The "Chop" and Liberalism's Crisis of Meaning

If it's worth canceling, it's also worth convincing.

ESPN baseball writer Jeff Passan is getting glowing reviews from his peers for his essay arguing that the Atlanta Braves have a moral obligation to forbid fans from doing “the chop,” which if you don’t know is a gesture that looks like throwing a tomahawk. Passan argues that the chop is racially insensitive and plays on a stereotype of American Indians, a problem that’s being confronted in multiple sports nowadays. Passan makes the point that even if some Native Americans express indifference or support of “the chop,” the act itself is part of a wholesale mascot-ification of Native American culture, so it needs to go the way of the “Redskins” and “Chief Wahoo.”

“The Braves haven't been to the World Series since 1999,” Passan writes. “The world has changed.”

Even if you disagree with Passan’s premise—that the chop is racially insensitive—this is, I think, the best way to argue for this kind of social justice. If something is truly racist, it shouldn’t matter how many or how few people register offense at it. It doesn’t matter how “systemic” the racism behind an act of cultural appropriation is, it only matters that the cultural appropriation itself is racist. I respect Passan for not doing what many other social justice writers do: connecting every issue no matter how remote to urgent life-and-death politics, and implicitly making the case that you are either pro-humane treatment of minorities or you are pro-Friends. Passan keeps the dialogue where it needs to be.

But then Passan does something truly bewildering, not least because it is something that is done again and again in social justice discourse:

The most frustrating thing about the chop is how easy it would be to stop. It would be a small gesture. It wouldn't fix any of those generational problems that affect American Indians. But it would, to plenty, return at least a modicum of dignity to a people that have already had so much taken from them.

When that eventually happens, we know the journey that Braves fans will undertake, because we've seen it before. First, denial and anger. They'll bargain, they'll feel depressed and eventually they'll accept it, because fans don't go to games just to chop. They go to watch the team they love, chop or no chop, and anyone who loves chopping more than Ronald Acuña Jr., Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies clearly has bad taste anyway.

This is a stunning concession from Passan: The chop doesn’t actually matter. Passan thinks he needs to make this point in order to make people who will disagree or dislike his argument look small and petty. Anybody who would get upset about losing “the chop” is just play-acting. They’ll be back to watch their favorite team and eventually they’ll stop complaining, because at the end of the day a little bit more social consciousness doesn’t actually affect them at all.

The chop doesn’t really matter.

Freddie deBoer is the first person I ever read who made this observation about progressives. Progressives will argue passionately for the thick kind of racial and gender consciousness that results in cleaning stuff like sitcoms and sports teams names out of popular culture, but when something truly awful happens on a college campus in the name of social justice—innocent people lose their careers or are even physically assaulted—progressives will dismiss such events as meaningless campus drama. In this mode of thinking, you really should take the arguments of twenytsomething year old activists seriously, but you can’t take what they do seriously, because…..well, they’re twentysomething years old.

There is, in other words, a significant confusion within some social justice rhetoric. Do Halloween costumes that commit cultural appropriation matter? Yes, we are told, because they traumatize real people. Should someone be upset if you tell them they can’t wear their costume? Absolutely not. It’s just a costume, after all. If they’re upset at being told their costume is racist, that’s a clear red flag that they’re trying to be racist, because who cares about a costume?

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When justice discourse turns toward sports, the confusion becomes even more obvious. Passan says that retiring the chop would “return at least a modicum of dignity” to Native Americans. He doesn’t say how this would happen. He doesn’t say how a chopping gesture participates in racial injustice. He doesn’t say how we can measure racial progress through the deletion of the chop. Everyone is supposed to know the answers to those questions already, and anybody who doesn’t shouldn’t factor in the equation at all. For those who know, it’s more than a chop. For those who don’t, it’s just a chop.

Is this how justice advances? Is this how consciousness deepens and sensitivity wins the day? I doubt it. It sounds more like the way that a particular group of writers and activists get to feel assured that their work matters. It sounds more like how the hard work of persuasion and consensus are themselves dubbed “part of the problem.” Most of all, it sounds like what happens when justice is utterly divorced from material conditions, and when one ideological group starts requiring activism instead of results for full membership.

This is an expression of liberalism’s crisis of meaning. Without a coherent moral framework, contemporary progressivism has to constantly manufacture norms and enforce them not through shared community stigmas but by authority structures. The new norms, though, are not infused with meaning. Intersectionality is Christian theology with rigor mortis: the cold, clammy remains of long dead Protestant social ethic. To apply David Brooks’ terminology, “The right side of history” is a resume virtue, not a eulogy virtue. That’s why nobody can decide why so much of this stuff matters. There’s no God and no moral law by which to appeal, and “dignity” has itself run out of content. We know these things ought to matter, but we cannot explain why.

A robust conversation on social justice requires more than, “These rubes will get over it.” If the chop matters enough to warrant MLB and the Braves to end it, it matters enough for people to disagree. If a particular item of activism matters enough to do it all, it matters enough to try to convince people to support it. The place we don’t want to be is the place where justice activism matters enough to build careers and reputations, but not enough to build homes and jobs. That kind of activism is something nobody should take seriously.