Distinguishing character assassination from accountability
June 7, 2017 8:00 PM   Subscribe

From Jo Freeman and Joanna Russ through today: several writers consider aspects of "call-out culture" or "pile-on culture" (as eviemath suggested we call it), especially in the context of how individuals and groups take or charge each other with responsibility and power within communities.

For context: US feminists in the 1970s and 1980s had a different name for pile-on culture. Jo Freeman's 1976 Ms. article "Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood" discussed the difference between legitimate objections and character assassination:
Trashing involves heavy use of the verb "to be" and only a light use of the verb "to do." It is what one is and not what one does that is objected to, and these objections cannot be easily phrased in terms of specific undesirable behaviors. Trashers also tend to use nouns and adjectives of a vague and general sort to express their objections to a particular person. These terms carry a negative connotation, but don't really tell you what's wrong. That is left to your imagination. Those being trashed can do nothing right. Because they are bad, their motives are bad, and hence their actions are always bad. There is no making up for past mistakes, because these are perceived as symptoms and not mistakes.
The acid test, however, comes when one tries to defend a person under attack, especially when she's not there, If such a defense is taken seriously, and some concern expressed for hearing all sides and gathering all evidence, trashing is probably not occurring. But if your defense is dismissed with an oft-hand "How can you defend her?"; if you become tainted with suspicion by attempting such a defense; if she is in fact indefensible, you should take a closer look at those making the accusations.
Joanna Russ's 1985 "Magic Mommas & Trembling Sisters" essay, "Power and Helplessness in the Women’s Movement", assesses a dysfunction in the US feminist movement: "Magic Mommas" are allowed to be powerful, but only in the service of others, and "Trembling Sisters" are allowed to ask for and get help, but can never feel powerful. If "Magic Mommas" break from their assigned role then the "Trembling Sisters" trash them. "I believe that trashing, far from being the result of simple envy, arises from a profound ambivalence towards power."

Yotam Marom's 2015 retrospective of the failures of the Occupy movement, "Undoing the Politics of Powerlessness", also touched on how prohibiting acknowledgment of leaders' power forecloses healthy accountability:
...the mantra of leaderlessness came from a genuine desire to avoid classic pitfalls into hierarchy, but it was, at the same time, a farce, and divorced from any sense of collective structure or care for group culture. It foreclosed on the possibility of holding emerging leaders accountable, created a situation in which real leaders (whether worthy or not) went to the shadows instead of the square, and made it impossible to really develop one another (how, really, could we train new leaders if there weren’t supposed to be any in the first place?).
Ngọc Loan Trần's 2013 "Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable", in BGD (Black Girl Dangerous), discusses "calling in people who we want to be in community with, people who we have reason to trust or with whom we have common ground."

"The Ethics of Mob Justice", by Sady Doyle in 2013, in In These Times: "But, again, there's no eliminating the existence of Internet shaming, even if you wanted to—and if you did, you'd eliminate a lot of healthy dialogue and teachable moments right along with it. At best, progressive people who recognize the necessity of some healthy shame can only alter the forms shaming takes."

"Towards a More Welcoming War" by Mary Anne Mohanraj (originally published in WisCon Chronicles 9: Intersections and Alliances, Aqueduct Press, 2015): "This is where I start thinking about what makes an effective community intervention. This is where I wish I knew some people well enough to pick up a phone."

"Hot Allostatic Load", by porpentine in 2015, in The New Inquiry: "This is about disposability from a trans feminine perspective, through the lens of an artistic career. It’s about being human trash"..."Call-out Culture as Ritual Disposability" (discussed previously on MetaFilter)

And from the last year or so:

Mia Mingus's "Pods and Pod Mapping Worksheet" for the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective:
Your pod is made up of the people that you would call on if violence, harm or abuse happened to you; or the people that you would call on if you wanted support in taking accountability for violence, harm or abuse that you’ve done; or if you witnessed violence or if someone you care about was being violent or being abused.

People can have multiple pods. The people you call to support you when you are being harmed may not be the same people you call on to support you when you have done harm, and vice versa. In general, pod people are often those you have relationship and trust with, though everyone has different criteria for their pods.

