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To Expower the People

“Reckoning” is a new word in food-media vocabulary. For decades, food journalism flourished as a safe, G-rated corner of publishing, an agreeable refuge from the strife of politics and the passions of fiction. In the extended family of literature, gastro-journalism blossomed as the approachable younger sibling to the fiery op-ed and the moody novel. Slick journals like Gourmet or Bon Appétit projected a dinner-table fantasy ideal for suburban daydreams. Recipes, travelogues, and restaurant reviews allowed readers to escape their world without leaving their living room. The field’s rare ventures into the political usually took the form of culinary cheerleading: “Tacos are My Resistance” or “The Vietnamese Sandwich Shop Teaching Dallas how to Hire Differently.” Then George Floyd died. The residual anger from the protests hit the sheltered cradle of food media with blistering volley of accusations about racial inequity. And the reckoning was immediate. In the course of one month, the top editors of both Bon Appétit and the LA Times Food Section (Adam Rapoport and Peter Meehan respectively) were forced to resign, and culinary newsroom discussion abruptly shifted from how to be a better baker to how to be an anti-racist.

These firings followed an uncannily similar cycle. In fact, both ousters started with the same person: wine writer Tammie Teclemariam, who’s quickly becoming the Ronan Farrow of food journalism. On June 8th, 2020, Teclemariam tweeted an old photo of Adam Rapoport from his wife’s Instagram showing Bon Appétit’s editor-in-chief supposedly dressed in brownface for Halloween. That picture opened the grievance floodgates. Brownface was just the beginning as a range of appalling professional revelations began to surface: workplace harassment, racial discrimination, and unequal pay for non-white employees. Numerous current and former contributors jumped onto the public shame wagon. Assistant Food Editor Sohla El-Waylly shared an Instagram essay about being pressured into unpaid video appearances beyond her magazine duties. Priya Krishna tweeted, “I can’t stay silent on this. This is fucked up, plain and simple.” Molly Baz, a white star on the magazine’s YouTube channel, pledged that she would not film any more videos until her “BIPOC colleagues receive equal pay.” That evening, Rapoport took to Instagram to announce he was stepping down as editor. From first tweet to final Instagram, it took exactly 11 hours to move from accusation to execution. Flash forward 21 days to June 29th when Tammie Teclemariam tweeted a series of allegations about Peter Meehan creating a toxic culture at the LA Times Food Section. Cue confessionals, Twitter outrage, and ultimate resignation. Two days later, Meehan posted a statement that began, “I’m leaving the LA Times” and concluded, “this moment is about [sic] changing, challenging, and making things better.”

This moment is also about something else: Power. The exercise of ousting biased authority figures from positions of influence is a dominant cultural practice, stretching far beyond food media, which looms over public discourse in the age of Twitter. While typically labeled “cancel culture,” I prefer to describe this behavior with the term “expowering.” To clarify, I define “expower” as the practice of consciously seeking to expel troubled leaders from prominent offices in order to make room for new decision-makers (ideally from under-represented groups). During the Trump presidency, expowering grew into a leading tactic for activists in many fields and disciplines. In July 2020, 40 percent of American voters claimed to have participated in so-called “cancel culture,” and 55 percent of voters ages 18–34 said they had helped “cancel” someone. Just in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, advocates ejected top brass at CrossFit, Adidas, Refinery29, Everlane, Riot Games, Reformation, Bleacher Report, Second City, Essence, SFMOMA, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the New York Times editorial page to name a few. This reckoning, however, is not contained to the recent corporate firings but connects to a larger generational modus operandi— because expowering is not just a way of protest, but a way of life that guides how progressive millennials think, feel, and fight for change in a social media century.

