I keep procrastinating on writing another newsletter — partly because of writing deadlines and book promo and touring and all of that. But also, it's a bit harder to motivate myself to put a lot of energy into writing something that is probably going to end up in your spam folder, or maybe your promotions folder. Which means that a lot of you won't even know this essay exists, much less read it.
Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the phenomenon that I call "assumed bad faith," in which we build elaborate systems to prevent a minority of bad actors from overwhelming us — and end up massively constraining all other interactions as a result.
Case in point: When the pandemic started, I was helping to organize a lot of literary events over Zoom, to cope with to help raise money for local independent bookstores in the Bay area. We were immediately confronted with the problem of Zoom bombing, in which somebody shows up and harasses everybody either with messages or inappropriate talking, or by displaying something inappropriate in the background of their screen.
The way our #welovebookstores project handled this dilemma was by having a designated moderator for every event, and by muting all participants, except for the featured guests. And we never had any problems, thank goodness. But I guess the problem of Zoom bombings kept getting worse, and I've found over the last year that most of the events I've been doing don't allow the audience to be visible at all. I've gotten used to being on Zoom, Crowdcast or some other platform, and not knowing how big the audience is, who's in the audience, or how they're feeling about this conversation. To be honest, it often feels as though I'm speaking into the void.
In order to filter out harassment, we had to get rid of the audience entirely.
But there's a different kind of assumed bad faith when it comes to Twitter, where people regularly engage in various kinds of rhetorical sleight of hand. Twitter has a serious problem with trolls, but also with people who make arguments that they don't actually believe, but which allow them to score points in some way. (And this is a problem in our politics in general.) I have to believe the percentage of people on Twitter who knowingly make specious and misleading arguments is fairly low, but it's a serious problem.
Even beyond the fact that our entire political culture is poisoned by fake moral panics and styrofoam protests, there's a certain debating style that garbage people have affected, in which they try to bludgeon you and trick you into saying something crappy by just being relentless and making lots of opportunistic arguments.
As a result, it often feels as though everybody on Twitter assumes that everybody else is arguing in bad faith. And instead of responding to the subtance of each other's remarks, we get sucked into labeling exactly which rhetorical device the person is utilizing. Say, for example, I wrote a Tweet in which I stated that it feels as though many self-proclaimed feminists are much more worried about trans women going to the bathroom than about the impending loss of abortion rights in much of the United States. Instead of debating whether this is really the case, or discussing what should be feminism's priorities in 2022, people could simply accuse me of engaging in "what-about-ism," or attempting to change the subject from trans rights. Whereas in my mind, I would be making an argument along the lines of "Your house is on fire and you're spending all your time freaking out about an imaginary scenario in which space gremlins nest on your roof."
This makes it easy to avoid ever engaging with someone's substantive points, and to focus on style instead — because a certain percentage of people on Twitter (and elsewhere) are indeed arguing in bad faith, or using fancy tricks to avoid inconvenient facts.
To some extent, this second kind of assumed bad faith reflects the way that debating-society culture has infected everything. My friends who were stars on the debate circuit in college prided themselves on being able to argue any point of view, whether they agreed with it or not — and there was always a huge emphasis on fancy footwork rather than any kind of coherence. I guess attorneys also pride themselves, often as not, on being able to argue any point of view, regardless of merit.
Complicating matters, social media companies will often pretend to be trying to prevent people from acting or speaking in bad faith — when this is just an excuse for putting in place algorithms that are designed to keep your eyeballs glued to their platforms.
Case in point: Facebook will regularly do things to screw with people who want to invite their friends to in-person gatherings, like arbitrarily putting limits on invites and putting people into "Facebook jail." Facebook always insists that this is to prevent you from spamming everyone about your events. (Even though all you would have to do to stop getting invites is to un-friend me.) But I've come to believe that Facebook actually just doesn't want anyone to know about anything that will keep them from sitting at home, staring at Facebook.
Similarly, Twitter and other sites will bury any content that contains a link to something not on Twitter, and the rationale seems to be preventing spam and other harmful content. But the effect is to make it so that nobody leaves Twitter — and incidentally nobody ever sees a link to factual information that could dispel some of the flood of misinformation on Twitter.
And finally, as a trans person who sometimes gets sucked into discussions of trans rights on the internet, I've seen this cut both ways. We can't speak out about our own experiences or feelings without people assuming that we're trying to pull a fast one, or mislead everyone else with tricks. (And of course, trans folks are assumed to be deceptive in any case, by cis people who think we're "pretending" to be our actual genders.) And trans discourse quickly becomes a minefield, because a small number of transphobic trolls have become experts in twisting everything we say to "prove" that we're in some way evil.
I feel like this is, in many ways, a version of the problem we've been talking about since the early days of Usenet and message boards: a small number of bad actors poison the well so much that the rest of us have to twist ourselves into knots to be able to have a conversation. But it's exacerbated by the bad faith of social media companies and the ongoing crapification of our political discourse. Do I have a solution to offer? I don't know. It seems like a lot of these problems would be ameliorated by hiring more content moderators and being more aggressive about blocking/removing the worst people. But I also think we need to get better at agreeing that an obnoxious minority shouldn't distort the way the rest of us interact?
Every now and then, an artist will do a cover version of a famous album, from start to end. Macy Gray covered the entirety of Stevie Wonder's Talking Book. Jazz saxophonist George Howard covered Sly & the Family Stone's whole album There's a Riot Goin' On. (I just found out that Howard's album was part of a series that Blue Note put out, and apparently Ronnie Laws also tackled the Isley Bros.' Harvest for the World!)
But I recently found my favorite example of this phenomenon: the Dirty Dozen Brass Band's cover of Marvin Gaye's album What's Going On. It is phenomenal, and I urge you to hunt down a copy. It doesn't hurt that they got Public Enemy's Chuck D to rap on the title track, along with Bettye Lavelle singing on "What's Happening Brother." The famous New Orleans brass ensemble brings a whole new energy to Gaye's record, making me hear all of these songs differently and adding a new twenty-first century relevance. I got a used copy of this CD at Amoeba and have been playing it every single day.
In case you missed it, I just published the second book in my young adult trilogy: Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak. I think it's a bit more of an introspective, emotional book than Victories Greater Than Death, and I'm glad people to be embracing it so far. And it feels very much like a fictional companion to Never Say You Can't Survive. Your local independent bookseller would be overjoyed to order it for you if they don't already have it in stock — most will now allow you to order via their website, or via bookshop.org.
On Weds at 8 PM ET, I'm doing an online event with the amazing Mike Jung, author of The Boys in the Back Row. Please RSVP here, it's gonna be a blast!
I'm gonna be at the L.A. Times Festival of Books, and YALLWest. So if you're in the L.A. area, you have two chances to see me open my face holes.
On Monday May 2, I'm going to be at Brookline Booksmith, talking about Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak. It would be so great to see some lovely Boston peeps there!
Look at this lovely cover!!!!! Gaze on the beautiful art by Razaras!