In the last few years, critiques of call out and outrage culture in progressive circles have grown in numbers. Cynthia Belmont’s Salon article “Has queer culture lost its edge?” was a particularly biting instance of such a critique, and was widely shared on social media. According to Belmont, the younger queer generation found in today’s universities is “fragile” and “easily triggered,” in contrast to the defining playfulness and toughness of queer culture of the olden days.
The narrative that opposes an oversensitive younger generation to a tough, stoic older generation bears an imprint of conservatism. It is strikingly reminiscent of the conservative outcry over the the feminization of men today.
Yes, queer culture is growing more sensitive, but it’s because students today aren’t the same as queer activists in the past. It is because growing acceptance of queer people means that it doesn’t take the same toughness to come out of the closet. So, maybe it is less that today’s youth are oversensitive and more that our revered past required a degree of callousness that is no longer necessary. Possibly, it’s because minority stress, chronic high levels of stress experienced by minorities due to prejudice, is having more and more of an impact on people’s lives in an information-saturated capitalist world.
So, maybe it is less that today’s youth are oversensitive and more that our revered past required a degree of callousness that is no longer necessary.
Each of these points bears some truth and some falsehood. The demographics of queer communities are changing, and so are the voices which are loudest. But toughness isn’t callousness, sensitivity isn’t fragility, and we can’t reduce the queer world to a dichotomy of tough-old versus weak-new without betraying the diversity of queer experiences.
Instead of expanding those responses, I will focus my attention on call out and outrage culture, using Belmont’s piece as a springboard to talk about this.
I don’t believe that call out and outrage culture are a sign of fragility. Rather, they are a performative practice through which people signal their care for one another. When people call out something for being transphobic, what they are saying is: “Trans people, we are here for you. We hear you, and we won’t let people hurt you. You matter.” Calling out oppressive behaviour and language is about transforming moments of harm into a moment of solidarity and love. It’s not fragility: it is bonding and communal toughness.
Of course, call outs and outrage pose a risk of distortion. This is especially the case with performative practices, which can easily become separated from the values which underpinned their creation. It’s easier to cry out that something is transphobic without caring for trans folk and making space for us. I often see people reacting in hostility to older trans people for saying “transgendered,” not realising that it’s detracting from that person’s need for support and community. The risk of performativity isn’t specific to call out culture. How much of the older queer generation who shouted anti-capitalist slogans in the past refuse to criticise power now that they’re gainfully employed? How many self-labelled feminists do not embody their opinions on consent in their own relationships?
I often see people reacting in hostility to older trans people for saying “transgendered,” not realising that it’s detracting from that person’s need for support and community.
As behaviours become entrenched in communal practices and morph into cultural norms, their underlying rationale disappears from view. We lose perspective. Call outs, sadly, have too frequently become a way not of criticising power and demonstrating solidarity, but of signalling one’s cultural belonging and establishing one’s moral-political credentials. By saying something is transphobic, we show that we know how to analyse structures of oppression and position ourselves in a hierarchy of value: “I’m better than them because I know how not to be oppressive.” People who have less access to ever-shifting activist language and to a critical education are disproportionately excluded from spaces because they are problematic, entrenching the classism of most social justice spaces.
Call outs, sadly, have too frequently become a way not of criticising power and demonstrating solidarity, but of signalling one’s cultural belonging and establishing one’s moral-political credentials.
We also lose perspective of the relativity of oppressive behaviour. Caitlyn Jenner’s quip about “Dude Looks Like A Lady” is not on-par with trans elders saying “transgendered,” which is much less bad, nor with the withdrawal of federal protections for trans students, which is much worse. Yet, in call out culture, they all merge into the same word: “problematic.” And because saying “transgendered” is problematic, we make our elders feel unwelcome in our circles, effectively excluding them instead of kindly explaining ourselves. We reject the people we sought to show care and concern for because they did not have the same access than we did to the latest vocabulary of oppression.
Clearly, there is a lot to criticise in the evolution of queer culture. Yet, to call it fragile would be to misunderstand it. I hope that critics will see the good in change, rather than only the bad.
We should encourage a return to the roots of call out and outrage culture. More than ever in the days of Trump and the alt-right, we need to show solidarity and care for one another. We must refuse to leave oppression unchecked. But we must also retrieve our sense of proportion. Saying “transgendered” is bad practice, but it’s not the end of the world. Highlighting that it is bad practice should, in most cases, be sufficient. On the other hand, please spend more time criticising and protesting Trumpís policies. They’re hurting trans Americans.
No, queer culture hasn’t lost its edge. We’re still playful; we’re still tough. Playful and tough just look different as society changes. But underneath the surface, we survive, we love, we live, and we persist despite everything bad that’s being thrown at us. And if that’s not toughness, I don’t know what is.