Meghan Daum takes aim at the culture wars in “The Problem with Everything”

By Christina Campodonico

Daum trains her critical eye on the social media-driven dialogues surrounding #MeToo, #BelieveWomen and ‘wokeness’
Photo by DAVID ZAUGH

In her breakout 1999 essay “My Misspent Youth,” Meghan Daum stared into the face of her mounting debt — “There are days when my debt seems to be at the center of my being, a cancer that must be treated with the morphine of excuses and rationales and promises to myself that I’m going to come up with the big score,” she wrote in her twenties — and emerged a shrewd cultural observer of both Generation X and the American cultural landscape at large.

In 2014’s “The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion,” Daum wrote of the relief she felt surrounding her mother’s death and her ambivalence toward a pregnancy at age 41 that ended in miscarriage. And in the anthology “Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed,” she gathered 16 writers to weigh on the still-controversial subject of choosing to live “child-free.”

With her new book, “The Problem with Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars,” Daum inserts herself into some of today’s most hashtagged public discourses, among them the #BelieveWomen media firestorm surrounding Brett Kavanaugh, cultural pushback against toxic masculinity, the rise of the #MeToo movement and the wider socio-political fallout of the 2016 presidential election.

But don’t expect the former Los Angeles Times columnist to tow the “woke” party line of the new #resistance espoused by the millennial/Gen Z cohort of a new progressive left that’s deeply influenced by intersectional feminism and identity politics.

In “The Problem with Everything,” Daum contends with the murky definition of #MeToo, worries about the ease of social media sloganeering to undermine the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” and posits that women are equally capable of “toxic” behavior as men.

She explores the rape-on-campus crisis through the perspective of a male student accused of sexual misconduct on a campus where she has taught. A naïve young man’s ejaculation inside a woman, “either by accident or out of indifference,” during an awkward sexual encounter without “explicit permission” is “bad news,” but does not count as “assault” in Daum’s book. (As a “millennial” woman, I for one had a hard time with that one.)

“I supported social justice causes as much as the next self-respecting liberal,” Daum writes, “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.’ … There was no amount of outrage that couldn’t be outdone, no wokeness woke enough. … Apparently any admission of complexity was a threat to the cause. Nuance was a luxury we could no longer afford …

“I coined my own term to describe the class of NPR-listening, New Yorker-reading, Slate-podcast-downloading elites,” she confesses in the book’s introduction. “They were now the wokescenti. … The phrase ‘woke me when it’s over’ became a little in-joke with myself.”

As flippant as that may sound, Daum sees her devil’s advocacy and “call for nuance” as on a critical mission — a #ResistanceToGroupthink, to quote one
of her columns.

“Bashing the right, especially in the age of Trumpism, was easy and boring,” she writes. “Inspecting your own house for hypocrisy was a far meatier assignment.”

The Argonaut: Is there a particular type of person who really needs to read your book?

Meghan Daum: The one who really thinks there’s no hope. People who think that … the Trump era is such a crisis that we cannot have any dialogue, that we need all hands on deck, and we need to just stay on this very, very narrow approved hashtag resistance message — otherwise, the other side will sort of hijack the discussion and use it for their nefarious ends. I really want people to understand that if we don’t have a more coherent resistance movement and we don’t allow for more inclusivity, if we don’t listen to people from the other side and attempt to connect with them, we’re going to hand Trump another four years.

Is there value in just being able to just tweet something to express those views and have that catharsis?

I think it’s very quickly losing value. I know it feels good, but the rhetoric is not lining up with the reality. If you want to tweet that “the world hates women,” I would say think really hard about why you’re tweeting that or what you mean by that. What are you getting out of accepting this premise that it’s never been a worse time to be a woman? It’s never been a better time to be a woman. It’s never been a better place to be a woman. I know it doesn’t feel great all the time, but let’s have some perspective here. … If you’re just having these visceral explosions of emotion and getting rewarded for that, we really, really lose perspective on reality.

Couldn’t it be argued that it’s good that we’re talking about these tough subjects in an open forum? 

The problem with talking about it only on social media is that the reward system on Twitter is such that if you say something very obvious, with no nuance or gray areas, you’ll be rewarded for that. If you say #BelieveWomen, that is the kind of thing that translates well on Twitter but that’s really not what the #MeToo movement is about at all. It’s an underselling of the #MeToo movement. In fact, it’s a mockery of it, because the #MeToo movement is about holding very bad acting men to account and listening to women and correcting things that have been wrong for a very long time. Unfortunately, the amount of time it took me to say that is not the kind of thing that translates on Twitter.

We have all this really reactionary, misleading, ham-fisted messaging and that’s what gets rewarded. That’s what gets retweeted. That’s what gets you social capital on social media. If you try to say something complicated, you’re not only going to get ignored, you’re going to get penalized. They’re going to say, “Well, how could you say that?” My problem with having things play out exclusively on social media is that it really blunts any kind of discussion that can be animated and multidimensional enough to lead to real change.

In the book you discuss “weird lunches” with a powerful man who could have helped your early writing career. Where do you draw the line in terms of #MeToo moments?

That was not a #MeToo situation. The reason I told that story was because I had never interpreted that as such. It was never quid pro quo. He never made an ultimatum or did anything like that to me.

If you care about #MeToo, which I very much do, you have to care about due process because otherwise we’re just going to lose the whole thing. There’s a big, big difference between somebody like Harvey Weinstein and somebody like Aziz Ansari. I know we can have all kinds of conversations about if it’s older women or not understanding that the Aziz case was violative in some ways. At the end of the day, you cannot just go publicly accusing people of things without any due process, but that’s what social media has enabled us to do.

