What we need instead of online shaming is a culture that fosters the ability to learn from our mistakes.
When I was working on my article on the status of LGBTQ+ persons in the formal workforce, I had the chance to interview people who were gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual – all belonging to social categories that I didn’t interact extensively with on a daily basis. I was in a conversation with a trans man, and I asked him a basic question before beginning the interview.
“What are your preferred pronouns?”
“Uh, it’s he/him/his.”
As I was noting it down, he said,
“Please don’t mind, but I’m correcting you here – whenever you’re asking someone their pronouns, you should never ask what someone’s ‘preferred’ pronouns are because that can give somebody an identity crisis. When we use the word “preferred”, we make it sound like it’s a choice. When you’re asking this question, just say ‘pronouns’.”
When he said he wanted to correct me, I was terrified – have I made a complete fool of myself? Have I offended him to the point of no repair? Will he want to continue talking to me for this article? All these questions flashed through my mind when he said those words. Most of all, I was scared that I may have come across as a bad ally for the LGBTQ+ community because I didn’t know this technicality. But this exchange gave me a new perspective that I carried with me through the rest of my interviews. Since we were on the topic, I even cleared a couple of doubts regarding how to ask an LGBTQ+ person’s sexual orientation without coming across as voyeuristic. The conversation went well.
Online shaming, or ‘call-out’ and ‘cancel’ culture provides quick-fix, short-term justice.
Anyone who considers themselves to be socially conscious (or ‘woke’, as the cool kids are calling it) has found themselves in a situation where they’ve said something wrong, or have simply not said anything at all from the fear of being wrong. I’m just here to let you know that if you have, you’re not alone.
We are living in tricky times where our questions or remarks – regardless of their intention – can make us subject to ‘call-out’ – or worse – ‘cancel’ culture.
To put it briefly, ‘cancelling’ a person on the internet often goes hand-in-hand with calling them out – reprimanding or criticising them for an opinion or remark that can be deemed offensive, either to an individual or to a group – especially to those belonging to a marginalised social category.
When calling out doesn’t work or isn’t seen as enough for the person to learn from their mistakes, the person is ‘cancelled’ – shunned from social (in this case, internet) circles because of their problematic views and is deemed incapable of changing them.
Whether it’s in the form of naming and shaming someone who has said or done something offensive, whether it’s digging up their past posts/tweets/stories/comments and showcasing them as a way to discredit their opinions, or creating hashtags to start a conversation around a single incident, call-out and cancel culture has become an intrinsic part of our lives on the internet.
The idea behind calling out someone is to modify the behaviour of the person in the wrong – why has it become synonymous with intolerance?
Cancel culture develops fear, leaves no room for mistakes, and leads to self-censoring.
When I was corrected for my use of the word ‘preferred’ during my LGBTQ+ interview, technically, I was called out. It was brought to my attention that I was saying something wrong and that had the power to hurt someone. But it didn’t seem like I was being called out – that’s because there were no accusations; just a simple lesson that led to a productive conversation. However, the questions that ran through my head indicated something – the fear of being wrong has stopped me from making mistakes and asking questions.
The palpable impatience and anger on the internet is understandable and, to a certain extent, justified.
Call-out culture exists because it has given a voice to those of us who are tired of being talked over, being ignored, being oppressed; cancel culture has provided a certain sense of accountability in a world where due process has failed to help Us.
But the problem is that because of how reactionary it is – or has become – it has stopped people from asking questions from the fear that they will be called out for being ignorant, or straight cancelled – isolated – if they don’t understand.
And when people stop asking questions, they learn to live with their ignorance and even become protective of it.
Internet activism has given us the space to narrate our unique experiences and connect with more people who can relate, thus making us feel like we’re not alone. The kind of solidarity we have found on the internet is truly astonishing- it has given us invaluable safe spaces where we can talk about our experiences without judgement or shame. But because our offline lives have become so indistinguishable from our online lives – owing to the solidarities we have found here – any contrasting response to our activism seems like a direct attack to ourselves, our existence.
