Left Twitter and the Social Death Cult

“destroying people gets nothing but those tiny squirts of brain chemicals that make you feel smug.” — NireBryce

None of You Are Free of Sin

I believe that we’re all innately good creatures. You may or may not agree, but stay with me here.

We’re prisoners of our material conditions and oppressive systems, the Big Three being capitalism, white supremacy, and the patriarchy. Along with creating trauma, misery, and structures of inequality and hierarchy, these systems shape our thoughts, beliefs, and actions and damage us in myriad ways.

If we presume that the people most critical of the status quo tend to come from those most harmed by it, the Left is composed of innately good but profoundly damaged creatures, using our unhelpful coping mechanisms and patterns of interactions to relate to each other because it’s all we know.

Because of our damage and malfunctions, every single one of us will inevitably hurt another person. Perhaps it will be minor, perhaps life-altering. Perhaps intentional, perhaps unintentional (I leave whether that distinction matters — or can even be made — as a prompt for further thought). Abuse has a cycle: pain begets pain. None of us can exist in a bad situation without being affected by it, and often those who are hurt go on to hurt others.

Thus we do ourselves — and each other — a disservice when we divide the world into “good” and “bad.” When all of us will hurt other people, what do we gain by splitting humanity into angels and demons? The opportunity to believe that we’re “not like them” when someone hurts another person? To be disappointed when someone we considered ‘good’ commits a hurtful act, exile them, and discount them as having been a wolf in sheep’s clothing? To make excuses for a ‘good’ person who hurts another person, or normalize their behavior as not being hurtful, so we can continue to believe they’re on the “good” side?

At the risk of alienating my audience by linking to The Daily Beast, and with the caveat that I don’t agree with the whole article:

“[L]abeling them villains is a way of emotionally and psychologically distancing “them” from “us.” …But the more allegations come to light, the more we will have to reckon with the fact that the people we love… are capable of doing monstrous and bad things.” — What Happens When You Like, or Even Love, a Sexual Harasser?

None of us are innocent. None of us are free of sin. We need ways to deal with the hurt we cause each other and build a stronger movement.

When The Only Tool You Have is a Hammer, Every Problem Resembles a Nail

It’s no secret that we lack robust mechanisms for dealing with challenging behavior and the hurt we cause to one another. Both in DSA and in the Left as a movement, we have no overarching trustworthy behavior-accountability structure, no safeguards against retaliation, no guarantee that harm will be addressed appropriately and in a timely fashion*.

What we do have, especially on social media, are those unhealthy coping mechanisms and maladaptive patterns of interaction, our all-or-nothing thinking, a large audience, and one method of dealing with challenging behavior that’s been partially effective: the call-out.

The call-out is, overwhelmingly, the method we turn to to address challenging behavior.

You are hurt by another person, and all your attempts to resolve it — if you were even able to make any — have yielded nothing, so you need to take action. You assemble your receipts, post them publicly, rally others to your cause, and you cross your fingers and hope it goes well for you.

The likelihood that a call-out will go ‘well’ for you is related to your power and the dynamics of your social group: e.g. having social capital and connections you can leverage to get your message out, confidence to weather the tsunami of public humiliation and speculation, and resources in case of retaliation or offline ramifications.

Is the call-out the most effective method? The kindest? The one that helps both us and the movement most in the long term? Sometimes, yes — especially in cases where someone may hurt others in the same fashion (I’m thinking especially of non-performative callouts of people who have raped and may go on to do so again). But is it always the best choice? Do we have no nuance in how we respond to challenging behavior and hurt?

Our inclination is to attack and exile one or other party in the call-out. Either the person who exhibited challenging behavior is an abuser and cannot be allowed to remain in our spaces, or the person making the call-out is “creating drama” or lying and cannot be trusted.

The call-out is a nuclear option. There is no way for both sides to have a positive outcome. It is a zero sum game where one side wins and the other loses, and this gain at the expense of another is a central part of the cycle of the social death cult.

The Social Death Cult of Left Twitter

Social media gives us a vast opportunity to magnify leftist education, messaging, and our organizing. Instead, Left Twitter has taken the form of an anxiety-inducing social death cult.

Personalities rise, gain some prominence (on Twitter or within left media), become entangled with others in various stages of the abuse cycle, hurt one another, and are summarily destroyed for it by the masses. There’s little opportunity for mediation, reconciliation, or good faith attempts to work out misunderstandings. Instead, the public call-out phase of the cycle casts the die to see who is the milkshake duck and who survives.

During the call-out, there’s pressure for everyone to be seen to react. Take a side by showing the “correct” level and angle of anger at the target, or prepare a contrarian position and face counter-offensives. Scores are kept of who backed whom, who remained neutral, and who had the best takes.

A call-out cannot exist externally to our social power dynamics. The process is not neutral or objective, even if we try to make it so. Call-outs ignite public humiliation, speculation, posturing, bullying, and an all-out scramble to attain or recover the social capital scattered from the broken piñata of the loser.

