A thoughtful essay on "call-out culture" and the performative aspects of contemporary feminist and social justice media, by Flavia Dzodan.
Master of puppets I’m pulling your strings
Twisting your mind and smashing your dreams
Blinded by me, you can’t see a thing
Just call my name, ’cause I’ll hear you scream
- Metallica, Master of Puppets
Introduction: in which I walk into the stage, with dimmed lights, and I explain my love of performance in a hushed and agreeable tone to create an intimate rapport with the audience
I started going to music concerts when I was fourteen. It was popular music, of course. My first concert was an Argentinian pop band which you most likely never heard of. But I was a fan. Oh yes, what a fan! I wrote a letter to the front man even! AND HE RESPONDED! and later, much later, as a matter of fact after he had already passed away (one of our first well known AIDS related fatalities), I found out that it was indeed his handwriting and that he had indeed responded personally. I suspect he responded personally because when I wrote to him, they weren’t yet as massively famous as they would later become. And I was fourteen and in love with this guy. He was also the sweetest, and much older than me (already in his late 30s); he had been in exile in Spain because of the dictatorship and he took the time to write to this wide eyed teen with nice and thoughtful words of encouragement. I had sent him a poem; laugh at me if you will, but I had been inspired by his lyrics which, in turn, were inspired by very well known Latin American poets that I had also been reading. And since I had struggled with words since I was eight, when I remember scribbling my first poem, I felt a kinship towards this musician, or so I thought at the time. (Incidentally, for some weird reason I still remember the first few lines of that first poem; it was horrible, don’t ask). This guy was also, at the time, a very original performer. I remember seeing him on stage, wondering what that performance was all about. His moves, his way of articulating words, the way he would sometimes stare at the audience. It was the first time I consciously noticed performance.
And I fell in love with it. So much so that later on I went to school to learn how to write for theater. I wanted to see my words on stage. I wanted to see words, not just in text form but performed, in movement. To me, words were actions. Then life happened and I did not pursue a career as a playwright, but that’s another post, this one is about performance. Which to this day is something I still love. Theater, dance, music. I go to as many events as my budget permits. I love music and particularly live music, with passion. If I can afford it, on a given weekend I can be found at a hiphop/breakdance opera and on the next day, at a concert by a Jazz Fusion Quartet, or Prince (talk about performance!). I guess you can say I am a big fan of the performing arts.
First Act: in which I introduce seemingly disparate characters that might make the audience uncomfortable and wonder if they should, instead, be devoting their time and resources to something more meaningful and perhaps more coherent
Have you ever heard of Bart Spring in ‘t Veld? No? Well, neither would have I if it wasn’t that he won the first Big Brother ever. Which by the way, took place in my adopted home country, The Netherlands. The first Big Brother ever started on September 16th, 1999. It was a creation of Dutch media tycoon John de Mol. And many years after winning this stepping stone in reality television; I would dare say, many years after winning the TV show that changed pop culture as we knew it, Bart stated:
If it’s true that I helped to create that mindless monster, I’m not too proud of it…Big Brother took away the need to make inspiring programs and replaced them with mindless chatter. It’s time to put it in a museum for weird artifacts of television history.
Big Brother did change TV. Or perhaps, what it changed is the way we watch TV. It was the first time we were allowed to see regular folks, people supposedly like us, in front of a camera, for long periods of time, as the center focal point. Doing nothing. Pretty much nothing. It is said that:
From a sociological and demographic perspective, this format allows the opportunity for analysis of how people react when forced into close confinement with people who lay outside their comfort zone, since they may hold different opinions or ideals from other contestants, or simply belong to a different group of people than a contestant normally interacts with. Indeed, the format is ideally suited to such analysis because the viewer is afforded the opportunity to see how a person reacts on the outside through the constant recording of their actions and also what they feel on the inside through the Diary Room/Confession Room. The results can range from violent or angry confrontations to genuine and tender connections (often including romantic interludes), providing entertainment to the public1 .
Not unlike blogging.
Because, oh yes, I almost forgot this one other detail: the very first free and widely available blogging platform, Blogger, was launched a mere three weeks prior to the debut of Big Brother, on August 23rd, 1999.
“Regular folks interacting with people who lay outside their comfort zone”. Just like blogging.
