious issues—is biological sex a valid concept? Is racism and abuse so widespread in American law enforcement that we should immediately defund the police?—that must be accepted a priori.
To insist that the conclusion that the arguer wishes to reach, with its implied corollary commandment, must be accepted by his or her opponent as a premise before the argument begins is not the move of a person who has confidence in their truth. It is the opposite of any form of reasoned argument. It is coercive. Except the people who argue this way claim that they cannot possibly be coercive, because you must accept the premise that they don’t have power—even if they are editing The New York Times Magazine, or threatening to get you fired from your job. You say they can’t have it both ways? They say, why not—and then accuse you of opposing the powerless, which, it turns out, is a form of authority that cannot be trumped.
The reason we cannot argue about certain things is because they have already been proven true and the truth they have established is such a significant moral advance—like ending child sacrifice—that to question the rational basis on which the truth rests is to risk eroding a foundation of the moral progress that separates us from encroaching barbarism. If you want to argue about those things, then you are a barbarian—which means that argument with you is impossible, because the only argument that barbarians understand is being put to the sword or sent off to a labor camp.
Do you need me to give you an example of this kind of argument? Not really, because such arguments have become the norm. But here are a few recent examples:
The moral injunction is: “Believe women”—and you believe women, don’t you? The argument underlying the slogan is that sexual violence is rampant in America and goes unaddressed and unpunished because of the endemic misogyny in our society. There are rational assertions contained within this argument: The claim that American women are the victims of rampant sexual violence enabled by ingrained cultural and legal biases was advanced initially as matter of social science—that is, as a matter of science—based on empirical evidence such as a famous study that found 1 in 5 women on American college campuses had been sexually assaulted.
If women were being victimized at such appalling rates and their assailants routinely going unpunished, it followed that they required protections greater than those which our current notions of legal and judicial fairness provided. In fact, one could see how it was precisely our prevailing notions of fairness, like due process or the rights of the accused to face their accuser, that were integral to an institutionalized “rape culture” responsible for the heinous epidemic of sexual assault against women.
Here are the two parts of the argument by commandment. There is the empirical assertion—let’s call it X. And there is the moral claim suggested by, or perhaps even mandated by the evidence of X—let’s call that Y. Empirical evidence shows that there is an epidemic of sexual assault against women, that epidemic requires a drastic corrective, and that corrective enshrines a moral claim and a commandment—American women are sexually victimized, egregiously and without the protections of a justice system that systemically discriminates against them. Therefore it is virtuous to “believe women” and to encode that belief formally in new procedures of law and justice.
Only it turns out the rational argument was wrong. The evidence did not actually show that 1 in 5 women would be sexually assaulted on a college campus, a statistic repeated by President Barack Obama himself to justify “sweeping changes in national policy.”
It turns out that the author of the study himself acknowledged that it was based on surveying only two campuses and the numbers could not be extrapolated to a national trend as the White House itself had done. Other studies widely cited at the time to justify the construction of a punitive new Title IX sex bureaucracy were also marred by significant methodological shortcomings.
But if you were clueless enough to point out the flaws in rational claim X, even if just to wonder over matters of degree, then wham!—you were whacked in the face with moral claim Y. Evidence X isn’t evidence; it’s window dressing. And if you’re too stupid to understand that, then you’re probably an even worse person than the arguer supposed.
Because—think about it—who else but a fervent, drooling misogynist, or a rape apologist, or a real live rapist, namely someone both ideologically and emotionally invested in actively disbelieving women, would be so interested in picking apart the evidence that supported such an obviously virtuous and necessary claim—especially now, at a moment when people are literally dying? What basis would anyone have to question X aside from the desire to violate the moral value of Y?
It’s no surprise that the entire #MeToo movement grew out of the revelations about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein—a loathsome man who was, by all accounts, a bullying asshole, a lecher, a tyrant, a sweaty groping pig. But in the end, justice finally caught up to him and Weinstein became the evil pig who launched a whole movement. And that was where most of us stopped thinking about it.
But there were a few more twists in the story. First, there was Asia Argento, one of the first actresses to come forward with her story of sexual abuse at the hands of Weinstein and one of the leaders and public faces of the #MeToo movement—who turned out to be an accused sexual predator herself. No one should have to be a “perfect victim” or a moral exemplar to be given sympathy and believed, but Argento was pushing it.
Then there was the evidence that came out in Weinstein’s trial. One of his key accusers was a young aspiring actress with whom he had a yearslong relationship—just the kind of vulnerable victim that Weinstein was said to have sought out. But the private correspondence kept by this woman, which included both letters to Weinstein and letters to her boyfriend about the Hollywood producer, suggested something far more complicated than a predator-victim relationship of the kind that is criminally prosecutable. Especially revealing was the woman’s claim that Weinstein’s sexual organ was defunct, a detail that, if true, would present all sorts of complications for an alleged serial predator like Weinstein. Or should have.
Do we believe in the rightness of #MeToo because of what the Weinstein case revealed or in spite of it? It seems perfectly clear that Weinstein is guilty of some of the crimes against women of which he has been accused, but equally obvious that it is not supposed to matter on which specific charges he is guilty and on which he is innocent by the standards of the law. Weinstein’s guilt must be totalizing so that it can serve as a stand-in for an empirical case justifying a set of new rules and commandments. The entire discourse has been warped to fit a Hollywood narrative—wherein drama and action (and whatever good they might accomplish) are never mustered for regular people but only for the wealthiest members of the American cultural elite. It is rather difficult to point this out without appearing to excuse the actions of someone like Weinstein, but perhaps a movement truly concerned with ending gender discrimination in the workplace and protecting the victims of sexual assault would have focused on the retail industry or the healthcare field, rather than on Hollywood.
