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Soraya Roberts | Longreads | March 2020 | 10 minutes (2,569 words)
“Can I talk to you in private?” No one wants to hear those words. The impulse is to assume you’ve done something egregiously wrong. The expectation is that you are about to be punished. The conviction is so strong that the only good thing about it is that, at least initially, you can suffer without anyone else knowing about it. You might even thank the punisher for coming to you directly, for keeping it between just the two of you. It’s the least someone can do when they are about to theoretically ruin your life.
A lot has been written about privacy online, in terms of information, in terms of being policed. Ecuador is currently rushing to pass a data protection law after a breach affected as many as 20 million people — more than the country’s population. A lot has also been written about callout and cancel culture, about people being targeted and cast off (if only temporarily), their entire history dredged up and subjected to ex post facto judgement; Caroline Flack, the British television presenter who recently committed suicide while being hounded in the press and online amid allegations she had assaulted her on-again, off-again boyfriend, was seen as its latest casualty. But there hasn’t been a lot of talk about the hazier in-between, about interpersonal privacy online, about missteps once dealt with confidentially by a friend or a colleague or a boss, about the discrete errors we make that teach equally discrete lessons so as not to be repeated in public. That’s not how it is anymore, not in a world tied together by social media. Paper trails aren’t just emails anymore; they take in any move you make online, most notably on social media, and the entire internet is your peevish HR rep. We’re all primed — and able — to admonish institutions and individuals: “Because of social media, marginalized people like myself can express ourselves in a way that was not possible before,” Sarah Hagi wrote in Time last year. “That means racist, sexist, and bigoted behavior or remarks don’t fly like they used to.”
Which is to say that a lot of white people are fucking up, as usual, but now everyone, including white people and people of color, are publicly vilifying them for it as tech’s unicorn herders cash in on the eternal flames. And it’s even worse than in the scarlet letter days: the more attention the worse the punishment, and humiliation online has the capacity for infinite reach. As Sarah John tweeted after one particular incident that left a person hospitalized, “No one knows how to handle cancel culture versus accountability.”
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“Is that blood?” That was my first question after a friend of mine sent me a message with a link to a few tweets by a person I’d never heard of, the editor-in-chief of a small site. The majority of the site’s staff had just resigned, the impetus being a semi-viral tweet, since deleted, of a DM the editor had sent a Twitter chat in 2016: “I was gonna reply to this with ‘n—a say what?’ Then I was like holy shite that’s racist, I can’t say that on twitter.” According to Robert Daniels at the Balder and Dash blog on rogerebert.com, tweeters, mostly white, piled on — some even called the EIC’s workplace demanding they be fired — before the office-wide resignation. Videos embedded in the tweets I saw showed the editor crying through an apology. (Longreads contacted the editor for comment; they’ve asked to remain anonymous for their health and safety.)
Initially I thought the videos were just a mea culpa, but then I saw a flash of red. Though the details are muddied by a scrubbed social media history, the editor appeared to have harmed themselves. Ex-colleagues rushed to their aid, however, and they were eventually hospitalized. If that wasn’t horrible enough, a filmmaker named Jason Lei Howden decided to avenge the EIC. With scant information, apparently, he targeted individuals on Twitter who weren’t involved in the initial pile-on, specifically blaming two people of color for the crisis — Valerie Complex and Dark Sky Lady, who had not in fact bullied anyone but had blogged about Howden. The official Twitter account of Howden’s new film, Guns Akimbo, got mixed up in the targeted attacks, threatening the release of the film.
There are multiple levels to this that I don’t understand. First, why that DM was released; why didn’t the person simply confront the EIC directly? Second, why did the editor’s staff, people who knew them personally, each issue individual public statements about their resignations into an already-growing pile-on? (I don’t so much wonder about the pile-on itself because I know about the online disinhibition effect, about how the less you know a person online, the more you are willing to destroy them.) Third, why the hell did that filmmaker get involved, and without any information? Why did the white man with all the clout attack a nebulous entity he called “woke twitter” — presumably code for “people of color” — and point a finger at specific individuals while also denying their response to one of the most inflammatory words in the English language (didn’t they realize it was an “ironic joke,” he scoffed)? As Daniels wrote, “This became a cycle of blindspots, and a constant blockage of discussing race, suicide, and alliance.” Why, at no point, did anyone stop to think about the actual people involved, about maybe taking this private, to a place where everything wasn’t telegraphed and distorted?
