In“What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic” writer and community organizer Asam Ahmad observes that some of his fellow cultural leftists are too willing to engage in shouting matches online and cautions them to remember that political opponents are people too. Ahmad notes that public personal attacks (“calling out”) may not be as effective as respectful private disagreement (“calling in”). Ahmad’s article is a thoughtful, sincere, entirely reasonable call for greater civility in online debate, and reading it made me want to punch him in his big dumb face.
It wasn’t what he said. It was the way he said it. There’s the pseudo-medical cliché of referring to uncomfortable social situations as “toxic”. The insistence on characterizing everything–even the most narrow and specific behavior–as a “culture”. A delight in inventing jargon (“call in” for “address politely”) where none is needed. A certain po-faced pedantry married to the tone of voice you might use with a child whose tantrum was just starting to wind down. The sense that you’re not being condescended to only because the speaker is taking great pains not to be condescending.
This is the current house style of the cultural left. Wokespeak. And even for those of us whose political sympathies lean cultural left, the sound of it can be like earnest well-meaning fingernails on a chalkboard. Usually I encounter it pressed into the service of making sloppy arguments, so I’m not sure whether I’m objecting to the words or the ideas, but when this article drifted across my social media stream it jumped out as a kind of perfectly controlled experiment. I agree with pretty much everything Ahmad says. He’s even a good writer in the sense that he gets his point across in a lucid and economical way, but he’s a terrible writer inasmuch as I can’t pay attention to this point because I’m too busy wanting to police the fuck out of his tone.
We all have our pet peeves. I don’t like the calculated blandness of corporate press releases or the way Ned Flanders speaks either. But when we’re talking about political rhetoric there’s more at stake. For instance, a lot of resentment and sloppy thinking congeals around the notions of “elitism” and “political correctness”. I find these concepts to be bogus and harmful, but when someone starts in with the toxic-this and culture-that even I want to shout can’t you drop all the politically correct twaddle and just talk to me like a regular person for once?
In his book Don’t Think of an Elephant, the linguist George Lakoff cautions liberals to mind their words. If you can find the language to frame your political position favorably, you win. If you don’t, you lose. Though I find the specifics of Lakoff’s position simplistic, the premise is sound: rhetoric matters. And while Lakoff focuses on framing devices for policy proposals (“estate tax” vs. “death tax”), I suspect an even more important aspect of political rhetoric is nothing so specific, but just the general air you project.
Look, I don’t actually want to punch Ahmad in the face. We probably agree politically more often than not, and I’ll bet in person he doesn’t come off as smug. The aspects of his writing that drive me up a wall don’t sound like the flaws in an individual writer’s voice so much as what happens when a writer suppresses that voice in order to conform to a prescribed style. But for me this style fatally undercuts his message, so just imagine the reaction of someone who doesn’t start out already on his side. Ahmad is correct that shouting at people is a lousy way to get your point across, but there are times when I’d rather be shouted at than talked down to. Even when engaging in self-criticism on how to improve their tone, cultural leftists can be laughably tone-deaf, and I’m calling them out on it.