I can think of a few times over the last few years when I've felt uncomfortable with the ways people "call out" each other. My impression is that the person who "calls out" injustice feels their explanation is witty and useful, but it can often come-off as a conversation-closer. Despite this, I usually try to give the call-out a serious listen, even if I can't do it on the day of confrontation. If I'm uncomfortable with an idea, I like to try to get to the core of my discomfort.
A few weeks ago, I came across this article, "A Note on Call-Out Culture," by Asam Ahmad after somebody posted it to their Twitter feed. I didn't read it for a few days, but when I did I found a couple touching passages.
Here's the article:
I think the article brings up some valid concerns, namely that "Calling-Out" is a performative act. When we call-out, the calling-out itself becomes the issue of importance. It's hard to keep one's aim straight on the content when the calling-out is so attractive in and of itself.
Most importantly to me, Ahmad writes,
There are ways of calling people out that are compassionate and creative, and that recognize the whole individual instead of viewing them simply as representations of the systems from which they benefit. Paying attention to these other contexts will mean refusing to unleash all of our very real trauma onto the psyches of those we imagine to only represent the systems that oppress us.
I believe in calling-out injustice, but I also believe that there are ways to do so that decrease damage and increase relationship. When we can confront people in ways that don't jade them or shift the focus of their concern, people have a chance to feel legitimized, even if their in the wrong camp. A successful call-out should allow the receiver of the call-out to feel as human as the person who performs the call-out themselves.
On October 24, The School of Life published this video, "Is It Better To Be Polite Or Frank?" which seemed to address some of my call-out concerns that day. The video compares "frank: and "polite" behaviours and evaluates their efficacy in different contexts. If you have 10 minutes, I highly recommend viewing it.
In relation to the video above, I would argue that "calling out" is almost always an act of frankness: the person wants to bring something to the surface and "tell it as it is." However, the combination of performance and frankness shuts down nuance. Once the performance of calling-out begins, once somebody highlights somebody's apparent indiscretion. Calling out creates opposition and debate where nuance might fit better.
When I was searching for the first article in this blog entry, I came across a second article with a different focus. Kitty Striker wrote this article for The Walrus: "The Problem with Callout Culture."
For my purposes, the most pertinent part of this article reads,
For some critics, it feels safer, and more cut and dried, to call out an individual for saying something racist, for example, than to dig into the root of why they felt it was okay to say it in the first place. It’s less overwhelming to yell at one person than to, say, go after institutional oppression.
Calling out is fine if you want to frankly bring something to the surface, but terrible at identifying the root problems that maintain injustice. If anything, I would think that effective call-outs would immediately be followed by some empathic conversation between both parties. Call-outs draw attention to a problem, but may be a bad method for changing the systems they confront.
I'm all for changing the system; I'm all for calling out injustice. However, I'm more interested in workable ways to change the system than I am in forcing myself into a position where my frankness and performance force me to try to be "right" when I could very well be wrong, or missing the target altogether.
Self-help, leadership, and motivational literature is all about getting out of ruts and expressing yourself authentically. Much like religious devotional literature, they all riff off of the same sorts of human truths. Also like devotional literature, what you connect with is often more a matter of tone than content.
I like these pithy outlines that I found on Pinterest today. They appear to be outlines from a "Crucial Conversations" workshop that Jami Breese put together in a creative and accessible manner. These notes have piqued my interest in Crucial Conversations, so I'll be keeping an eye out for potential future workshops.
I'm going to go through a couple of the ideas that I like here. Since it seems like the outlines are each in a specific order, I'll follow that order myself.
Sketch 1: #crucialconversations steps 1 & 2
This sketch makes me think of the following:
Sketch 2: #crucialconverations steps 3 & 4
Sketch 3: #crucialconversations steps 5 & 6
Sketch 4: #crucialconversations steps 7, 8, & 9
I've printed off a few copies of these for my classroom so I can keep them on hand. Perhaps I'll post them to my filing cabinet with all my other resources. And then, once I get this apartment fully set-up, once the girls are settled in their new place, I'll be able to pick up the book and possibly try to adopt some of this. Maybe just one of them. Maybe just one.
Because I'm a dork and I have two whiteboards to put up in my home so I can lay out these ideas and try to get my life back on track. Because, as much as I'd like to deny it, I'm likely a teacher through and through.
I admit that privilege is a thing: as a white, cisgendered, middle class, educated male, I have some privileges that others don't have to deal with. Even as I tentatively plan to go back overseas in a few years, I am keenly aware of the privilege I will carry with me, and chances are I will use that privilege to my advantage. My white, male forbears have set up the world for my success, and have even provided excuses for me if fail. Lucky me.
One of the most discouraging things about having privilege is the fact that there's no way to escape it. Once I've admitted to it, it becomes an immediate, abstract, indefinable burden. My privilege becomes a weak structural support for any argument, a fallacy that I can't escape. If ever somebody doesn't like what I have to say or think, they can make an appeal to privilege and I will likely shut up, not wishing to create a power imbalance. For a sensitive person, the "You think that way because of your privilege" is an effective silencer; I don't want to contribute to the social structures that put me in this position, but my inherent privilege makes it impossible to escape the attack. Silence is the only option.