I suppose that if John de Mol would have known the impact of Blogger’s release back when he created Big Brother, he would have let out a yelp of joy (and subsequently he would have bought shares in the company).
Second Act: in which I stand real close to the edge of the stage, floodlight washing over me and as I stare intently into the audience, I ask “What does ‘the personal is political’ mean in the era of Reality TV?”
I contend that Big Brother did not just change TV by giving way to spin offs, copy cats and expanding the concept of “Reality TV” even further. I suspect Big Brother and the whole phenomenon behind it changed the way we consume pop culture as a whole. There is a word I really dislike because it has been abused at the deepest pits of marketing jargon but I think reflects the phenomenon I am trying to get at quite well: we became prosumers; at once producers and consumers of cultural products. Marshall McLuhan predicted this in the ‘70’s, but it would take almost 30 years to materialize and it was in no small part, due to the simultaneous advent of Reality TV, blogging platforms and later on Social Media.
In 1969, Carol Hanisch wrote the seminal essay that would become one of the dogmas of Feminism. She wrote: The personal is political. And this simple statement took off like wildfire. It spread into not just feminism but Social Justice and activism in general, and into practically every Social related struggle. Because it is true, the personal IS political. However, if I can concern troll this accepted truism for a second, in the blogging world, I am afraid, this postulate is also used to justify all kinds of nonsense, to the point that more often than not, we can no longer draw meaningful connections that examine many “personals” to draw the patterns that identify them as “a collective” and, as such, a general problem affecting many that needs to be addressed and solved.
On Thursday evening, Sady, Emily, s.e. smith and myself were on Twitter discussing this new, contemporarily redefined meaning of “the personal is political”, in the context of this very piece that I was writing. Sady said something poignant:
Personal Is Political used to mean “tell story, listen to stories, find common elements, act. Here’s my experience. It connects to social structures. Those are lived.” Not “meeee, my paaaain.”
Because sadly, that’s what’s happening nowadays. As Emily put it, we are expected to create “pity porn”, more and more grief for shock value. Or as I like to call it, “the pornification of Social Justice Blogging”. Bloggers are expected to exhibit the personal and the political for your amusement. We flail ourselves open. We bleed for your entertainment. We tell the stories of our struggles, we write about our daily lives, about our encounters with oppression, we harangue you to take our side. And the reader, the audience receives this as a performance. Yes, for the benefit of our readership, we are perceived as performers of the political, not unlike the kind of performance expected from Reality TV. We play a part, we tell this or that side of the story, using this or that word and seeking such or such effect. But make no mistake. Every blogger, no matter how obscure or how popular, has chosen their words to the best of their abilities. They wish to convey a message, so they will carefully pick those words that better reflect both the personal and the political. However, for the audience, what they are projecting into the world is as “real” as Big Brother. A performance.
Which is not to say that bloggers lie or that the audience believes them to be liars; that is not what I am suggesting here. I am saying that, because bloggers put content out for a live audience, and with a live audience in mind, there is a strong performative aspect to it. And in turn, this audience, more often than not, is also part of the production cycle, not only commenting on the blog in question, but creating spin off content as well. Hence, the prosumers.
I’ll use an example from a very recent post of mine to illustrate what I am referring to. After I wrote the piece about Feminism and intersectionality, I had people message me in private with real concerns about the anger I described. Was I OK? Why was I so angry? Had I been yelling a lot? To which I have to say: it’s called literary artifice. Of course I wasn’t actually yelling all the time while I was writing that piece. Of course I wasn’t spitting fire while I drafted those words; sure, those words were used to convey a sentiment but if I had literally been screaming like I described every step of the way, I wouldn’t have been able to produce a text of such attempted depth. It’s not necessarily that I was lying or even embellishing what was going on, it is that writing requires a different mindset than just yelling. And that’s where the artifice comes into play. However, just like audiences are led to believe that everything going on in Big Brother is “natural, unscripted and organic”, people have taken to gaze at blogging in the same fashion: raw entertainment, with feelings! with political engagement! bloggers bare their souls!
