by Brian Dominick
Update: I’ve posted a TL;DR summary here.
I’ve finally managed to get to the root of the Sarah Kendzior/Amber A’Lee Frost/Jacobin magazine controversy that has been lighting up my Twitter feed with all kinds of convoluted confusion for days now, and it’s weirder than anyone I’ve seen is even pointing out.
If you’re not familiar with the hubbub, this isn’t a great place for an overview. I guess I would recommend this Storify collection as the best source to catch up on it… though that really might just leave you more confused than before. The problem I had was that despite lots of references to its origin, one could not easily trace it back to that origin. I had to do a lot of digging.
So I’m going to try to lay the specific origin out really simply, then add some basic analysis.
It starts with an opinion piece on the Jacobin site by Amber A’Lee Frost called "Bro Bash". The commentary is pretty simple. It says men on the Left who aren’t particularly feminist in their approach to thought, presentation, or behavior — often called “bros” or “brocialists” — should not be dismissed outright, and should also not be lumped in with outright misogyinists just for being, you know, men’s men. Frost basically argues that “bros” aren’t as bad as they’re reputed to be.
That article contains the following sentence:
And I just don’t think the diminutive label of ‘bro’ should be [used] to describe more insidious sexism, let alone violent aggression like rape threats.
I actually agree with that sentence (ignoring its grammatical error, which I’ve corrected above). We wouldn’t want to dismiss a rapist or a rape apologist or anyone saying anything seriously misogynist with the relatively tame term “bro”. It’s also not useful to lump all “bro” types in with outright misogynists, since misogyny isn’t a requisite attribute for being a brocialist. I think there may well be HEAVY overlap, but the groups are not one and the same.
The controversy is over the fact that this sentence, when the piece originally appeared, contained a link to a tweet by Sarah Kendzior in which she referred to a “brocialist” who once leveled a rape threat against her. (I believe but cannot confirm that the words rape threats were hyperlinked to the tweet.) I won’t link to the original tweet, because that really upsets Kendzior, and I want to respect her wishes. But I will quote it in its entirety, something I’ve decided to do because Kendzior has personally definitely drawn far more attention to this tweet than I’ll ever be able to:
I first heard it from a brocialist sending me emails hoping for my rape. So I’m guessing yes.
(It doesn’t really matter, but the “it” in this tweet is the term social justice warrior, and the “yes” refers to whether social justice warrior is supposed to be an insult.)
That’s the tweet Frost somehow decided was a fitting, key example of the linguistic problem she’s describing in her sentence about dismissing people who engage in rape threats as “brocialists”.
When Kendzior saw this sentence and the link, she wrote Jacobin asking them to remove the link to her tweet, which they promptly did. Then a big, complex, hard-to-follow shitstorm ensued all over Twitter and the left blogosphere. But I want to focus on the original Kendzior tweet and the Frost sentence.
Though I agree with Frost’s sentence, I find it extremely odd that she chose Kendzior’s off-hand tweet as particularly illustrative of the problem she was critiquing. The substance of the tweet is that Kendzior is saying brocialists are the type to use the dismissive term “social justice warrior” as a pejorative. I don’t think that’s particularly inaccurate. Unlike rape or the desire to use misogyny as punishment, a dismissive attitude toward activists focusing on noneconomic or “identity politics” causes actually does seem like a core attribute of so-called brocialist thinking.
Further still, Kendzior was simply labeling a particular person as a brocialist and making two claims about him: (1) that he used the phrase “social justice warrior” as a pejorative, and (2) that he told her he hoped she got raped. Let’s try a simple logic exercise:
If some brocialists use the term “social justice warrior” pejoratively, and some brocialists send rape threats, are all brocialists misogynists? Are all leftist rape-threateners brocialists?
It’s a terrible example. Kendzior was not saying all brocialists are rape-wishers, nor was she necessarily labeling someone a brocialist for being a rape-wisher. To her mind, as far as this tweet suggests, this rape-wisher also happened to be a brocialist.
Both Frost’s sentence and Kendzior’s tweet can stand on their own. But Frost’s use of Kendzior’s tweet as the key illustration of her point is beyond disingenuous. Why not find someone saying “All brocialists are misogynists” or “A leftist who uses rape threats is called a brociaist”? These would far, far better illustrate her point. Something is very odd about Frost’s choice here.
Now, this is actually where it gets extra bizarre. A simple Google search of brocialist and "rape threat" yields a bunch of stuff involving this specific controversy, but the first hit that is an actual tweet outside this contriversy is a different tweet by Kendzior. Dated May 22, in it Kendzior wrote:
Brocialist path to glory: 1) Send rape threats 2) ??? 3) Revolution! #heroes
Now, this tweet truly does illustrate part of the problem Frost was identifying. It doesn’t mention Kendzior having been threatened with rape, which is something one can understand Kendzior would object to seeing referenced on a popular website, especially in the perceivably dismissive context Frost put it in. (Both Kendzior tweets in question were @ replies, which means they would not necessarily been seen by the vast majority of her Twitter followers, despite being technically public.)
Yet this tweet clearly does suggest all brocialists engage in rape threats. So why, out of all the examples of disparaging brocialists on the Internet, would Frost choose a different, far less illustrative and far more sensitive tweet by Kendzior? I obviously can’t answer that. I find it bizarre that Frost thought her commentary was helpful, or why Jacobin validated her defense of this poor, maligned class of white men in the first place. But I sure wouldn’t want to have to defend that choice of example tweets.