Once we started using the term “pods,” we realized a bunch of things:

* Most people have few solid, dependable relationships in their lives....
* Many people have less people they could call on to take accountability for harm they’ve done than harm that happened to them....
* Relationship and trust, not always political analysis, continue to be two of the most important factors in successful TJ interventions....
“Looking back on a decade in online fandom social justice: unexpurgated version”, by sqbr: “And just because I’m avoiding someone socially doesn’t mean I should ignore what they have to say, and won’t end up facing complex ethical choices involving them. My approach right now is to discuss it with people I trust. Figuring out who those people are, and learning to make myself vulnerable in front of them, has been part of the journey.”

"The chemistry of discourse", by Abi Sutherland: "What we really need for free speech is a varied ecosystem of different moderators, different regimes, different conversations. How do those spaces relate to one another when Twitter, Reddit, and the chans flatten the subcultural walls between them?"

Noah Smith's "The Shouting Class": "...for centuries, humans have tended to have small, strongly tied inner social circles and larger, more weakly tied outer circles. We tend to respond strongly to any vocal criticism within the inner circle. But social media has thrown this concentric pattern of social circles into disarray, by making the inner circle just as "strong" as the outer one in some ways. So criticism from someone in the outer circle now often carries the social weight and destructive power that only the inner circle should really have."

Previously on MetaFilter: December 2012, November 2013, January 2014, July 2015, last month (thanks to tobascodagama and eviemath there for encouraging this FPP; in particular see eviemath's thoughts on the context of communities of resistance).
posted by brainwane (18 comments total) 112 users marked this as a favorite
This is an amazing post, I'll be chewing on these links for a while! Thank you so much for putting it together.
posted by corb at 8:07 PM on June 7, 2017 [7 favorites]

"Mob justice" is an oxymoron. That's why juries are limited to 12 people; a jury of your (fairly-well vetted) peers.
posted by oneswellfoop at 8:13 PM on June 7, 2017

This is a fantastic post. Thank you!
posted by steady-state strawberry at 8:18 PM on June 7, 2017

Very well done post.
posted by 4ster at 8:33 PM on June 7, 2017

Wow, that's a nice reading list!
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:31 PM on June 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

I want to come back and read all of these, but for now - I've been re-reading Joanna Russ's "Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts" (the book that has the "Magic Mommas" essay and a few others, including a lot on the Porn Wars) a lot over the past year and I keep being amazed at how smart it is on the things I naively thought of as only having become hot fandom issues in the last couple of years - issues around "purity fandom" and how suddenly it seems like you're defined as a Good Person or a Bad Person by what Star Wars couples you ship.
posted by Jeanne at 9:32 PM on June 7, 2017 [14 favorites]

I think it's also worth remembering who gets painted as an "angry mob" and who is just passionate.
posted by ShawnStruck at 10:52 PM on June 7, 2017 [18 favorites]

The instant I hear or read someone employ the phrase "wailing and gnashing their teeth," I know that it has ceased to be a rational discussion about matters in which actual human beings are engaged.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:45 PM on June 7, 2017

The Underpants Monster: I get what you mean, or I hope I do. But I think the sentiment you're expressing has a dark side, too. Dismissing a whole discussion as unproductive/irrational because of the tone of some of the arguments (in the case of "wailing and gnashing their teeth", using some pretty mild hyperbole) is too often just an easy way out of engaging with a difficult discussion. It's not a tactic exclusive to one side or anything; in fact, I'd say that it's a weapon engaged more often by the powerful against people who are angry and powerless.

I'm not saying it's always wrong, but it feels pretty flip and dismissive here.
posted by tkfu at 12:09 AM on June 8, 2017 [4 favorites]

It strikes me that, given the dates and locations that Porpentine's essay includes, and the fact that I have a sort of ancillary aquaintanceship with people who were active in the settings she described, I now can perhaps understand a confusing interaction I had around six months later: I met up for drinks with someone that I think she alluded to as a perpetrator. This woman I met up with was not someone I'd ever met in person before, but we'd been friends online for a long time, and while I'm usually a pretty awkward dining partner, that night seemed particularly strained. If Porpentine's writing made her as much a pariah as she herself had felt reduced to, that whole evening suddenly makes so much more sense.

