One of the most wretched and discouraging phenomena of the past year or so is call-out culture and its dreadful child, cancel culture. So many decent, or even indecent but not totally irredeemable people — which includes most of us — were deemed too problematic to exist by a rapacious online mob. Both far right and far left extremists indulged themselves, and heads rolled.
I wondered how long this kind of thing could go on before people realized that it has only one end: Self extinction. You tighten your crowd into a smaller and smaller knot of what’s acceptable, and sooner or later, even the inner circle gets strangled.
But one woman whose voice seems fairly influential in the states is trying to push back against this trend. I found her words especially compelling since I doubt her views align with mine very often, so I know I’m not just sympathetic because she sounds like me.
What I liked was how she talked about people you disagree with. I liked the idea that she thought you could talk to them.
Her name is Loretta Ross, and she’s a professor at the Smith College, a progressive private women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts, and she was recently interviewed for a public radio station, ahead of the release of her new book in 2020.
Ross, who is black, said that she used to allow herself to hate white supremacists. “I kind of felt like, if they wanted to hate me, I was okay hating them,” she said.
But that changed when she met a former white supremacist, who himself backed out of the movement when he realized his own child, who was born with a cleft palate, did not deserve to be exterminated.
Her organization worked with him to help him un-learn his radical beliefs. And in the process, she discovered that even some radicals are reachable. Even more interesting, she is reaching people on her own side, who already agree with her but who respond to true injustices in a way that she sees as counterproductive.
Her students, for instance, were lashing out harshly against the administration of their college for not responding as strongly as they might have to anti-semitic graffiti on campus. She allowed the students to protest, and then redirected them:
“Smith at worst is a problematic ally. We’re supposed to be talking about fascists. So unless you think the leadership of Smith is fascist, can we stay focused on the fascists?” she said.
She urges her students to do more “threat assessment” and “target assessment.” It’s all too easy to lose perspective and to expend all the energy of your righteous anger on someone who is essentially on your side, but isn’t squeaky clean according to your current standards — and meanwhile, the truly dangerous aggressors go unchallenged, having taken cover in a sea of microaggressions.
I’ll have to think more about this, and I want to hear this idea fleshed out further. I do think it’s important to call people to account for inadequate responses to evil. If Smith college did have a tepid response to swastika graffiti, then that’s worth denouncing, even if Smith isn’t as bad as actual Nazis.
But the call-out culture she seems to be rejecting isn’t simply the kind that calls people to account for doing wrong or failing to do right.
It’s the kind that offers the heady thrill of publicly denouncing anyone who falls afoul of what you consider the correct point of view, simply for the sake of denouncing them.
It feels virtuous and bracing, as if you’re scouring out the corners of some filthy room to usher in health and healing. But in practice, what often happens is that people who are mostly innocent are seriously injured — or they’re so offended that they dig in, rather than examining their errors and making changes. Rather than bringing about a correction of an error, call-out culture often ends up entrenching people in their mistakes.
In other words, everything gets worse for everybody.