Twisting Parrhesia: White Supremacist Rhetoric about Diversity
I’ve been troubled by the remarks made about “diversity” by other straight white men in public spheres I occupy lately: namely being a Nebraska resident and an avid reader of comics.
"Recent Left-wing movements, such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, have undoubtedly put tremendous pressure upon the administration to do more about diversity and inclusion. While nobody I know advocates for racial, gender or sexual orientation discrimination, we should still ask why NU needs a Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion, if not to impose favoritism upon these groups.
[. . . ]
For instance, any student who dares to suggest that marriage should be defined as the union between a man and a woman will quickly find himself being beaten down by a torrent of LGBTQ complaints followed by psycho-analysis and reprogramming."
Erdman’s comments are tone deaf and blind to the reality of students on our campus, particularly POC and LGBTQ students, and frames white, Christian men as the victims of any kind of diversity effort.
Erdman’s comments echo an ongoing civil war surrounding the comic book industry (and not the awesome Marvel-wide series of 2006-07). For those less interested in comics than I, the debacle called “comicgate” is something of a circus of people with viewpoints on “diversity” closely aligned with Erdman’s. Filling those not following the whole mess is a bit tricky, and I’m not even going to pretend I can do so objectively. Here is the egregiously short version:
Blaming SJWs (“Social Justice Warriors”-intended to be a clearly derogatory term) for ruining the comic book industry, something of an online culture war erupts involving typical ‘alt-right’ tactics (I’m finding it difficult, at this point, to not make an “us” vs. “them” narrative that promotes a kind of demagoguery, a la Patricia Roberts-Miller. Here is a comicgater version of the story, in which gaslighting abounds).
Drawing on alt-right troll tactics, comicgaters began to attack many high profile “SJWs” in the comic book industry, like Dan Slott (who has worked on many well-known comics, like Marvel’s Amazing Spider-man that he wrote for most of my lifetime, as well as DC’s “Arkham Asylum.”), Mark Waid (who has worked on DC’s “The Flash” and “Superman: Rebirth” as well as Marvel’s “Captain America” and “Fantastic Four” among so many others. He is referred to as a “beta-male” and “regressive feminist white knight” for standing up for women and transwomen in the comic book industry), and Magdalene “Mags” Visaggio (Who has spoken about the importance of trans folk in the industry, who has worked on Marvel’s “Dazzler” as well as DC’s “Eternity Girl,” and who is frequently attacked as a trans woman in comics, and comicgaters insist on referring to her with a masculine pronoun, referring to her not being cisgendered as a “mental illness”, and insisting on using her pretransition, dead name.)
A page from the Comic “My Hero Magademia.” Notice, in the top right panel, while depicting racist representations of a “BLM” protester and someone from Middle Eastern descent, the top panel also presents not-so-subtle, unflattering jabs at Slott (with the “Everyone I disagree with is a Nazi” paper) and Visaggio (the woman depicted with a mustache and a bat), all while framing the white man in the bottom left panel as “the victim.”
It is important to note the similarities between the narrative around “diversity” promoted by Erdman and Comicgaters. A recurring theme is the claim of victimization of a majority who is harmed by diversity efforts. For example, Comicgaters have promulgated the narrative that there is a “blacklist” for anyone who doesn’t toe the diversity ideology line.
There is a claim, for instance, that artist Timothy Lim was “blacklisted” and let go from his job at Mount Olympus Comics because he worked on the comic “Alt*Hero.” Yeah, that’s true, but it conveniently leaves out the context of “Alt*Hero,” the pet project of Vox Day, comicgate white-supremacist-and-chief and alt right troll (here’s a rundown of Day’s “viewpoints”).
The “blacklist” narrative conveniently ignores Vox Day’s background, and the simpler explanation that perhaps they didn’t want to keep someone on the payroll who worked with someone as volatile as Vox Day on “Alt*Hero,” sold on Alex Jones’s “Infowars” store alongside other provocative books like the work of Milo Yiannopoulos. Having also penned titles like “SJWs Always Lie,” Day writes in support of white nationalism on his blog:
“immigration and diversity are the big guns of the Left. Without them, they cannot win.
