Friday, April 25, 2014

Call-Outs and Culture Wars

As I mentioned in my previous post, Monday night I attended a dissertation defense for Ben, a friend and a former instructor of mine from the University of Minnesota. For those of you who might have attended such a defense before, this event was very different from the usual (I'd never been to one before and now have high standards for any further ones I do attend). For one, it was a public defense, held in a theater in St. Paul and open to anyone who wanted to attend. Secondly, it was not delivered as other defenses might be. Rather, this was an informal, welcoming environment full of friends and colleagues. Described as a "defense performance," this event was thought-provoking and brilliant. There's three aspects of it I'd like to discuss here because and they go as follows: an aspect of the dissertation dealing with the issue of call-outs, another section dealing with loneliness and how to combat it through organizing and collaborating, and finally I'd like to talk about the structure of the event itself and how its structure and self-reflection creates an alternative for the traditional view of academia. All of these things are intertwined, of course, but because I have a habit of writing posts that are plenty long enough, I'll be breaking this down into three parts for you.
Today's part deals with call-outs. I'd mentioned at the end of my previous post how I felt odd for pulling from Tumblr blogs and using their opinions anonymously so as to not cause consternation for arguing against their ideas. Instead of commenting on Tumblr posts and responding with my opinions, I do it on this interface. There are reasons for this - not very good ones, but reasons none the less. Much of this comes from what I see on Tumblr - how the environment is not exactly welcoming to people discussing opinions. Like other parts of the internet, there aren't exactly discussions about issues - there are are smack-downs. That's not to say that all of Tumblr is this way - I do see a lot of reasonable discussions and conversations between users trying to come to a consensus about something. But even these can be hostile and defensive and don't entirely welcome coming to terms with an issue. Problems are made to be very black and white and there are people who are right and people who are wrong and that's that.

I try to avoid that like the plague, hence why I make rebuttals here and keep the identities of posters private so that it is not seen as a persona attack, since I am incorporating their ideas into something other than what they are usually posting in and I don't want them to receive hate should anyone be upset by their ideas (not that any of you would do that, but I still take my precautions). I also keep them anonymous because I don't have permission to use their words or mention them here. They don't know me, I don't know them, and it's really awkward because I see their thoughts all the time but never respond directly to them.

Much of what I do on this blog, I worry, is a call-out. Call-outs, as Ben describes them, are instances when we state that something is wrong in some way (an incorrect fact, a moral belief or political opinion we can't stand) and declare that it is wrong in a public way (one day there will be a book citation for this idea and I will be very, very happy). Much of the internet is made-up of call-outs. Much of this blog is made up of call-outs. Call-outs, while well-intended, are problematic - they dissolve issues into us vs. them and rarely involve anyone learning anything but rather make people angry and hateful. My instance of call-outs might not involve such hate, but they are pretty passive - while I can feel pretty good about cranking out posts on here and pointing out cultural issues in culture, I may be raising awareness but I'm not really actively doing anything to change these problems. "Action is eloquence," Volumnia says in Coriolanus and while words can sway and change, they aren't that powerful without the action to go along with it.

This is nothing new. I've struggled with this issue with many a post and shall continue to do so. But the less I actually act and the more I write the more worried I become. What am I really doing as a blogger? Am I really being constructive or am I just complaining a lot about people?

Of course, in the midst of writing this, a post came across my dash that instantly rose a emotional reaction from me:

This blogger is referring to Time's Person of the Year and how recently, Laverne Cox and Lupita N'yongo have been knocked out of the running for it while Benedict Cumberbatch and John Green have officially been accepted into the final pole by Time. This made me angry, not because I disagree with the poster's underlying view (the fact that this Time magazine poll has been, is, and likely will always be ridiculous and a load of crap and that it's unfair that these two women were knocked out of the running, especially as they both had a large amount of votes in their favor and yet still didn't make the cut) but how they expressed this view. Yes, okay, so you don't think John Green and Benedict Cumberbatch should be in the running for this. That's fine. But to state in such away is so counteractive - it makes them the enemy against Lavern and Lupita when there is the enemy is a lot fuzzier than that - it's the fact that Time Magazine's idea of influence is vague as well as focused on a certain kind of influence that harbors certain prejudices within it. It's the fact that fans will vote for a person over and over because they like them instead of voting for someone who maybe has a deeper cultural impact. It deals with the fact that polls like this show that the world is perhaps what we want it to be. These are the enemies we face - and they are not as clear as a white male actor and a white male writer you might see as overrated.

