Cancelled on the overground railroad - Griffith Review
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Cancelled on the overground railroad

Moving beyond neoliberal thinking, individualism and online infighting

THE ISSUE OF call-out culture (or its monstrous cousin ‘cancel culture’) has been heavily debated in recent times. As punters we find ourselves begging for the narrative to shift, not knowing if and when we will ever be free from the agonisingly circular nature of these discussions, or the vicarious traumatisation that comes from tokenising media narratives. It’s difficult to have faith in true transformative justice when our visions of the future are obscured by collective anxieties and the continued imbalance of power that is so obvious in who enacts abuse and who reports on it. We consistently bear witness to instances of bad faith, selfishness and an unwillingness to hand power to victims, survivors, experts, people who have a vested interest in challenging patriarchal trends. I often wonder whether our collective cultural brain will reach a point where it will understand how to develop sensitivity or intelligence towards the complexity of accusation. Which ideologies, what forces, contribute to these ways of thinking, and how have we become seduced by neoliberal individualism? What does it truly mean to build an ethics of responsibility and accountability in our relationships and communities in the face of these ideologies?

Call-outs are usually performed in an online forum, where context and specificity are so easily obscured. They have been deployed for any number of incidents, from those as severe as the repeat physical, sexual or institutional abuse of community members or racial intimidation in universities (written about extensively by Sara Ahmed), to the use of a derogatory slur or the problematic creation of an art piece (see Hannah Black’s critique of Dana Shutz and her painting of Emmett Till). To ‘call someone out’ is to draw a name into the public conversation by force – usually at the wish of someone on the receiving end of unpleasant behaviour, or on behalf of them.

When we call someone out, we do it with the full knowledge that all previous attempts to remedy harm have been shot down, avoided or negated, and the trial of public opinion is the final card to play. If anything, a call-out is an indictment on any given community regarding its inability to act on the issue in private. At the least, it can shift the burden of responsibility away from the individual and onto the community, where it should always have been. This is how accountability would operate in an ideal world: as something we are investing in collectively to ensure the health and continued growth of our peers, our kin, our families.

However, in 2019, call-outs have become mostly synonymous with a progressive consensus of accountability as a whole. This is concerning. A call-out often cannot function as true accountability, because we – as marginalised people, and those who often attempt to upend harmful dynamics – may not be trusted, or may have stereotypes levelled our way. From trawling through the Twitter and Facebook threads of friends, it seems to me that ambivalence towards call-out culture as a real tactic for any given scene or community is at an all-time high: ‘Cancel culture/call-out culture is toxic!’ is repeated ad infinitum into the void – and the void, unfortunately, does not echo back.

Naturally, accusing someone in public of wrongdoing is filled with all kinds of complicated tension, but the stress and social messiness of such an isolated action should not be confused with the ongoing practices we create over time, the holistic community-building that might prevent violent things from happening. The ‘call-out’ has become an ineffectual stand-in for ongoing community action and conversation. In all likelihood, this is generally the case because it speaks to the lack of understanding we have about accountability in our morally barren everyday lives, where entrepreneurialism and self-interest reigns; it speaks to our need for a collective consciousness where we continually draw upon each other for support. How many of us become paralysed with fear at the thought of asking for help?

Call-out culture has been broached numerous times in various literary and media publications – mostly in regards to the celebrity culture furore of #metoo – and many of these contributions have at least identified some of its problems. For example, it’s an easy script to follow if the perpetrator is a man in power who’s abusing their authority and the victim is a white woman, but the discussion becomes trickier when we fall outside this narrative. Nonetheless, most mainstream discussion is airless rehashing of what most of us have juggled with already in progressive discourse. By 2018, ‘accountability’ as a broad concept had neatly sublimated the efforts of activists, theorists, community advocates and social workers on the ground, becoming listlessly homogenous: a manageably controversial debate topic for the privileged liberal class. Then, of course, following the last year of high-profile exposés came the inevitable backlash, as the salaried figures of the media class began to ask: ‘Is there anything to be gained from unseating those in power?’ It was easy to view this with a sense of unease – it was followed by a maddeningly drawn-out discussion featuring constant pontification about these now co-opted hashtag movements, and concerns as to whether they could challenge the sturdy foundations of male chauvinism and achieve anything material for women (much less anyone else).