In light of that, conservatives and independents must now choose for what and with whom they will stand: a diverse USA, globalism, and the Left, or a white America, nationalism, and the Alt-Right. There are no other meaningful options.”
Lim backed a racist, homophobic xenophobe and now major publishers won’t hire him partly because continuing to employ someone who works with a bigot like Day would be a PR nightmare.
The claim that diversity harms white, straight, cisgender men is absolutely central to comicgate and the rhetoric of comicgaters. Consider the following remarks by from Richard Meyer, who runs the “Diversity in Comics” Youtube channel (which focuses on expounding on how diversity supposedly hurts the comic book industry):
“I talk to all these people, actual, legitimate talents, who can’t get a job to save their lives. Meanwhile some airhead who calls the fans Nazis and turns out laughably bad work is getting Eisner awards.”
“the issue with trans [people] is that I believe there’s people who have basically weaponized their status and they’ve been put to this gatekeeper position because they’re unassailable because of their trans status.”
These comments express precisely the same anxieties as Erdman’s diversity remarks. Somehow, by providing opportunities for marginalized people, those who occupy privileged positions will somehow be victimized, and the “qualifications” of those in power won’t be taken into account (though there remarks never seem to consider how those with a convergence of privileged statuses became “qualified” in the first place, which I’ll return to momentarily).
Decrying diversity and claiming that supporting diversity somehow oppresses white, heterosexual males is a mantra that echoes throughout conservative circles and has been a rallying cry of white supremacy. The rhetorical strategy employed by Senator Erdman and by comicsgaters like Vox Day are in line with the rhetoric of white supremacy (yes, I know-“not all comicgaters,” but those of you who don’t want white supremacy to be your legacy should bother to speak out against white supremacy and its advocates).
Take the rhetoric of just one white supremacist group, the “Christian Identity Movement,” for example. This NY Times article partly focuses on the circulation of Christian identity materials in small, independent presses and on the internet cites the work of Skrudal:
“Free" white males have lost control of the country, Mr. Skurdal's document states: "We the People are now ruled by foreigners/aliens."
Posters for “American Vanguard,” a White Nationalist group, found on Purdue University.
Notice how both a precedent is set (white males should be in charge) and that it is threatened to depict the preferred group as the victim. As a nerd and someone interested in rhetorical theory (but I suppose I repeat myself), I’m interested in how rhetorical strategy is being leveraged in these calls. It seems that in each of these instances there is a twisted form of rhetorical parrhesia operating in tandem with white, male fragility.
Parrhesia is a rhetorical strategy that lends a certain ethos to the speaker. It is rooted in speaking truth to power. Rhetoric scholar Ryan Skinnell thoughtfully explores Donald Trump’s use of this kind of misplaced parrhesia in the collection of essays he recently edited, Faking the News, where he writes about the way American culture embraces this rhetorical tool: “parrhesia has a sort of underdog quality that is appealing to a lot of Americans-the notion that someone with little or no power will speak the candid truth to an oppressive, dominating leader in service to the greater good is a romantic one” (84).
However, it should be noted that in these cases, the speakers are those aligned with power (just as Skinnell points out about Trump’s rhetoric). In framing themselves as victims of diversity efforts, white supremacist, misogynistic, and homophobic rhetoric seeks to claims a twisted parrhesia that constructs them as underdogs. In a series of lectures delivered at Berkeley in 1983, Foucault discusses parrhesia extensively, calling this phenomena of twisting parrhesia “negative parrhesia,” stating:
“the crisis regarding parrhesia is a problem of truth: for the problem is one of recognizing who is capable of speaking the truth within the limits of an institutional system where everyone is entitled to give his own opinion. . . and parrhesia. . . is also not sufficient to disclose truth since negative parrhesia, ignorant outspokenness, can also result” (73).
