Callout culture, tone trolling and being the Perfect Ally


This morning, I was linked to a couple of interesting articles, Liberal bullying: Privilege-checking and semantics-scolding as internet sport at the Offbeat Empire, and Pyromaniac Harlot’s The Unicorn Ally. As social justice, communication and the idea of being an ally have been on my mind a lot lately, these provided food for thought. Both authors are people who, like me and like most people, intersect on both sides of the oppressed/ally fence. Both raise some important questions to which I don’t have any easy answers. I’d love a conversation.

Callout culture versus tone trolling- How important are semantics?

In Liberal Bullying, Ariel Meadow Stallings argues that callous culture has become a form of bullying. She sees callout culture as having become a

“new form of online performance art, where internet commenters make public sport of flagging potentially problematic language as insensitive, and gleefully flag authors as needing to check their privilege”

Stallings continues:

“It’s a kind of trolling, with all the politics I agree with, but motivations and execution that turns my stomach. It’s well-intended (SO well-intended), but when the motivations seem to be less about opening dialogue about the issues, and more about performance, righteousness, and intolerance for those who don’t agree with you… well, I’m not on-board.”

There’s so much to unpack here. For one thing, where do we draw the line between tone-trolling and legitimate expressions of anger? People in marginalised groups are often pissed about their marginalisation, and rightly so. Where do we create spaces for safe expression of that anger, and where do we create spaces that are safer for (potential) allies who might need a bit of 101? Whose comfort matters, and where?

I feel uncomfortable expecting perfect behaviour from marginalised people at all times. Holding people to a higher standard is, after all, itself a mechanism of marginalisation. Marginalised folks are expected to be exemplars at all times, to avoid ‘letting the side down’ and showing up the entire group. Additionally, marginalised people are generally subject to far more punitive sanctions for any misbehaviour than their more privileged counterparts.

This doesn’t mean that someone should be let off the hook if they turn out to be a member of a marginalised group. But it does mean that I’m a little uncomfortable with statements like this:

“This is where it starts to feel like the “GOD HATES FAGS!” sign-wavers. While the political sentiments are exactly opposite, the motivations are remarkably similar.”

You don’t get to compare people to a vile hate-group just because you don’t like how they’re acting in your comments section. Doing so feels like godwinning the entire thing.

But I can’t deny that we have a major problem with bullying online. And I can’t deny that internet-pile-ons can get incredibly ugly and disproportionate. If we want to grow our movements and welcome allies among the relatively-privileged, which every movement needs to do, we’ve got to make spaces where people can figure things out.

The ‘Perfect Ally’?

This is where Pyromaniac Harlot’s article comes in. Harlot writes about having a difficult time navigating allyhood and being under immense pressure to be perfect the entire time- something which she feels has been constructed as an impossible standard:

As an ally, my job is to not impose my own beliefs of what’s ‘right’, but instead amplify the voices of the oppressed people that I’m trying to be an ally for. Except that I shouldn’t bug them about educating me, because that’s not what they’re there for. And it’s my duty to talk about the issue of oppression in question, because it’s the job of all of us, rather than the oppressed people, to fix it. Except that when I talk, I shouldn’t be using my privilege to drown out the voices of the oppressed people. Also, I should get everything right, 100% of the time. Including the terminology that the oppressed people in question themselves disagree on.

Should we be really trying to be perfect allies? If there’s one thing that intersectionality teaches us, it’s that things are complicated. We don’t get a nice simple world with easy definitions of right and wrong, privileged and marginalised, ally and enemy. If someone wants me to be their perfect ally all the time, then I’m sorry. It’s not going to happen.

On the other hand, these are questions I ask myself all the time. When I’m working as an ally- which I try to devote a reasonable amount of time to- I’m incredibly conscious of all of the above. I don’t take it personally, though. I don’t choose to be privileged in some respects any more than I choose to be marginalised in others. Things like disagreeing while being an ally are always going to be complicated and difficult.

Privilege and allyhood

A thing I hear a lot is that even if dealing with being called out on privilege sucks, it sucks a hell of a lot less than oppression. A truer statement has rarely been said. But many of our allies also come from marginalised groups. How do we call out people who are relatively privileged but who might also be tired from dealing with their own oppressions, without either being assholes or censoring ourselves? Pyromaniac raises this question:

“I happen to be educated enough to understand varying levels of heavy jargon. I don’t have any conditions that prevent me from reading for hours. I happen to have the luxury of sufficient free time in which to do this. So telling me to go read up on something is kind of ok. But you know what? Most people don’t have that level of luxury. People are busy, you know, surviving themselves. They don’t necessarily have laptops, broadband, and ample time in which to make use of those things.”

This seems like one hell of a question to me, and possibly the most important that I’ve seen in these posts. If our allies are- like most people- oppressed/marginalised themselves in other ways, how do we deal with expectations of perfection or call-out culture? How do our obligations change? This isn’t something that I have any easy answers for.

How about you? What do you think about allyhood, about callout culture, about tone-trolling, about navigating intersections of privilege and oppression in our activism(s)?

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12 thoughts on “Callout culture, tone trolling and being the Perfect Ally

  1. I wrote two things on the subject matter. One in response to “The Unicorn Ally” from the perspective of a marginalised person AND an ally here –> http://boldlygo.co/?p=95

    Essentially, I think allies already get plenty of cookies and props for being an ally. My experience as a privileged white person is that, for as much shit as I can get from white people about being self-hating and all that jazz, I get a lot of kudos for saying something about racism – or essentially parroting all of the people of colour I have read and listened to about these issues. I know I have nothing of experiential and original value to add to the topic of racism. I hesitate to call myself an “ally” because I am and always will be part of the problem.

