I’ve been open about my distaste for “call-out” and “canceling” culture within left-leaning spaces on social media. My overarching point is that people shouldn’t be harassed online, especially not for stupid shit that doesn’t matter.
I’m going to put it out there, however, that sometimes people do in fact need to be shut down. Figuring out where to draw the line between “something you don’t like that isn’t hurting anyone” and “a toxic asshole who can just be blocked and ignored” and “a serious problem that is affecting far more than a tiny online community” isn’t always easy, however. There’s a lot of moral gray area here, and I think it’s worth talking about.
In my experience, one of the main issues that comes up during these discussions is something I’m going to call “the Captain-Planet-Official Problem” after an ecofascist blog on Tumblr that was extremely popular in relatively mainstream circles before it got shut down. The problem is this, basically: A lot of alt-right gateway accounts are popular because they’re funny, relatable, friendly, kind, and filled with memes that most reasonable people will find silly and inoffensive.
If you’re unfamiliar with ecofascism, its message is more or less “save the planet by getting rid of all the brown people.” This is often couched in terms of “controlling invasive species that are threatening native plants and wildlife,” and it’s connected to the tendency of various “European identity movements” to celebrate the natural beauty and “environmental heritage” of places like Germany and England. There’s often a superficial level of anti-capitalism accompanying this messaging, like, “What if this beautiful landscape were bought and destroyed by global capitalists?” In this case, “global capitalists” usually means “Jewish people,” but I’ve also seen it applied to “Asian people” with no attempt to differentiate between people from various East Asian and South Asian countries.
Left-leaning communities in social media spaces love the environment and hate capitalism, which is fair. What this means is that, if some well-meaning person sees a random post from a blog with a catchy username like Captain-Planet-Official about how capitalism destroys the environment, they probably won’t think twice about reblogging it. Maybe they, or one of their followers, might even go to the Captain-Planet-Official blog, which (based on the screencaps I’ve seen) had a lot of clever shitposts and a charming and active moderator. If they decide to subscribe to this blog, they’ll probably realize soon enough that there’s a disturbing current of white supremacy underlying the memes.
At this point, one of three things will happen. Some people will unfollow the blog and resolve to be more careful in the future. Some people might have gotten a taste of the Kool-Aid (or red pill, or whatever) and decide that they like it and want to pursue it farther into some of the more overtly right-wing blogs that regularly interact with Captain-Planet-Official. Most people, however, will decide that it’s just Tumblr or Twitter or Reddit or Imgur and therefore doesn’t really matter. This latter group of people is willing to put up with occasional messaging about “invasive species,” which they might not understand or even see if they’re not familiar with that specific type of coded dog-whistle political language or just don’t spend that much time on social media.
The people who are interested in the white supremacist messaging will probably only be a tiny minority, but those people are out there, and I’m willing to bet that there are actually a lot of them in the left-wing spaces occupied by their peers. They feel increasingly alienated, but they’re also like, “I’m not a literal Nazi,” so they won’t enter clearly marked right-wing spaces directly. For people like this, something like Captain-Planet-Official is a gateway; and, the wider the gateway – the more people who promote it by reblogging its more inoffensive posts – the more people who will end up passing through it.
(By the way, this is a post with screencaps of a good collection of tweets about how these gateways work.)
Obviously there’s something unpleasant going on with left-wing spaces that alienate certain subsets of people so much that they’re driven to white supremacy or men’s rights activism or whatever Breitbart is going on about these days, but that’s an unpopular conversation to have for many (extremely valid) reasons. It’s also highly likely that a baby cryptofascist would have found their way into the alt-right anyway, even if they didn’t encounter Captain-Planet-Official on Tumblr. So why bother doing or saying anything about Captain-Planet-Official? They’re not aggressively hurting anyone, and they’re probably doing more good than harm in the way by spreading awareness of environmental issues and helping vocalize resistance against capitalism. Right?
So this is the problem: How do you explain that what a blog like Captain-Planet-Official is doing is a completely different type and level of “problematic” than a blog that celebrates an imagined romantic relationship between two fictional characters? And are you going to send a message to everyone you follow who reblogs a popular post from that blog? And if one of these people tells you that they don’t care, because it’s just a stupid meme on Tumblr and doesn’t matter, are you going to unfollow them? And if you unfollow them, what are you going to say to the other people in your fandom who still follow them? That they shouldn’t interact with them because they don’t take white supremacy seriously? Because they reblogged a Captain Planet meme about protecting the environment by fighting capitalism?
I should mention that this goes for radical left-wing messaging as well, especially when it comes to TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) who use catchy feminist slogans to promote homophobic and exclusionary rhetoric and ideology. “How dare you say that protecting women’s rights and reblogging pride flags is bad” works in exactly the same way as “How dare you say that protecting the environment and reblogging cute animal pictures is bad.”
In any case, I don’t think the answer is necessarily to appeal to the powers that be to shut down a particular blog. As the Tumblr “flagged posts” debacle proved last December, there’s a lot of potential for abuse and basic ignorance when distant authorities are invoked, so it’s in the best interests of a community to figure out how to handle problems like Captain-Planet-Official on their own. Deciding where the line is between the normal stupid bullshit that happens on social media and something that’s genuinely scary isn’t always as easy as it is with Captain-Planet-Official, nor is it always easy to tell when someone has crossed that line and isn’t coming back. This is why I wish left-leaning communities would stop devoting so much energy to asinine ship wars (Will Rey and Kylo Ren kiss? Who cares??) and start using the principles of social justice to figure out what to do about the promotion of dangerous ideologies that’s happening in the real world right in front of them.