Nine Propositions for a Compassionate Cultural Criticism

Challenging Oppression without Making New Enemies

2013 was something of a breakout year for the wider distribution of social-justice oriented cultural critique. The line between the online world of Twitter, tumblr, and feminist, queer, and antiracist blogging on one hand and nearly-mainstream and mainstream pop culture and celebrity coverage became noticeably thinner. Time and GQ ended up questioning Robin Thicke about the connections between his song “Blurred Lines” and sexual violence. Blog posts charging Lorde’s “Royals” (a song that was itself a cultural critique) with racism for focusing too much on hip-hop culture became a story on CNN. Rather than taking place in an alternative zine scene, our voices are now part of a global cultural conversation, capable of being amplified before millions of readers and viewers.

And yet this conversation isn’t just broadcasting insights, and opening minds. It’s arousing more than the inevitable level of defensiveness. And it has led many people, to question the ways that anger, vitriol, self-righteousness, shaming, and identification of enemies can be facets of activist culture. An amazingly perceptive version of this view is offered by Quinnae Moongazer in “Words, Words, Words: On Toxicity and Abuse in Online Activism.” She puts out a call for a more expansive and hopeful activism:

It is time that we took our convictions to their logical conclusion and set our sights higher than the call outs of particular points of failure evinced by some hapless individual; it is time we took the next step so many in our communities are already taking, to a social justice activism recommitted to changing social structures and not just creating echo chambers to declaim against what we have.

Similarly, Camille Hayes wrote back in November:

Too often in social change movements we take what could be opportunities for education and turn them into occasions for censure, and I think that’s a shame. How many potential allies do you think we’ve alienated this way over the years? Thousands? Tens of thousands? At any rate, more than a mass movement can afford to spare.

Leaving aside all my disappointments and frustrations, which echo theirs, I want to offer some proactive and hopeful ideas for the continuing work of critiquing and remaking our flawed, all-too-oppressive culture.

1. The bigger the cultural criticism conversation gets, the better; but also the more it’s geared to actual listening and transformation, the better.

One way of looking at oppression is a combination of institutionalized injustice and normalized cruelty. What separates oppression from just plain meanness, unfairness, and abuse is the way it becomes normal for certain classes of people to hurt, dismiss, and undervalue others. It’s routine, sometimes accompanied by an explanation that sounds like common sense, too often accepted even by those it victimizes, and usually unremarkable to those who are advantaged by it. Every oppression is a cultural problem.  So to challenge racism, (cis)sexism, class and state power, and other exclusionary systems in the domain of culture is natural and necessary.

Oppressive “normality” doesn’t reside in any one place, or in one small set of people. It’s created and expressed and passed on across all of society. Rolling back rape culture will only prevent rape when it happens in every community, when it alters the expectations at every party and the dynamics of every date. There will only be acceptance of queer love and trans people in their bodies when that acceptance lives in every family, social space, and venue where queer and trans folks are born, live, love, and work.

Cultural critique that unmasks and overcomes oppressive dynamics needs to reach everyone in the end. Everyone who might have their prejudices reinforced by a work of art, its archetypes and tropes, should be part of the desired audience for critiques of that art. Beyond that, the ability to see oppression and resistance at work in our culture, including pop culture, is a skill to be cultivated in everyone.

2. One key to promoting actual listening and transformation is to present the critique in a way that assumes an intelligent, well-intentioned audience, who is uninformed on the particular issue being addressed.

My favorite example from 2013 is Jeff Yang’s deconstruction of Katy Perry’s performance of ”Unconditionally” dressed as a geisha: Geisha A-Go-Go: Katy Perry’s AMAs Performance Stirs Debate (reminder: authors in newspapers, magazines, and syndicated web publications rarely write their own headlines). Yang narrates the performance, explains why the artist chose the problematic route, and lays out the consequences for real people beyond the work:

”nothing can remove the demeaning and harmful iconography of the lotus blossom from the West’s perception of Asian women — a stereotype that presents them as servile, passive, and as Perry would have it, ‘unconditional’ worshippers of their men, willing to pay any price and weather any kind of abuse in order to keep him happy.”

(See also the personal impact as described by Ravi Chandra: “Sounds wonderful. Until the image tangles with my own history and experience as an Asian American, as I’ve watched our cultures misappropriated and commodified time after time. Frankly, many of us feel used as props to glorify White artists.”)

3. The point of cultural criticism is not to decide which artist is the oppressor, but to reveal oppressive dynamics in the larger culture.