I'm already feeling stuck in the cycle as I'm trying to discuss it and want to abort this post right now, but I'd like to try to explain the problem I find myself in right now:
I admit that I have privilege, but I'm getting weary of trying to find a way around it. There's a cycle of powerlessness associated with all "You're privileged" attacks. "Privilege" and "enabling," both legitimate, real psychological and social phenomena, can also be used to silence and disempower. I don't know how to articulate this without digging myself into a hole, but perhaps I can do it with a bulleted dialogue:
But I also believe that we need to hear individual voices, that understanding one another comes first. Accusations of "privilege" should not be used as an argumentative bludgeoning stick. Any accusation that decreases empathy and sympathy will breed resentment because they take away agency, take away a voice. Privilege is a real thing, but using is as a tool to derail arguments, to silence ideas, or to decrease the power of empathy, seems like a misuse of the term.
Of course, I'm probably using my own privilege to redefine the term in a way that benefits me.
And the cycle continues.
NOTE: This post should be more organized, but I can't seem to organize my thinking beyond the paper I'm writing for my Master's project. If I didn't post it today, however, I probably never would have. So here it is―representative of my scattered thoughts.
I admire Sam Harris for his willingness to talk to people he doesn't agree with, the clarity of his writing style, and for his ability to make me think. I don't agree with everything he says, and I don't read or listen to everything he says, but insofar as "thinking" goes, I enjoy the content he produces, even when he carelessly screws up. Whether I agree with him or not, he always makes me think, and his clarity of tone also helps keep my own thinking clear.
I really appreciated Harris's recent interview with Jonathan Haidt. Although the two of them disagree about numerous ideas, the conversation works because they both understand each others' discourse despite their differences (unlike, as I noted before, his hilarious interview with Maryam Namazie). While activists inevitably clash with Harris, he works really well with his fellow academics, whether he's talking with Very Bad Wizards (here and here) or, in this case, Haidt.
In the interview above, Jonathon Haidt makes a comment about the current climate on University campuses. After the 1:47:00 mark, Haidt explains,
As I mentioned in some of my previous 30-second Twitter rants, most of these ideas were not new to me. As a student at UVic in the early 2000s, I got to know and respect quite a few social justice activists and grew familiar with identity politics. I read leftist papers and took part in a little bit of activism myself. I had grown weary of leftist alarmist culture, however, after feeling let-down by various pseudoscientific, or myopic campaigns that could not stand up to scrutiny. For the last few years, I've followed various social justice movements from a distance, but I haven't taken part myself. I've been one of those classic overwhelmed middle-class folks who feels they don't have time to do anything but survive.
So all this fuss about "Social Justice Warriors" and the "Regressive Left" has taken me by surprise. I have expressed how I don't understand where all the vitriolic talk comes from. Yes, some people have overreacted on campuses, and this has roundly been discussed. But how in the world, I thought, did "Social Justice" become so derogatory? Wasn't social justice the force that maintained our freedom and kept people from authoritarian abuse? This tone confused me.
I think Haidt, in the quotation above, might have cleared it up for me. The social justice I admire is not necessarily the social justice people are raving about today. Modern social justice, identified by its focus on identity and attempts to change the way people act with minority groups, is something different. It may have roots in the left-leaning activism of which I'm familiar, but it's more ideologically-driven than that. Heck, I may have even witness a form of its roots when one of my former professors was publicly attacked for a mild, accidental identity slur in one of her classes. It bothered me then, and I can't imagine what it would be like to be a professor today, over ten years later.
And, as Haidt suggests, the immediacy of social media created this movement's power and limited scope. As politicians suggest in the embedded BBC podcast, political actions based on immediate events can lead to poor decisions, especially as more evidence piles up. As people demand immediate action in regards to social justice, I think it's to suggest that some responses will be inherently reactionary and messy.
I'm reminded of "The Clock Boy." The news of the school's apparent racism spread around social media immediately, and the outrage was thick and race-driven. Even Obama invited the boy to The White House. However, it wasn't long before other bits of information appeared that muddied the incident. I don't have an opinion on it myself, but I do think Obama's social media-driven endorsement seems, in retrospect, hasty and careless.
And just as evangelicals follow Trump for ideology's sake, leftists are following the tenets of "social justice" for ideology's sake. Social media forces both sides to make decisions and take positions before adequate evidence appears, It's a political mess because politics is not supposed to respond to so many things so quickly.
Many forces pushed me out of Christianity, but identity issues did a lot of the damage. I had been taught that my identity as a Christian was very important and worthy of maintenance, but by the time I had children I had to admit to myself that Christian identity artificially boxed me in with tidy "to be" statements. I got tired of boxes and I used my privilege to shed as many identities as I could.
However, just because I agree with Harris and Haidt about all this doesn't mean I let them off the hook. Harris' obsession with the term "regressive left" is an identifier that forces him into the very identity politics he despises. Every time he says the word, he reinforces the groupthink on both his side and his opposition's. Blanket labelling people as "regressive left" is an indefensibly vague slur. I look forward to its slow fade out of the cultural consciousness, just like "Atheism+" did.
I appreciated Tabatha Southey's recent The Globe and Mail editorial, "Might I demand that we stop agitating against activism?" I'd seen the slurration of "Activist" online, but never imagined it would show up on a city bus.
Southey clearly outlines the shortsightedness involved in the stigmatization of activism. She writes,
That's some good shit. Thank you, Ms. Southey.
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