“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it tends to bend toward justice” is a quote attributed to everyone from Abe Lincoln to JFK to MLK to Obama. It doesn’t quite matter who said it, but it’s a sentiment that gains popularity in the darkest of times to remind us of the light. As we look back on the 2010s, that arc seems to have been bending all over the damn place.
We have a comically corrupt commander in chief who has somehow gotten away with behavior unbefitting of the president of a co-op board, let alone the United States, only to get served an impeachment in the 11th hour of the decade. Half the nation is enraged by Trump’s presence, while the other half is blind or indifferent to his sins. But they’re enraged, too. Everyone’s enraged. The 2010s were the decade during which, thanks to social media, that rage found a voice that rose to an almost unbearable pitch.
In the culture wars—left versus right, liberal versus conservative, Democrat versus Republican—the backlash has become a powerful weapon used on both sides. The left launched backlashes against historical injustices, while the right banded together to prevent threats to the status quo. If this decade began with a message of change, it ended with one that seems hell-bent on avoiding change at all costs.
The Alphabet People
The 2010s saw the greatest expansion of civil rights for the LGBTQ community in American history and, unsurprisingly, it pissed off a lot of people. As soon as marriage equality became federal law after the landmark Supreme Court decisions of 2013, people entrusted with upholding the law decided they didn’t have to. In the more conservative pockets of the country, county clerks refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses on religious grounds.
Religious opposition to the queering of America has been one of the most virulent, and successful, backlashes of the 2010s. In the first half of the decade, support for marriage equality was framed as a moral issue, one that would place you on “the right side of history.” With the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” Barack Obama’s support for marriage equality, and the acknowledgment-cum-acceptance of the transgender community’s role in the fight for queer rights, it seemed that we, as a country, had finally reached a cultural tipping point.
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What a wonderful bday present! Yes today is my birthday and I am on the cover of @TIME magazine. I realize this is way bigger than me and about a tipping point in our nation's history where it is no kinger acceptable for trans lives to be stigmatized, ridiculed, criminalized and disregarded. This is for my trans siblings out there and for anyone who has ever been told that who you know yourself to be at your core is not legitimate. You are who you know yourselves to be. #girlslikeus #whereislavernecox #lavernehive
But if the 2010s taught us anything, it’s that no battle is ever truly over. The backlash was always brewing, and just as clerks refused to issue marriage certificates and bakeries refused to make wedding cakes, the religious right threw its weight behind a presidential candidate devoid of any moral posturing who would nonetheless deliver them from the “evils” of gay marriage, “unorthodox” gender identities, and anything that challenged their faith or their understanding of the world.
What’s the Tea (Party)?
The election of Barack Obama almost immediately sparked a backlash, or rather a “whitelash,” the effects of which the country as a whole couldn’t truly fathom until the election of his successor eight years later. The Tea Party, formed in 2009 practically as Obama was taking the oath of office, was the first iteration of a conservative, white rage that was stoked carelessly and very consciously by Fox News.
That whitelash was fueled by resentment over the forced reckoning of America’s past and its history of racial inequality. The Black Lives Matter movement started online in 2013 as a response to the deadly toll police violence was taking on black communities.
But few things rile white ire as much as black agency, and soon BLM was distorted into a shorthand for “anti-police” and “anti-white.” In response, the aggrieved argued that, no, “all lives matter,” ignoring the slogan’s initial intention. All the while, Fox News denounced activists protesting the murder of unarmed black men and women by callous police as thugs, fanning the flames of race-driven animosity that have always burned in America.
Liberals frequently raised alarms over Fox News and its inflammatory propaganda, calling for boycotts against hosts like Bill O’Reilly, Tucker Carlson, and Laura Ingraham. Nothing, it seemed, ever really came from these backlashes; the offending hosts would lose a few sponsors, but would retain their jobs and remain unaccountable for the truly terrible things they said.
The distrust and confusion that Fox News began to sew under Obama came to fruition under Trump, aided largely by the influence of social media. And under the Trump presidency, Fox News has only grown more audacious and more reckless, operating largely with impunity.
