Love & Wisdom

Debate, Devour, Divide

How weaponized language spreads disinformation

By Zina Hutton December 11, 2023

Illustration of a mean speech balloon with teeth eating a smaller speech balloon

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

“So much for the tolerant left” is a frequent criticism leveled by conservatives at those on the other end of the political spectrum.

Now, those on the left are using it to attack one another. In these online spaces, people tend to panic at the idea of being part of the problem. As a result, they try to position themselves as champions of a very perfect model of social justice that quickly shuts down anyone who doesn’t fit. People are trying to position themselves as the most moral individual with the best ideas and perfect grasp of language.

But people aren’t perfect. Tone policing (a practice that quickly dismisses ideas perceived to be delivered in an emotionally charged manner) is often weaponized in social justice and civil rights organizing to silence more marginalized members of the organizing community. These communities become punitive, focused on performance and punishment instead of shared goals.

Such leftist infighting is not new. Across the history of civil rights and social justice movements, we’ve seen derailments because of personality conflicts. Identities became small battlegrounds on a large stage. Consider the conflicts Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston had with fellow writers Richard Wright and Langston Hughes. When you read the work of civil rights and social justice pioneers dating back decades, you’ll notice all kinds of internecine warfare.

That infighting is a reminder that the people fighting and marching for our collective rights were human. They fought while keeping the movement going, because what they had in common was the fight for collective human rights and against oppression. They were people who were opposites in many ways, but came together because of the movement that connected them.

In digital spaces concerning social justice, conflict-hungry and communication-averse people often don’t have the movement in mind. People learning about social justice practices from high-conflict social media sites or during a one-off college course aren’t prepared for the necessary nuances that these conversations require. Many modern-day movements begin with tons of initial action and then peter out because the energy dies, especially once people realize that they’re going to have to organize with people who aren’t their friends or who have a different point of view.

Here’s the thing: You’re not always going to be organizing with people you agree with 100%.

This doesn’t mean you have to turn your cheek to bigots or accept abusers, but you must do your own research to understand and figure out what you’re being told. Is it the truth? An exaggeration? Is it that deep? I know that sounds callous, but when you dig into social justice tweets or TikToks and scroll through a long thread, you frequently find interpersonal beefs between two or three people being blown up to destabilize the wider movement.

This includes situations where someone has said something that another person found distasteful or annoying. That doesn’t mean it was bigoted or abusive. They just didn’t like it. “Receipt keeping” that seeks to prove wrongdoing is the primary tool in destabilizing online movements, and that is a far cry from the way the practice started. Everybody saves everything you’ve ever done so that they can use it against you. It doesn’t matter if it’s actually that bad or if it doesn’t even say what they claim. It matters that people think something terrible exists, and has become a way for people to kind of hold others hostage, to control the narratives around who a person is, what they’ve said, and what they like. It’s used to derail conversations, dismiss arguments, and undermine experts in social justice or in a specific sociopolitical field.

It is incredibly frustrating to see. You cannot build community connections if you’re constantly thinking about screenshotting other people or being screenshot. You can’t move forward with your movement if you have to be anxious about how your most innocent words will be used against you. It becomes a way to completely destabilize the position of the entire movement. People will write off or actively undermine the movement because they cite someone that people have “canceled.” 

In the case of anti-racist movements, people will write off anti-racism — and embrace racism — specifically because an associated person of color wasn’t nice enough or used African American Vernacular English (spoken particularly in urban communities). This brings us to another problem when it comes to infighting in social justice movements: Bigots benefit from this infighting, but so do people within the movement who care more about themselves than the greater good.

This sort of behavior has become a norm in some social justice spaces, and it does not bode well for the future of leftist organizing. This push for a performance of perfection doesn’t allow for growth, education, or community justice.

We shouldn’t want a future of social justice and civil rights where bad actors get to call the shots by writing callouts. We shouldn’t create a future where spaces for social justice organization and community connection can’t be done because everyone is afraid of the people they’re supposed to trust. 

The good news is that this is a solvable problem. It comes down to how we communicate and handle conflict.

Many people are incredibly conflict averse. It’s easier to criticize than it is to reach out and say, “hey, this thing you did didn’t really work for me. The vibes were off. Can you clarify?” People would rather betray community bonds and attack someone publicly instead of handling business privately.

Instead of talking about how problems can be solved together, this infighting becomes a performance of moral perfection. And who’d want to be part of that kind of movement?

This infighting becomes a performance of moral perfection. And who wants to be part of that?

In the end, we must show empathy and understanding toward someone who uses a word they shouldn’t have, or someone who is confused or clumsy about certain concepts. Let’s not overreact, remove people from spaces, or devalue them based on a snap judgment or word of mouth. That doesn’t take the full person into consideration.

In social justice and civil rights spaces, we talk a lot about rethinking and reforming justice, about communities coming together to fix problems. However, our spaces don’t actually match what we’re talking about half the time, and that must change.

Social justice activism looks so much different in 2023 than it once did. We’re seeing people working toward community despite the fact that everything is so easily made into a slap fight.

In the end, we want people to make the kinds of decisions that help movements grow. We want people to remember that we have to account for ourselves as much as we account for others. If our goal is to build a world where we work together, a world where we care about each other and strive to help protect vulnerable people around us, it’s important that our actions reflect our causes. Communication is key.

Vicious punishment masquerading as careful community policing is not.

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