What Are We Fighting For?
Defending critical discourse in the pursuit of social justice
Literary criticism—its supposed irrelevance and importance—are perennial subjects in American letters. Every once in a while, someone offers a treatise either proclaiming it dead or defending its right to being. Much like poetry, it’s one of those disciplines society has come to consider as vestigial—once important, but over time, it has become outmoded, largely due to its overabundance, its insularity, and irrelevance to everyday people. This will be one of those treatises, but with a slight amendment.
In a short essay entitled “What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic”, Asam Ahmad writes, “It isn’t an exaggeration to say that there is a mild totalitarian undercurrent not just in call-out culture but also in how progressive communities police and define the bounds of who’s in and who’s out.”
Indeed, the rise of social media has increased the possibility of being publicly shamed. Calling out, putting down, throwing shade – whatever we choose to name it, the effects are usually the same: shame, self-doubt, and at its worst, outright social rejection.
But there is a difference between criticism and calling out or putting down. Criticism – when it offers constructive insight, when it is presented respectfully, and offered in the spirit of community, is not only helpful but vital. Proper criticism assumes an instructive dimension when made public, because it mimics the ways in which our brains reason. Critical discourse allows us to engage with one another, and refine and question our ideas, which leads to stronger intellectual and artistic discourse. Criticism provides the potential to experience art more deeply, to understand its context, and to point readers towards works that they would not normally encounter—all of which deepens the value of literature. Conversely, literature without an accompanying body of critical thought is usually impoverished.
Call-out culture, on the other hand, Ahmad defines as, “the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and language use by others.” It emphasizes naming, often while sacrificing an instructive element. Several recent articles (Ahmad’s is one of many I have seen) have picked up on the negative effects of calling out, and the toxicity it breeds within communities when members are treated as disposable. Those of us with identities that straddle disparate categories – such as multiracial people, like me – are more likely to be called out because we do not fit neatly into one group or another, and are often perceived as traitors already. We are the low-hanging fruit most susceptible to such policing, and being called out usually compounds our always-present feelings of rejection.
So how do we, as writers concerned with social justice, approach the same problem, given that literary culture is reliant on public critical discourse?
A few months ago, I published an essay in response to one written by former Offing editor Casey Rocheteau. Although I aired some criticisms of the magazine, most of them were repeated from Rocheteau’s essay. The new information I presented – most disputed, my allegation that The Offing shared resources with its parent organization – were the result of interviews with anonymous sources, and incorrectly identified by The Offing as falsehoods. This accusation, among others, was included in a vociferous response that condemned and dismissed my essay as a public “put down”, and intimated that I had betrayed them, as members of the same literary community, by criticizing them in print.
Reading their response, and some other responses on social media, I immediately felt that I had done something wrong. Had I, as The Offing alleged, betrayed people I had counted among my community? I turned these questions over and over in my mind, and consulted friends and colleagues to determine if I had truly misstepped. I felt shame and self-doubt, and I was deeply afraid of being rejected by my peers (a fear, again, already all-too present in my mind).
And then November 8th happened.
Facing what many believe is shaping up to be a neo-fascist regime, we can expect the suppression of dissent to become a huge issue in the coming years. We should expect this from right- as well as left-leaning politicians and media, who, as we saw during the election, are equally eager to suppress criticism of their actions. One of our jobs as writers concerned with social justice will be protecting the rights of individuals to—much like I did in my essay—criticize and question institutions and their practices. A failure to do so will mean real suffering for the most vulnerable members of society.
This points to perhaps the biggest failure of The Offing’s response: their inability in distinguishing the rights and responsibilities of individuals versus those of institutions, as well as their own power as an institution. Though they are relatively new and run mostly by minorities, they possess power compared to individuals, even though it may be less power than other institutions. The Offing, as an organization, has more power than I do as a writer, and more than Joanna C. Valente and Yasmin Belkhyr, two editors who they called out by name. These actions, instead of righting a perceived injustice, only compounded the very same institutional power I condemned in my essay, by turning it against minorities whose only crime was to voice dissent.
My interpretation of Asam Ahmad’s observation, amended to fit the context of writing and critical discourse, is that, as Americans—even, yes, as politically-conscious minorities—we sometimes take the privilege of free speech for granted. People of color, writers of color, and even those inclined to political activism, are not exempt from the trappings of American exceptionalism. It would do all of us well to remember when we engage with one another in critical discourse, that we are partaking in an activity denied many people of this world. When we forget that privilege, we are more likely to cross over into this “totalitarianism.”
The invocation of that word may have seemed extreme prior to the election, but after November 8th, it acquired new salience. As such, it is more important now than ever before to defend the right to criticism, especially among people in our community. Criticism, and critical discourse, is an extremely effective tool at excavating truth, and as minorities fighting for visibility and more nuanced representations, criticism has tremendous power to achieving those goals. If a refusal to interact with dissenting opinion – the mechanism by which our “liberal bubbles” and echo chambers were created – contributed to the dismal election outcome, we must recognize that its presence may have saved us from it. That is the power of true critical discourse.
If we accept that criticism written by marginalized people is sorely needed, we begin to see the harm of attempts to curtail it. But there is a simpler defense to offer.
As writers concerned with equality, we have two jobs that we must approach simultaneously. As activists, we must defend our politics and rights to safe spaces, while as writers, we must defend our right to free speech in the pursuit of truth. If we fail to do either, we are betraying one identity or the other. It is with dismay that I recognize that The Offing’s response—while upholding one tenet of its activism—completely betrayed all of its other goals.
I do not mean to use free speech – as so many on the right do – as a cudgel, to attempt to emptily punish The Offing’s editors for taking issue with my words. Rather, I use it to orient us towards our goals as writers concerned with equality. The language of social justice is an important tool in the pursuit of justice and truth, but as Ahmad points out in his essay, when it is used to exclude and silence, it becomes a tool of oppression. This is where criticism—of the kind I sought to partake in with my first essay, and now with this one—comes in.
All groups of people, by virtue of being human, have the capacity for evil. They are also good, bad, brilliant, ignorant, brutal, and courageous, and to believe that, because we share an identity and political orientation, we are beyond reproach, is to partake in something akin to racism. To express such views is deserving of serious scrutiny, and when they are enforced, need to be countered. Especially now.
Criticism, when practiced with respect and love, has the ability to save us from the worst of ourselves – from those totalitarian impulses that we use to shame, police, and exclude.
As writers concerned with social justice, we must partake in a difficult balancing act: we must defend the rights of others, while constantly questioning ourselves and those in our community, in order to constantly orient ourselves towards truth and away from oppression. It’s not easy work. But nothing that’s worth it ever is.
Zinzi Clemmons is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. Her debut novel, What We Lose, is forthcoming from Viking this summer. For more info, visit: zinziclemmons.com.
Featured image ©Natasha Marin. “12 Intrigues”: Images from a 1 year social media experiment designed to stimulate infatuation between artists living thousands of miles apart. These are stills from videos from this project (www.12intrigues.com)