The Rules of Calling Out

Seen people “calling out” other people on Twitter over their use of language? Want to get into it yourself? Here’s a cut-out-and-keep set of guidelines to help you get started.

1. The greatest enemies of the left are those who agree with you on 95% of issues, but use minor semantic differences

2. Calling out must be done in the most public way possible. E-mail is an instrument of patriarchy

3. Nobody on the left should ever have a “large platform”. Better to cede public discourse to the right.

4. Everyone who disagrees with you is privileged. You know this because you’ve never met them.

5. Nobody who is privileged could also be right about something. The two are mutually exclusive.

6. Under no circumstances is it acceptable to agree with Caitlin Moran about anything.

7. In order to be intersectional and show your alliances with others you must have screaming rows with them every 5 minutes.

8. The ability to muster a large crowd to bellow someone into submission is in no way a platform or privilege.

9. Caitlin Moran posting a subsequently-retracted un-PC tweet three years ago is definitely worth devoting more time and energy to condemning  than recent rape and bomb threats.

 

[This post is based on a sequence of tweets I posted facetiously last night. In a classic case of Poe’s Law, some people thought I was being serious, so for clarity I will state here that this post is satirical. On a serious note, I think disagreement and debate are good, but allies should do so respectfully and civilly rather than by Twitterstorming each other.]

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On Cyberbullying

It occurred to me recently that in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) we seem to come across more cases of cyberbullying these days than real-world bullying. It shouldn’t be considered a trivial issue simply because it happens online. I’ve seen more than one case of a child winding up in hospital from an overdose following a cyberbullying incident.

My (admittedly anecdotal) impression is that the problem is getting worse. Possibly this may be due to the ever-evolving and increasing variety of ways that people can get online. The kids who use these new platforms via their computers, phones, iPods and XBoxes (give it another week, and they’ll be doing it through the fridge) are often more technically adept at social media than the parents, teachers and other adults who are supposed to be keeping an eye on what they’re doing. I consider myself pretty social media savvy. I use Twitter and blogs every day and have been for years. But even I keep coming across platforms mentioned by kids that I’ve never heard of (what the hell is Kik?) And if I’m struggling to keep pace, what hope for the more Luddite colleagues and parents I work with?

The trouble is, our kids may be the most technically-adept generation when it comes to social media, but in many cases they haven’t developed the emotional awareness to deal with some of the issues they may come across. If it’s a particularly vulnerable child, then this can be a recipe for disaster. If you include not just cyber-bullying but also online issues like pro-ana, or pro-self-harm sites, or online grooming, then there’s barely a day that goes by recently where we haven’t dealt with an issue of a child running into difficulties due to social media.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying social media can’t be helpful. Those of you who’ve read my writings will know that I’m a big advocate of the manner in which these platforms can be used as a force for good in mental health. I do also come across kids gaining benefits from social media. Resources such as Teen Depression Connect have been recommended to me by young people who found them beneficial to their recovery. Socially isolated teenagers have found the internet a lifeline that gives them someone to talk to when there’s nobody else. But the pitfalls are there too.

A site that seems to be especially problematic is Ask.fm, in which users invite others to submit questions to them, sometimes anonymously. People have misused it to send abusive messages. The site has been criticised for lacking ways to block users or to report abuse. When I was browsing it yesterday, it looks like blocking methods are now in place, but I’m told they’re pretty easy to get around. Worryingly, I’ve been told of cases where a young person has suddenly received hundreds of abusive messages in the space of a few hours on Ask.fm.

Then again, if we’re talking about someone receiving large volumes of abuse in a short space of time, perhaps some of us adults can’t preach to the kids. In my previous post I mentioned an online friend with an anxiety disorder who relapsed after being Twitterstormed by people who identify with intersectional feminism. Although most of the reactions I’ve received to that post have been broadly supportive, some people have expressed scepticism that the woman who got piled-on didn’t deserve it. So I think I’ll say a bit more about what happened.

