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The shitty things we do to each other in activist communities

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When I moved to Toronto two years ago, I immediately fell into a friendship group of femmes and other queers, largely thanks to the welcoming persona of one of the group. I was invited to parties and had femme friends I felt comfortable around for this first time in my life. I had a pretty good social life, pretty fast.

And then, about three months later, it all fell apart. I started dating someone who would later become my partner. This person had gone on a date with one of my new friends two days prior to meeting me. Later my friend asked me to stop seeing them, and I refused.

A week later, I found myself blocked on Facebook by another friend who would turn her back to me whenever I walked into the room. I was pushed out of my new friendship group with no explanation. As these individuals attended a lot of the queer parties of this particular scene, I no longer felt welcome or comfortable at these events. Having gained and lost close friends in the space of a few months after moving to a new country and city, I felt alienated, lonely and angry. 

This this wasn't the first time I had been pushed out of a queer community. When I was organizing a zine in Berlin, a bunch of co-organizers met behind my back and wrote a letter stating they no longer wanted to participate in the project. They, too, refused to speak about the issue (I am still unclear what it was) and cut me off from all communication with that group.

I have been accused of being anti-Semitic by non-Jewish queers and told my white, middle-class, British mannerisms were oppressing a white, middle-class Canadian. I have been implicitly excluded from community because of my feminine and middle-class dress sense, my preference for monogamous relationships, and my fatness. 

Of course, it is possible that I am an anti-Semitic, classist, racist, sexist, unattractive person who is unable to see beyond her own oppression and accept her natural polyamorous and genderqueer nature. And a bad friend. Even though I am undoubtedly invested in not being all of these things, I am also pretty sure I am not all of them. I mean, I at least have good dress sense. 

Now, two years after the time when I lost all my new friends and was bullied out of the Toronto queer dance scene, I am wondering why we, in the queer community, do this to each other. 

I know I am not the only one who has been pushed out of the queer scene. I am not the only one who doesn't go to events because they don't want to bump into a particular person, and who therefore stays at home feeling lonely. I am not the only one who has been told my politics are wrong, who has been scapegoated, cold shouldered, and looked down on in order to make someone else feel better. I am sick of this. I know we can do better. 

My 10 years of living in various queer communities has taught me that this kind of behaviour is pandemic. Recently, there has been much discussion about call-out culture and its effectiveness. 

My take on call-out culture is that it's very effective if what we want to achieve is the exclusion of anyone who behaves in a problematic manner or pisses us off. However, it is not very effective if we want to create a community that nurtures and educates each other. I, personally, would prefer a community that is able to deal with confrontation. That, like a good friend, tells you when you're being a douchebag but still loves you anyway.

Call-out culture is a particularly self-serving way of dealing with confrontation. It enables the person doing the calling out to name someone else oppressive, and to do so in very black and white language. It allows what Asam Ahmad of the It Gets Fatter! project has called "a particularly armchair and academic brand of activism." Calling someone out doesn't require any action on the part of the person doing the calling out. It enables a person to name another person racist, homophobic, sexist, etc. and to put the onus of that label wholly on the other person. The accused then becomes outcast from the activist community, and no attempt at restoration is made.

Shame puppy

The problem with this kind of public outcry is that it is taken up by the community as a whole who seem to enjoy participating in public humiliation more than engaging in an educative dialogue. Everyone enjoys having someone to point at and say how much better a person they are than the other.

To have a whole community turn against you is a horrifying feeling. To feel first that, as a queer, you finally have a place and then to lose that place is sickening. Of course, the question of the largeness of the crime is a pertinent one here. There are some actions that are worse than others. But, in general, a lot of this alienation happens for reasons that speak more to the toxic nature of the way we reinforce our collective political identities than to the personality or politics of the individual who is being called-out. Frankly, a lot of this alienation happens owing to a simple interpersonal disagreement, as in my case, rather than a concrete case of wrongdoing. 

Another reason call-out culture seems more about affirming how cool we are in contrast to a demonized other is that we all have, to some extent, done something discriminatory. What white person has not had a racist thought or committed an unthinking racist action? What person, straight or queer, has not done something homophobic? Who hasn't made an ableist comment?

We know patriarchal and capitalist values influence our value systems. In fact, I have found that it is often through a thorough examination of our own prejudices that we come to see how they work and to do our own bit to fight against oppression. So, to write another person off as a bad queer or activist and to participate in a public shaming that has hugely negative social and psychological consequences for that person does nothing to tackle the problem. It also creates a culture in which a person and community can use public shaming to bolster their own self-image. 

I understand the sentiment that we just do not have the energy to educate every other person who offends us. But I do think we should treat members of our communities differently to a member of the public who has not been exposed to lefty political thought. We should take the time to have difficult conversations in our communities, rather than pushing out those who hurt us.

This is by no means an exhaustive article. Many have started thinking about and practising calling-in – a one-on-one intervention with the person who did the thing – instead of calling-out. You can read more about that here. I don't have a solution for this problem. What I would like for now is for us to recognize that we all, as human beings, make mistakes. 

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