Meghan Daum Has A 'Problem With Everything': Feminism, Cancel Culture And The Internet
Columnist and author Meghan Daum takes on political correctness in the new book, “The Problem with Everything.” She joins us.
Meghan Daum, author and essayist. Her new book is “The Problem with Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars.” (@meghan_daum)
From The Reading List
Excerpt from “The Problem with Everything” by Meghan Daum
This began as a book about feminism and only feminism.
I started in the fall of 2016, on the cusp of what would obviously be Hillary Clinton’s election to the presidency. The book was a critique of the current state of the women’s movement. It wasn’t going to make every feminist happy, but we were about to have a female president, so I figured they could handle it.
My criticisms were centered on what are sometimes referred to as the “excesses” of contemporary feminism. I was tired of what I saw as the movement’s lack of shading and dimension. I was tired of the one-note outrage, the snarky memes, the exhibitionism, the ironic misandry in the vein of #KillAllMen, the commodification of the concept of “giving zero fucks” (the number of T-shirts for sale on Etsy displaying some iteration of DGAF, or “don’t give a fuck,” amounts to a genuine fuckton). I supported the fundamentals of the message, of course; women deserve equal status to men and should have autonomy over their bodies (at least these were the fundamentals as I saw them). But I was wary that the blustering tone of the media, social media especially, had set up an overcorrection that was veering into self-parody.
Feminism had achieved many of its goals, the passage of laws around equal pay and reproductive rights, the ability of wives to initiate divorce, and access to education for women, to name a few. There was more work to be done, of course. Which is why I was so worried that feminism was in danger, especially on the social media front, of becoming a noisepool—and from there an echo chamber—of manufactured or at least highly exaggerated problems. And these weren’t problems as we usually think of them but, rather, everyday phenomena now reclassified as “problematic.” Some of this problematica (my word) grew out of the sudden problematization (their word, alas) of masculinity. Men, with their unchecked power and privilege, were purveyors of intolerable scourges like mansplaining and manspreading. In fact, so unassailable was their power that women who bashed them could do no damage because these women were effectively “punching up” to unassailable male power. Articles like Bustle’s “6 Reasons Men Can Literally Never Be Victims of Sexism,” Jezebel ’s “Men (Wrongly) Think They’re Smarter Than They Are” (that one dates back to 2008), and Everyday Feminism’s “160+ Examples of Male Privilege in All Areas of Life” were emblematic of that mentality—and endemic in the feminist blogosphere.
On its face, most of this stuff was too silly to get all that exercised about. We know by now that a lot of what’s on the internet is much ado about nothing. But what bothered me most about this new feminism was something more general—something ambient, really. What bothered me was the way the prototypical young feminist had adopted the sort of swaggering, wise-ass persona you see most often in people who deep down might not be all that swaggering or wise. This young feminist frequently referred to herself as a badass.
Originally, this book was going to be called You Are Not a Badass. Then Hillary Clinton lost the election to Donald Trump. Along the way, much of the country lost its appetite for the sort of critique I was offering. There is no doubt that had Clinton won, a special kind of pernicious and ugly sexism would have underscored her presidency. The badass feminists would still have had their hands full calling out all the sexist barbs—subtle and otherwise—aimed in Clinton’s direction. But the way things turned out, there was no subtlety to be found. There was no room for left-on-left critique of any variety.
The word “tribal” was suddenly everywhere. It now referred not to ethnic ties dating back thousands of years but to more recently established affiliations of class and culture. According to the pundits, it was tribalism that had formed those information silos that kept us from seeing this coming. It was tribalism that had caused so many people to pull the lever for someone they found morally reprehensible yet somehow less threatening than the alternative. And though feminism occupied a large space in this expanding conversation about identity and American values, there was clearly now much more to talk about than silly memes and shallow expressions of badassedness (or, to use my preferred construction, badassery).
The country was falling apart. I now realize I was falling apart, too—at least a bit.
As with the country, my meltdown was already in progress by the fall of 2016, but up until then I’d been only partially aware of the extent of it. I knew I was experiencing some stress from (to borrow a term from insurance companies) a “qualifying life event,” namely divorce. I knew I’d probably added to that stress by moving across the country by myself with no steady work and a Saint Bernard (the move was an effort to make a clean break from my marriage, since the marriage had never been quite bad enough to break cleanly on its own). What I did not fully comprehend were the ways in which my unrest ran deeper than divorce and relocation.