I had the same question after the BFI/Thirst Aid Kit controversy. In mid-February, the British Film Institute officially announced the monthlong film series THIRST: Female Desire on Screen, curated by film critic Christina Newland and timed to coincide with the release of her first book, She Found It at the Movies (full disclosure: I was asked to participate, but my pitch was not accepted). The promotional image included an illustration of a woman biting her lip, artwork similar to that of three-year-old podcast Thirst Aid Kit (TAK), a show that covers the intersection of pop culture and thirst. Newland later told The Guardian she wondered about the “optics,” but as a freelancer with no say on the final design, she deferred to the BFI. She had in fact twice approached TAK cohost Nichole Perkins to contribute to her book (the podcast’s other cohost is Bim Adewunmi). Perkins told me in an email that she wanted to, but her work load eventually prevented her. And while TAK did share the book’s preorder link, the BFI ultimately failed to include the podcasters in the film series as speakers, or even just as shout-outs in the publicity notes — doubly odd, given that Adewunmi is London-based. Quote-tweeting the BFI’s announcement and tagging both the institute and Newland, TAK responded, “Wow! This sounds great. Hope our invitation arrives soon!”
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The predictable result was a Newland pile-on in which she was accused of erasing black women’s work, followed by a TAK pile-on — though Perkins told me her personal account was “full of support and kindness” — for claiming ownership over a term that preceded them. All three women ended up taking time away from Twitter (which is a sacrifice for journalists whose audience depends on social media) though Newland has since returned. I asked Perkins if she had thought about dealing with the situation privately at first. “I did consider reaching out to Christina before quote-tweeting, yes,” she wrote. “I wonder if she considered reaching out to us, especially after she saw the artwork for the season and admittedly noticed ‘something going on with the optics,’ as she is quoted as saying in The Guardian.” Eventually, the BFI contacted Perkins and Adewunmi and released a statement apologizing “for their erasure from the conversation we are hoping to create from this season” and announcing a change of imagery. They also noted that Newland, as a guest programmer, was not responsible for their marketing mistake, though no reason was given for their omission. “I have no idea why the BFI or Ms Newland didn’t include Thirst Aid Kit in the literature about the Thirst season,” Adewunmi wrote to me. “I was glad, however, to see the institution acknowledge that initial erasure, as well as issue an apology, in their released statement.”
At around the same time, a similar situation was unravelling in the food industry. Rage Baking: The Transformative Power of Flour, Fury, and Women’s Voices, an anthology edited by former Food Network VP Katherine Alford and NPR’s Kathy Gunst, was published in early February. The collection of more than 50 recipes and essays presents baking as “a way to defend, resist, and protest” and was supposedly inspired by the 2016 election. The hashtag #ragebaking was used to promote the book on social media in January, which brought it to the attention of a woman named Tangerine Jones, whose Instagram followers believed the idea had been stolen from her and alerted her — and the rest of the world. Unprompted by Jones, Alford and Gunst DM’d her to say they had learned the term elsewhere and that the book was “a celebration of this movement.” Jones called them out publicly, publishing their DMs in a Medium essay entitled “The Privilege of Rage,” in which she described how she came up with the concept of rage baking — using the #ragebaking hashtag and the ragebaking.com URL — five years ago, as an outlet for racial injustice. “In my kitchen, I was reminded that I wasn’t powerless in the face of f**kery,” she wrote. Jones’s supporters started a pile-on, her article shared by big names like Rebecca Traister, who had contributed to the collection and requested that her contribution be removed from future editions.
