The internet furore surrounding a certain New York City furniture designer should make us think that judging people in the harshest terms does more harm than good.
Last week, a viral TikTok about a certain New York City furniture designer caused a stir online. The drama should make us wonder if judging people in the harshest terms really hurts more than it helps.
It all started with one mysterious TikTok. In the video, a young New Yorker dances around her apartment, making fun of a man she met on Hinge, who became her ghost after one date. The caption read: “This is dedicated to Caleb. No hard feelings, though, you were too tall.”
Soon other women appeared in the comments, repeating the same refrain: “West Elm Caleb?” Thus, the Internet phenomenon was born. Video after video began to emerge of women sharing their dating experiences with the 6ft 4in, 25-year-old West Elm furniture designer. As the furore intensified, other TikTokers got involved, and soon the story of Caleb from West Elm’s flings in the New York dating scene turned into something much more.
As the women shared their message history with Caleb, who was forced to delete his social media and professional website as the saga unfolded, comment after comment came up declaring him a manipulator, a gaslighter, a rapist. His crimes, if they are so inclined to be called, include ghosting multiple women, dating multiple people at the same time, and sending the same playlist to multiple women, claiming that he made it especially for them. At least one woman claimed that Caleb sent in an unsolicited nudity, an act that, while reprehensible, was hardly mentioned in the ensuing outrage. Instead tHe the crowd’s anger focused predominantly on his ghosts.
Much has been said about the public beating of a young, single man whose dating practices and etiquette are firmly in the domain of a fucking boy. I’m not going to paraphrase it here, but this whole story that led to the TikTok flood, bits of thought and large billboard on the wall of a building in New York – highlights the broader and more uncomfortable truth about online discourse and interpersonal interactions in the digital age.
In her book Conflict is not violence, Sarah Schulman states: “My thesis is that at many levels of human interaction there is the possibility of mixing discomfort with threat, mistaking internal anxiety for external danger, and in turn escalating rather than resolving.” The West Elm Caleb drama symbolizes this escalating trend. Looking at small snippets of a person or life and making hasty value judgments for better or worse, combined with this escalating tendency, has resulted in many actions and interactions articulated in terms of abuse where they simply do not justify the weight of such an interpretation. .
I often wake up screaming. Night after night, sharp fragments of memories burst into my dreams with such frightening clarity that I scream and wake up in a cold sweat. I lay there, shivering, waiting for the memory to fade. The characters in these dreams are the people who raped me; who abused me, physically and emotionally.
However, they are not the only ones who have ever hurt me. I am a 30 year old single queer from London. I was a ghost left deprived and broken hearted. But I’ve also been a ghost, leaving people unattended and breaking hearts. The edginess and poignancy of the London dating scene should not be underestimated, just as much as the New York scene. Here, in the words of Lilly Allen, it’s hard for a bitch. But these fleeting moments of pain that come from being ignored or rejected should be distinguished from abuse.
Now let’s be clear: violence can take many forms. It can and does look different for different people. My experience, my reactions, and my coping strategies (or lack thereof) are not the yardstick by which anyone else should measure whether they have been abused. Abuse is a vague term. It took me years and years, with the help of loved ones and friends, to sift through the muddy waters of my memories to sort out what happened and finally be able to call it what it was. Thus, when someone defines his experience in this way, it is our duty to believe him, support him and help him as much as possible.
To be abused is to carry the weight of the injury with you forever, and it is because of this weight that we must be careful and careful when we call for it, especially if it is done from outside.
Whether it’s an Internet villain like Bean Daddy, Couch Guy, or Caleb from West Elm, or any other person we may encounter, this desire to express pain and harm in the strongest terms does not help anyone – certainly not those who have experienced cruel treatment. The reality is that there is a difference between “feeling insecure” and “feeling uncomfortable”; between “gaslighting” and “ghosting”. Sometimes the distance between these things is huge, sometimes less. It’s hard enough to make sense of these gray areas without white noise and hysteria.
As the furore around Caleb’s Western Elm subsides, we should take a look at how we got here and try to step back from the edge. Only then can we develop a collective consciousness of how we use and apply these terms and understand that sometimes people are just jerks.
Ben Smoke Huckeditor of the politics and activism department. Follow him on Twitter.
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