The Internet's Race Wars: Toxic Twitter, Criticism, and Forced Teaming

Back when I first learned how to drive, I had a driver’s ed teacher who was a major stickler for the rules. I almost failed the driver’s test because I sped up to get through a yellow light. His method of teaching bled into my already extant personality of criticism, and for months after taking driver’s ed, I was correcting my dad’s driving whenever I was in the car with him. Dad’s been driving since he was 12, so it must have taken a lot of patience on his part to respond calmly to a 15 year old who took one course and thought she knew everything about driving.

Over the years, I’ve had to learn to reign in that arrogance while simultaneously taking pride in the work that I do. I’m sure practically any woman can tell you of a similar struggle if they thought about it enough. It’s part of why campaigns like “Lean In” and efforts to reclaim “bossy” have had such traction in the mainstream (despite having massive flaws in their intersectional analysis).

One thing I’ve learned in my relationship to criticism is how to handle and give out criticism publicly. It’s a flawed process, one that will inevitably result in the perception of double standards and hypocritical treatment. But after years in the business, I’m actually very careful about where I direct my criticism and the engagement of “pile-ons” and “toxic twitter” discussions.

Being involved in both the feminist progressive and Christian progressive social and activist circles creates a strange environment for me. Both have different praxis for their approaches to social justice and sometimes that difference creates conflict. But there’s an interesting similarity that I’ve noticed in terms of the exchange and discussion of power within both circles, and I’m going to try to tease it out. Bear with.

If you spend any time at all in the social justice sector of the internet, you’ll inevitably see a think piece or a longform article posted about the “toxicity” of criticism on social media and the “cycle of shaming.” These pieces seem to appear every couple of months, and tend to come from someone either who has chosen to leave a social media platform or watched from the sidelines as this supposed toxicity reigns. The people writing these pieces are inevitably white, cisgender folks who have an established platform and some modicum of pull within the mainstream. And, all too often, the targets of their accusations of toxicity are people of color, queer folks, or people sitting at those intersections.

This particular power dynamic cannot be ignored. When the New York Times published an article recently on this “toxic shaming” phenomenon, the author highlighted the stories of white people and only white people. In the one story in which a black person was named, the story was turned around to make the black woman the perpetrator of shaming and toxicity, rather than the ongoing victim of trolling and threats.

The prevailing whiteness of such critique of the “toxic” social media battles cannot be ignored – and it cannot be wiped away with an acknowledgement that the person writing is white. When discussing any kind of interpersonal conflict within social justice issues, the race and the social location of each participant must be taken into perspective. But when begging for grace, progressives, and progressive Christians, in particular, find themselves begging for grace for those critiqued as opposed to grace for those hurt by the original offense. The re-centering of the privileged is quick and subtle.

We assume social media is a level playing field, that we’re all on the same team when it comes to progressivism. We’re all fighting for the same goals and the same ideas. This kind of perspective is usually that held by those in power who have decided to use their privilege and power for good.

But the more and more I listen to voices on the fringes, the marginalized, the people who take much more heat than I ever will simply for existing, the more I realize that we’re not actually on the same team. Calls to unity and putting forth a unified front mirror the same calls conservative Christians make when denominational squabbles make headlines. If we look fractured, we’ll be perceived as weak and therefore we won’t have power.

But the thing is: I never was on the same team as someone who only begrudgingly decided my humanity was worth fighting for. And I’m not on the same team as someone who responds to criticism of his work by citing his work as an ally for other causes. What’s happening here is actually a documented event called “forced teaming,” wherein abusers use commonalities they have with their victims to create a feeling of kinship – making it hard to break those bonds when the time comes to do so.

Abuser terminology doesn’t apply to social media on a 1:1 basis, but forced teaming is a useful concept when it comes to discussions of “shaming” and “criticism.” Nowadays, I reserve my call-outs and criticisms for people in positions of power – white people like myself, Christians who seem to think they have the corner on justice, people who punch down in their satire and their work. And I do this very purposefully because I don’t consider it “infighting” when I point out that someone who is supposedly on my team is stealing bases for the opposite side.

Because that is what it is when people who call themselves progressives refuse to decenter their privilege in the discussion. When a white person refuses to stop and listen to people of color, when cisgender gay people insist that trans people shut up and their rights will come soon, when white feminists insist that their experience of womanhood is universal, we/they are refusing to decenter their own privilege in a conversation. They are still making it all about them and their feelings.

As Christians, however, this becomes complicated, because we are supposed to care about the humanity of the individual. But part of the problem of systemic injustice is that calls to recognize the humanity of the individual all too often come at the cost of recognizing the systemic pattern of injustice.

Host and creator of This Week in Blackness, Elon James White, made comments about a similar pattern of recentering when talking about a fight he had with a white progressive. He commented that, for white people, their racism and their mistakes are viewed as one-off events, slips that are easily forgivable. But to the people of color that those racist mistakes happen to, they’re part of a larger pattern of injustice. So black media claps back, and claps back hard.

The marginalized refuse to allow their oppressor the benefit of being just an individual making mistakes because it allows the privileged to skirt away from the business of being privileged. If I am functioning merely as an individual, solely existing in a vacuum of my interaction with you, placing me within the larger system of oppression is, indeed, dehumanizing. But if I recognize that I’m human and that as a human being, I’m going to rely on my privilege at times to get away with things I shouldn’t be able to get away with, then critiquing my work as part of a larger system is actually important.

When we talk about “toxic” twitter battles and make the marginalized representative of their whole group while the privileged are merely individuals caught up in a storm, we are reinscribing the very same power structures that created the need for criticism in the first place. The privileged are always and forever individuals deserving of grace, and the marginalized using the tools they have are forever a mob outside the courthouse.

Individualization to the extent that it tempers our dismissiveness and ignites our desire to help people learn is okay. Individualization to the extent that it erases privileged action as existing within a system of oppression is not.

And this, fundamentally, is what critiques about shaming culture and social media toxicity are missing out on. There is so much more at play than simply two or three individuals creating a furor. There is real, actual injustice and erasure in action, and the calling out of those –isms is not the problem. Likewise, the desire to be remembered as human is not bad, in itself. But when it comes at the cost of recognizing our complicity in the larger systems, then it simply becomes another form of oppression.

In the practical sense, it’s hard to know how to play all this out. When people are dismissed or excommunicated from the progressive sphere because their stance on something doesn’t line up quite right, it can be very damaging. But when people demonstrate a pattern of error and a lack of willingness to change, “call out culture” can actually do us a great service in the creation of safe environments. Above anything, it demonstrates the real priorities of a person when they are criticized.