This, in time, becomes a trap. In order to audition for the “BIG STARRING ROLE AS MEDIA FIGURE”, bloggers are required to constantly up their game. The audience demands MORE FEELINGS! MORE LIVED EXPERIENCE! MORE SOUL! MORE OPPRESSION! And so, to be perceived as a “genuine” performer in this “live entertainment” show, the blogger needs to outperform her peers. MORE PAIN, MORE SUFFERING! But in turn, this pain and suffering need to be perceived as authentic, the blogger should be wary of any artifice dripping into her “products”. So, that’s when the privilege checklist game begins, wherein the blogger needs to qualify every opinion by opening up with disclaimers to constantly prove her situational lived experience to the point that they can sometimes acquire parody proportions: “As a White, cis gender, right handed, myopic only from my left eye, gluten intolerant, middle class double income home owner, left leaning but politically independent woman, I believe Mercedes’ performance in Glee was vastly superior to Rachel’s”. Since for so many in the audience this is live entertainment, any potential end message is lost. The personal is no longer political, it is barely an amusement ride in your small town’s funfair. Now the audience can either embrace or reject the blogger’s opinion of Glee, not based on the weight of the opinion itself but on the plot points the blogger is required to constantly re-enact for the audience.
Third Act: in which the audience reacts strongly to my message and pelts me with tomatoes and other assorted rotten vegetables
And this performative aspect can take on a whole cruel turn as well. We are supposed to “stay in character” all the time, play the role that was assigned to us and perform it well, with soul, with passion. If you were lucky enough to get the role of “recognized feminist blogger” or “recognized name within Social Justice”, you should not deviate from the scripts that “feminist and/ or Social Justice blogging” are supposed to entail. Your opinions should be carefully weighted because if you say something wrong, the pelting of rotten vegetables begins. That is, if the blogger makes a mistake, the audience of prosumers will begin the collective dance commonly known in blogging as the “call outs”.
Call out culture, a phenomenon that casual readers might not even notice, is to me, the most toxic aspect of blogging. Not because it is set to correct wrongs and engage in meaningful ways to actually enact change. No, call out culture is toxic because it has developed as a tool to legitimize aggression and rhetoric violence. Its intent, at the root, is seemingly positive. Constructive even. It works more or less like this: I say something ignorant. Perhaps I make a statement that can be constructed as bigoted or maybe “problematic”. A favorite word in call out culture, problematic is more often than not, used to mean “I didn’t like it” or alternatively, “I disagree with you”. But instead of saying you, the audience disagrees with me, you will call my statement “problematic”. And because we have established that we are at once consumers and producers of media content, you create a blog post or a tweet or a Facebook update “calling me out”. And more often than not, in your post, you tell your readers, other prosumers, to please join you in this call out. BECAUSE THIS IS A SERIOUS WRONG THAT NEEDS TO BE CORRECTED! Unbeknown to me, there are now ten posts in ten different blogs and social media platforms calling me a “BIGOT AND THE WORST PERSON EVER”. Each time, every one of these posts escalating in rhetoric and volume. Each new post trying to outperform the previous one in outrage, in anger, in righteousness. This performance of acrimony and reproach turns into the “pile on”. And I will have to apologize for what I said. At this point, since I am nervous and probably anxious because I am being called THE WORST PERSON EVER, my apology will not be stellar. I might dig a deeper hole even, because hey, I cannot properly articulate when I feel that I am under duress. I might, at this point, say something that is truly, really “problematic”, not just perceived as such, but, to put it in plain words, I might say something shitty. AND OMG at this point the “call out” will escalate out of proportion. Now I am not just THE WORST PERSON EVER but since we have established that I was “a known feminist blogger” (and if I wasn’t up to that moment, I am now because my name is all over the internet!), then, it will be known that I, on my own, HAVE RUINED FEMINISM FOR EVER. And I, alone, will be proof of ALL OF FEMINISM’S PAST FAILURES. FOR EVER.
Call out culture might, at times, dangerously resemble bullying. However, it is not exactly the same. It certainly shares its outcome, however, unlike bullying, call out culture is part of the performative aspect of blogging. Unlike bullying, a call out is intended for an audience.
