Ten years ago I was an eccentric, talkative nerd who felt most at home arguing with adults on the internet. I was entering high school and becoming politically aware. Internet forums provided a kind of solace for my political awakening otherwise missing from my day-to-day life. And like most budding political wonks, I thoroughly enjoyed “scoring points” by repeating common wisdom against seemingly outrageous accusations if only to derive some sense of satisfaction from the bewilderment of my online opponent. Arguing was both a way of learning and cultivating my own, overinflated self-worth.
Such mundane hobbies reflect something true about my personality that I share with quite a number of other people I grew up with in the Rust Belt: performing “truth” through antagonism, actively attempting to elicit reactions from dialogue in lieu of genuine concern for the truth-value of speech content. This antagonism isn’t limited to online chat rooms. We can find it in the Jerry Springer Show and Maury, in the former of which I’ve had childhood friends participate; you can find it driving through any rural or exurban Ohio neighborhood, inevitably finding couples or relatives yelling over one another in public; and you can find it on social media and in high school hallways, in memes and cliques discussing “loyalty” and “cheating” and “true friendship” and “betrayal.” I used to have an admittedly classist name for the posts of meaningless quotes former friends would traffic on each other’s Facebook walls: white trash platitudes. What matters in all these situations, and others unlisted, is performing the aggression of truth.
I suppose then I need to ask why truth is aggressive; why would it feel more satisfying to illicit reaction than to genuinely pursue a constructive outcome? There seems to be a shared set of assumptions about what constitutes dialogue, interpersonal engagement, and epistemic ends. First, that everyone exists in competition with every other person, to the point that motives are forever masked. Perhaps certain boundaries like “family” and “friends” provides a kind of secure trust that the other’s motives are at least not against you if not necessarily aligned with your own; but trust in these microfactions isn’t guaranteed when the employment choices between Wal-Mart and a struggling factory privilege carving one’s on path toward social mobility in the absence of genuine economic mobility. Recognizing that competition reigns supreme, “truth” becomes a way of relating against the hidden motives of someone who is automatically suspect. This is the second rule. You hold truth over someone. It is absolute and therefore exists prior to any conversation. Hence, one is not concerned with constructively working toward truth, but using what is known for the sake of breaking the other person. And if something isn’t known you make it known. You repeatedly assert it until their reaction proves that it was there all along, because the honest have no reason to react poorly. And third, because truth is about use-value, dialogue is a matter of performance. You appeal to the truth in competition through form. You yell, you fight, you cite common wisdom, and you aim to prove betrayal. Like the Spanish inquisition seeking the testimony of a witch, you wield aggression to uncover what is already known.
Truth is aggression because there is no anchor for it. God left with the last factory. The news says the economy is growing but you still know six people floating between part-time jobs. Temp agencies grow faster than downtown and more people exist to refer you to jobs than live nearby to hire you. Your kids or cousins or high school friends abandon you for college, returning only briefly using language like “privilege” and “identity” and other Latin-roots that in some way equate your livelihood with constant betrayal. All you can do is fight back, knowing that these intrusions are wrong. You respond to condescension with aggression, waiting for the moment that they reveal their pain and frustration – proving all along that your truth still stands. Truth only exists because it is fought for and made incarnate.
What room is left for pain in a world built on aggression? People without possibility, whose social interaction is predicated on imminent frustration, grow used to pain. Pain is weakness and leads to breaking. Pain is the opposite of truth. Mobilizing pain means you’re wrong by definition. But eliciting the pain of others means you’re aligned with the truth; at least you still have that.
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When I returned home to vote, to a city of 40,000 that circulates myths about the hiring process of its only remaining factory (“it’ll finally move to Mexico this year….there are layoffs coming soon…this next round of temp positions will lead to a few full-time hires”), I visited my mom. She resides in the Alzheimer’s wing of a nursing home where even the nurses were talking about the election. My mom, divorced and with her own background of tragedy, admired Gloria Steinem and Hillary Clinton before she lost cognitive function. I was numb when a female nurse handed a pill to a female patient in the common room and joked, “Grab it by the pussy!” At the polls, where I voted for Hillary only because my mother couldn’t, a lone older woman stood outside the only entrance to early voting with a massive Trump-Pence sign. There was no betrayal of the Sisterhood of Women by white women in 2016. The “Sisterhood” was just a competition like any other, because family is no longer an anchor of trust. These women, like the men in their lives, voted precisely as anyone who know them would expect them to: to Make America Great Again, a truth that can only be made incarnate through aggression.