Be warned. This is a reaction thinkpiece, so if you’re in a “grand scheme of things” kind of mood, feel free to just skip this entry. I just have to vent, and this is my blog, so deal with it.
Earlier this week Twitter made me aware of an interaction on Tumblr between Wil Wheaton (TV’s Wesley Crusher from Star Trek) and K. Tempest Bradford, a science fiction and fantasy author. If you want to read what transpired in their own words, you can do so here. If you want the quick and dirty version, here is my summary of what took place:
Wheaton referred to another person as his “spirit animal.” Another Tumblr user very politely objected to the usage of the term in this way, as it denigrated and delegitimized the concept of “spirit animals” within certain cultures. Wheaton replied that he didn’t mean to denigrate or delegitimize anyone and he is aware and bothered by how indigenous peoples have had their cultures erased and destroyed due to colonialism and cultural imperialism. Bradford, who self-identifies as “Angry Black Woman,” jumps in and shreds Wheaton in a very acerbic post, accusing him of “whitesplaining” because his apology is about his own thought process and not about how his usage of “spirit animal” affected others. According to her, the correct way to apologize would have been to say “Sorry for doing that, I won’t do it again,” full stop. From that point on it degrades into both sides accusing the other of being rude and inconsiderate, with respective supporters dog piling.
An argument?! On the Internet?! I know, you’re shocked. But this sort of incident is hardly isolated on social media. Recently, Michelle Goldberg wrote a piece for The Nation about feminism’s “toxic Twitter wars,” about similar heated arguments on social media between feminists of differing backgrounds about what is “proper feminism” and what isn’t. I won’t go into that article here, but you should read it yourself if you haven’t already (and haven’t wrote a thinkpiece about it).
On the academic front, this has also become an issue, with the International Studies Association proposing last month to prohibit the editors of its scholarly journals from blogging so as to avoid such organizations from becoming mired in controversy arising from academics expressing contentious viewpoints. In August last year, for example, an academic came under heavy criticism for comparing professional working to being like a desperate and promiscuous woman desperately seeking company for the evening (in much more offensive terms than that) on the Duck of Minerva blog, a popular site for international relations scholars. I personally think the post in question was right to be pulled, but I am bothered by the reaction of the ISA to consider prematurely censoring its editors just because they might, consciously or consciously, say something objectionable.
Personally, I think people of privilege (including myself) should be called out when we do or say something that is intolerant to others, but such “calling out” should be aimed at education and understanding. I am sure some people do indeed act in bad faith, knowing better but behaving contrarian regardless, but there are people like me and Wesley Crusher who probably never stopped to think about how being flippant with a term like “spirit animal” could be problematic and part of a repressive discourse. We may be artless and clumsy about it, but at the end of the day we give diligence to the person at the other end of the conversation and consider fairly the morality of the argument being made.
Granted, I don’t think this means that people who do “calling out” should be effete and weak-willed about it, deferential to the point of Obama in his first debate with Romney. Sometimes outrage is justified, and if a person is angry because he or she has witnessed for the 100,000th time the omission of, say, how trans people of color contributed to the gay rights movement, a person can hardly fault that frustration and exasperation. Still, it also has to be accepted, fairly or unfairly, that if such anger and frustration is expressed without context, the person on the other end of the conversation and even people standing by will not have learned anything in the end. Venting anger can make a person feel better, and social media provides instant support through like-minded friends and comrades, but there is ultimately some value in remembering that cornerstone of equality, the Golden Rule: treat others as you would like yourself to be treated. If you were to say something offensive without meaning to do so, would you want to be told to “shut up and listen” and then berated like a naughty child, or would you like to be told in uncertain but still patient and understanding terms why what you said or did should not have been said or done?
If you think I am tilting at windmills, there is already ample evidence of this online. James Heartfield at The Charnel House documents how Laurie Penny and Richard Seymour, two British left-wingers whose work I like, have voiced support for the “calling out” of repressive discourse — only to be raked across the coals for mistakenly engaging in such discourse themselves. In Penny’s case, she wrote about short hair being sort of feminist without addressing the hair issues of women in color, while Seymour denounced a chair made to look like a submissive black woman as racist, but also noted that some kinky sex play involved racial acting-out. James Walsh at Economia uses these incidents of evidence that this sort of “calling out” behavior will eventually eat itself, but not before doing huge damage to the humanities and the media in the long-run. He writes off the left as already beyond saving, and while there is some truth to that, I think that “calling out” as it is currently done will still do major harm to the left, especially among young people who are turned off by what they see as representations of the left in places like Wesley Crusher’s Tumblr page.
There is a time and a place for “moralistic browbeating” as Heartfield calls it, but it cannot be the state of progressives online 24/7. It allows reactionaries to lampoon us as having a pathetic parody of the Cultural Revolution amongst ourselves, giving needless credence to the “political correctness gone mad” narrative they love to sell in response to the very real need to acknowledge that repressive discourse exists and should be addressed. It also makes it likely that people who fancy themselves an ally of feminism, gay rights and other social causes will continue to do so from the comfort of their Facebook status update than in actual concrete ways because they will be crippled by anxiety of making the wrong step or uttering the wrong phrase. By all means, let us identify domination where it exists and be bold enough to point it out, but let us not become like Saturn eating our own children. Let us direct our anger first and foremost at the vested interests that promulgate ideologies of division and delegitimization rather than falling into division and delegitimization of ourselves.