Trashing is a long-documented phenomenon in feminist movements, the term first spread by Jo Freeman. Here’s her description of the phenomenon, from 1976:
It is not grounded in compassion or a spirit of good faith or a desire to facilitate the growth of an individual or even a movement. All of those things exist, and they look completely different. They’re growth-facilitating. Trashing is a tear-down, a contemptuous excoriation of everything you are, by people within your own group. It’s relational aggression – bullying. It’s Mean Girls, writ as large as an entire community. In general, the pain from which it originates is real and deep, but, importantly, it does not originate in whatever the person being trashed did. It originates in personal and political histories of oppression, abuse, and trauma, and a person is trashed when they push that button or even brush against it.
Someone says or does something that is A Problematic, and in a shockingly short amount of time, thousands of people are saying vicious things to them. If they say or do The Problematic in private, the person who witnessed it tells the internet, too often without first discussing it with the person.
The threat of trashing isn’t limited to the person being taken down; it prevents us from doing things that we fear might make us targets, and it prevents us from stepping forward in support of those who are being targeted. We become passive, self-contemptuous bystanders, not daring to expression kindness and compassion, lest we be shut out, too.
In trashing, Freeman writes, “you are isolated from your friends as they become convinced that their association with you is similarly inimical to the Movement and to themselves. Any support of you will taint them.”[i]
Katherine Cross put it this way: “[Y]ou’re getting turned out of your own home... The one place that you are able to look to for safety, where you were valued, where there is a lot less of the structural prejudice that makes you feel so outcast in the rest of the world—that’s now been closed to you.”[ii]
A lot of “think pieces” on trashing, by that name or similar names, like “cancel culture,” ask us to consider what makes us feel so entitled to have and express strong opinions and get into internet battles with strangers. The best of these might ask you to consider your positionality relative to the various positions and people involved. For example, as a white lady, my support for a white person being publicly criticized by a person of color might not make for a particularly meaningful or impactful contribution, since it’s so easy for a stranger on the internet to dismiss my point of view because I’m siding with the white person; and if I sided with the person of color, it’s easy for a stranger on the internet to dismiss my point of view because I’m engaging in performative allyship.
So instead of asking you to think in any way about how to participate in these trashings, I want to describe two different ways of communicating that can signal that people are engaging in good faith and, if they’re not, for you to engage in personal and interpersonal reflection outside the internet fight.
There are many alternative communication modes to use instead of dogpiling or trashing, but here’s just two:
There’s “constructive critique.” There are a list of “rules” formulated decades ago by the legendary social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport, best-known for originating the famous tit-for-tat strategy of game theory. In Intuition Pumps, philosopher Daniel Dennett summarizes:
Attempt to re-express your target's position so clearly, vividly and fairly that the other point of view says: “Thanks, I wish I'd thought of putting it that way.”
List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
Mention anything you have learned from the other point of view.
Then and only then can you begin to offer any rebuttal, criticism, advice, or feedback.
If you witness something that matches the dynamics of trashing, look for the constructive critique. Who, on either side of an issue, is taking the time to communicate clearly an understanding of the other side, that the other side feels is a fair representation? Who is finding points of agreement? Who is acknowledging what they have learned from the other point of view?
If you don’t see that happening, go ahead and do that work for yourself, alone or with friends who are also concerned by the public disagreement. You don’t have to say anything in public in order to be participating in creating positive change.
There’s “transformative justice,” described by adrienne maree brown in her book Emergent Strategies. Transformative Justice is “justice that transforms the root causes of injustice so that “the conditions that make injustice possible”. It asks us to “shift from individual, interpersonal, and inter-organizational anger toward viable, generative, sustainable systemic change.” brown offers three questions to “create conditions conducive to life in our movements and communities.”
Why? Listen with “Why?” as the framework. Instead of deciding the other person’s point of view is just bad and wrong, ask “why?” to rehumanize those whom you experience as doing wrong.
Ask yourself/selves: What can I/we learn from this? Specifically what can we learn about how to improve our humanity?
How can my real-time actions contribute to transforming this situation (versus making it worse)?
a. If you’re within one or two degrees of connection (and in relatively specific movements, people often have connections that close), you can connect through mediation, directly with the other person.
b. Include silence, reflection, time for personal processing and rest.
c. State needs and boundaries.
I also like to focus on questions like, “Who was hurt, and when?” For many of these conflicts, we are outside observers, asked to choose a side and to argue for it, and against the other side, with everything we’ve got. If you don’t see these questions being asked, these approaches being taken—and most of the time both sides are reacting far more emotionally, with blame and escalation—that’s an opportunity to pause and practice it for yourself. Instead of jumping into an argument, witness the conflict with silence, reflection, rest, and time for personal processing. Take it as an opportunity to enhance your personal accountability in your own relationships, where similar kinds of harm may happen.
As adrienne maree brown writes:
Want to read more? Here are some books that offer different insights about trashing:
Stay safe and see you next time.