Content Warning: This article is an honest critique of call-out culture, language policing, cultural appropriation, and privilege politics from the perspective of classical liberalism, assertiveness training, and yes, intersectionality. If the idea of such a critique offends you, you have three main choices: (A) stop reading now, (B) try to attack or discredit me, or (C) take a hard look at yourself and read anyway. If someone has sent you to this article during or after a debate, it is my sincere hope (and probably theirs too) that you are willing to choose option C.
I’m going to talk openly and directly here about an issue I’ve seen building in online liberal and leftist communities. The Left, especially the young Left, seems to have become enamored of a certain well-intentioned but ultimately self-defeating style of communication. While I’m not normally a fan of prefacing my writing – I prefer not to tell the reader how they should feel – I think a little fair warning is due here. Tensions and mutual distrust between the Right and Left are very high right now, and some of what I’m about to address may be difficult to think about. It isn’t pretty, but it’s grounded in a solid (if largely self-researched) understanding of psychology. Like any skill, looking honestly at our own behavior and assumptions (introspection) is hard work that will become easier with practice. That’s why learning to identify and account for one’s own privilege can be difficult too, especially at first.
If some of what I say makes you feel angry, or like you’re being attacked, please step back and consider that this is your ego instinctively trying to defend itself from a challenge that isn’t taking place. I am critiquing a philosophy: a particular way of thinking about and attempting to promote social justice through aggressive language. This article is not about you personally, and not directly about any of your friends. Every word of what I write here comes from love and respect for the essential values of open-mindedness, tolerance, reasonable debate, and bringing an end to all oppression everywhere. This article is itself a call-out, with the aim of repairing a wound that threatens our movement.
If there’s a voice in your head telling you to reject this honest and heartfelt constructive criticism, I’m asking that you put that voice in a little mental box, and set it aside for a few minutes while reading. The observations here work best when considered together, which is why it’s a good idea to suspend judgment until you’ve heard all of them. If after that, when you let the critical voice out of the box, you find that you still agree with it, then maybe I’m misinterpreting what I’ve seen, or missing some important information. That possibility always exists for anyone, so I freely admit my fallibility. If that’s the case, please get in touch and we can discuss it.
Because I know these “credentials” may matter to some, even though I honestly don’t think they should, I’m going to state here the marginalized groups of which I am a member. I am Jewish, pagan, homosexual, and genderqueer. (I am also male-passing, straight-passing, white-passing, and either atheist-passing or Christian-passing most of the time.) I have attention deficit disorder and social anxiety, the latter partly the result of about a decade of school bullying for being fat, bookish, homosexual, and generally nonconformist. I have experienced severe depression with suicidal ideation, as well as two drug-induced manic episodes that each required several weeks of hospitalization. I am diabetic, and have high blood pressure and cholesterol. So please add several so-called invisible disabilities to the list. I have been sexually assaulted, thankfully only once, and in a more awkward than malicious way. (There was a sincere, entirely believable apology the following day, but the friendship still ended, and the apology doesn’t erase anything that happened.)
If you aren’t liberal or leftist, or even if you are, perhaps you’ve been in a situation where you felt publicly attacked, demonized, or shamed unfairly by social justice call-out culture. This article may serve your interests, but is not directly about you. A certain segment of those who think of themselves as liberal or leftist have been crying wolf at the tiniest implication of any type of prejudice for quite a while now. Those of us on the Left trying to talk about this issue have been unfairly shamed, ridiculed, or even ostracized by some, just as you may have been. We are working on it to the best of our ability. Changing minds and hearts is not easy work, especially when it involves convincing people they’re shooting themselves in the foot. Please try to be patient with our progress here.
The list of rights below is based on the classic assertive person’s bill of rights, a document that truly changed my life when a therapist suggested I read the book When I Say No, I Feel Guilty. Assertive communication can be difficult, even with practice, but it is the most proven way of presenting ideas in a way others can accept them. Nobody likes being lectured or scolded by a know-it-all. For an idea of how aggressive or passive-aggressive communication can make us look when we’re talking with a moderate or conservative person, watch this video.
One easy way to see the distinction between aggressiveness and assertiveness is the Rotary Four-Way Test:
1) Is it the truth?
2) Is it fair to all concerned?
3) Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
4)Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
I would add a fifth question: Are there any beliefs, assumptions, or ideas can I give up – even if only temporarily – in order to make this communication work better?
If the answer to these questions is “yes”, then you are being assertive. If not, then you are being either aggressive, passive, or passive-aggressive. When we address someone aggressively or passive-aggressively, the other person is justified in reacting as if they’ve been attacked because they have been attacked.