To classify this broad generational ethos as “cancel culture” is a vast simplification. I use the verb “power” as the root of my coinage intentionally, because any discussion of the recent turmoil that overlooks the underlying struggle for power has thoroughly missed the point. Campaigns to blacklist a makeup YouTuber and fire a New York Times editor use similar mechanics for extremely different ends. While “canceling” is defined by Lisa Nakamura as a “cultural boycott” withdrawing support from a public figure or brand, we can define “expowering” as a willful effort to destroy public support in order to trigger regime change. To expower, therefore, is a consciously political act—a coup not an embargo. It is about creating systemic change, not individual accountability. By deposing the current powerbrokers, so the logic runs, you open space for new leaders to take the throne—for the marginalized to become the masters. Taken to its logical conclusion, expowering is thus part of a utopian dream envisioning a society without a center and thus without the possibility of hierarchy or domination. “That’s why the ousting of folks like Adam Rapoport and Peter Meehan [is] significant,” argues progressive food writer Alicia Kennedy. “When the baseline stops being the cishet white men… we can maybe have real discussions about power, labor, and capital.” “Canceling someone is an attempt to hold them accountable,” explains Nicole Cardoza of Anti-Racism Daily, “[Yet] we must look beyond the person and hold systems accountable.” To the revolutionary’s eye, expowering is step zero on society’s road to rebirth.

In this sense, expowering represents more than a species of protest but a style of belief common to most college-educated liberals I meet under 40. The explosion of privilege shaming, cultural appropriation debates, and #OscarsSoWhite style critiques show expowering in action. It is a philosophy, a worldview, a mission mindset dedicated to a grand vision of “reckoning” that aims to topple the oppression of today to usher in the equity of tomorrow.

* * *

Where did “expowering” come from? Like all rebellious ideas, expowerment was born from the sins of the previous generation.

Back in the ’70s, a little-known term called “empowerment” was making a name for itself in activist circles with radical demands about increasing the political agency of black and queer people. Soon the concept spread into compatible progressive disciplines such as social work, psychology, and public health. Then the international feminist movement adopted empowerment as their flagship ideal in the ’80s advocating for women in the Third World. During the ’90s, empowerment left the streets to jump into boardrooms, gyms, magazines, and runways. As we moved into the new millennium, the once-edgy concept went full corporate—peddling its upbeat image to sell protein powder, energy drinks, makeup, acne medication, weight-loss spray, and an entire sub-division of publishing. On Amazon, there are now over 10,000 results for books with “empower” in the title. This bibliography charts a timeline of the idea’s decline: in 1976 Richard Neuhaus and Peter Berger penned the political manifesto To Empower People, and in 2019 Christine McCarron sought to Empower Your Inner Millionaire. Today, everyone and everything wants a taste of the power: employees, executives, teachers, parents, doctors, patients, users, and accusers. Apparently, even puppies need more power as PETential training services in Cincinnati preaches “The Value of Empowerment to Our Pets” for a mere $75 an hour. Going from elevating poor women in Peru to rich dogs in Cincinnati, empowerment has drifted a long way from its original mission.

Or to put it in plain terms: empowerment has failed—at least in the mind of millennials. In practice, the concept has proven better at selling seminars than fighting poverty. Despite undeniable advances in LGBT and women’s rights, stark disparities continue to exist for minorities across professional, legal, and economic outcomes. Empowerment as a policy feels like a botched Boomer compromise to many young activists. And the “expower” movement emerges as a fierce millennial counter-reaction to this half-century of failed promises and tepid policies.

Besides millennial recoil, the other indispensable element in expowerment’s ascent is social media. As a strategy, expowering is built for the digital world. Social media enables the tactic by facilitating mass discussion and mobilizing opinionated mobs with an appetite for outrage and retribution. Additionally, the ubiquity of smartphone technology allows people’s actions and opinions to be constantly recorded, which turns platforms such as Twitter and Instagram into inadvertent case files that can be investigated for potential evidence of prejudice. In this way, social media functions as both the crime scene and the courthouse in call-out culture—where you can locate the smoking gun and pass the guilty verdict in the same convenient location.

