How Call Out Culture Snowballed & Why It’s Here To Stay

Two people sitting in front of a row of computers.

I know the day is coming. It’s only a matter of time. As a vocal member of the trans community with a large platform, I know a large call out is waiting for me someday. Someone somewhere is probably building a case against me as I type this.

Trans women are especially vulnerable to call outs and expulsion from activist and community spaces and resources — I would be no exception.

If you are a trans woman, chances are at least one of your friends has been forced to see a therapist because of an online call out.

I’m not talking about any old call out. I mean, I’ve been called out by conservative trolls Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannapoulas before (Shapiro’s trolls were more creative, for what it’s worth). Conservative call outs come with the territory of being semi well known in left leaning circles.

What I’m talking about here are intracommunity call outs.

The kinds of call outs that result in lost jobs and abandoned friendships. These are the call outs that really hurt and most directly affect marginalized people who depend on supportive allies the most.

We’ve reached a point as activists where there is little discernible difference between online and offline activity. More and more of our lives are spent online and, as a result, our online and real life identities have melded together and become inseparable.

You can’t escape what’s said about you online. Employers tend to Google prospective employees, so anything said about you in online spaces that you’re not a part of could potentially have real life consequences, even if you don’t have a particularly large online presence.

I do my best to listen to criticism, and I’m quick to delete tweets that people are legitimately criticizing, but even doing that, I wait for my turn on the call out carousel.

Call outs themselves aren’t inherently toxic. So how did call out culture get to this point?

Call outs began as a tool for Black femmes to respond to endless abuse in hostile online spaces.

Writer Riley H., wrote a fantastic piece on Medium titled “Call-Out Culture isn’t toxic. You are.” exploring the origins of the modern day culture we find ourselves in now.

“I watched as the idea of ‘calling out’ developed around 2011–2012 on Tumblr, a site that had no real means to block someone or prevent them from harassing you in any way they saw fit,” Riley wrote.

“Why did we use call-outs back then? Because the only way to stop people from abusing us daily was to scream at them until they stopped.”

When examined in this context, one can see the appeal of call outs — brief and immediate responses to abuse that are easily shareable. Through call outs, marginalized social media users can deal with a serious lack of support for victims of online abuse.

On social media, the immediacy is a strength because call outs are scaleable and easily shared. A call out can build critical mass to affect change in a very short period of time and slowly, over time, others may begin adopting call outs in response to their abuse as well.

However, somewhere along the line, call outs started shifting in purpose. Where, once, they were used as tools against abuse, people began building a name for themselves through call outs. The personal connection was lost and it became a social performance.

Riley H. explains, “What’s toxic is the people who stole. The people using it now. The people who don’t bother to connect it to its context and history, its creation. The people who never bothered to understand why it existed in the first place.”

What call out culture looks like now

Call outs have morphed into a tool for maintaining a social order. Instead of fighting abuse, marginalized voices are now policed and people from different marginalized communities are often weaponized against each other.

In a piece for The New Inquiry, the author, going by Porpentine, describes her experience as a transfeminine target of isolation from “good feminists” and even her friends:

“Feminist practice of declaring privilege and marginalization became a way to collect information about victims: Look at someone’s profile bar for their elemental weaknesses. Being frank about my health problems was never an advantage for me in feminist spaces, only something to be used against me. I was an object, an invalid on a bed that could be infinitely manipulated and extruded through social media to fit the agendas of a thousand bored strangers.”

Even with a long line of undeserving victims in its wake, call out culture as we know it is likely here to stay for awhile.

Porpentine hits on an important point. For many people, call outs have become a sport. When I interviewed G for the third piece in this call out culture campaign, she spoke at length of folks who profited from her call out.

There is a circle of vultures flying high across Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr, looking for opportunities for advancement by jumping on call outs.

G explained that there is a long line of feminists who used her call out to land lucrative speaking gigs and even named an author who globbed on to her call out to help sell her book to a publisher.

The fact is: society is as unequal as ever. And people are growing more frustrated with their lives as time goes on.

That frustration combined with the easily shareable nature of social media — and those trying to capitalize on call out culture — is what will keep toxic call out culture here to stay for awhile.

Call outs can be necessary, but we need to be more responsible when we do them

Call outs on their own are not toxic. They are a legitimately effective tool for fighting oppressive behavior — especially in social media spaces — and can trigger wonderful, deep discussion and purposeful conflict.

We build better communities through this dynamic of conflict and learning, and call outs can be an integral part of that building process. But, in order to ensure that as many people as possible feel welcome in our communities, we should all believe in treating each other with respect.

Call outs tend to go too far when they focus on individuals rather than ideas. While marginalized people shouldn’t be expected to temper their own reactions to assuage the feelings of those with privilege, call outs should focus on specific actions or ideas whenever possible.

Performative call outs that focus on attacking individuals without addressing systemic oppression do nothing to change the discourse and simply exist to serve the feelings of the performer.

Alisina Saee-Nazari, a student at the University of Massachusetts who has written about call out culture, explained in an interview that the key to the future of call out culture lies in community building, not attacking individuals.

“It’s hard to disassociate a person from what they are saying, but attacking them and not their ideas won’t build community,” Saee-Nazari said.

“It’s not your responsibility to build with everyone in activist spaces. Call outs aren’t the time to embarrass someone you don’t like or display how much you know.”

***

Call out culture has morphed into its current state because call outs are a quick and easy tool for responding to oppression, and it’s clear that it’s not going anywhere for awhile.

But, in the meantime, we can and should seek to improve the quality of our discourse while protecting the most vulnerable among us.

This is the way forward when it comes to building better activist spaces and communities.

Katelyn Burns is an Everyday Feminism Reporting Fellow. Katelyn is a freelance journalist and trans woman. She has previous bylines for The Washington Post, The Establishment, and VICE, among others. She lives in Maine with her two young children. Read her other articles here.