I spend more of my time and energy talking about politics to strangers on the Internet than I ever thought I would, and over the last few years of participating in the events and conversations around Occupy, Ferguson, GamerGate, Baltimore, and every other flashpoint in this on-going culture war, I’ve noticed a problem.
Specifically, I’ve noticed a problem with the way the left-to-far-left folks – you know, the vast and contradictory coalition known as “progressives” – engage in political discourse online (and probably in person, too, though I can’t say I’ve noticed this as much). The problem starts, I think, because we often place too much emphasis on highlighting the fucked-up things people say or do, and demand that blood and sanctions be exacted upon the person who fucked up.
This behavior has yielded plenty of thinkpieces coming from across the political spectrum indicting the modern “call-out culture”, which leaves people afraid to make mistakes publicly or say the wrong thing for fear of being pounced on by the people they thought of as allies.
Thing is, I don’t think the problem is actually the call-out itself; I think that is a powerful tool in identifying our own problematic behaviors and becoming better people.
I think that the problem isn’t calling people’s behavior out so much as the lack of intellectual humility that I have been seeing in the execution of the public call-out. I feel like many times I see someone tweet about A Horrible Thing Someone Said with a slight sense of glee lying beneath a pious veneer.
I see people accumulating political capital – typically by accumulating masses of followers and influential retweeters to build their capacity to influence online discourse – by drawing attention to shitty things that people do and say. They’re consciously performing as a Good Person On The Internet, and people follow them so that they can also feel like Good People On The Internet.
That makes me feel super weird and uncomfortable for all kinds of reasons. We end up seeing Good People On The Internet disagree, and the conversations end up polarizing between two camps united behind personalities, not critical analysis. People aren’t arguing about whether X message or Y action was racist or sexist, they’re arguing about whether they think Person A is a better human being than Person B.
It’s demagoguery, not critical thinking, and it leads us to start reducing political ideologies down to factions and figureheads. What’s worse, we often end up reproducing the same damn privilege structures we’re fighting against in our own movements, as the influence and political capital ends up going to privileged allies who get to feel like they’re The Good People. (Just think about how much attention and fawning white dudes get for tweeting about social justice-y stuff.)
Hopefully if you’ve read this far, you should start feeling a little bit prickly. You’ve probably engaged in some of the same public performance of Good Personhood, or blindly retweeted an opinion by a known Good Guy just so you can make sure everyone knows you’re On The Level, or something like that. Good! That’s exactly how you should be feeling.
Learning to be good people
I originally titled this essay “The New Progressive Religion” because, from my outsider’s perspective of religion I see some parallels that might better help explain the issues I’m talking about.
I grew up in the Bay Area – born in San Francisco, moved to Oakland when I was about 14. I wasn’t brought up to be very religious, though my family on both sides were Catholic. I never quite understood what grown people got out of practicing religion as a kid, but as an adult, though, I think I get it: I want to be with people who have similar ideas about what it means to be a good person (and to be good people to each other) as I do, so if I can find an ideology that accurately captures this, all I need to do is find people who share that ideology and I’m set.
Both religion and politics are trying to answer an old question – “How can we be good people to each other?” – typically by laying out a system of ethics and then prescribing behaviors and rules based on those ethics. Organized religion tries to answer this question with texts that we use to parse a divine being’s will; intersectional feminism tries to answer the question by analyzing how our individual relationships to other people are mediated by power we wield over each other but don’t fully understand.
Now, when you start incorporating ideological teachings into the way you live your life, there isn’t really a lossless copying method. There is no perfect follower of Christ, just as there is no perfect feminist; practicing either is a constant process of study to figure out how to interpret ideology into action, and then learning from the results of the action to better clarify or refine the source ideology.
So, with religious folks, you get some people who put a whole lot of work in studying and analyzing, and you get some people who go to Church once a week and listen to the teachings because that’s what everyone in your city does. In my experience, the people who put more work into studying their religion are the ones that tend to be the most accepting and open-minded and are pretty good at Being Good People, while the people who treat the learning process as one-way end up holding a set of rules as sacred even when doing so seems contrary to the end goal of Being Good People.
This is what I’ve been seeing in progressive spaces: There are people who study and critically interrogate their practice of their ideologies, and there are people who treat Progressive Social Justice Politics Stuff as a dogmatic set of behaviors and attitudes and use their adherence to and others’ deviance from to define themselves as Good People.
Which is ridiculous, because the experiences and ideologies at the core of that Progressive Social Justice Politics Stuff are constantly being challenged, iterated on, and added to, so the idea that anyone could be dogmatic about it seems kind of bizarre.
The need for intellectual humility
I never felt a strong need for religion in my life. I think this is because when I was in college, I started being actively involved in my campus Asian American community, working in both social and political organizations, and cultivating my knowledge of intersectional feminism through study and practice. It was kind of funny, actually – I majored in Philosophy and generally felt like all the ethics stuff we studied was more of a logician’s circlejerk, while the electives I took in the Asian American Studies department were directly relevant to giving me the tools I needed to start trying to make sense of the world and How To Be A Good Person.
