Culture

Bad Advice: The Exquisite Political Correctness of Slate’s ‘Dear Prudence’

Mallory Ortberg in 2015 (via YouTube)
Mallory Ortberg's column sneaks just ahead of popular opinion while implying that it’s mainstream.

Conservatives cataloging the unhappy results of America’s permanent sexual revolution could do worse than to make Slate’s “Dear Prudence” column appointment reading. Just prepare for some bleeding from the eyeballs.

“Dear Prudence,” which runs several times a week and is written, in its current iteration, by author Mallory Ortberg (Texts from Jane Eyre), is consistently one of Slate’s most-visited pages. Though Ortberg herself is the spiritual descendant of such traditional agony aunts as Amy Dickinson (“Ask Amy”) and Eppie Lederer (“Ann Landers”), her “Prudence” has found its niche by dispensing advice that is at once clickbait-friendly (the most outrageous question is always the lede) and perfectly calibrated, in its unbending sexual permissiveness, to win the Left’s approval. As one wag in the comments section recently put it (in slightly amended fashion), if “Dear Abby” is where one goes to read about “thank-you notes and families fighting over beach houses,” “Dear Prudence” is where one struggles to keep up with the ever-evolving politics surrounding “polyamory and ‘trans.’”

Now, about those scare quotes.

One of the delights of reading “Dear Prudence” — the experience is by no means without its pleasures — is witnessing the pushback from some of the column’s less enlightened fans. For every three readers applauding Ortberg’s refusal to be appalled by, e.g., brother–sister incest (except, predictably, to the extent that it harms a third party), there are one or two who still — bless their deplorable hearts — put “trans” in quotation marks. The effect, though decidedly dissonant, is on balance reassuring: Ortberg’s “Prudence” dispenses increasingly ridiculous progressive orthodoxies, and a not insignificant portion of her audience, well, laughs at them.

Consider, for example, last Monday’s column, in which a bisexual graduate student (the Platonic ideal of a “Dear Prudence” advice-seeker) wrote in to ask if she should abandon her long-term ménage à trois now that “Dave” and “Sue,” the husband and wife with whom she resided, were expecting a child together and had begun to ostracize her. Ortberg was as helpful as one can be while thinking and speaking exclusively in amoral, activist-culture clichés (“This is not a safe situation for you”), but a number of her readers took a sterner tack. “It doesn’t surprise me,” wrote Naturefist in the comments section, “that the married couple doesn’t want to bring their bisexual f*** buddy to a church baby shower.” Another reader, Timberhitch, agreed: “There’s a reason why extramarital relations are frowned upon in every society I’ve heard of.” Timberhitch overstates the case, perhaps (has he or she met the French?), but the point remains a good one: Regular people — “the great unwashed,” in Edmund Burke’s oft-repeated phrase — know both instinctively and by hard experience that to live as the sexual Left preaches is to enter a world of confusion, heartbreak, and deep, abiding dissatisfaction.

Not that one would guess any of that by reading Ortberg’s responses.

Like its parent, Slate, “Dear Prudence” exists seemingly to reassure progressives that their path is the only true and right one. In service of this project, Ortberg presides over a fiefdom in which all official correspondence — every conclusion reached in the column proper — is unfailingly, sometimes dizzyingly, “correct.”

Examples of this phenomenon are too numerous to count, but three recent exchanges provide a flavor: the young transgender “woman” who ought, in Ortberg’s view, to estrange himself from his family should the latter choose not to “refer to [him] by [his] actual name” and cease to “intentionally misgender [him]”; the letter-writer who wondered if she was “bisexual enough” to inform her live-in boyfriend (Ortberg’s answer: There’s no “‘bisexual critical mass’ [that] someone has to achieve in order to justify coming out”); and the mother who made the mistake of asserting that she “still love[s] her [daughter] even if she is gay.” “When you tell someone, ‘I still love you even if you are gay,’” Ortberg replied, “what you are really saying is this: ‘Obviously being gay is worse than being straight. It would be an obstacle in the way of my love for you, but I am willing to overlook it.’”

Ortberg’s ‘Prudence’ dispenses increasingly ridiculous progressive orthodoxies, and a not insignificant portion of her audience, well, laughs at them.

The problem with these cubes of p.c. baloney — aside from the fact that, if heeded, they’re likely to leave Ortberg’s readers in worse shape — is that their cumulative effect is to move acceptable discourse (indeed, acceptable thought) ever leftward. Because Ortberg makes pronouncements rather than arguments when discussing the latest trends in gender and sexuality, the casual reader could be forgiven for believing that the argument has already happened somewhere, that the Left won, and that the only remaining thing is to climb on board. In other words, “Dear Prudence” is dangerous because it does precisely what advice columns have always done: It shapes its readers’ sense of what is proper, what is expected, and what is owed. That, in doing so, it sneaks just ahead of popular opinion while implicitly presenting itself as mainstream is, of course, exactly the point.

Which is why those comments sections are so important.

Tucked alongside the relativism with which some readers responded to the aforementioned sibling-incest query (“If they were both adults it’s icky but not wrong”) was a good deal of feedback that, while perhaps exaggerated (“Brother/sister unions are the sort of ick that should be put down with ironfisted force and severe public humiliation”), was at least sane. Yes, Internet debates can be crass, counter-productive, and unkind. Yes, they can bring out the worst in people. But it’s a big, unruly, heterogeneous country out there, still, despite the efforts of “Prudence” et al.

Sometimes it’s helpful to be reminded of that fact.

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Graham Hillard — Graham Hillard teaches English and creative writing at Trevecca Nazarene University.

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