Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Calling out the call-out

There are many things I appreciate about The Future (Netflix! Podcasts! Amazon.com!), but one we could do without is call-out culture.
I'm not objecting to voicing concerns or even throwing down about the ways in which minority groups (women, people of color, gays and lesbians, trans people) are marginalized. As a member of one of those groups, I'm glad that gone are the days of assuming that the world is for straight white dudes and everyone else is just living there. That sucked. What bothers me is the notion that being angry about that marginalization gives one license to be an asshole.
Let's be clear about what it means to be an asshole. Having and expressing an opinion is not being an asshole, nor is disagreeing with such an opinion. Being an asshole is expressing an opinion in a way deliberately calculated to annoy, insult, or intimidate. Example:

"I don't think the agenda you support is sensitive to, or respectful of, the needs of the poor." – Good!

"You are an elitist dirtbag and a shill for the corporate scum who rule this nation." – Asshole.

As you have probably already guessed, this example is inspired by the news of Matt Bruenig, recently fired from Demos. I don't much care for the way Bruenig conducts himself online; he's provocative only in that he seems interested in provoking anger and not thought. Unfortunately, he's not alone in his seeming  belief that righteousness justifies any and all reactions to real or perceived injustice. Don't like what Joan Walsh said about Bernie Sanders? Call her old. Upset about the way Neera Tanden speaks about welfare reform in the 90s? Accuse her of trying to starve people.
That's being an asshole.
Don't imagine this is limited to the sphere of political dialogue, or that it never goes beyond scorching tweets. Anita Sarkeesian has suffered all manner of intimidation , including credible death threats, because she dares to critique video games. (Disclaimer: I am a fan of Feminist Frequency.) Lindsey Stone lost her job over a silly picture that wound up on Facebook. Adria Richards inspired a sanctimob over a questionable comment at Pycon, only to find that mob howling at her own door.
The folks who sent threats or demanding firings were acting like assholes, but they believed they were doing what was right. After all, how dare Sarkeesian criticize their beloved video games? Does Stone think she can show disrespect to veterans and get away with it? Richards got a guy fired, so doesn't she deserve what she gets?
The problem with self-righteousness is that it can make actions that are clearly indefensible seem morally justified. In my view, more harm is done by those who are sure they are right than by those who know they are wrong.
I'm not making a call for civility, either. Sometimes debates get heated and people are less than polite, and sometimes that's what needs to happen. This isn't tone-policing; it's objecting to what is actually being said. If the tone of a comment is making the speaker sound like an asshole, that tone should be questioned. And if the tone of a comment is leading people to believe they will be hurt or killed, then that tone most definitely should be policed. We're all aware that we have freedom of speech, but I don't think anyone should be proud of speaking like an asshole.
That's what we should be calling out.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This. Somewhere along the line, the average American came to believe that free speech is an entitlement to say whatever we want carte blanche, consequences be damned. (Donald Trump, anyone?)

Maybe this is just me, but it also seems like people are even coming to believe that freedom of speech = freedom from consequence. Then they get all surprised when people actually judge them based on what they say when they act like an asshole in a public forum.

Somehow we really need to reframe free speech as the responsibility it is rather than as an entitlement. I feel like that would solve so many problems.

– Tim

3:01 PM  

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