[HISTORICAL NOTE: this post was cited in Julia Serano’s Excluded, to which I say: EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.]
Callout culture, for those who are not familiar, is a toxic dynamic that social justice communities, especially those on the Internet, tend to fall into. Callout culture essentially means that when you do something oppressive, everyone is allowed to yell at you as much as they like and whatever they like, even if you apologize. It reaches its epitome on Tumblr, in which people occasionally tell suicidal people to kill themselves because they used the word “crazy.”
If you don’t know much about callout culture, I recommend you go down to the “further reading” section: there are lots of links that explain it on a more 101ish level than I am going to here. This is definitely inside-online-social-justice baseball.
Tone arguments are a real concern. I am going to put the points I agree with about callout culture rhetoric up front in the vain hope that people will not attempt to disprove me by talking about them in the comment section. There are people who will use another person’s perceived anger as a reason not to engage with them. This is shitty, and also a logical fallacy. After all, if someone says “you motherfucking asshole, the sky is blue, I hope you kill yourself” the sky is still blue and you should not believe the sky is green because that person was a dick.
It is also relatively common for people to use accusations of someone else being a jerk to recenter the conversation around that person’s jerkishness rather than around whatever thing the first person did to make the second person be a dick to them. That’s derailing! And kind of awful!
In addition, the kyriarchy is in general a lot better at recognizing asshole moves against privileged people than asshole moves against marginalized people. So you get people saying “Jeez, I just said ‘tranny’ and this crazy tranny blew up at me. So oversensitive!” No, dude, you’re a dick and she got pissed at you cuz you’re a dick. Reasonable people get pissed at dicks.
Anger can be empowering. Marginalized groups in general are policed about their anger against their marginalization. Some groups, such as people of color and the mentally ill, are stereotyped to be angry, so even the slightest expression of anger by those groups ends up being read as Scary Black Man or Monstrous Mentally Ill Person. Other groups, such as women, are not expected to be angry at all. For these reasons a lot of marginalized people tend to repress their anger.
For these groups, the right to be angry matters. Having a space where they are free to express their anger is liberating for a lot of people. Instead of pushing their anger down and smiling and making nice, they finally have a chance to express the emotions they actually feel. I mean, there’s a reason telling people that their emotions are Wrong Things and they Should Not Have Them is a tool of abuse: invalidating people’s emotions is seriously shitty for their mental health.
That doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want. Probably the biggest flaw I see in callout culture thinking is the inability to separate “my anger is valid, liberating, and empowering” from “literally anything I do because of my anger is valid, liberating, and empowering.”
Guys: there are some things that are beyond the pale. Beating people up. Any sort of threats. Doxxing people, unless it’s to keep them to cause greater harm to other people (doxxing Violent Acrez? Fine. Doxxing some random kid who said something racist on the Internet? NOT FINE). Telling people to commit suicide. Et cetera, et cetera, you get the idea.
I’ve seen people say “I’m not comfortable policing how oppressed groups express their anger.” BullSHIT you aren’t. You are perfectly comfortable saying that you shouldn’t send people rape threats or call a black person a nigger even if they say horribly oppressive things. I am just suggesting that we expand the list of things that are Not Okay a little.
Not all people who do oppressive things are privileged. See also: Michelle Malkin. Trans women who believe in Harry Benjamin Syndrome. Misogynistic women from Phyllis Schalfly to Suzanne Venker. “Ex-gays.” Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
This is a natural fucking consequence of the fact that marginalized people are not a hivemind. Sometimes marginalized people believe different things! Sometimes they believe actively evil things, or things that are oppressive to themselves or other people! I literally have no idea where you people get this idea that “people who have suffered” and “people who are assholes” are non-overlapping groups.
It’s relatively common for social-justice-type people to say that they don’t care about the precious feefees of some white cis dude, they care about being welcoming to the women of color he’s oppressing. Okay, cool. But there are women of color who think that affirmative action is unjust, or white people should be allowed to say the N word, or whatever the white cis dude was yammering about. Do you care about welcoming her? Do you care about her precious feefees?
