Online or in Politics, ‘Backlash’ Is as Predictable as Weather

Photo illustration by Derek Brahney

Is it possible that anger qualifies, at this point, as a national pastime? It roils our cultural dialogue, poisons social media and — as is frequently, and somewhat helplessly, observed — it curdles much of our politics into a zero-sum game of tribal loathing. It is the predictable response to almost any new development, significant or otherwise: Whatever happens, someone’s fury will most likely rise to meet it, and in the right conditions, it will gather quickly into an entire campaign of “backlash.”

One day it may be those railing against a perceived war on Christmas. The next it may be social media users enraged by changes to their favorite platforms. Another it may be television viewers irked that a problematic show is getting adoring press. Sometimes the backlash will come from a group that sees itself as marginalized, hemmed in by hostile and entrenched adversaries; sometimes it will come from those who merely see themselves as being righteously on the side of the unduly oppressed; sometimes it will seem to happen reflexively, like an involuntary spasm. But in every case, there will be those who find themselves aggrieved by something they believe is intolerably dominating the cultural landscape.

The difficulty is that not all of those people can be correct. We can’t all be fighting the prevailing orthodoxy, can we?

Last July, a Google engineer named James Damore wrote an internal memo criticizing what he saw as “authoritarian” diversity practices at the tech giant, suggesting along the way that women and men might be biologically suited to different professional roles. He was swiftly fired, but the furor the episode created in Silicon Valley spilled rapidly outward. While Google executives rushed to condemn the memo and reaffirm their commitment to an inclusive workplace, alt-right provocateurs were embracing Damore as a political martyr, harassed out of his job by an oppressive and hypocritical liberal machine. What began as a question of corporate values quickly transformed into a larger skirmish between competing perceptions of who actually wields power in America.

Damore would go on to file a class-action suit claiming that conservative white men were systematically discriminated against at Google, including as evidence colleagues’ aggressive responses to his memo — a reaction The Guardian characterized as an “internal backlash.” Many of Damore’s co-workers, of course, had credibly argued that the only systematic discrimination here was found in Damore’s memo itself: “You have just created a textbook hostile workplace environment,” wrote one former colleague upon reading it. The Financial Times saw “backlash” in a whole separate layer of reaction: the flurry of vitriol and threats directed at Google from conservative activists, which compelled management to cancel a town-hall meeting on diversity issues.

There are obvious differences in the types of power each side of this conflict could credibly suggest the other possessed. But the dynamics involved are typical, and you can spot them in any number of contentious issues. One faction positions itself as a beleaguered voice of dissent, bravely pushing back against some draconian orthodoxy. The other sees itself as battling a society already suffused in this supposedly “dissenting” viewpoint. Each side looks at the world around it and sees, for the most part, the flourishing of the other. It’s less a culture war than a war over who’s already winning.

“Backlash” was originally a mechanical-engineering term: It describes the gap between two parts of a machine, and the slight jolt that…

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