Monday, December 10, 2018

PART I: A Response to “Artists Mustn’t Fear the Social Media Call-Out Culture”, a TEDx Talk by Nora Raleigh Baskin

This is the first post in Reading While White’s End-of-Year Retrospective series, in which we take a look back at some of the events of 2018 and identify recurring patterns.

Nora Raleigh Baskin’s TEDx Talk, “Artists Mustn’t Fear the Social Media Call-Out Culture” was published May 21, 2018. In it, Baskin contends that “loud” and “vitriolic” voices on the internet are threatening artistic and creative expression and therefore constitute a societal danger. You can see the full video here.

In this post, I focus primarily on Baskin’s TEDx Talk itself. Wednesday, we’ll welcome guest blogger Sarah Hamburg, who will unpack some of the subsequent events that occurred in online spaces. [Ed. 12/12/18: Sarah Hamburg's post is now available here.]

Back in May, when Nora Raleigh Baskin’s TEDx Talk was published, I didn’t want to talk about it. The end of the school year (and my time at my job) was nigh, and I was completely drained. Listening to Baskin’s talk drained me even more, even though it was nothing I hadn’t heard many, many times before.

I was, and still am, grateful to the people who raised their voices to challenge Baskin’s narrative at the time (see Dr. Debbie Reese’s post here and Mia Wenjen’s response here).  I understand that I’m offering my perspective late, especially in our frantically-paced media culture; to some, because it comes late, this post will undoubtedly land as resentful and dilatory.

And yet, the dynamics, mindsets, and structures that informed Baskin’s talk, and the rigamarole that followed, repeat themselves; talking about them is, unfortunately, always timely. After the announcement of the Wilder Award name change (to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award), I observed the very real danger that my colleagues found themselves in, including some BIPOC colleagues who’d had nothing to do with the name change. I worked on this blog post in fits and starts over the past few months, and offer it now as I reflect that the fear White people so often express at the possibility that they or their work will be criticized falls miles short of the actual hate and harassment faced by those people, especially BIPOC people, who do social justice work.

I’ve boiled down my problems with Baskin’s talk to three fundamental points: She never defines the titular “Social Media Call-Out Culture”; she fails to acknowledge that art has the power to hurt people; and, in its aftermath, she did not welcome debate.

I’ll begin with what I think is the central problem: Baskin’s failure to define “Social Media Call-Out Culture.

I wonder, as I listen to Baskin describe “voices on the internet” as “so loud, and so angry, and so vitriolic,” is she talking about those who tag people with racist, sexist, heterosexist, anti-trans, and ableist slurs, or who openly advocate for violence, such as those who continue to attack Ellen Oh with death and rape threats? Or is she talking about those of us who criticize and call out problematic content? Or, is she talking about everyone—conflating critics with those who practice hate and violent speech? Or is she talking about a category of online voices I haven’t named? Baskin never clarifies.

The only example of online interaction Baskin cites is the one with which she opens her talk: Baskin stumbled onto a Twitter thread in which an author describes having arrived at the decision not to try to publish a book because she does not belong to the marginalized group she was writing about. Baskin continues, “numerous tweets chimed in with praise for her bravery. One using the phrase: It’s time to cede the floor.” (0:47) The fact and manner in which Baskin quotes “bravery” and “cede the floor” lead me to believe that she has concerns about these tweets, and disagrees with their sentiment (concerns and disagreement I do not share). But regardless of how Baskin feels about these tweets, the language they use is hardly “angry” or “vitriolic.” I’m still pondering, therefore, what exactly Baskin means when she refers to the “heated, angry, bifurcated social media call-out culture” (8:23).

Why does this matter--why is it important to spell out what precisely Baskin means when she describes a “social media callout culture”? I identify three primary reasons.

Reason 1 - In the absence of a clear definition, I believe that Baskin is, intentionally or not, referring to anyone who she perceives as surpassing what she deems to be an appropriate level of anger—she alludes to a nebulous lump of internet voices, terming them “loud,” “angry,” “vitriolic,” and “heated.”

I thought over and over of what Robin DiAngelo terms White Fragility’s Rules of Engagement. Now, Baskin does indeed clarify that “bad writing, lazy writing, should always be called out. Stories that propagate stereotypes that have flat, one-dimensional characters, stories that depict an inaccurate historical record, should be critiqued and reviewed as such” (8:55). As a listener, I conclude at this point that Baskin supports critique and criticism of bad writing, so long as said criticism does not cross the border into the realm of “angry,” “loud,” “heated” or “vitriolic.” In doing so, she demarcates a border between “acceptable discourse” and “unacceptable discourse” without specifying the criteria for either category.

She also fails to unpack what it means to be a White person assuming and perpetuating rules for “acceptable discourse”; there’s a long history, in the United States, of White people dismissing voices of people we deem “uppity” or “uncivilized”—and using such terms to justify violence against, and oppression of, BIPOC people. When we White people cite tone or manner of delivery as grounds for dismissing the concerns of BIPOC people, we leverage the pain of those we oppress against them in the service of perpetuating racism.

Reason 2 - The second reason I ask “what specific call out culture?” is this: We need to be clear about who are oppressors and who are oppressed here. There is oppression online; there is honest-to-god hate speech and violent speech that puts people’s physical well being and lives at risk. I’ve been on the receiving end of swastikas, Pepe the Frogs (a racist and anti-Semitic symbol of hate), and conjectures about my physical appearance and religion (unapologetically Jewish, for the record), which is nothing compared to what my BIPOC friends have been through (I know people who’ve had to leave their homes). But I don’t hear Baskin referencing that kind of hateful rhetoric in this speech; I hear her citing a fear that she’ll be harshly criticized if she writes something that’s not OwnVoices (Baskin also fails to cite that Corinne Duyvis coined the term “OwnVoices,” thereby contributing to the continued erasure of disabled voices in literature). Here, Baskin misidentifies those who fight against oppression, as if by crossing from “acceptable” to “unacceptable discourse” they’ve become equivalent to those who perpetuate oppression. I doubt she’s doing this consciously, but she is doing it nonetheless, and she isn’t the first; morally equating racism with resistance to racism is a tried-and-true, highly effective method of weakening that resistance and perpetuating racism.

