Photo: Patrick Copley/ CC.

Elena Ferrante and the Politics of Deference

Rehabilitating the concept of the asshole


Not too long ago, I joined many others in being suddenly, oddly angry at an obscure Italian journalist. That journalist, a man named Claudio Gatti, had published an article in several languages that purported to reveal the identity of the celebrated Italian novelist Elena Ferrante. The author, whose work has in recent years become as critically adored as any living writer, has been open about her pseudonymity and about very little else. In the rare interviews she has granted, she has argued that remaining pseudonymous allows her work itself to command attention, granting her the ability to concentrate on writing without the trappings of literary celebrity. Gatti, it appears, has robbed her of that freedom. In his essay, Gatti detailed the great lengths he had gone to complete his investigation, digging into the financial records of both the woman he names as Ferrante and that woman’s spouse. I suppose it’s worth saying that I find his claims about Ferrante’s true identity persuasive. I also find his work invasive and gross.

Certainly my affection for Ferrante’s writing plays a part here. Ferrante is truly a giant, one of the rare living writers whose hype is proportional to her talent. She is an achingly exacting stylist, her books have a particular moral vision that seems truly unusual in today’s politicized artwork, and she practices a rare kind of subtle, unassuming irony. Still, even if I wasn’t as taken with Ferrante’s writing, I would feel angry at Gatti and his self-aggrandizing essay. For one, Ferrante’s rare stand against celebrity, in a world where even those who complain about it clearly hunger for it — see Franzen, Jonathan, for a prime example of a writer who complains about celebrity while pursuing it relentlessly — shows immense integrity. By denying it to her, and by calling her attempts to maintain her anonymity the very reason for his investigation, Gatti essentially forecloses on the possibility of artistic engagement that stands outside of the celebrity industry. Gatti’s investigation into financial records takes him close to violating real ethical standards of privacy. It’s one thing for journalists to dig through the records of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, both in a bid to become the most powerful person in the world. It’s another to treat the salary of a pseudonymous novelist like the Watergate scandal.

Gatti’s justifications, meanwhile, are self-serving and unconvincing. He writes that “by announcing that she would lie on occasion, Ferrante has in a way relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown.” Really? “In a way?” In what way, Claudio? This is not an argument; it’s a sleight of hand, and yet it fills an essential space in Gatti’s justification for his efforts. To be clear: I don’t think that Gatti broke the law, and I must grudgingly agree with Deadspin’s Hamilton Nolan that journalists have the right to investigate the identity of a famous writer. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it, or that I can’t judge Gatti and his weird justifications.

I was therefore pleased, at first, to see a lot of the Internet joining me in condemning him. Many of the tweets, posts, and essays I read expressed the same unhappiness I felt over this brilliant writer having to endure such a grubby act of voyeuristic journalism. Over time, though, the conversation about Ferrante’s true identity and the conduct of the reporter took a familiar turn. As seems to happen more and more often, the case against Gatti became politicized in particular terms: he was not merely guilty of journalistic impropriety, or of being a jerk, but of abuse, of gendered abuse, of a particularly noxious, particularly taboo kind. Social media lit up with accusations that Gatti’s essay was sexist, harassment, a kind of gendered violence, even comparable to domestic abuse or sexual assault. The New Republic’s Charlotte Shange declared the outing sexist, arguing that Gatti’s justifications “echo the most chilling claims of men who physically violate a woman while claiming the resisting woman wanted it and had it coming.” An activist site dedicated to cataloging victim-blaming declared Gatti’s essay “part of the continuum of violence against women and girls.” Tom Geue called Gatti’s actions a “reactionary bid for repossession,” comparing them to antiquated traditions of men enslaving their wives. The message from all corners was clear: Gatti was not just guilty of a particularly ugly invasion of privacy, but of something much darker.

What to make of this? More than anything, it strikes me as a matter of people actually trivializing accusations they seek to take most seriously. To compare a journalist revealing the real identity of a wealthy writer to domestic abuse, enslavement, and sexual assault is to disrespect the victims of those horrible crimes in the comparison. What happened to Ferrante was unpleasant, even exploitative; it was not the same as physical or sexual abuse. This distinction is necessary if we’re to preserve the status such crimes have rightfully earned as uniquely worthy of moral condemnation. Outrage is a finite resource; to attempt to generate it over and over again ensures that it will be harder and harder for it to mean anything in the future. Similarly, while I don’t doubt that gender is implicated in this story — gender is implicated in everything — I don’t think it’s productive to cast Gatti’s actions as sexist. Creepy and malicious will suffice.

So I found myself in a bind, one that I seem to be in more and more often. I don’t consider Gatti’s investigation an act of gendered violence, not even by analogy, but does that mean I don’t take it seriously? Not at all. Instead, I think that we need to be able to judge people, and shun them where appropriate, even when their behavior is not bigoted. We need to preserve the idea that some behaviors are socially unacceptable even when those behaviors don’t reach the noxious depths of sexism or racism.

