When the latest literary scandals emerged—first Gay Talese, with his problematic lack-of-female-faves situation, then Calvin Trillin, who may not be the person to invite along for hot-pot in Chinatown—I thought, not again. Not because I felt for them, exactly, but because these cycles end up accomplishing the opposite of their ostensible diversity-promoting aims.
That old Oscar Wilde formula—“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”—hasn’t somehow ceased to apply in the social-media age. As new and scary as the Twitter horde can seem, a buzz of any kind is what fuels book sales and article shares. In a characteristically persuasive Jezebel post about Talese, Jia Tolentino suggested giving less weight to crotchety comments:
[I]t’s also arguable, and I’d argue it, that part of removing old men like Gay Talese from their positions of extreme prominence is caring less about the dumb, ungenerous, anachronistic things they tend to say.
That’s part of the way there, but I’d go further. The shaming cycle helps certain highly established individuals, so much that the hypothesis that online criticism is “shaming” and destructive needs revision. It’s important to note that this really only applies to prominent people. (A helpful dividing line: Does the person in question have a publicist? A new book or television show to promote?) It’s a little different when the gaffe-purveyor is a private citizen without aspirations to notoriety—although there, too, there’s some fuzziness. Some just get written about by Jon Ronson, the anti-shaming movement’s leading writer; others manage to parlay unanticipated scandal (and a Ronson intervention) into a book deal of their own. But for writers, public intellectuals, pop stars, and comedians, the stakes are different. They have chosen to be in the public eye.
Even so, the ecosystem is complicated. Let’s zoom out. If you take a wider view of call-out culture, it’s easy to see it isn’t just about self-righteous progressives making the relatively powerful feel guilty and perhaps a bit more self-aware. Each faction involved—including the self-righteous progressives—has its own motivations. There’s the anti-PC brigade, ever prepared to destroy their latest target. And then there’s the media coverage, geared more towards covering (inventing?) outrage than to taking any particular stance. The end result: To be part of this news cycle is to count. The famous-for-his-field white dude who gaffed is the story.
Part of the problem with the shaming cycle is empathy. Anyone getting criticized on Twitter will—thanks, in part, to Ronson’s intervention—elicit not just further criticism, but also defenses, from people who could well imagine themselves making a similar gaffe and receiving similar negative attention. Almost inevitably, a context will emerge, and the terrible thing someone said will start to seem only mildly unfortunate. The punishments can be a bit much at times. This makes the people at the center of these pile-ons vaguely sympathetic figures to a broader set of onlookers, including some from the demographic that this person had initially maligned.
To return to Tolentino’s point: It will take a while for the old ways to become irrelevant. My point isn’t that it’s hypersensitive to care when one of these incidents occurs. But I’d suggest switching from callouts to… let’s call them call-arounds. As in, the reaction to an offensive (or just dated and phoned-in) poem about Chinese food could be supporting an Asian-American author, whether that’s buying a book or sharing an essay on social media. It’s closer to the “Do Not Link” approach, or more still, to the thing where, when a politician says something terrible about an issue you care about, you donate to an opposing politician’s campaign or to the appropriate non-profit. But the call-arounds don’t need to involve purchases or donations. What matters is the redirection of attention.