And here’s the thing, on the surface, call outs are done “for good”. Of course shitty statements need to be challenged, nobody would deny that. Of course those who are hurt by shitty statements deserve to be recognized in their grief and deserve a sincere apology. But that’s not at the root of “call out culture”. The intent behind it, more often than not, is just to make the one initiating the call out feel good, more righteous, more indignant, a “better person”. In the end, the call out is not done for the benefit of a collective goal, it is done for entertainment and shocking value. Call outs are to blogging what Big Brother voting rounds are to reality TV: you have been found wanting and you are now expelled from the house. Because, of course, this is what is rarely mentioned, someone might be attempting to audition for your seat. Someone who thinks they are more righteous, better, more politically engaged than you.
And oh, how the audience loves these moments! They amplify them because at their root, they are perceived as “drama”, a word often used to described these situations. Someone will jump in and say it “There is so much drama going on with [person who blogs] right now!”. I find it telling that we use a word so deeply connected to performance, drama, to define the central repercussion of call out culture.
At its deepest, call out culture is unquestionably reductionist. It forces us to “take sides”, to pick a side and stick to it, or else, to be “called out” as traitors. Say I, as a Latina, an essential focus of my political identity, am also interested in Health Care rights, more specifically, in Mental Health issues. A blogger who focuses on Mental Health and disability rights made a bigoted statement about Latin@s. I generally love this blogger, but this one statement was really bigoted. Now, I will be forced to “pick a side”. I either stand with my fellow Latin@s (how could I not?) or I stand with the other Health Care activists who are not necessarily defending the shitty statement but trying to bring some much needed perspective into the whole affair. But no, I *must* pick a side and stick to it. Within the context of call out culture, I *must* show my allegiance to one cause and one cause only. Nuance and intersectionality be damned. Because, as we have established above, the person being called out is obviously “the worst person ever” and nothing they have ever said and nothing they will say from this point forward has any value whatsoever.
There is this taboo behind call out culture as well. Because those who have been at the receiving end of a call out and its most visible consequence, the pile-on, will not speak of what happened to them in the aftermath. They will silently hope that the “audience” moves on and forgets the whole affair, which has usually been painful and emotional. But to say something of the phenomenon might trigger a whole new round of abuse. It might initiate a new round of pile ons, and further call outs, and further re-enactment of outrage in a never ending cycle. And I suspect one of the reasons it is taboo to speak of what happened is because “call out culture” is perceived as being “owned” by the oppressed, in the sense that the people initiating these call outs will, of course, do so because “they are being oppressed” by the “problematic” statements. That, right there, obturates any possible discussion: who would deny that a person who is oppressed has the right to react to their oppression in an expeditious manner? Who will point at an oppressed person and say “you have no right to react to your oppression”? A “call out” is like the Godwin Law of Social Justice blogging, once it is initiated, there is no further discussion, engagement can only come in the form of some deep self flagellation and profuse apologies. And of course, I have seen some recurring names in regular and persistent call out episodes ALSO make truly shitty statements on unrelated occasions. Sometimes even bigoted and deeply prejudiced statements. And those will remain unchallenged because who would want to trigger a possible backlash? Thus, the taboo and silence behind the phenomenon. We call it “drama”, the prosumer audience amplifying it because hey, who doesn’t want to stand by the oppressed?! Who doesn’t want to be one of the good guys?!!
What is rarely pointed out is that a person can be at once oppressed and an abuser.
Human beings are complex creatures, not these receptacles of “good” OR “evil”. At once good in some aspects and gross in others. Simultaneously oppressed and oppressors. However, in this performative culture of blogging all of this subtlety is often obscured. You are either “one of the good guys” or “you are the worst person ever”. You play the role of “hero” or you play “the villain”. However, I must question this dichotomy because call outs, and the modus operandi behind them, the pile-on, can potentially kill people. The most virulent call outs can exacerbate existing PTSD. They can drive a person to severe episodes of anxiety and/ or depression, they can lead someone to feel isolated and suicidal. It is a toxic and destructive phenomenon, wherein blog post after blog post are made, each escalating in virulence. And Social Media amplifies the episode, with Tweets and Facebook status and comments left on the person’s blog and eventually emails. Private emails (more often than not anonymous) with further abuse and further diminishing and denigrating language, with invitations to kill yourself, to stop “polluting the world” with your presence If the blogger in question is queer, they will be purposefully misgendered; if they are non White, they will be de-racialized to erase their context and background; if they speak English as a second language (which might sometimes explain the reason why they used some icky words to begin with), that tidbit will be downplayed or just plain ignored; if they are working class or poor, their class struggles deliberately obscured or just completely obliterated (even in cases when the very same class and educational background could explain the originally “problematic” statement that triggered the call out to begin with). And again, I must insist on the insidious nature of this culture: who would dare say a thing about it when it is supposedly done against oppression? So the recipient of a call out is isolated (remember what I mentioned about being forced to take sides?), told by a crowd of prosumers who are fascinated by this “drama” that they are worthless, not even deserving of the air they breath.