So, in the tradition of assertiveness training, I present a draft list of social justice rights or rules of engagement for online or in-person debate. These “rights” are meant to facilitate a discussion about how we discuss social justice, not to be commandments sent down from on high. I am not infallible, and neither is any other human, so I hope others are willing to comment on this draft list and help to refine it. I have used “we” rather than “you” for this list of rights, to reflect that I’ve had trouble keeping to them sometimes myself.
Social Justice Bill of Rights (Draft)
- We have the right to tell someone their words have offended or upset us, and why. Privately, at least the first time, and as gently as possible while still getting the point across. This is sometimes known as “calling-in”.
- We do not have the right to be rude, dismissive, or deliberately hurtful when doing so, or to publicly shame someone without trying to work things out with them privately first. Those behaviors are not about activism. They are about ego. If our ideas can only be spread by being verbally abusive, then they are bad ideas. Calling someone out publicly is usually going to make them want to defend themselves. When that happens, it means our phrasing may have been too aggressive, not necessarily that the other person is an evil oppressor whom we need to destroy. In cases where discussing the issue assertively in private doesn’t work, a call-out may still be necessary.
- We do not have the right to expect others to stop using certain words or concepts all the time, simply because we personally find them offensive or upsetting. That is censorship, full stop. Censorship kills freedom of expression, even when it comes from good intentions. That’s why language policing only treats a symptom of prejudice, while ignoring the underlying disease. Asking a friend not to use a certain word in our presence is fine, but we should try not to jump down their throat if they slip up a few times. Consciously changing their own speech patterns is very hard for some people, and they deserve our patience when making the effort.
- We have the right to be angry or sad when someone mistreats we. That’s the natural response to this kind of treatment, and emotions usually arise on their own.
- We do not have the right to use our anger, sadness, or history of mistreatment as an excuse for antisocial behavior. Everyone is responsible for addressing their own mental health challenges, including any that may affect self-control. The expectation that we will conduct ourselves like mature adults who live in a society with other mature adults is not the same thing as victim-blaming. It may be helpful to stay home or avoid debating on the internet, if possible, on days when we feel depressed, irritable, reactive, or angry.
- We have the right to state our thoughts, feelings, opinions, experience, and philosophy, and have others listen to them and consider them before responding. So does everyone else in the conversation.
- We do not have the right to shame or browbeat others into agreeing with us. This includes statements such as “if you disagree with me, you must be stupid / evil / a bigot / a Nazi”. No one person is the ultimate arbiter of truth in the universe. We should show some compassion and empathy and tolerance for ideas that are different from our own, and always keep in might that we could be wrong. As long as the other person is listening and being civil, they are doing their part. They do not have to agree with us in order to be a good person.
- We have the right to safe spaces that cater to our own preferred word choice and definitions, whether or not others understand or approve of the rules and conventions of those spaces. Everyone needs a place where they can vent their emotions, scream, or even say hateful things from time to time when they are feeling angry. This is especially true for people who know it may be risky or unsafe to show their authentic selves in the larger world.
- We do not have the right to assume we are already in such a safe space without directly asking. We also do not have the right to redefine someone’s terms for them in the middle of a conversation, nor to demand an alteration to the existing conventions of someone else’s space that we have only just entered. Terms have multiple definitions based on subculture, regional dialect, or academic discipline. Words also have connotations, which are sometimes very different from their dictionary definitions. Expectations of what is acceptable or understood to be true vary from space to space. For example, insisting a particular definition of “racism” or “sexism” is the only correct definition outside a safe space is (at best) naive and shortsighted, since it does not get results from non-leftists. At worst, it can be a form of bullying, or a way to steal the spotlight in an unrelated conversation.
- We have the right to challenge someone else’s logic or beliefs assertively. In debate, this is how people learn new things, including how to understand each other better.
- We do not have the right to make aggressive or passive-aggressive personal attacks (sometimes called “ad hominems”). Punching Nazis is one thing. Verbally abusing all conservative people is another. We do not change minds by leaping straight to calling someone “bigot” or “oppressor”.
- We have the right to be judged on our own merits as individuals, rather than by a group stereotype, and to speak openly about our lived experiences of oppression and marginalization. By extension, we have a right to expect allies will allow usto speak for ourselves, rather than talking over us or telling others what we “really meant”.
- We do not have the right to silence or dominate others based on what demographic groups they are part of. The golden rule applies: Treat others as we would like to be treated. As soon as we start generalizing about what “everyone knows” or or “nobody in their right mind should think”, we are confusing our personal experiences and beliefs for universal truth. That means we have already crossed the line that separates debating from preaching. Please don’t. Not only won’t it won’t change anyone’s mind, it will just make them want to leave, or worse yet, never to talk to anyone from the Left again.
- We have the right to protest when someone else tells us who to be, or what to think or feel. This is aggressive communication at its worst. We are not obliged to submit to it, even (especially) if the other person claims to know what is “right”, “natural”, or “according to God’s plan”.
