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Opinion What the West Elm Caleb incident shows us

(Brent Lewin/Bloomberg News)
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Tall, mustachioed and handsome — these are allegedly the attributes of a New York City dreamboat turned the devil himself. A recent Internet drama unfolded as a tale of misplaced vengeance that says less about the man cast as its villain than it does about those of us who did the casting.

The story that sent self-appointed Web sleuths into a justice-seeking frenzy last week starts with an age-old dating phenomenon that has earned a modern moniker: “ghosting.” You’re in a relationship with someone (or some semblance of one) until eventually — poof! — they disappear, cutting off all communication without explanation. A popular TikTok personality was referring to this practice when she took to one of Gen Z’s favorite platforms to lodge a half-joking complaint about a former flame.

“This one’s dedicated to Caleb,” she captioned her video. Then it happened: The comments filled with woman after woman asking the same question. Was she referring to “West Elm Caleb,” a 20-something furniture designer who had texted them, and taken them out, and made them playlists and professed his attraction, even commitment, before, suddenly, evaporating into the ether?

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That the answer was no was immaterial. Someone somewhere was West Elm Caleb, and now millions of someone elses were determined to find him — and show him what was what.

Victims of West Elm Caleb’s ostensible cruelty pulled together a catalogue of his alleged crimes: the ghosting, yes, but also the lying about having deleted his dating apps when really he was still swiping away; the recycling of a Spotify mix he professed was original to each lovely lady; the two- or three- or possibly four-timing. An unasked-for nude photo crosses the line from caddishness into ickiness, but mostly, the infamous West Elm Caleb seems no badder a boy than many on the block.

Maybe that’s the problem. We all have a Caleb, or a Kyle, or a Caitlin, and we’re ready to treat anyone who reminds us of that game-playing heart-stomper as our own personal enemy.

Those perplexed that this everyday cad’s name, address, picture and workplace (West Elm, yes, but which West Elm) made their way into the very public domain, accompanied by calls for his cancellation and even exile from New York City, may not be familiar with the concept of “the main character.” In Internet speak, this is an unlucky (and usually unknown) individual organically appointed by the social media masses to star in a viral controversy.

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The protagonist, or antagonist, says or does something to draw the initial attention needed to set off this cycle, but from there, the rest of us take over. Together, we craft an avatar out of some stranger, and a narrative out of their misdeeds — or misfortune.

Of course, the Internet has always been about this kind of communal creation. We’ve added words to the dictionary; we’ve transformed memes into instantly recognizable referents; we can also spawn new norms with startling turnover. Look at “love bombing,” which plays a prominent role in today’s saga. The term means showing an almost crushing amount of interest or affection at a courtship’s start — such materiel as Caleb is purported to have deployed.

The Gen Z coiners of the term consider the behavior a red flag — a sort of grooming for gaslighting and other manipulation down the line. But is the love bombing itself verboten, if the bomber eventually loses interest, or withdraws affection? Also yes, we’re told, at least now that a certain disgraced furniture designer tipped us off. Apparently, a love bomber is not merely a jerk, but a borderline abuser.

The villain-of-the-week sensation is one illustration of the increasingly common tendency among the plugged-in populace to treat routine poor behavior as pathology. Most everyone has been hurt somehow, by someone. Most everyone has wanted, amid the pain, to turn whoever hurt us into something worse than what they really are: to cast them, yes, as a villain. The Internet allows us to seek validation for this impulse from an almost infinite array of others, plenty of whom have also been hurt in a similar way. With enough of these voices talking at the same time, you have what looks like consensus and feels like catharsis.

But this impulse hardly helps the cause of holding to account real evildoers. Punishing every abuser becomes much more difficult when you can’t separate them from the jerks, and punishing every jerk is neither possible nor perhaps desirable. Catharsis can heal us when we get hurt, but it can hurt others, too.

So this one’s dedicated to Caleb, a schmuck who didn’t deserve what he got.

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