“Your Faves Are Problematic” — How Can We Be Better People In The Age Of Call-out Culture?

We must admit to ourselves that everybody is problematic. We are all of us — actor, accountant, burger flipper, writer- human beings, making us complicated, multi-faceted and capable of error, education and empathy. I don’t intend to write some hateful screed on “call-out culture” because, much of the time, such a thing can be quite useful. It helps us to make better decisions about the people we choose to support (especially financially) when we know a bit about them, including whether they are fond of racial vilification, blackface or outlandish sexism. I myself would be deeply enraged if I paid a hundred bucks to see, say, a band in concert, only to find out after the fact that they were a mob of misogynists. I would be sad to see my hard-earned money and fierce support go towards characters that I felt did not warrant or deserve it, and you would too.

The Tumblr blog, “Your Fave Is Problematic” has been a key party in calling out various cultural criminals. The blog provides instances in which celebrities have acted inappropriately or offensively, such as Iggy Azalea’s various (sadly numerous) instances of racism, or lefty hero Stephen Colbert’s various transphobic slurs. There is a plentiful amount of ways in which someone can offend (body shaming, victim blaming, ableism, cultural appropriation, rape apologism, homophobia, fat shaming) and the long list and its various “isms” upon it is what makes the apathetic and apolitical nervous and angry. They’re the ones spouting things about how society is lacking in “freedom of speech”, how they are constantly dogged by “the PC police”, how the “Twitterati lynch mob” is ruining genuine debate and that “political correctness gone mad” is really what is at the heart of a problematic and toxic society, not the hateful acts themselves. Well, how aboutno, first off?

Maintain the rage

Before you write your rebuttal, of course there are people who enjoy the rage. The internet is reflective of the world in which we live, and in life there are more than a few people that just want to complain, to stomp their foot about something, anything. It would be absurd to assume otherwise. They might be bored, or awful, and just want a fight. Some of these people may end up being part of a group that is calling someone out, this is also true. I won’t stick beside anyone whose argument I do not support and agree with, just because they may also be, say, a fellow feminist, or lefty, or Beyonce fan.

This is also not a level playing ground. Not all problematic behaviour comes with the same repercussions. There is behaviour that can be forgiven, even if hurts at the time.This is at the heart of the issue: even though slurs and hate-speech and prejudice can hurt and enrage, it matters more what someone does after they have been called out, and the intention behind it. When given the opportunity to explain or respond, how do they react to being told that their behaviour was inappropriate, offensive or damaging, whether or not they knew it? Do they apologise, attempt to make amends, educate themselves on the topic? Or do they shirk responsibility (“Uh, my Twitter was hacked”), lash out (“Fuck you for thinking I could ever be sexist, I have a wife”) or deny knowledge of the intention to cause damage (“I didn’t know that blackface was bad!”)? This is where it can all change for someone; the difference between fans lost and respect restored.

Take someone like heavyweight boxer Tyson Fury, for example. His views on various topics is certainly…illuminating. His thoughts on homosexuality (“There are only three things that need to be accomplished before the devil comes home: one of them is homosexuality being legal in countries, one of them is abortion and the other one’s paedophilia….my faith and my culture is all based on the bible. The bible was written a long time ago, from the beginning of time until now, and if I follow that and it tells me it’s wrong, then it’s wrong for me. That’s just my opinion.”) and women (“A woman’s best place is in the kitchen and on her back”) are disgusting and, in the case of the legalisation of pedophilia, weird and factually incorrect. They were also enough to warrant a hate crime investigation at the time of writing. Fury’s comments are made deliberately, with hate and acceptance of his prejudice. He is resolute in his opinions, however backward and gross they may be: when the fighter was asked, in a follow-up talk, about the sexist comments he made, his reply was: “Suck my balls”. He also called the 50,000 people that petitioned against him “wankers”. Charmer.

He maintains that he is somewhat uneducated (“I’m a little bit backward. I didn’t really go to school. Which part of [saying] a woman looks good in a dress is sexist? Or was it about the cooking and cleaning?”) but makes no effort to concede that he has been hateful and cruel in this instance. Sadly, much of his defence for his poor views on others comes from his interpretation of religion:

“I stand up for my beliefs. My wife’s there [standing beside Fury]. Her job is cooking and cleaning and looking after these kids. That’s it. She does get to make some decisions. What she’s going to cook me for tea in a bit when I get home. That’s the decisions what she gets to make [sic]. That’s my beliefs, just like I believe in my lord and saviour and if anyone wants to dispute that, let them do it.” and, though he maintains he didn’t know what was offensive about the statements he made, he also does not care.