I am asking, in other words, to rehabilitate the concept of the asshole. I don’t think Gatti is a criminal or akin to an abusive husband. I do think he’s an asshole. And “asshole” can be a powerful accusation indeed. (I say that as someone who is frequently accused of being one.) On balance, the growing recognition of the ubiquity of bigotry and inequality, and the deepening social consequences of offending marginalized groups, is an altogether positive development. But we need to have the ability to engage in more or less harsh condemnation as the situation calls for it. We need more rhetorical tools, not less; we need both political scalpels and political battle axes. If we strain to call every behavior we don’t like a kind of bigotry, we lose not only the specificity that rigorous critique requires, but also the ability to truly move others with our outrage. We desperately need to address the systematic prejudice that is all around us, and for that same reason we should be wary of blunting our rhetorical tools through overuse.

I think one can simultaneously find exposing Elena Ferrante distasteful, support the effort to stop violence against women, and decline to see the former as an example of the latter. I think you can understand that sexual assault too often goes unpunished, and that we should err on the side of believing those victims that come forward, and think that the Rolling Stone University of Virginia debacle could have been prevented with more appropriate skepticism and vetting from the beginning. I think that you can see that Hillary Clinton has been subject to noxious sexism her entire career, oppose that sexism, and recognize that frivolous accusations of sexism are constantly used to shield her from legitimate criticism. I’m asking that we be free to utilize our judgment to decide which claims of bigotry are credible and which aren’t without being accused of being on the wrong side. I am arguing, in simple terms, for critical thinking among those who broadly share the goals of social liberalism and social justice. I am arguing that our commitment to fighting sexism, racism, and other forms of bigotry and injustice can’t prevent us from being discriminating about which particular accusations are more or less credible. I am arguing that being an ally in a fight doesn’t and can’t mean that we abandon our right and responsibility to question or criticize those who claim to be engaged in that fight, when it seems appropriate to do so.

We are a cynical species and we live in a cynical world. People take advantage of legitimate ideas and noble causes for their own self-interest all the time. That’s just life. And none of us are free from the power of our own motivated reasoning, our ability to convince ourselves that every petty, natural frustration of human existence is really the hand of injustice at play. We live in white supremacy, patriarchy, and a rigid class structure, and so, more often than not, accusations of racism, sexism, and classism will be true. Occasionally they will not be. In those instances, it’s imperative that thinking people be able to say so, as the credibility of any political movement depends in part on the willingness of its members to criticize their own.

Left-wing critics of contemporary progressives have often struggled to find a term to describe rhetoric or tactics they find unhelpful. Terms like “political correctness” and “identity politics” are too deeply associated with conservatism, and too clumsy, to be of much use. I have personally taken to thinking of a particular kind of misguided progressive political engagement as the politics of deference — that is, the political theory that suggests that people of a progressive bent have a duty to suspend their critical judgment and engage in unthinking support of whoever claims to speak for the movement against racism and sexism. This is the common notion that allies should “just listen.” There are all manner of problems with that attitude, first and foremost among them the question of who, exactly, we should just listen to when different members of marginalized groups disagree, as they inevitably will. But more, the notion that we should just listen asks us to forego the most basic moral requirement of all, the requirement to follow one’s own conscience. Just listening is easy, and you will find many armies of privileged people in media, academia, and the entertainment industry who have made a career out of it, coasting along with whatever the day’s progressive fads are. But just listening leaves us bereft of the kinds of ruthless self-review that are a political movement’s only defense against drift, complacency, and corruption. Just listening is self-defense; just listening is bad faith.

Of course, there is a self-reflexive element that will surely come into play here: critics of this essay will no doubt accuse me of the very bigotries that I am arguing we should be more careful in discussing. This is the tail-swallowing aspect of today’s liberal spaces, not the noble and correct prohibition against engaging in racist or sexist behavior but the meta-prohibition against questioning whether any given accusation is credible or convincing. A political tendency that prohibits its members from questioning each other, or which treats critical examination of its beliefs about bigotry as bigotry itself, has sewn the seeds of its own demise.

If it wasn’t clear before, it’s certainly clear now: progressives have won an unprecedented victory in the culture wars. What they haven’t yet won is tangible, concrete policy gains to go with that cultural domination, a way to turn rhetoric into reality, a way to turn the social force of the call out into material gains for the most oppressed. To do so will take hard work. It will also take real introspection, critical engagement, and a political culture that’s willing to disagree, even vehemently, about goals and tactics and language. And that will take precision in language, the right to sort a jerk from a bigot, and the wisdom to tell the difference.