I heard someone say that if 2019 could talk, it would say, “Yes, but did you DIE?” And that’s about the best it had to offer. Here we are, still breathing, even if we’re not especially happy about it.
One of the most wretched and discouraging phenomena of the past year or so is call-out culture and its dreadful child, cancel culture. So many decent, or even indecent but not totally irredeemable people — which includes most of us — were deemed too problematic to exist by a rapacious online mob. Both far right and far left extremists indulged themselves, and heads rolled.
I wondered how long this kind of thing could go on before people realised that it has only one end: Self extinction. You tighten your crowd into a smaller and smaller knot of what’s acceptable, and sooner or later, even the inner circle gets strangled.
But one woman whose voice seems fairly influential in the states is trying to push back against this trend. I found her words especially compelling since I doubt her views align with mine very often, so I know I’m not just sympathetic because she sounds like me.
What I liked was how she talked about people you disagree with. I liked the idea that she thought you could talk to them.
Her name is Loretta Ross, and she’s a professor at the Smith College, a progressive private women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts, and she was recently interviewed for a public radio station, ahead of the release of her new book in 2020.
Ross, who is black, said that she used to allow herself to hate white supremacists. “I kind of felt like, if they wanted to hate me, I was OK hating them,” she said.
But that changed when she met a former white supremacist, who himself backed out of the movement when he realised his own child, who was born with a cleft palate, did not deserve to be exterminated.
Her organisation worked with him to help him un-learn his radical beliefs. And in the process, she discovered that even some radicals are reachable. Even more interesting, she is reaching people on her own side, who already agree with her but who respond to true injustices in a way that she sees as counterproductive.
Her students, for instance, were lashing out harshly against the administration of their college for not responding as strongly as they might have to anti-semitic graffiti on campus. She allowed the students to protest, and then redirected them:
“Smith at worst is a problematic ally. We’re supposed to be talking about fascists. So unless you think the leadership of Smith is fascist, can we stay focused on the fascists?” she said.
She urges her students to do more “threat assessment” and “target assessment.” It’s all too easy to lose perspective and to expend all the energy of your righteous anger on someone who is essentially on your side, but isn’t squeaky clean according to your current standards — and meanwhile, the truly dangerous aggressors go unchallenged, having taken cover in a sea of microaggressions.
I’ll have to think more about this, and I want to hear this idea fleshed out further. I do think it’s important to call people to account for inadequate responses to evil. If Smith college did have a tepid response to swastika graffiti, then that’s worth denouncing, even if Smith isn’t as bad as actual Nazis.
But the call-out culture she seems to be rejecting isn’t simply the kind that calls people to account for doing wrong or failing to do right.
It’s the kind that offers the heady thrill of publicly denouncing anyone who falls afoul of what you consider the correct point of view, simply for the sake of denouncing them.
It feels virtuous and bracing, as if you’re scouring out the corners of some filthy room to usher in health and healing. But in practice, what often happens is that people who are mostly innocent are seriously injured — or they’re so offended that they dig in, rather than examining their errors and making changes. Rather than bringing about a correction of an error, call-out culture often ends up entrenching people in their mistakes.
In other words, everything gets worse for everybody.
“A call-out for me is when you choose to offer your judgment of someone else’s thoughts, behaviours or actions, or looks in a way that publicly humiliates and shames them,” Ross said in the article.
She says that we should reserve call-out for people who have more power than us, who are otherwise inaccessible. But if we perceive some dangerous error by someone we can reach, who has the same amount of power as us or less, then she says should contact them privately, rather than publicly, with the goal of correcting them, rather than crushing and shaming them.
“[M]ost calling-out that I criticise is horizontal,” she said, “between people of the same power status, or the same relative status, that seek to prove how woke or how politically correct they are.”
It was fascinating to me to see that she has arrived at the formula strikingly similar to the guidance about fraternal correction described in the Gospel of Matthew:
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. ‘If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
You don’t make it public unless they refuse to listen to you in private; and your goal is to win them over, not crush them. As far as I know, Ross’ goal isn’t to pursue a path that’s most charitable and most pleasing to the Lord, but simply one that’s effective. But her students acknowledge that, in the past, calling out perceived evildoers generally just makes them more angry, and doesn’t change anyone’s behaviour:
“Ross’s advice is to take the grievances off social media. End the group pile-ons, she said. Meet with those you disagree with one-on-one, and begin the more challenging process of ‘calling in.’
‘Calling-in is holding people accountable for things that they do that are problematic, but doing it in a way that is healing versus punishing,’ she said.”
Calling in. What do you know about that? Sooner or later, when we try to be good to each other, we end up sounding like Jesus.
Ross has a book coming out in 2020, and based on what she said here, it sounds worth reading. I hope people do. I don’t know if I can stand another year like 2019.