#Cancelled: Is it time to move on from call-out culture?

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[Written by Conal McGregor]

[Image Credits: Florence Bridgman]

Have a quick scroll through your social media platform of choice (which should really be Twitter) and it shouldn’t take long for you to come across the latest wave of outrage sweeping the internet. Someone has probably managed to dig up a long-buried interview where a previously well-loved celeb has turned out to have had some very questionable opinions on “the number of foreigners in the country” or “the right way for women to behave”. Clearly someone needs to have a word with this dinosaur and tell them what’s what. But it’s alright, don’t worry, no need to panic. The “woke” generation are going to have a 30 second brainstorm, work out a plan of attack, and dish out some swift justice in the form of a neat little hashtag. It’s a very simple strategy that usually involves tagging the name of the person followed by “…is cancelled”. This is modern day “call-out” culture.

According to Wikipedia, “call-out” or “cancel” culture is essentially when someone is publicly shamed for a perceived offense, usually in an online context. This is nothing new, of course. Public shaming has been a tool used in societies for centuries in order to enforce accepted conventions and norms. Ostracisation is a form of vigilante justice, ensuring that those who break the rules are embarrassed and demoted. Anthropologists have cited this as a key process which allows civilisations to advance.

But can what we’re seeing online really still be thought of as progress? Are people actually helping bring about important progressive societal change? Or are they just after a quick and satisfying power trip? It seems that “call-out” culture has some real issues.

This trend could be seen as the latest form of “mob rule” – a dangerous concept. Tweets and hashtags are often making pronouncements on topics with limited evidence and even less thought. People simply get swept up in the excitement of it all and decide to post based on how “memeable” a situation is. There may well be very important issues being discussed, but some will always be after cheap laughs and retweets at the expense of the called-out party.

The growing level of toxicity and vitriol with which some of these online campaigns are being carried out is also a concern. People in positions of power are certainly not always those targeted and there have been stories reported of people being unable to leave their houses for months after being “called-out” for previous problematic actions online.

The behaviour being questioned by people online is usually thought to be in some form discriminatory (be it racist, sexist, transphobic etc) and there is of course a general consensus that these sorts of views should indeed be challenged when they arise. However, the way in which this is done is of vital importance. Barack Obama pointed out in a recent interview that simply shaming someone for what may be an honest mistake “is not activism”. It could even add to the problem.

In recent years we have seen the rise of the alt-right incels who have become associated with populist figures such as Donald Trump. These keyboard-warriors peddle hateful views online as a way to react against the liberal consensus. These are people with outdated attitudes who feel left behind by a rapidly changing modern world and if they continue to be simply slapped down without any real reasoning or explanation, we risk pushing them further into their intolerance.

Of course, social media is undoubtedly an amazingly useful and effective platform for helping spread awareness about important issues.  Increasingly few would argue against the validity of the “MeToo” hashtag which, in response to wide-ranging sexual harassment claims made against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, gave rise to a broader social movement in which women were encouraged to speak about their experiences of being sexually harassed. However, due to the eager nature of the online crowd, we have now reached a stage where serious issues risk being buried under a flurry of relatively meaningless posts which simply bathe in the virtual blood of the latest victim.

For example, when writing this article, I thought I would follow the advice of my opening line and so I switched tabs over to Twitter (permanently open) to see what I could find. Number one UK trend? “#simoncowellisoverparty”. I hadn’t heard the name Simon Cowell for quite some time, and I may now have heard it for the last time due to his cancellation. It appears that the X-Factor judge was coming under increasing fire for allegations that he had repeatedly abused and mistreated artists contracted to his company. I’m sure that few people will need convincing about the unpleasant nature of Mr Cowell, but when I tried to explore the hashtag a bit more, I didn’t really find a broad and engaging dialogue about the need to root this sort of issue out of the entertainment industry. Instead it simply seemed to be a lot of gifs about “karma” and a running battle between UK pop and K-pop fandoms about which industry was more exploitative.

I am a firm believer that unacceptable behaviour should not be tolerated online. But the way in which people approach it must change. The idea of simply “cancelling” anyone who steps slightly out of line is neither fair nor productive. It is down to today’s youth, the first to have properly grown up with social media all around them, to promote a reasoned and constructive dialogue online when difficult issues arise. Quickly coming up with a relevant meme that embarrasses the offending party in a relatable and “retweetable” manner just isn’t good enough.

Brooks, David (2019) ‘Opinion: The Cruelty of Call-Out Culture’, The New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/14/opinion/call-out-social-justice.html

Perraudin, Frances (2019) ‘#MeToo two years on: Weinstein allegations ‘tip of iceberg’, say accusers’, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/14/metoo-two-years-weinstein-allegations-tip-of-iceberg-accusers-zelda-perkins-rosanna-arquette

Uprichard, Lucy (2013) ‘In Defence of Call-Out Culture’, HuffPost. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/lucy-uprichard/call-out-culture_b_4507889.html


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