- We do not have the right to brand someone a bigot or an oppressor based on a single instance or even a few instances of carelessness or poor word choice. People have widely varying levels of linguistic understanding and ability. Not everyone is a reader or a deep thinker, and people who aren’t still deserve respect and compassion like everyone else. Some people will simply be unable to understand the distinction being made. They will signal in whatever way they know how that this topic is too abstract or intellectual or subtle for them to process. We should not assume the worst about someone when it becomes clear we are discussing social justice in a way they are unable to process or engage with. If we fail to account for intellectual disabilities and/or variant learning styles, we are being ableist.
- We have the right to point out that the speaker’s intent is not a magic bullet that erases the impact of their words. Meaning, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder.
- We do not have the right to act as if our interpretation of their words is perfect, or as if we are totally objective and lack any human bias. Sometimes what we receive is just not what the other person is sending. Humans don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are. If someone has a consistent, pervasive pattern of stereotyping, hatred, or lack of empathy, that is a different situation that may require us to be firm or even aggressive. In no way should we tolerate people who directly advocate the murder, enslavement, or subjugation of other people. However, some people who believe negative stereotypes about minority groups may still be willing to consider opposing ideas, if they are presented in a rational and respectful way.
- We have the right to state what standards of conduct we expect in debate. The word “debate” normally implies a willingness to discuss the issues, rather than making personal attacks on the speaker’s character, and to focus on logic rather than emotional appeals.
- We do not have the right to force others to agree to our own preferred standards of conduct, or to change the rules in the middle of a debate. When basic principles conflict, sometimes the best we can do is state our beliefs and agree to disagree.
- We have the right to be treated with dignity and respect. So does everyone else, of course. That’s common courtesy.
- We do not have the right to rant or rampage when someone else fails to treat us with dignity or respect. “You hurt my feelings, so now I’m going to hurt you” is not acceptable from a mature adult. “What you just said was hurtful for this reason, and I would appreciate an apology” is fine. When someone is supporting negative stereotypes and refuses to back down (“all women / Black people / gays / poor people are XYZ”), we should still with them as we would any other troll.
- We have the right to state our own identities, rather than letting others infer it from our appearance or name. While a close friend or family member will sometimes notice a quality about us that we don’t or can’t, such as bad breath or an annoying personality quirk, no one else can define our identity for us.
- We do not have the right to assume someone is white, male, straight, cisgender, Christian, wealthy, non-disabled, or a member of any dominant group in society based on their appearance or name. This again falls under the golden rule. If it is wrong to judge someone’s identity based on their name or appearance, then it is wrong in every case. It doesn’t matter which specific groups they appear to belong to. (If they are wearing clothing or holding a sign that openly declares their identity or beliefs, whether with words or a symbol such as a swastika or Confederate flag, then we already know what they are trying to tell us.)
- We have the right to point out that certain terms or definitions might be considered offensive or appropriative by a group we aren’t personally a member of. This is part of being a good ally to members of that group, as long as we do it carefully.
- We do not have the right to make categorical, sweeping declarative statements on behalf of all members of a group we aren’t personally a member of. Being a good ally means letting them speak for themselves, not crusading on their behalf. Talking on behalf of a group whose lived experience we don’t share tends to become paternalistic, condescending, and elitist really really fast. Try listening to members of that group, and centering them in conversations related to their concerns, instead of talking over them (if they are present) or speaking for them (if they are not present). By extension, we do not have the right to declare that a word or practice must be appropriative, unless that specific word or practice is widely considered sacred, taboo, or otherwise “not for outsiders” in a group we are personally a member of.
- We have the right to talk about pervasive patterns of problematic prejudice and privilege. (Alliteration, woo!) The first step in solving a problem is identifying that it exists and describing it accurately.
- We do not have the right to act as if every white person or straight person or cisgender person or male person (etc.) is just as bad as the others from that group who have hurt us. Allies are not obliged to accept straw men or hasty generalizations that treat their identity as a stereotype any more than we are. If we want “not all men” or “not all white people” to be understood, then we should use qualifiers like “some” or “many” or “most” or “in my experience”. Safe spaces where statements like “men are pigs” or “fuck white people” or “die cis-het scum” are considered appropriate are not usually ones to invite allies into, even as guests.
- We have the right to critique a work of art based on our personal experience and understanding of privilege, prejudice, class struggles, oppression, and so on. Art exists to be analyzed and commented upon. Artists thrive on honest critique.
- We do not have the right to demonize the artist for performing the essential function of art: holding up a mirror to society. Effective art is often about confronting the viewer, listener, or reader with ideas that are challenging or disturbing. “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” This function of art becomes impossible when we try to make certain taboo, so that one can ever talk about them or make art about them. Artists are not required to compromise their artistic vision or integrity simply because we find their work too confronting. We must learn to recognize the difference between honest artistic social commentary (including satire), and “art” that is little more than a hack being edgy for the sole purpose of shock value or media coverage.