Even though Tyson admits he is a “backward” man, there is no admittance of guilt here. His admission of his lack of education is merely added fact, and no apology follows it. Fury is an example of the kind of person that makes our online lives unbearable. He spouts deliberate bigotry and, when called out, makes excuses, attacks back, defends his shittiness and refuses to apologise. In case you can’t tell, this is the incorrect way to go about being “called out”.

The dead horse the media loves to flog

Consider the Taylor Swift-Nicki Minaj “Twitter beef” earlier this year. In case you missed it: after Nicki found out she was not nominated for Video of the Year, she tweeted: “If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies, you will be nominated for vid of the year” which Swift, nominated for the same award, took personally, despite not being mentioned: “I’ve done nothing but love & support you. It’s unlike you to pit women against each other. Maybe one of the men took your slot..”

Swift is still learning the ins and outs of feminism, so many people were sympathetic to her condescending remark. Her heart so often appears to be in the right place, bless her. After a media storm erupts- showing a lot of people’s willingness to leap to racist and sexist conclusions- Swift and Minaj sort it out between themselves. Swift apologizes to Minaj (“I thought I was being called out. I missed the point, I misunderstood, then misspoke. I’m sorry, Nicki.”) and Minaj accepts (“That means so much Taylor, thank you.”) and though the media tried to squeeze more blood from this stone, that’s the end of it.

People have waves of opinion about Swift, but in this instance, she showed us how best to deal with being called-out: taking time to consider how the things you have said have been interpreted, realising your errors and setting out to mend them. Is Taylor Swift a perfect human, or feminist? Of course not. Neither am I, or you, or anyone that chose to get involved in the Swift-Minaj discussion. Swift exemplified the best way to deal with one’s mistakes in order to learn, and move on.

Consider British writer Jon Ronson’s latest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. If you haven’t read it, please do: on a personal opinion note, Ronson is a brilliant writer and social commentator, and this book is so very interesting. Shamed follows people that have had the mass fury of The Internet rain down upon them, and how they coped, or didn’t, and moved on. Even though baby boomers like to think that the internet, and the people therein, have 10 second goldfish memories, people that have had great shame lumped onto their name have a hard and long time getting back to normalcy. The book is a fair-handed look at many of these people (some whose crimes are worse than others, in fairness) and the other side of a Twitter gang-fight. We sometimes forget that, excepting bots, there is a human being behind an avatar and a jumble of letters…for better or worse.

As when you see everyone live hate-tweeting Q&A on a Monday night and end up switching the telly on, it can be difficult not to get swept up in the- ah, sometimes glorious- bloodlust of a public shaming. Some people, of course, wholly deserve it: rape apologists, slut shamers, dodgy politicians, racist cartoonists, misogynists, trolls, creeps…sure, go at them. They are deliberately making an online space harmful and offensive. But I would suggest, merely from my own experiences, to take a breather before tweeting: examine your feelings about what has been said or done. Consider whether the person was just misspeaking, or talking out of ignorance, not knowing the full ramifications of their words.

Pick your battles

I am learning myself to give people the benefit of the doubt: some people, for instance, are deliberately bigoted and love it. Like a pig in slop, etc. Others might inadvertently use a slur in conversation, without meaning malice. Case in point: when speaking to someone online once, I was lucky enough that when I told them that “prostitute” was considered a slur and that “sex worker” was more appropriate, they apologised, explained that they legitimately did not know such a common word was considered offensive to sex workers, and vowed to change their vocab.

Now, this is an uncommon occurrence. So rarely do I go to someone with legitimate concerns or queries, or advice on slurs and harmful language, and find them to be open to education, willing to learn and happy to apologise for any offence caused. These people- usually men, let’s face it- cannot bear to be corrected (especially by a woman- a feminist, no less!) and their pride and stubbornness does not allow them to consider improving themselves, because why should they change with the world? I know, isn’t it annoying when Social Justice Warriors stamp all over your freedom of speech? Can’t a man go online in this day and age and spout bigotry if they want? Jeez.

I’m not saying “be nice”. I’m not even saying you need to engage with these people. My word of caution is simply that not every fight is the same, or equal. Calling out, say, Miranda Devine, on various disgusting views is not the same as correcting someone that mistakenly uses a slur. Pick your battles: if you wanted, you could sit online all day and fight scumbags (I don’t recommend it) and it’s tempting: I hate letting a-holes and sexists and trolls get the last word, and I loathe the thought of them thinking they “got me”; I hate the thought that they think they are right, and I feel the need to tell them, even if it amounts to nought, that they’re wrong, and immoral, and doomed. In the end, though, this is just for me: I have become aware of the things I do that add to constructive discussion, and the things that are just for my own bile-letting. The best thing you can do for your online soul is to be able to decipher which is which.

Originally published on The Vocal by Lisa Dib