Call-out culture has its detractors, but, as Khylee Quince argues, calling out the powerful through social media can often be the most effective way of amplifying voices that have struggled to be heard — and bringing about change.
The spotlight on race relations through the Black Lives Matter movement has meant a spike in the call-out culture.
“Calling out” is a form of public shaming for people or corporates who are seen to be doing the “wrong” thing — such as indulging in bigotry, racism or sexism. Or simply providing bad service. Or lying.
The #MeToo movement is a global example of calling out. As a result, some titans of the movie industry, such as Harvey Weinstein, have fallen from grace thanks to the actions of their female victims. In Aotearoa, the work of Alison Mau and others over the past two years has exposed local perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence against women.
I’ve done a fair bit of calling out myself, so I know that it can come at some personal cost in a nation as small as ours — although I will argue that the size and the culture of our “team of five million” can be an advantage in using call-out culture to bring about social change.
In this digital age, call-outs are invariably a social media phenomenon. Someone will take issue with a person or company, and post a criticism. And this can lead to the post going viral — spreading like wildfire on the modern kumara vine.
It can relate to anything from significant harm, such as naming an alleged abuser, to poor service at a café, or to the public display of signs which offend someone.
I’ve personally made call-outs of all of these kinds — from corporates to individuals. Some have made national news and led to industry-wide inquiries, while others have been followed by a meeting with the wrongdoer in an attempt to find a resolution.
There are a number of outcomes that those who engage in call-outs might be looking for. There’s public vindication of their views, a show of empathy for their treatment, or the shaming of a wrongdoer. Or it could be an apology, or a change in practice or behaviour.
There can be big wins in this space — particularly when an individual call-out gains momentum and leads to the uncovering of patterns of abuse. Or perhaps leading to the adoption of a hashtag or the labelling of a movement, such as “Defund the Police”.
A call-out can also lead to personal resolution. I recently called out a big corporate for what I felt was discriminatory behaviour when my whānau and I were refused entry to a mall after a Black Lives Matter rally.
The subsequent publicity led to an apology and a hui with the corporation’s CEO, in which we agreed to co-construct some policies and a programme of education that should prevent the same thing happening again.
Call-out culture has its detractors. Some say it’s a form of attention-seeking or a desire for petty drama. Others fear that it’s a form of vigilante justice replacing the “proper” channels of complaint or justice that are more appropriate than exposure in the largely unregulated social media jungle.
In a speech last year, Barack Obama, the former US president, criticised call-outs that did no more than share the views of keyboard warriors, rather than delivering actual activism.
And Michael Berube, a Penn State University professor, has referred to online shaming as “ally theatre”, where people show support for vulnerable populations without doing anything more than expressing support or outrage.
Similarly, Loretta Ross, a Black feminist activist, has labelled the call-out culture “toxic”, because nothing happens or changes as a result of it.
Critics are also particularly concerned about the dangers of “getting it wrong” and, in the process, ruining reputations, relationships and businesses. And there are highly publicised examples of the exposure of fake reviews by business rivals, that have ruined small operators.
In his globally successful 2015 book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, the English journalist Jon Ronson traced examples of online public shaming, particularly through Twitter, where the recipients of shaming unfairly lost jobs, reputations, and opportunities.
In another pop-culture shout-out to call-out culture, the critically acclaimed sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror dedicated an episode “Hated in the Nation” to the idea of call-outs that went too far, in a Nordic noir-inspired murder-mystery tracing the deaths of people targeted on social media.
I’m not sure that these criticisms are fair or apply to our context in Aotearoa. The size and relatively flat social structure of our country makes even the most important New Zealanders accessible to ordinary citizens, so that a call-out can lead to real life resolutions.
You may remember when that primary school organised a challenge a couple of years ago to see how few hands its students could pass student letters through to get to Jacinda Ardern in the Beehive.
This “six degrees of separation” experiment proved that even 9- or 10-year-old New Zealanders could be in touch with the prime minister through a handful of personal connections.
The same closeness means that calling-out in New Zealand, even by way of a post set to private settings on a personal Facebook page, can reach its target in the blink of an eye. More importantly, this lack of social distance means that things can happen outside of the digital sphere. Such as meetings, reviews, inquiries, apologies — or, in the case of people getting it wrong, a withdrawal of an accusation.
In response to the fear of getting it wrong, I place a lot of faith in the wisdom of crowds. (Well, we might exempt America from that faith if they re-elect you-know-who in November!).
Call-outs can die as quickly as they initially go viral, which shows how the social media can be a double-edged sword. When you make a public declaration, the public will either fan the flames or starve the claim of oxygen.
While the “virtue-signalling” derided by Barack Obama and Michael Berube might not result in tangible change, I’m with Professor Angela Davis in accepting that people bring different levels of effort and commitment to social and cultural transformation. If that means you change your Facebook profile picture to the raised fist of Black Lives Matter or the rainbow Pride frame, then I’m here for it.
For those who are critical of call-out culture, I also urge you to take a look at who does it. It’s often the people who struggle to have their voices heard through the usual channels — women, people of colour, the rainbow communities, young people.
Most have tried to complain to management, HR, or the police, and been shouted down or ignored. When I went public two years ago with my account of inappropriate sexual conduct at Russell McVeagh, one of the country’s largest law firms, I got far more traction from a Facebook post than I had when I met with the senior men of the firm all those years ago, in a scary encounter on their own turf.
That post contributed to an industry-wide review and significant changes to hiring practices, social interactions at work, and complaints processes.
Pushback to call-outs is often from the powerful — those who benefit from the status quo. They’ll gaslight the accusers. They’ll say it didn’t happen, or it didn’t happen the way you recall it. Or it was just a mistake. The attempts to discredit or minimise a call-out is often a red flag as to how significant the issue might be in uncovering bigger problems.
To the claim that those calling out are just seeking personal attention, the truth is that the attention received can be anything but pleasant or positive.
Speaking truth to power in any context opens up the speaker to hate mail, public ridicule, and negative consequences in the workplace. I vividly recall catching a male colleague pretending to tie his shoelaces rather than get in the lift with me alone at work, to avoid having to talk about the trouble I was causing in highlighting the poor behaviour of my colleagues in the legal profession.
Maybe it’s part of our tall poppy tradition, but New Zealanders seem to be easily unsettled by the social discomfort caused by people who call out wrongdoing or injustice — even when those concerns are well-documented.
Social media is loathed by some and loved by many. Whatever your opinion of it, it undoubtedly opens up the world in ways that weren’t imagined a generation ago. This levelling of the playing field can provide access and amplification to voices that have struggled to be heard, in a push to deal with important grievances.
Khylee Quince (Te Roroa/Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Porou) is associate professor and director of Māori and Pacific Advancement at the AUT School of Law in Auckland. Her core area of research focus is Māori and criminal justice – including imprisonment and Māori female and youth offenders. Khylee began her teaching career at the University of Auckland’s law school in 1998, after three years in practice. In 2014, she won a National Tertiary Teaching Excellence Award for sustained excellence, preceded by Faculty of Law and University of Auckland teaching awards in 2013.
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