Criticism is not Maoist Oppression, Even on Twitter

[Content note: Discussions of hate crimes, rape, rape apologia, sexual abuse, racist appropriation, violent imagery]

This is a story about racist appropriation and rape apologia. This is a story about what can happen when people of less privilege criticize a more privileged "ally." It's about the critics being accused of silencing and bullying, even as the more privileged person is free to ignore the substance of their criticism. And it’s a story about why demanding unity in these discussions, or talking about "toxic Twitter," or insisting that we all be okay with this because someone is such a "good guy," is harmful and, frankly, complete bullshit.

On Thursday last week, Mike Elk (@MikeElk, labour journalist and reporter for In These Times) began musing on Twitter about Dylan Farrow’s account of childhood sexual abuse. In doing so, he made the following astonishing tweet, screencapped by Rhania Khalek (@RhaniaKhalek):


Not surprisingly, a few people had a few things to say about that, and Elk received massive pushback on Twitter, such as this response from William C. Anderson (@williamcander):


BrooklynBarangay (@nilliascaiasca) responded by Tweet and in her blog post, "Why journalist Mike Elk can’t compare Emmett Till to Woody Allen (duh) and why he needs to apologize." She quotes some of Elk’s Twitter exchanges and outlines the tweet’s fucked-up intersection of racist appropriation and rape apologia:

…let’s parse this out. Mike Elk is equating the systemic, white violence against Blacks in the South to (wait for it) DYLAN Farrow. A girl, now a woman, who said her step-father molested her. Wait. What? That can’t be true can it? Ok, so he says that by not giving Woody Allen’s the benefit of a doubt is like giving the accusers of Till (White, racist, lynch mob, police, the whole damn Jim Crow South) a benefit of a doubt. Woah. (besides offensive it just doesn’t make sense.)

So if Dylan Farrow is like the Jim Crow South then who the hell is Woody Allen?? Emmett Till. Yep, this so called "journalist" just compared Woody Allen to Emmett Till. Remember when Emmett won his lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes? Yeah, me neither. Remember when Woody Allen was found dead, his eye gouged out, and thrown in a river as a 14 year old boy? Yeah, me fucking neither.

I can’t do justice to all of the Twitter conversations or Elk’s responses. I note that he (a) apologized if he offended anyone, (b) explained that he had confused Emmett Till with other victims of white supremacist violence (hint: the Scottsboro boys are not a good comparison either!) and (c) claimed this was all an attempt to talk about "parenting through divorce," but that "the left" wouldn’t allow that conversation. Apparently that’s because of the "bizaree[sic] pseudo-maoists on the left that silence debate from other lefties whether in SEIU or twitter war toxicity." So, Black people criticizing the appropriation of Emmett Till to defend Woody Allen are just like Mao? Um, okay then.

In short, this was an ahistorical (and careless) appropriation of white supremacist violence against Black people. It was made in defence of rape culture. And it was followed up by excuses, non-pologies, and claims that people with demonstrably less privilege were silencing Elk by criticizing his intersectional fails.

There were some inspiringly positive communications in this, too. I admire (like WHOA) Mikki Kendall (@Karnythia), who engaged Elk with patience, even when he pulled a derail into Oppression Olympics territory. (I note with bitter irony and profound contempt that it is Kendall who was recently accused by Michelle Goldberg of being “toxic” for challenging white feminist privilege on Twitter. Nope! )

In the midst of that conversation, Aura Bogado (@aurabogado) criticized Elk for ‘splaining Emmett Till to Kendall:

screen cap of Tweet from Aura Bogado reading@MikeElk I did not just see you explaining Till to @Karnythia of all people. I know I didn’t. I know I didn’t. I know I didn’t.

He responded with a series of abusive tweets (again playing Oppression Olympics ) that included the following:

screen cap of Tweet from Mike Elk reading @aurabogado you don’t me or my family’s struggle against racism go shit in the ocean you pseudo reporter.

Suey Park (@suey_park) also confronted Elk about his abusive behavior towards Bogado; he responded angrily about her “lecturing” him and subsequently blocked her. When BrooklynBarangay posted her blog about the discussion, Elk responded by insisting that he had apologized dozens of times, and demanded that BrooklynBarangay “correct” her post.

It is not incidental that Suey Park, Aurora Bogado, and BrooklynBarangay are women of color.

I’ve seen a number of commenters on this discussion (many of whom I respect) say that Mike Elk is a good guy (okay) and that he made one unfortunate tweet (nope) and that he deserves a second chance (er, who said he didn’t?).