As far as I can see it, your options here are as follows: say that you don’t care about the precious feefees of people who are doing oppressive things, including trans/queer people, women, and people of color who are doing oppressive things; not be a douche to people until you’ve confirmed that they’re white cis dudes; or not be a douchebag to anyone.
Unfortunately, the online social justice community has decided to go with a different plan, which is as follows:
- Pretend anyone who disagrees with you is a white cishet man, even if they aren’t. (Seriously, until you’ve seen a woman of color told that she’s ignoring the voices of women of color, you haven’t lived.)
- Classify trans people who were female assigned at birth, white cis women, and gay men in the “we’re allowed to be as douchey to them as we want because they are PRIVILEGED OPPRESSORS” category.
Not all people who don’t like anger are privileged. To oversimplify a lot: there are two kinds of people in the world. There are people who are angry! about! INJUSTICE! and want to shout a lot about it, probably with lots of insults. And there are other people who don’t want to be yelled at.
There is a certain tendency to assume that marginalized people are the ANGRY ONES and privileged people are the ones who don’t want to be yelled at. I have no idea where this conclusion came from. I mean, I could argue that privileged people have the spoons to get angry about social justice, and marginalized people have to deal with oppression all day every fucking day, including people being angry at them constantly, and would really just like a place where people are calm and civil and kind and they can relax a bit.
But I’m not, because that’s stupid. Instead, there are angry people who are oppressed, and people who hate anger who are oppressed, and while some of this has to do with oppression a lot of it is just natural personality variation.
Not silencing people is not an option. Not silencing people is a great plan; I am totally okay with everyone being able to speak out. But not silencing anyone is not going to work. If you say “no, you have to stop yelling and insulting people,” you silence some of the people who are angry! about! INJUSTICE! On the other hand, if you let people yell insults whenever they like, you are silencing the people who are afraid that if they speak up they’ll be yelled at. And the second group is not going to loudly spew insults about how they’re being oppressed; they’re just going to be quiet and stop talking and censor themselves and eventually leave the movement altogether.
I’m not sure what the ultimate solution is to the problem, other than “everyone becomes more compassionate.” For instance, when I get angry, I need to recognize that there is another human on the other side of my computer screen, one that has life circumstances I don’t know about, and avoid hurting them. On the other hand, when I end up sobbing because someone else is angry at me, I also need to understand that their anger comes from a place of suffering and pain and to have empathy for them.
The block button exists. This is advice I’m directing at both groups! If you are so angry at someone that you can’t do anything except scream contentlessly, then perhaps it would be better to block them. On the other hand, if someone is making you sob or curl up in a ball of triggered, then perhaps it would be better to block them. Thankfully, online, you don’t have to put up with people you don’t like.
I think that might be Part Two of the angry people/people who hate anger solution. Both groups can say their piece, but not necessarily in the same social circles.
Furthermore, there is no ethical requirement that you try to convince every idiot who stops by. If you are unlikely to change your mind, the person you’re talking to is unlikely to change their mind, and your readers are unlikely to change their minds, DON’T TALK ABOUT IT. If taking care of yourself requires that you don’t engage, DON’T ENGAGE.
Rational arguments work better. When you argue with someone online, you’re not arguing to convince them, you’re arguing to convince the other people who are reading your argument. Arguing to convince someone who is firmly enough convinced of their point of view to argue about it on the Internet is unlikely to be effective. (Exception: if you’re arguing with someone who already has deep respect for you.)
With that in mind, consider. If you happened to stumble across people arguing about some topic you don’t know anything about– the Singularity, Israel vs. Palestine, whatever– are you going to be more convinced by the person who uses logical reasoning and facts and cites their sources, or the person who screams DIE DEATHIST SCUM?
Callout culture comes from a place of class, educational, and ability privilege. If you have ever taken a gender studies class, you have educational privilege and almost certainly class privilege as well. If you have enough time to keep track of whether transsexual, transgender, trans, or trans* is the preferred term this week, you have class privilege. If you can understand dry academic feminism books, you have educational and ability privilege. (Actually, bell hooks has some great writing, particularly in Feminism Is For Everybody, about how academic feminism and its children, including nearly all of online social justice, have made feminism greatly inaccessible to the people it’s supposed to help. …Aaaand I just proved I’m exactly the sort of person I’m complaining about.)