We look to our activism as a space where we can heal on an individual level, making it our personal space.
We call people out because it reinforces the fact that we know better, and that makes us feel good. What we don’t understand is that to have a successful movement, we need to draw a line between what we get out of it, and what others should get out of it.
So when someone displays ignorance of any kind, our first reaction is to discredit them – call them out – for not knowing enough, thus discouraging them from being a part of the movement at all. With no room for anyone to make mistakes or ask uncomfortable questions, people censor themselves and don’t engage with the movement wholeheartedly – thus defeating the purpose of it.
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What’s the solution? A culture that encourages growth, vulnerability, and responsibility.
Consistently indulging in call-out and cancel culture gives rise to an us versus them mentality, which boils down to the good old good versus evil debate. It also develops echo-chambers where only a handful of people get together and talk about things they already know – leaving no room for improvement and nuance.
The ‘bois locker room’ incident is controversial but significant in the context of cancel culture. It’s common knowledge that men have the social sanction to talk about women’s bodies in a derogatory manner, and they are conditioned from a young age. The backlash to it was also justified – these instances are reminders that the patriarchy is alive, well, and omnipresent. The question to ask, however, is this – is ‘cancelling’ these young boys the only way forward? Banishing them from the internet, naming and shaming them, bringing the victims to half-baked, short-lived justice – is that the only answer? If anything, the incident has brought out the dire need for our education system and our parenting practices to evolve and include conversations around sex, power, and pleasure – calling out young boys and girls without addressing the institutions they are raised in cannot be the only solution. We should know better, especially since the #MeToo movement is another glaring example of how the patriarchy is perpetuated by multiple institutions working in tandem with each other, leaving no room for women to seek justice.
How do we practice growth culture instead of cancel culture? By becoming vulnerable.
It’s not a bad thing to say “I don’t know” or “I haven’t read up enough to know about this” or “I have never experienced this, so I’m struggling to relate” or “I’m sorry I said that”. Once we voice our vulnerabilities and discuss the fault lines in our activism and someone else’s, we move the conversation from me to we.
Here are other ways we can practice vulnerability in our activism:
- Your intentions matter. Do you want to be a part of this movement because you care about the people involved? Or is it because you’re curious about the movement itself? What do you aim to do with the knowledge you gain by being a part of this movement? It’s essential to constantly evaluate what you want out of the movement.
- Doing research is cool. It’s absolutely okay that you don’t know everything; no one does – but knowing the basics can help you ask relevant questions. That said,
- Asking questions – super cool. If you know what the LGBTQ+ movement is about but the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity confuses you, ask someone who can explain it to you in a way that sticks. And it’s important for the growth of the movement to ask questions that people often don’t – don’t let the fear of being wrong or politically incorrect deter you. Similarly, be open to someone asking you a question that is basic by your standards – you’re helping someone gain knowledge!
- You’ll make mistakes, and you’ll learn. There might be moments when you screw up. But that mustn’t discourage you from being a part of the movement – learn from it and practise it. Alternatively, if you think someone is wrong, be sure to correct the person’s behaviour and not attack the person who was wrong.
- De-centre yourself. It’s a great practice to remind yourself that the movement is about something bigger than yourself. If that means that you may have to do something that is mildly inconvenient, it’s alright.
While it is completely acceptable for you not to indulge someone’s curiosity and confusion on account of how much emotional labour you’re willing to put in, responses and questions often serve as a fresh reminder of how far you’ve come and how far you’re willing to go.
We need to develop a narrative that addresses the grey areas. We need to develop a language that allows a person who has made a mistake to understand that they’ve made a mistake and that they must rectify it. It’s important to remember that social movements have never been easy or convenient – the very idea behind a movement is to shake the existing structures and make them better for everyone involved. For that to happen, we must be okay with the idea of becoming uncomfortable or inconvenienced every now and then.
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