Reason 3 - Much of Baskin’s talk presupposes that the “social media callout culture” exists in opposition to the work that artists do in making art. This is, I think, a faulty analysis.

Baskin opens with the aforementioned story of an author describing how she decided not to try to publish a certain story. Above, I deduced that Baskin assumes that the author’s decision stems from a fear of being called out on social media, but I think it’s possible that it wasn’t fear of a loud, vitriolic, angry social media culture, but rather, education, reflection, self-awareness, and a growing sense of self that doesn’t depend on praise or a need to take up space. Such a solid foundation allows one to step back at times—allowing other artists, perhaps OwnVoices artists, to step in.

I’m sure that Baskin feels genuinely concerned that art is threatened by forceful criticism. I wonder why she didn’t consider reacting to the Twitter thread thusly: “Concerned as I am about any limitations even being suggested upon one’s art, I also recognize that someone from that marginalized group now has that much of a better shot at getting published, which will be a good thing for art. How exciting! More and better art is on the way!” The nature of her framing—that she jumped to “art is being limited”—reveals that she is operating from a White default.

My second point of contention with Baskin’s talk is this: Art has the power to hurt people, and artists need to reckon with that, and take responsibility for it.

Within the first minute of her talk, Baskin describes, upon discovering the other author’s Twitter thread, “a cycle of emotions: First angry, then sad, then worried, and finally, afraid—for myself, yes; but for art, and for artists, and for the power and freedom of creative expression.”

Baskin sets up art as a lofty thing that has the power to transcend our mundane lives. I agree that the best art can do this. But, I am troubled that Baskin expresses fear on behalf of art, but not on behalf of people. I am troubled that she doesn’t recognize that the fact that powerful art can transcend one’s mundane life means that art can also damage, hurt, and cause real harm to people’s very real lives. And that so often, and for so long, we White people have prioritized the lifting up, transcendent “boosts” we get from powerful art over the very real harm that (often the same) art can do to very real people.

Lest anyone accuse me of being anti-art, I should specify that art isn’t, by its nature, harmful; but it’s also not, by its nature, harmless. It depends on the messages packed into, and sent by, the art.

At 10:20, Baskin argues: “The decision of what gets published and what does not, what is bought and what sells, never belonged to the writer; that power belongs to the industry—to the publishers, to the editors, to the agents, to the sales and marketing departments, to the big chain booksellers, to the gatekeepers. Money and economic factors dictate that market.” This is, quite simply, a responsibility dodge. Of course artists have power in this realm, because there’s a difference between writing in one’s diary and pitching an agent or a publisher on one’s writing. And it is, indeed, the responsibility of writers and illustrators (as well as publishers, editors, agents, booksellers, etc) to understand their power and use it responsibly.

(For the record: Baskin is far from alone in dodging this responsibility; I’ve observed many creators and critics maintain that art can’t hurt people, a breath away from “people hurt people”.)

My final point of dispute with Baskin is simple: I cannot understand why she did not welcome or engage with the critique of her talk (which was offered by many people, including, but not limited to, Dr. Debbie Reese).

This TEDx conference organizer, Dr. Cristina James, tweeted extensively to promote Baskin’s talk. Most of James’ tweets tagged other Twitter users who’d included “#OwnVoices” in a tweet at some point within the past few months. James tagged more than 80 Twitter accounts (including Dr. Debbie Reese’s) in tweets promoting Baskin’s talk, usually inviting people to “consider [Baskin’s] view on #ownvoices too in her just released @TEDx talk. Please watch discuss contest, agree amplify & keep the conversation going!” Given this context, it’s doubly difficult to determine who Baskin means when she refers to “angry,” “loud,” “vitriolic,” and “heated” voices on the internet; although I recognize that Dr. Cristina James and Nora Raleigh Baskin are two different people, this juxtaposition would suggest that both Baskin and James seek and welcome robust debate and criticism, especially from prominent voices on the internet (or else why would they be tagged and asked to “discuss, contest, argue…”)

And call me naive, but for the life of me, I do not understand why someone would do a TEDx talk if she’s not open to debate or criticism on the subject. Check back Wednesday for guest blogger Sarah Hamburg’s post, which delves deeper into the online events that followed Baskin’s talk. [Ed. 12/12/18: Sarah Hamburg's post is now available here.]

For all her fear of artists being silenced, Baskin never reckons with the possibility that she might be silencing people herself, in this very talk. She refuses to acknowledge her own power as a White person in the industry, and how that power (wielded now to conflate oppression with anti-oppression, to excuse creators from any harm their work might visit upon children, to dictate what constitutes “acceptable” and “unacceptable” discourse in the world of criticism, and to paint a White-centric narrative that asserts that art is in danger because of “call out culture”) contributes to a world in which the increase in diverse books has been, almost entirely, a boon for White creators.

She also fails to recognize that her words might have a stifling effect on another group of people: Critics. Despite her passionate concern about silencing artists, Baskin doesn’t recognize that there’s also a very real danger in silencing critics. Happily, we are not a silent bunch.

-Allie Jane Bruce


Maren said...

Thank you so very much. Late? no. Thoughtful.

Cee Arr @ Dora Reads said...

This is excellent and well-discussed - well done! As has been said many times by many different people in the community, freedom of speech does not equal freedom from criticism. In fact, it's the exact opposite.