What makes call-out culture so toxic is not necessarily its frequency so much as the nature and performance of the call-out itself. Especially in online venues like Twitter and Facebook, calling someone out isn’t just a private interaction between two individuals: it’s a public performance where people can demonstrate their wit or how pure their politics are. Indeed, sometimes it can feel like the performance itself is more significant than the content of the call-out.
I will always go back to the incident that sparked this editorial in Ebony. If that was the only piece about that incident, or if it had been something that was a momentary outrage (maybe a few hours), then fine. But it lasted for days. Days. Or when Heidi Moore tweeted this:
You heard Beyonce talk about economic equality as feminism. Now hear from real women too: theguardian.com/money/series/m…—
Heidi N. Moore (@moorehn) August 25, 2014
…and people forgot what phraseology and linguistic shorthand meant. Like, how many of these people would otherwise drone on about privilege and systems and what not, but could not wait to spend their evening caping for a millionaire? Call-out culture seemingly works best with a healthy heaping of cognitive dissonance.
The thing about calling out people is that it is very cathartic; you can say the stuff that you have always wanted to say to your professor/local police officer/taxi driver/cashier/social worker/etc. to random people who anger you online, and it gives you that adrenaline rush. It makes you feel accomplished, like you have struck a blow for justice. You can get an apology from an individual journalist, activist, or ordinary tweeter a lot faster than you can get an apology from, say, the Chicago Police Department.
But then what? Who does that individual apology help? What change does it provoke? And who does it help to bring into the coalition of groups and individuals that we will need to transform the world that we live in? Does it build power?
And how is calling out an informative experience for the transgressor? There are plenty of people (mostly white “allies”) who may not cross that line, but will it be because they now understand what they did wrong or will it be out of fear? Engaging in social justice organizing inherently requires that the person doing the work acts as an educator to those who might not totally understand why something is hurtful, demeaning, or out of line. Yet we have a liberal/social justice culture that disdains doing that very necessary work; instead we have become the Google It Generation. That might feel good, but it is hard to see how it is community-building rather than excommunicatory.
In one of the first episodes of The West Wing, Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman is looking to hire Charlie Young to be the Personal Aide to the President. But he feels guilty; Charlie would be a young Black man carrying bags for a white President. He talks to Chief of Staff Leo McGarry about the situation; McGarry then asks Admiral Percy Fitzwallace, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his thoughts on the matter. McGarry says:
How do you feel about a young Black man waiting on the President?
….to which Fitzwallace responds:
I’m an old Black man, and I wait on the President! You gonna pay him a decent wage? (Yea.) You gonna treat him with respect in the workplace? (Yea.) Then why the hell should I care? I got some real honest-to-God battles to fight, Leo. I don’t have time for the cosmetic ones.
Call-out culture has become the embodiment of fighting the cosmetic battles in lieu of the honest-to-God ones. And when the target seems squarely on the backs of oppressed communities in a more public way than ever before, it is unthinkable that we would be wrapped up in keeping appearances.