In an abrupt turn of events, the Jones advocates were promptly confronted with advocates of the book, who redirected the pile-on back at Jones for kicking up a fuss. “It is beyond f**ked up that my questioning the authors’ intentions and actions is being framed as detrimental to the success of other black women,” she tweeted. Their silence resounding, the Simon and Schuster imprint ultimately issued a statement that failed to acknowledge their mistake and instead proposed “in the spirit of communal activism” to include Jones in subsequent printings. Unappeased, the baker called out the “apology” she received privately from Alford and Gunst, who told her they were donating a portion of the proceeds to the causes she included in her post (though their public apology didn’t mention that), and asked if she would be interviewed as part of the reprint. “Throwing black women under the bus is part of White Feminist legacy,” Jones tweeted. “That is not the legacy I stand in, nor will I step in that trap.”
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According to Lisa Nakamura, a University of Michigan professor who studies digital media, race, and intersectionality, cancel culture comes from trying to wrest control in a context in which there is little. It’s almost become a running joke the way Twitter protects right-wing zealots while everyone else gets pummeled by them. It follows then that marginalized populations, the worst hit, would attempt to use the platform to reclaim the power they have so often been denied. But as much as social media may sometimes seem like the only place to claim accountability, it is also the worst place to do it. In a Medium post following their Howden hounding, Dark Sky Lady argued that calling out is not bullying, which is true — but the effects on Twitter are often the same. “The goal of bullying is to destroy,” they wrote. “The goal of calling out and criticizing is to improve.” Online, there appears to be no improvement without destruction in every direction, including the destruction of those seeking change. On one end, a group of white people — the EIC, Newland, Alford, Gunst — was destroyed professionally for erring; on the other were the POC — Perkins, Adewunmi, Jones — who were personally destroyed, whose pain was minimized, whose sympathy was expected when they got none. The anger was undoubtedly justified. Less justified was the lack of responsibility for how it was deployed — publicly, disproportionately, with countless people’s hurt revisited on specific individuals, all at once.
We know how pile-ons work now; it’s no defense to claim good intentions (or lack of bad intentions). There were few gains for either side in any of these cases, with the biggest going to the social media machine that feeds on public shame and provides no solution, gorging on the pain of everyone involved without actually providing constructive way forward, creating an ever-renewing cycle of suffering. A former intern for the ousted EIC tweeted that she understood the impulse to critique cancel culture and support the editor, but noted that “there is something sad about the fact that my boss used a racial slur, and I am not allowed to criticize.”
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So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed author Jon Ronson told Maclean’s in 2015 that one of his biggest fears is being defined by one mistake, and that a number of journalists had basically told him, “I live in terror.” I am no exception. Just recently I experienced a comparatively tame callout on Twitter, and even that moderate critique made me drop an entire book project, wonder about a job opportunity that subsequently dissolved, and second-guess every story idea I’ve had since. The situation was somewhat helpful in making me a more considerate person but was exponentially more helpful in making me anxious and in inspiring hateful fantasies about people I had never met. I am 100 percent certain that the first gain would have been made just as successfully had people spoken to me privately and would have saved me from the second part becoming so extreme that I had to leave social media to recalibrate. The overwhelming sense I’m left with is that if I say something that someone doesn’t like, even something justifiable, my detractors will counter with disproportionate force to make whatever point it is they want to make about an issue that’s larger than just me. What kind of discourse is that which mutes from the start, which turns every disagreement into a fight to the death, which provides no opportunity for anyone to learn from their failures? How do we progress with no space to do it?
“I think we need to remember democracy. When somebody transgresses in a democracy, other people give them their points of view, they tell them what they’ve done wrong, there’s a debate, people listen to each other. That’s how democracy should be,” Ronson told Vox five years ago. “Whereas, on social media, it’s not a democracy. Everybody’s agreeing with each other and approving each other, and then, if somebody transgresses, we disproportionately punish them. We tear them apart, and we don’t want to listen to them.” The payment for us is huge — almost as big as the payout for the tech bros who feign impartiality when their priority is clearly capital and nothing else. This is a punitive environment in which we are treating one another like dogs, shoving each other’s noses into the messes we have made. Offline, people are not defined by the errors they make, but by the changes they make when they are confronted with those errors, a kind of long game that contradicts the very definition of Twitter or Facebook or Instagram. The irony of public shaming on social media is that social media itself is the only thing that deserves it.
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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.