When I was in high school, I would devour articles on a feminist blog, enthusiastic to seem enlightened. I remember a piece about acknowledging the problematic aspects (before “problematic” was a buzzword, yes I am a hipster) of things we enjoy while still enjoying them. The “thing” in this case was makeup but that awareness can be applied to anything. I think, in a simultaneous search for “wokeness” and relatable influencers, we have lost some of this nuance.
Almost everyday social media will expose a celebrity, politician, social media megahouse, college student, local service worker for some problematic action. Wrongdoings and believed wrongdoings are revealed faster than I can keep track. While this is aided by the lack of privacy that exists online, these reveals are also increasing because of more people learning (or “learning”) about social critique. (The millennial question: Are people getting more sensitive or are we learning more about what is offensive? )
When mixed with the anonymity provided by being online, pointing out why your fave is problematic can quickly turn ugly. On the one hand, there are viscous, relentless trolls but on the other, there are people who have curated reasonable arguments. However, when a genuine conversation about potential queerbating, questionable company, use of language or any other behavior begins, more often now everyone critiquing is dismissed as a hater.
We do have to recognize the way a lot of people, particularly women and especially women of color, are constantly bombarded with vitriol. The emotional stress and damage possible in a world that is constantly online is no news to anyone. But we also need to be able to separate empty hate messages from legitimate critique. Often there are people more focused on defending the actions than thinking critically and, if anything, the existence of trolls helps that.
The numerous examples of vile comments translates to a lack or refusal to weed out the trolls from the think-pieces because it’s easier and potentially healthier. Any negative comment, constructive or not, can be brushed aside because of the potential for it to be empty anger. As a result, conversations get lost in a spiral of constantly defending actions or finding a reason to explain them away. There is an aversion to considering anything that isn’t blatantly supportive. Because we don’t see or understand how to give feedback, we no longer know how to digest it.
We’re driving towards a mentality that all actions can always be justified. For marginalized communities, this presents a possibility for more toxic representation. Your identities and experiences can be used to guilt you into self-sacrifice but they can also be used to defend you, no matter what. Think of white feminists explaining support of female politicians with harmful policies (“well if she was a man you wouldn’t care! She has every right to be an evil overlord”) or long time fans defending the child rapist of R&B (“y’all don’t go after white men this hard. You just like to see a successful black man fail”). There’s a reason that’s believed to be indisputable because it is tied to identity. How can you deny the perils of being marginalized and how that impacts them? It’s a trick, you can’t.
Holding this person accountable is then seen as an attack that is equal to, or worse than, a comment from a rabid troll. You’re attacking their very character, their journey, their worth. You’re grasping at straws because it’s fun to hate on them right now. You’re destroying one of the few pieces of representation we have.
Like no, I would just like for someone to maybe think a little more deeply about their negative impact. You can be downtrodden by society in one axis of life while still holding power or being problematic in another, potentially even the same, axis. The goal is to grow but you can’t grow if you aren’t willing to confront and breakdown your own toxic actions or behaviors.
But that’s really uncomfortable to do. Beyond that, a critique that requires reflection doesn’t just bring the individual’s actions into question, but also forces the defense squad to rethink their own behavior. We are so willing, too willing, to put our own worth into the actions of others. If this person has done a bad thing, what does it say about me, the person who supports them?
If your sense of self is based in others, your view of boundaries and agency are also based in theirs. Your accountability is also up to discretion because theirs is — and if it isn’t, if that singer or senator or server at Texas Roadhouse has to actually consider the impact of their actions, so do you. And that’s an ugly reality. But it’s possible to like acknowledge the problematic parts of something you like. It’s a necessary step in striving for better behavior from and experiences for ourselves and each other.