How not to do social change.
A number of months ago, I listened to a podcast that has haunted me since — because it captures something essential about our culture warrior moment. It was from NPR’s always excellent “Invisibilia” series and it was about a woman named Emily.
Emily was a member of the hard-core punk music scene in Richmond, Va. One day, when she was nearly 30, she was in a van with her best friend, who was part of a prominent band. They were heading to a gig in Florida when the venue called to cancel their appearance. A woman had accused Emily’s best friend of sending her an unwelcome sexually explicit photograph.
His bandmates immediately dismissed her allegations. But inwardly Emily seethed. Upon returning to Richmond, she wrote a Facebook post denouncing her best friend as an abuser. “I disown everything he has done. I do not think it’s O.K. … I believe women.”
The post worked. He ended up leaving the band and disappeared from the punk scene. Emily heard rumors that he’d been fired from his job, kicked out of his apartment, had moved to a new city and was not doing well. Emily never spoke with him again.
Meanwhile, she was fronting her own band. But in October 2016, she, too, got called out. In high school, roughly a decade before, someone had posted a nude photo of a female student. Emily replied with an emoji making fun of the girl. This was part of a wider pattern of her high school cyberbullying.
A post denouncing Emily also went viral. She, too, was the object of a nationwide group hate. She was banned from the punk scene. She didn’t leave the house for what felt like months. Her friends dropped her. She was scared, traumatized and alone. She tried to vanish.
“It’s entirely my life,” she told “Invisibilia” tearfully. “Like, this is everything to me. And it’s all just, like, done and over.”
But she accepted the legitimacy of the call-out process. If she was called out it must mean she deserved to be rendered into a nonperson: “I don’t know what to think of myself other than, like, I am so sorry. And I do feel like a monster.”
The guy who called out Emily is named Herbert. He told “Invisibilia” that calling her out gave him a rush of pleasure, like an orgasm. He was asked if he cared about the pain Emily endured. “No, I don’t care,” he replied. “I don’t care because it’s obviously something you deserve, and it’s something that’s been coming. … I literally do not care about what happens to you after the situation. I don’t care if she’s dead, alive, whatever.”
When the interviewer, Hanna Rosin, showed skepticism, he revealed that he, too, was a victim. His father beat him throughout his childhood.
In this small story, we see something of the maladies that shape our brutal cultural moment. You see how zealotry is often fueled by people working out their psychological wounds. You see that when denunciation is done through social media, you can destroy people without even knowing them. There’s no personal connection that allows apology and forgiveness.
You also see how once you adopt a binary tribal mentality — us/them, punk/non-punk, victim/abuser — you’ve immediately depersonalized everything. You’ve reduced complex human beings to simple good versus evil. You’ve eliminated any sense of proportion. Suddenly there’s no distinction between R. Kelly and a high school girl sending a mean emoji.
The podcast gives a glimpse of how cycles of abuse get passed down, one to another. It shows what it’s like to live amid a terrifying call-out culture, a vengeful game of moral one-upsmanship in which social annihilation can come any second.
I’m older, so all sorts of historical alarm bells were going off — the way students denounced and effectively murdered their elders for incorrect thought during Mao’s Cultural Revolution and in Stalin’s Russia.
But the “Invisibilia” episode implicitly suggests that call-outs are how humanity moves forward. Society enforces norms by murdering the bullies who break them. When systems are broken, vigilante justice may be rough justice, but it gets the job done. Prominent anthropologist Richard Wrangham says this is the only way civilization advances that he’s witnessed.
Really? Do we really think cycles of cruelty do more to advance civilization than cycles of wisdom and empathy? I’d say civilization moves forward when we embrace rule of law, not when we abandon it. I’d say we no longer gather in coliseums to watch people get eaten by lions because clergy members, philosophers and artists have made us less tolerant of cruelty, not more tolerant.
Even the quest for justice can turn into barbarism if it is not infused with a quality of mercy, an awareness of human frailty and a path to redemption. The crust of civilization is thinner than you think.