The Toxicity of the Obnoxious

Going back at least ten years Starbucks hasn’t included Christian-based themes on their holiday season cups. And yet Starbucks’s new design, a simple red cup, is being interpreted as another shot fired by purveyors of the mythical, never-ending-until-the-season-ends “War on Christmas.”

 

I’m less interested in this than I am in another story that popped up on my timeline relating to this: a white evangelical man who, after ordering his beverage, said his name was ‘Merry Christmas’ as a ‘trick’ to get the holiday back on the cup.

 

This is fucking obnoxious.

 

Today, I want to talk about being obnoxious.

 

Well, what I really want to talk about are the protests occurring at Yale University. Actually, that isn’t entirely true—I, a white person, would like to talk about another white person talking about another couple of white people, Yale faculty members Erika and Nicholas Christakis, who felt obliged to write a misguided letter on racist Halloween costumes.

 

(Hi Conor Friedersdorf, how ya doin’? It’s been a while. If you don’t remember me, here’s that thing I wrote about that time you pretended a question about White Writers and Privilege from Elisa Gabbert’s Advice Column was actually addressed to you.)

 

Conor Friedersdorf is a writer for The Atlantic with a panache for the turgid and the bizarrely oxymoronic. How else can you explain that his most recent piece, about Yale students complaining that two faculty members are weirdly not-OK-but-OK with racist Halloween costumes, has its genesis in Yale students complaining to these professors that Yale was “offering heavy-handed advice on what Halloween costumes to avoid?” His whole piece is devoted to the entitled and inappropriate behavior of the protesters, that they “[claim] that easily bearable events are too awful to bear.”

 

But Friedersdorf doesn’t seem to realize the irony here: this whole thing started when a bunch of students bitched about Yale advising students not to be fucking racists this Halloween season.

 

The kids whining about intolerance? Intolerable!

 

The other ones?

 

Who?

 

Their complaints and omission in the rest of article are obnoxious, and yet central to Friedersdorf’s critique: Erika and Nicholas Christakis are individuals above reproach, and the group opposing them are misguided, insolent crybabies who need to, ha-ha, check their privilege and grow up. Adding a second group to the mix, one that may actually need to shut up and grow up, would skewer the math—the Christakises would no longer be underdogs facing a mob, but figureheads for a petulant kind of white privilege attempting to disguise itself as Socratic intellectualization. (Christakis’ letter reads, for example: “I wonder what is the statute of limitations on dreaming of dressing as Tiana the Frog Princess if you aren’t a black girl from New Orleans? Is it okay if you are eight, but not 18? I don’t know the answer to these questions; they seem unanswerable. Or at the least, they put us on slippery terrain that I, for one, prefer not to cross.”)

 

Friedersdorf’s article continues in this obnoxious vein for quite a while:

 

“I’ve known many Californians who found it hard to adjust to life in the Ivy League” knocks heads with: “…outsiders who also feel like racial or ethnic ‘others’ typically walk the roughest road of all.” (Emphasis my own—because conflating being a POC with being from California is phenomenally stupid.)

 

“The purpose of writing about their missteps now is not to condemn these students” hovers several paragraphs above: “These are young people who live in safe, heated buildings with two Steinway grand pianos, an indoor basketball court, a courtyard with hammocks and picnic tables, a computer lab, a dance studio, a gym, a movie theater, a film-editing lab, billiard tables, an art gallery, and four music practice rooms. But they can’t bear this setting that millions of people would risk their lives to inhabit because one woman wrote an email that hurt their feelings?”

 

But maybe the most obnoxious moment of all (assuming you can ignore the paragraphs he spends tone policing a YouTube video) is when he declares the Yale protesters’ stance “beggars belief.” What, pray tell, doth beggar? The Christakis’ notion that, when encountering a racist costume, students should “look away” or confront the individual. Friedersdorf derides the idea that Yale students would find this unreasonable, saying (and remember, he’s not condemning the students here, lol) it is “as if they’re Martians unfamiliar with a concept as rudimentary as disagreeing in conversation, even as they publish an open letter that is, itself, a mode of facilitating discussion.”

 

How Friedersdorf expects a conversation about racism and cultural appropriation can happen when one group obnoxiously ignores how offensive their behavior can be isn’t elucidated, but I suppose that’s to be expected when you think a white person putting on black face is a rudimentary disagreement and not an insensitive act at best and a racist, violent mockery at worse.

 

Alternatively, I suppose it’s difficult to find space for acknowledging systemic racism in an article written with the sole purpose of discrediting people of color.

 

If you think that is an obnoxious statement, just look at how Friedersdorf frames the experience of Greg Lukianoff over at Buckley.

 

Lukianoff, who Friedersdof references in his article as the author of “The Coddling of the American Mind,” said this of the Yale students’ protests:

 

“Looking at the reaction to Erika Christakis’ email, you would have thought someone wiped out an entire Indian village.”

 

Genocide jokes are understandably of poor-taste-slash-fucked-up, so it’s no surprise those coddled Buckley students were spurred to do their own protest. They, according to Friedersdorf, “disgraced themselves,” full stop. “They spat on different people,” Friedersdorf writes, again, full stop. Of course this behavior is appalling and entirely unacceptable, but mentioning it in the piece is also obviously just another obnoxious attempt to divert the discussion to how awful protesters are.

 

I’m not here to dissect that.

 

I just think Friedersdorf language is curiously firm when he wants to discredit one particular group, as opposed to when he writes this about another group (again, emphasis my own):

 

“That isn’t to dismiss all complaints by Yale students. If contested claims that black students were turned away from a party due to their skin color are true, for example, that is outrageous. If any discrete group of students is ever discriminated against, or disproportionately victimized by campus crime, or graded more harshly by professors, then of course students should protest and remedies should be implemented.”

 

In case it’s too small to see, I bolded the two “Ifs” in the quote. Student protesters definitely spat on some people. But was a frat racist? Mmmmmmmm… maybe? Sure? I guess? What’s the problem here?

 

And while there are a number of other things to unpack in the piece, that type of thinking is what I want to focus on. It is the toxic core of Friedersdorf’s and the Christakis’ white obnoxiousness: the effort to invalidate the experiences of people of color, to make victims out of white leaders who have failed people of color, to shift the conversation away from the simple truth: that racism still exists, and absolutely no effort to make an iota of it permissible should be tolerated.

 

Toxicity breeds toxicity.

 

We don’t have to accept any of it.

 

Full stop.

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