Frankly, I’m surprised that the New York Times, which is increasingly irritating me with its paeans to wokeness, published the article below, for it’s sensitive, progressive, and yet doesn’t fall for the kind of nonsense that passes for “promoting social justice on the Internet”. I’m referring to keyboard warriors who think they’re changing society when they damn a display of kimonos, excoriate white people for wearing dreadlocks or hoop earrings, harass a College (Oberlin!) for serving “inauthentically” cooked General Tso’s chicken, and generally spend their time criticizing society in a way that accomplishes nothing save flaunting their goodness and purity.
Grania instilled that lesson in me. When we’d discuss things like The Big Kimono War at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, she’d ask me, “What, exactly, do the protestors think they’re accomplishing?” When you hear the issue framed that way, you have to realize that the answer is this: “nothing.” And yes, the Kimono Wars accomplished exactly nothing except allow a few offended people to let off steam while pissing off nearly everyone else.
And so it often goes, though of course not always. Sometimes there are protests that are necessary, progressive, and productive. One is against female genital mutilation and its advocates, a serious issue that still needs addressing in the U.S. (more on that this week). Another is the pro-choice movement, with committed people escorting others to clinics and fighting against regressive legislation.
But the unproductive raging infuses much of call-out culture, which black feminist Loretta Ross sees as social-media culture that is harsh, divisive, and—the best definition I’ve seen—a way to garner personal therapy by going after other people’s missteps. Or so says Ross in the article, which you can read by clicking on the screenshot:
Ross has done a lot of social-justice work, fighting racism, staring a movement (Prisoners Against Rape) in which convicted rapists campaign against sexual assault, and working for feminism. In other words, she’s walked the walk. And what she sees today is a culture in which there’s talking but no walking (my emphasis):
I wonder if contemporary social movements have absorbed the most useful lessons from the past about how to hold each other accountable while doing extremely difficult and risky social justice work. Can we avoid individualizing oppression and not use the movement as our personal therapy space? Thus, even as an incest and hate crime survivor, I have to recognize that not every flirtatious man is a potential rapist, nor every racially challenged white person is a Trump supporter.
We’re a polarized country, divided by white supremacy, patriarchy, racism against immigrants and increasingly vitriolic ways to disrespect one another. Are we evolving or devolving in our ability to handle conflicts? Frankly, I expect people of all political persuasions to call me out — productively and unproductively — for my critique of this culture. It’s not a partisan issue.
The heart of the matter is, there is a much more effective way to build social justice movements. They happen in person, in real life. Of course so many brilliant and effective social justice activists know this already. “People don’t understand that organizing isn’t going online and cussing people out or going to a protest and calling something out,” Patrisse Khan-Cullors, a founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, wrote in “How We Fight White Supremacy,”
It is the individualizing of oppression, and its use as personal therapy, that I see as Ross’s most trenchant insight. Compare the anti-racism of the sixties with that of today; today’s concentrates a lot more on personal victimization and demands to “not be erased as a person”. There is less call for love and more call for hatred. In other words, we have widespread attempts to achieve social justice through the relation of personal grievance. For in that way you gain points, respect, and, yes, love. But social justice should be about changing society, not feeling better about yourself.
It’s not that call-outs are never appropriate; they sometimes are, as Ross notes below. But in general they’re divisive and anger people rather than bringing them together, or at least in fostering respectful discussion, which, in combination with the ballot box, is the only way to change society. Ross:
These types of experiences cause me to wonder whether today’s call-out culture unifies or splinters social justice work, because it’s not advancing us, either with allies or opponents. Similarly problematic is the “cancel culture,” where people attempt to expunge anyone with whom they do not perfectly agree, rather than remain focused on those who profit from discrimination and injustice.
Call-outs are justified to challenge provocateurs who deliberately hurt others, or for powerful people beyond our reach. Effectively criticizing such people is an important tactic for achieving justice. But most public shaming is horizontal and done by those who believe they have greater integrity or more sophisticated analyses. They become the self-appointed guardians of political purity.
Call-outs make people fearful of being targeted. People avoid meaningful conversations when hypervigilant perfectionists point out apparent mistakes, feeding the cannibalistic maw of the cancel culture. Shaming people for when they “woke up” presupposes rigid political standards for acceptable discourse and enlists others to pile on. Sometimes it’s just ruthless hazing.
Amen, sister! What’s the solution? I’ll let you read it for yourself, but it’s what Ross calls “calling-in”: not always going public with shaming, acting with love, and trying to build coalitions, as Ross did with the convicted rapists. As she says, it’s not tone policing but engaging in “debates with words and actions of healing and restoration, and without the self-indulgence of drama.” That, in fact, exactly characterizes the movement and words of Martin Luther King, Jr., an expert in calling-in.
At any rate, for once the New York Times has a good piece on social justice by someone who actually achieved social justice. And I’d like to meet Ross and shake her hand.