One of the side effects of studying this kind of thing in school is that our professors did a great job impressing upon us that this field of knowledge is incomplete. The words and theoretical frameworks they gave us so that we could begin to describe the experiences we shared but couldn’t name were still works in progress. The academic roots of ethnic studies, like any other political theory or philosophy work, came from intelligent people finding ways to understand the people around them. We were just testing the waters. We read selections of the core texts, but never the full texts, or perhaps never all the texts. Not that you need to find this in school, mind you – but for a guy like me who is prone to thinking he is smarter than he actually is, it sure fucking helped.
This inculcated in us a certain kind of ideological humility. When you see thinkpieces explaining why X action is actually kind of racist, the part that explains why it’s racist isn’t handed down from a monk on a mountain; it’s the intellectual outcome of applying a theory of power that helps us understand how we can unintentionally hurt or suppress each other. This theory is constantly being challenged, iterated, and refined as people continue to build this body of knowledge based on contributing their experiences and understandings to the pile. Being Good is not a solved problem.
So we continue to study, and we continue to practice our politics expecting these theories to change – expecting someone smarter than us to come by and explain to us that we’re wrong, that we missed something.
And when it comes to applying the knowledge we have of How To Be Good People to criticize each others’ behavior, we should strive to do so knowing that our understanding is imperfect and we are seeking to improve upon it, not to draw battle lines between mini-celebrities or jockey for social and political position.
Here’s the thing, though: I arrived at my current political beliefs by taking a bunch of really great college classes with a bunch of really great (and endlessly patient) professors, and then taking than knowledge and working through it in daily life with my friends, family, and loved ones. It’s a painful process, and near as I can tell, it never stops.
And when I see people tweeting up a storm about some fucked up shit, it sometimes comes off as though that speech isn’t coming from an ideological base that is carefully cultivated, but from a set of internalized rules. Kind of like the guy in your local health and fitness forum who spouts off all the “right” advice for lifting and dietary regime but couldn’t actually tell you how it works (and where it might not).
People go to school specifically to study this kind of thing!
People who haven’t even been born yet are going to go to school for this shit, and write some amazing books that will make everything we know about being Good People look as hopelessly barbaric as slavery does now!
Some people don’t really have to go to school for this shit because they live it every day!
We’re all complicit in interlocking systems of oppression that ruthlessly fuck over our fellow human beings and we’ll probably never in our lifetime manage to be even net-neutral in terms of our impact on other people!
Forget being a Good Person – the best we can hope for is probably “Less Shitty People Than Everyone Around Us”!
None of the above factors should stop anyone’s desire to be a Good Person in the slightest – but it should put our own efforts to do work on ourselves in perspective, I think. Especially when we choose to take on the responsibility of pointing out how someone else could be a Good Person.
Asking people to change their lives super hard and we should treat it as such
I think that one of the hardest things to do as a person is tell someone that you know how to live their life better than they do. It’s a pretty bold assertion, and we shouldn’t do it lightly! But it’s kind of what we’re doing in a call-out.
When we call out shitty behavior, we are trying to communicate that a certain action caused injury: Hey, you said this thing and it was pretty hurtful for Reasons, and if you are trying to be a Good Person, I think it would be a good idea to make amends and not do this thing again.
But it’s very easy for that call-out to become something sinister: Hey, you said this thing and it was pretty hurtful for Reasons, and I want people to know that I am a Good Person and you are a Not Good Person.
One comes from a place of desire for mutual improvement; the other comes from a desire for personal validation at another’s expense. One is productive; the other is not.
What’s more, I don’t actually think it’s easy to tell in the moment how much of a call-out is motivated by selfish vs. selfless reasons. These are a few questions that I often ask myself, though, and they might help you as well:
- Are you publicly broadcasting your call-out because you want the attention, or because you feel like your call-out’s success depends on others’ signal boosting?
- Are you privately communicating your call-out because you think it’ll be more helpful for the recipient, or because you want them to save face?
- Are you using your voice instead of amplifying others’ because you want the spotlight, or because you want to put yourself on the line as a visible supporter?
- Are you signal boosting someone else because you want to amplify marginalized voices, or because you don’t want to stick your own neck out?
- Are you being witty because you want your hot take to be the one that wins Twitter, or because you feel like your wit serves to better illustrate the damage done?
- Are you as vocal in sharing the good as you are in calling attention to the bad?
- Are you holding strangers on the Internet to higher standards of behavior as you do your friends?
If you have your own suggestions on ways to keep yourself honest, I’d sure as hell love to hear ‘em.
Be excellent to each other
I know there are some people reading this thinking, “Patrick, you jerk, you just wrote this thing so people will think you’re a Good Person. You’re performing Good Person just like everyone else.”
I can see why you would think that way! I used to be much more invested in the idea of appearing like a Good Person than actually behaving as such; it’s a thing I am still working on.
Believe me: I don’t like getting in Twitter fights with people because I think it’s super hard to actually change people’s opinions most of the time, and so it just becomes mutual public grandstanding in order to appeal to and broaden your follower base. I don’t think my opinions are anything special, and I wish people would pay attention to me for the neat stuff I would like to someday make or the stupid jokes I write on Twitter, not this post. And when I do call something out, I have a sinking feeling of dread in my stomach as it starts to spread around the Internet, because I know that there are lots of people out there smarter than I am about this stuff. If you see me grandstanding, tell me.
Let’s stay humble, be excellent to each other, and…
…you know the rest.