From Grand Union
In 2013, an internet troll apologized to writer and columnist Lindy West. West had been the target of online abuse for numerous reasons, but most recently at the time for her stance in opposition to comedians telling jokes about rape. After suffering backlash and hateful invective online, she wrote about the experience for the feminist site Jezebel. The following day, according to a 2015 account in The Guardian, she woke up to an email that read, in part, “I don’t know why or even when I started trolling you. It wasn’t because of your stance on rape jokes. I don’t find them funny either. I think my anger towards you stems from your happiness with your own being. It offended me because it served to highlight my unhappiness with my own self. I have e-mailed you through 2 other gmail accounts just to send you idiotic insults. I apologize for that.”
West eventually met the former troll, who had turned his life around, gone to school, and become a teacher. He remained stalwart in his remorse for his former behaviour.
Had that happened five years later, it is by no means clear the story would have ended the same way.
The idea that a person who has said or done something to cause harm might possess the capacity to change is not often considered in today’s cultural environment. Internet voices advocating a kind of ideological purity – on the right and the left – will sift through a person’s online writing, their social media, and any past public statements for even a whiff of indiscretion or malfeasance that might be used as evidence of that person’s inherent moral turpitude. What follows, frequently, are calls for that person to be erased from the public eye and consigned to the dustbin of history.
This has come to be known in the late 2010s as “cancel culture.”
This idea is not entirely new to the internet era. The phrase “beyond the pale,” meaning outside the bounds of accepted social convention, dates back to at least the 18th century. Zadie Smith imports this formula into her timely story “Now More than Ever,” which first appeared in The New Yorker in July 2018. The phrase is initially uttered from the mouth of a character named Scout, a digital obsessive with very strong ideas about the importance of moral rectitude and the necessity for ideological and behavioural “consistency.”
Scout tries to illustrate this to the story’s protagonist, a philosophy professor, using the patently condescending and infantilizing medium of children’s puppets. “You’ve got to reach far, far back, she explained, into the past … and you’ve got to make sure that when you reach back thusly you still understand everything back there in the exact manner in which you understand things presently.”
The professor, whose training in philosophy allows for an attempt to understand degrees of sin and transgression and an acceptance of the idea that a person can change or evolve over time, later demurs, and is met with Scout’s rejoinder: “You’re two-faced, you’re looking the wrong way, and if you don’t watch out you’re going to find yourself beyond the pale.”
Smith’s story is a dystopian satire, set in a recognizable present that has been exaggerated just slightly. The professor lives in a New York apartment complex with her fellow faculty members; the current convention is for everyone to hang signs out their windows with black arrows pointing to the apartment of the person who is deemed to have transgressed most egregiously on any given day. The few who abstain from the practice – Marxists located “mainly in the history department, though we have a few in English and sociology, too” – do so because they feel “that the whole process is fundamentally Stalinist.”
The professor ends up speaking in public with someone who has been deemed “beyond the pale,” though this man’s sins were not terribly severe – “he did not have ‘victims’ so much as ‘annoyed parties’ ” – and later speaks up in support of a poet who has said something controversial. It is the professor’s support for the poet that finally results in the professor being shunned as well. (In one of Smith’s most cutting gestures, the final two words in the story are “me too.”)
Perhaps predictably, Smith’s story caused controversy online. On Twitter, a fellow New Yorker writer called the piece “extremely reactionary.”
I’m surprised there hasn’t been more chatter about Zadie Smith writing what I perceived to be an extremely reactionary piece of short fiction. It’s here: https://t.co/FwRLzAVShq— Isaac Chotiner (@IChotiner) July 23, 2018
In The New Republic, Josephine Livingston chastised Smith for not taking a more explicit stand and refusing to come clear about her own politics in the context of the story. And an assistant professor at Georgetown University tweeted that the story is “morally and politically vacant.”
and ugh I know this is an incredibly twitter-hot-takey thing to say but the Zadie Smith story feels like the exact opposite: hip, current, but morally and politically vacant— Greg Афиногенов (@athenogenes) July 25, 2018
Such responses are to be expected, of course, given that the people doing the responding are largely the targets of Smith’s satire. But the off-the-cuff reactions seem to ignore how canny Smith is being in the story.
Take, for example, the character of the professor. The first time we meet the professor, it is in the context of insulting a woman named Mary because of her name. “[T]hat name of yours is not going to fly, nobody’s called Mary these days, it’s painful for me even to say your name – actually, could you get the hell out of here?” The professor decides to participate in the arrow shaming of a colleague named Eastman – whose crime is in suggesting that the past is different from the present and people in the future will consider us in the present equally incomprehensible or backward – in an attempt to be as socially savvy as Scout. The professor also belittles a high school student who reaches out with a homework question.
In other words, there are numerous reasons to consider the story’s first-person narrator less than saintly. (Many of the online commentators also seem to miss the parenthetical aside indicating that the professor is an illegal who fears deportation.) The question Smith poses is: given all of this, does the professor deserve to be cast out of society?
The way a reader answers this question says less about Smith’s politics and more about the reader’s own. After going with Scout to a screening of the George Stevens movie A Place in the Sun, which occasions a debate about the relative guilt of the anti-hero played by Montgomery Clift, the professor admits to a particularly charged thought crime: “I instinctively sympathize with the guilty.” For some, this will be the final nail in the coffin; for others, it will be indicative of a mindset that can be seen as typical of philosophers as far back as the ancients (cf. Terence: “I am human and nothing human is alien to me”).
“There is an urge to be good,” the professor declaims in the story’s opening line. This is followed immediately by a telling qualification: “To be seen to be good.” In our fraught postmodern moment, Smith seems to put forth, being seen to be good is valued more than actually being good. And the game is zero-sum: no matter the context or how much you change or how much good you have done in your life, you can always be judged by the mistakes and missteps of the past. The nature of call-out culture is such that anything less than complete purity and ideological adherence to a prescribed worldview will be met with punishment and ostracism. Which is something, Smith suggests, that everyone will eventually discover, when the arrow of condemnation inevitably turns on them.