March 4, 2020

Call-Out Culture: What Happened to Us?

call out

I was reading some news through my RSS reader a few months ago when a post from Religion News Service caught my eye. The title of the post was "The scandal of Barr's reinstating the death penalty." I figured it might be interesting to see what whichever religious group the author represented thought about the death penalty. Then I saw the description, which simply read, "Church leaders should be calling him out." That derailed me and prompted this post, a post that will have nothing whatsoever to do with the death penalty.

People have been expressing their thoughts and feelings about things they don't like for as long as there have been people. But the incessant need to publicly "call out" anyone and everyone who dares to do or say something we don't like seems new. Maybe it seems new because it almost always involves the use of social media. That's possible, but I think there might be something else going on. It isn't just that the means by which we do this have changed; I think the bigger difference is the intensity of our outrage and the frequent desire to punish. We are expressing ourselves, but we are doing so in a way that often seems to invite mob justice. It isn't just about saying, "I don't like this, and I want it to change." We seem to want others to help us inflict harm on our target.

When someone goes to a restaurant and believes they were treated poorly, they hop on social media and publicly call out the restaurant. Regardless of what sort of response they receive, if any, the goal seems to be one of harming the restaurant's reputation and/or getting whoever they perceive as the responsible party fired. Sure, it looks like little more than a loud public tantrum like we expect to see from the 2-year-old whose parent refuses to buy a candy bar while they are in the market. But it is more than that because our 2-year-old is not generally trying to hurt the parent.

Wait a second! Why shouldn't we use whatever means we have to right perceived wrongs? If I oppose the death penalty, why shouldn't I unload (verbally) on Barr? We can certainly argue about effective vs. counterproductive tactics, but I'd just point out that we have so many more options we can choose from than this call-out stuff. Too many people now seem to view it as the only thing we can do, and some have even been claiming that we are morally obligated to do it.

Imagine for a moment that you are an emotionally healthy adult involved in a serious intimate relationship with another emotionally healthy adult. It could be a romantic relationship or a close friendship. Now suppose that this person says something that you do not like. Naturally, you feel upset. What they said hurt your feelings, and you think they should apologize for it. Is it safe to assume that most of you do not immediately blast them on social media?

I am well aware as I write these words that it is possible, perhaps even likely, that I am making an obvious mistake. Perhaps what everyone who says "call out" really means the same thing I'd mean if I said "criticize." The whole thing could just be a semantic difference where we are using different words to mean the same thing. I acknowledge that this is possible; however, calling someone out almost always looks different from what I think of as criticism. That is, when I see people calling others out on social media, it goes well beyond criticism. It is loud, angry, accusatory, and often appears intended to inflict harm. It seems much closer to aggression than criticism.

What happened to us? How did we get like this? We seem to have little tolerance for even mild emotional distress and very quick to lash out at anyone we perceive as causing it. And when we do lash out, the harm we seek to inflict rarely seems proportionate to the perceived offense. "You said something that offended me, and I will make sure you lose your job!" "You hurt my feelings, and I will destroy your reputation!" Reasoned criticism has served us well for a long time, but we no longer seem to have the patience for it.

Maybe asking what happened to us is the wrong question. The more important question might be how we turn this around. How do we take what has been normalized and begin to reverse it or progress beyond it?

Most atheists are critical of the religions where adherents regularly use extreme forms of shunning to punish those who don't go along with their preferred delusion. Consider the Scientologists as one striking example. Our modern call-out culture reminds me far too much of this. When we turn our preferences in demands (or commandments) and then impose them on others through public shaming, vigilantism, and efforts to cost someone their job, we might as well be Scientologists. I don't know about you, but I sure as hell don't want to be a Scientologist.