Saturday, June 6, 2015

Some Thoughts on (Shudder) Matt Walsh

A spectre is haunting social media. The spectre...of an acerbic right-wing Christian blogger named Matt Walsh. If your Facebook feeds are anything like mine, it's entirely likely that you've come across Walsh at some point. His chest-puffing, bible-thumping, liberal-bashing rhetoric propelled him from being just another blogger to landing a gig on The Blaze in a very short time period, making him a darling of right-wing social conservatives and a sworn enemy of liberals, feminists, and social justice advocates.

However, I'm not really interested in Walsh per se. I find his writing, such as I've read, narrow, superficial, and lacking in empathy, mostly just a waste of time. I don't think he's a troll, insofar as he's apparently quite sincere about his beliefs; he's just sort of an ass. But that applies to plenty of writers on the internet. What's more interesting is that over and over again I see people, many of them left-leaning, sharing his posts. I have no data for this, but compared to other conservative bloggers Walsh seems to dominate social media, both from people singing his praises and others ruthlessly mocking him.

Matt Walsh the blogger, thankfully, has nothing to do with Matt Walsh the actor, who is a national treasure.

It's not as though Walsh's beliefs or style are particularly unique. He belongs to the tradition of gleeful conservative bomb-throwers like Rush Limbaugh, Anne Coulter, and Michelle Malkin, a cohort that for better or worse helped define modern popular conservative discourse. But I can't think of any other conservatives who inspire the same amount of vitriol (and internet referrals) from liberals. So what drives the Matt Walsh hate train?

For starters, he knows his way around a provocative headline. Here's a sample of recent ones:

  • Sorry, But It’s Islam’s Fault If People Are Islamophobic. 
  • No thanks, public schools. I don’t need you to teach my kids about sex.
  • Feminism has nothing to say but it still won’t shut up 
  • Sorry gays, you don’t have the right to be free from discrimination.
  • Dear Foolish and Gullible Americans, Net Neutrality is Not Your Friend.

It hardly matters that his arguments barely run headline-deep. He's clearly not inviting thoughtful discussion, he's picking a fight and expecting readers to cheer him on or shout back. Either way, he wins. Subtlety is not a virtue to which Matt Walsh aspires.

So it's no secret why someone might be provoked by a headline like that, but why do liberals seem to take such glee in taking the bait? Maybe it's because he deliberately presents himself as the most exaggerated version of everything liberals are most inclined to dislike about religious conservatives. And from my point of view there's no doubt that he's almost cartoonishly sexist, racist, and hateful. But I'm worried that the liberal response can be self-defeating, for reasons outlined by fellow blogger Allan Davis back in 2012. Using the provocative metaphor of masturbation, Allan described

how artsy, left-leaning, atheist/agnostic types tend to respond to politics and people which are in opposition to their own principles and agendas. "We" tend to work ourselves up by discussing how wrong non-artistic, right-leaning, religious individuals are ignorant or uninformed. They are oppressive and do not understand how things really are or They are greedy and selfish. They don't care about their fellow man. [...] We take pleasure in the creation of art [and discussion] that we convince ourselves is serving political purposes when really it is only talking to our little community, firing up our righteous indignation, stroking our egos, and culminating in a self-satisfying but ultimately unproductive climax of emotion, primarily rage.

Raging against Walsh is easy and satisfying, but it also accomplishes nothing. It's an empty act, requiring (to borrow a phrase from Allan) no exchange, negotiation, reciprocation, or communication. It requires no humility and develops no empathy, which are exactly the qualities Walsh himself fails to evince.

And it's not just liberals who are at fault. I'd argue that the masturbatory impulse runs every direction: every time he's attacked Walsh gets to be a martyr for Truth whose martyrdom requires no actual sacrifice (in fact, it's been great for his career). His supporters get to wield his posts as rhetorical cudgels or as cardboard stand-ins for substantive thought on complicated social and political questions (Feminism stupid! Transgender bad! Government, Gays, grrrrr!). In short, everybody wins while everybody loses.

A while back I created a flowchart about Meridian Magazine, an online haven of judgmental Church Lady Mormonism. The argument I made then applies equally well to Walsh, so here's a somewhat hastily repurposed version of the same flowchart:

So what's the takeaway? Obviously, it'd be nice if Walsh just went away, but for lefties like me it's helpful to remember that conservative thought extends beyond him. I have a few conservative friends I'll talk politics with; for the rest I try to maintain a polite ceasefire, even if it's unilateral (the Hide and Unfollow features on Facebook come in handy). We can connect on other levels if we're really friends. And with my liberal friends I try (with varying degrees of success) to be cognizant of when we're crossing the line from sharing some yuks to burning strawmen outright. That's best accomplished by avoiding posts by the likes of Walsh, even when they're shared by friends. With family things can be trickier, and that question deserves its own treatment, but in the context of social media Hide, Unfollow, and Unfriend can be useful, if imperfect, tools.

Thinking about engaging with people we disagree with more broadly, I like what Allan wrote:

When our art or our discussions are productive, it requires acknowledgement of and cooperation with an autonomous individual or group whose ideas and sentiments are separate from our own. Sometimes principles clash and are in direct opposition. But if either side actually intends to create ideas, a possibility, or a future where life can continue, they need to stop retreating to their respective corners, masturbating, and congratulating themselves on their (self)righteousness.

Matt Walsh's writing represents a denial that dialogue with the other side is worthwhile or even possible. The least we can do is not prove him right.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Sam, I suggest you read my post again, because you seem to have completely missed the point. Don't masturbate in my comments section or I won't let you stay.

  3. Sadly, I can attest to the fact that Matt truly believes the vitriol he spews. Long before the Internet knew who he was, he polluted our airwaves on our one and only local rock station. One particularly offensive show on Aug 19, 2010 where he spent four hours skewering gays, Blacks, and women eventually led to his firing a year later. In fact, he went through three radio stations in as many years, but it was his stint in KY that began building his Internet fame after the Sandy Hook shootings and his blog post went viral.