As I’ve discussed before, I often find myself frustrated with aggressive ‘call-out culture’ (=the tendency, in conversations about social issues, for participants to pounce on people, often harshly, for having said something they deem offensive.) Part of this frustration is that well-intentioned people can end up excluded from conversations and part of it is that those conversations can get sidetracked by terminological issues. But that’s far from all of it. Instead, much of my frustration comes from the fact that call-out culture has a palpably negative impact on my everyday experience as a disabled person.
Let me explain. If you are disabled, some people are going to be awkward around you. That’s just how that goes. But I increasingly find that the people who seem most awkward are my most progressive, socially aware friends. And the thing is, I can’t blame them. If they’ve looked into online conversations about disability at all – and of course it’s my most well-intentioned, socially aware friends that have – they’ll have seen the ‘person-first wars’ (with some people claiming anything other than ‘person first’ language is deeply offensive, others claiming that the motivations behind the use of ‘person-first’ language are themselves offensive), they’ll have seen some people saying that it is always offensive and inappropriate to ask questions about a person’s disability, others saying you can ask questions but not about the physical impairment, only about the accessibility needs, and so on. It’s understandable that someone, having read these conflicting bits of advice (and especially the dogmatic, sometimes even vitriolic way they’re often doled out) would be utterly confused and worried that they would do or say something offensive. Hell, I’d be confused and worried too, if I was in their shoes. And if you are confused and worried about what to say and how to act, you’re going to be awkward.
So here’s my worry. One of the most irritating things about being disabled is how perpetually awkward and uncomfortable people are around you. And, though it’s intended to make things better for disabled people, my suspicion is that aggressive call-out culture makes this worse. A lot worse.
I also suspect I’m not alone in perceiving bad effects of hostility in online conversations about social issues. I recently had a conversation with a friend, for example, who expressed annoyance with the same issue, though for slightly different reasons. This friend is a member of a marginalized group, and was explaining their frustration with online discussions about issues by and relating to that group. The aggressiveness of much of the discourse made my friend (who is shy and soft-spoken) deeply uncomfortable. And so their frustration was this: these were online communities were they should have felt welcome and accepted, but instead they felt completely alienated. And as a result, they felt that the online ‘voice’ of their community often ended up being the people willing to be the meanest and shout the loudest. People like themselves – more reserved and less comfortable with hostile conversations – were pushed to the sidelines.
The way we conduct conversations about social issues – whether we are kind, charitable, respectful, etc – can have a lot of (perhaps unexpected) knock-on consequences. My anecdotal impression, though, is that it’s increasingly common to see any requests for charitable discourse – again, especially online – labeled and dismissed as tone policing. Before I say anything else, I want to be absolutely clear that I think tone policing is a serious problem, and it’s one which disproportionately affects marginalized groups. Members of such groups are often criticized for being ‘too angry’, as though their anger wasn’t justified or an important part of relating their experience. And, of course, what gets interpreted as ‘angry’ in one person can be interpreted as ‘forceful’ and ‘assertive’ in someone with different social markers.
That being said, tone isn’t everything. There’s so much about how we interact with each other as people that goes beyond tone. There’s respect, kindness, care, patience, etc. Emphasizing the importance of these virtues in how we interact with each other needn’t be a matter of tone policing or suppressing anger – anger can be expressed with kindness and respect, after all. And, more importantly, the value of these virtues isn’t limited to making those who have a certain type of privilege comfortable in conversations about those who lack that privilege.
‘Be nice’ has always been a governing – if hard to pragmatically implement – principle of conversations here at Feminist Philosophers. But calls for niceness and its correlates have begun to get a bad rap in activist circles, especially online ones. So consider this post a plea for niceness, kindness, respect, and charitable interpretation in discussion about sensitive issues (even and perhaps especially online). Asking for this isn’t – or isn’t always, at least – a question of tone policing.