Recently Jonathan Chait generated a lot of heat online for a New York mag piece raging about a new era of political correctness. Political correctness is, in his account, stifling honest discussion and hurting our collective well-being and harming the movement and People’s Front of Judea etc etc. The heat build-up was well-deserved – Chait didn’t have a convincing argument, and his eagerness to to tell the kids to get off his lawn didn’t help his case much either.
However, I have some sympathy for Chait. He got it all wrong and was an ass about it, but I think he is reacting to something real. There has been an increasing tendency in recent years for people to get furiously challenged for comments that seemed (to the offender and often to many outside observers) innocuous, or at worst, that appeared to be small infractions. To those observing and to the person targeted, the response can seem massively disproportionate.
These challenges are strongly associated with issues of race and gender, and frequently both, as intersectionality steadily becomes the dominant framework for engaging with social oppression. A high-profile example of recent times was the response to Patricia Arquette’s comments after her Oscars win, but there have been many, many others, and they usually don’t involve people who just won a gold statue.
Challenges such as these have become known as “call-outs”, and if you read or participate in conversations online, you will probably have encountered the phrase “call-out culture”. “Call-out culture” is relatively new as a descriptor. It is mentioned in this 2008 NYTimes piece on Antioch college as a phrase students use, but ground zero for its spread online appears to be this 2011 Feministe headline: Call-out culture and blogging as performance. Both these sources give us a hint that this description is not neutral: the label “call-out culture” is meant dismissively, to suggest the phenomenon described is a bad thing.
Note that the above is my attempt to summarise a general view of what is being claimed about call-out culture; there are many blog posts and think-pieces that go into more detail (and don’t necessarily agree with my summary of course). Here’s one google threw at me on the ethics of the call-out, which helpfully points out that the essay Feministe linked to that disparaged call-outs was by the same woman who wrote the celebrated essay My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit. In other words, these doubts about call-out culture aren’t simply the work of contrarians or outsiders, but emerge from respected voices within the progressive sphere.
And, of course, this is where Jonathan Chait’s essay comes in. It is of course refreshing to hear the perspective of a wealthy white hetero cis-male on this subject, as such voices are rarely heard in our society, cough. (Worth pointing out at this point: I am myself a solidly middle-class white hetero cis-male. This matters, obviously.)
Still, there’s something going on here, and it is a concern for people who are far more switched-on than Chait.
You Are Being Unreasonable, Teenage Tumblr Feminist Of My Imagination
We live in the age of the word-as-text. Our every digital utterance is instantly and forever available for examination and analysis and sharing. It has never been so easy to apply scrutiny to what people say and write.
This scrutiny is forcing us to re-evaluate our assumptions about the basic nature of communication. There’s a common understanding that communication works like this: we have an idea and express that idea in words, and then other people attend to those words and decide what they think of the idea contained within them.
There’s also a slightly-less-common understanding that the model above isn’t the whole story. The age of the word-as-text is highlighting just how massively wrong it is. Like, it’s really, really wrong.
Let’s start with the back end of that. Yes, our words are interpreted to identify the ideas behind them. But that’s not all that’s going on, not by a long shot. Our words aren’t coolly evaluated like a forensic scientist examining a crime scene with latex gloves and one of those ultraviolet lights to identify the blood spatter. Words are like living things, squirming into the wild mess of meaning that vibrates through our neural network, reinforcing some associations and downplaying others. Words operate well outside of our conscious awareness and they have a huge role in creating our world. We live in environments that are socially constructed, and the things we say and write aren’t “just words”, but can materially contribute to oppressive social phenomena.
Words matter. This suggests that we must take responsibility for what we say. Oh hey there, teenage tumblr feminist of my imagination, I guess you’re ahead of the game there. Point to you.
Okay. The front end of that common assumption mentioned earlier, that our words are meaningful expressions of our thoughts? Uh oh. This one, not so much. My understanding of the research here says we have this one quite wrong. And it isn’t just wrong in the obvious way, that the process is messier than we assume and our words are an imperfect and approximate expression of some of the ideas whirling around in our heads. That gets closer, but it still doesn’t go far enough.
Our words are, by themselves, a very limited channel of meaning. Context is hugely important. The same words can function entirely differently depending on your relationship with the audience, where you are, what you’ve all just been doing, what you just said before, what you’re about to say next, the expression on your face, etc etc etc. You and your audience filter some sort of meaning out of this pot-pourri of words and context, and you all keep going together, communicating back and forth with words and other sounds and body language and more, and it feels like you have been expressing ideas and having them interpreted but there’s plenty more going on than that.
