A visual representation of our national discourse.
A visual representation of our national discourse. Baloncici/Getty Images

Trash. He’s trash. She’s trash. They’re trash. You’re trash.

“Trash”—as well as its sister term “garbage”—has become the word du jour to describe everything from men to Tinder to, perhaps most frequently, Lena Dunham. It’s a term hurled, not tossed, and the feeling it seems to convey is “You are a terrible person/place/thing, no better than a pile of wet newspapers moldering in a roadside ditch.” While plenty of terms convey exactly the same thing (“scum,” “vermin,” “dregs”), “trash” has an extra bite to it, because it doesn’t just mean you suck, it also means you aren't woke.

"Woke"—for those of you who don’t spend a lot of time on Twitter—indicates, roughly, that one is enlightened to the social causes of the day. You believe black lives matter (or you believe it enough to put a sign in the window of the palatial $1.5 million townhouse you just built in the Central District); you unequivocally support the #MeToo movement; and you would never, ever, ever, ever vote for Donald Trump (although you might vote for Jill Stein, which is basically the same thing). “Woke” may have entered internet consciousness in the last few years, but according to the invaluable internet resource Know Your Meme, “The earliest known instance of the ‘woke’ as slang for political or social awareness comes from an article in the New York Times Magazine. On May 20, 1962, the Times published a piece on white beatniks appropriating black culture by African-American novelist William Melvin Kelley entitled ‘If You’re Woke, You Dig It.’” Woke, today, is still being appropriated by white people, plenty of whom will happily tell you, if you’re not woke, you’re trash.

I know this because I am trash. Or at least, that’s the impression you may get from the things people write to and about me. My take on dogs on planes? Trash. My take on the place of lesbians in the queer hierarchy? Trash. My take on Aziz Ansari? So trash that a former Stranger writer spent several thousand words refuting what is essentially my opinion on her own blog. This Slog post? Definitely trash.

The criticism of these pieces, and of me personally, doesn’t actually bother me all that much—my job requires that one acquire a certain thickness of skin, and besides, hate clicks are still clicks—but I can see why people are afraid to voice their opinions if their opinions are even slightly outside the tide of contemporary thinking. When it emerged recently that Harper’s magazine was supposedly planning to publish an article outing the creator of the now-infamous Shitty Media Men list in a forthcoming issue, people across Twitter—primarily women in media, including a number of journalists—sprung into action, declaring that the apparent author of the unpublished article, Katie Roiphe, was trash, and that Harper’s was trash, too. Writer Nicole Cliffe offered to pay anyone willing to pull pieces they had promised to Harper’s. A number of writers took her up on it, and at least one advertiser dropped the magazine entirely. It didn’t matter that the rumor hadn’t been confirmed, or that no one had actually read the piece, or that Roiphe told the New York Times that the article didn't actually out anyone at all; the outrage machine was already rolling. And it was journalists—people who should know how to fact-check first—who were fueling it.

There’s a name for this behavior: witch hunts. Someone is accused, judged, and condemned for an alleged or apparent transgression, and the townspeople on Facebook and Twitter grab their pitchforks and rush to the burn pile. There may be little evidence to support the prevailing narrative, but that hardly matters. The trial is conducted via social media, and the judges are anyone with access. Take a recent incident in Seattle, when the (ironically, Jewish) founder of the Punk Rock Flea Market was widely accused of being a Nazi sympathizer after a false and unsubstantiated claim that he kicked a woman of color out of his event was circulated on social media. I often write about social media mobs exactly like this, and what I have found is that they are not frequently misinformed, they are almost always misinformed. You just don't know what happened unless you were (A) there or (B) someone has actually investigated whatever claims have come forth. But that's not how mobs work.

This atmosphere makes it difficult, if not impossible, to dissent. I was recently talking to a friend about the #MeToo movement. In hushed tones, she told me she had a confession to make. “Don’t tell anyone,” she said, “but I don’t think Woody Allen raped his daughter.” Luckily for her, she was in good company—I also doubt the veracity of Woody Allen’s guilt because the evidence just doesn’t support the claims—but she said this as though she were confessing to a terrible crime. And she was: a thought crime, one so potentially harmful to her standing among her own friends that expressing it to anyone besides a known thought criminal was unthinkable. The resistance, it seems, is intersectional in everything but opinions.

In a recent Wired piece, techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote about contemporary censorship, which comes not from governments but from our own social networks. “The most effective forms of censorship today involve meddling with trust and attention, not muzzling speech itself," she wrote. "As a result, they don’t look much like the old forms of censorship at all. They look like viral or coordinated harassment campaigns, which harness the dynamics of viral outrage to impose an unbearable and disproportionate cost on the act of speaking out.”

I see this every day. Just this week, a complete stranger tagged me in a tweet:

This person, Guy, finds my opinions so “incendiary”—so trash—that he wants me to get fired from my job for expressing my thoughts. That blows my mind. I’m a critic at an alt-weekly, not a politician. My views are just that: my own views. The idea that my opinions are so dangerous that I should be fired from my job isn’t just silly, it’s scary. It’s not like I’m over here advocating that everyone go out and club baby seals.

Progressives used to be able to handle dissent. The Democrats were the party of free speech and free thought. No more. Among far too many leftists, if you disagree, you are wrong. And if you are wrong, you are bad, and if you are bad, you are trash.

This is a shame, and not just because I’m sick of getting angry e-mails. It’s a shame because this call-out culture prevents people from actually speaking their minds, because they are too scared of being unfriended, unfollowed, blocked, shunned, or dismissed as simply trash. But we shouldn't be shutting opinions we disagree with down; we should be seeking them out. You don’t learn much if everyone around you believes—or professes to believe—the exact same thing as you do, and if we don't expose ourselves to a diversity of opinions, we are never going to get out our self-imposed echo chambers. These echo chambers didn’t just bring us President Donald Trump, they brought us a liberal establishment so unable to see and believe that other people actually liked the fucker, that we all laughed at his candidacy instead of taking it as the very real threat that it was all along.

The world is falling apart around us, and we—liberals, progressive, leftists, whatever you want to call us—are too busy fighting with each other to actually do anything concrete about it, even though we agree on most of the big, important issues. The reality is, we are more alike than we are different. Like every other progressive worth my “I voted” sticker, I think Trump is the biggest threat to world stability that we’ve seen in the past 50 years. I think women should be able to procure abortions easily, cheaply, and legally. I believe that climate change is an existential threat to humanity, that white supremacy and unfettered capitalism are bad for us all, and that every single person on this planet should have access to housing, health care, clean water, good jobs, fair wages, and food to feed their kids. But that doesn’t matter—all that matters are these tiny, minute disagreements about pussy hats or emotional support animals or disgraced celebrities or whatever outrage of the day has captured the national attention. All that matters is that you are woke and I am trash.

A year after Trump’s inauguration, the left should be celebrating. Trump marked his one-year anniversary in the White House with a government shutdown. The Republican Party is in such disarray that 19 incumbent Republicans are retiring from public office because they know they cannot win. Democrats have had strong victories around the United States. Courts have struck down gerrymandering left and right. The left should be in a good—no, a great—position to take over Congress in 2018, and the White House two years after that. And maybe we will succeed at that oh-so-vital task. But if we do, it won’t be because we’re united; it will be because the one thing we can all agree on is that the alternative is so much goddamn worse.

But, of course, this is just my opinion, so be careful before you repeat it. After all, I’m trash.