I was suddenly obsessed with aging—my own as well as that of others. I had up until then lived a life of precociousness, having mostly older friends and often being the youngest person in any given room. Now, though, my joints were literally and figuratively beginning to creak. I was hearing voices inside my head yelling the equivalent of “get off my lawn.” I supported social justice causes as much as the next self-respecting liberal, yet I was irritated by the smug vibe of many young activists within the new left. This vibe was especially observable in the ones who had embraced the concept of being “woke,” a term borrowed from the black civil rights movement that signaled one’s allegiance to a more general ethos of progressive righteousness. (In the spirit of all of this, I coined my own term to describe the class of NPR-listening, New Yorker–reading, Slate-podcast-downloading elites once called the cognoscenti. They were now the wokescenti.)
Meanwhile, the pace at which the digital revolution was moving had me feeling old before my time, even physically dizzy on a near-daily basis. At my computer, the tweets and memes and hot takes scrolled down my screen so fast I could scarcely comprehend a fraction of them. Whereas my life had once felt like a road trip on which I was usually running ahead of schedule, I now felt like I was running on a treadmill, the mat churning beneath me at high speed while I held on to the handlebars for dear life. I wanted to slow the machine down so I could catch my breath. Sometimes I even thought it might be nice to go to sleep for five or ten years, until this madness somehow ran its course. The phrase “woke me when it’s over” became a little in-joke with myself.
I hesitate to characterize this as a midlife crisis. That seems too generic in the same way it would be too generic to call the Trump election a political crisis (not that it wasn’t; it was just so much more than that). As I think about it, I suspect the crisis I suffered was a personal one that happened to get intensified by the fallout of a political catastrophe.
That is not to say my personal problems were political or vice versa. I never much believed that the personal is political. As a slogan, “The personal is political” has a patina of earnestness, even gravitas, but, let’s face it, more often than not the personal is just personal. In my case, the personal wasn’t unique or even necessarily all that interesting.
Over time, I began to see the ways in which my wariness toward what I saw as hollow indignation and performed outrage—my resistance to certain aspects of the resistance, if you will—was in many ways fundamentally generational.
This book still has a lot to do with the conflicted and tortured state of liberalism generally and feminism in particular. But it’s now also a personal story of feeling existentially unmoored against the backdrop of a country falling apart. It’s a story about aging and feeling obsolete as the world spins madly—and maddeningly—on. It’s also, by dint of my age, about the particular experience of Generation Xers, the last cohort to have experienced both the analog and the digital world as adults. Because of this—and for reasons I’ll explain more later—we’re also the first generation that younger generations don’t especially want or need to look up to. Any wisdom we might have to share is already obsolete.
If 2018 was the year that the concept of “cancel culture” went mainstream (foolish tweets caused Roseanne Barr to lose her show and Kevin Hart to lose his Oscars-hosting gig, the holiday song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was shunned as an example of rape culture, the previously canceled Louis C.K. was secretly taped at a comedy gig and informed that he’d violated the terms of his banishment), then 2019 may be the year that cancel culture cancels itself. Late last winter, within just a few weeks of one another, two young-adult fiction authors withdrew their soon-to-be-published books when social media mobs attacked them for racial insensitivity. This was, for the most part, not based on anyone actually reading the books in question. Instead, it was the noxious effects of the approval vortex of “YA Twitter,” a small but loud minority of readers who have perfected the art of ruining careers under the guise of social justice. One of these self-canceled authors was already known as a punishing patrolman of cultural appropriation and was even employed as a “sensitivity reader” for big publishing houses (this is a real job in which books are vetted for ways in which they may be offensive to marginalized groups). Needless to say, that detail made the whole affair an especially delicious example of the ways social justice activism was eating itself.
Around this same time, a devastating documentary about Michael Jackson’s sexual abuse of children had people calling for his music to never, ever be listened to again. A few weeks before that, Jussie Smollett, a gay black television actor, had elicited torrents of sympathy and outraged solidarity when he reported being the victim of a crime where the perpetrators tied a noose around his neck and shouted “MAGA country!” After an investigation, police said they believed the actor staged the whole thing in an effort to gain publicity and, reportedly, boost his salary. Smollett denied these reports and maintained his innocence, and county prosecutors eventually made the controversial decision to drop all charges. The reasons behind this decision remain murky, but amid the official hand-wringing, this much seemed clear: two years into the Trump era, the weaponization of “social justice culture” was headed toward some kind of peak.
As for never again listening to Michael Jackson’s music, all I can say is, seriously?
This is where we stand at the moment. Believe me, the shakiness of this ground terrifies me. I continue to be horrified and disgusted by the extreme anti-abortion measures proposed in states such as Alabama and Georgia in May. After being one of those skeptics who refused to believe Roe v. Wade would ever be overturned, I now think this fate is entirely possible (though I also fear the decision was based on a wobbly legal premise that, in some sense, was set up to eventually fail). So I get that these are bad times. Very, very, very bad times. But by framing Trumpism as a moral emergency that required an all-hands-on-deck, no-deviation-from-the-narrative approach to cultural and political thought, I fear the left has cleared the way for a kind of purity policing—enforced and amplified by social media—that is sure to backfire somehow or other. Even if we manage to get rid of Trump, either by voting him out of office in 2020 or somehow kicking him out before then, the political left still needs a course correction. We need to stop devouring our own and canceling ourselves. We need fewer sensitivity readers and more empathy as a matter of course. We need to recognize that to deny people their complications and contradictions is to deny them their humanity.
