Thanks to Russell Blackford for linking to this really interesting article on Calling out. I found it really thoughtful, especially the last two sections, and even moving.
I don't have anything to add but to quote from it verbatim. Please follow the link if you want to read the whole thing.
Call out culture, a phenomenon that casual readers might not even notice, is to me, the most toxic aspect of blogging. Not because it is set to correct wrongs and engage in meaningful ways to actually enact change. No, call out culture is toxic because it has developed as a tool to legitimize aggression and rhetoric violence. Its intent, at the root, is seemingly positive. Constructive even. It works more or less like this: I say something ignorant. Perhaps I make a statement that can be constructed as bigoted or maybe “problematic”. A favorite word in call out culture, problematic is more often than not, used to mean “I didn’t like it” or alternatively, “I disagree with you”. But instead of saying you, the audience disagrees with me, you will call my statement “problematic”. And because we have established that we are at once consumers and producers of media content, you create a blog post or a tweet or a Facebook update “calling me out”. And more often than not, in your post, you tell your readers, other prosumers, to please join you in this call out. BECAUSE THIS IS A SERIOUS WRONG THAT NEEDS TO BE CORRECTED! Unbeknown to me, there are now ten posts in ten different blogs and social media platforms calling me a “BIGOT AND THE WORST PERSON EVER”. Each time, every one of these posts escalating in rhetoric and volume. Each new post trying to outperform the previous one in outrage, in anger, in righteousness. This performance of acrimony and reproach turns into the “pile on”. And I will have to apologize for what I said. At this point, since I am nervous and probably anxious because I am being called THE WORST PERSON EVER, my apology will not be stellar. I might dig a deeper hole even, because hey, I cannot properly articulate when I feel that I am under duress. I might, at this point, say something that is truly, really “problematic”, not just perceived as such, but, to put it in plain words, I might say something shitty. AND OMG at this point the “call out” will escalate out of proportion. Now I am not just THE WORST PERSON EVER but since we have established that I was “a known feminist blogger” (and if I wasn’t up to that moment, I am now because my name is all over the internet!), then, it will be known that I, on my own, HAVE RUINED FEMINISM FOR EVER. And I, alone, will be proof of ALL OF FEMINISM’S PAST FAILURES. FOR EVER.
Call out culture might, at times, dangerously resemble bullying. However, it is not exactly the same. It certainly shares its outcome, however, unlike bullying, call out culture is part of the performative aspect of blogging. Unlike bullying, a call out is intended for an audience.
And here’s the thing, on the surface, call outs are done “for good”. Of course shitty statements need to be challenged, nobody would deny that. Of course those who are hurt by shitty statements deserve to be recognized in their grief and deserve a sincere apology. But that’s not at the root of “call out culture”. The intent behind it, more often than not, is just to make the one initiating the call out feel good, more righteous, more indignant, a “better person”. In the end, the call out is not done for the benefit of a collective goal, it is done for entertainment and shocking value. Call outs are to blogging what Big Brother voting rounds are to reality TV: you have been found wanting and you are now expelled from the house. Because, of course, this is what is rarely mentioned, someone might be attempting to audition for your seat. Someone who thinks they are more righteous, better, more politically engaged than you.
And oh, how the audience loves these moments! They amplify them because at their root, they are perceived as “drama”, a word often used to described these situations. Someone will jump in and say it “There is so much drama going on with [person who blogs] right now!”. I find it telling that we use a word so deeply connected to performance, drama, to define the central repercussion of call out culture.
At its deepest, call out culture is unquestionably reductionist. It forces us to “take sides”, to pick a side and stick to it, or else, to be “called out” as traitors. Say I, as a Latina, an essential focus of my political identity, am also interested in Health Care rights, more specifically, in Mental Health issues. A blogger who focuses on Mental Health and disability rights made a bigoted statement about Latin@s. I generally love this blogger, but this one statement was really bigoted. Now, I will be forced to “pick a side”. I either stand with my fellow Latin@s (how could I not?) or I stand with the other Health Care activists who are not necessarily defending the shitty statement but trying to bring some much needed perspective into the whole affair. But no, I *must* pick a side and stick to it. Within the context of call out culture, I *must* show my allegiance to one cause and one cause only. Nuance and intersectionality be damned. Because, as we have established above, the person being called out is obviously “the worst person ever” and nothing they have ever said and nothing they will say from this point forward has any value whatsoever.
There is this taboo behind call out culture as well. Because those who have been at the receiving end of a call out and its most visible consequence, the pile-on, will not speak of what happened to them in the aftermath. They will silently hope that the “audience” moves on and forgets the whole affair, which has usually been painful and emotional. But to say something of the phenomenon might trigger a whole new round of abuse. It might initiate a new round of pile ons, and further call outs, and further re-enactment of outrage in a never ending cycle. And I suspect one of the reasons it is taboo to speak of what happened is because “call out culture” is perceived as being “owned” by the oppressed, in the sense that the people initiating these call outs will, of course, do so because “they are being oppressed” by the “problematic” statements. That, right there, obturates any possible discussion: who would deny that a person who is oppressed has the right to react to their oppression in an expeditious manner? Who will point at an oppressed person and say “you have no right to react to your oppression”? A “call out” is like the Godwin Law of Social Justice blogging, once it is initiated, there is no further discussion, engagement can only come in the form of some deep self flagellation and profuse apologies. And of course, I have seen some recurring names in regular and persistent call out episodes ALSO make truly shitty statements on unrelated occasions. Sometimes even bigoted and deeply prejudiced statements. And those will remain unchallenged because who would want to trigger a possible backlash? Thus, the taboo and silence behind the phenomenon. We call it “drama”, the prosumer audience amplifying it because hey, who doesn’t want to stand by the oppressed?! Who doesn’t want to be one of the good guys?!!
Human beings are complex creatures, not these receptacles of “good” OR “evil”. At once good in some aspects and gross in others. Simultaneously oppressed and oppressors. However, in this performative culture of blogging all of this subtlety is often obscured. You are either “one of the good guys” or “you are the worst person ever”. You play the role of “hero” or you play “the villain”. However, I must question this dichotomy because call outs, and the modus operandi behind them, the pile-on, can potentially kill people. The most virulent call outs can exacerbate existing PTSD. They can drive a person to severe episodes of anxiety and/ or depression, they can lead someone to feel isolated and suicidal. It is a toxic and destructive phenomenon, wherein blog post after blog post are made, each escalating in virulence. And Social Media amplifies the episode, with Tweets and Facebook status and comments left on the person’s blog and eventually emails. Private emails (more often than not anonymous) with further abuse and further diminishing and denigrating language, with invitations to kill yourself, to stop “polluting the world” with your presence If the blogger in question is queer, they will be purposefully misgendered; if they are non White, they will be de-racialized to erase their context and background; if they speak English as a second language (which might sometimes explain the reason why they used some icky words to begin with), that tidbit will be downplayed or just plain ignored; if they are working class or poor, their class struggles deliberately obscured or just completely obliterated (even in cases when the very same class and educational background could explain the originally “problematic” statement that triggered the call out to begin with). And again, I must insist on the insidious nature of this culture: who would dare say a thing about it when it is supposedly done against oppression? So the recipient of a call out is isolated (remember what I mentioned about being forced to take sides?), told by a crowd of prosumers who are fascinated by this “drama” that they are worthless, not even deserving of the air they breath.
And we, in the blogging community, cheer and applaud this behavior. Moreover, we actively take part in it. And if not, we remain silent because well, AGAIN, who would speak up against “fighting oppression”?