Call Out Culture, Social Justice, and Missing the Point

I will never argue against the need to be critical of people and media that advance racist, sexist, or homophobic ideas. Tackling ignorance is important, and these ideas are legitimately harmful. But there comes a time where it’s just disingenuous, and people are calling others out not from desire to eliminate those ideas, but to demonstrate their own intelligence and purity.

A week or two ago, an old quote allegedly from Ben Affleck resurfaced where he made what was probably a joke about kissing another man being the most difficult challenge an actor can face. If Affleck said that at all – which, how would we know, this is a secondhand quote – it was twenty years ago. He was a clueless early twenty something in the nineties. Lots of people say or do dumb things. If he ever believed that, he pretty clearly doesn’t now.

I’m not defending the quote. It was a dumb thing to say, and it was in poor taste. But it’s been twenty years since then. It would be one thing to bring it up if we were talking about someone that has never given any indication of growing as a person. But Affleck? We’re talking about a man that defends Muslims against bigots; that makes intelligent, well reasoned arguments about social and political issues without having to just resort to buzzwords and personal attacks; a man that just the day before people decided to Tweet about his twenty year old quote had won a humanitarian award for his work in supporting local charities in Congo. You know what should get more attention than that quote? The East Congo Initiative! His work on that is much more recent, and much more impactful.

I don’t believe in celebrity idolization. Saying something good doesn’t make a person amazing, and nor does a stupid comment mean someone is human garbage. All people are flawed and have said or done stupid things. There are levels to stupid, too. Affleck is one of the people that has given me genuine reason to be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s backed up words with action, and he stands by people that aren’t like him. I have genuine respect for someone that’s studied the topics he’s discussing and travelled to the regions in question, while never trying to become a white saviour – he recognizes that the best thing he can do, the best role he can fill, is providing support to the local charities that know what they’re doing and what they need better than he ever will.

White liberals have loved Bill Maher for a long time, despite people of colour pointing out his racism. They flat out denied his racism and claimed he’s critical of everyone, some of them even after the news broke of him using racial slurs. Affleck? He went on Maher’s show years ago and called him out for being a bigot. He used his platform to give a voice to the people that are ignored.

People bring up things like this old quote not because they legitimately care about people growing and improving but because they want points or credit for pointing out another person’s mistakes, or recognition for being a better whatever – activist, ally, feminist – than someone else. If a lot of these people really cared about making the world a better place, they’d also be doing something constructive, like also bringing more attention to good causes like the ECI. Some do.

I’m not a straight white dude trying to brush something bad under the rug because it was a straight white dude that said it. I’m saying that people are more than a stupid comment. If we judged everyone by a stupid thing they said or did when they were young and pretended that that’s all they are, we’d have to accept that there are no good people. Evan Rachel Wood Tweeted that Affleck should grow up, and many people celebrated that. But I think we should remember that he very clearly has. It’s been twenty years since then, and he’s done some very good and important humanitarian work in those twenty years.

This is about so much more than one event. This is a manifestation of a huge problem that people pretend isn’t an issue.

I cannot stand this disgusting idea that all people from a minority or a marginalized group must have the same opinion about everything as if we’re a monolith, and that if we don’t, we’re self hating or somehow don’t care about social justice. My opinion, so long as it isn’t harmful to someone else, is just as valid as someone else’s. So forgive me if I don’t feel the urge to grab a pitchfork and bring up every stupid comment a person’s ever made.

My best friend is a good person. She’s smart, she’s decent, she’s open-minded. And in the time since we’ve met, she’s grown a lot as a person. She’s a white girl that went to Catholic school. When we met? She believed abortion was murder and pretty much thought a strong female character was one that hits things. Now? She has a much better, more nuanced understanding of feminism. Part of the reason for that is that people helped her learn. If someone were to say, your best friend is problematic, she hates women, I’d yell at them, because it’s not true. She had some views years ago that she no longer has. She’s grown up. People do that – they grow, change, and learn. We should judge them on who they are now and how they’ve changed, not who they once were.

The Internet and social media is a net positive. Of course it is. It gives us instantaneous access to information, it lets us communicate with each other easily. But among the negatives is that it allows for every mistake to be seen by everyone. It makes people feel entitled to every aspect of a person’s identity, otherwise their perspective will be dismissed and they’ll be assumed white and straight if they disagree with what either the majority or the vocal minority of PoC or LGBTQ people say. I don’t owe it to anyone to share my gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, nationality, socioeconomic status, or any such identifier. I can do it if I want to, if I feel I have to, if my background is a vital part of why I feel the way I do about a topic, but I’m a person. My opinion isn’t automatically valid or invalid based on what categories I fit into. It’s valid or invalid based on the arguments I make, and personal experiences may or may not play a role in shaping those.

I don’t think being a good feminist involves this level of hypocritical – and hypercritical – fixations on pretty minor errors. That’s not a constructive way of creating a world where all people are equal and don’t face violence and discrimination, it’s lazy, and it misses the point of what social justice is supposed to stand for. People do that because it’s easy. It’s easier than confronting legal discrimination against women and members of the LGBTQ community around the world, easier than finding a solution to targeted violence and police brutality, easier than electing more diverse candidates and finding ways to give more people a platform to speak their mind.

These things aren’t equivalent and we should never pretend they are. It’s why I hate the world problematic so much – someone that makes a bad joke is put on the same level as a person that commits a violent hate crime. We can do both. Of course we can. And it’s important to both tackle the big issues and educate about the smaller scale, individual level micro-aggressions. But we can do the latter while still giving people the benefit of the doubt, because most people, lacking the necessary background, aren’t aware that they’re saying something rude or offensive. I’ve seen a lot of people say that it’s not “their job” to educate a person, and that may be true, but when it comes to smaller things – not the sweeping, big issues, but little comments or jokes – it’s easy to do and has a much more positive impact than yelling at whoever said it for being a bad person.

Some people do need to be called out for ignorance and harmful statements, for a pattern of discriminatory behaviour, for harassment and abuse. I completely support that. But I draw the line at going back years to fixate on a single comment from someone with no recent record of saying anything of the sort.

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