Why is this familiar? Maybe it’s because we’ve seen the same thing happen to almost any other socially progressive initiative. If we are not cautious, accountability will be packaged and sold in its most inoffensive and kitschy form, in the tradition of Christmas-hamper liberal-feminist self-help books. This is the rollout of commodified activism and theory in real time, where serious and urgent social concerns routinely become delegitimised, cheapened and sapped of their value as soon as they enter the news cycle – a procedure designed to purposefully strip nuance from its larger context, to create ‘content’, to evoke reactionary thought and outrage, to sell stories. Once we are exhausted by the inaccessibility of this conversation, by the cyclical and predictable patterns that play out in the mouths of the powerful and well connected, we rarely move forward to consider what options are available to deal with abusive behaviour. But it is absolutely essential that we continue reaching beyond what we think is the norm, the carceral logic of ‘punish/confine/isolate’, to take risks, to extend our imaginations. To use any piece of optimism we may find as fuel for something greater. I believe we all have an innate power to collectivise and to identify what hurt looks like, even when it throbs at the centre of our chosen families. Though resulting positive changes might not be immediate, visible, enough, these efforts to intervene in violence are a big deal. They rise above silence, passivity and inaction, and make peace and wellness in our communities something we work for, not wait for.

Yet, despite its potential, because discussion around accountability has not immediately and comprehensively provided the answers for witnesses, for online audiences or dedicated progressives, it is generally discarded and thought of as inconsequential or ‘broken’ – even though accountability is not just a five-minute discussion, nor even a five-year discussion. It cannot occur over one conversation, and our ‘goals’ for an accountability action may only ever be half met. While to me this seems transformative, cause for celebration beyond what we might expect, anything short of perfection is dismissed in favour of the comforting familiarity of the norm. But what ‘the norm’ is to many of us white (and middle-class, non-white) people is absolutely a form of violence to others. An urgent and necessary topic is bound to lose steam for a trivially wired, attention-starved online readership. Naturally, mainstream news outlets are not overly invested in, for instance, the reform of our policing and reporting systems – where’s the dopamine hit in that?

 

WHEN NAOMI KLEIN writes in her book No Is Not Enough (Penguin, 2018) about the failures of many modern movements, about the despair that underlies them, she attributes them to the economic (and social) ideologies that arise from neoliberalism: the recurring belief that nothing good can possibly exist outside pre-existing structures, that there is, as Margaret Thatcher so famously proclaimed, ‘no alternative’. Over time, our sense of shared power has been eroded and depersonalised by a combination of cultural changes wrought by neoliberal life, and we are left psychologically inert from its after-effects. It’s not that these failures are the result of vicious and sectarian attitudes, but that they are premised on the unacknowledged conceit that the left will never gain power and progressive movements are doomed to fail. This is how brainwashed we have become, how fundamentally nihilistic, even when we are presented with examples of shared goodness. The last line of this wonderful passage about writer, editor and former communist spy Whittaker Chambers from Daniel Oppenheimer’s Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century (Simon & Schuster, 2016) speaks to this particular anxiety:

Instead of thinking deeply about the problem of fomenting revolution in a nation as capitalistic and prosperous as America, the leaders of the party, like their counterparts in the Soviet Union, spent an extraordinary amount of their time contending with each other, and with other elements of the Left, for power. In the Soviet Union, where the power being fought over was immense, these intra-Left fights had a brutal but undeniable logic. Someone was going to wield extraordinary power over the lives of tens of millions of people, so the rewards of power, and the dangers of failing to acquire it, were genuine. But in America, where communism was so marginal, such jockeying for power seemed to Chambers like a disguised form of fatalism.

Oppenheimer also quotes the great line by Irving Howe and Lewis Coser on the Communist Party during the 1920s: ‘So absorbed were the communists in their internal feuds that the very desire to influence the outer world had begun to atrophy: the faction struggle replaced the class struggle.’

Clearly, then, utopian thinking, and ideologies that actively rebuff that shared sense of nihilism, are not just optional elements of our thinking and organising – they inform our abilities more than we could ever think possible. This highly strung state of being is not conducive to people actively working together to move into new territory; it’s like locking hurt and agitated animals in a cage and expecting them to start acting cordially. There is no trust in the process, no collective enthusiasm nor occasion for vulnerable discussion, which are absolutely required for us to find our bearings.