I desperately wanted to respond to this post on Tumblr, to use my own voice of once in a space where I've hardly ever posted anything of my own making. But I didn't. Maybe this was a failure on my part. But the idea of doing so terrified me. For one, I feel I don't have a lot of right to respond - who wants to hear another white fangirl sound like she's defending Cumberbatch and Green when there's a larger issue of racism and transphobia to be dealt with? I'd be seen as being all lost in the message rather than the meaning. Who cares if you hate on a couple of white dudes if it means getting the message across of how messed up Time's poll is? Because saying these things are cruel and hateful and just as crude as the things people say about why Lupita N'yongo and Lavern Cox shouldn't be nominated. We can't fight prejudice with further prejudice - that isn't what equality is about.

But how does criticizing this post help? It doesn't solve the issue of the Time magazine poll. It doesn't take away the fact that people hate John Green and Benedict Cumberbatch because they've fused everything they hate about the patriarchy and white privilege and the bourgeois into them. It doesn't end racism and transphobia. It only continues the culture war, the battle of "us vs. them," of "I'm wrong, you're right." And without sitting down and explaining what is wrong about this post and clearly and calmly being able to show this person that problem, nothing can be solved.

It's hard to be clear and calm on the internet because we're mediated by these technical interfaces. I saw an interesting post about internet hate and it described the issue as such: when we receive hateful messages, we read them in our own voice and they hurt all the more. When we read postings from people with opinions we disagree with, perhaps this is why we're so prone to such emotional interaction - because it sounds as if some rampant part of our mind came up with it and we're horrified to hear it have such thoughts. But there's also the issue of words being detached from the person and not knowing their expression behind what they've written. We only get part of a message, not a whole message because there's only the words, not the delivery. It's hard to have conversations in such an environment.
Beyond this, everything we create now seems to be scrutinized. What we say - whether it's on the internet or not - is subject to criticism. This makes it really hard to talk. Which is why my Tumblr blog is all reblogging. I don't feel safe having an original idea out there. So I stick to pictures of bunnies, recipes, some feminist thought bubbles from others, pretty pictures, and fandom stuff. I couldn't get myself to respond to that post because I was afraid of having my message misunderstood, of getting into an altercation online, and because I didn't feel like the right person to speak up about it, coming from a place of privilege. But if I am privilege and afraid to speak, what about those who aren't? Where are their voices when other louder, aggressive ones who mean to speak for others overshadow them. I guarantee there is a trans woman and/or a woman of color who is pissed as hell to see one of her favorite actors or writers pitted against the lovely women who also influence and encourage her. But will she speak up about this or will she be as afraid as I was, even though this matter is a million times more personal to her than it is to me?

I like to think that I'm resisting Tumblr's call-out atmosphere by not being provoked into it and writing here instead. But I don't think this is the best alternative either. Whose voices am I occluding here? In what ways am I converting the call-out mentality into a better disguised, more deceiving form? Is my supposed eloquence distracting me and others from actually taking action? Or am I problematizing myself too much? Is my blog small enough to not have large negative affects? Or am I aware enough of the issues with blogging to at least not always fall into the trap of the culture war call-outs? I learn best by failing. So I'm going to keep doing this - and likely keep failing - until I find something that works.
Since this has largely been a post about the interface of blogging, I encourage you to check out this trailer for a film called American Blogger, which if I can see it for free, I will. This trailer speaks multitudes for everything I've discussed here, especially occluding certain people to show a certain perspective and voice (ie: why is a wide range of bloggers nearly all white women? Why do they all seem to have fashion or family or cooking blogs? Who wrote the narration for this trailer and do they know how tacky it sounds?). Because this is plenty call-outy anyway, I'll include the link to The Daily Beasts' opinion on this trailer (which basically says what I've briefly stated in more snarky, thought-out terms). I'm upset about this film on the grounds of lack of representation of bloggers from different ages, backgrounds, genders, interests, etc. but don't want to continue the call-out behavior I've already initiated. But if The Daily Beast reached out to the filmmaker and got no comment, why should he listen if I reach out to express my opinions to him? How do we make our voices heard in such an environment?

"Your voices! For your voices I have fought." Coriolanus again. This plays is one massive expression of culture wars and it's kind of ruining my life, such that I want to write an essay supposing what it might be like to stage Coriolanus having Hannah Arendt's theories as an overarching lens for such warring. But I'm drifting into part two of this whole conversation. So I'll end it there for today.


  1. This is very smart and perceptive; it also probably explains why I don't read Tumblr at all, and read only a very few blogs. Online interactions tend to be less than productive much of the time. (Please keep writing!)

    1. Thank you! (And I will certainly keep writing :D)