Out In The Open·Point of View

Call-out Culture: Fighting oppression or furthering divides?

"Calling out" is the act of denouncing words or actions perceived as untoward, and often prejudiced. It can happen online or in person, but making the critique publicly is the point. While some think its rise is a good thing, moving what's often silenced into the light, others see potential danger in its public nature.

What's the value of calling people out, and does public shaming do more harm than good?

Some say that we're living in a call-out culture. But what does calling someone out really achieve? (Ben Shannon/CBC)

This story was originally published on April 5, 2019.

"Calling out" is a phenomenon where people publicly denounce words and actions they consider to be untoward, and often racist, sexist or prejudiced in some other way.

Typically, someone will notice a comment or action happening online or in person, and publicly criticize the person or group responsible. It's become so common that some say we're living in a "call-out culture." But the rise of this practice has led to conflict about just how healthy that culture is today.

Four people involved in call-out culture share their unique perspectives on the benefits, the potential downsides, and their own experiences of calling out and being called out.

The following excerpts have been adapted from interviews and edited for clarity and length. To hear the full conversations, click the play buttons below.

Activist Nora Loreto uses call-out culture to speak truth to power

Whenever you're challenging the status quo, pretty much everything is up for being called out. And so one of the things that I try not to do is to call out people who are working in good faith, and people who are trying to grapple with really difficult ideas.

But as far as I'm concerned, politicians, and media, and corporate leaders ー they're fair game online to have these conversations, and to call them out.

Following the Humboldt Broncos bus crash, Nora Loreto tweeted about the GoFundMe page created for those affected by the crash:

My goal in writing that tweet was exactly what I said in the following tweet, which was that I wish that we could be as generous in all situations of a tragedy, of senseless violence and horror, as people were demonstrating themselves to be in that moment.

It had to do with me pointing out something that is very difficult for Canadians ー me included ー to confront that inequality that is woven through our society privileges certain people in the most horrible times.

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Nora Loreto on fighting racial issues as a white woman:

If we don't have white people challenging white supremacy in Canada, then we're leaving a tremendous amount of work to people who already have too much work to do. For me, I'm driven by the work that I do, and listening to people whose voices are more important than mine, and who I respect tremendously.

Writer Asam Ahmad on how call-out culture can turn into a performance

I think call-out culture, while it may have started in the grassroots, it's come very far into the mainstream. So now you'll see people with incredible amounts of class privilege and race privilege being incredibly cruel, mean and dismissive of other people.

What I was also seeing is that there was an element of moral righteousness at play, and in the public nature of the call-out. So it wasn't just that you were speaking to an individual, but you were also speaking to an audience, who was sitting with popcorn and watching this play out.

And so oftentimes, there is a real element of performativity involved. There is a real element of witty humiliation.

Asam Ahmad is a writer, poet and community organizer. His writing tackles issues of power, race, queerness, masculinity, and trauma. (Mariam Ahmad)

But the thing about call-outs is that it doesn't matter how much the individual is suffering unless that suffering is being performed in a public way. So call-out culture, the way some people use it, is like they become the judge, jury and executioner of what your justice looks like.

So it's not enough for you to self-introspect. You have to actually show people how much you're suffering, and that suffering is very much decided by the person calling you out.

Educator Karen B.K. Chan combats anger and frustration by using alternatives like 'calling in'

Calling in is a response to some of the harm that comes from calling out, but also holds on to the good stuff about calling out, which is accountability, and fostering change, and asking people to be better.

For me, it is about connecting and staying connected to this person ー that I'm already connected to ー while we have a hard conversation. It's akin to holding your loved one's hand and saying you did something that really pissed me off, but holding onto that hand in the meantime.

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And that does not mean taking away my anger, or taking away my disappointment. I can be angry with you and love you at the same time. The people who are closest and dearest to us are often the people who hurt us the most.

I think people are starting to see some of the fallout of call-out. The fallout includes people who've made huge contributions to all kinds of social movements becoming disillusioned, feeling very disheartened ... feeling kicked out of movements, feeling isolated, humiliated, and so forth. So that is a very real human cost to call-out culture.

The rage is there for a good reason. If and when the rage is hurting you, and when it's not serving you anymore, then I'd like for there to be options.

Artist Hari Ziyad believes call-out culture spotlights what is often silenced

[Calling in] has the potential of pushing these issues that already haven't been given widespread attention, and caring attention ... into the shadows ー and just silences it. And I think that's really dangerous.

And also everyone isn't thinking about building bridges. Sometimes we do this work not to build new allies who can help us, but to sustain and to heal ourselves. You can't have an ally if you're not surviving. How are they going to help you if you're not there anymore?

Hari Ziyad is an author and artist from New York City. (Submitted by Hari Ziyad)

I think if we're going to say that call-out culture is a healthy thing because it allows marginalized people to express anger that's been pent up, then it should be centred around that. And so, when people who aren't part of these communities chime in and become the centre of calling something out, it kind of defeats the whole purpose.

Graphics designed by Ben Shannon.