Callout culture, tone trolling and being the Perfect Ally

This morning, I was linked to a couple of interesting articles, Liberal bullying: Privilege-checking and semantics-scolding as internet sport at the Offbeat Empire, and Pyromaniac Harlot’s The Unicorn Ally. As social justice, communication and the idea of being an ally have been on my mind a lot lately, these provided food for thought. Both authors are people who, like me and like most people, intersect on both sides of the oppressed/ally fence. Both raise some important questions to which I don’t have any easy answers. I’d love a conversation.

Callout culture versus tone trolling- How important are semantics?

In Liberal Bullying, Ariel Meadow Stallings argues that callous culture has become a form of bullying. She sees callout culture as having become a

“new form of online performance art, where internet commenters make public sport of flagging potentially problematic language as insensitive, and gleefully flag authors as needing to check their privilege”

Stallings continues:

“It’s a kind of trolling, with all the politics I agree with, but motivations and execution that turns my stomach. It’s well-intended (SO well-intended), but when the motivations seem to be less about opening dialogue about the issues, and more about performance, righteousness, and intolerance for those who don’t agree with you… well, I’m not on-board.”

There’s so much to unpack here. For one thing, where do we draw the line between tone-trolling and legitimate expressions of anger? People in marginalised groups are often pissed about their marginalisation, and rightly so. Where do we create spaces for safe expression of that anger, and where do we create spaces that are safer for (potential) allies who might need a bit of 101? Whose comfort matters, and where?

I feel uncomfortable expecting perfect behaviour from marginalised people at all times. Holding people to a higher standard is, after all, itself a mechanism of marginalisation. Marginalised folks are expected to be exemplars at all times, to avoid ‘letting the side down’ and showing up the entire group. Additionally, marginalised people are generally subject to far more punitive sanctions for any misbehaviour than their more privileged counterparts.

This doesn’t mean that someone should be let off the hook if they turn out to be a member of a marginalised group. But it does mean that I’m a little uncomfortable with statements like this:

“This is where it starts to feel like the “GOD HATES FAGS!” sign-wavers. While the political sentiments are exactly opposite, the motivations are remarkably similar.”

You don’t get to compare people to a vile hate-group just because you don’t like how they’re acting in your comments section. Doing so feels like godwinning the entire thing.

But I can’t deny that we have a major problem with bullying online. And I can’t deny that internet-pile-ons can get incredibly ugly and disproportionate. If we want to grow our movements and welcome allies among the relatively-privileged, which every movement needs to do, we’ve got to make spaces where people can figure things out.

The ‘Perfect Ally’?

This is where Pyromaniac Harlot’s article comes in. Harlot writes about having a difficult time navigating allyhood and being under immense pressure to be perfect the entire time- something which she feels has been constructed as an impossible standard:

As an ally, my job is to not impose my own beliefs of what’s ‘right’, but instead amplify the voices of the oppressed people that I’m trying to be an ally for. Except that I shouldn’t bug them about educating me, because that’s not what they’re there for. And it’s my duty to talk about the issue of oppression in question, because it’s the job of all of us, rather than the oppressed people, to fix it. Except that when I talk, I shouldn’t be using my privilege to drown out the voices of the oppressed people. Also, I should get everything right, 100% of the time. Including the terminology that the oppressed people in question themselves disagree on.

Should we be really trying to be perfect allies? If there’s one thing that intersectionality teaches us, it’s that things are complicated. We don’t get a nice simple world with easy definitions of right and wrong, privileged and marginalised, ally and enemy. If someone wants me to be their perfect ally all the time, then I’m sorry. It’s not going to happen.

On the other hand, these are questions I ask myself all the time. When I’m working as an ally- which I try to devote a reasonable amount of time to- I’m incredibly conscious of all of the above. I don’t take it personally, though. I don’t choose to be privileged in some respects any more than I choose to be marginalised in others. Things like disagreeing while being an ally are always going to be complicated and difficult.

Privilege and allyhood

A thing I hear a lot is that even if dealing with being called out on privilege sucks, it sucks a hell of a lot less than oppression. A truer statement has rarely been said. But many of our allies also come from marginalised groups. How do we call out people who are relatively privileged but who might also be tired from dealing with their own oppressions, without either being assholes or censoring ourselves? Pyromaniac raises this question:

“I happen to be educated enough to understand varying levels of heavy jargon. I don’t have any conditions that prevent me from reading for hours. I happen to have the luxury of sufficient free time in which to do this. So telling me to go read up on something is kind of ok. But you know what? Most people don’t have that level of luxury. People are busy, you know, surviving themselves. They don’t necessarily have laptops, broadband, and ample time in which to make use of those things.”

This seems like one hell of a question to me, and possibly the most important that I’ve seen in these posts. If our allies are- like most people- oppressed/marginalised themselves in other ways, how do we deal with expectations of perfection or call-out culture? How do our obligations change? This isn’t something that I have any easy answers for.

How about you? What do you think about allyhood, about callout culture, about tone-trolling, about navigating intersections of privilege and oppression in our activism(s)?

Callout culture, tone trolling and being the Perfect Ally

A toast to all our saviours, each so badly behaved?

I’ve been thinking about our heroes, what we expect of them, and how we turn on them. Two things have happened in the last few days to bring this up. The first of these was, unsurprisingly, Elevatorgate. The second was some conversations I’ve had with a friend* about Kate Bornstein- someone who I think is lovely, and who my friend has serious criticisms of and doesn’t like because of this.

I’m thinking of what we ask of the people we admire from a distance. The people who we have heard of, who we know as activists, whose work we read and are inspired by. The people we look to as spokespeople.

I’m thinking about how quickly we reject them.

Here’s the thing. Dawkins, in my opinion, has behaved abominably in relation to ElevatorGate. However, any of his behaviour from now on can’t negate his past work. A Devil’s Chaplain will always be dog-eared holiday nights, finally making sense of my lack of belief. The Ancestor’s Tale will always be the book I read oh-so-carefully, in whose detail and scale I found such profound, mindboggling awe.

I think that we reject people so strongly, not in spite of having admired them, but because we did. Because it’s hard to reconcile the fact that inspiration and ignorance can come from the same person. Because it’s hard, I think, to accept that a person who taught you so much can be so clueless. It makes us question ourselves, question everything we learned from that person in the first place. Question the times we admired them, the times we defended them.

And that’s hard. That’s hard work. It means learning to see these people as our equals. Learning to look at everyone- even our heroes- critically. Learning to accept that they’re just people who are as flawed as ourselves, who mess up as much as we do.

It’s a lot easier to just reject them wholesale.

I’m not recommending that we leave Dawkins (or whoever) off. The guy messed up, and needs to deal with what that means and what it implies. Messing up has consequences. And it should.

I do think, however, that we should be conscious of how we react when people we admire do godawful, ignorant things. And before we reject them wholesale, think about whether we’re rejecting them because of the ignorant thing they did, or because of the inspiring things before that.

*If you’re reading this, I didn’t name you because, hello, privacy. I’ll pop your name in if you like, though.

A toast to all our saviours, each so badly behaved?