The Rise of Call-Out Culture

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In the exhausting quest to navigate Twitter without stumbling upon the same two memes about the news cycle and Buzzfeed listicles, it has become easier to witness the fall of someone’s career. This takedown usually involves unearthing that person’s offensive tweets or quotes from the past. From Kendall Jenner, whose performance in a Pepsi commercial was criticized as tone-deaf, to Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, who faced sexual assault allegations during the #MeToo movement, various figures have been accused online of wrongdoings. These events are uniquely public, are looking to criticize someone’s behavior, and are fueled by a twofold population of well-meaning individuals and people who view the calling-out of a person as a spectacle.

The rise of this phenomena has come to encompass call-out culture: the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and language use by others. And it isn’t exactly a new thing.

The concept of public shaming has existed in America since the colonial era, when the whipping post was a favorite punishment among English settlers. Individuals’s mistakes were exploited to reinforce traditional community-wide values and beliefs. The most notable usage of public punishments occurred during the Salem Witch Trials, which inspired influential fictional novels like The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible. The “whipping post” is still relevant, even beyond stories from high-school English classes. Although shaming no longer has Biblical or Puritan implications, it still remains a topic of contention as society continues to weigh its effectiveness or lack thereof. It is a prime example of the American public taking matters into their own hands as opposed to leaving it up to the law or government officials. As explained by Eric Posner, “the law has always had an ambivalent relationship with sham. On the one hand, shaming is the very antithesis of the law... legal systems have also frequently tried to harness the power of shame.” Public shaming has served as a way for members of society to uphold justice in the way they see fit. Posner continues to emphasize how deep public shaming is integrated into society, arguing its importance because “our democracy has become sclerotic...which has usurped citizens’ democratic prerogatives and drained them of the desire to join in political debate.” Although public shaming can often go too far, with those accused not seeking proper due process or being punished too harshly for the crime they have committed, it remains as an integral part of America’s direct democracy and reinforces the sentiment that the power lies within the people. Although corporal public shaming died out, after the federal government abolished the pillory and whippings in 1839, it has taken new form through social media.

In the early 2000s, when social media was held with a sense of novelty and catered to a niche community of people who sought to communicate online, call-out culture was not so much a voyeuristic spectacle, but rather a way to rally support against harassment or bullying. Before anyone could block or mute others, users of social media would publicize the harassment they faced in order to remove any sense of anonymity their harasser believed they would have had. However, we have integrated social media into our daily lives so much that there are always second-to-second updates about the lives of everyone, from peers to prominent figures of authority. Consistent updates about controversial issues has fostered a community of inquisitors, ready to pounce at any moment. With a huge domain of Googleable knowledge, it has become increasingly easier to dig up dirt on someone. Because of the certain sense of anonymity that comes with social media, people are also more eager to voice their opinions, unafraid of the minimal repercussions that would follow, like harassment or general disagreement.  

Call-out culture has mostly good intentions. One conversation that continuously resurfaces is that surrounding Asian-American casting and whitewashing in the film industry. Although white actors have played the roles of Asian characters for decades, the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the live-action adaptation of the Japanese manga Ghost in the Shell caused “a two-year-long pre-emptive outcry on the web.” The punitive reaction to what many people of color considered a complete disregard to Japanese culture not only sparked insightful conversations about the problematic nature of whitewashing. Not only does whitewashing often lead to white actors exemplifying offensive caricatures of various ethnicities, but it also provides white actors with roles that would traditionally go to actors of color, who are at a disadvantage for being casted in Hollywood roles. The casting of Ghost in the Shell  also triggered responses from the director of the film, Rupert Sanders, and Paramount Pictures, ranging from explanations that asserted the film as taking a more “international approach” to others that ignored the concerns of viewers. Moreover, the mass calling-out of Paramount resulted in tangible consequences, with Ghost in the Shell making a much less than expected $19 million in its opening weekend against an estimated $110 million budget, showing that people followed through with their online protest of Ghost in the Shell by not watching the movie.