A prominent feminist with a large following stated on Twitter that she felt the other person had made a comment in an article which was transphobic. This person then responded saying that it wasn’t actually a reference to transgender people, but she had amended it to avoid any confusion.

Frankly, the matter should have ended there. Unfortunately the person who challenged her didn’t do it by messaging her directly. She publicly “called out” the other person to her tens of thousands of Twitter followers. The result was a large, intense stream of hostile messages that continued for several hours. Days later, the recipient was still getting the occasional angry message from people who got the memo late.

I suspect most people don’t know how intimidating and upsetting a Twitterstorm can be until they’ve been Twitterstormed themselves. I have been – not by the intersectionalists, but by the fans of a TV celebrity. It leaves the recipient feeling victimised, targeted and angry. It’s probably also fair to say that the experience of a participant in a Twitterstorm is likely to be very different from that of the recipient. They may not feel they’re bullying anyone. They may feel they’re just sending a message expressing disagreement. However, the person on the other end may have received hundreds of such messages in the past hour, and is unlikely to see it in the same way.

If this was an attempt to persuade the woman in question to come over to a more intersectional way of thinking, it was a dismal failure. Not only did her anxiety disorder relapse, but she also came to the decision that she wanted nothing more to do with feminism because, “the Raping Patriarchy seem more interested in fairness than the sistahood.” (note to the irony-deficient: she was being sarcastic there.) She’s also now gone on a break from the Internet in order to safeguard her mental health.

But then it’s debatable how much of this is about winning people over. Intersectionality – the idea that different liberation movements should unite and understand how different forms of oppression intersect with each other – is in itself a very laudable aim. I fully agree with it. But I don’t think these intersectionalist Twitterstorms are actually prompted by the ideas and theories. I think they’re more the result of certain communication styles.

I’m sure I’ll get some angry disagreement for saying this, but some of the pile-ons by intersectionalists strike me as having more than a whiff of personal vendettas to them. Frequent targets seem to be figures who are perceived to be major figures in feminism or on the broader Left. The Times columnist Caitlin Moran, the Independent columnist Owen Jones and the New Statesman editor Helen Lewis get this particularly regularly; often for the most mind-meltingly trivial reasons. Frankly, it reeks of jealousy. As in, “Why did they get newspaper columns and book deals, and not me?”

I want to conclude on a positive suggestion, so I’ll recommend this post by the feminist and trade union activist Ellie Mae O’Hagan.

I will continue to voice disagreements with other feminists, but I will do so in a spirit of solidarity and respect, which recognises that ultimately our aims are shared.

I will not be rude. I will not be condescending. I will not turn debates into a kind of theatre by ensuring they are as public as possible.

I will be civil. I will be kind. I will approach debates remembering that all feminists want independence and equality, even if we disagree on how to get there. I will recognise that I don’t have all the answers myself.

In social media we’re dealing with an evolving technology. Our ideas of kindness and decency don’t so much need to evolve with it as much as we need to take the age-old concept of respectful disagreement and apply it to new media.

Bullying is wrong, whether in cyberspace or meatspace. We as adults need to role-model that, because if we don’t refrain from cyberbullying, how can we expect our children not to?

Intersectionality, Privilege and Twitter Etiquette

As the family therapy essay I’m currently procrastinating on would attest, I’m interested in group dynamics and the way people communicate with each other. I tend to think about these issues both in the real world and in social media, particularly Twitter. There’s lots of good and interesting ways that Twitter can be used for communications, but also some pitfalls. Chief of the latter is the Twitterstorm.

I used to presume, probably rather naively, that if someone is getting bombarded with angry messages from multiple tweeters, then they’ve probably done something pretty unpleasant to deserve it. All too often, that isn’t the case, particularly if somebody is spoiling for a fight.

