If there’s any community more toxically woke than the Young Adult Fiction (YAF) community, it’s the online sewing community. Both of these groups of professionals and hobbyists have lapsed largely into Outrage Mode, and if you say something the slightest bit ideologically impure, you’re instantly demonized. (There are many exceptions, of course, but, afraid of being called racists, they tend to remain silent.)
Apologies to the Outraged and clarifications don’t work—they never do—so the best strategy if you transgress is to either remain silent or counterattack. For these groups, you should never apologize unless you are truly sorry, not simply to un-demonize yourself. These two articles, one from the Guardian (!) and the other from Quillette, give the gory details of several controversies in the “Sewist” community (that’s what knitters and clothes-makers call themselves).
The article above is largely about a company called “Papercut Patterns,” which published a video on Instagram showing and briefly giving the name of a pattern for a short jacket known as the “Kochi Kimono”. Just the name “kimono”, which has now been removed (it’s now called a “Kochi jacket”) ignited the outrage of several sewists, who accused Papercut Patterns of not only cultural appropriation, but also of racism. Papercut patterns apologized fulsomely, and then deleted comments that were filling up its Instagram. That blocking, of course, caused further outrage. Here’s the offending garment, and the company’s apology.
Yes, that’s not even close to being a kimono, and the name choice was perhaps unwise, but I would simply have changed the name without apologizing. After all, no harm was done. Well, that’s the view of rational people, but not of many outraged “sewists”:
An excerpt (there are other similar cases of outrage in the article):
. . . on 13 May, Asian-American woman Helen Kim replied to a new photo of the garment to say that to call it a kimono, without any connection beyond a certain boxiness about the sleeves to the traditional Japanese garment, was cultural appropriation.
The post blew up. Those who agreed with Kim were accused of conducting a witch hunt against a female-owned company; those who rejected it were accused of racism. Japanese-American woman Emi Ito, a campaigner against cultural appropriation, was tagged in. She and Kim were suddenly fielding racist commentary on their own accounts.
The debate spread rapidly through Instagram stories, an ephemeral medium that allows users to post photos and videos of up to 15-second in length in short, ever-scrolling clips that will disappear after 24-hours. It was waged in long, impossible-to-follow comment threads under Instagram posts until Papercut Patterns deleted the post and closed comments on subsequent posts, sparking another wave of criticism. The same failings that made Instagram a difficult platform for lengthy debate made it the perfect vehicle for outrage.
Fed up, the company eventually blocked some commenters, including Kim. She became even more outraged:
Suddenly, everyone was talking about the Kochi kimono.
Ito is a teacher and ethical fashion advocate, on Instagram at @little_kotos_closet. In January she wrote a much-cited article about the cultural appropriation of kimonos, writing about the significance of her family’s kimonos as cultural items and urging designers to consider if another name might work.
She was one of a number blocked from the Instagram page, after being tagged by the company in a follow-up post.
Kim told the Guardian she did not expect small businesses to be perfect, but did expect they would react to criticism with “empathy and awareness”.
“When Papercut Patterns deleted my comments and blocked BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of colour] accounts who called for change, they demonstrated what can go wrong when a company fails to demonstrate empathy in rectifying a racially insensitive mistake,” Kim says. “Companies that label themselves as ethical/inclusive/sustainable have an obligation to take responsibility for the harm they inflict, to mitigate that harm, to address how their mistakes are at odds with their values, and to proactively support inclusivity beyond public relations.”
This process, Kim says, is “emotionally and intellectually labour-intensive for the marginalised” who challenge companies on “cultural and racial harm,” but is often “twisted into a business’s redemption story rather than a visible change in practice and awareness.”
This is absurd. There was no harm inflicted on anyone by calling a boxy jacket a “kimono”. What people like Kim and Ito are doing is trying to gain victim status by claiming some ineffable harm and racism. And the claim that challenging misnamed kimonos is “emotionally an intellectually labour-intensive for the marginalized” is simply ludicrous. Asians in the West are simply not marginalized, despite their numerous claims. (I admit that, yes, some people do show an ignorance of Asians that can come out as offensive.) But in general Asians are so not marginalized that they’re disproportionately represented in American higher education, which is fine with me since, as a group, they are high achievers. Harvard, in fact, had to confect a way to reduce the number of Asian and Asian-American students they admit, a practice that’s now the subject of a discrimination lawsuit. But it’s not the kind of discrimination that comes with true marginalization, as with African-Americans.
This will not stop until people stop catering to it. (It becomes harder, of course, if you think your business is at risk.) As Andrew Sullivan wrote recently, “You need to learn how to ignore abuse in the public square; you need to live with the fact that people will lie about you; you have to set boundaries and stick to them.” And you have to ignore the outraged. If there’s true harm, rectify it. But this isn’t the case here. I ask those who hounded this woman: what harm was truly done here, except to your feelings? Are Asians now even more oppressed than they were before?