It is important to emphasize that the expowering process usually starts with a visible sign of bias or bigotry. The challenge of fighting abstract ideas like “systemic racism” is demonstrators need concrete manifestations of the enemy to oppose. Therefore, progressives look for personal embodiments of abstract problems, visible forms of invisible bias. This embodiment fallacy warps digital activism by incentivizing socially conscious liberals to seek inflammatory evidence of prejudice as a beneficial goal in itself. In the emotional turbine of Internet outrage, a single brownface picture has more firepower than a thousand crooked tax returns. Insensate numbers like hiring data or contract details can stoke the flame of scandal but not start it.

Upon closer examination, the process of expowering can be broken down into a clear three-step cycle that operates like cultural clockwork.

  1. Inciting incident (the smoking gun): An explosive piece of media displaying someone’s private transgressions ignites Internet scrutiny. The inciting incident is usually an offensive photo, video, quote, or email screenshot that draws the energy of online anger into its orbit. Like moths to the flame, the digital rage mobs and hate junkies flock to the blaze of scandal hungry for blood.
  2. Group confessional (open mic accusations): The initial indiscretion kicks off a torrent of accusations and confessionals. Old and current acquaintances step forward to share horror stories about past grievances with the wrongdoer. Current associates are pressured to make a public disavowal; signatories for open letters are collected. Online sleuths scour through the offender’s old posts searching for further evidence of bigotry to fuel the outrage.
  3. Third-party petition (I’m telling the teacher): When the list of allegations reach a critical mass, public wrath turns into a call for public accountability—usually a petition or appeal to a third-party (campus administration or HR departments) to fire the offender. The fury and volume of these demands pick up steam until a sacrificial firing may seem like the only way to appease Twitter bloodthirst.

At this point, the process hits a crossroads and each case waits for its own independent resolution—because there is no guarantee that even the worst abuses will receive reprimand. While Rapoport and Meehan were forced out, many other culprits managed to wait out the storm. It’s a question of bad-PR tolerance. That’s the problem: the tactic possesses no hard authority in itself but relies on lobbying outside parties to intervene. In practice, it’s vastly more effective at targeting leaders of institutions that run on cultural capital rather than real capital (ideal for magazines, museums, and universities but not banks and Republicans). And when those third parties don’t care about maintaining a fashionably progressive public image, the maneuver becomes completely and utterly ineffective—like radio ads for the deaf.

Despite these shortcomings, the emotional appeal behind expowerment is undeniable. “I’ve experienced some of the highest highs of my life this week when Adam [Rapoport] resigned,” confided Sohla El-Waylly. “I finally felt…  like now, finally, things might change.” For a generation of activists fed up with the hollow gradualism of neoliberal social agendas, expowerment offers the thrill of immediate change. The slow advances of incremental policy—from diversity hiring to anti-bias regulations—do not make fulfilling narrative goals. No one writes a Hollywood script about a 1.5 percent increase in the minority home ownership rate. But expowering gives the instant rush of victory. Validation that your words matter. Change you can see and hear. Proof that in the Eternal War between Wrong and Right—your side is winning.

* * *

I started writing this essay five years ago. At the time, student protests over racial justice had just compelled high-profile resignations at Yale and the University of Missouri. Since then, I’ve tracked the tactic’s ascendancy from college activists to the #MeToo firings up through the George Floyd protests. Every week, more evidence strengthens the case that expowerment is not a passing anomaly but a permanent evolution in public dialogue. In fact, I expect its influence will only continue to grow in the coming years as the principles of expowering are codified into HR departments and institutional bylaws—so the conversation should shift from arguing about whether or not it’s good to debating how it should be guided.

Like all cultural impulses, expowering can take healthy and unhealthy forms—and outlining the difference is vital. Its potential benefits are immense. Properly applied, expowering can dismantle discriminatory work practices, open positions for under-represented voices at major institutions, hold bad actors accountable, and pressure the white middle-class to prioritize inclusion and equity.

