One of the most useful concepts Hecate has introduced me to over the many years of our friendship (and there have been MANY, both of concepts and of years) is to be continually asking: Cui bono? It’s a legal concept, asking who stands to benefit from a crime, thus potentially helping you figure out who might have been the one who committed the crime in the first place.
We on the left need to be asking ourselves this ALL THE TIME.
The left has a long history of purity culture – if you’re not perfect on EVERYTHING, you’re trash – and I’ve noticed what seems to be an accelerating trend, exacerbated by social media, to “cancel” everyone who makes a misstep, no matter how unintentional or inconsequential. In other words, to turn us all against people who would – and should – be natural allies.
Online activists invest hours, days, weeks bitching about “Bernie Bro” David Sirota or “sexist” Talbert Swan or “white feminist” Alyssa Milano or even just some poor normal person who’s demonstrated that s/he’s less than fully “woke” on some issue – and, just to be clear, I’m not trying to argue that all of the above haven’t made mistakes, serious ones – but I’m worried we’re losing the thread.
So the question becomes: Cui bono?
Hint: it’s not the left, or progressive legislation, or the Democrats’ electoral chances in 2020 and beyond, or, ultimately, our ability to continue to function as a society.
We all know Russia interfered in our elections in 2016 in favor of Donald Trump. And some of it was obvious, chest-beating, “rah rah Trump” garbage. But a lot of it was much more subtle than that, exploiting existing and well-known divisions in our society (which they’ve been doing for almost 100 years, and again, I’m not saying they didn’t correctly identify some very large structural injustices) and the left’s well-known purity culture to turn us against each other. And they’re still doing it. Right now, today, in your – and my – social media feeds. Which we then accelerate through our increasingly destructive “call out” culture.
So there’s a video of a random man being terrible to a woman – or a random christian being terrible to a Muslim (or, equally likely, a Sikh who they’ve misidentified) – or a random straight person being terrible to an LGBTQ person – or a random white person being terrible to a black person. And we all share it a million times and express our outrage and talk very righteously about our awful, broken, misogynist, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, ableist society.
I get to express my Very Correct Positions and get affirmation from other holders of Very Correct Positions (assuming, of course, I didn’t happen to miss one, in which case I’ll probably be called out for not caring enough about the issue related to whichever one I missed). Likes. Faves. Retweets. More followers. Ego boost.
But in the meantime, just like watching the “if it bleeds, it leads” local news causes people to DRAMATICALLY over-estimate the actual rate of violent crime in their area (and their own likelihood of becoming a victim), we become increasingly suspicious of and angry at our fellow citizens. We trust each other less and less, and that cancer spreads to our institutions.
Just like Vladimir Putin and his puppet in the White House want.
Again, I’m not talking about issues of structural problems (like, for instance, racial and gendered pay disparities) or issues of power (like, for instance, ICE running concentration camps on our southern border) or issues of actual harm (like, for instance, DeAndre Harris being beaten by a mob of white neo-Nazis or Heather Heyer being run over and murdered by James Alex Fields in Charlottesville).
I’m talking about the fact that regular people of all stripes are intentionally and unintentionally mean to each other every day. I’m talking about the fact that even “right-on” people get it wrong sometimes. I’m talking about the fact that it can be easy to miss the latest subtle shift in the Very Correct Position. I’m talking about the fact that people – and the ways we look at the world – evolve over time.
What if, instead of “calling out” and contributing to a constantly-spiraling culture of outrage, we “called in”?
To quote a recent article in the Times by one of the creators of the reproductive justice framework, long time activist Loretta Ross:
I wonder if contemporary social movements have absorbed the most useful lessons from the past about how to hold each other accountable while doing extremely difficult and risky social justice work.
Or even more pointedly:
Are we evolving or devolving in our ability to handle conflicts?
Ross quotes Patrisse Khan-Cullors, who is one of the founders of Black Lives Matter. In her book How We Fight White Supremacy, Khan-Cullors writes:
People don’t understand that organizing isn’t going online and cussing people out or going to a protest and calling something out…
Ross goes on to write:
Similarly problematic is the “cancel culture,” where people attempt to expunge anyone with whom they do not perfectly agree, rather than remain focused on those who profit from discrimination and injustice.
Indeed. Cui bono?
Ross exhorts us to start calling-in, rather than calling-out.
Calling-in is simply a call-out done with love.
There’s a well-known concept in management: If you want to be successful in developing your team, praise in public, correct in private. Having spent many years managing people before launching my own solo business, I can confirm that this works, and works well. Not only do you have much greater success actually fixing whatever problem you’ve identified, this improves the overall performance of the entire team and engenders trust.
So maybe the next time you see a video of some private citizen of (dominant group) being mean to some private citizen of (non-dominant group), the next time Kevin Hart gets tapped to host an awards ceremony and someone brings up some old homophobic jokes he already apologized for, the next time Alyssa Milano proposes going all Lysistrata, the next time a Democratic political candidate doesn’t pass your personal purity test, before proudly displaying your Very Correct Positions online, stop for minute, think, and ask yourself:
- What am I really trying to accomplish, in a larger sense?
- What will drawing additional attention to The Outrage Of The Day (or Minute) accomplish?
- Will my Very Correct Call-Out help or hurt my longer-term goals?
- Who benefits from me adding one more log to the perpetual-cycle-of-outrage fire?
Want a great example of what calling-in, acting from a place of love, and keeping a laser-focus on the real, important, long term goals that matter looks like? Check out Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want To Talk About Race.
(Oh – and have you ever wondered where the whole “white feminism” thing originated? It appears it may have been men who were part of the Wounded Knee Defense Committee in the early 1970s who were hostile to the feminist movement, didn’t like the idea of cross-racial women’s solidarity, and so worked to drive a wedge. Cui bono? Men in “the movement” who wanted the chicks to shut up, make the coffee, make the copies, and stay on their backs. Receipts. The history – and present – of white feminism has real problems with intersectionality (not just around race but also around class and sexual orientation and other axes of difference), but for every Elizabeth Cady Stanton, there was a Lucy Stone. For every Betty Friedan, there was a Gloria Steinem. Who benefits from dividing women against each other, from exploiting differences, from encouraging us not to try to trust each other or work together across lines of race and class and religion and national origin and sexual orientation? Not us.)
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