Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

The Problem with Call-out Culture

Recently, a story has been making the rounds asserting that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson complained in an interview about “Generation Snowflake.” The news was eaten up by embattled conservative soldiers for the Culture War. Johnson, reportedly a Republican, has become a bit of a political mascot in this celebrity-turned-elected official age, with Republicans even floating his name for President. However, Johnson has denied the veracity of the interview. In an Instagram post on Jan. 11, 2019, he wrote:

If only more people had that attitude. Ironically, among the people commonly called “snowflakes,” a pervasive schema for responding to the usage of the word “snowflake” and other un-PC things people say has emerged: call-out culture, and its corollary, cancel culture. It’s not that they’re “offended”: it’s that they are willing to fight fire with fire. Like many attempts to promote social justice, calling out has benign beginnings and legitimate uses, but has, among many people, devolved into bullying. And bullying is never okay, even if it’s in response to bullying.

Call-out culture is the set of attitudes, beliefs, norms, and phrases that promote an aggressive response to people who express bigoted views. It is common in leftist circles and is purportedly used to force people to recognize their subconscious biases and internalized bigotry. Unfortunately, the tactics used to achieve this desired outcome often include embarrassing or shaming the subject—often, someone within the circle. The other problem is that call-out culture, being partly based on the (correct) assumption that many people’s biases and bigotry are unintentional, advocates shock tactics. Calling someone out is an attempt to make them “wake up.”

Moreover, many proponents of call-out culture explicitly discourage “having dialogue” with people, asserting that it does not work. They’re somewhat correct: People tend to double down on their attitudes, subconscious or not, when presented with conflicting information.

Unfortunately, “calling out” also doesn’t persuade. Add an aggressive counterargument and it only drives people deeper into their views.

When news of Johnson’s alleged rant about millennial snowflakes spread, right-leaning circles heart-reacted to it, while left-leaning circles were suddenly filled with chants of “Cancel him!” Also recently “canceled” was Lady Gaga for collaborating with R. Kelly. (She has tried to salvage the situation.) While I won’t begrudge anyone’s choice to cease listening to or watching a celebrity whose views they find problematic (and that happens on both the left and the right), I do take issues with cancel culture because it reduces other people to a proxy for one’s own political views. In a society in which people “brand” themselves (Mac vs. PC, iPhone vs. Android, Coke vs. Pepsi, etc.), pop cultural preferences are considered important markers of one’s identity. Therefore, aligning oneself with Lady Gaga is anathema to being an enlightened citizen, assert the perpetrators of cancel culture. By extension, other people must conform to one’s list of who’s okay or not okay. That’s an entitled attitude that glosses over the complexity of people’s lives and politics. In a recent Facebook discussion, I witnessed someone responding to yells of “Cancel Lady Gaga!” with sincere discussion of Gaga’s advocacy work and own experience of abuse. One commentator fired back that Gaga was “fake” and her fans were “basic and stupid.” Another commentator said that until Gaga totally renounced R. Kelly, that her actions were meaningless.

What an impossible benchmark. No one is perfect. When we expect celebrities to perform politics for us—and isn’t that how we got our current administration?—we’re bound to be disappointed, but it also reveals the insecurity of our own views. It’s like with faith: if you need everyone around you to prop up your religion through Starbucks cups and nativity displays, you’re probably not strong enough in your views to sustain them on your own. And you’re afflicted with the sin of pride, reflected in your attitude of entitlement to have other people conform to your worldview.

And that’s what call-out culture and cancel culture promote, particularly among white feminists. They make it okay to attack others for not being enlightened, for not boycotting a certain celebrity, for not aligning with an ideal progressive identity paradigm. This is not to say that calling out is inherently problematic, rather that the call-out culture has problems. One chief problem is that call-out culture is used to gloss over not only the complexity of other people, but of the social justice movement itself. As it comes from a place of entitlement, it’s no surprise that it is readily adopted by people who benefit from membership in the group that has historically held power to the detriment of other groups. Ruby Hamad and Celeste Liddle write in the Guardian:

As Maisha Z. Johnson writes in this excellent piece:

I don’t want to conclude this essay without discussing what does work. As I noted above, the practice of calling out has useful applications. But call-out culture pretends to be activism while actually just assuaging the insecurities — especially white guilt — of someone looking to convince others of their rightness. I have a hard time believing that anyone actually believes that piling on insults or “canceling” a celebrity has any meaningful impact. It’s all performance. What happened after Johnson insisted that the interview never happened? Cancel culture warriors scoffed that he was “backpedaling.” What happened after Gaga apologized for collaborating with R. Kelly? Call-out culture warriors mocked her for being a “white feminist” (despite probably being that themselves—and it’s important to note that calling out was an important tactic for people of color but is increasingly appropriated). While calling out can work, call-out culture seems to embrace a feeling of futility, while justifying bullying.

Dialogue actually works. Some people are beyond hope, for sure. But not only can you identify those who are able to be “woken up,” you can use evidence-backed tactics to persuade them to consider another viewpoint. Step one: don’t bully them.

Rachel Wayne is a writer based in Gainesville, Florida, USA. She received her Master’s in Visual Anthropology and Film Studies; her thesis was on the relationship between the media and interpersonal violence, including bullying. She writes about society, culture, film, politics, feminism, and entrepreneurship.

Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list:

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