This kind of negative parrhesia works to construct a victim ethos, one that reframes diversity as oppressive to the privileged.
But, in both Senator Erdman’s statements about diversity as well as the comicgater’s response to diversifying comics, I cannot say emphatically enough that one would be hard pressed to produce any evidence that oppression is actually taking place. But somehow, just having asked for more inclusive practices-on campus and in comics-makes these speakers feel threatened. Sara Ahmed writes about this phenomenon, where whiteness is threatened by being asked to address racial issues:
“racism is heard as damaging to whiteness. Fragility can be used to stop something from being expressed. In a way, then, fragility is used to preserve the right of some not to be broken by others; fragile whiteness is also a fantasy of a whiteness that should or would be whole.”
And it continues precisely because this kind of parrhesia functions to provide evidence of the fabricated “oppression” of dominant culture whenever this rhetoric is critiqued. In critiquing the underlying systemic racism, homophobia, and misogyny of these comments, the speaker can so easily frame that critique (including the one I’m writing now) as “evidence” that this imagined oppression is happening.
Because, in this article I’m critiquing their rhetoric, Erdman and the mentioned comicgaters might try to argue that they are being oppressed, rather than being oppressors, by continuing to promote white supremacist, transphobic, and homophobic rhetoric. Somehow naming the rhetoric which allows oppression to continue becomes construed as more damaging than the actual oppression itself.
And that is why this twisted version of rhetorical parrhesia is so damaging: In its repeated insistence that whiteness is somehow being persecuted, it manages to both maintain that racism is about individualistic actions and morality while distracting from more important and necessary conversations about the systematic nature of racism (check out Robin DiAngelo’s interview with Slate on that exact topic). Senator Erdman’s comments, for example, that diversity efforts would somehow overlook qualified white scholars in favor of hiring a person of color (an all-too-common critique of diversity efforts) ignores why there are not more people of color in agriculture in the first place.
Similarly, the comicgater cry of “blacklist” and fabricated claims of persecution by diversity efforts in the comic book industry ignores questions about why there weren’t more women, people of color, and LGBTQA folk in the comic book industry and featured as heroes in comics to begin with. The answer is systemic oppression.
The picture of Marvel’s Squirrel Girl featured on comicgater’s “Encyclopedia Dramatica” wiki, renamed “Derp Girl” and given the following caption:
“The Unbeatable Derp Girl! Downs Girl? Derpy Downs? Well whatever, she's rockin that extra chromosome! She has her ups, she has her downs, kickin butt while totally nuts. She's Marvel's first down syndrome superhero with her perpetual derp face powers. It's like the human version of the images they show to chimpanzees to make them violent.
Her backstory is that the other superheroes and villains basically take pity on her for being retarded, so they like play along and let her defeat them in battle and such. That's how she's "unbeatable" and can magically take out like Galactus and shit. It's like they trained her wrong... on purpose... as a joke.”
But this rhetorical parrhesia draws on the white supremacist tactic of implicitly creating a preference for a white base, and then claiming oppression when someone critiques this white supremacy. Though these alt right movements like Comicgate claim to be champions of free speech, these “campaigns themselves are aimed at policing and shutting down certain speech and certain speakers” (Berlatsky). The fear seems to be that “diversity” efforts will somehow create the same conditions for white, straight, men that it already creates for people of color, LGBTQ folk, and women.
NOTE: The author would like to thank Bryan Jones and Gina Keplinger for their generosity as readers. They offered many helpful insights for revisions, which were instrumental in the writing process.
Non-Linked Works Consulted
Ahmed, Sara. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. 2012. Print.
DiAngelo, Robin. White Fragility: Why it's so hard for White People to talk about Racism. 2018. Print.
Foucault, Michel. Fearless Speech. 2001. Print.
Skinnell, Ryan. Faking the News: What Rhetoric can Teach us about Donald J. Trump. 2018. Print.