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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

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Last week I wrote about a self-described transphobic speaker who was invited to my campus to give a talk titled “What is a Woman?” The speaker is an extreme rightwing political entertainer, a genre I defined by philosopher Harry Frankfurt’ term “bullshit” (roughly: making claims with disregard to whether they are true or not).

I have nothing more to say about the speaker (who cancelled for reasons unrelated to my school), but one of the two outside organizations credited for funding the event offers a further opportunity for genre analysis.

The secretary for the Generals Redoubt, an alumni organization promoting continued reverence for my school’s confederate namesake, released a mass email on March 27. In terms of genre, it is a fundraising advertisement. It concludes with an overt request for money: “Please donate to The Generals Redoubt … Thank you in advance for your support.” 

Like political entertainment, advertising is a genre especially conducive for bullshit, because its defining goal is not to make truthful statements but to make profitable ones. That intention and its accompanying indifference to facts shape the email.

It begins: “The question “What Is a Woman?” has vexed society for centuries …”

As I think anyone who has taught WRIT 100 at my school will tell you, that’s an example of a funnel introduction – a technique my first-year students grow past after their first papers (the author graduated in 1964, and I know nothing about the quality of writing instruction at that time).

Is it true that this question “has vexed society for centuries”? Seems doubtful, but, being bullshit, the claim is not intended to be weighed seriously. So I won’t.

The email expands the claim, stating next that the question has “led to spirited, but civil debate” and that the “Hallmarks of those discussions have been courtesy, decorum and a willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints.”

Again, seems doubtful. But the opening sentences are not meant to be taken literally – they’re more akin to a speaker clearing his throat as he approaches the podium.

But they’re not rhetorically irrelevant either. The author uses them to set-up an actual claim, albeit a hyperbolic one: “Apparently, the concept of civil and courteous discourse has disappeared at Washington and Lee.”

After referring to the extreme rightwing political entertainer as a “noted commentator,” the email clams that the scheduling of the event “has sent the far-left members of The University Community into an emotional meltdown.”

Has it though? Let’s set aside that further hyperbole and instead explore the irony of the claim.

The “noted commentator” has a show on the extreme rightwing political entertainment platform the Daily Wire. One of his most recent episodes is titled “The Pride Flag Deserves our Disrespect.”

The “noted commentator” also told the Loudoun County school board in 2021:

“You’re all child abusers. You prey upon impressionable children and indoctrinate them into your insane ideological cult. A cult which has many radical views, but none so deranged as the view that boys are girls and girls are boys. By imposing this vile nonsense on students, to the point where girls are sharing locker rooms with boys, you deprive these kids of safety, and privacy, and something more fundamental too, which is truth. If education is not grounded in truth then it is worthless. Worse, it is poison. You are poison. You are predators.”

Are these examples of civil and courteous discourse?

Do they display the hallmarks of courtesy, decorum and a willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints?

The email continues to its most central claims: “Totally disregarding the First Amendment rights of all members of this Community, a group of students has been circulating a petition demanding Mr. Walsh be prohibited from speaking.”

I’m not sure if this is bullshit (a statement made without regard to whether it’s true). It’s possible that the author is lying (making a statement he knows is false with the intent of it being mistaken as true). Or perhaps the author is simply ignorant (making a false statement that he has mistaken as true).

The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The First Amendment limits the powers of the federal government. It has no bearing on a student petition addressing a private university’s administration. No community member’s First Amendment rights have been disregarded — or could be in this context.

Whether from ignorance or deceit, the author next mocks students and professors for not understanding the First Amendment: “Many of the petition’s signatories are law students (who presumably have read The First Amendment) and some law professors (who likely have taken and/or taught courses on The First Amendment).”

Though this is a factual statement (I also assume the students have read and the professors have taught the First Amendment), the implication is absurdly false: that it is the students and professors who do not understand the First Amendment.