- We have the right to take someone’s reasoning or philosophy to its logical conclusion, in order to illustrate ways in which it can become ridiculous or nonsensical. In the study of logic, this method is called “reductio ad absurdum” (reduction to absurdity), and can be both amusing and effective when done well.
- We do not have the right to demonize someone simply because their ethics or beliefs are more conservative than our own. In general, conservative people tend to value tradition, security, and patriotism more than liberal people do. They have also been shown to be more motivated by fear than liberals are. But there is nothing inherently wrong with this, when it isn’t taken to extremes. Some people choose to live in relationships based on heteronormative, traditional gender roles because it makes them happy. Some women choose to be a stay-at-home mom because they find that role fulfilling. Even when someone is a lot more capitalist or patriarchal than we might prefer, they may not understand the full implications of that position, or how policies they support can harm women, or LGBTQ people, or the working poor. As long as people can publicly conduct themselves in a tolerant and respectful way, their personal choices and beliefs are not our problem.
- We have the right to ask someone to cite sources, provide evidence, or give us a link to their data. This is a good way to separate fact from opinion, or to determine whether the person’s data comes from a biased or slanted source.
- We do not have the right to treat a request for a citation, source, evidence, documentation, or other factual data as a personal attack on our character. Refusing to do so is functionally the same as conceding that we do not have any evidence for the opinion (in other words, that it is based solely on faith). Any opinion asserted without evidence can also be immediately dismissed without evidence, which is why it’s a good idea to save links to any data that backs up our position.
- We have the right to point out microaggressions when they occur. Often, people don’t realize the full implications of the words they use. They will usually appreciate knowing why a certain word may mean something different than it used to, or means something different to a group that is not their own.
- We do not have the right to expect that the world will ever be completely free of microaggressions. Different people do not necessarily find the same terms or phrases offensive. Humans are subjective, judgmental, flawed creatures. Language is imperfect and imprecise. These are universal truths. If we learn to accept them, it may help with becoming more resilient to microaggressions over time.
- We have the right to decline to educate someone, if doing so would take up too much time, emotional resources, or spoons. Our time and energy are our own. No one gets to demand them, unless we voluntarily made an appointment or relationship agreement with that person that includes a specific time allotment.
- We do not have the right to act as if questions like “How do you mean?” or “Where could I learn more about that?” are intrusive or unreasonable. If the person is expressing genuine curiosity and a desire to do better next time, please consider taking 30 seconds to find a link that might help them. It can help to keep a list of such links saved for these occasions. If that seems like too much trouble, we may be confusing “activism” with what other people call “being a jerk to people who think differently from us”. Again, that is about ego, not social justice. It is always okay to say something like, “I appreciate your curiosity and interest, and I suggest you research that on your own.”
- We have the right to say “This conversation is triggering for me. I need to withdraw / come back later” if a topic is difficult for us, and then to follow through on that. In assertiveness training, this is called setting a boundary. It is an important part of self-care that takes practice to do well.
- We do not have the right to make other people responsible for our own mental health challenges, including post-traumatic stress. That’s called “enabling”, and it’s unhealthy even when friends and family do it out of misguided love. We must always know our limits and safeguard them assertively. We do not have the right to threaten to leave the conversation unless we are really going to do so; otherwise, we are just manipulating others with an idle threat.
- We have the right to choose to avoid people who have been abusive toward us, up to and including blocking them or not talking with them anymore. Anyone can withdraw consent at any time. That’s a fundamental principle of assertiveness.
- We do not have the right to demand that others stop talking to that person in order to stay friends with us. That can feel like dragging other friends into personal drama, and many people resent it. Some people even have a rule that says, “If two friends have a falling out, I will stay friends with whichever person did not force me to choose.” In cases of abuse, it can be tempting to say anyone who isn’t with us is against us, but it’s important to remember that there will always be people who choose to be diplomatic, and prefer not to get involved in other people’s problems. We may not agree with that choice, but it does not automatically make them a bad person. However, if they were directly asked to help stop the abuse and refused, that means they have effectively sided with the abuser.
- We have the right to ask for help from friends, family, teachers, or mental health professionals for whatever stress or trauma we have suffered. People who care about us are generally going to want to help us, so it’s always okay to ask.
- We do not have the right to draft our friends, family, or teachers into the role of therapist when they have not consented to devoting their time to advice or emotional support. Consent must be explicit, including consent for this type of emotional labor. Many people will want to help, but either won’t know how or may not be able to help effectively right now. In many cases, a mental health professional and / or a support group is the best choice.
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