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In Defence of Call-Out Culture

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This year saw a significant explosion in the use of social media platforms as a part of activist movements. Twitter hashtags such as Suey Park's #NotYourAsianSidekick or Mikki Kendall's #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen opened a dialogue that resonated across the world. While many people love to grumble about the ineffectiveness of activist social media, the truth is that starting something as simple as a hashtag and watching it inspire a global conversation is about as grassroots as it gets.

The inclusivity that these movements offer is amazing, not least because they provide the existence of freely available spaces that are not overwhelmingly dominated by so-called academics. Part of the reason this brand of discourse has been such a success is that it is highly public in its nature, allowing anybody with an internet connection to get involved. One consequence of this that people have struggled with, however, is that the mistakes that are made are there for the whole world to see. One bad tweet can effectively ruin a career - Justine Sacco, for example, lost her job at the IAC after thoughtlessly tweeting what may or may not have been a sarcastic remark about AIDs in Africa but was most definitely quite racist. One short plane journey later, she was jobless and had become one of the week's most prominent internet villains - quite the poor turnout for somebody who supposedly specializes in PR.

Sacco is a very basic example of call-out culture - the act of drawing attention to problematic behaviour. Call-out culture isn't exactly the prettiest side of activism and a lot of column inches has gone into condemning the eagerness with which people will criticize others online. Some very well-reasoned arguments have been made in favour of an alternative, such as Ngọc Loan Trần's article for Black Girl Dangerous about creating an alternative 'calling-in' culture. There are many valid points to be made about the sometimes overly keen nature with which people call others out, not least of which the tendency of some allies to use calling out as way of 'proving' themselves as truly down with the struggle. On balance, however, call-out culture shouldn't be a negative thing, even if it seems like it is practiced in a negative way.

Nobody likes to be called out. When you have the best of intentions it can hurt to be told that your actions are problematic, especially if you perceive the criticisms to be coming from a place of hostility. There is a risk of writing people off too soon, particularly when those in question are relatively inexperienced. Education is a part of activism, and when the people you are calling out are personally close to you in some way, the best course of action can involve discussion and forgiveness. But there is no real reason that this courtesy should have to be extended towards people who are consistently making some kind of profit off the oppressive norms that they enforce, particularly when all attempts at education have been rebuffed. The behaviour displayed by people like Julie Burchill and Caitlin Moran was called out at the time, but has stopped neither of them from continuing to be paid for producing frankly boring faux-radical works and being paid for it. Hugo Schwyzer profited for years with the aid of Jezebel despite being a known abuser and repeatedly racist, and even now has a host of people willing to apologise for him. Russell Brand has a long history of misogynistic behavior but has regardless been met with open arms by the mainstream left-wing movement. So long as people make a vague allusion to feeling sorry about past actions, a failure to open our hearts and accept whatever battered olive branch being proffered is seen as unnecessarily cantankerous and divisive.

What frequently doesn't seem to register is that these apologies are invariably made from a place of privilege, and are made with the preconceived expectation of being accepted. Mistakes may be made on an individual level, but they do not happen on a historically clean slate. When somebody is racist or sexist or transphobic or anything else - even just once - that is done in the larger context of a racist, sexist and transphobic culture. The fervent anger they are met with may seem disproportionate on a personal level, but we cannot see these events and their reactions in isolation to the rest of the world. If you punch me on the arm when it is already broken, then the reaction to that is going to be a response to the cumulative pain felt and not perfectly proportionate with the amount of force used. To those of us who live in a world buffeted by privilege, mistakes are only that - mistakes. Forgivable, forgettable and frankly distasteful to dwell on. But to those hurt by them, such acts are symptomatic of an inherently oppressive structure that is willing to tread on them even in spaces supposedly set up to prevent this from happening. Those condemning the tendency to attack rather than educate are confirming the suspicions that behaviour can be passed over in favour of creating 'unity' or 'solidarity' because it doesn't affect the dominant majority.

Ultimately, it is not up to anybody to dictate the anger of others, especially not in social justice circles. While those who fall foul of such anger should deliver an apology, nobody is obligated to accept that apology. No one owes it to anyone else to tolerate people they do not want in spaces that are supposed to be safe. It is not your responsibility to make somebody that has hurt you feel comfortable around you for the benefit of creating an illusion of a united front. It may be expected in more private scenarios to forgive those who are truly attempting to learn, but we don't have to apply a standard of forgiveness across the board. If I choose to hold a paid journalist activist to a higher standard than I would hold a friend for the same problematic behavior, then that is my own prerogative. There is no rulebook that requires indiscriminate absolutism in the way we deal with the people that have hurt us. Call-out culture might seem harsh, especially to those who have fallen foul of it, but it's a necessary part of creating the best possible spaces we can. The internet is forever and with that comes accountability.