Where our call-out culture succeeds and fails

Photo by Casey Gomez

The social justice movement has worked to bring awareness and solutions to issues of race, ethnicity, social class and gender, among others. One hallmark of the social justice movement is call-out culture, where someone publicly condemns an individual or group for speaking or acting out of prejudice.

This behavior includes anything from a Facebook post naming someone’s abuser, to hashtags like #MeToo, to calls to boycott a certain brand for racist advertising. The overwhelming majority of call-out interactions take place over social media, creating both an international stage for a large-scale audience and a permanent record of someone’s wrongdoing and the reactions it caused.

Call-out culture, when used effectively, brings attention to problematic behaviors and holds people accountable for their actions. For example, the actors describing their horrifying experiences with producer Harvey Weinstein cast light on how authority figures can exploit their influence and how women face sexual harassment and assault from those in power.

Weinstein is not first or last person whose reputation suffers the consequences of unethical and appalling behavior, and publicly condemning homophobic, transphobic, sexist and racist actions forces other people to examine what they say and why they say it.

However, due to the scale of reactions it causes, call-out culture runs the risk of disproportionate retribution. For example, using call-out culture to rain fire on someone who is merely misinformed undermines the purpose of social justice and activism itself. Doxxing teenagers who are just starting to become educated on social issues creates more problems than it solves. Dredging up old posts and quotes from years ago to decry someone as problematic when they no longer speak or act that way does nothing to acknowledge that people grow and change.

This is not to say that victims of oppression need to play nice with those who wrong them, nor is it a marginalized person’s responsibility to inform every person who missteps.

Every person has a right to be frustrated and furious with consistent unfair treatment for their race, gender, sexuality or any other characteristic — that is why activists express outrage and fight for a solution. There is, however, a detrimental effect in creating a tense, toxic environment where those who wish to fight too are afraid to speak up and ask questions.

Some activists advise doing what they term a “call-in,” which is privately taking someone aside and explaining what they did wrong without attracting attention to the issue itself. Call-ins are more effective than call-outs when the person is speaking from a place of genuine cluelessness or confusion, not malice, and is willing to improve themselves and their behavior.

The key is knowing when a call-out is appropriate and when pulling someone aside and educating them is the better approach — a call-in, for instance, would not have worked on Harvey Weinstein or other public figures. People who are new to social justice may not have all the facts right away, and publicly shaming them erodes trust within the social justice community. Activism should never be a contest for who is more educated or enlightened.

To bring society forward, it does take passionate, purposeful activists who fight for what they believe in, but it also takes those in the center, who are not as passionate but will join a cause when they understand its importance. It is not fair to assume people are born woke.

It is not reasonable to expect people to be perfect every time. And it is wrong to turn educating people on serious issues into a competition for who can call out the worst in others.