It reminds me of another event that transpired between a couple of Tumblr livebloggers--somebody I read regularly was accused of something heinous, and so they dropped out of the scene for a year, and now they're starting to low-key blog again. I never know how to talk about this stuff, because A), I barely know what happened in the first place, B) I can't then judge whether the ensuing ostracization was fair or warranted, and C), how does my relationship with the victim or the punished party affect how I should modify my behavior to the other individual? What are you supposed to do when your friend commits a legal crime and is judged by public opinion? It's not like social exile has a minimum or maximum term associated with it...
posted by jsnlxndrlv at 12:57 AM on June 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

Wow so much to chew on and such a well-framed post! Thank you for this.
posted by Ziggy500 at 4:17 AM on June 8, 2017

Joanna Russ was so effing smart.
posted by radicalawyer at 5:38 AM on June 8, 2017 [4 favorites]

I have a much longer comment about this written. But let's just go with the summary. I have identities that are privileged, and identities that are not, though I think my privileged identities pretty much outweigh the others (I'm White, and from what I can tell in the USA literally everything is easier if you're White).

I think a lot about how one balances changing someone's mind without further oppressing marginalized groups. There is a lot of research that indicates if someone has a strong opinion, presenting them with opposing facts results in them holding even tighter to that opinion. Ditto for aggressive confrontations. If you want to change an opinion, you need to make emotional and ideological connections, listen to the target's fears and worries with compassion and patience, and appeal to them on a human-to-human level. Basically, it requires a shit-ton of emotional labor.

However, demanding this of people who are already marginalized, who expend emotional labor just to exist--that's repulsive. What, are they supposed to just be less angry because it might hurt the feelings of people in the privileged group? What if members of the privileged group do the emotional labor to convince other privileged people? But doesn't that implicitly override the voices of the marginalized?

And if you can come to some reconciliation of the above--well, what do you do in the call-out situation? What do you do when you feel the perfect is the enemy of the good, that the call-out is counterproductive? What do you do when you're afraid that this feeling is spurred by the biases developed from your privilege, but you're also afraid that the, well, tone of the particular call-out is just going to drive the target and anybody on the fence away? How do you move forward? And how do you express sympathy for legitimate anger and simultaneously express that if a target perceives vitriol then they're never going to change their minds? Where do we draw the line between someone going too far in their criticism, and someone being too sensitive to it?

I've read a lot on this subject--including these articles--and I've yet to figure out an answer. Alicia Garza wrote a great article on building power within movements, which ties into both the usefulness and preferred tenor of call-outs. But honestly--I think she is one of the only people who could've written on this perspective without getting attacked, and she still dealt with attacks. I don't know how to cut this Gordian Knot.

(p.s. this post is not a request or passive-aggressive demand for marginalized people to provide solutions, it is not your duty to provide solutions)
posted by Anonymous at 5:08 PM on June 8, 2017

What, are they supposed to just be less angry because it might hurt the feelings of people in the privileged group?

what, are we deciding that several people getting angry at the same person all at once for the same reason is something that doesn't happen to marginalized people?

this simple calculus of whose anger is subject to censure fails when the anger is generated by women of the same demographic and general political opinion as those it's directed at. like: so, it's not our job to educate the more powerful. that's great and fine to say I don't have to worry about men's feelings when expressing my own powerful discontents. and conveniently for me, I rarely do! so I appreciate that side of it, for sure. what about when it's another woman I'm angry at for wrong politics or offensive opinions, though, one who's no more privileged than I am?

my opinion has always been, and still is, that you might as well just hang the blame on Father Christmas in Narnia, who said "Battles are ugly when women fight." because that is what a whole lot of people believe and what gets them so worked up about this alleged problem. For every avalanche of self-righteous judgment that lands on some unsuspecting person who didn't mean or even say anything bad, and for every time a hundred people bite their tongues and hold back their yelling because it doesn't do to get too angry and miss a chance to remedially educate some malicious idiot, there's a boring old disagreement between women where one side is right and one side (or just one woman) is less right, and people freak right the fuck out when they see this. along with all the other baggage it carries, "call-out culture" is the new "catfight" for those who think there is always something a little silly and a little sad about women taking each other seriously as political opponents and moral agents.