Carla Bergman and Nick Montgomery respond to some of these sensibilities towards call-outs and their misuse in ‘The Stifling Air of Rigid Radicalism’, published in The New Inquiry in 2018 and based on an excerpt from their book Joyful Militancy (AK Press, 2017). They articulate the kind of puritanical methods of politics that become infected with narcissism and distrust among grassroots networks – methods that, borne out of some kind of private and unspoken disdain for one another’s imperfections and a deep mistrust of non-institutional possibilities, begin to steer and infect the quality of interpersonal relationships among self-proclaimed progressives. These are the kind that police the behaviours of those who deviate from ‘acceptable’ types of political venture. Rather than aiming for collective growth, they concentrate too hard on purity, contrived discussions and toeing the party line. As a whole, moving outside the scripts is such untested ground, and so unexpected, that it’s little wonder progressives are constantly on edge. The assertion here is that leftist politics can easily dissolve into a paranoid reification of capitalism’s worst competitive attributes, resulting in scarcity thinking. Change, it seems, is universally feared. The more you witness these kinds of conflicts, the more you begin to feel like being in therapy should be a prerequisite for anyone engaged in organising or community work. ‘When radicals attack each other in the game of good politics, it is due at least in part to the fact that this is a place where people can exercise some power [emphasis in original],’ argue Bergman and Montgomery. ‘Even if one is unable to challenge capitalism and other oppressive structures, even if one is unable to participate in the creation of alternative forms of life, one can always attack others for their complicity, and tell oneself that these attacks are radical in and of themselves.’

Klein’s description of neoliberalism helps frame it as a social force that has pacified us by reaffirming individual power when we want to believe it (mostly as consumers), but not collective power. This is not surprising given how much NGO structures rely on creating celebrity activists rather than investing in the power of ordinary people, or emboldening them into action. One of the major shortcomings of this type of thinking is the way it treats acts of discretion as character flaws or incorrect person programming rather than inevitable superstructural manifestations of, for instance, patriarchy. By identifying larger forces at work, we can at least become less likely to see our peers as inherently selfish, evil or manipulative – we can discern a reasoning for strange behaviour. Without the proper education, cultural assumptions work tirelessly to turn attention away from societal influences and instead reprimand the individual, attributing moral failure purely to them. So alienated are we by the limitations of neoliberal life and its promises that we cannot even conceptualise what our community looks like and how it operates, much less how to act within it. As The Creative Interventions Toolkit – a violence intervention resource put together by US-based organisation Creative Interventions – states:

We usually think of the person doing harm as the one to be accountable for violence. Community accountability also means that communities are accountable for sometimes ignoring, minimising or even encouraging violence. Communities must also recognise, end and take responsibility for violence by becoming more knowledgeable, skilful and willing to take action to intervene in violence and to support social norms and conditions that prevent violence from happening in the first place.

Sometimes it’s not even the force of the violence that fractures or destroys people’s faith in themselves: it’s the lack of support from their community, the inadequacy of silence.

So often, critique of ‘outrage culture’ is not a critique of moral disobedience and bad faith commentary, but a way to rebuff feelings of discomfort, of facing difficult truths, and to abandon the option of divesting from the organisations and institutions that fund our existence. As Sara Ahmed famously said, ‘When you expose a problem you pose a problem.’ I often think of the times call-outs have become public pile-ons, and how they can frequently spiral into something bigger. These may seem unconstructive, but it’s important we understand that this damage already existed, was already wreaking havoc on relationships and communities – and now, it has become a shared responsibility. People resent this reminder of co-dependency and are inclined to view their communities as resources they can take from, but rarely give back to. ‘What inhibits us can better be described as what obliges us,’ says writer, historian and activist Rebecca Solnit in a piece for Literary Hub, ‘and a Filipino climate activist friend reminded me that many people who claim they are not free to do things are really complaining that what they do has consequences; that we are connected and responsible for our acts.’ Those who react against call-outs may wish to remain wilfully ignorant out of convenience, to stay comfortable in emotional fugitivity and psychological juvenility. The idea of dependency and reliance on one another to provide safe environments outside of economic means is so alien to us, particularly as transactional relationships become our main way of experiencing the world. In the same essay, Solnit writes:

The prevention of feeling is an old strategy with many tactics. There are so many ways to really not care, and we’ve seen most of them exercised energetically these last couple of years and really throughout American history… But it’s also political disassociation: I owe you nothing; I have no connection to you or much of anything; my heart is a gated community; my ideology is a border patrol.

