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.Read More »