As I understand it, the causality frequently goes the other way entirely. We don’t just produce words based on our thoughts; we often produce thoughts based on our words. We say things to respond to social cues and the context we’re sitting in, and then the power of cognitive dissonance (and various other psychological impulses) pushes these expressions into a repertoire of ideas we have about ourselves. (One psychological approach, discourse analysis, has a hard form that suggests that there’s no significant meaning in anything we say at all, it’s all just decoration for the real substance of our communication e.g. building rapport or asserting status.)
We are constructing (and reconstructing) ourselves all the time out of the things we say, and we don’t even see ourselves doing it. Our words are extremely haphazard. And if you want to use words as evidence of anything, you have to keep that in mind.
So slow down there, hypothetical teenage tumblr feminist! It just isn’t fair to call me out like that! I am a human being and guess what, human beings are not psychologically equipped to have our words held to such high standards! For thousands and thousands of years we have been communicating in this messy approximate contextualised way! It’s worked fine! Don’t start examining my words now and saying they all have to be on point! How unreasonable it is to expect me to mean what I say!
(See also two common responses to a call-out: “I didn’t mean it like that” and “I’m sorry you got offended”.)
So. We have a fundamental clash here. If words have impact on the world, then we must take words more seriously. Yet if words are highly contextualised social productions that don’t necessarily convey meaning, then we must take words less seriously. They can’t both be right! Right?
So obviously all those angry people have to forgive Patricia Arquette, right? Right?
So what am I actually saying? That people are wrong to mock Patricia Arquette? Well, no. I actually have no deep problem with call-out culture, for two reasons. One – it is pushing and shoving society in the right direction. And two – it will not last forever.
Here’s my reckon: this current era of “call-out culture” is a distinct phase. The new age of the word has allowed unprecedented scrutiny of the things we say, and we have unhappily discovered that we all say a lot of thoughtless stuff, because for thousands of years it basically hasn’t mattered that we all say a lot of thoughtless stuff. And it seems like a huge frenzy of rage right now because, like, we say a lot of thoughtless stuff.
Call-out culture, for all its issues, is reminding us that words matter. And I firmly believe that this online outrage that makes Jonathan Chait weep into his muesli is moving us all in the direction of using better words. At the moment, it’s forcing conscientious folks to speak with greater care, but that isn’t sustainable: human beings by and large are bloody useless at speaking with greater care. But in time, this will result in a shift in the background radiation of our culture, the social norms and stereotypes we use to construct our world. The thoughtless stuff won’t pop up so much in our words because the source material will be cleaner. That’s a worthy aim, and call-out culture is getting us there.
It has been pointed out to me that this is scant comfort to someone who has just said something unwise online and seen their replies get overloaded with a storm of angry and dismissive comments. How is that helping anyone? On this point, I line up with the critics of unrestrained call-out culture, who say accountability is good, but this tactic can be counterproductive and even harmful. That paragraph above where I tell the imagined caller-out that humans aren’t psychologically equipped to have our words held to such high standards, etc etc? I basically mean all of that stuff, with the important caveat that this cannot be a get-out-of-jail-free card. We as a culture can’t settle for where we are currently at: we have to use better words. And I believe we are moving steadily, but painfully, in that direction.
Using better words is one reason call-out culture will not be a thing forever. The other is, eventually we’ll start to appreciate on a fundamental level just how crappy our use of words can be. The technology that allows the decontextualisation of all our words is new, but it won’t be new forever. As we get used to the technology, we’ll get used to what we have learned about our words. The imperative to call people out won’t be so overwhelming, because those common understandings above will start to shift. Everyone will understand in their bones that we say thoughtless stuff a lot, and it doesn’t necessarily mean anything.
So, two directions of change: we’ll say less thoughtless stuff, and we’ll be more understanding of the thoughtless stuff that still gets said. That, to me, sounds like a worthwhile endgame. Call-out culture is part of the process of getting there.
So what’s my advice? I don’t have any advice. I am not a fan of the phenomenon, but as noted, the progressive/feminist sphere is already engaging in internal argument over call-out culture, and I can’t add anything useful to that. They can get on with it. I’ll be over here, feeling sorry for people that screw up like ordinary human beings do and get slammed for it, and trying to speak with care so I don’t end up the same.
No, I spoke too soon, I do have some advice. It’s this:
Hey Jonathan Chait! Suck it up!
Picture courtesy of Binkaminka