The Backlash Will Be Tweeted
Social media revolutionized communication in the 2010s by connecting people from all over the world, facilitating the creation of digital communities, and galvanizing resources in the name of movements, campaigns, and boycotts.
Black Lives Matter started with a hashtag. #MeToo gathered support online. Protestors from San Francisco to Paris to Hong Kong used social media to stay in touch and stay safe. But despite all the good it did in bringing attention to the plights of marginalized peoples, it also contributed to a global renaissance of white supremacy.
At the start of the 2010s, Facebook, founded in 2004, had not yet evolved from connecting your social network to ripping it apart. The intervening decade, however, saw it transform from a force for good into a forum for grievance, a metamorphosis that played out rather dramatically. In the name of free speech, and its bottom line, Facebook has repeatedly declined to ban white supremacy groups in which thousands, if not millions, sharing that particular ideology converge. Even after the company made a public showing of regulating those kinds of groups, they continue their recruitment unabated.
Twitter launched in 2006, and while at first it seemed like a poor man’s Facebook, it was instrumental in the backlash culture of the 2010s. Twitter backlash became a rite of passage for anyone of note (or blue checkmark) on the platform—a single tweet could be construed as an affront to someone’s sensibility somewhere at some point. Old tweets can offer evidence of deep-seated prejudices and have been used against numerous celebrities, requiring them to issue apologies and explanations, which brings us to the next phase in backlash culture: cancel culture.
Yes, We Cancel
One of Twitter’s most notable contributions to the 2010s was the democratization of celebrity. Twitter gave the hoi polloi access to people who had hitherto occupied a distant and unknowable world. Now they could interact with everyone, from reality stars and pop icons to revered actors and even the president of the United States. Soon enough, however, we learned that stars really are just like us—they, too, can be assholes.
The list of celebrities who have been “canceled” for inappropriate tweets this decade includes diminutive comedians, messianic rappers, film directors, formerly iconic TV stars, you name it. They may have committed different infractions, but they all shared the same experience: They said something online, they were called out on it, and the public decided whether or not their response to that calling-out was appropriate or sufficient. However, canceling also revealed the limits of backlashes.
Sure, Kevin Hart lost his Oscars hosting gig after his old homophobic tweets resurfaced, but he also got to make a docuseries about losing that gig and will most likely get to host at some point in the not-too-distant future. Because no matter how mad people get at one person, no one, it seems, stays canceled forever.
Tarana Burke started the Me Too movement in 2006, but after the election of Donald Trump—despite multiple credible accusations, and evidence, of his mistreatment of women—the movement took on renewed purpose and fervor. On January 21, 2017, just a little more than two months after his election, millions of people in the U.S. and around the world gathered in protest. In the nation’s capital, the crowd (and this should never be forgotten) dwarfed that of Trump’s inauguration, with some 470,000 people in attendance.
In fact, the election of Donald Trump has sparked a greater backlash than that of Barack Obama because it’s a backlash felt not just across a particular sect of the American public, but across multiple sects, multiple populations, and multiple communities. The Resistance is interracial, intergenerational, and intersectional.
More women, queer people, and people of color have run for, and won, political office than in any other time in history. We have more diversity on television shows and in films, which document and reflect the times we live in.
In fact, the backlash to Trump looks more like America than the “great” nation he so often invokes at rallies, on merchandise, and in tweet after tweet after nonsensical tweet. But this isn’t just the effects of a Trump backlash—it’s a continuation of the path we started on this decade.
So What Does It All Mean?
How will we look back on the 2010s? It was a period of immense progress in terms of both technology and social equity, but also one marked by a backlash against that progress—a backlash that started before the decade even began and created a culture of backlash, wherein outrage at an issue took precedence over the issue itself. But that’s the very nature of progress. For every step forward we take two steps back. Our duty is to ensure that those steps forward are leaps and bounds that won’t be undone by regressive forces.
This decade we’ve made some serious leaps, and it’s important to look back and understand how far we’ve come. And looking at the future, one can see the arc of the moral universe bending towards justice regardless of the whims of a president, a political party, or a twisted ideology. Because the arc is as inevitable as time itself.