You also write about a male student who was accused of sexual misconduct but believes he did nothing wrong. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you come down on his side of the situation?

I wasn’t able to talk to the woman. I say in the book I believed him in so far as I spoke to him and I know him. I have no reason not to believe him, but there’s also a whole world of experiences that this woman had and women like her have. There are so many women who have had things happen to them. I’m in no position to say one way or the other because I wasn’t there.

At the end of that chapter, there’s a whole couple of pages about how I could imagine being in that girl’s situation. I can imagine being in the bed watching the movie on the laptop and keep looking at him and wondering if he’s going to make a move. … I can imagine being in the girl’s position and doing those things and then having a certain experience and feeling really awful about it and regretful and having any number of reactions. I really, really empathize with her. I think I say, “I can imagine doing all this up until the point of reporting it to the dean
of students.”

Was that a hard chapter to write?

No … many of us have been in those situations where we want something to go one way, and it’s not going that way and we don’t know whether we should force it; we don’t know if we’re not being assertive enough or if he’s not that into me, or he’s just being nice, or he’s shy or whatever. There are so many factors flying around and the power is just constantly shifting. I think it’s really off the mark to just assume that the man has all the power in that sort of situation, at every moment of it. The power is being tossed back and forth, and that’s what interests me.

Do you agree with the movement on campuses to have a culture of affirmative and enthusiastic consent? 

When I started the book three years ago, I was really of the mindset that, “Oh that’s stupid.” When we were growing up we didn’t have to do that. Like, “Can I touch you here, or can I touch you there?” I was rolling my eyes about that. And I have come out the other side really thinking that it’s not any of my business.

You guys grew up with a whole set of conditions — mediated sexual messages that you’re getting online and elsewhere — that we just did not have to deal with. We did not have online pornography the way you guys did. We did not have dating apps. We did not have screens. We learned how to negotiate in-person intimate encounters without any sort of mediated assistance. It just comes more naturally to us, and we also had a lot more freedom from this kind of oppressive objectification of women and men. I think that has really changed the way people approach sex.

And so I don’t think it is any of the business of Generation X people or Baby Boomers or whoever to say, “Hey millennials, you’re just being silly about how you handle consent” because you’ve got an entirely different set of conditions. … We can just roll our eyes, but what’s the point? It doesn’t affect my life. If people want to have affirmative consent as a policy on college campuses and most people are cool with that, why should it bother me?

Do you think people on the left would regard you as liberal or progressive after reading this book?

Progressives now consider liberals to be centrist, and they consider centrists to be alt-right adjacent. … I don’t really care what somebody thinks I am, and I’m not even sure how useful those labels are.

Do you see this book as an apologia or a defense of your beliefs?

Nobody has accused [my book] of being an apologia. I really see it as an invitation to think alongside me as I try to sort through this. I’m not interested in making an argument.  … I want to say, “Why are we at loggerheads, and why are we so conflicted, and why are we not able to tolerate a sense of internal conflict?” … You’ve got to embrace complexity. The book is really an invitation to do that, and a call for nuance.

In your ideal world, what would the public discourse look like or sound like? 

It would be much more one-on-one conversation, IRL, in real life conversation, not hiding behind a keyboard. I think we are starting to see that change. It’s no accident that these podcasts, people talking to each other for three hours, they get millions of listeners. You can go on YouTube and watch scholars and scientists and journalists and writers sitting down and talking with each other for hours and hours and hours, and people are into that. … I think this is a sign that they’re really tired of the meme wars and the hashtag wars.

We’re not going to solve the social ills that plague us if we cannot sit down and agree on a set of facts and talk about what’s true — and do so safely. If we want to actually talk about how to close the [gender wage] gap … we need to be able to talk about what’s caused it without being told that we are woman-haters and sexist and having the conversation shot down right there.

So more podcasts and YouTube, less Twitter …

More podcasts. More YouTube. I can’t believe I’m saying that! You know, more and more, people love going to see onstage discussions. They can’t get enough of this stuff. I don’t think it’s any accident.

What do you hope people take away from reading your book?

I hope they take away permission to feel conflicted. I want people to be able to just sit with their confusion and say, “Well, I feel a little bit of this way about this issue but a little bit of this other way, and I’m going to allow myself to think about why, rather than just shutting that part of my brain down because I feel that I need to align myself within group-thinking and retain my status with my friends.” Because to me that really is dangerous.

The Trump emergency — it’s almost being used as an excuse to not have real intellectual discussion. It’s like we just need to boil everything down to hashtag resistance and blanket outrage, because we can’t afford any complexity. … I’m not diminishing the emergency. I’m actually saying it is an emergency, and that’s why we need to be organized and smart and sophisticated in terms of fighting it.

Is there a price for stating ideas that others won’t say publicly, or challenging the “wokescenti” point of view?

I think a book like mine, it’s confusing. It’s designed to make people a little bit disoriented. It’s not designed to get good reviews. … The reward system for saying the obvious thing and the penalties for [thoughtful and rigorous analysis] … There’s not a lot of incentive to do it anymore. But my feeling is if you’re a writer or somebody who’s out in public expressing ideas, it’s really your job to say the things that might make people mad. Otherwise, why bother?

You don’t get the instant approval of the in-group of established opinion-havers. You’re without a tribe. … I say that in the book: the more honest you are with your thoughts, the more alone you are with them. If you’re going to be a serious thinker, you have to tolerate aloneness.

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