It is amazing how a group of people whose whole thing is checking their privilege refuse to check their privilege when it’ll stop them from feeling like a Super Cool Activisty Person. But you know what? There are lots of people who are trying to figure out where they’ll sleep tonight or what food they’ll eat, who are barely literate, who are trapped in an abusive household, and for the vast majority of them whether you call it “equal marriage” or “gay marriage” is a complete nonissue.
Callout culture has some incredibly oppressive dynamics. For all its conversation about not caring about the precious feefees of the cis white dudes, callout culture has this remarkable tendency to target women and queer men. See also: the incredible amount of energy directed by the online social justice community against radfems, a tiny and powerless minority of transphobes, as opposed to against literally anyone else. Or Dan Savage hate. Sure, Dan Savage is a fuckwit, but is he any more of a fuckwit than every other advice columnist ever? (Captain Awkward and Ms. Manners aside.) And yet the amount of hatred Dan Savage gets is disproportionate to the amount of hate other advice columnists get.
Partially, this is because Dan Savage and radfems are Part Of Our Community (TM), and leftist groups are always far more interested in fighting the People’s Front of Judea than we are in fighting the Romans. And partially it’s because nothing is more perennially popular than femmephobia, queerphobia, and misogyny.
Well-intentioned knowledgeable people can disagree. Okay, look, people. Most of the callout culture nonsense is not actually about, you know, important issues, because nearly everyone that participates in callout culture agrees that Western society is racist and you shouldn’t murder trans women and so on. Instead, we tend to have arguments that look like this:
Person A: Nonbinary people who were female assigned at birth experience privilege that nonbinary people who were male assigned at birth do not.
Person B: Yes, but it is also kind of fucked to divide up nonbinary people by our assigned genders, as if female-assigned nonbinary people are pseudomen and male-assigned nonbinary people are pseudowomen.
Person A: TRANSMISOGYNISTIC SCUM.
Person B: BINARIST SCUM.
When, uh, actually, if we stayed away from the screaming, we’d notice that both Person A and Person B are kind of right. As a female-assigned-at-birth trans person, I am far less likely to be a victim of a hate crime (for just one example); however, it is also fucked to classify me as a pseudo-dude. Callout culture makes complicated, nuanced discussions like this much more difficult to have.
Final ethical guidelines.
1) Whenever you have the energy for it, rationally and civilly argue with those you disagree with.
2) Whenever you don’t have the energy for it, consider blocking them instead of shouting.
3) Some views are so beyond the pale with adherents that are so unlikely to be convinced that shouting and insults are called for in order to convey that This Is Not An Acceptable Thing People Believe. It’s generally better to put some rational argument between the insults in order to explain why it’s not acceptable, though.
4) Not every view that disagrees with you is so beyond the pale that no one sensible agrees with it. If you think so, then maybe you should quit activism, because the whole point of activism is convincing people and it seems like rather a waste of energy.
5) In general it is better to shout at people who are not part of your audience rather than people who are. They are less likely to feel insulted and the fact that shouting at people makes convincing them difficult is less likely to come up.
6) If someone who is generally sensible says something horrible, clarify if they meant what you think they meant before you start screaming.
7) Stop fucking assuming people you disagree with are privileged.
8) Try to criticize people who are outside your community too, it’s good for you.
9) Remember that you do not know what other people are going through– both people you’re criticizing and people you are being criticized by– and that it is better to err on the side of kindness. Or the block button. The block button is awesome.
10) If other people do not follow these rules, listen to them anyway. Note that I don’t say “agree with them”; it’s possible that they are an asshole and also wrong. And obviously if something is detrimental to your mental health, the block button, it is awesome. But as much as you can, listen to everyone. People might not phrase things in the most compassionate and persuasive way possible; they might, in fact, phrase it in an obviously douchey way. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong.
Alicorn, Me And The Abstracted Persona of the Anti-Ism Community At Large.
Flavia Dzodan, Come one! Come all! Feminist and social justice blogging as performance and bloodshed.
Jo Freeman, Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood.
Natalie Reed, Five Ways Cis Feminists Can Help Build Trans Inclusivity And Intersectionality (mostly the first point, but the rest are also good and you should read them)