Here’s the funny thing about Twitter. Where else would a single full stop be the source of enormous trouble? Quick technical primer for non-tweeters: if you start a tweet with somebody’s @ username, like this….

@thus_spake_z your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!

….then it goes to them, and also appears in the feed of anyone who is following you both. However, if a tweet begins with text, then it appears in the feed of everyone who follows you. Hence people sometimes stick a full stop before the @ identity, like this:

.@thus_spake_z your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!

….and so your caustic retort is re-broadcast to a much wider audience. If you have a large number of followers, then at least some of them will take that as an invitation to a pile-on.

There’s a certain segment of tweeters who seem to get embroiled in Twitterstorms on a fairly regular basis. Melissa Thompson has an excellent and detailed post about the discussions involved. To summarise briefly, those involved tend to identify with intersectional feminism, and also take an interest in questions of privilege.

Intersectionality discusses the way in which different systems of oppression – race, class, gender, sexuality etc – can interact, and calls for greater cooperation between various liberation movements. I think that’s a very worthy aim, and fully agree with it. It’s therefore a shame that the tweeters involved are so often involved in Twitterstorming other members of the left. Most recently it was the New Statesman editor Helen Lewis. Before that it was the Independent columnist Owen Jones, and on Lord knows how many occasions it’s been the author and Times columnist Caitlin Moran. All too frequently, these are over fairly minor issues of semantics. In Owen Jones’ case, it was because he condemned George Galloway’s rape apologism, but didn’t sufficiently emphasise the condemnation.

I guess this is why the right always wins.

Regarding the politics of privilege, I’d broadly agree that it’s good to think about how your relative advantages and disadvantages affect your thinking – but only up to a point. Privilege and oppression can affect people in various ways, and not always in a predictable way. For example, one might argue that George Orwell’s keen awareness of social inequality was at least partly because of rather than despite his Eton-educated privilege.

It also shouldn’t be used as an ad hominem retort.

“Thank you for aggressively tweeting at me to ‘check your privilege’. I appreciated that suggestion, which prompted me to engage in a bout of self-analysis and has enriched my awareness and insight.”

-No one. Ever.

It’s also important to remember that everyone has their own individual privileges and oppressions, not all of which may be immediately apparent. An online friend of mine was recently Twitterstormed over her perceived (though probably not actual) transphobia. Unfortunately one of her hidden oppressions was an anxiety disorder, and the Twitterstorm triggered a relapse.

I’m not going to get into the original reasons behind these various Twitterstorms – actually I think most of those reasons are monumentally banal. But what I am going to do is suggest a few etiquette points that might encourage people to debate in a more constructive way. If I were to get back to the family therapy essay that I really, really need to stop procrastinating on then this would be what’s referred to as “moving from content to process”. Which is a fancy way of saying that often it’s not what’s said that’s important, but the way it’s said.

1. Exercise caution before retweeting or deploying the Thermonuclear Full Stop. Just because you disagree with someone doesn’t mean you need to throw it open into a free-for-all. A discussion is not a gang fight.

2. Don’t presume to tell other people what their privileges are or aren’t. Particularly if you don’t know them offline.

3. Don’t use privilege as an ad hominem. “You are male/white/straight/cisgender/able-bodied, therefore argument invalid” is never an appropriate retort.

4. Remember that the ability to haul in large numbers of other people into the fray is itself a platform and a privilege.

5. If somebody blocks you, or makes their account private, or temporarily suspends their account, then respect the fact that they have the right to do so. Nobody is obliged to have a conversation with you.

6. Finally – and this is probably the most important point – be willing to accommodate difference and disagreement. This is particularly the case when discussing with people who are part of the same broad left. Outside of certain extremes, they’re mostly decent people who mostly share the same views and aims as you. That small part which they might think differently on is not as important as the larger common goals. You don’t have to agree with them on everything and they don’t have to agree with you. If you can do this, then that would be…..oh, what’s the word? Ah yes. Intersectional.