Call-out culture, often seen as a glorified name for a blend Twitter gossip and activism, goes deeper than simply criticizing one decision of a film studio. The #MeToo movement, a phenomena that captured the attention of the American public, showed the widespread existence of sexual assault in our society, which crosses class, occupation, sexual orientation, and gender boundaries. While the initial phrase “me too” was coined by Tarana Burke and later adopted by actress Alyssa Milano as a hashtag on Twitter, it soon grew to encompass an entire movement denouncing figures of authority, like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey in Hollywood; Jeff Fager, the executive producer of 60 Minutes; Corey Lewandowski, for campaign manager for President Trump; and more. What makes the #MeToo movement so unique was the involvement of celebrities and prominent figures as victims and advocates. Their ability to reach an supportive audience who also voiced their own experiences with sexual assault sparked movements not only in the media industry, but in others in the U.S. and across the world. The prevalence of call-out culture has increased the amount of power individuals’ voices have and has lended more credibility to those who would have otherwise been castigated as selfishly crying for attention. The #MeToo movement has led to concrete changes, such as subsequent movements in other countries like France and Italy; legal changes in New Jersey and California, which propose the making nondisclosure agreements enforceable against victims; and increased conversations about others forms of discrimination women face, like wage inequality and pregnancy discrimination. Cultural shifts have occurred because of the increased awareness of sexual assault and greater comfort victims find in a community that is more likely to believe them.

On the other hand, call-out culture has been criticized for encouraging a sense of entertainment and enjoyment in criticizing others’ behavior. Uncontrolled and often unsubstantiated mobs form and often disregard evidence or context for the sake of making a point. Moreover, individuals often prioritize their own image over the image of others, hoping to appear more “woke” or socially conscious in an effort to appear more acceptable. As opposed to legitimately advocating for social issues, people attempt to increase their social capital, diminishing any efforts of any genuine progressive activists. In a detailed New York Times article, Justine Sacco describes the rapid fall of her reputation she had posted a tweet just before boarding a plane to South Africa saying “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Unsurprisingly, Saccoo soon became the subject of hundreds of thousands of angry tweets and lost her job. Even as she began to retract her comments, delete her tweets, and ask for forgiveness, she was unable to recover. Given the fact that what goes on the Internet stays on the Internet, Sacco was unable to erase any ignorant comments she had made in the past and was unable to gain any credibility towards her efforts to learn from her past. However, others are called out for their behavior and are seemingly forgiven after the presence of some sort of apology. These individuals often have existing, loyal fanbases and appear as more conventionally trustworthy. For example, in 2014, Youtuber Shane Dawson was criticized for using blackface is a variety of skits and sketches. He then issued an apology, in which he said he would use this instance as a “learning experience.” Fast forward to 2018, where Shane Dawson’s docu-series, which focus on a plethora of controversial online figures, has garnered millions of views, with no sign of stopping. Where does the line begin and end? Does call-out culture hurt some people more than others? Should individuals be continuously held accountable for their actions, even after they have made attempts to fix their wrongdoings?

Calling out individuals has evolved from steps people have taken to prevent further harassment to a social phenomena of holding people accountable. Various companies, groups, and individuals have been publicly shamed for their ignorant actions, leading to an increased awareness of societal issues, like whitewashing and sexual assault; the ostracization of public figures; and a constant re-defining of social norms. The rise of call-out culture raises a question: what kind of society are we fostering? It is undeniable that call-out culture has its own problems, namely the entertainment people find in inadvertently ruining others lives. Although calling-out individuals can be a cathartic experience, treating it primarily as an enjoying experience can detract from its purpose of advocating for a particular issue and delegitimize the issue at hand. Call-out culture is essential because not only does it educate figures of authority on problematic aspects of their lives, but it also provides a voice for marginalized groups. With the prominence of movements like #MeToo and movements similar to Ghost in the Shell, groups like women and Asian-Americans were provided with an opportunity to advocate for their concerns, along with educating a previously uninformed audience on what is deemed problematic. By providing public exposure to various issues, those who are unaware of those same issues exist are more likely to learn and act on their newfound knowledge. While it is important to hold influential figures and everyday individuals accountable for their actions, those same individuals should also be given the same platform to offer their regret and recognize their ignorance. Whether or not we choose to accept that apology is unclear, as a myriad of factors determine the magnitude of the issue and the subsequent public reaction, but what is clear is that we view call-out culture not as a game, but as an effective tool for positive change.