On the other hand, many think pieces about call-out culture, #metoo or political purity end up implicitly ignoring how class offers each of us power, who wields that power and to what end. We already know that call-outs are often ineffectual, or imperfect – but they can contribute to an ethic that prioritises the safety of victims. It means letting the most disempowered among us know that we recognise them and care for them, even if protection is not always guaranteed, even if it is not ‘convenient’ for us. So much of the language around reform, accountability and the culture of abuse comprises maximalist, utopian terms – but looking at it on a more achievable level is wise so that we don’t become disillusioned and throw the baby out with the bathwater. How can we encourage these difficult conversations with friends and neighbours, even when they make us vulnerable?

 

UNDER LATE MODERNITY we are perpetually hurt, forced to be invulnerable. We are childlike, fearful of what social worker and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown defines as ‘pain discomfort’, averse to emotional tactility, unable to draw upon the necessary tactics to imagine resolution. We react and respond, but we rarely construct, instead doing anything possible to push an issue aside and pat ourselves on the back as the source of discomfort is spirited away. It is one thing to name the unseeable mechanics of the patriarchy as the culprit, but quite another to dig further and state what abusers gain from exploitation. I don’t think it’s controversial to suggest that ego-driven pursuits, dominating attitudes and patriarchal methods of competition are rewarded in many contemporary spheres, and protect us from the more humbling – and disquieting – nature of public vulnerability. These are the foundations of exploitation and abuse. Think about how Donald Trump has used this to his advantage.

In an interview with Greg Wilpert for The Real News Network, social and personality psychologist Thomas Curran explains this in layman’s terms: ‘“neoliberalism” is…a shorthand description for a political philosophy, which essentially suggests that the market and marketized forms of competition are the only organizing principle of human activity.’ To revisit ‘rigid radicalism’, Bergman and Montgomery state that ‘What depletes us is not just long hours but the tendencies of shame, anxiety, mistrust, competition, and perfectionism. It is the way in which these tendencies stifle the capacity for collective creativity and change.’ To understand the cause of that perfectionism is to understand neoliberalism’s core tenet, to isolate how it spreads its claws – or, as political theorist Wendy Brown puts it in her book Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Zone Books, 2015), neoliberalism ‘disseminates market values and metrics to every sphere of life’. These sentiments ring true: baseline human values of meritocracy and evangelical perfectionism are drilled into our heads every waking hour.

I’m interested in that Wendy Brown quote specifically for the way it refers to ‘values’. It’s a buzzword that right-wing proponents are happy to pull out at any given time to reify their own standpoint and argue why their side is the most viable, or sensible; it refers to a kind of religious faith of modern structure, an order of rules to follow, the ‘way that things naturally are’. Indeed, one of the main by-products of neoliberal belief is that it naturalises market forces as human nature and advocates itself as the only workable economic system, despite having only existed for less than 1 per cent of recorded human history. It’s not just a cute coincidence. But as a steadfast reader of Brené Brown, I’m more interested in approaching the idea of political ‘values’ in a genuinely flexible, humanistic and holistic manner as a way of building identity beyond labels or signifiers and defining a moral compass. This way, we are less inclined to think someone has ‘good politics’ simply because they use the same labels as us while their experiences, biases and privileges may be worlds away. If we understand the power of our shared values, instead of forming relationships based purely on convenience, capital, obligation and social clout, we may have the tools to treat each other better.

When I read Canadian writer Sheila Heti, I am warmed by how often she refers to values and her belief in them, how they drive, define and shape one’s self, rather than operating as artificial external goalposts of what a human should be. They are more than just clearly held beliefs; they literally make us who we are. Not our Instagram pages, which showcase our specific tastes and skills of connoisseurship; not the way we cherry-pick our ideologies and market our ideal selves online in this highly public and performative age. Values are what bind together our many private personalities and exterior holograms, the tropes that sustain our actions and reactions in the real world. They are mission statements, a vital personal orientation, the quietly held moral compass that leads someone into action and behaviours and guides the way they treat other people. Values can be felt: we can wrap ourselves in them, in a way that reminds us of our mutuality and of the roads we travel down together. They are the pressure point for action to happen.