    In terms of this tone policing bullshit, I responded to the “Liberal Bullying” article here –> http://boldlygo.co/?p=324

    It’s honestly always been my experience that the people who argue for more “polite” tones are people who don’t engage in debates very often or at least very rarely do the hard work the preach about in having long drawn out discussions with people about privilege. For me, having discussions about this has honestly been part of having obsessive compulsive disorder, of not being able to just let things go sometimes, of need compulsively to participate in a back and forth between individuals – and partially being on the spectrum contributes toward me feeling such a strong sense of allegiance towards concepts of social justice and privilege.

    In all of my discussions that I’ve had to date, 80% of the people who I engage are completely uninterested in learning anything. They don’t care about privilege, they don’t care they hurt anyone with their words, they don’t care about anything. If you consider privilege to be a massive thing to lose, then I’d say it makes sense to assume most people have to go through, for example, the five stages of grief before letting go. They’re going to deny, get angry, bargain, be depressed about it before they finally accept it. Most people don’t even get past anger and denial.

    If people want to engage with as much empathy as possible, fine. I support that. I just ask people realise not everyone can do the same. Not everyone even wants to engage or even can and I also support that. But I really hate the whole assumption that being nice is going to make the message go clearer. Because honestly, if nicely and calmly explaining it to someone worked even 50% of the time, I think that pretty much every marginalised group would have tried doing that before being beaten, killed, raped, and tortured just for who they are.

    So often the Tone Police are far more effective online because, just as it can be a lot easier to call people out online, it’s also easier to try and harangue someone for their tone. In person, most of the people I think who care a lot about tone are terrified of conflict. And when faced with it in their face in a personal way, would probably never say a word about tone. But that is an assumption I’m making.

    At any rate, my general point is that expecting people to be nice all of the time is ludicrous. And likewise comparing the small amount of understandable anger, frustration, and rage people feel to the overwhelming amount of systemic violence some of these marginalisations face is not only laughable, but insulting.

    • “I hesitate to call myself an “ally” because I am and always will be part of the problem.”

      I hesitate to call a beneficiary of privilege inherently ‘part of the problem’ by nature. They are just that – beneficiaries of the problem. But one cannot genuinely SHED privilege (no more than the unprivileged can merely adopt it at will), thus it is not by choice or action that privilege is maintained. This is different from a billionaire who purports to be in support of the poor – a billionaire is able to shed their wealth to prove their convictions, unlike a person of privilege.

      Someone with privilege who acknowledges, condemns and actively attempts to fight for a society where it would not exist is almost certainly part of the solution, surely?

      (I realise this comes across as back-slapping ally-boot-licking, but I think you were veering into self-hate yourself with your comment, is all. No-one’s arguing that an ally has to face the same dangers or expenses for social struggle as an actual marginalised person, but while painting allies as heroes is distasteful and misleading, painting allies as demons is somewhat counter-intuitive)

  2. I think most rights activists/academics make it difficult for non-activists to be on your side. I think that is why the right wing does so well. They speak in plain language. They welcome and try to convince sympathetic people to join them. The left seems to require 100% adherence to their precise ideology. For many activists, there are only three groups of people: victims, perpetrators and activists. If you are neither a victim nor an activist, that leaves perpetrator. It’s not possible for an ordinary person, not into all the identity politics stuff, to be an ally. To be an ally one must become informed in all the academic theory on othering etc.

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  6. OkGo as a Privileged social justice advocate does not seem to get it.
    It’s not about giving Privileged people ‘cookies’, nor about comparing oppressions to the vile way that *some* social justice advocates treat people they disagree with. It’s about doing what’s best for *us* for the future. Not them, and not *you*.

    OkGo appears to believe that (s)he, the noble White advocate is on the side of the un-Privileged and that all aggression from Social Justice advocates can be characterised as “justified anger of the oppressed” and “refusing to give the Privileged cookies” – but this is not supported by the fact that a large number of the most aggressive and vituperative of these Social Justice advocates are white, economically privileged, and not as marginalised as the people they attack. I have seen several iterations of PoC being talked down to and talked over by self-righteous white people who have taken on what they believe is the righteous mantle of defending the oppressed, and feel this justifies their abhorrent behavior. Many people simply do not have the Spoons to deal with the sort of attacks and abuse that they get online in Social Justice environments, and simple withdraw, unwilling to put up with that kind of abuse – *often* from White people talking about PoC with the ‘correct’ terminology and affect to *actual* PoC who’s experiences and preferences differ.

    OkGo spends a lot of time talking about the White people who object to this aggression and Privilege policing, but ignores the PoC who object to the counter-productive demands of these latter day Social Justice Warriors *as if we don’t exist*. Apparently their complaints are audible to OkGo where ours are invisible. I wonder why.

    This is not just a conversation between White people who don’t like Certain Tones and the magnanimous White people who *feel* for us poor PoC’s and *really get it*. You cannot ‘win’ points by simply attacking the ‘whiteness’ of your opponents as if that describes all of us. And you definitely *cannot* advocate for Social Justice by disappearing Our non-white voices with your Objective White Perspective, and claiming that all our complaints can be explained reference to our non-existent whiteness and desire for cookies. Fail.

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  8. Many “marginialized” people I have conversed with seem to have a negative view of the world or dismiss others’ experiences in which they, too, feel like an outsider or outcast as “not the same”.
    For some people, having a decent family is “privileged”. Yes the world can be cruel. Better to count blessings than offenses.

    • Yeah, I do find it difficult to deal with people from one marginalised group who really don’t seem to empathise at all with people who deal with different kinds of marginalisations to them. You’d think that having to cope with that kind of cruelty in your life would help you have more empathy for others?

      On the other hand, I always say that, marginalisation or no marginalisation, some people are just plain douchebags.

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