And we, in the blogging community, cheer and applaud this behavior. Moreover, we actively take part in it. And if not, we remain silent because well, AGAIN, who would speak up against “fighting oppression”?
Fourth Act: in which there is no Deus ex Machina but the ultimate artifice is revealed and we all lose but the kyriarchy, as usual, remains triumphant over all of us
No. Really. We all lose. Because all of this performance and the cycles of abuse and the outdoing each other for entertainment get us nowhere. They are distractions and, more often than not, they obscure most structural analysis. And what is worse, they end up silencing valuable and meaningful people who burn out from participating in this, our culture.
I do not write because I have hopes of changing the world at large. I write to overcome loneliness. Yours, mine, ours. I put out these words every day hoping that we will see each other for whom we truly are: difficult, fucked up, monstrous, generous, brilliant, capable of immense good and capable of unspeakable evil. I write because I know that I am inhabited by all of these potentials. And I know that so are you. Each and every one of you is capable of all the goodness and of all the awfulness. But words are all I have to exorcise the possible hurtful outcomes. My words which have always been actions, a call to act. A DEMAND to action. However, just like each and everyone of you, I am not the one pulling the strings of this performance. Or, if you prefer, neither of us is the Puppet Master. Instead, we are part of a bigger, much bigger stage where we are set to play our parts, not just as bloggers but as human beings. But we do have some degree of control. We can choose the part we will play today, we can pick the words that we will say and the actions that those words will entail. And that’s what lays at the bottom of my blogging and writing: a desire to unmask the ultimate artifice, or, better said, I write to unmask how the kyriarchy makes us active and necessary participants, how each and every one of us is a necessarily complicit actor to perpetuate it.
Be it patriarchal heteronormativity, or racism or anti queer hatred, or transphobia, xenophobia, misogyny, sexism, ageism, bigotry, fatphobia, misandry, or any of the hundreds of possible prejudices: all of them are potentially within me. And within you. Because we cannot escape the structures we are part of, we cannot avoid being at once oppressed and oppressors. But it is not all doom and gloom, there IS a way out of it and it is by remaining actively aware of these potentials within us. By being conscious of them. However, I contend that this performative culture that has taken hold of us, be it in blogging or participating in Social Media at large has also obscured this awareness of our potentials. Because we are supposedly “the good guys”. We are the ones “fighting oppression!” So common wisdom dictates that we are “the heros!” in this narrative and the villains, the “bad guys”, are the ones who stand against us. And we buy into this narrative because it is comforting, it is reassuring, it makes us feel good about ourselves. However, the perversity of it is not readily apparent: while we position ourselves as “the good guys”, we necessarily need an antagonist, someone who needs to be positioned as “the villain”. And herein lays the perversity: more often than not, this same oppressive structure places our antagonist within Feminism and/or Social Justice. And you know why I think we are constantly positioned against each other? Because we all care. In our own ways, sometimes completely unaware of our potential for prejudice but we do care, and we respond and we engage, in a never ending cycle that is simultaneously our collective strength and the root of some of the most abusive and vile aspects of our culture.
Before I exit for today, I would like to leave one final thought, which is neither a demand, nor a plead but a reflection: I would like to believe that amidst all of these cries for performances of grief, amidst the intra community abuses and the dilution of the bigger pictures in the name of a constant requirement to outperform each other as a form of entertainment, we can do better. We need to be the change we demand in others. We cannot claim to be against these injustices while, at the same time, we either unknowingly perpetuate them or remain silent while others do so. Change, after all, can only start from within, and, without a deep examination of how our own actions are part of this, there will not be any significant shift. There will only be more seasons of reality TV blogging and media engagements. And there is nothing revolutionary or radical in Reality TV by now, there is just voyeurism and inane navel gazing.
This article was authored by Flavia Dzodan and was originally published at Tiger Beatdown