Call-out culture

I was listening to From Tucker Park road on Local 107.3 FM. Arif and Jason, who are the hosts, discussed the ban bossy campaign. It’s another attempt to police language. The online conversation is of course polarized. I like one side more than the other. For example, I think that Jessica Roy is right that some people choose to police language rather than bring “attention to important issues that have real impact on women and girls.” You might say that social change or activism is never either/or. But I think we all know that’s not true. We tend to take the easy path, settling for symbolic victories.

Although not exactly the same thing, I thought I would post what I wrote (under duress) for a zine. Don’t worry, it’s short.

I’m calling you out. If you’re an activist, you’re probably annoying. Every good thing that has ever happened has pissed someone off. Social progress requires friction, but not all the friction you get is good or necessary. One way to generate useless and harmful friction is to draw attention to someone’s privilege when they are making an argument.

Being aware of privilege doesn’t make you a better person than those who are less aware. Telling someone to check their privilege is not the same as helping them to understand that they derive unearned benefits from how they are positioned in the identity hierarchy (race, gender, class, etc.). Rather, it is a thought-terminating cliche. It effectively shuts down conversation. It’s also boring and unproductive.

Privilege is still a useful concept and smart people have written a lot of important words about how it affects our relationships. But the phrase “check your privilege” is a rallying cry. It is a product of “call-out” culture. (Yes, I am aware that I am flirting with the very thing I am criticizing). Advocates of call-out have been seduced by the notion that the personal is always political and that by challenging everyday behaviours they can encourage lasting social change.

Unfortunately, good intentions rarely pay off the way we think they will. I learned this the hard way by being an obstinate “mind changer.” I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t engage people in debate or stop egregious abuses, but call-out in the form of “check your privilege” is something different. It’s not socratic dialogue. It’s not even the caustic wit of someone like the late Christopher Hitchens. It’s just another way to troll, but it has undeserved prestige because it’s loosely tied to progressive values.

If you want to stop privilege checking, you are not required to abandon your principles or stop thinking critically. But when you feel self-righteous or want to dismiss dissent, pause for a moment and think about what you’re doing. Are you accomplishing your goals? Are you just relieving frustration? Beware the narcissism of minor differences. Don’t be a bully. If you consider yourself a radical, the most revolutionary thing you can do is encourage debate and mutual consideration. It’s really hard to do. You’re going to fail over and over again (I do) and you’re still not going to reach a lot of people, but you will be less annoying.