Call-Out Culture, Cultural Critique, and Constructive Criticism

I was inspired to write this post by three things:

1.) Mounting frustrations with the typical social media outrage cycle (despite its relative importance).

2.) A friend’s recent Facebook status (re-printed with permission) with which I strongly agree:

I mean this with all due respect to the very brilliant people I know making astute and important cultural critiques, but given that we’re growing up and our generation is probably in charge of dealing with very real inequity nightmares left for us by our parents, do you think we can maybe start picking bigger battles than Beyoncé and Wacklemore?”

3.) Season 3, Episode 20 of The Big Bang Theory (I’ve seen random episodes before, but never watched it from the beginning, so that’s my current TV project).

Super quick recap of BBT (SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t seen it yet): In the recent aftermath of Leonard and Penny’s breakup, Sheldon’s increasing (though still lacking by “social standards”) capacity to perceive, feel, and respond to the emotions of himself and others causes him to do everything he can to maintain friendships with both Leonard and Penny without upsetting either of them (especially Leonard).

Now, as lots of people can attest, social media has created a fairly repetitive cycle of “Let’s all be upset and xyz important issue!” that inevitably leads to “Let’s all say why we should/shouldn’t be upset about xyz important issue!” responses. Read some of the links above if you aren’t sure what I mean.

It’s not that the issues aren’t important (they often are actually extremely important) or that the protests and responses aren’t thoughtful with useful insights. To me, part of the problem is that it’s like we’re constantly in break-up mode with the most recent celebrity mishap, news reporter/channel no-no, or political blunder. We scream, and shout, and let it all out, rallying our allies to accumulate likes and shares (and their Twitter, Tumblr, blog, etc. counterparts) while often not positively engaging those who dare to disagree.

To be perfectly fair, I happen to know several people who are more than willing to engage when they have the time and energy. But still, we are overwhelmingly inundated with some people calling out others for their mishaps while insulting the intelligence of those whose opinions differ. This is especially true during pop culture critiques (e.g. Sherman, Macklemore, the Grammys, Melissa Harris-Perry, etc.) and, with the power of the internet at our fingertips, more voices can be heard in rapidly increasing numbers, regardless of the authority of the author to speak on the subject.

I don’t mean to suggest that everyone who wants to talk about issues of race, gender, the economy, psychosocial trends, vaccine efficacy, etc. needs a Ph.D in the subject to do so; however, an awareness of, and experience reading, the research being done by those who have dedicated their lives to such fields would certainly help to clear the clutter across the board. The internet is rife with comments such as “you need to educate yourself” as a result of the exhaustion and exasperation that so many feel engaging other on these issues, though they rarely do more than elicit responses such as “that’s elitist” or “I know what I’m talking about, because xyz”.

Near the end of the BBT episode, as Leonard and Penny are entering a mini-argument, we see a distressed Sheldon (physically and socially stuck in the middle of them) leave to go to his room by saying “Ok! Just don’t fight…” Far too often, this is the feeling by the audience when one person launches a critique at another and the cycle starts anew: “please let there be no more fighting”. And while critiquing things that happen in popular culture is a great way to introduce these topics to people who otherwise might not be interested or know they exist, it often devolves more into “polite” fighting. The conversation rests on either “calling out” the person or group or idea or defending the target, and it becomes that much more alienating.

And, most troubling of all, is the seeming lack of consideration in providing criticism that is not only enlightening, but educative. I can’t think of a time when I saw someone, in their critique of Macklemore, provide a list of works for him (or others) to read by Judith Butler, Annamarie Jagose, or the late Jose Esteban Munoz when describing his impact and representation of people who identify as LGBTQI+. I don’t remember anyone suggesting to Beyonce or her fans to explore Bell Hooks, Frances Beal, or Patricia Hill Collins when deciding her role as a feminist. Nor can I recall a response to Katy Perry, Julianne Houghs, Miley Cyrus, or Justin Timberlake that provided resources as to what, exactly, cultural appropriation is, its history, and its continued role in the oppression of many demographic groups around the world.

In other words, most critiques are focused solely on their criticism rather than trying to get us all one step closer to solving the problem. While it may be a stretch, but what if we encouraged artists to engage in conversations with some of the brilliant minds who do work on the issues about which they wish to speak? What if we asked them to use their privileges as national figures to encourage their fans to learn more about the issues they care about? What if we demanded more not just of them, but of ourselves as well? Rather than all bowing down in blind reverence to Queen/King Bey or clucking our tongues in disappointment and vowing never to listen to THAT artist again, we, as their fans and audience, approached them with the kind of respect and honesty we wish for ourselves? In no way do I think that this will suddenly be the magical cure for all social ills and create the radical, revolutionary change that is so desperately needed to fight the ever-present inequity that exists in our society, but it could certainly be a start.

And then, just like Penny said to Leonard post-fight in the last scene of the episode, no matter what we’ve all been through, whatever criticisms we’ve hurled, whatever shame or embarrassment we’ve endured, we can end by saying “I think we can be friends.” Because in the end, we’re much more likely to listen to one another, do our best to help one another, and learn from each other if we’re friends, right?

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