Not too long ago, I got in a conversation with a writer who makes at least part of his living writing about feminism and other social justice issues online. He is not a woman, but he writes about feminism. He is white, but he writes about racism. In and of itself, it’s a concept that doesn’t bother me enormously. It’s up to all of us to some extent to spread the word about injustices, to correct our own behavior, and to work on making our social circles more human and conscious. I’ve written about feminism on multiple occasions, though usually in a more general sense than about individual news stories. And I’ve written once or twice about racism, despite the fact that I am undeniably white. (My general rules are to stay as positive as possible, to offer solutions, and to not pander to what I imagine people want to hear. That said, I still write about these things.) So his is a profession that, at the end of the day, I can’t take too much issue with.
And it’s also important to note that “internet activism” is important, and serves a huge role in enlightening and connecting millions of people to the various injustices they commit or suffer themselves. Before I started writing online, I slut-shamed. I engaged in a lot of girl hate. I thought feminism was a pointless, outdated social movement. I made comments that were incredibly ill-informed and frankly cringeworthy about white privilege. I was a completely different person, and will be forever indebted to the countless people online who helped me learn about myself and the place I hold in the world. Thanks to them, my own life experience and the way I treat the world around me have both improved beyond measure.
But the conversation I had with this male feminist served to remind me that, as with any movement, there are drawbacks to the culture we have created online about being socially conscious. We talked about a commercial that he found to be “incredibly sexist,” something he was writing about and railing against on social media. He showed it to me, and I told him that it didn’t bother me at all, and that I didn’t particularly see what was so sexist about it. Without directly negating my perspective or my statements, he implied that I simply wasn’t looking at it in the right way, and continued to rail against it on my behalf as a woman. Never had I felt so condescended to, so dismissed, so used for a cause that was not my own. Whatever this was, it was not for me. It was not my feminism, and the money and clicks that he received off of being offended on my behalf only served to remind me that — as a woman — I am somehow less qualified to speak on women’s issues than him.
The culture that created people like Hugo Schwyzer, or the increasingly irrelevant and embarrassing Tim Wise, is a very real one. Profiting from the rush of righteousness that people get from collectively hating things, the call-out culture that makes an ad hominem spectacle of refuting another person’s argument, and the traffic-generating machine that is constantly finding something new to be offended by, these men and others like them are able to thrive. They can make a career of seeking out the negative, displaying it and giving attention, and taking pearl-clutching offense on behalf of other human beings who very well might not agree with them. In some warped (but very real) way, they become a bigger authority on issues that are not their own than the people who actually live them. A man is able to look a woman in the eye and tell her that she is looking at something wrong because she doesn’t find it sexist.
We all know how the internet works by now. We find someone to hate, we go off on it on social media, we descend on it like a group of wasps, and once the withered husk has every bit of meat taken from the bone, we move on. It’s exciting, it’s a torch-and-pitchfork thrill that lets you feel at once revolutionary and comfortably part of a group. And we should never forget that the people writing a lot of these articles are in no way martyrs — there is a very strategic reason why people choose their topics and the way they present them. They get traffic, they get paid, they get a reputation. Hell, they might even get to fight with someone on Twitter and make enough a spectacle of it all to gain a thousand followers in a few days. It’s all a business, even if it is one that is rooted in positive and necessary ideals.
And while the idea that there are some people who literally start their days searching the internet for things to yell at is a tedious one, it’s not even the worst of the side effects. One of the more notable problems with call-out culture is that it often becomes much less about the actual issue at hand and much more about who can most deftly eviscerate the person we are all collectively supposed to hate at any given moment. Even if you can keep up with who Twitter wants you to hate this week (and make no mistake, if you do not immediately jump on that train for whatever reason, you’ll be next), it’s unlikely that you’ll ever really get to the actual meat of the story at hand without doing some serious research. Everyone is constantly one-upping each other with a more incisive angle on the issue, a rebuttal to the rebuttal, or the most click-baitingly hateful headline possible.
If you’re lucky, you’ll know that so-and-so is an asshole, but you’ll likely have most of the facts wrong.
At the end of the day, the desire to feel righteous and above judgment is a human one. And if a spotlight were turned on each of us individually over everything we’ve said or done, no one would be clean. We have all said something, held some prejudice, made some joke, done something, that would warrant a “call-out,” we just might not have done it in front of the entire internet. And while it’s still very necessary — despite the “let he who is without sin” hypocrisy of it all — to draw attention to injustice, it’s important that we do it right. It is important that we not turn the people who make their living from this into dogmatic characters who can do no wrong, or speak on behalf of others. It is important that we all draw our lines of right and wrong for our own lives, and not allow ourselves to be browbeaten into following any kind of pack. It is important that we treat others (even those who have messed up) with the basic kind of humanity that we would want to have been treated with when we messed up (even if no one was there to see our mistakes). Because — and we all know this, even if we don’t want to admit it — when everyone is constantly screaming at once, eventually no one will listen to anything.
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