The author does offer one correct assertion: “Circulating a petition is indisputably protected by The First Amendment.” This is true. Congress cannot pass a law prohibiting students from petitioning their university administration to disallow the speaker’s event.

But then the author highlights the depth of his confusion in the next sentence: “Demanding Mr. Walsh be banned from speaking because some students and a limited number of faculty disagree with his views or his message is not protected.” In fact, it is. Congress shall make no law abridging that freedom of speech.

Why is the author making these false claims?

That brings us to our next genre.

I mentioned Binder and Kidder in my previous blog. I’ll quote their 2022 The Channels of Student Activism: How the Left and Right Are Winning (and Losing) in Campus Politics Today again:

“The answer to why supporting vile speech has become such a ubiquitous part of college-level conservatism is that student-led groups are operating within a larger outside channel of activism. Many national organizations on the right see the First Amendment as a valuable tool for disrupting liberal hegemony in higher education.”

Binder and Kidder continue:

“national organizations and wealthy benefactors set the tone for what types of activism are appropriate for club members, and they provide a ready-made and consistent script that right-leaning students use to defend their provocations.”

I also referenced Henry Farrell last week. He explains:

“The reason why so many campus controversies seem to follow the same script is … that they are following the same script. A conservative group invites a figure onto campus who seems guaranteed to provoke outrage, leading to protests, and likely headlines about campus illiberalism. This is not a reaction against purported wokism so much as a means of weaponizing it for the other side’s political purposes.”

The Generals Redoubt is parroting the script that Binder and Kidder outline:

“Many outside organizations encourage students on the right to plan events specifically designed to incite outrage among their left-leaning peers. Once outrage is successfully sparked, and progressive students demand that administrators do something in response, the front line of conservative politics shifts to protecting the speech rights of reactionaries and provocateurs.”

I’m not sure what to call this genre. Something like “outside extremists woo students into supporting vile speech to provoke other students so outside extremists can cry wokism”?

Whatever you call the genre, it’s depressing to see it performed at my school.

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I teach genre theory.

Currently, my course North American Contemporary Fiction focuses on what I term “literary genre fiction,” the Venn diagram overlap of “literary” (which is itself a genre) and traditional “genres” (which include, for example, mystery, horror, romance, science fiction, post-apocalypse, and alternate history). My Advanced Fiction Workshop has the same focus, but from a creative-writing perspective.

I do not teach nonfiction, but nonfiction falls into subgenres too. For instance, a speaker appearing soon on my campus works in what I would term “extreme rightwing partisan political entertainment.”

I’ll try to clarify that.

Rather than Venn diagrams, picture circles inside circles, beginning with the largest outer circle labeled: “entertainment.”

Entertainment includes all kinds of overlapping subgenres, but focus on just one of those inner circles: “political entertainment.”

I use the term to distinguish content from political news. While it’s possible that all political commentary falls under “political entertainment,” and that all news sources suffer some level of bias (albeit in some cases minor), I define the category primarily by audience and so audience expectations, which are shaped by and in turn shape production intentions.

The goal of political entertainment is to please a specific political audience. This means that it is not primarily designed for accuracy or truth. That doesn’t mean that claims made within political entertainment are necessarily inaccurate or false. It means the claims are made without any regard to accuracy or truth. In philosophical terms, it’s bullshit. (If you haven’t read Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit,” please do.)

Here’s an example from the genre of legal studies. When Tucker Carlson was sued for slander in 2020, his defense team successfully argued that Carlson is playing a TV persona who no “reasonable viewer” could take seriously and so is therefore incapable of committing slander. The court agreed that, as a political entertainer, Carlson “is not ‘stating actual facts’ about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in ‘exaggeration’ and ‘non-literal commentary.” He is “simply bloviating for his audience.”

Most political entertainment is partisan, but there are probably exceptions. I don’t watch Bill Mahar’s Politically Incorrect, but it may be an example of political entertainment that doesn’t fall clearly into the next subdivision. Mahar has been described as “liberal” at times and “conservative” at others and, from what I can gather, his style of comedy and commentary cuts in multiple political directions.