Black Lives Matter is a movement that makes its core doctrinal claim a value that no decent person can object to. It asserts that, not merely formal legal acknowledgement, but full human dignity and consideration has been uniquely robbed from black Americans throughout the country’s history. No one with a basic knowledge of American history can deny that this claim is true. But the statement Black Lives Matter makes also has a more pointed political meaning, which is that black lives are systematically devalued in the present, and under assault from racist police violence and an overarching regime of white supremacy that animates every aspect of modern American life. That life, therefore, is in urgent need of reparative justice—like defunding the police, and establishing formal and informal systems of preferences that this time prefer blacks over whites, that statues of white men must be pulled down, that corporations must fire their current employees and hire new employees based on their skin color, and that a massive program of public reeducation must be set in motion across American society, and especially in public schools.
There may be no more totemically powerful moral claim in all of American life than those three words: “black lives matter.” As a meme it is invincible. But the moral claim, with its demand for immediate radical changes to policing and other institutions of American life, is not just a moral claim, it is also supposedly a reflection of observed and analyzed material conditions. For instance, that there is an epidemic of racist, or, more correctly anti-black, police violence in America.
It seems appallingly obvious that systematic police violence targeting black Americans is real. The evidence is everywhere: in the state-sanctioned snuff films that circulate on YouTube and throughout social media maintaining a sense of terror and siege. It does little good to point out that the majority of police violence in 2020 America is directed toward white people, or that a total of 14 unarmed black men were in fact shot in America last year, while a greater number of unarmed light-skinned men were shot by the police, or that a majority of police officers protect their communities in a lawful manner under often difficult conditions. And since it doesn’t matter if you concede that there is evidence of racial bias in policing, just not at anything like the catastrophic level that justifies calls to defund the police, and it doesn’t matter whether you acknowledge a significant need for police reform to make it less prone to escalating violence and more accountable—since that hardly seems to matter in the context of a discussion that now centers on police abolition, why would anyone go to the trouble.
The paradigmatic case of police violence in the modern era was the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. It was Brown’s death, shortly after Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida, that consolidated the movement’s power in national politics. The motto born of the killing that gave birth to the modern era of race relations was “hands up, don’t shoot.” Only we know now that this phrase, a shorthand for the evidence that indicts the society and justifies its rejection and refounding, did not describe the reality of Brown’s death. A lengthy investigation of the killing by the Obama Justice Department found that Brown did not have his hands up and may have been charging at Wilson when he was killed. Of course, the Obama Justice Department report also found evidence of racial bias in the Ferguson police force but it did not support the central claim about the killing of Michael Brown. And so while the DOJ findings were dutifully reported in the press, it was, at the same time, often kept at safe distance from discussion of Black Lives Matter, the movement, the moral claim, the commandment.
The police execution of Michael Brown, who was shot with his hands up, proved the rational basis for the moral claim that “black lives matter” with its implied set of commandments. The moral position further legitimated the idea that progress is illusory and reform is not possible because American society is currently organized, as the Brown case proved, to devalue black lives and thus requires radical overhaul. And so the new argument proceeds, burying contrary evidence in unmarked graves while erecting new religious monuments and shrines at which the growing number of the faithful pay obeisance.
The organs of reason and expertise have one by one, pledged their cultish loyalty to this new faith. A group of doctors wrote an article in Scientific American explaining why the mentioning or reading of the results of George Floyd’s autopsy was a racist act. Public health officials across the country, who had in May condemned public demonstrations in the strongest terms, now fully endorse the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd. In a petition signed by some 1,200 health officials, they declare that it is incumbent on others in the profession to offer “unwavering support” to the current protesters as a matter of both moral and medical hygiene. They all together elide the difference between empirical claim and moral commandment by declaring that, “White supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19.” And so, the merger of pseudorationalist discourse with the new American religion of anti-racism is completed.
America’s elite institutions now routinely make statements and use language that empirically is false. Indeed, they have taken the making, propagation, and enforcement of such language as their central mission. Because these statements are false, they make solutions to the real problems that are being gestured at impossible—while turning people who may want to actually address those problems into evil rape apologists and racists.
What we are witnessing, in the rapidly transforming norms around race, sex, and gender, is not an argument at all but a revolution in moral sentiment. In all revolutions, the new thing struggling to be born makes use of the old system in order to overthrow it. At present, institutions like the university, the press, and the medical profession preserve the appearance of reason, empiricism, and argument while altering, through edict and coercion, the meaning of essential terms in the moral lexicon, like fairness, equality, friendship, and love. That the effort wins so much support speaks to the deep contradictions and corruption of American meritocratic institutions, and of the liberal individualist moral regime it seeks to replace.
Moral revolutions cannot tolerate ambiguity, but there is so much that I’m not sure of. How does one argue with this new form of truth? Not in the old way. Not by taking the bait.
Jacob Siegel is senior editor of News and The Scroll, Tablet’s daily afternoon news digest, which you can subscribe to here.