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Calling out

/ 05:04 AM January 28, 2019

Someone gets called out on the internet every day.

The internet has given public denunciation a whole new dimension: it only takes outrage and a smartphone to start a viral call-out and it’s online forever, a snippet of someone’s life, bereft of history and context. Whether it’s a video of a bully beating someone up in a school toilet or someone calling out a homophobic tweet, call-out culture is an unavoidable part of social media.

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It’s denunciation through the internet, a modern-day pillory where people call others out on misogyny, racism, and basically any form of bigotry or wrong action. It touches a certain part of all of us that hungers for justice and vindication, to see someone get a comeuppance, to see predators and abusers exposed. It’s a powerful, important tool for progressives, and for victims who believe they have no other recourse.

However, critics have reservations about where call-out culture is going, and how much it’s costing us. It cultivates a sort of armchair activism where the action of calling out is its own end, with no real support for collective action (and op-ed writers are as guilty as the rest). It results in a breakdown of political dialogue, where people on either sides of a debate get to percolate and hear their own thoughts regurgitated back at them; call-out culture often limits itself to personal attacks rather than constructive dialogue and attempts at rehabilitation, making the whole process counterproductive.

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As our experiences with the “Ateneo bully” have taught us, call-out culture not only exposes individuals to bullying, it also allows attacks with no holds barred and virtually no consequences. Many have campaigned for children not to be held criminally liable for their actions, but from the way people responded online, it appears that many would have been happy to see the child bully physically humiliated, tortured, maimed— and none of this discourse comes under policing in any way.

Consequences trickle into real life, with people sending threats and unpaid food deliveries to a physical address (fortunately false) which they thought belonged to the bully’s family. It marks people as outsiders forever, strips them of their
context and personal history. They’re reduced into pariahs, discredited forever, unable to redeem themselves — or as today’s kids call it, “cancelledt.”

Admittedly, there’s something exciting about the outrage of call-out culture. We don’t stand in front of a pillory and see people suffering, or see them as real persons; the phone screen depersonalizes us all. Not to say that people might not
deserve to be made into pariahs, but there’s a big difference between teens making bad decisions which are immortalized online, versus, say, R. Kelly, whose calling out is much deserved, after years of sexual assault of young women and girls.

Some have suggested “calling in” instead, for confrontations to be private and aimed at constructive dialogue. But there’s still a case to be made for calling people out. For one, it allows communication to a larger group of people. Research has shown that social media does change people’s opinions on sociopolitical issues, and that the frequency with which they see a stance repeated online makes them more likely to modify their own opinions accordingly.

Also, calling out is sometimes the only recourse for those who are unable to achieve satisfactory resolutions in private, or for whom the system is overwhelmingly unsupportive: case in point, victims of police brutality, or sexual assault victims who are simply not believed. The documentation of abuse is crucial to any movement fighting against it, and movements against racism and misogyny have been fueled by call-outs and public exposures. Some assume that all private conflict can be resolved privately, or by “calling in,” but sometimes the leverage of public outrage is needed. Maybe we just need to work less on knee-jerk responses of anger, and more on remaining civilized as we call out, and on making call-outs an opportunity for discussion rather than just pointing fingers.

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