Depending on what social circles you belong to, the phrase “performative liberalism” could either be an entirely new concept or your social bread and butter.
The concept is an easy accusation to make. Like a woke college student accusing someone of “literal violence” for misspeaking the preferred nomenclature of sundry identities at any given moment in time, “performative liberalism” is the Left’s equivalently gleefully somber corrective phrase.
At the outset of writing this piece, I had assumed that performative liberalism, given its frequent utilization in the Left print media, podcasts, and blog posts, would have an established definition or generally accepted and widely-understood abstract concept. As it turns out, this is not the case. Like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s understanding of obscenity in the context of hardcore pornography, leftists know performative liberalism when they see it.
In the general political vernacular, “performative liberalism” refers to acts involving demonstrating political views for, at best, meaningless or, at worst, self-serving ends. It is this demonstration component that makes the behavior performative in nature. The varieties of performative politics typically take place online or in a manner, either unintentionally or negligently, that does not further political ends beyond individually signalling a viewpoint. Performative liberalism includes acts of self-congratulation through small gestures, self-aggrandizement posing as self-castigation, and other acts that ostensibly serve to benefit others that benefit the performer in some manner. While the accusation seems fraught with a sense of knowing head nods from performative liberalism’s critics, the actual variance in its manifestations are worth examining.
Probably the easiest and most common form of performative liberalism to identify comes from the social media amplification of jokes, soliloquies, homilies, and monologues from weekly or nightly political comedy.
Any person who has been on the internet at any point in the past decade in the United States has seen some headline akin to “Jon Stewart absolutely DESTROYS Glenn Beck.” The headline metaphors are invariably violent, which is a matter for another time, but the narrative is about how the logic, simile, and dick jokes of a class of media personalities are monolithic representations of the righteous outrage of the liberal class. Late night political comedy television hosts are avatars of a holy war in which “facts,” “data,” “civility,” and “logic” are the universal solutions to a widely agreed-upon problem. By retweeting, liking, or reposting, liberals are evangelizing the absurdity of right-wing hypocrisy or stupidity.
Another common variety of performative liberalism manifests in a consumerist approach by purchasing or not purchasing the right objects. From demonstrating environmental consciousness through owning a Toyota Prius to supporting hardscrabble farmers by buying organic produce, these individuals believe in a Zoroastrian-type world in which the forces of good and evil battle are won through the swipe of an American Express card.
In a consumerist approach, performative liberalism is the substitution of meaningful political engagement with purchases. Take, for example, the nauseatingly gif-laden push by a Buzzfeed staff writer to support Ghostbusters in the wake of an organized online troll campaign against Leslie Jones. In the list-based piece, the author articulates ways to support the film (emphasis the author’s own):
Since it was announced in 2014, the new Ghostbusters movie has been plagued by trolls hell-bent on stopping the world from enjoying a woman-led blockbuster that also happens to be a reboot. 1. Go see the damn movie... This is capitalism, and this movie’s going to be judged by its ability to rake in the kind of cold hard cash… 2. Go see it multiple times if you have the means. 3. Bring your friends. MAKE IT A GODDAMN PARTY. HAVE SO MUCH FUN PUBLICLY WHILE GOING TO WATCH THIS MOVIE. DRESS UP LIKE KATE MCKINNON AND LESLIE JONES AND MELISSA MCCARTHY AND KRISTEN WIIG’S CHARACTERS AND MAKE YOUR ONE GUY FRIEND DRESS LIKE CHRIS HEMSWORTH AND HAVE THE TIME OF YOUR FUCKING LIFE. 4. Make that theater as rowdy and supportive as a bunch of drunk girls in a bar bathroom, aka the pinnacle of supportive funtimes... 5. Rewatch the entire Melissa McCarthy/Paul Feig filmography...
The argument of the piece is not about the broken nature of society to produce these odd culture fights in the media or why filmmaking is subject to so many constraints such that it adroitly exposes and reaffirms society’s collective id. Instead, the solution to help solve crises of feminism by the average Buzzfeed reader - usually a broke college student - is throwing money at films made by multimillionaire actresses to encourage additional films. More importantly, it seems entirely unchallenged that additional film reboots with female actresses in place of the formerly male roles would have a liberation impact. The author asserts that through both capital and social performance, the online trolls, whose entire fuel source is incidents of liberal moral outrage, will be soundly defeated through ticket sales and cheering in movie theaters.
Perhaps the most elusive and complex type of performative politics comes in the form of the sundry racial, sexual, and ethnic social consciousness movements that the commentariat lazily summarizes as the “social justice warrior” ethos.
The new social justice college student community’s political activism revolves around attempts to invert the existing social hierarchy in the United States through dramatic campus events to highlight the plight of those on the lower end. From transgender issues to police violence against blacks in America, much of the social justice activism in colleges and universities mobilizes a relatively minor but vocal subset of students against actual or perceived opposition figures, in an effort to purify the community through purges of internal fifth columns and, often, within their own likeminded political communities. Furthermore, to ensure the continued sanctity of the community, the political body ensures that no polluting outside influence, such as Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers or Charles Murray comes to campus.
Everyone has seen this in some capacity and there are varying degrees of commentary on the matter. Perhaps the best interpretation comes from Fredrik deBoer’s Washington Post piece on performative self-indictment. According to deBoer, the very act of public contrition for white privilege is itself a paradox, since the act of castigating oneself in public often takes on the tone of self-congratulation.
The new variety of activism most commonly associated with college campuses, but also widely-distributed online, insists that it gets to define the way in which politics can take place, silencing both internal and external critics and treating the chilling effect on conversation as victory. But this type of activism cannot stop with its current positions, though, because it is a politics founded on social one-upmanship around castigating oneself and rooting out enemies that raises the bar incrementally over time. After all, it has become normal to try to get your mildest of political opponents fired from their jobs. This type of political engagement is not even comparable with someone becoming enamored with a monologue from a late-night television comedian.
While the accusation of performative liberalism does not inherently carry an exclusivist definition, the wide divergence in behaviors deemed performative cheapen the phrase. The equivocation of rallies to get historically-underpaid academic professors in the humanities fired for nonconformist views with hitting the like button on Facebook for a John Oliver “takedown” is not only pernicious, but outright stupid.
The mass categorization of “things I don’t like” from leftists with performative liberalism does the concept no favors. It’s imbued with a type of postmodernist laziness so often found in leftist academic circles in which everything can be filtered through the lens of “all things are performance.”
Leftist excoriation of political activists for performative liberalism and its partner phrase “that’s not politics” serve a near-identical social role as the Bowdoin College activist’s “check your privilege.” In the same manner some college activists feel entitled to indolently define the acceptable cognitive space within society, leftist [D]iscourse has snobbishly taken upon itself the role of defining the proper avenues of political participation through a consequence-oriented and mostly-unspoken utility assessment of what is most tactically efficacious.
Who cares if a single mom likes and talks about Samantha Bee or Trevor Noah? These programs are not my cup of tea, but I certainly will not begrudge someone else enjoying them. The consumerist approach to politics isn’t without its problems, but it is mostly harmless, as well. The demands of proper leftist political participation - rallies, strikes, protests, get-out-the-vote volunteering, etc. - simply will not fit everyone’s basic capabilities for either time or social safety and it is snobbish to demand it as the only form of good political participation. Sure it isn’t politics, but it provides an outlet for someone to enjoy themselves. The political utility is independent of the social utility and that is just fine.