Let’s be clear: I do not think Elk needs to be ejected from the human race, progressivism, his favourite chair, etc. I do not think he is the most super-racist or misogynist ever to exist. I do think he has some listening, learning, and making amends to do if he hopes to regain some of the trust he lost over the last few days. And I think he’s very fortunate that some of his critics have already been gracious and forgiving towards him.

Let’s ALSO make this clear: people of color criticizing racist appropriation are not Mao, any more than survivors calling attention to rape apologia are Stalin. I don’t give a shit about ideological purity, but I do care about being inclusive and expecting more.

So it would be suuuuper nice if privileged progressives didn’t try to tell those with less privilege what levels of oppression they must be comfortable with.

Because I can’t un-see what I saw.

I saw an ahistorical appropriation of violence against African-Americans.

I saw that appropriation wielded in defence of a privileged white man, and in defence of rape culture.

I saw condescension and abuse towards people of color.

I saw women of color who criticized Elk called unprofessional and libelous, and accused of being greedy for Twitter followers, rather than sincerely critical:

 screencap of mike elk tweet saying i offered beers others prefer to gain twitter followers

(Speaking only for myself: I would not find the offer of reconciliatory beers very inviting after seeing these exchanges. As a DV survivor, I don’t feel safe with a man who sends streams of verbal abuse at women because they have offered criticism. I do not presume to speak for the perspective of the parties involved, but I completely support their right to ignore that go-for-beers talk, for whatever reasons they have. There's some unexamined privilege in insisting that the offer must be accepted.)

I also saw Elk admit that his initial analogy was "fucked up," (yes!) and then proceed to appropriate a different Black man’s experience while yet again engaging in rape apologia (no!)

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As of Saturday, Elk repeated his story about his "buddy who was black" and the white woman twice more, here and here.

Now, this story is about something completely and totally terrible, that should not happen to anyone. And it’s something that Elk knows about personally. But it is still not comparable to accusations against Woody Allen. As Yukio Stachan(@boldandworthy) Tweeted: "Why do you keep using race when it comes to Dylan Farrow's accusations against Woody Allen?"

Woody Allen is a white man. Dylan Farrow was a seven year-old white child. Why on earth is there a connection? Are we supposed to equate a grown woman’s grounded-in-racism shame about consensual sex with the sexual abuse of a little kid? (Hint: Children cannot consent.) Or is this just a general comment, that Elk thinks most rape accusations are false? I cannot find a way to parse this that isn’t incredibly gross and disturbing.

I have no idea what’s going on inside Mike Elk’s head. But I know that neither I nor anyone else has an obligation to say "oh well, let’s go for beers" in order to make other progressives feel more comfortable. Mike Elk is not the victim of the "professional left." In fact, he’s not a victim at all. He holds the cards here.

He can refuse to engage substantively with what happened. Chances are, there are plenty of white "progressives" who will be okay with that.

Or can he take advice from people who've engaged him. Like Angus Johnston , who has useful things to say about what happened beyond that one initial tweet. He can listen to Brooklyn Barangay, who also explains that this not about a single tweet, and it won’t be solved by a single one, either:

But it is one tweet, that actually doesn’t make much sense. No need to lose your entire career over it. But then you go and make it worse. You refuse to understand what you did, you refuse to apologize, you call other journalists who are people of color names and harass people of color on Twitter who tried to call you out on your bull-shit. You walk around wrapped so tight in your white, male, privilege mantle, that you can’t do the right thing. Do the right thing – Mike Elk: apologize, get some antiracism education, give more writing time to people of color journalists, write a piece about white privilege in progressive journalism.

Excellent advice. I’ll add: it would also be a good idea to get educated about rape culture. It might also be helpful to consider the process model of being an ally, rather than thinking of it as a fixed state. In Liss’ words:

In the Fixed State Ally Model, the privileged person views hirself as an ally and claims the mantle for hirself. Zie may also acknowledge that zie is always learning and trying to do better, but states that zie is an ally to one or more marginalized populations.

In the Process Model, the privileged person views hirself as someone engaged in ally work, but does not identify as an ally, rather viewing ally work as an ongoing process. Zie views being an ally as a fluid state, externally defined by individual members of the one or more marginalized populations on behalf zie leverages hir privilege.

This isn’t just about Mike Elk, although I do hope, in good faith, that Elk considers some of the suggestions mentioned above. It is about recognizing the basic legitimacy of people in marginalized populations talking about their own oppressions. It is about respecting that those who are marginalized have a right to decide for themselves, as individuals, who’s acting in alliance, and who’s not; no-one is owed a fixed-state ally pass. It's about affording people the basic courtesy of deciding for themselves when they can feel safe with someone who's engaged in harmful behavior, instead of demanding instant forgiveness from them.

It’s about what working towards the same end really is. And what it most definitely is not.

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