[what do you do when] you're also afraid that the, well, tone of the particular call-out is just going to drive the target and anybody on the fence away?

I take it this is rhetorical but it has an answer. You respond as yourself, in your own voice, with your own opinions, and you don't try to predict or project the responses of third parties. you speak only for yourself, and that means never worrying that 'some people' might be offended: I am offended, I find this thing offensive, whether or not I am the target of it: one gets stuck in circular worries about these things less often as a participant than as a spectator. If you agree with the substance but not the style of a comment, say the substance in your own style. setting an example by one's own calm tone is worth a thousand critiques of other peoples'.
posted by queenofbithynia at 11:40 PM on June 8, 2017 [4 favorites]

I admit I didn't read every article. I'm rather shocked, however, that the articles I did read don't actually condemn call-out culture and, rather, defend it, with only some fairly minor exceptions.

Calling out is wrong. Morally, it's wrong to inflict intentional cruelty (as opposed to reacting in anger, which is something that happens, and perhaps shouldn't on some occasions and is justified in others, but is at least not planned) and wrong to set one's side up to judge other people and presume to determine who deserves to be treated cruelly.

Practically, it's not only useless but counter-productive. In the context of activism, we have certain goals in order to fight oppression and injustice, which include changing people's minds and changing the conditions that dictate people's lives. How can we justify engaging in cruelty, that additionally has the effect of undermining those goals?
posted by Vispa Teresa at 1:34 AM on June 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

Did anyone else have a problem with getting to the content of the "Calling In" link to BGD? There's an intro, but the read more link goes to an Amazon link, and the link to the author's own site looks spammy to me. Just me?
posted by harriet vane at 2:59 AM on June 9, 2017

I appreciate the kind words from those of you who found this post useful!

Jeanne: right now I am so grateful for every time I have been able to read contemporaneous writing by people working for social change 20, 50, 100 or more years ago. And I'm grateful that my parents did community organizing and I can tell my mom about something happening in my circles and she can say "oh something like that happened to your father and me back in the early eighties" and tell me the story. It makes me feel so much less alone, and it helps me see what kinds of problems are more like fairly inevitable conditions to bear and ameliorate rather than bugs I should try to completely fix.

I should read the whole Russ book.

radicalawyer: AGREED.

schroedinger: I'd like to read your much longer comment. I in particular have been noticing, a lot, the tension between "use my privilege to speak and take that burden off more oppressed people" and "make sure to amplify the voices of people more oppressed than me" -- not so much on the internet as in face-to-face settings like conversations that arise at group social events.

queenofbithynia: am I right in reading that you believe that bullying among progressives is basically a small and low-impact issue? I may be misunderstanding you, especially since "call-out culture" is not the same as "bullying".

Vispa Teresa: which of the articles did you read? You might in particular want to look at porpentine's, Smith's, and Doyle's essays. I'd also want to note that sometimes a person criticizes someone else publicly, calmly and not reacting in anger, and does not mean it as cruelty, but the criticism is received as cruelty by the recipient of the criticism. But perhaps by "calling out" you mean something other than "making a public criticism"?

harriet vane, you're right and I probably should have found a better link for the "Calling In" concept! I'm sorry.
posted by brainwane at 12:54 PM on June 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

I don't have concrete thoughts about this so much, but another strand weaving through this is about the difference between safety and comfort. If I genuinely believe that everyone should be and feel safe, but that the distribution of discomfort should be rearranged, and that I in particular ought to be careful about noticing the difference between feeling unsafe and feeling safe but uncomfortable, that influences a bunch of my choices and assessments.
posted by brainwane at 1:09 PM on June 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

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