Call-out culture, the act of publicly and collectively reprimanding someone for a past misstep, has longstanding roots in anthropological history. In our online society, in which the past cannot readily be erased, it has been leveraged to take down everyone from politicians to Hollywood stars, and even everyday bullies. Liam Neeson’s recent comments and the public lambasting that followed evidences how powerfully and quickly call-out culture can level an individual. But despite its roots in a behavior-modifying approach to societal progress, call-out culture deprives us of the fundamental purpose of shaming wrongdoers—giving them the chance to change.
The Due Process Problem of Call-Out Culture
David Brooks’s recent op-ed in the New York Times, “The Cruelty of Call-Out Culture,” highlights the tension between the rule of law and social change through ostracism for bad behavior. He focuses on an episode of NPR’s Invisibilia podcast, which recounts the story of Emily, a thirty-year-old punk rocker, whose best friend has been accused of sexual misconduct. While his band mates dismiss the allegations, Emily denounces her best friend on the web as an abuser. The post garners attention, resulting in the friend leaving the band and disappearing from the punk scene. Rumor also has it that the guy concerned has been fired, lost his apartment and is generally not doing well. Emily soon has her own brush with internet justice and is called out for mocking a nude photo of a fellow female student in high school (approximately twelve to fifteen years previously). She too is banished from the punk scene, loses friends and reaches a low point in her life. Despite this, on Invisibilia, she accepts her lot: she feels terrible and she’s sorry but she believes she deserved the call-out. Emily is part of a steadily growing group, which includes the likes of director James Gunn, TV star Roseanne Barr and politician Tulsi Gabbard.
In my first two years of college, I frequently used the word gay to describe things I thought were dumb. I squirmed uncomfortably when one of the openly gay students sat near me in the cafeteria. I laughed at unfair stereotypes about gay people, at the expense of gay students and professors. However, through experience, kindness and a few direct ideological assaults on the pejorative use of the word gay, I came to realize that harboring such a prejudice was wrong and—most importantly—could and possibly did hurt others. I was never called out publicly, but I would clearly have deserved it, under our current notions of justice. I remain ashamed of my former views, and now advocate for and celebrate LGBT rights. This arc of progress took place in part because I was pushed to change but also given enough room to do so. This is the ideal way to persuade someone to come around on something. I was confronted with new information and, given time, shifted my view and behavior dramatically. Could a similar—or even better—process have taken place through abject social shaming?
Wrangham, the anthropologist on the Invisibilia episode, details the ways in which we use social isolation and the pain it causes as a way of keeping the peace, enforcing moral codes and maintaining the safety of the community. He points to the fact that we register social isolation in the same regions of the brain in which we register physical pain. Wrangham ultimately sees this method—domestication through pain—as something that protected early societies from bullies, who would otherwise have ruled by brute force. Call-outs, in this view, keep people in line and protect us from villains.
However, even assuming that ostracizing (or even murdering bullies—an example Wrangham mentions) helped society to progress in the past, that obviously does not mean this continues to hold true. David Brooks argues that the zealotry of a “tribal mentality—us/them, punk/non-punk, victim/abuser” depersonalizes everything and reduces it to a black and white struggle of good versus evil. This eliminates proportionality and removes the distinction “between R. Kelly and a high school girl sending a mean emoji.” He argues that—despite the suggestions of some anthropologists that this form of vigilante justice keeps bullies in line (and thereby advances civilization)—giving people the power to “destroy lives without any process” brings us one step closer to genocide. We should not make group decisions on justice and peace, since such mob verdicts have resulted in some terrible outcomes: lynchings, fascism, etc.
However, Brooks largely ignores the question of whether, in cases of clear wrongdoing, call-out culture actually works. Emily’s response alone demonstrates that call-out culture is capable of providing an impetus towards remorse and even change. I personally could have been shamed into a different perspective on LGBT issues. There’s a reason—though possibly not an optimal one—that call-out culture continues to thrive in our societies. Moreover, as Invisibilia’s producer, Hanna Rosin, tweeted, Brooks is setting up a false war between the rule of law and cruelty. The rule of law can—and has—condoned cruelty: slavery, apartheid and eugenics, for example. However, Rosin’s objection supplants one fallacy for another. The fact that the rule of law has at times propagated cruelty does not make mob rule just. In addition, the due process problem of call-out culture is not its most insidious feature. The far more significant question—one that neither Brooks nor the Invisibilia hosts answer—is whether the presumed purpose of call-out culture (fixing undesirable behavior) actually works.
The Missing Piece
Even assuming that there is still a legitimate need for this method of moderating behavior and advancing civility, a fundamental piece is missing in current call-out culture: the opportunity for redemption. In addition to the deterrent effect on other members of the group (a group far more vast than early human communities, especially because of the internet), the purpose of call-out culture is to alter unwanted behavior. The objective is to give the perpetrator the opportunity to do better in future.
But call-out culture defeats its own purposes. There’s no room for change in Emily’s story. Call-out culture presumes malice and is indifferent to mitigating circumstances. Once a villain, always a villain. Call-out culture has come to see its role as policing bad behavior in a retributive fashion: the assumption is that tearing down fellow human beings will somehow eliminate their past bad behavior. There are a multitude of cases like Emily’s, in which someone made a poor decision at some remote point in the past. Call-out culture can suddenly and arbitrarily force someone to atone for such a decision by being stripped of her humanity. As Brooks laments, this is as much about the person doing the tearing down and the catharsis that it brings him, as it is about the perpetrator. Call-out culture seems increasingly concerned with the thrill of social assassination, rather than with remedying undesirable behavior. It does not seek justice for the wronged, but the destruction of the wrongdoer.
Redemption is much more than a few feel-good moments, which alleviate the perpetrator’s moral burden of wrongdoing. It’s an acknowledgment that humans, in our infinite complexity, are capable of change. Call-out culture leaves no path open whereby someone can achieve a new perspective, either before or after the call-out. Because so much of call-out culture now takes place on the internet—and therefore at a distance—call-out culture also presumes that redemption is unnecessary. The guilty party has been punished, end of story. But this also betrays a faulty premise, which violates the silver rule of our social contract: do not expose others to harm to which you are unwilling to expose yourself. The destroyed villain is still out there, in the world, changed or not, having committed a cruelty for which she cannot perform atonement. Emily cannot apologize to the person she mocked—the primary aggrieved party—nor can she explain herself to the multitude of stone throwers. Instead, she now carries the burden of her own past cruelty and may pass it on to someone else. Call-out culture fosters cyclical, retributive justice, in which relief always comes at another’s expense.
This violation of the silver rule is call-out culture’s most damning feature: it doles out treatment everyone would give but no one would receive. We all deserve the opportunity I had—the chance to correct personal mistakes, misunderstandings and poor choices. Call-out culture requires us to slam the door in people’s faces and throw away the key, then cross our fingers and hope we are not on the other side of that same door one day. We can still hold people accountable: we do not have to give them their TV shows back, restore them as directors of movie franchises, or vote them into office. Even redemption does not absolve them of responsibility. But true accountability leaves room for the chance—however slim—that people can change their minds and help advance society. One’s humanity should not be so easily lost. Call-out culture ignores a reality at the heart of the human experience: we advance best by learning from our mistakes, not by being destroyed by them. I know because I was once a villain and I lived to tell the tale.