And I wonder whether this kind of nonsense will ever abate, or if it’s a one-way ratchet that, since it’s seen as “moral behavior,” will continue for the foreseeable future. I’m glad I don’t sew!
The Quillette article, by Kathrine Jebsen Moore, an amateur “sewist”, continues a report on another shitshow (earlier described here), in which Karen Templer, a disabled designer and activist for disabled rights, was demonized for one of her blog posts.
Templer was excited about going to India, and wrote this:
I’ve wanted to go to India for as long as I can remember. I’ve a lifelong obsession with the literature and history of the continent. Photos of India fill me with longing like no other place. One of my closest friends [when I was 12] and her family had offered back then that if I ever wanted to go with them on one of their trips, I could. To a suburban midwestern teenager with a severe anxiety disorder, that was like being offered a seat on a flight to Mars. … Then about six weeks ago, the opportunity presented itself—a chance to go with a friend who’s been.
. . . I said yes. And I felt like the top of my head was going to fly off, I was so indescribably excited. Within 48 hours, three of those friends of mine who are so much better travelers than me—but who are all equally humbled at the idea of actually going to India—also said yes. There has hardly been a single day since that I haven’t said in disbelief, either in my head or out loud, I’m going to India.
“A seat on a flight to Mars” was what did it. And oy, did the outrage erupt! (Again, the choice of words may not have been felicitous, but it was neither racist nor anti-Indian. Clearly she meant that she was being given a chance to visit a country very unlike America. I felt exactly the same way on my first trip to India in the 1970s.)
Here’s some of the outrage:
One of the first people to attack Templer was a user named Alex J. Klein who wrote:
Karen, I’d ask you to re-read what you wrote and think about how your words feed into a colonial/imperialist mindset toward India and other non-Western countries. Multiple times you compare the idea of going to India to the idea of going to another planet—how do you think a person from India would feel to hear that?
Templer politely explained that Mars and India both felt unattainable to her as a child. This comparison did not strike her as imperialist, but she promised to give the matter some thought. “I have had responses from several Indian friends and readers today,” she added, “who had nothing but positive and encouraging responses. I’ll have to see if anything I said offended them.” Evidently unimpressed, Klein retorted:
Instead of asking your Indian friends to perform more emotional labor for you and assuage your white women’s tears, maybe do some reflection on how your equation of India with an alien world reinforces an “other” mindset that is at the core of imperialism and colonialism.
“I want to say this gently,” a comment from a user identified only as Sarah began, “because I can tell your intent is to share your personal evolution and celebrate facing your fear of the unknown, and that’s great. I just need to point out that there’s a lot of “othering” happening in this post.” She went on to explain that, “Your post upset some of my friends who aren’t white [and] who didn’t grow up in America,” and advised Templer to engage in “a little more reflection before you equate India with Mars.”
Templer wasn’t equating India with Mars in any harmful sense, but in the sense that it was a place very unlike America. The outrage, as usual, was disproportional to the “offense”. You can read more about the hatred and virtue flaunting on Quillette, but it’s worth looking at the end of Moore’s piece, including Templer’s apology—perhaps necessary because she has a good business that she didn’t want to damage.
For anyone unfamiliar with the jargon of contemporary anti-racism, the criticism of Templer reflects the movement’s more general critique of Western society. Overt racism, which anyone would agree is abhorrent, is not their main focus; rather, they are preoccupied with identifying subtle, implicit, and often unconscious manifestations of bias which, by their nature, are almost impossible to refute. In this fraught climate, writers may be shamed as racists, irrespective of their good intentions which are held to be irrelevant. As Jonathan Haidt, the American social psychologist, observed during a recent conversation with Joe Rogan, “It doesn’t matter what the intent was, all that matters is the impact—how the person felt.” When confronted with accusations of bigotry, white people are expected to confess to their primordial sins, repent by acknowledging their racial privilege, and to resolve to “do better.” Only then may they be granted absolution by the anti-racist clergy.
As outrage spread across Instagram’s knitting community, Templer published a new post on her blog entitled “Words Matter,” in which she prostrated herself before her critics and asked for their forgiveness:
I have hurt, angered and disappointed a lot of people this week with my insensitive post about my upcoming trip to India and my handling of the response, and I am deeply sorry about it. I’ve spent the week listening hard, learning (in part about how much more I have to learn), and thinking about all of the things I can do to be more inclusive and supportive of people of color.
She reassured everyone that she was “shocked at herself” and was now reading The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison, as instructed.
To those of you who say that this is fringe and not mainstream Leftism, well, yes, you’re right—#NotAllLeftists evince this kind of fascistic outrage. But take my word, it’s spreading, and although some say the pendulum will swing back, I’m not so sure.
And yes, of course this stuff isn’t as bad as what Trump does to America on a daily basis, but you can read about that at other places. Let us try to stem the rot in our own communities. We won’t be able to do that, though, until we overcome our fear of being called racists when we’re not, and until we refuse to cower before the Outrage Brigade.