Excerpted from the book THE PROBLEM WITH EVERYTHING by Meghan Daum. Copyright © 2019 by Meghan Daum. Reprinted with permission of Gallery Books.
New York Times: “100 Notable Books of 2019”
New Yorker: “Meghan Daum to Millennials: Get Off My Lawn” — “The writer Meghan Daum has told her life story in her books. She documented her salad days of debt and dating in New York in ‘My Misspent Youth.’ She novelized the story of an idealistic move to Nebraska in ‘The Quality of Life Report.’ In ‘Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House,’ she described moving to Los Angeles and buying her first home. In ‘The Unspeakable,’ she wrote about the death of her mother, an illness that almost killed her, and her decision not to have children.
“In 2015, Daum separated from her husband and moved from Los Angeles to New York, a city she had left some fifteen years before. Confronting divorce and passing into her late forties, she began a descent along ‘a downward slope of my youth that was far steeper than I had any grasp of at the time.’ She was spending a lot of time on the Internet—by her own reckoning, ‘three-quarters of my waking hours’—when Donald Trump took office. ‘By the time #MeToo reached full force,’ she continues, ‘my brain no longer felt connected to my body.’
“It was in this state that she started feeling annoyed. It began with the tone of feminists online. The women’s movement, she thought, had lost the capacity to process nuance; it was instead becoming a ‘noisepool’ of complaints. ‘I was tired of the one-note outrage, the snarky memes, the exhibitionism, the ironic misandry in the vein of #KillAllMen, the commodification of the concept of “giving zero fucks,” ‘ she writes. Daum wondered when women became so pleased about thinking of themselves as victims. Were they, in fact, so oppressed? She decided to write ‘a book about feminism and only feminism.’ The book was going to be called ‘You Are Not a Badass.’ ”
BuzzFeed News: “How Did This Liberal Feminist Writer Fall In With The Dark Web?” — “Last August, when the writer Meghan Daum published her essay ‘Nuance: A Love Story’ on the Medium publication GEN (where she’s a biweekly columnist), it touched a nerve. The love story, as detailed in this 28-minute read, was about how Daum — a lifelong self-described liberal — fell into a YouTube hole populated by the ‘intellectual dark web,’ the sticky neologism that applies to a loosely connected group of professors and podcasters, including Jordan Peterson, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Joe Rogan.
“The group’s members, first introduced to the mainstream by a 2018 New York Times piece by Bari Weiss, present themselves as self-styled public intellectuals who argue that their values of ‘reason,’ which can easily be interpreted as hate speech, are ‘under attack’ from today’s politically correct attitudes. Daum refers to her ‘new friends’ (which she’s careful to note include a ‘handful of this cadre’ of the intellectual dark web) as ‘Free Speech YouTube.’ In the piece, she outlines how she went from watching Bloggingheads.TV to curling up with a two-hour interview with Evergreen College professor Bret Weinstein, the locus of a campus controversy on racism and intolerance, on The Rubin Report, a YouTube show hosted by Dave Rubin. ‘I was invigorated,’ she writes, ‘even electrified, by their willingness to ask (if not ever totally answer) questions that had lately been deemed too messy somehow to deal with in mainstream public discourse.’ ”
Los Angeles Times: “Op-ed: In the age of #MeToo, Philip Roth offers an unlikely blueprint for feminists” — “Philip Roth taught me everything I know about men, or at least most of what I’ve needed to know. I was probably 19 when I read ‘Portnoy’s Complaint,’ the novel the New Yorker called ‘the dirtiest book ever published’ and whose countless masturbation scenes including one in which the young narrator, Alexander Portnoy, achieves sexual fulfillment with a slab of liver that his mother later serves for dinner.
“At that time in my life, I was trying to figure out how men’s minds worked and, more urgently, how good writing worked. Roth, who died on Tuesday, was helpful on both fronts. He went on to become probably my favorite 20th century novelist; over the years I ripped off his style and attempted to copy his narrative moves more times than I can count.
“Almost as significantly, Roth functioned as a portal into the adult male psyche in all its brutality and stupidity. I attended a historically all-female college where most men hid their more primal impulses behind a scrim of good manners and artsy, often androgynous urbanity. Roth’s men, on the other hand, were as animalistic as they were urbane. They contained news I could use, especially about the way they viewed women. It wasn’t always happy news, but I appreciated the honesty.”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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