Most of the work of transforming oppressive culture is in the audience, not on stage. It is out here, in ourselves and our communities, in our psychic attachments to power and privilege, in our unexamined acceptance of oppression and our ability to perpetuate it. What’s more, the difference between a character and a stereotype is to some degree repetition, likewise the difference between a personal slight and an oppressive pattern.  When people use a pop culture controversy to explain how power works, and how they are made to feel over and over again, they’re facing the right direction.

Re-stated, my proposition is that for every finger pointed by a cultural critic at an artist, three more should point out to the larger culture and the meme, metaphors, stereotypes, and patterns it reveals. Pop culture has done us the favor of bringing a phenomenon into the public eye and the national conversation, why not use that spotlight not just to talk about a single song, but about an ongoing problem. Por ejemplo, Sezin Koehler’s exploration of  “From the Mouths of Rapists: The Lyrics of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines” went far beyond the debate about whether it was a “rape anthem” to convey in a compelling way the tropes of rape culture that were shared by the song and actual rapists (Koehler spells out the process of writing it here.).

One aspect of privilege is not knowing what behavior of yours is a pattern, not knowing how that pattern affects other people, not having access to the feelings generated or the hidden impact. So, reactions like Ravi Chandra’s above can change people. While I’m not saying that its an obligation of the cultural critic, revealing one’s own experience can offer surprising insights. You can see that dramatically in Tressie McMillan Cottom’s When Your (Brown) Body is a (White) Wonderland, the reaction to Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance that stayed with me the most, out of a very large crop of articles. McMillan weaves her own embodied, raced and gendered experiences to offer insight on a range of behaviors, from drunken dance-floor encounters to Cyrus’ (and her directors) selection of back-up dancers.

4. “People who defend” a given artist or their work is not a coherent category. 

Defensiveness, ignorance, and the blinders imposed by privilege are some of the reasons that people react negatively to anti-oppressive cultural critique. Predictably, each episode of cultural criticism will elicit reactionary behavior in the form of comments and denial that are even more egregious than the original object of critique. But people also disagree due to honest differences of interpretation. What’s more, we can’t overlook the possibility that a critique can be simultaneously anti-oppression and just plain wrong.

If the goal is to make cultural critique a society-wide practice, we must expect honest disagreement. The people who wrote these defenses of Lorde and Macklemore, and Lily Allen, are not adversaries of anti-oppressive cultural critique, they’re part of the conversation.

Using Anger Wisely

Anger can motivate awesome work and can motivate toxic and destructive work. It can be clarifying and illuminating, or convince us that our closest friends are just out to get us. But in expressing our anger about pop culture (that is, about people who made art that reinforces our (or others’) oppression, rather than directly oppressing us), I would suggest these propositions:

5. Strategically deployed anger ultimately seeks to enlarge the community seeking social transformation, not to split it. 

6. Publicly expressed anger depends on establishing that it is justified to make it strategic.

7. Even justified anger needs calm, patient work of educating current and potential allies.

Short of those who hurt us directly, we probably get the most angry at those from whom we expected more. If anger has the capacity to illuminate, then one vital goal is that those who have failed us the most learn from that anger. So, if you’re a critic, you’re also on your way to being a teacher. When your writing can go viral in an afternoon, you have to expect that some of your students will need clarity, and even an orientation to the workings of oppression.


8. These jobs of educating, explaining, and justifying should not fall on those relying on anger to survive violent oppression.

Anger is among other things a powerful and necessary defense mechanism. And there’s a lot for people to defend themselves against. The solution isn’t to shame those who are angry, or exclude their critiques but to take them seriously, and make them a basis for conversation and learning. Accordingly, those of us who join conversations begun around others’ pain should do more of this educating, explaining and justifying work, so it doesn’t always fall to those who experience oppression the most personally. We should add our voices to make anger within the movement strategic and transformative.

Lastly, 9. Let’s try to assume good faith on the part of others: flawed execution or naïve ignorance is usually more likely than malice.

One of the advantages of living now (in many places, including where I sit), and not say at the high points of colonialism, racism, and patriarchy is that the moral struggle to de-legitimize oppression and prejudice has largely been won. Don’t get me wrong: Racism hides behind colorblindness and ignorance. Sexism is normalized and naturalized at every turn. But the idea that these and many other -isms represent some eternal truth about humanity is thoroughly discredited. Our lives are blessed, and complicated, by the fact that calling someone a bigot is a genuine insult in polite society.  If you explain how a certain cultural practice reinforces an age-old oppression, you can connect with most of your audience’s sense of self and their desire for dignity and righteousness. Getting that far took a lot of argument and a lot of struggle. I’m so grateful to the people who won us that inheritance.

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