The instinct, however, can also feed some unhealthy habits. While most critiques focus on its damage to free speech and open debate, expowering poses an equal danger to its advocates and issues. First of all, expowering encourages a “personification fallacy” that treats individual wrongdoers as the breathing embodiments of an abstract injustice (Louis CK = sexism). This makes disciplining offenders a proxy for dismantling systemic inequities, which pushes activists toward targeting symptoms rather than causes of injustice. Such a conflation risks misdiagnosing the source of a problem, and thus mislocating the site of any potential solution, like treating arthritis with finger surgery.

Secondly, the intoxicating feedback loop of expowering often instills a taste for retribution in activists that can quickly turn a hunger for change into a craving for vengeance. The dopamine rush of public protest and the instant feedback of social media collide to create an addictive high in call-out culture—the euphoric feeling of progress in motion—that’s reinforced by short-term results. When unhealthy, expowering seeks out targets to satisfy this appetite—to maintain the high—and when there are no worthy wrongdoers available that day, the instinct can degenerate into punishing dissent rather than prosecuting abuse.

These two distortions—the personification fallacy which warps the targets of expowering and the retributive instinct which warps the motivations of expowering—threaten to derail the larger pursuit of justice. Without deliberate resistance, it is easy for advocates to internalize a dangerous cognitive distortion equating punishment with progress. In this way, the unhealthy form of expowering resembles a type of political instant gratification for the impatient millennial where advocates can enjoy the pleasure of progress today and postpone the labor of reform to tomorrow.

But reform is a long game with very different rules than revolution. To explain this, let us return to the Bon Appétit saga for a case study in the limits of expowering. A month after Adam Rapoport’s resignation, columnist Ruth Gebreyesus triumphantly editorialized “This Wave of Reckoning in Food Media is Different.” She argued that the current generation is driven by a “hunger for systemic change that’s unsatiated by sacrificial firings” and demands a “deracination [that] will completely refigure our lives.” A month later on August 6th, after weeks of blistering bad press on systemic racism at Condé Nast, three contributors of color—Priya Krishna, Sohla El-Waylly, and Rick Martinez—simultaneously announced their departure from Bon Appétit’s YouTube channel for not receiving fair contracts. The following day, the only two black members of the magazine’s editorial staff gave their notice. “I refuse to be part of a system,” Krishna explained, “that takes advantage of me while insisting I should be grateful for the scraps.” Then on August 27th, Condé Nast named Dawn Davis, a black executive with a decorated publishing career, as Bon Appétit’s new editor-in-chief.

This cycle of reckoning and half-reform is an exhaustingly familiar routine. I’ve watched it play out many times in many institutions: the initial firing, the employee outrage, and the conciliatory new hire who is usually a woman, person of color, or both. There is always a call for anti-bias training and the announcement of some “bold” equity initiative (a council, class, or committee). Yet after the dust settles, the institution always remains; the power persists just with different faces piloting the control—because representation at the top can coexist with inequity at the bottom. Such complications and incongruities do not have a place in the sweeping stories of “total deracination” and “systemic overhauls” favored by the progressive punditry. But the fact that in case after case in these scandals, the figureheads change while the systems remain should be a cause for concern—or at least reflection. Yet reflection is the exact state of mind that the furor of expowering denies.

What do these contradictions tell us? Reckoning does not necessarily lead to reform; the moral clarity of revolution does not translate to the political complexity of recovery—and might actively impede it. What is needed to break free from this gridlock is a second set of techniques designed to finish the restorative work expowering initiated. Expowering is a transitional measure since you cannot fire your way to equity. And unless advocates devote the same intensity to developing the tools of reform as the weapons of reckoning, the movement for justice in 21st century America may remain a story of punishment in search of progress.

 

Theodore Gioia is a critic living in San Francisco. His work has appeared in the BelieverLos Angeles Review of Books, and the American Scholar. You can read his work at www.theodoregioia.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @theodoregioia.