Once one or other party from the call-out is dispatched, the matter is declared over and quiet descends. Quiet, not calm. Tensions stoked during the call-out remain high, anxiety stays ratcheted up. Social capital is re-evaluated; those on the winning side rise in our estimation and prominence. With each increase in prominence and social capital the spiral of the social death cult winds tighter; the stakes become higher for the next person to fall.

There is no part in the cycle where we heal, or understand the material circumstances at the heart of our conflicts, abuse, and trauma. We take no steps to restructure existing power dynamics, eliminate inequities and class imbalances, overcome the friction and antagonism between our damaged selves. We high-five and apply bandages to the burst abscess, but pay no attention to the infection of which it’s a symptom.

And why would we? Without the infection, what would we have to fuel our popularity? How would we write our tweet threads, our Dril pastiches, our ironic knowing references to events? Without the pain of others to riff on, where would we get favorites and retweets? Would we have to resort to… praxis?

Our pattern of interaction on Left Twitter is not radical, revolutionary, or communist. The social death cult is liberalism. We have become comfortable with, accustomed to, maybe invested in the pain and destruction of other human beings. An easy way to gain prominence in Left Twitter is to participate in the social death cult, especially the bullying phase. How is a position gained by bullying others any more acceptable than one gained by imperialism, capitalism, white supremacy? For each, our position of influence and privilege is built on human misery.

So What Now?

I don’t presume to dictate to my fellow victims of abuse how to handle their comfort, safety, and trauma. Nor do I have any new answers. Hurt and abuse is a problem the Left has been trying to address for decades.

What I believe is necessary for the mental health of everyone involved in these social spaces is more understanding, patience, and good faith. Less vitriol, less shaming. A more holistic and healthy approach to dealing with non-violent transgressions, misunderstandings, and the variety of fallout that can occur from the clumsy interactions of innately good human vessels battered by a traumatic material existence.

This doesn’t mean giving others carte blanche to hurt each other! It means empowering each other to do hard, private work — the type of hard work that can’t be leveraged for podcast listeners, a higher Klout score, a position in leadership, hundreds of retweets, a book deal, or an ego boost. It’s hard work that carries little reward in the form of social capital, but much in the form of strengthening ourselves and the movement.

Some suggestions:

  • Reject prioritizing the rehabilitation of people whose behavior was challenging over the wellbeing of people who were hurt by that behavior. While taking into account the suggestions below, our number one priority should be the safety and security of the person who was hurt.
  • Reject retraumatizing those who are hurt by making them engage with how they were hurt or the person who hurt them if they don’t wish to.
  • Reject retraumatizing those who were hurt by disregarding their wishes and autonomy, exposing them to triggering or disturbing material, or not providing sufficient support and care.
  • Reject tactics that only serve to inflict more trauma, amplify the anxiety of the community, sever people from support networks that may be critical to their mental health, force others to choose sides, privilege those with more “popularity,” etc. Reject destructive vengeance in the guise of a “warning” to others or meting out justice for misdeeds.
  • Recognize that while public discussion is an essential part of democracy, public bullying is not.
  • Reject the concept that someone who hurts another is irredeemable, while acknowledging that often the work to attain redemption must happen somewhere else, away from those they hurt.
  • Recognize that interpersonal situations between such profoundly damaged creatures are complex, and hurt may be omnidirectional or impossible to exhaustively locate.
  • Encourage those who hurt others to engage authentically with the hurt their behavior caused, consciously unpack and discover the reasons and issues that led them to engage in the challenging behavior, and interrogate the systems of oppression that surround these reasons and issues.
  • Prioritize good faith attempts at resolving and healing issues when possible and safe for all involved.
  • Engage in regular and intense self-crit.
  • Implement transformative justice processes and practices that help all parties involved grow and understand their actions.
  • Implement Resolution #33 locally and nationally, both on- and off-line.
  • Hold yourself, and your comrades, to our standards of behavior.
  • BE KIND TO YOUR COMRADES.

Further Reading

Hot Allostatic Load

Why I’ve Started to Fear My Fellow Social Justice Activists

Be Gentle to Each Other, So We Can Be Dangerous Together

A Politics of Imperfection, A Politics of Responsibility

The Role of Shame in Shaping and Undermining Activist Communities

Capitalism Hurts. Can We Not Hurt Each Other?

Thanks

Big thanks to my collaborator F Erasmus for their contributions.

Also thanks to comrades with whom I’ve been discussing this topic for a while now, especially those who offered thoughts and suggestions on this topic, including (in no particular order): Yesi Padilluh, Mark Blaho, Jen, Jetta Rae, almost dead guy, Gene 🌹 Machine 🐘🚗, Nire, Leslie, and others left unnamed.

* Since I wrote this, DSA National has released more information about their grievance process and procedure. I hope to see it working before we destroy each other.