Mahar’s neighboring circle, “partisan political entertainment,” is much larger. It divides into two further circles: “leftwing partisan political entertainment” and “rightwing partisan political entertainment.”

The first includes comedians such as John Stewart, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, and Michael Moore. It also includes non-comedian pundits addressing similar leftwing audiences. I don’t watch MSNBC, but I believe there are a number employed there, perhaps most prominently Rachel Maddow.

The second, “rightwing” circle includes fewer comedians (I can’t think of any with weekly platforms), but the list of pundits is much longer and includes, for example, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Matt Drudge, Ann Coulter, Lou Dobbs, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck.

Both of the two circles within “partisan political entertainment” include one further inner circle each: “extreme leftwing” and “extreme rightwing.” Perhaps some of the names listed above belong in those innermost circles. While Fox News and MSNBC are explicitly and sharply partisan, they tend not to be rated as extremely biased as Breitbart, Newsmax, OAN, and Daily Caller on the right, or HuffPost, Daily Beast, or Daily Kos on the left.

InfoWars is so extreme it may deserve its own even further inner-innermost category, but certainly any commentator working at Daily Kos or Daily Wire falls into the genre of “extreme partisan political entertainment.”

That includes Markos Moulitsas on the far left and Matt Walsh on the far right.

In 2015, my small liberal arts university adopted the Chicago Principles, which state that “debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed” and that “fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.”

I strongly agree with those principles.

Which is why I dislike partisan political entertainment.

I happily admit that I have watched and enjoyed Stewart, Oliver, and Bee, though none recently. I got bored by each of their comedy styles. That means that as an audience member I understood myself to be consuming comedy. As a genre, comedy does not foster “deliberation,” let alone “in an effective and responsible manner.”

Neither does political entertainment generally.

So while my university’s administration evokes the Chicago Principles as reason for having to accept an extreme rightwing partisan political entertainer on campus, the invited speaker violates those principles. He impedes the ability of members of the University’s community to engage in debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner.

To be clear, the issue is not whether the invited speaker expresses ideas that are “offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” He does. But so does philosopher Kathleen Stock (who believes “many trans women are still males”). Stock, however, expresses offensive ideas in a manner that does foster deliberation. That’s because she’s working in the genre of philosophy, not political entertainment. If the student organization that invited the speaker actually wishes our campus community to deliberate the question “What is a woman?” (the title of their speaker’s presentation) then they have failed overwhelmingly. Their spectacle instead achieves the opposite.

And, disturbingly, that is its goal.

The presentation is funded in part by Young America’s Foundation, an organization that Amy Binder and Jeff Kidder discuss in their 2022 The Channels of Student Activism: How the Left and Right Are Winning (and Losing) in Campus Politics Today:

“Many outside organizations encourage students on the right to plan events specifically designed to incite outrage among their left-leaning peers. Once outrage is successfully sparked, and progressive students demand that administrators do something in response, the front line of conservative politics shifts to protecting the speech rights of reactionaries and provocateurs…. Ultimately, it is the influence of outside players—such as the Leadership Institute, Turning Point, Young America’s Foundation, PragerU, and Young Americans for Liberty, as well as local donors helping to fund their preferred campus clubs—that make speech uniquely effective in reactionary mobilization.”

(Please read Henry Farrell’s “Conservatives on campus” for more on the above.)

Young America’s Foundation, the invited speaker, and the student organization (to the degree that its members accepted the outside funding to host the speaker) are intentionally undermining the principle of careful and meaningful deliberation that is at the heart of their institution’s educational mission.

And there’s nothing to be done about that.

The next question before that student organization, the university administration, and the overall campus community is:

What practical steps can we begin now so that this doesn’t happen again?

Or, in terms of genre, can we please cut the bullshit?

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