This might also be better explained as a kind of separation between one’s ‘politics’, the beliefs and mantras a person publicly expresses, and how one identifies socially or on a political spectrum. Of course, this does not always have to be perfectly aligned. Arguably, one is more easily performed; the other is more discreetly lived and exacted. Even Lundy Bancroft, a social worker and theorist who has written extensively about male violence, identifies the tenets of abuse as not being defined by any archetype, strain or culture of maleness, but by a centrally held core of values prevalent in the individual, and often concealed beneath the surface. So often, for radicals, the inoperability of these poles is obvious, such as when so-called feminist men harm and subjugate women behind closed doors, or when so-called anti-racists fetishise, abuse and silence women of colour in activist spaces. It’s easy to bring to mind examples I’ve witnessed in my own life. What do the radical ‘politics’ of millennials matter if an individual is unable to apply those values to their relationships?

When our culture is so rampantly individualised, it makes sense that most people’s instinct is to overlook the categorical influences of disenfranchisement and oppression (how they shape our behaviours) in favour of reprimanding individuals. Often, this is not done with the intention of growing together and developing a shared consciousness, but to eliminate competition. Capital would prefer people individualise issues rather than band together and resist against it. The diluted variation of this strategy, or thought, often goes like this: ‘Surely if enough people are shamed by me, or “called out”, there will be a societal shift!’ Instead of owning our own incompleteness and imperfect politics, the things that fundamentally make us human, we seek to point fingers at other people – but as Brené Brown so brilliantly says, blame has an ‘inverse relationship with accountability’. It privileges our own ego at the expense of another, wastes time simplifying problems and assigning them randomly to individuals rather than implicating ourselves or our communities. It does not facilitate growth, or complexity, or multiplicity.

In modern life, a pragmatic fatalism is sewn into our consciousness, making circumstances seem predestined. It’s an Oprah-ism. The social sciences of now are postmodern, ‘follow your dreams’, millennial-style feel-good truisms and mostly allergic to class analysis. This might explain why our generation is stuffed to the brim with commodity-fetishist influencers, alt-right radicals and the anti-fascist Antifa, with very few parties in between. Thus, rather than recognising shared attributes and struggles as a disenfranchised group in pursuit of connection and commonality, and by identifying the purveyors of said disenfranchisement, the underlying motivation is often to find rivals. The rise of a ‘self-esteem’-based method of raising a generation past the advent of neoliberalism has created the potential for millions of threatened egos.

As much as we convince ourselves that our interests lie in liberating our peers and destroying hierarchical institutions, the promises of neoliberal meritocracy are pervasive – and as the experiences of our elders and past generations show, they actively force us to prioritise our own so-called wellbeing, even to sabotage our communities. We are compelled to be self-interested. Our so-called noble struggles for self-actualisation and personal advancement, often pursued in opposition to fostering community care and typified (particularly in creative spaces) as the image of the ‘starving artist’, share much with the spectre of the American Dream. Both narratives are perpetrated by those in power to stave off actions of dissent and make us accept the status quo – as long as we believe there’s a chance to strike it big within the current neoliberal paradigms and realise our ‘destiny’.

Simply identifying how cultural and economic forces push us to act does not mean that individuals are exempt from responsibility. However, it can give us the tools to lay the groundwork for healthier communities. It may require admitting that we are not superhuman and that our efforts often fail, or recognising how much the odds are stacked against us. It’s healthy to understand interpersonal conflict as part of a political conflict, and this shields us from inevitable resentment and confusion. By identifying with ‘progressive values’ or politics, we don’t immediately become better people – it’s merely the first step to gaining some kind of greater consciousness. We must be practical about what a community is and how we can build it through achievable goals. For some of us, that may mean getting to know our neighbours better or facilitating connection as much as possible, whether it be through organising or starting small with a local community or student group.

Modern life would have us believe that we must carry the burden of these harmful structures completely on our own, which is impossible. Yet our collective power to push up against nihilistic thinking is significant. On their own, these things are minute – but when understood as part of a larger project, one with a greater vision, we can start in our own backyards and begin to understand our limits as much as we do our individual and collective power, to make ourselves feel involved, inspired and connected to a greater purpose beyond the tyranny of individualism. Accountability is difficult, but it grants us immense power to grow and to appreciate the humanity of others beyond superficial sentiments and social clout. It breaks through the noise and gives us pause to understand that which is most vital. Facing the unknown together is a must.

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