About a year ago, I was at a house show full of buzzed 20-something artists and activists. As the band played, a woman leaned in the doorway to the living room. A man, looking to get another Rainier, grabbed the woman’s waist as he made his way to the cooler in the back yard.
The woman called to him over the rasping guitar amp. “Hey, can you not touch women when you walk by, please?” she said. The man looked back, aghast. “I just wanted to get by,” he responded.
“That isn’t the point,” her friend said.
The tension mounted. The woman he touched told him he was being inappropriate, and another guy in the hallway said: “Look dude, you did a bad thing, just admit it.” I was compelled to join in. “You need to stop and listen to why they’re upset,” I said.
It was too late. He sputtered defenses. Red-faced and exasperated, he went to find his coat.
Afterward, I was on fire, feeling vindicated and uneasy. This guy had been too forward and he refused to listen to criticism of his behavior. But would driving him off the premises change his behavior toward women?
Obviously, the practice of calling someone out someone for being inappropriate or prejudiced has existed for decades. As call-outs cropped up in cyberculture during the mid-2000s, they allowed for marginalized people to point out the degree to which a person was culturally aware — or “woke” — while still under the protection of the Internet’s anonymity. Call-outs were designed to hold people accountable, not drive them from the premises.
Yet with the rise of social media sites like Reddit, Twitter and Facebook, a more self-congratulatory, shame-perpetuating style of call-out has emerged. As “wokeness” becomes a badge to be earned, call-outs are no longer a reliable barometer of a person’s social progressivism.
This was Lindy West’s recent argument in the New York Times. “What we could really use [from men] is some loud, unequivocal backup. And not just in public, when the tide of opinion has already turned and a little ‘woke’-ness might benefit you — but in private, when it can hurt.” Meaning men might get made fun of for standing up for women.
Accordingly, activists are now advocating for the use of “call-ins” — a more personal and private correction than a call-out. “Call-outs are supposed to be personal. You’re not supposed to be going around calling out people you don’t care about. You call out people when you actually care about their development,” said Anthony Canape, a 24-year-old gay man in Seattle. “It’s hard to have that level of care with a person you’ve just met, like on a date.”
But what defines a private interaction nowadays? With the rules of the Internet pervading everyday life, we’re all vulnerable to a public call-out at any time. As media theorist Jason Adams notes in his book “Occupy Time: Technoculture, Immediacy and Resistance after Occupy Wall Street,” as far back as ancient Greece, leaders were expected to embody moral norms through private moderation and public virtue. Nowadays, Adams argues, social media has made us all into public figures, thus subjecting us to high expectations all the time. By extension, some savvy daters feel they must project an appearance of righteousness to impress their partner. Emphasis, in my experience, on the word appearance.
For instance, it’s not uncommon for me to question whether the 26-year-old computer programmer I’m having drinks with is really a social progressive, or if his behavior — wearing that #StayWoke shirt, marching in a Black Lives Matter protest — is just put-on virtue to get me into bed. After all, I have encountered more than one guy who sidles up to the bar waxing poetic about toxic masculinity, just before he touches my thigh without my consent.
“You have to learn the specialized vocabulary … you have to understand what intersectionality means,” said Henry, a 28-year-old engineer in Seattle who spoke on the condition that only his first name be used. “Being ‘woke’ is the new vogue thing, and if you want to be successful in a dating arena, you have to be up on what’s popular.”
Now that biases or bad behavior get called out so often, some men can be so terrified of being labeled a “mansplainer” or worse that they become passive or apologetic before anyone has mentioned a misstep. Fearful of being called sexist, he doesn’t flirt or reciprocate interest, even when he is interested. He doesn’t even crack jokes because he’s petrified of possibly offending someone.
To some extent, this hypersensitivity is a positive change. But the hopefulness I feel wanes when I realize how many single men change their behavior merely to decrease the potential of a date-ending call-out, not because they actually care to empathize with my position as a woman. When I’m out with a man who’s timid for fear of being called out, it’s just more fakeness to sift through as I date.
With daters of different races, it can get even harder to determine who’s genuinely woke and who’s just afraid of being called racist. “I’ve been on dates with dudes that are white, and they are afraid that I’m going to call them out for something [racist]. And they’re very nervous, and they almost call themselves out for being racist, even when they haven’t been,” Canape says. As a result, he thinks that woke culture is “ruining the authenticity” of dating, when the point of dating is to be yourself. “Maybe you do end up insulting me, but then I know more about if we would make a good match,” he says.
Some daters have created litmus tests to determine whether a person is woke enough to even consider as a prospect. “I’ve been on a date where, I just was like, ‘Hey, I’m going to ask you a question because I need to know if I’m wasting my time — All Lives Matter or Black Lives Matter? When he said Black Lives Matter, I knew we could continue,” said Eva Walker, a single 28-year-old woman who’s the lead guitarist of the black power rock band, the Black Tones.
She says she strives to stay empathetic. “I’m trying to remember that people are brought up a certain way and only know what they were brought up around. They have the right to exist, as I have the right to exist, as the people of Black Lives Matter have the right to exist. It’s like, how do we exist together? I need you to understand that this is happening. But if no one recognizes it, police violence against black Americans won’t change.”
As Walker told me this, I thought about the guy from the house party last year. We didn’t see his right to exist, only his actions as something potentially dangerous. Now that he’s been publicly humiliated by feminists, will he be loath to believe in feminism’s goals? In the end, doesn’t this just breed more mistreated women? And more lonely and self-involved millennials?
One thing I know: Empathy is not a finite resource. We can be “intersectional feminists” while also understanding that many of the white men we date have no idea how to be of use to movements like Black Lives Matter or how to advocate for reproductive justice, even when they want to. I don’t see how anything can improve — be it unfulfilling love lives or more severe social issues — if we can’t even begin by recognizing each other’s humanity.