Help or hindrance?


By Bethany Craven / 9 January 2020


Illustration by Stefanie Berkmann

Call-out culture, also known as ‘cancel culture’, or ‘outrage culture’, is an increasingly, some might say disturbingly, popular strategy used to vocalise dissatisfaction with another’s views, usually through public shaming or punishment. It is broadly defined as ‘the practice, in social justice circles, of publicly criticising people for violating accepted behavioural standards.’ In the recent past, call-outs have been used as a tool by the marginalised to draw attention to certain injustices, and to highlight the need for reform. Contemporarily, however, the term ‘call-out’ generally refers to the confrontation that arises when an individual expresses their view or opinion on a social media platform. The motive is to highlight a problem with the view they have raised; however, the manner in which they are conducted means that call-outs over social media are viewed as petty confrontations under the guise of activism.

 ‘If all you're doing is casting stones, you're probably not going to get that far.’

In a recent speech, former US president Barack Obama addresses the epidemic of call-out culture, describing instances of public shaming on social media as an attempt to appear ‘politically woke’. He suggests that call-out culture has been accelerated by social media, particularly amongst younger generations, and that ‘there seems to be this rising sense that in order to bring about change in the world, we need to be as judgmental as possible about other people, and that is enough.’

If I adopt an uncompromising position towards someone else and call them out over something they’ve done wrong, whether that’s not using inclusive terminology or saying something that’s outright prejudiced, then I can sit back and feel good about myself and enjoy a certain level of moral purity. Obama claims, though, ‘that’s not activism, and that’s not bringing about change.’

Call-outs: part of the solution or part of the problem?

Many argue that call-out culture is a cruel phenomenon that elicits cyber-bullying and exposes individuals with ‘problematic’ views to public humiliation and denunciation. If we adopt this position, call-out culture appears as an ego-boost rather than a means of bringing about real social change. This is especially the case when we consider the number of celebrities being called-out for mistakes they made years ago.

In his article ‘The Cruelty Of Call-out Culture’, Brooks highlights how this brutal cultural movement is representative of how ‘even the quest for justice can turn into barbarism if not infused with a quality of mercy.’ Brooks implies that this dangerous mentality is what makes us more likely to depersonalise others, reducing complex humans into binaries of good and evil, and eliminating any sense of subjectivity. Some might object to the description of call-out culture as ‘a step towards Rwandan genocide’, but the point I think Brooks was trying to make, in less hyperbolic terms, is that calling someone out on social media really can have a detrimental effect on that individual, and to them it really can feel like an attack.

It has been suggested that the main problem is not just that call-outs ignite discomfort and offence, but that far too often people get carried away with their call-outs and over punish people, ‘turning alleged perpetrators into victims themselves’, and turning what might have been a well intentioned or necessary criticism into a brutish act of ‘zealotry’. The irony of call-out culture is that it seems to reinforce the systems of oppression that we are trying to move away from.

How can we benefit from something that is increasingly viewed as futile?

Activist Ruby Hamad writes that ‘yelling at someone in tandem on social media is both one of the easiest ways to demonstrate solidarity and one of the least likely to achieve any meaningful outcome. But that, perhaps, may just be the point.’ Sometimes call-outs might be necessary in order for us to educate ourselves and others, or as a valid form of expression that highlights certain issues that were previously ignored. They may not always come with the intention to cause harm or to de-humanise their target. However, when someone calls us out on social media for something we’ve done wrong, it is often hard for us not to respond defensively, and equally hard to comprehend the beliefs that motivated them. And even when we see past this, most people either fear, and don’t want to publicly admit to, being wrong.

That is not to say positive outcomes aren't possible; sometimes call-outs are met with a sincere apology, or a pledge to learn from the mistake and do better. They can be a useful tool when used appropriately, but extremely divisive when used inappropriately, and we need to learn the difference. Call-outs become bullying when they over-punish or demonise people, and they become useful when they promote new patterns of behaviour.

If it really is change that we desire, then it may be more productive of us to address the political or corporate institutions that are actually capable of implementing changes or influencing others on a larger scale, rather than addressing individuals who are unlikely to change anything. A further proposed method of making call-outs productive is, according to Matei, ‘learning to analyse our own motivations when offering criticism, and considering the context and possible consequences of the situation we’re contributing to. Of course, it’s also up to the individual whose behaviour has been called into question to be open, humble and willing to see such incidents as opportunities to learn.’

With all that considered, I think call-outs over social media can be destructive when they take the form of bullying and over-punishment. However, sometimes they can equally be necessary in order to progress socially and move away from injustice. If, for example, an individual shares something I perceive to be problematic or ignorant, and I believe that this information is either false or unjustified and has the potential to cause offence, I am entitled to disagree with them and to offer my alternative perspective. Ultimately, though, whether my call-out is futile or purposeful depends on a range of factors including my motive, how my message is articulated and received, and how the receiver responds to it.

Art by

Stefanie Berkmann
Words by
Bethany Craven

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